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A Stroll At Leisure With God

Fran Passed Away: "It's in the Lord's Hands"

Things happened so quickly.

Saturday, I had a really good visit with Fran. Yes, she was short of breath, but she was very talkative. And again, her attitude was great. “It is in the Lord’s hands,” she stated.

Well, during services yesterday, I got two calls on my church voicemail. One was from her daughter Mary. The other one was from Mary’s husband, Simon. I performed the wedding of these two a few summers ago. Simon had served a couple of tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine. He is usually fairly even tempered, but the tone of his voice was concerned and subdued on the message, “Pastor John, Fran is not doing well. They don’t expect her to make it. When you get this message, can you call or just come to the hospital.”

Mary’s message was more urgent and explicit. “Pastor John, the tests showed that Fran has a hole in her heart that is only growing larger. They aren’t going to operate. She doesn’t have much time.”

I called Mary or Simon (somehow, I don’t remember who), and told one of them that I was on my way.

As I was heading south on I-25 and exiting on 84th Avenue, it was hard not to think of all my memories of Fran. One stands out: Kelley and I took a group of boys over to her house a couple of summers ago to do some yard work. There was a lot to do. We pulled weeds in her garden and worked in her backyard. Fran was apologetic. “I feel bad that I just haven’t been able to get out here to do this. Normally, I would.”

At that point, Simon and Mary were living with her as newlyweds, but both of them were busy as well. Simon was trying to become a police officer, and Mary was very busy with her job.

We spent several hours working out there. Actually, it was a lot of work simply because Kelley and I had to work to keep the boys busy and occupied. A couple of them (I won’t name names here) have the attention span of a gnat.

Well, anyway, all of that came back. It is noteworthy what comes to mind as you drive to someone’s deathbed.

When I arrived in ICU at St. Anthony’s North, one of our deacons, Ray, was already there. Together, we went into Fran’s room. Mary and Simon were there along with one of Mary’s close friends, Michelle, and her husband. The tone was very somber. Fran was in and out of sleep, but Ray and I were able to visit with her a bit.

But mainly, we just hugged people. That’s what they needed. What do you do when you know someone is dying? What do you say?

For something that is inevitable for every person—we are all going to die—we just don’t handle it well. I used to criticize this fact. Now, I just accept it. It was very difficult.

Other family members started coming in the room. Many of them said hello to me and hugged me. I recognized many of them. I have a lot of history with this family. Simon and Mary’s wedding. Fran’s husband John’s illness. He passed away not that long ago. Et cetera.

At one point, I said, “Well, let’s pray.” We all gathered around the bed. I thanked the Lord for Fran and her life and legacy. I placed her in the hands of Dr. Jesus. And I asked the Lord to give everyone in that room peace. That was it.

Ray and I both told Mary, “If you need anything, let us know.” It was time to leave and let the family have their moment.

I could see the anxiety on Mary’s face. A machine was keeping Fran alive. Mary had the responsibility of telling the nurses to take Fran off the machine and let her go.

That is a huge decision. But Mary was making it. We encouraged her in that regard. Mary responded that she hoped that, once the decision was made, Fran would not have to suffer much longer.

Before I went to bed, I checked my messages. I really don’t know how I missed the call, but Simon called about 7:00 to tell me that Fran had passed away an hour and a half earlier.

We are going to have a special prayer service at church today, but afterwards, Ray, Jim, and I are going over to visit with Mary and the family. Please pray for them in their grief.

All of us are going to miss Fran.

This is another one of those times where ministering to people in grief—bearing that burden with them—should be an impetus for all of us to see how tenuous this human life really is, but I will never forget Fran’s repeated comment, “It is in the Lord’s hands.”

As we approach all the unknowns of 2013, what a great motto, right? It is in the Lord’s hands.

"Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ… But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load" (Galatians 6:2, 4, 5 HCSB).

Lord, I thank you for Fran—her life, her ministry, and her family. Thank you that she is with John right now in your presence forever.

I pray for her family and her friends and the seniors in our church who love her and miss her—all of us.

Help them as they grieve. I know that the “New Year” holiday will never be the same.

“Worship Him with consecration,
Grace and love you will receive” (“Come, All Christians, Be Committed,” BH 2008, 371). Amen.
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Pastor Mike, Rick, Chuck, and Fran

Yesterday, as we were driving along, my sister said, “Mike Toby died.”

Apparently, the news was on Facebook, maybe even my friend Kay’s Facebook page. Later on in the day, I checked it myself, but I didn’t find the news there. This morning, I looked at First Baptist Church of Woodway’s website, and one of the notices was very simple: “December 29, 2012. Our pastor, our friend, our father, we love you, we thank you, we will miss you.” That’s it, and on the site, the notices and announcements go on.

I like it, the more I think about it.

This wonderful brother who served this church for over three decades has gone on to be with the Lord—what he wanted. He is with Jesus, and he has passed the baton, and the church and its ministry goes on.

All of that having been said, I know that it will be hard today at FBC Woodway. Please pray for the church there and for Eddie and Kay and their family.

Rick has had a tough weekend. He had to go to the emergency room the other night because he was having breathing problems. I know it is hard for Jonann and Will as well. Please continue to lift up my friends and Temple Baptist Church in Ruston.

As I was perusing the Sports page for USA Today on my IPad, I read an extensive article on Chuck Pagano, coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He is returning to the field today to lead his team in the final game of the regular season against the Houston Texans. It should be a very emotional experience for everyone involved, especially Coach Pagano.

But in this article in USA Today, Pagano goes into detail about his diagnosis and treatment and what he went through in chemotherapy. It was a hard go.

Certainly, my experiences do not hold a candle to what Rick and Chuck are going through but their two situations bring back a lot of memories. It is hard to understand unless you go through it, and as I have said before, I believe chemo is harder on the folks who aren’t going through it. Well—maybe as hard.

Coach Pagano claims that his “religion” helped him a lot. He is a Catholic. I don’t see how anyone going through cancer can do it without recognizing a need for help beyond the human sources—doctors and hospitals and medicine.

Finally, this morning, I want to say a word about Fran. She is one of our seniors. Yesterday, I got a call from Lorraine who left a message indicated that Fran had a heart attack on Saturday night. I felt so bad for Fran when I heard this news. Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time with her in ICU at St. Anthony’s North Hospital.

As always, Fran was remarkably upbeat.

Just a little background, Fran’s husband John passed away not too long ago. Shortly after that, in a routine physical, the doctor’s discovered that her cancer had returned. She has a tumor inside of her the size of a fist. Yesterday, Fran told me that the doctors have decided not to operate. Instead, they are just giving her medicine.

But, as you can well imagine, it was quite a blow to hear this news.

Again, I have a little more understanding about all of this since I am still dealing with this first occurrence of cancer in my life. It just takes so much to get through it, and what I battle now is that I just want to be done. I don’t really want to talk about it. It has taken enough of my life. I just want to move on.

I don’t want to forget about it. Of course, this is impossible, and I know the Lord has a plan and purpose and platform in all of it, but still …

As I was standing next to Fran in that hospital bed yesterday, all of these thoughts and emotions about the return of cancer came out. Then, she said, “As if that weren’t enough, I had to have this heart attack. I’ll tell you: I’ve never been sicker than I was the other night. I knew it was a heart attack. I just knew it. Sure enough, when Simon and Mary brought me here at 1:00 AM, the doctor agreed.”

On top of everything else, she had a heart attack.

We talked for rather a long time, but on a couple of occasions, she said, “But I know all of this is in the Lord’s hands. I have my affairs in order. He will take care of it from there.”

Amen.

I just had to share about all four of these folks. These scenarios point out the need for a community of faith when one is going through these difficult times. I don’t know about that as it relates to Chuck Pagano, per se. But I do know about FBC Woodway, Temple Baptist Church in Ruston, and FSBCN. It is time for us to apply these words from Galatians:

"Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1, 2 NASB).

I want to be clear here: I’m not accusing the four people I have mentioned of sin as the cause of their illnesses. NO WAY. I am citing these verses as a challenge for all of us to bear one another’s burdens. We do this, without losing track of the need to be diligent over our own spiritual lives.

This is the need of the hour.

Lord, I thank you that as the Great Physician, you are in charge of health and sickness. You made us. And you sent Jesus to redeem us. And you created the church as a community of faith and support.

I pray for these four folks and the churches that support them. Show us all what “bear one another’s burdens” really means—not as a cliché, but as a living reality.

I pray for Steve today as he preaches, and for our Youth Pastor Search Team as we visit with a candidate today.

The last Sunday of 2012—unbelievable.

“Turn away from sin and sadness,
Be transformed with life anew” (“Come, All Christians, Be Committed,” BH 2008, 371). Amen.
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The ORIGINAL Star Thrower Story

Okay, one of these days, I will get off of this subject, but I am still fascinated by the story I told last Sunday. I am thankful that the Lord brought it back to memory. It has encouraged me. I don’t feel so overwhelmed with the enormous task before us as a church.

My curiosity about this story led me to purchase The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley, on Amazon. The book arrived in the mail yesterday. It contains the original story, “The Star Thrower.” I could hardly wait to read this chapter.

But first, let me give you a little background. Dr. Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist and apparently, widely recognized in that field, but he was interested in both the sciences and humanities. If reading this one chapter gives me any insight, I would say that it confirms this dual interest.

To be honest, it is very philosophical and a little depressing. Here is a highly educated man who is immersed in science who is trying to figure out the meaning of life. And of course, all of us know that it is a futile and empty search apart from Jesus Christ.

But back to this chapter in Eiseley’s book. There are three main parts to his story of “The Star Thrower.” First, he tells the story of meeting a young man on a beach in Costabel. Apparently, Costabel is a coastal city in Spain. Anyway, Eiseley tells about this beach cluttered with shells and debris from the ocean. He observes that it is populated with folks who are collecting things for themselves.

But one young man is doing something else. He was kneeling down, picking up something, and throwing it back to the sea.

Eiseley made his way over to the young man. He noticed that, “in a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud” (The Unexpected Universe, 71).

Eiseley observed that the creature was still alive, struggling to survive.

At that moment, the young man grabbed it and hurled it out into the ocean.

Observing this Eiseley asked, “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” he answered as he picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “And only for the living…. The stars … throw well. One can help them.”

This is the first part of this chapter.

In the second part, Eiseley chronicles his experiences with and knowledge of Darwinism. I am certainly no expert in the field of Darwinian evolution (and this is intentional) but one of the hallmarks of it is the tenet that the strong always dominate the weak. I believe it is called “the survival of the fittest.”

According to Darwin’s observations, weak species die off and the strong survive and thrive.

Well, this contact with “the star thrower” blows that theory, if you stop and think about it. Here is an example of the strong—this young man on the beach in Costabel—not dominating and killing the weak, but actually bending down and rescuing the weak.

The third part of the book finishes the story. Eiseley goes back out to the beach and starts to throw starfish back in himself.

Wow—of course. Of course, even a scientist who is an avid advocate of Darwin’s theories of evolution, gravitates to life rather than death.

As I think about it, the original story may even be better than the adaptation!

I found a website that tells this story, and carries it to another level. The writer, Gary Klingsporn, alludes to the story I just told and then relates it to our salvation in Jesus. He concludes his web article with these words: “Have you ever been plucked by the tender hand of mercy and flung back into the sea? Have you been given back your life? "Father, forgive them . . ." The Life-Giver stoops down, picks us up, and throws us back into the sea with an eternal Yes!” (Gary Klingsporn, “The Star Thrower,” www.thehighcalling.org, accessed December 29, 12).

Amen.

I would carry it a step further. Aren’t these words that Paul pens in Galatians an indication that when we follow the Life-Giver, we become Star Throwers as well?

"Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another" (Galatians 5:24-26 NASB).

Make it so, Lord. Make it so in my life today. “Set my soul afire, Lord, set my soul afire.” Amen.
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The Fruit (Singular) of the Spirit

Yesterday was a good workday for me, and it was very encouraging.

Somehow, and I know this sounds weird, one of the most productive weeks of the year for me ALWAYS is the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since Steve is preaching this Sunday, it allows me even more opportunity to work ahead on my sermons in 2013 and plan well into the year.

I spent time on all of that in the morning, and then, after lunch, drove up to visit Evelyn. She seemed to be doing very well. I was hoping also to get a chance to visit with Leona and to share the gospel with her again, but Leona did not look as if she was doing that well. She was in her bed and slept most of the time I was there.

Anyway, after visiting with Evelyn, I went to the office to do a couple of quick things, and by then, realized that it was time to head to the other side of town to be with my mom and sis. I had planned other visits, but hopefully, I will get to them soon.

One of the things that I had planned on doing was more work on book number two. My writing has been pushed into the background a bit with the busyness of this month and my work to sell copies of book number one. THAT MUST CHANGE in 2013. Please pray for me in that regard. Thanks.

While I am in that neighborhood, I want to thank Malia for all her help on my Pastor John Talbert Facebook page. One of the main things she has helped with is to put a button on that page where people can click on a button and buy my book.

If you would permit a little crass commercialism (didn’t I rail against this in a recent post? I guess the shoe is on the other foot now, huh?): I have put hard cover copies of my book on sale for the rest of this month. From the start, I felt that a price of $35.99 was way too high for a book anyway, but as I have said on numerous occasions, that was a Westbow Press call, not mine.

Well, a few words about the passage for today. It is interesting to me and significant that as the book of Galatians progresses, Paul says more and more about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

Somehow, as I read these final chapters of this epistle, I am more and more convicted about how little legitimate teaching on the subject of the third person of the Godhead I actually do. Maybe (and I certainly need to pray about this) it is because I give so little time and attention to His work in my daily life.

Let me go back to Galatians 5:16: “Let the Holy Spirit guide your lives” (NLT). I love this very simple translation. The literal translation is: “Walk by the Spirit” (NASB). Of course, in Paul’s writings, “walk” is a metaphor for daily life. Therefore, the NLT is an accurate translation as well.

But what does this mean in practical terms? This is an issue that is very heavily on my heart as I pray for the church and pray for revival.

I think one thing it means is that, in any and every situation, one is attuned to the voice of the Spirit and His guidance, and beyond that, it means that one should be ready to make adjustments to plans and schedules and routines in order to follow the Holy Spirit each and every day.

What this means for me is that I need to take the time and LEISURE to lay every planned activity for the upcoming day on the altar before the Lord, asking, “Lord, this is what I have planned. Is it okay? Am I on the right track or not?”

And then, am I ready for the Lord to take my day in a radically different direction than I had planned? Now, of course, the nature of my work makes this a little more doable than in other jobs and professions, but I am finding that this is more difficult than I had ever imagined. Routines are necessary because they involve appointments and other people who are counting on me. So, you just can’t chuck EVERYTHING out the window, right?

But even as I write those words, I think, “Well, maybe not, but if the Spirit leads, I need to be READY to chuck things out the window.”

Well, enough said about that.

I think the passage today gives further insight into what “walking by the Spirit” means. Paul contrasts the deeds of the flesh (and it is quite a list and not an exhaustive one) with the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. I can’t tell you how many times I hear someone say “the fruits of the Spirit.” Nope. Incorrect. It is singular—fruit. This means that one has every property in this list or none. It is all or nothing: "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!" (Galatians 5:22, 23 NLT)

One of the things I need to focus on today is to make sure that the fruit of Christ’s character is evident in every area of my life. If that is not the case, then I am not living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Already, something has come into my mind and heart to pray about.

Oh, Lord, I thank you that you are always concerned first and foremost with CHARACTER. You see beyond all the smoke and mirrors and facades into the depths of the heart.

Clean me up and out, Lord. Make me a vessel that is useful and usable for you every step of the way.

May the fruit of your character be totally evident in my life today—all or nothing. Fruit or none.

“Sin forgiven, lives transfigured,
All in God’s great loving plan” (“Tell It Out with Gladness,” BH 2008, 369). Amen.
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"The Star Thrower"

In last Sunday morning’s message, I told a story that came across my desk years ago.

There was a great couple in our church—Dan and LaVerne. They were huge encouragers. One day, Dan handed me a credit-card sized card with a little story on one side and a Ford Motor Company logo on the other side. For years, I had that card on my desk, propped up against a pen and pencil set that was on my desk.

Somehow, over the course of the years, I had lost track of that card and almost forgotten about it and the story on it until last weekend.

Let me give you a little context before I share about the story and its background.

Over the past couple of weeks, the burden of ministry has only seemed to intensify on several levels. Of course, we had the overwhelming tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut with that mass murder. Plus, we had the six suicides at Thornton High School and who knows how many others at other schools.

Add to that the tremendous challenge that our church faces at this point. I don’t think I’ve been very explicit about this, but I want to go into a little more detail. Last Sunday, we voted on a budget proposal that was about $70,000 over what we collected in 2012.

Why $70,000, you might be asking? Well, we made some significant cuts in certain areas of our budget. You need to know that, but this increase is attributable to the fact that we are hoping to add TWO new staff members.

At some point, I want to go into detail about these two positions and the people we are considering. I’m excited about what the Lord is doing in both situations.

But, someone might be asking, “But if there are such huge financial hurdles to overcome, why on earth are you considering this, especially with the economy as uncertain as it now is?” Good question. Some in our church are asking it. Believe me.

Last Sunday, however, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of this budget proposal. Why? Because they see that at this point, we really have no choice. We take these necessary steps or we continue to see a decline.

Now, let me hasten to say that no staff member “makes” a church grow. That is up to every person in the Body. I made this clear as we proposed and voted on this budget.

However, it is up to the pastoral staff to give leadership and direction as well as equip the saints for ministry.

Therefore, all of this brought me to my burden: how on earth do I lead our church to grow? Of course, this is the question that every pastor faces all the time, whether there is a crunch or not. There is nothing new here, but in these days in particular, the onus is on us.

I truly believe that the future of this church is hanging in the balance. We either grow or we die. That’s it.

Back the question? What do we do? Is this all about creating high-powered programs to bring crowds in? Is it about watering down the message to “attract” more people? Is it about big productions during the holidays?

In other words, let me try to sum up my dilemma: like all other churches across the world, we are facing huge challenges, just to survive. And the temptation is to be overwhelmed because we might think that the answer is some HUGE PROGRAM.

These things may be what other churches do, and that’s fine, but somehow, all of this is not what the Lord laid on my heart.

He brought to mind “The Star Thrower.” Let me give you a little background. The original version of this story was part of a sixteen-page essay in a 1969 book by Loren Eisley entitled The Unexpected Universe. Over the years, this original story has been adapted. The adapted story is the one on the back of that Ford Motor Company card. Here it is:

“An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean. ‘Young lady,’ he asked, ‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’
’The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.’
’But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.’
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, ‘It made a difference for that one.’
The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved” (“The Starfish Story,” www.ordinarypeoplechangetheworld.com, accessed December 27, 2012).

I love that story! Love it! Here is the answer the Lord gave me: the Lord has put each of us on this planet to make a difference in the life of at least one other person. If we throw THAT STARFISH back, He will take care of the beach!

"So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions" (Galatians 5:16, 17 NLT).

Lord, I thank you that you are able to take care of the challenge of reaching this lost WORLD. You made each one of us. You sent Jesus to redeem us, but more than all of that, you are the head of the church and responsible for it.

NOT ME.

I resign my position of worry, and today, I choose to depend on you to lead me to do my part and equip others to do the same. Everything else and everyone else—they are your responsibility.

“I’ll tell the world (one starfish at a time) how Jesus saved me,
And how He gave me a life brand-new” (“I’ll Tell the World That I’m a Christian,” BH 2008, 368, parentheses mine). Amen.
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The Harsh Reality of Persecution

I want to go back to a verse I cited yesterday from the Galatians five. This morning, I am quoting it from another version: "But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished" (Galatians 5:11 NASB).

As I read this verse yesterday, another couple of verses came to mind from Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the soils in Matthew thirteen. Do you remember? "The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away" (Matthew 13:20, 21 NASB).

This pulls together something my mom stated a while back. In one of my griping sessions (and she has heard plenty of gripes through the years), I said something like, “I just don’t understand why it has to be so hard.” (Of course this was the title of the series of sermons I finished a few weeks ago in 2 Corinthians. I coined that title because I have asked that question many times).

Her answer at THAT occasion dovetails with the two passages I have cited. She replied, “John, have you ever considered the fact that the reason it is so hard is because the Word is being taught at the church?”

Humm.

I guess I have always associated the whole concept of persecution to be about being thrown in jail and martyrdom. Certainly, this is occurring all over the world, and I do not want in any way to minimize this. In fact, as some of us were praying Sunday, one of the guys mentioned another pastor who has been imprisoned in Iran. I saw the story on a newscast just the other night. I believe he is an American. I will find the story and talk about it later.

My point is that this type of persecution is going on in our world, and we must not lose track of it.

But just because most pastors in our country are not imprisoned or killed for preaching the gospel, it does not mean that persecution does not exist, and not just for pastors—for every believer in Jesus.

Isn’t that what Jesus is talking about—“persecution because of the Word”?

So, as I am sitting here this morning praying about this, the question comes to mind, “In what ways are American Christians and churches being persecuted because of the Word?”

Well, certainly, what I say here is no exhaustive list, but I want to give it a shot. My list will include preachers but I think these comments apply to every genuine believer and church that teaches the Bible.

First, I think it means that one is NOT popular. There are frankly portions of the Bible that simply don’t win friends and influence people. I’m getting ready to preach a series of sermons from Ezekiel in the New Year. And I can already anticipate messages that folks will not like.

And here is the difference: some, whose hearts are rocky soil, will reject the message outright, but others, even though they don’t “like” it, will take it to heart. And I can tell you: the folks in category B above are far less in number than category A.

I can’t tell you how often I have seen expressions on the faces of visitors in our church—I can tell (23 years in the same church has to have some benefit, doesn’t it?) when folks aren’t happy and won’t be back.

And so, here is what happens with pastors and churches. This sets off a “logical” progression that goes something like this. Well, if we are trying to bring new people into the church, certainly Old Zeke is not going to do that, so let’s have a series of messages on how to lose weight for the New Year or something like that.

Now, let me hasten to say that the way sermons are packaged says nothing about biblical content. In fact, even as I wrote that title, I think I may use it! Ha. So, I’d better be careful here, but my point is: the temptation is to sacrifice truth in order to be popular, to water the message down so folks will “like” it.

Second, I think it means that it is just hard to obey God. This is just a little thing, but I will tell you: I can’t believe how much the enemy attacked me for just walking across the street to invite those EMTs on Christmas Eve. My family has had a really difficult few days, and as I write this, I am now associating it with persecution.

How so? Well, think about it. Whenever a believer attempts to encroach on enemy territory, the devil does not like it. After all, unbelievers are his kids and he does not want to lose them.

This brings me back to the ever-growing conviction that evangelism brings us into the essence of spiritual warfare.

This is why I believe that a lot of congregations just don’t make the effort any longer. I’m not sure it is a conscious choice as much as it is taking the path of least resistance. It is easier just to find excuses not to do it and we settle into our little Christian ghetto.

Here is a third expression of persecution. I will explore this more later. I think persecution is the steppingstone into further growth as an individual believer or a church. What was the early church reaction to persecution? Did they just choose to hide in Jerusalem and shut down? I’ll leave that answer to you.

Oh, Lord, you have told us. We shouldn’t be surprised, but somehow, I always am. I know it wasn’t easy for you. I’m glad, so glad you didn’t take the easy road, but you endured the cross and every form of persecution.

I confess that I am tired of things being so hard, and I sometimes want to step out of the fray.

Give us all the grace to persevere, to stick with it, with hearts of soil that are receptive to the seed of the Word so that when the going gets tough, the tough in Christ get going.

“I’ll tell the world that I’m a Christian—I’m not ashamed
His name to bear” (“I’ll Tell the World That I’m a Christian,” BH 2008, 368). Amen.
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Across the Street

Last night, at our Christmas Eve service, Steve started things off by showing a video. I hope that I can post the link to it on my personal blog—www.pastorjohnsblog.com and on Facebook. It was a very powerful picture of what Christmas is all about.

We had a good group there last night. I was wondering if anyone would show up given the fact that we had had a service just the night before, but what I learned was that having various options during the Christmas season does give people choices. Some came last night that were not able to come Sunday night. It worked out well.

Steve did an excellent job of putting things together. We didn’t have a choir. It was just Steve and Calla on vocals along with James on guitar. Superb.

One more thing: I arrived at the church mid-afternoon yesterday and walked across the street to the Northglenn Ambulance Company. To my shame, in all my 23 plus years as pastor of First Southern, I had never been in the facility.

When I entered, I noticed that there was no one at the front desk, but behind that office, surrounded by glass, was a group of EMTs in the next room. One of them got up, “May I help you, sir?”

“Hi. I’m John. I’m the pastor of the church across the street. I just wanted to extend an invitation to all of you to come to our Christmas Eve service.”

“Oh, thanks.” At that point, he turned to the others who were sitting around a table in what looked like a conference room. “Did you all hear that? He is inviting us to a service across the street at …” He turned to me again, “What time?”

“5:00,” I answered.

I wished them all a Merry Christmas and left.

Honestly, I didn’t expect any of them to come, but I believe that my walk across the street is just the beginning of a relationship I believe the Lord is calling our church to forge.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but I can’t get away from the symbolism of it. I think “walking across the street” is foundational and at the heart of the Great Commission. How can I travel over an ocean to minister to people on some other continent if I first don’t walk across the street?

This goes back to a story I told in the message Sunday morning. I will get to it in a subsequent blog.

Anyway, it was a good day and good evening, and now I am ready for a break today.

My mom and sister wanted to come to the service last night, but late afternoon, my mom got sick. As a result, they were not able to come. When I arrived at my mom’s house later in the evening, she seemed to be doing better, but she was upset that she couldn’t be there.

Please continue to pray for her. It just seems as if it is one thing after another with her health, but we are grateful that she is so much better than she was this time last year.

I’m just going to quote this verse from Galatians this morning. Somehow, it is a huge encouragement to me on this Christmas morning. It pulls a lot of things together. "Dear brothers and sisters, if I were still preaching that you must be circumcised—as some say I do—why am I still being persecuted? If I were no longer preaching salvation through the cross of Christ, no one would be offended" (Galatians 5:11 NLT).

If one is going to follow the Lord and obey the Word and preach it to others—he or she can expect persecution.

Lord, I thank you for this day—the day we celebrate the birth of your Son. I’m thank for all He went through to make salvation possible and as difficult as it is in all its various forms—I’m thankful for the persecution you allow in our lives.

Keep us on task and faithful to you.

I pray that you would bless everyone who reads this blog today.

Jesus, you are awesome. “You are awesome in this place, Mighty God. You are awesome in this place, Abba Father.” Amen.

Here is that link: http://www.sermonspice.com/product/8136/christmas-the-word
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Suicide Culture

What is going on?

Yesterday, as the service began, Elijah, one of our youth, came to tell me something. The service had already started, but I could tell that he was visibly shaken.

“What’s going on, Elijah?”

“Pastor John, last week, one of my friends—her name is Jasmine—tried to kill herself. She would have succeeded, but her dad found her and saved her life. Can we pray for her today?”

“Yes, absolutely, Elijah, we will do it.”

He got up, head down, and returned to his seat.

What is going on?

Last night, at the International Candle Lighting Service, it was my opportunity to share the Word. I actually had not planned to preach a sermon, but as the evening went on, the Lord burdened me again with this suicide issue, especially in light of what happened to Elijah.

What occurred to me is the dark side, the forgotten side of Christmas. Matthew tells this story. After the birth of Jesus, in a fit of jealous rage, Herod had all the two-year old baby boys killed in the region. Think about all that death and all that grief in the “Christmas season.”

Somehow, with the incident in Connecticut and all these suicides, this time in our nation’s history feels the same.

In both services at our church, I felt led to challenge folks to pray for the teens they know and to share the truth of the gospel with them.

Anyway, after the service, Kelley and I visited for a moment. She is a nurse at Children’s Hospital. She said, “John, we see attempted suicides all the time. None of this that has happened in our end of town shocks me.”

Her statement confirmed my fear: the six suicides and more attempted suicides in Thornton are being replicated across Metro Denver and our country.

And, to take it even further, this suicide culture is not limited to teenagers. I read an article this morning about the (apparent) suicide of Ryan Freel, an outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds. He was thirty-six years old, a husband and father of three. It just breaks my heart.

What is going on?

How does the church minister to this suicide culture? I am asking the Lord to give me answers to this question. I believe that it has to be addressed and not just by one church. It is going to have to be all the evangelical churches on the north end of town banding together.

These are my thoughts at this point.

When we come together, we need to pray FIRST and FOREMOST. This is not about programs and slogans. It has to be about the power of God. We need a spiritual awakening in our land.

Elijah said it when he was sharing about Jasmine yesterday. “She was looking for an easy answer to her problems.” An easy answer? Are you kidding me? Killing yourself is an easy answer?

Turning to the Lord is way “easier” than that? When I use the word “easy,” I am referring to its availability and simplicity. God is there. He offers Himself. All we have to do is to repent and believe. That is easy in a couple of respects. But I also realize that it may be the hardest thing in the world to do—from a human standpoint.

Well, anyway, somehow the church needs to do a better job of getting that message OUT THERE. There is an alternative to killing yourself.

But here is another thing: where are the families of these kids? Now, I hasten to say that a teen could opt for suicide even in the best of family situations. I realize that, but as a general rule, where are the families to be there and talk with their kids and help them through the crises of adolescence?

When one is 13, every difficulty is a life/death situation. That’s just the way it is. Every boyfriend/girlfriend break-up is the end of the world!

That’s why parents need to be there! I can’t tell you how many late night talks my mom and I had. She was on top of my moods and emotional swings. “Okay, what is going on?” And she forced me to talk, and once I got it out, and had interaction with someone who had been there/done that, I was better.

It cost her a lot of emotional angst and sleep, but isn’t that the price of parenting?

I just don’t think that kind of thing is going on much these days.

Well, anyway, that is my two-cents worth. I need to continue to pray about all of this.

Tonight is our Christmas Eve service. I really wonder how many folks will be there. We will see.

I always chuckle. I found out last night that some of the folks who were adamant about having this service won’t be there themselves! Oh, well, the bottom line is that if I didn’t think it was an opportunity to reach folks, then we wouldn’t be having it.

Please pray for me. I feel led to walk across the street and invite the EMT’s from the Northglenn Ambulance Company. A group of them came a few years ago. I just don’t think we’ve done a very good job with our church’s mission field—the people across the street from us. We will see.

Anyway, Paul sums up our responsibility in a pithy phrase in the two verses I read this morning in Galatians five. I’m going to quote these two verses from the New Living Translation first and then the Message version.

"But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith the righteousness God has promised to us. For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love" (Galatians 5:5, 6 NLT).

"I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love" (Galatians 5:4-6 MSG).

Did you notice it? It is “faith expressing itself in love.” That is what our suicide culture needs.

Oh, Lord, I praise for the birth of Your Son and the gospel story. As Ilma from the Brazilian church said last night as she led worship, “Jesus is not a baby any longer. He grew up and died and rose again and rules at the right hand of God!” Amen!

Father, it seems as if at times, that what we as Christians in churches are doing is so irrelevant to the despair in our culture that is leading more and more folks to commit suicide.

Help us, Lord. Show us what to do. Show me. “Send a great revival in my soul… Let the Holy Spirit come and take control and send a great revival in my soul.” Amen.
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Way Off

For some reason, we decided to go to a mall yesterday for lunch. Big mistake.

It was packed out and the parking lot was so full there were no parking spaces available. It was a nightmare.

We ate and got back to the car as fast as we could just to get out of there. It was suffocating.

As we were leaving the parking lot, Marilyn said, “Whoa, somehow, I just think we have moved so far away from what Christmas is all about.”

It isn’t just the commercialism. The truth is that it is prevalent in our culture all the time, not just the Christmas season.

It is more than that. It is just life lived without even a thought to the Lord, and all the while, just about everywhere, Christmas Carols are playing, and if you stop to listen to them, they contain the gospel! Are you kidding me?

One of my favorites is “Silent Night.” There is a phrase that is absolutely remarkable in this hymn. It is at the end of the third verse: “Jesus, Lord at Thy birth, Jesus Lord at Thy birth” (“Silent Night, Holy Night,” BH 2008, 206). Amen.

This was actually playing somewhere the other day, and I heard that third verse. Are people really HEARING that? REALLY?

I just wonder when some atheist somewhere will figure it out and take action to stop Christmas songs from being played anywhere. You watch. It WILL happen.

While I am in that neighborhood, last night, I came upon the beginning of a comedy/Christmas show on one of the major channels. A comedian was joking about Christmas. He said something like, “Christmas is not about …” And he named several religions and holiday celebrations like Kwanzaa. Then, he went on to say, “No, it is about the birth of the our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

At first, I was getting ready to say, “Wow. Unbelievable.” But then, I realized it was a joke.

So, that is where we have come to in our culture. The truth of the gospel as it is revealed in the Christmas story has become elevator music and a joke.

It is almost too overwhelming even to think about. But again, this is an urgent plea for the church to be urgent and busy about our job.

Here is the ironic thing: what do we do in a culture that refuses to listen and makes fun of the truth? Some would say that we need to water down the message so that our contemporary culture will hear us.

Hogwash!

I say, “Preach Jesus with my fervor and accuracy than ever and don’t stop.” And I would add that Christians need to be careful to LIVE that message also.

That is why Paul is so adamant in the book of Galatians. He has just spent extensive ink describing the contrast between the life of slavery and the free life of faith through the analogy of the two sons of Abraham through Hagar and Sara. Then, at the beginning of chapter five, he makes this plea: "So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace" (Galatians 5:1-4 NLT).

The world lives under the illusion that it is free. Actually, most of those folks racing through the parking lot at the mall and laughing at that comedian’s jokes are in chains!

We know the truth! We need to share Jesus and live Jesus and not allow ourselves—the messengers of the truth—to be tied up in legalism after the Lord Jesus Christ—who was Lord even at His birth—set us free!

May it be so, Lord. Thank you for setting me free. May the message and the truth come out this weekend in the three services ahead of us—this morning, tonight in the International Candle Lighting Service, and in the Christmas Eve service. I praise you, Jesus, that you are Lord, Lord even at your birth. Amen.
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A Day in Pompeii

Before I talk about my experiences yesterday, I would like to ask you to pray for my family. We are going through tough times. I think that’s all I will say at this point. Thanks a lot.

Well, back to yesterday. Jim found out about a special deal that the Denver Museum of Nature and Science was having this weekend with their exhibit, “A Day in Pompeii.” The ticket was nine dollars off the regular adult ticket price of $24.00 per person. The day before, (and the traffic was horrendous) I drove down to the museum and purchased the tickets in person to enable us to get this rate. I was glad to do this.

Anyway, Bill, Helen, Lettie, Bob, and Debbie and I met at the church at 4:00 PM and headed down to the museum. Even though our ticket indicated access to the exhibit from 5:00 to 7:00, we got right in at 4:30.

It didn’t take long for all of us to be immediately impressed with how advanced life was in this walled-in city of a century before the birth of Christ. A majority of the homes had courtyards with elaborate water fountains and gardens. The cooking utensils and implements were advanced. Folks that lived in Pompeii loved the arts and sports. There was a gladiator’s helmet in the exhibit that was absolutely amazing. Finally, there was a section of the exhibit that displayed the elaborate funeral customs and beliefs of these folks.

I have just given a very brief summary of what we saw in the first part of the exhibit, but here are some other “issues” that became very clear. First, this was a culture that worshiped and revered and multiplicity of gods for various occasions and settings—a “god” for everything.

Second, this was an immoral culture. In one glass case, there were some household implements that looked like spoons with “erotic” scenes imprinted on them and there was another fresco on a wall depicting another aberrant sexual act.

Third, sports were very important to the people of Pompeii. Computer renderings of the town showed a large stadium where the “games” were played, and apparently, they were very popular. I mentioned the helmet before, but there were also a set of leg irons (this is probably NOT the proper technical name) in a case, and they had an inscription on them that was translated into English. Again, I can’t remember the name of the soldier. I will call him Frank. But the inscription read, “Frank makes the ladies swoon.”

Fourth, as I have already mentioned, there were elaborate and idolatrous customs related to death and funerals. Cases full of items that were included in the tomb. One custom involved putting coins of the eyes and mouth of a dead person in order to pay off some god at the gate of eternity. Strange stuff.

Well, anyway, one may see all of this and more in the exhibit, but then as you turn a corner, there is a video depict of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 B. C. It is a video presentation that portrays what things must have looked like on that fateful day. Oh, man. It was very graphic and very disturbing.

By the end of that day, the town was virtually gone—buried in about sixteen feet of dirt and volcanic ash.

Once you see that video, you walk through a series of dead people and animals that were frozen dead in time as they were covered with this volcanic ash.

The contrast is stark.

As all of us walked out the door at the end of the exhibit, we all remarked, “What a vivid picture of the judgment of God.”

When the Lord decides He has had enough, He takes care of business. Even saying that sends chills up and down my spine.

Here is the other thing: we all remarked at how similar this ancient culture was to ours here in 21st Century America. The way we are headed as a nation and culture—it just can’t be too much longer before the Lord tires of our sin and idolatry and evil.

These two verses I read in Proverbs sum things up: "Those who follow the right path fear the Lord; those who take the wrong path despise him. There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death" (Proverbs 14:2, 12 NLT).

Oh, Lord, have mercy on us as a nation before it is too late.

I turn to you today, Lord. Clean me up. Send spiritual awakening to our land and revival to the church. Let it begin with me.

“Lord, lay some soul upon my heart,
And love that soul through me;
And may I bravely do my part
To win that soul for thee” (“Lord, Lay Some Soul Upon My Heart,” BH 2008, 366). Amen.
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We're Still Here ...

Another doomsday prophecy—fails. Surprise, surprise.

I’ve been hearing about this Mayan calendar “issue” now for months.

This morning, there is an article about it on the front page of the Denver Post. To read the various responses and reactions to this date, I believe, gives a realistic picture of where we are spiritually. Oh, boy.

One lady, who works as a meteorologist for the National Center for atmospheric research in Boulder (of all places), describes the day as “a shift of energy” (“Revelers hit a gold Mayan,” Denver Post, accessed December 21, 2012).

At the McNichols Building in Denver’s Civic Center, they are expecting 2000 folks to show up (each paying twenty-one bucks) for a “three levels of Armageddon” party with aliens, Mayans, performers in full costume, a light show, and ten disc jockeys playing music.

Hey, I have an idea to reach our 2013 budget in one night!

Just kidding …

But back to this party—are you kidding me?

Finally, there are others who are just going to have a party and drink. One couple is having an “end-of-the-world, zombie, and apocalypse wedding reception at a bar in Aurora. Where do zombies fit in this scenario?

I don’t know. The more I read this article, the more hopelessness I feel.

Interestingly enough, the verses I read in Galatians three strike a cord with all of this in our contemporary culture. Notice these verses: "Before you Gentiles knew God, you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist. So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years" (Galatians 4:8-10 NLT).

These statements are addressed to the Gentile contingent in the churches of Galatia. He describes their former lives as being enslaved to “so-called gods” and “observing certain days or months or seasons or years.” Eerily similar, wouldn’t you say?

Lostness is lostness. It hasn’t changed all that much in a couple of thousand years.

There is just so much confusion. People know a little bit (always dangerous) about spiritual tidbits here and there, and they toss them all into a spiritual crock pot on the stove of their hearts and let it simmer into something they try to worship.

Here’s what I have discovered about cooking in a crock pot (in all my vast experience of cooking—ehem). It is the same principle that we quote when it comes to computers—“garbage in, garbage out.” If the ingredients are not good, then the mix, even though heated up, won’t be good either.

But here is the thing about all of this that really bothers me. When the real end of the world does indeed come—I’m talking about all the descriptions of the unfolding judgment of God culminating in the Second Coming of Jesus—when all of that occurs—there will be no “third Armageddon or zombie parties” going on. I can guarantee that.

How does the Bible counsel believers to be ready for the end? Drink beer and dance around in a Mayan costume?

No.

We ought to be on our faces. We need to be “sober” (to use a good old KJV word that has meaning on several levels) and vigilant. We ought to be urgent about sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This mixed up and desperately lost culture needs folks who have a solid handle on biblical truth so that we can serve folks the meat of God’s Word and not some jumbled up concoction of partial truths and myths and cartoons.

Oh, God, have mercy on us. Wake us up! Mobilize believers.

It occurs to me that today may present opportunities. Give us boldness and soberness and urgency.

Oh, Lord, I continue to pray for Rick. Thank you that he had a good day with a good report about his blood levels. Give him and give Jonann and Will another good day today.

“May Your pure light shine thro’ us” (“Song for the Nations,” BH 2008, 365). Amen.
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Three Missions

One of the things I like about this time of year is the challenge of coming back to passages I have preached over and over. I love the opportunity to preach them again in new and fresh ways.

For our Christmas Eve service, the Lord has led me to preach a brief message from Galatians 4. Here is the focal passage: "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:4-6 NASB)

As I studied these verses, one word or phrase jumped off the page—“sent forth.” The Christmas story is all about God’s mission! How about that?

God SENT FORTH His Son. The birth of Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem was not just a “cute” baby story. Somehow, I believe that, if we are not careful, we minimize it in our retelling of the story. God was on mission even with that “cute” little baby. It was a mission of redemption, and the key element of it was Jesus’ identification with the folks He came to redeem—“born of a woman, born under the Law.” Those are key phrases.

They do not contradict the whole concept of a virgin birth, but they do put aside any notions that Mary was “special” in the sense that she merits worship. The text simply refers to her as “a woman.” The Lord used her as a willing service to be the vehicle through which God sent forth His Son. That is all. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But there is another sending in the Galatians passage. God SENT FORTH the Spirit. One very neglected consequences of the Virgin Birth—I never hear anything about this in the Christmas season—was Pentecost! The birth of Jesus laid the groundwork for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ birth provided the impetus for our redemption, but the sending of the Holy Spirit provided the resource for it. We can’t save ourselves. But God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, and He enables intimacy with Daddy God.

I love it! By the way, this same Holy Spirit has impressed me that we as a church need to give as much attention to two other major Christian “holidays” as we do to Christmas—Easter and Pentecost. All three are tied inextricably together. But I digress …

Galatians lays out these two “sendings,” but they imply a third: God SENDS FORTH His redeemed children into a lost and dying world. Once we have been redeemed and the Spirit of His Son dwells in us, we are on mission for Him.

This has been heavily on my mind and heart the past few days, as I have been thinking about my personal responsibility of evangelism and the compelling necessity for our church to do a much better job of outreach. I’m not sure yet what that means on a church-wide level or how we will do it. But I do know that, for me, it simply means that I take opportunity and make opportunity to share Jesus much more frequently than I have over the past few years.

Yesterday, the Lord gave me such an opportunity.

Jim and I were delivering cookies and Christmas cards to folks in our church who were “shut-in” because of illness and/or in nursing homes. We started at Dan and Kaye’s house. Then, we went to see Evelyn at the nursing home.

Evelyn is in a room with two other women. The lady who sleeps nearest to her in her room is Leona. Let me give you the context of what happened. Jim and I had pulled up a couple of chairs. We were sitting next to Evelyn in her wheelchair and we were talking about the Christmas season and the church. I noticed that Leona was watching us.

Finally, she rose up from her bed and said, “Do you mind if I listen to your conversation?” This was the Holy Spirit’s go button as far as I was concerned. I have seen Leona dozens of times as I have come to visit Evelyn, but I had never talked with her about Jesus.

“Of course not. Hey, Leona. Do you mind if I ask you question? Have you ever received the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”

“What do you mean ‘receive Jesus’? I don’t understand.”

I started to explain this to her in as simple of language as I possibly could. It was difficult because I was using terms and words, and Leona stopped me often: “What do you mean by that?”

It was very good for me. I’m going to speak for myself here. I was convicted that I was “rusty” in sharing the gospel. Why? Because I don’t do it as often as I should. It is like anything else: the more you do it, the “easier” it becomes. “Easy” may not be the right word there, but I hope you know what I mean.

Well, at one point, I had to get up to approach Leona to explain what “receiving Jesus” means. As I got near here, I noticed that she had a gospel wristband on. Several years ago, I had led folks to put one of them together in a morning worship service at First Southern. It is very simple: it is a leather string with a black, red, white, yellow, and green bead on it. Leona had one on her wrist!

Translation: someone had already shared the gospel with her!

Leona seemed to be struggling with what I was sharing with her. On more than one occasion, she said, “I’m not going to leave the Catholic church.”

“I’m not asking you to leave the Catholic church. I’m talking about your relationship with Jesus.”

I’m not sure she understood, but Jim and Evelyn and I prayed. Jim led the prayer. He prayed for Leona. Please join us in praying for her.

It is never too late for someone to get saved. I am praying that Leona will. As Jim and I walked out, I said, “Well, she is still going to hear it from Evelyn. Evelyn will continue the conversation. That is for sure.” The truth is that Evelyn has been sharing with her from Day One.

Anyway, I was thankful for the opportunity to join God’s Mission.

Lord, thank you for sending Your Son to redeem us. Thank you for the indwelling Holy Spirit who empowers obedience and intimacy with You.

I pray for Leona to get saved. Help her understand. Help her receive you. Thank you for Evelyn’s witness. Thank you for whoever it was who gave her the wristband. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of a group that has shared the gospel with her. Thank you for Jim, Lord.

Oh, Daddy, I love you today and I’m glad to climb into your lap for another one of our “talks.”

“There’s a call comes ringing o’er the restless wave, ‘Send the light!’” (“Send the Light,” BH 2008, 364). Amen.
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Right Up to the Brink of Revival

There was a rather intriguing moment last Sunday at the end of the worship service. I was talking with Steve yesterday, and he reminded me of it. Honestly, I don’t know how or why what happened had slipped my mind.

Once again, I’m learning that I have the tendency to be myopically focused on the negative and somehow, all the “good stuff” just escapes my tiny brain. There is a lesson there. I need to remember.

Well, anyway, back to Sunday. It was one of those “moments.” Bryan and Tina had both come forward to share the impact of the six suicides in our community. As I told the church, I noticed that a lot of folks had the same kind of reaction I had had: shock followed by an overwhelming sense almost of despair.

Somehow, as all of us were dealing this, two people spoke out (again, if my hazy, negative-focused memory is correct). I can’t remember what the first person said, but the second was Lorraine. She was sitting up in the choir. “We need revival.”

Steve said it best. It was one of those non-solicited outbursts of truth that had a huge impact. When she said it, something resonated in my heart, “Yes, Lord. That is IT. Yes.”

And it was weird. Right then and there, I did not know what to say or do. I just affirmed her statement and paused. Again, I can’t remember how long it was. Shortly after that, I closed the service.

In retrospect, I think I should have called everyone to prayer RIGHT THEN and THERE. I don’t know …

But since yesterday, several questions have been dogging me. Lettie, Jim, and I have been praying for revival. I’m sure others are as well. But are we really prepared for God to move or not?

Would I know revival if it hit me over the head?

If I sensed that the Lord was moving (like last Sunday), would I step in and squash it by trying to manage or control it?

Do I have time for revival? I ask THAT question because Sunday, we had things to do. We had a special business meeting after the service. Things to do. Places to go. It is a busy time of year. The Christmas season is not the most convenient time for revival. If you are going to have one, it is best if the Lord moves at another time of year, preferably after the Broncos have won the Super Bowl.

Of course, the Bronco game was another factor. It had already started when Lorraine said what she did. If a pastor does not take Bronco games into consideration during this time of year, he is fooling himself. I learned this.

Of course, in all of what I have just said, I am kidding. Well, sort of …

There are so many things from a human perspective that enter into the picture. We say we want the Lord to move, but we hope He does it on our terms, not His.

Two memories come to mind at this point. Not long after I had started at Southwestern seminary, I started attending a church in south Fort Worth. It was not a large congregation, as size of churches go. I liked the pastor. His name was Brad. He just opened the Bible and explained and applied the text, but over the course of my time there, the Lord began to work.

Soon, the services started expanding in length. It was not unusual for them to last over two hours. At first, everyone was on board with this. But soon, it seemed as if Pastor Brad was manufacturing ways to make the services last longer. He extended the invitation. It seemed as if he was trying to “drum up” response. And things started to fall flat.

I realize that a lot of my statements above are very general. I don’t want to get into specifics of exactly what was going on in the church. I’ll just leave it at that.

Several years ago, at First Southern, I had started asking for people to share testimonies in our Sunday morning worship services. At first, a lot of people shared. It was fantastic. It was the second time in all the years I have served this congregation that I felt we were on the brink of “something,” whatever that “something” was.

But somehow, the moment seemed to pass. People became more and more reluctant to share, and we kind of drifted back into the routine.

What am I trying to say? Well, I think that pastors may be revival’s worst enemy because we all seem to want to control things so that we can be on top of them. We worry about what people are thinking. We worry about what might happen if you just “open up the floor.” Someone might go rogue. Someone might say something that isn’t totally doctrinally correct. The service might go too long. Et cetera, et cetera.

Beyond pastors, I think most Christians are rather afraid of the Holy Spirit. What will it mean if He decides to move?

Again, all of this is speculation and conjecture. I guess I realize that if the Spirit genuinely moves, everyone will recognize it. And, mark it down, it will be uncomfortable, inconvenient, and demand sacrifice.

Am I really ready for the Lord to do THAT? That is the issue. It is easy to pray for revival, and Lorraine is right on target. If there were EVER a time in church history where we need a movement of God in the church, it is NOW.

How about the imagery in these two verses in Galatians as Paul is talking about the historical relation between the law and gospel of faith in Jesus Christ? "But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed" (Galatians 3:22, 23 NASB).

“Shut up everyone under sin” and “shut up to the faith”—these are intriguing references. There is much to say in this regard, but going back to the subject of revival: all those hundreds of years of frustration—the frustration of trying to keep the law and failing—proved to be the background for the coming of the Messiah.

I wonder how many years of futility it will take before pastors and congregations get tired of trying to do things on their own. All our routines and schedules and programs and plans—when will we realize their emptiness and futility? And turn to the Lord!

Maybe then. Maybe. We will be desperate enough for revival.

Maybe.

Oh, Lord, all I know this morning is that I need you today more than ever. You are the Lord of your church and my life. You are the Head. You are the Pastor, the True Shepherd of your sheep. Your Holy Spirit is in charge as the inhabitant of the Temple—me.

I confess the sin of all of us—fear, apprehension, uncomfortable-ness with what we think You will do, Spirit.

Father, help me with this on a personal level. Guide me. Show me. First in my own life and then as the sheep dog in this church. Help me to step out of your way when you begin to move.

Help me to decrease and you to increase.

“Be clean and pure without, within,
Let others see Jesus in you (“Let Others See Jesus in You,” BH 2008, 363). Amen.
Comments

Hung on a Tree

I want to follow-up on the verse in Galatians three that I quoted yesterday. Here it is again, along with the following verse:

"But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith" (Galatians 3:13, 14 NLT).

In the Wednesday night class I taught last week, we looked at a portion of the video I picked up when I was at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Southwestern Seminary last month. One of the scholars who was portrayed on the video was talking about what the Dead Sea scrolls have revealed concerning Judaism of Jesus’ day.

Let me see if I can explain this.

In a cursory reading of the crucifixion narratives, it seems as if the Jews hand Jesus over to the Romans and THEY crucify the Son of God. It appears as if the Jews want to evade the responsibility for doing this, so they let the Romans do the “dirty work.”

I do believe that there is an element of truth to this, but the fact is that both nations wanted to do this. Remember what Pontius Pilate did? He made a very public show of washing his hands in the praetorium, as if that was really going to absolve him of ANYTHING.

But back to the Jews, this German scholar made a fascinating observation that has emerged out of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Before I tell you what it is, I must make another comment. The discovery of the scrolls has occurred over decades. In fact, it is still on-going. But archeologists have discovered all kinds of documents in these caves around the Dead Sea. Scrolls of scripture are only one kind. There are three other types:


    It was from one of these four types of documents that the insight about crucifixion that the German scholar talked about was gleaned.

    Okay, here is his point: the Sadducees regularly “crucified” men accused of treason against the nation of Israel. I can’t remember if Jewish “crucifixion” was exactly like that of the Romans, but it was close enough.

    After class last week, Jim approached me. He said, “John, you know that the Romans did not invent crucifixion? The Babylonians invented it, and the Romans ‘perfected’ it—they made it much more painful and severe.”

    I did not know this. Humm.

    But, here is the point: everyone, I mean everyone in the crucifixion story was attempting to avoid responsibility for crucifying the Son of God, including and especially the Jews. BUT they were just a complicit in the act of execution—crucifixion, hanging on a tree—as the Romans were.

    Of course, the truth is: all of our sins nailed Him to that cross.

    But the Jews were guilty in the act of crucifixion. Now, maybe this is not as new or fascinating of a fact to you as it was/is to me, but nonetheless, it is significant.

    This verse in Galatians 3 makes application of all of this. If we try in our own flesh to please God (and of course we fail), then we are in the same boat as Israel who tried with all of their rules and regulations. And, therefore, we are under a curse and deserve a “hanging.”

    But if we place our trust in Him, allowing the Holy Spirit of God who dwells in believers, to live His life through us by grace through FAITH, we receive the blessing.

    Ah, I choose B.

    Jesus, thank you for rescuing me from the curse by becoming accursed on my behalf.

    Today, show me what it means and enable me to take every step by faith.

    “So send I you, to take to souls in bondage
    The Word of truth that sets the captive free” (“So Send I You,” BH 2008, 362). Amen.
    Comments

    Six Suicides

    I’m still kind trying to recover from yesterday.

    Don’t get me wrong. We had a good service. Worship was great. People seemed upbeat in spite of what I am going to share.

    But it was a tough day in several ways. First, we prayed for victim’s families and the folks affected by the shootings in Connecticut. As far as the latter group is concerned—doesn’t that include about everyone in country? I noticed that, last night one channel was showing pictures of the children who were massacred. As Bernard prayed in our men’s prayer group last night, “Lord, of all the shootings we have seen over the past few years, this has to be the worst because of the babies who were killed.” Amen.

    Second, we prayed for the member of our congregation who is in trouble. I actually got a call about this individual from Lettie on Saturday. She found out about this trouble and called to talk with me about it.

    Again, at some point, I may get very specific about what “trouble” I am talking about, but again, right now, I don’t feel led to do so.

    But I know that a lot of people are aware of it by now. I received an email last night from a family in the church who found out about it and they are upset. But this is another blow that specifically affects our church.

    Third, one of the brothers who is very involved in our church and specifically in our men’s prayer time on Sunday morning mentioned that this is a tough time of the year for him because his wife passed away three years ago during this time of year.

    I am aware that, for many, the holidays are difficult because they are a reminder of the death of a loved one. As I sit here this morning, I can think of several people who have experienced a loss during this season. But, to expand things a bit, I think “the holidays” affect many people this way—they just serve as a reminder of who is NOT sitting around the table this time of year. And we miss them even more.

    So, those three things were very prominent on the heart of our congregation yesterday, but nothing could have prepared me for the other “news” I heard.

    During the invitation, Bryan came forward. He said that his family has a friend who is a secretary at Thornton High School. She told his family that in recent days and weeks, six high school students have committed suicide!

    What? SIX!

    As I was trying to get my mind around that, another lady in our congregation came forward. Tina said her daughter Wendy was having trouble with what was going on at her school. She said, “Have you heard?” “Well, yes, Tina. I just did.”

    Of course Wendy is struggling.

    This news is flying under the radar for understandable reasons, I suppose, but I still can’t begin to fathom this. SIX SUICIDES! It is one thing for a shooter to come into a school and kill people—that is horrific enough. But for these teens, with their whole lives in front of them—to take their own lives.

    And there is sort of a “copy cat” effect going on here, it seems. It is as if some of these students said, “Oh, Johnny killed himself. Humm. I’ve never thought of that. That is a good idea. I will do the same.” OR SOMETHING.

    Here I go again—trying to find some type of rationale for evil. There is none.

    Yesterday, I preached from 1 John 3:1-10. The focal verse of the message was verse eight: “For this reason the Son of God appeared that he might destroy the works of the Devil” (I John 3:8b). One of the inherent qualities of Satan is that he is a “murderer” (John 8:44).

    As I said yesterday—there is no “Flip Wilson” theology going on here—“The devil made me do it” BUT the devil is a part of all of this as people allow the Prince of the Power of the Air to control their lives.

    And, think about this—where does Satan attack in cities? I believe he is targeting children and teens and the stakes have ratcheted up several notches.

    If the church does not get busy with our mission, then these kids will be lost. The despair that caused that man to shoot up a school or these teens to kill themselves (all of this authored by the Murderer—Satan) will win out.

    Now, of course, evil will not ultimately triumph. We know that. We believe that, but we can and MUST share that victory NOW.

    Jesus did what was necessary through his incarnation and death to make all of this possible. This verse shows us how: "But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13 NLT).

    I have more to say about this, but it will have to wait until tomorrow.

    Oh, Lord, you are sovereign and in control of everything that goes on in the universe. Even Satan—he does not operate as an independent agent. He is under your control.

    But Lord, it sure seems that the Prince of the Air is winning these days. I know he isn’t. But sin and evil and death seem to be prevailing.

    I pray for the families of these six teens who have lost children to suicide. I can’t begin to fathom what they are going through. I pray for Wendy and the other students and teachers and secretaries at Thornton High who are trying to cope with these tragedies.

    Win out, Lord. Win through all of this and use our church and the Christian community now more than ever.

    “Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!” (“We Have Heard the Joyful Sound,” BH 2008, 361). Amen.
    Comments

    God is NOT Dead

    Yesterday, I was riding along in the car with my mom and sister. Marilyn said, “John, have you heard of the Christmas song ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’? The words are fantastic, especially the second verse.” And she proceeded to read them off to me.

    As the day progressed, her curiosity peaked, and she did some research about this hymn—fascinating stuff. It was originally a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the American. It was written in 1867 during the Civil War. About that time, Longfellow’s wife died and his son Charles, who enlisted in the Civil War against his father’s wishes, was severely wounded.

    And of course, you know that the Civil War was one of the bloodiest and deadliest wars in history.

    At the present time, we are in a war overseas. This time of year I always think of our troops. You just don’t hear much about them any more. They are over in Afghanistan fighting for us, and they are away from their families over the holidays.

    I also think of that Marine who was apprehended in Mexico for bogus reasons a few months ago. His name is Jon Hammer. Check out his story on the web. The prison guards recently moved him out of the general population into a less secure place at the jail. Because it is less secure, they had to chain him to his bed! We need to pray that he is released soon.

    These are both very critical war situations, but I am not so sure that the war here on American soil is not more urgent. I tell you: this mass murder in Connecticut is awful. I just can’t get it out of my mind. Every time I see a little child with his/her parents, it makes me want to cry. Little innocent children were gunned down in cold blood!

    And, like all our reactions in the country, we are going to overreact and address the wrong issues (only the symptoms) as we usually do. I could elaborate at this point, but I think I’ll stop.

    Anyway, it just seems that evil is growing at an exponentially faster rate than righteousness.

    And add this to the loop: it seems as if more and more Christians are dropping out for various reasons. At least that is true in the church I serve.

    We have started sending out email announcements to folks in the church. Actually, Nate recommended that we do this. I like it. It is a lot more efficient and cost effective than “Phone Tree” calls. (Do you know that term? I think I have mentioned it before. It is a gadget that calls everyone in the church. Lately, it has not been working. As a result, we have started to use a web service that does the same thing. But it costs 15 cents per call. This starts to add up when you consider that we call almost one hundred family units per week. Needless to say it costs “dough.” Have I chased that rabbit enough?).

    Anyway, Marilyn found a service that we are using to do this. It is called, “Mail Chimp.” Since we have started, however, we have had two families/individuals tell us to take us off the list and not to contact them again. Oh, okay.

    All of this to say—I feel a little overwhelmed about all of this. Not defeated. Not discouraged. Just a little overwhelmed.

    Therefore, even though my personal situation does not come close to rivaling that of Longfellow in 1867, I can relate to him.

    His original poem contained two verses about the Civil War. These verses were dropped when the song was written but I want to include them here because they give context to the verses of the song Marilyn quoted. I am going to talk about this in my sermon today. Here they are:

    "I heard the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    Then from each black accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    "God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men!"
    (“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” www.whatsaiththescripture.com, accessed December 16, 2012)

    Wow! I love it. “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep.” Amen.

    Deep in my heart, I affirm this, and what should we do about it? I think we need to heed the appeal of Paul in Galatians 3: "How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?" (Galatians 3:3 NLT)

    Oh, Lord, it does seem as if everything is coming loose at the hinges. We are fighting wars. Our neighbors to the south hate us. Our troops are dying or are in prison in foreign lands. People are shooting innocent children. Christians are responding in different ways. What is going on?

    You know, Lord. You know.

    But I do know this. You are not dead. You are not asleep. You are still on your throne. And today, I choose to take my cue from you, not my feelings or my culture. And I choose today to follow your Spirit all the way.

    Continue to take care of your church today. I pray for the budget proposal after the service today. I place it in your hands. Amen.
    Comments

    "It is Just Evil"

    I couldn’t believe it when I heard that.

    Let me back up a minute. When Marilyn told me about the shooting in Connecticut yesterday, I was in shock. “A roomful of kindergarten students?” I can’t imagine anything more horrific.

    As you watch the endless news reports on this tragedy and see the faces of parents as they run down a street toward the school—what a nightmare!

    Lord, I have to pause right here and pray for everyone in Newton—any and everyone affected by this senseless mass murder. I lift up the families of the victims in particular. I heard all those children and adults in that classroom—their bodies—are still there as the authorities investigate. I lift these family members up to you. Right now.

    This sparks so many kinds of conversations, but the main one involves the questions how and why.

    And I continue to be amazed at how clueless so called experts are when it comes to these types of questions and the drivel that comes out of their mouths as a result.

    I want to be clear at this point: of course, there are NO answers to those questions when it comes to a tragedy like this shooting, BUT a biblical worldview comes the closest to giving some type of framework for addressing this situation.

    In other words, even though there are no real answers to these ultimate-type questions, Christians come closer to answering them than anyone else.

    And I was shocked to hear what I discern to be a Christian answer on one of the newscasts last night. I was watching Fox News as Bill O’Reilly interviewed a couple of psychologists. One gentleman was a forensic psychologist from Kansas City (if my memory serves me correctly). As O’Reilly and another woman and this man from Kansas City were trying to delve into the motivations of the shooter, the forensic psychologist said, “You know, on something like this, all the explanations go out the window. This was just evil. That is it.”

    Wow. I believe that is EXACTLY right. Of course, just saying that doesn’t make me or anyone else feel better, BUT in all the discussions of this tragedy (and they are only beginning), calling it what it really is—this is the first step toward really addressing the problem of this type of violence.

    Apparently, the shooter was a loner who suffered from some type of autism. Whatever. If he had gotten saved and was a part of a meaningful fellowship—this is not an automatic cure-all (Christians can sin as well)—the likelihood of him killing all these people would have been greatly reduced. Right?

    To me, if we have the guts to call this evil as the psychologist from Kansas City did—then all these mass murders give us more impetus than ever to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. As a matter of fact, if I know of anyone like this shooter, I need to love him or her more than ever and share Jesus more aggressively.

    Of course, as Christians, we ought to be doing this anyway, right? But I’m learning that it takes tragedy to get us off the dime.

    One more thing: this just gives me more of a burden to make sure the people of our church are safe and secure when we gather for worship. As the “sheep dog” of First Southern, isn’t that right up there as my main responsibility? I have talked to a guy in our church who is a guard at the Denver City Jail. Marvin is helping me right now. But we need to take further steps. This must happen SOON.

    Lord, again, I ask you to keep all the adults and children safe—not only in our church, but also in all the churches and schools and public meeting places in our land. Help, Lord! As someone who is deranged is watching all of this and may be planning the next mass murder, stop that person RIGHT NOW.

    The famous verse I am going to quote right now gives us the very practical reason and explanation as to how and why God changes us when we come to Jesus. This is very succinct: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20 NIV84).

    To the degree that each day, I reckon myself dead to sin and alive to God, then, and only then, am I able to allow Jesus to live His resurrected life through me.

    Oh, Lord. Let it be so in me today.

    “Tell the good news, tell the good news,
    Tell the good news to everyone” (“Tell the Good News,” BH 2008, 360). Amen.
    Comments

    Acting in Line with the Truth

    Really, I wonder how many of us do that and how often?

    Well, yesterday, I received quite a blow. One of the sheep in our flock is having a lot of trouble right now. I believe that is all the specifics I want to give. Maybe at some point, I will give the details (and I will tell you why I can do that), maybe not. Who knows? My heart is still grieving.

    But this incident sparked a discussion among my mom and sister and I.

    We talked about how many folks sit in church for years, hearing the Bible preached and taught, and honestly, how little impact it actually seems to have. You just wonder what is really going on in the lives of the folks that are sitting there, and then, to take this further, what is happening with the others who are NOT there. This whole topic has been heavily on my mind and heart since yesterday. I’d like to make some comments about it.

    First, the truth of the parable of the soils in Matthew 13 keeps coming to mind. Most of the seed that the farmer tosses out—this translates to three of the four scenarios in Jesus’ parable—end up as a total waste. In the final analysis, these seeds produce nothing.

    In terms of percentages, how does this translate? Of course, this is purely speculative and subjective on my part, and I will talk about this in a moment, but if I had to break down the soil types, how would I do it?

    I’m certainly no expert, but I have had over twenty years of preaching to the same congregation. That ought to count for something, right? Not much, but something?

    One, “On the Path” People—10%
    Two, “Rocky Places” Folk—25%
    Three, “Thorny Ground” Congregants—50%
    Four, “Good Soil” Believers—15%

    There is some debate among the scholars as to exactly who the first three soils really are—believers or non-believers. I’m maybe a bit less dogmatic about this issue than I have been in the past, but I guess if you press me in a corner, I guess I would call soils one through three lost folks.

    Ultimately, if we don’t produce the fruit of Christ’s character, no matter how long it takes for this to come to light, we are lost. Right? That’s the bottom line, but I think it often takes years for this fully to come to light.

    I mean, people can sit in church for years, and they would give you every indication in the world that they love Jesus and are ardent followers, and yet, something happens and bang! They are gone and you never see them again.

    This happened with a family several years ago. It appeared that they got gloriously saved, and immediately, they were very prominent and active and enthusiastic. I went over to their house on a weekly basis to do some discipleship with them. At first, I was enthusiastically received. But over time, the reception cooled off. Soon, they were calling me to cancel our appointment.

    Then, they stopped coming to church altogether. Finally, they would not even return my calls. Poof. Gone. Were they genuinely saved?

    Well, this brings me to my second point in all of this. Let me start by answering the question I ask above: ONLY GOD GENUINELY KNOWS.

    I guess this is ultimately where I need to land. I can spout all the “wisdom” I think I have from over twenty years in the pastorate and all my trumped up stats, but the bottom line is that God alone knows.

    Therefore, what do I need to do in light of these two issues? Well, all I know is two things. First I need to continue to share the Word, and the more people I share with, the more the likelihood increases that some of that seed will fall on good soil. Right? It only makes sense. Whatever the statistics are, and I believe that they vary from church to church in the exact same town—they get “better” (if I can say it this way) when I simply increase the amount of seed I am throwing out there.

    Second, and I believe this is maybe even more important—I need to make sure I continue to allow the Spirit control over me so that I bear the fruit of His character. This is my number one priority. And when I do that, I’m on solid ground, no matter who responds or not to my preaching and ministry.

    This is what Paul did, and he confirms it as he continues to share his testimony in Galatians 2. Bold? Are you kidding me? Paul wrote the book on it. I mean this chapter is awesome! Here are arguably the two biggest heavy weights in the New Testament besides the Lord Jesus—Peter and Paul.

    They are together at a function that includes both Jews and Gentiles. Paul sees Peter acting in a way that is not in line with the truth, and he takes action: "When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’ We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified" (Galatians 2:14-16 NIV84).

    Paul rebukes Peter publicly in front of everyone! Are you kidding me? That takes courage and confidence and boldness, but it is significant that the story of this confrontation leads Paul into his discussion of the very nature of the gospel itself. We are justified, not by works, but by grace through faith.

    This removes all distinctions between believers, but it does more than that—it should give us total confidence to speak the brash truth and let the chips fall where they may.

    I tell you what: I know we could get more people in the pews in our church if I watered things down and compromised and preached sermonettes for Christianettes, but I refuse to do it—EVER.

    The seed is NOT the problem! It is the soil! We are the problem. And I personally have enough to do today to make sure as I work on my sermon for Sunday that I am, by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit who dwells in me, living out everything I am preaching. I have the choice each to day to prove what soil I am.

    Lord, I thank you for the truth of the Word and your mercy to me. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for allowing me to serve you. Thank you for your infinite patience with me.

    I have a tendency to try to figure who is who and what is what. I confess that to you today, Lord.

    I lift up this person in the flock who is having trouble. I also lift up the body as it seems that everyone is struggling. These are hard times.

    But Lord, today, I choose to focus on serving you and seeking you with all my heart. Me, myself, and I—my number one priority for the day. I think it will keep me busy.

    “Christ was born in a distant land,
    Tell the good news, tell the good news” (“Tell the Good News,” BH 2008, 360). Amen.
    Comments

    "Toxic Charity"

    Yesterday, Jim and I had a good conversation. He is the director of the organization that uses space in God’s building. I have mentioned it before. The name of the ministry is Community of Faith United (COFU). If you remember, I mentioned that their goal in ministering to people by giving them clothes and food is to help them become self-sufficient. Therefore, there is a computer lab where they can search for jobs so that they don’t have to keep coming back over and over.

    This ministry began several years ago because the mayors of Northglenn and Thornton realized that the churches in our communities were one of their greatest untapped resources. They saw the potential of government and the church working together—a novel concept, I know!

    One of the other motivations that propelled the start of COFU was this reality: oftentimes, people looking for “handouts” simply made the rounds from church to church to church with little or no accountability. There was no system to track who went where and how often.

    Thus, churches were feeling good about themselves, I guess, but they really weren’t helping anyone.

    This brings me to the point of what Jim and I were talking about yesterday—the whole concept of “toxic charity.” I hope I got that term correct. Apparently, it is the title of a new book that is out. I am going to scout it out and find it.

    The gist of the book is that much of our attempts at charity among Christians today is not only NOT helping folks, but also, it is enabling them to continue in a dependent lifestyle of attempting to live off charity.

    This is so true. Jim and I have talked about this many times. Churches feel they need to do something so they start a food bank and hand out food to people. This is commendable, I guess, and it makes them feel good about themselves, but what does it accomplish? It brings them back to the scenario we experienced in North Denver. It just enables folks to eat a meal before they go to some other charity for another handout.

    This is no good.

    Well, anyway, I was pondering all of this as Jim and his grandson left my office to head home.

    Immediately after this visit, Betty told me that a young woman had come by the church. She was rather desperate and wanted to talk with me.

    As Betty was telling me this, the young woman herself opened the office door. “Are you the pastor? Can I talk with you a moment?” She was probably no older than 25. She had some type of lip piercing jewelry and was very thin. Her name was Alex.

    Where we are located on a major thoroughfare (Washington Street) puts us in a position to have all kinds of folks either call or come by our church asking for help. Recently, our deacons and I decided that we just could not help all the people that came by (as a general rule). Thus, our benevolence fund is just for the needs of the members of our church. And, we find that there are plenty of needs to meet.

    Please understand: it isn’t that we don’t care about people, but we just felt that we weren’t really helping people by giving them handouts. We felt that the best way truly to help them was to encourage them to come to Jesus, become a part of a fellowship, and get comprehensive “help” that way.

    Membership in a local body is not some antiquated concept, in my opinion. It puts people (or should) in the position of folks in the early church in Jerusalem—they become a part of a true community where people share and share alike. I don’t like any intimation that the picture of the church in Acts 2 after Pentecost was an early example of communism. NO, NO, and NO!

    It is a true picture of what the church should be. This includes meeting practical needs. But I’ll tell you another thing: when we do that, we are careful to minister to the total person/family as well. I’ve seen people in our church refuse “handouts” to people and tell them, “You need to change your spending habits. I want to talk with you about financial stewardship.” Love it!

    To some, this may appear to be callous but I think it is an example of the true ministry that should go on in the church.

    Of course, at other times, we help people just because, for one reason or another, they need it, but even then, it is NOT a continuous thing.

    Well, anyway, back to the young woman I visited with yesterday. Her name was Alex. We sat in my office. She said, “Pastor, I am pregnant. My husband and I have been looking for work, but we just can’t find any, so we are living on the street. It has been really cold the past couple of nights. We are believers. Would there by any way you could help us with a place to stay for one night as we continue to look for work?”

    Okay—in spite of all I just said, what do you think I did?

    I called a couple of our deacons to touch base with them because it is their responsibility to make these decisions. Jim said, “Well, Pastor, I hate to see people living on the street when it is so cold. Do what you feel led to do.”

    I felt led to go down the street to a hotel we normally use for this type of thing and pay for one room for the night for Alex and her husband. She was so grateful when I told her we would help her. I said, “Alex, can I take you and your husband? Where is he? He is just down the street talking to a friend at his house. This friend can’t keep us for the night, but I will walk there, tell my husband, and the friend can drive us to the hotel. Thanks so much!”

    Okay, was her story legit? Even as I type those words, I wonder, just to be honest. My actions could have been another example of “toxic charity.” Who knows? But the one thing I don’t wonder about is the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I felt that the Spirit was leading me to help her.

    And, in spite of everything and the whole concept of “toxic charity,” the Lord brought me back to the bottom line of all ministry: it is always a risk! We must do the best job we can (and that means establishing procedures and policy for charity—I know we are on a good track), but the ultimate “policy” is to follow God, hand out cups of cold water in Jesus’ name, and leave the results up to God.

    We must learn to look at people as the Lord looks at them. This is an important lesson to learn from Galatians 2. This is sort of the flip side of all I have been talking about. Paul—at that time the young apostle who was just starting out—had a meeting with Peter and all the “big wigs” of the early church. Was he intimidated? Ha, NO. Was he overly impressed? No.

    These verses reflect this. Notice what he says: "As for those who seemed to be important–whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance–those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do" (Galatians 2:6-10 NIV84).

    “Those reputed to be pillars”—I always laugh when I read that phrase. Are you kidding?

    If our faith is not dependent on our efforts, then, as the saying goes, “the ground is level at the cross.”

    Whether it is Alex and the Apostle Peter—we are all the same to God.

    Lord, I thank you for the charity you extend to me every second of my life—mercy, love, grace, food, shelter, clothing, a job, a family, and a church family. The list goes on and on.

    Guide us as we genuine try to help people and give them real help. But we know that you are the author of real help. Show us, with every person, what we need to do.

    I pray for Alex and her husband to find work and a church family.

    “At the end of broken dreams,
    He’s the open door” (‘People Need the Lord,” BH 2008, 359). Amen.
    Comments

    Spies

    Last night, I met with some folks who are on our Budget and Finance Team. We had a good meeting and discussion. Our job was to put the finishing touches on a Budget proposal that we will share with the church on Sunday in a special business meeting after church.

    It should be interesting. I expect some lively discussion, as we always seem to have when we present the budget.

    I expect it to be even more “livelier” this coming Sunday. Why?

    Well, we are going to present a budget that shows a significant increase over last year. The reason for this is that we are looking to call a couple of new staff members. I don’t want to elaborate on this right now. I’ll just leave it at that.

    I looked at the folks who were in the meeting last night and said something like this, “Are you folks okay with this? I need to know right now. We need to come to an agreement and then stick together as a team on this.” I looked at each person, “Are you okay?” I went around the table.

    I did this because I have been burned way too many times. I’ve sat in a committee meeting. We have discussed some controversial items. We came to a consensus decision or so I thought. And then, when it came to the congregational meeting when the proposal was shared or in private conversations in and around the decision, people have defected. “Well, I know what we talked about, but I was never in agreement with that decision.”

    I have had just about enough of that type of thing. That’s why I was adamant last night.

    Everyone agreed. One member of the team responded, “Well, John, this is going to require faith and haven’t you told us in sermons that when it comes to finances, we need to trust God?”

    Gulp. Well, yes. It always is a slap in the face when my sermons come back at me. But she is right. Amen.

    Please pray for us as a church. I know we are not unique in our situation. In fact, what I am going to say is true about every single congregation on the planet and it becomes more crystal clear each year I am in the pastorate. The life and health of a church is a tissue paper house (more delicate than a house of cards). It has to be one of the most tenuous entities there is.

    I’ve seen congregations turn and almost overnight, start to grow at an astronomical rate. While others I have seen crumble and collapse just as fast.

    I was really encouraged that the groups of folks sitting around that table last night are seeing the urgency of things. In effect, this budget is a swing for the fences, and if we don’t allow the Lord to use us to hit one out of the park, I can’t see the church surviving very long.

    Is that dramatic enough? I know God sees the whole picture. He is in charge of His church.

    And here is the thing about all of this. As I sit here this morning, I’m not nervous and not scared. The other night, I felt a leading from the Holy Spirit just to voice this prayer to the Father: “Lord, you have called me to be the “sheep dog” of this congregation. I am leading this church to step out in faith. If I am wrong or way off base—please show me. Please. If I don’t hear from you to the contrary, I’m going to keep forging ahead.”

    All I felt that night was peace. Okey dokey. Katy, bar the door!

    This is the kind of life that the Apostle Paul led—a life of total abandonment in faith and trust to His new Boss, the Lord Jesus Christ, but from the beginning, he faced opposition from a determined enemy.

    Who was that enemy? The devil? Yes, of course. Government officials and “pagans”? Well, yes. But his main enemies were religious folks. Their technical name was the “Judaizers.” In the passage today, he calls them “spies.”

    These opponents were zealous Jews who advocated circumcision as a necessity for Christians. They dogged Paul wherever he went, attacking his ministry and message of freedom in Christ.

    He accommodated them to some degree as he states in Galatians chapter two: Titus, the Greek traveling companion of Paul and his emissary, was circumcised. But, as is the case with all legalists (they keep raising the bar), that didn’t seem to satisfy them.

    Paul makes this comment about all of this: "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (Galatians 2:4, 5 NIV84).

    Paul saw how crucial his stance on the freedom of the gospel was: to give in would have compromised his message and shut things down as far as his missionary ministry was concerned forever.

    I guess how all of this hits me this morning is that I want to follow Jesus and lead the congregation I serve to do the same. The Christian life is an adventure of faith—it is at the core of God’s plan of salvation and the stewardship of the gospel message we are called to share.

    Legalism is a cop-out. It is a box of specified activities and parameters built on this logic: if I do x, y, and z, I will please God.

    The Christian life is built on faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). We step out in total dependence on Him for a life of obedience. Every step requires faith. Every single one.

    The woman on the team reminded me of this last night. “Physician, heal yourself,” as the biblical expression goes.

    Lord, I thank you for another opportunity to trust you. This church and the money in our bank account—every penny of it—belong first and foremost to You. It is yours. We are yours. Do with us, as you will.

    “When will we realize people need the Lord?” (“People Need the Lord,” BH 2008, 359). Amen.
    Comments

    Even Before I Was Born

    This past Sunday, I preached from the first chapter of John. It is significant that, in this gospel, John is the only one of the gospel writers that actually starts the story of Jesus from the REAL beginning. “In the beginning was the Word” is the way he starts.

    Now of course, God has no beginning. He has always been and always will be, but Genesis 1:1 and onward tells how the universe and this planet and everything that is alive came to be.

    I demonstrated that Genesis one always makes clear that the God who spoke everything into existence is one God revealed in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 2 and 26 in chapter one, and you will see this.

    But back to the point—Jesus as the Eternal Logos (the Greek word for “word”), has always been, but in the manger at Bethlehem God “tabernacled” His Son in human flesh. In short, Jesus’ human birth was not technically a beginning; it was a continuation of His life.

    I am reminded of all of this as I continue to read the first chapter of Galatians this morning. Paul has already said that he is not in the “people-pleasing” business as a servant of God. In addition, he did not receive his message from man. And, as he continues to give His testimony, he asserts that his salvation and call to ministry and early influence in ministry were totally independent of man.

    Notice these words: "But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus" (Galatians 1:15-17 NLT).

    “But even before I was born,” Paul asserts, “God was at work in my life.” Amazing statement.

    So, let me sum up. We believe in a Savior who was alive before He was actually born. We read about God’s call on the greatest missionary in the history of the Christian church before he was born.

    Here is my burden: how can any Christian vote for anyone who is a proponent of abortion? It is unconscionable to me.

    I wonder how many future pastors and preachers and missionaries have been murdered even before they were born? Even if it has been just a handful (and who knows?), it is still tragic.

    I have a perspective on the morality of our culture that causes me grave concern. We have many Christian teenagers who are already sexually active, and inevitably, pregnancies occur.

    In one such situation, the young man involved was fifteen! And his girlfriend was about the same age.

    So, she gets pregnant, and what happens at that point? This is a young girl who is still living at home with her parents and a young man in the same boat. What do they do?

    Well, do I even have to say? Most will just abort the child. And, here is something that I NEVER hear anything about in all the discussions. What about the aftermath of THAT decision? There was a woman in our fellowship that had had an abortion and to this day, she has NEVER gotten over it. It haunts her every day of her life. I can’t imagine. She cries every time she mentions it.

    But back to the scenario: at the time, you have two teens who aren’t mature enough to take care of themselves yet, and they have parents who don’t want to deal with a baby, so they just decide to abort this person. Supposedly, it is quick and easy. (Of course, this is a lie also). It is all such a huge farce and lie.

    Back to the two fifteen year olds—the girl decided to go ahead and have the baby and keep the baby. Her parents supported her in that decision and were willing to help.

    I talked with the young man, and I said, “Adult decisions require adult responsibilities. If you are going to be sexually active and your girlfriend gets pregnant, guess what? You are now a parent and you will be for the rest of your life. Man up!”

    So far, this young man has, even though he and this girl are not dating and not seeing each other all that much. He still tries to have contact with his child. His parents are encouraging this. They were heartbroken over all of this.

    When the Lord brings this situation to mind, I still pray for these two families. Of course, these circumstances are not ideal, but I think that they have handled this whole thing really well, especially when you consider how most deal with it.

    Certainly, I am an advocate for women’s rights, as I am as a believer for equal rights for every human being. But if we are going to get into that discussion, we need to make sure we are talking about EVERY HUMAN being, including and especially the rights of the UNBORN.

    I was talking with Bob a few weeks ago. He is the Director of Missions for the Mile High Baptist Association. He is a doctor—an MD—as well. I don’t know if this has been his experience or someone else’s, but he told about an instance where he (or someone else, and again I don’t know how this happened exactly) held a one-inch fetus in his hand. That little life is as much a person as I am.

    I just don’t see how anyone can do it.

    Oh, Lord, I thank you that you and you alone are Lord of life and death. I thank you for your plan and purpose for me before the foundation of the earth. Thank you for my parents who were married and had me and raised me in a stable home.

    I again pray for these two families and that little baby.

    God, have mercy on us as a nation. More babies will be killed today. How on earth can we tolerate this mass murder?

    “Love reaches out to all to bring abundant life,
    For God so loved the world His only Son He gave” (“Share His Love,” BH 2008, 358). Amen.
    Comments

    The Cure for People Pleasers

    If you have read this blog any length of time, you can readily see that I am a chronic people-pleaser.

    Over the years, this has cost me greatly in terms of health and emotional wellbeing.

    For example, my French teacher all the way from fourth grade through ninth grade was Madame Guiberteau. I had her for French every year except one (and I can’t remember which one it was) through those years. She was the epitome of a slave driver and a drill sergeant. Every week, on Fridays, through those years we had a French test.

    And I remember studying hours for that test. I would often study late into the night on Thursday and get up at 4:00 AM on Friday morning to study some more. I took this approach especially through Junior High School.

    Even as I write this, it makes me a little uncomfortable. It was just way over the top, but I was motivated to do well in the class (for some reason) and a part of that was to please her.

    Jump forward a few years to High School. Prior to my senior year, I ran for Student Body President. Please don’t be impressed. No one really ran against me except a very popular guy named Tad. Back in second grade, Tad and I were buddies, but by the time we reached our junior year in High School, our lives had taken radically different roads.

    Tad was in the “cool” crowd. Being cool back then involved large amounts of alcohol and some drug use. And everyone knew that. Thus, even back then in our high school, most folks realized that the nerdy studious type was probably going to make a better president than a drug addict (maybe that overstates the case a bit. Well, maybe not …).

    Well, I was elected and was introduced first hand to politics and what it took to keep all the competing factions of students at our school sort of happy. It wore me out. I tried to do it. But I never quite succeeded.

    Fast forward to the Fall of 1989 and my start as pastor of First Southern. Frankly, it took me several months to get over the fact that someone, somewhere, wanted me to be their pastor, and I was determined not to let anyone down AND I wanted to prove to everyone that a Single Adult man was not a loser but could in fact be an even better pastor since I had no family (I often said this back then; I wonder how it made my mom and sis feel) and I was available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

    When I started, we had a significantly large number of seniors, and I strived to keep them happy, but when we started reaching younger folks, I realized that this often presented me with two very conflicting agendas.

    It was one thing to try to keep Madame Guiberteau happy by studying 15 to 20 hours per week for a weekly French test. It was another thing to try to keep very different factions of high school students relatively happy, but this was the grand daddy of all challenges—how to keep people happy in a local Southern Baptist Church.

    What compounded all of this for me was that we voted on absolutely everything, and Business Meetings proved to be two to three hour marathons where people would stand up and challenge each other. Even special meetings back in the early days proved to be rather contentious at times.

    One of our deacons verbally attacked me in front of the whole church. This was a man with whom I had spent a lot of time. He was a rather contentious sort, and I had made many efforts to placate him. But he spoke out against me in a service. And, I remember this quite vividly. The only thing I could do was just break down and cry. I just couldn’t control it. Another man in our church saw me weeping (as much as I was trying to hide it) and came up to the front pew to sit near me and put his arm around me. He then called other men to pray for me. He was a real friend, AT FIRST.

    We spent hours and hours together.

    But, even he, several years later, turned against me and left the church.

    Before I go further, I’m not sharing this for anyone to feel sorry for me. Please understand. It just goes with the ministry. There are other pastors and servants of the Lord who have had far worse to deal with.

    The reason I am sharing these stories is to talk about how the Lord deals with people pleasers like me. Have you picked up on it yet?

    Here is what I am learning: the Lord just keeps allowing the efforts of people pleasers to fail miserably! In other words, the more one tries to keep people happy, the more one fails. It is just absolutely impossible!

    And, I believe that at the time a people pleaser realizes this—it is the beginning of his/her liberation from the effort.

    But it is very easy to be cavalier about this. I’ve gotten advice from people all through the years in a very condescending way. “John, you can’t please everyone.” Whatever.

    We can dress it up and make it sound spiritual but the truth is: if you are not some type of people pleaser, you won’t have a job very long as a pastor. At least this is so in the church tradition of which I am a part. You can be fired at the drop of a hat. I’ve seen it over and over.

    But here is where I am: I would rather please God and be fired than (try) to please everyone and not please God.

    Is it wrong to say that the longer I go on in the ministry, the less I care to try? I just don’t have the energy any longer. Maybe that is good …

    Is this brokenness? I’m just asking. I don’t know for sure.

    So, this brings me to Paul’s statement in Galatians 1:10. I quoted it yesterday. I cite it again today along with the verses that follow: "Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning. I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:10-12 NLT).

    “If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” Wow. What a statement! Eventually as a leader, as a pastor, and as a believer, you have to follow God and let the chips fall where they may, to use an old expression.

    Paul is establishing the fact that ultimately, his ministry and his message do not depend on others. They depend and he depends TOTALLY ON THE LORD.

    This is a stark truth. But reaching this point, getting there on an emotional level in one’s gut, one’s heart of hearts, is still a process. You have to be dead NOT to be bothered when people are not happy. I’m sorry. Even those who lecture me with sanctimonious tones are affected, in spite of what they say.

    Oh, Lord, this is a critical lesson and I need your help NOW, TODAY.

    Thanks for getting Rick through his chemo. Thanks for using Steve in worship yesterday. Thanks for the great response to the book signing yesterday (more about this later).

    Today, Jesus, I choose to please you and you alone. Help me with this, in my gut.

    “The love of God is broader than earth’s vast expanse” (“Share His Love,” BH 2008, 358). Amen.
    Comments

    The "Official" Launch of My Book

    It is weird to put it that way, but I guess it is true. Finally.

    This morning, after the morning service at First Southern, I am going to have a “book signing party.” That is what I have called it. As I sit here right now, it dawns on me that maybe I should have provided some type of refreshment or food for people or something, but that probably isn’t necessary. I will find out, I suppose. Ha.

    People will be on their way out the door. I plan just to have it in the auditorium at church. That way, people can just remain in their seats as the vast majority of other folks leave, and then I can sign some books.

    I really have no idea how many are going to purchase a book. Some have already bought the “E-book” version. I was encouraged to hear this.

    Well, I want to include this morning in this blog the letter I hope to put in every book I sell. This gives the fullest explanation of things as far as the places where the book is available, what I plan to do with the proceeds, and how I am asking people to help.

    Here it is:

    “Dear Gracious Buyer,

    Thank you so much. You are a part of this book.

    It seems as if it has taken forever to get this book out. In some ways, I don’t want to talk about cancer. In other ways, I feel I must.

    This is not about making a lot of money and getting to number one on the New York Times bestseller list—ha. This is about doing what the Lord led me to do when I started the blog in Caring Bridge—using cancer as a platform for telling people about what the Lord can do when we depend on Him and on the community of God’s people—you! You are part of this testimony!

    As a result, I feel the urgent necessity to sell as many books as possible. I’m praying about how to get this message out. If you think of anything, please let me know.

    This book is available in three forms: hardcover for $35.99; softcover for $19.99; and as an ebook for $3.99. As I told the congregation I serve, the cost of this book is rather pricey, I think, but Westbow Press determines these things. I tried to get them to lower the price, but they would not do it.

    This book is “self published.” This is a little different than conventional publishers. I can’t point people to a bookstore (yet!). I have to buy every book I sell in person FIRST. So, anyone who wants a copy should contact me. I will accept cash or check, and if it is in person, I can even do a credit card! I should have a good supply of books on hand.

    But the other way to do it is through three sources:


      For everyone who buys a copy of my book, I will make a donation to one of three places:


        If there is any way I can minister to anyone, but particularly people who have cancer themselves or have a loved one with the disease, please know I am glad to do it.

        I am also looking for folks who would be willing to purchase multiple copies so that I can give them away to cancer patients.

        Thanks for praying for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

        In Jesus, John”

        There you have it. I truly believe that the Lord has given me a message to share from the platform of cancer, and I’m excited to see how the Lord is going to use it.

        Oh, and let me say this: the best way to buy this book is from me. A consultant at Westbow Press told me that Amazon and Barnes and Noble do take a rather sizable percentage of the sale price of the book for their fee. This is fine, but I just want to be able to make contributions to the above three entities—all of which have helped me out greatly.

        Well, on to the passage for today. Galatians is an exception to the rule when it comes to the initial parts of Paul’s letter. Usually, he spends some time either commending or praying for the congregation to whom the letter is sent (Philippians and Colossians, for example) or praising God (Ephesians). But not in this letter.

        He jumps right into the deep end of the pond. He expresses his dismay at the folks in Galatia because they have apparently deserted the gospel.

        Then, he turns his sights on those who preach:
        "Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant" (Galatians 1:8-10 NLT).

        This is as severe language as one will find in all the New Testament, and Paul repeats this “curse” twice. Ominous.

        As I prepare to preach a sermon today, this stern warning weighs on me. I am more aware than ever of all the forces that tug and pull at any preacher in our day and time. This season of the year is a case in point.

        People, especially people in church, are busy, busy, busy. Of course, churches play right into this and contribute to busy-ness. Our schedule is chuck full for the next couple of weeks. Why does this always occur? I wish I had the answer.

        But back to the service and to preaching—the temptation is just to back off this time of year and preach little sermonettes for Christianettes, as the saying goes.

        I usually preach some type of Christmas series this time of year and each year, the challenge seems more difficult to come up with a different way of presenting the Christmas story. A few years ago, as I was struggling with this, I felt as if the Lord rebuked me: “Son, you don’t have to try to spruce up My Story—just tell it and let me take it from there.”

        Yes, Lord. Amen.

        All of this amplifies exactly what Paul is talking about. The message tends to get watered down whenever pastors try to make it entertaining to the Christmas crowd or try to accommodate the season. Forget that.

        I am preaching on the Incarnation of Jesus from John 1:1-14 this morning. You can’t get more heavy-duty than that. But I can hardly wait. I love this chapter.

        Oh, Lord, I thank you for the true and simple and straightforward gospel. It needs no embellishment or ornamentation. It is the powerful truth.

        May I never even attempt to change it in any way, shape, or form—no matter what the pressure or the season.

        May I NEVER preach to please men.

        It is all for you—the sermon, the book—spoken or written—it is all your message and may the message get OUT.

        I pray for safety for Steve and Beverly and Stephenie as they drive to church this morning from Castle Rock. In fact, keep everyone safe as they drive in the snow this morning.

        I pray for Rick in his final day of chemo on this round. I lift up all my pastor friends and every preacher of your Word today. Help all of us to preach, as my mom frequently says, “the pure and unadulterated Word of God.” Amen.
        Comments

        Hurts in Ministry

        This is one of those days and times when I feel the need to allude to something but I can’t really go into detail.

        As you can tell, those of you who read this blog (and again, I’m so grateful for everyone who takes the time to do this), my natural bent is just to be transparent. I don’t know why or where I attained this tendency. I guess it was from my family. We have always had the rule in our family to “spit it out.” We can tell when something is bothering someone and so, the precursor to the above statement is something like this: “Okay, John, something is bothering you. We can tell. Spit it out.”

        I really appreciate that. I believe it is the essence of what a family should be—a “blood” family but also a “blood of Jesus” family. Don’t you think?

        Anyway, having said all of that, I do believe there are limits on that. I never want this blog to be a place where I vent stuff that is best handled in one-on-one face-to-face as the Bible instructs us in Matthew 18.

        Therefore, I am not going to go into detail here, but I am going to talk about the results of hurtful stuff in relationships.

        Here is what I have found: oftentimes, the folks with whom I have had the closest relationships over the years have hurt me the most.

        I guess there are obvious reasons for this, of course, but I still struggle to figure out why this happens.

        In my ideal world, I would think that the closer you are to someone, the more likely it would be that, if there were some sort of “issue” that develops, either party would handle that in the right way.

        More often than not, this does not happen. Why?

        Before I go further, I don’t want any of this to sound as if I am always the martyr and the victim in these types of things. Certainly, I have not handled things well a lot of times—more than I care to remember as a matter of fact. This is a two-way street.

        Back to the topic, I struggle with hurts in relationships. And, right or wrong, good bad, they have affected me over the years. I am certainly not as ready and willing to be transparent and vulnerable as I have in the past. I don’t trust people as readily.

        Let me stop right there. Humm. I’m struggling with making another statement. I will make it, but please know that I am praying about this. Okay, ready? I don’t trust people AT ALL.

        Now, when I say “people,” what do I mean? Everyone? No. There are some people I trust, but it is a very small number.

        Is this right? I don’t know. Again, I need to pray about it. But it is where I am right now.

        Now, I know the “Sunday school” answer to this (and I am not downing Sunday school). “John, you need to learn to trust others. It only hurts you. Et cetera.” I get all of that.

        But here is what I have learned: ultimately and finally, the Lord Jesus Christ is the only person in whom I can place total and absolute trust. He is the only person.

        Everyone else, everyone, will let me down. And I would say this to everyone in the church: “Don’t place your trust in me or any pastor or preacher or teacher or leader (isn’t that the basis of cults? Oh, and don’t drink Kool-Aid!). Trust God.”

        Therefore, here is my conclusion in all of this: somewhere between trusting absolutely everyone and trusting no human being except God is where I need to be. Please pray for me.

        In the meantime (and now, I am speaking as a pastor), I am struggling with hurts in ministry. I know all the pastors who are reading this understand.

        It is very difficult to separate deep friendships from church involvement and commitment. I know there is a line there, I guess, but I have a hard time making that distinction. Again, I am just being honest. This is why it is so difficult when someone leaves to maintain the relationship.

        As pastors, we first have the opportunity to meet people because they show up at the church and join it. The friendship develops out of this initial contact. So, how does one separate those two relationships—pastor/church family and friends? If someone can tell me how to do that, please let me know.

        Anyway, these separations and hurts tend to accumulate over the years. Ask any pastor, and he will say the same thing. It tends to be very discouraging.

        Oh, well. I think I have beaten that horse enough, don’t you? It just goes with the territory. That’s just the way it is.

        Here is the verse that the Lord gave me this morning. I’ve finished Ezekiel and now I am back in the New Testament. This is the first verse of the book I am starting to read: "This letter is from Paul, an apostle. I was not appointed by any group of people or any human authority, but by Jesus Christ himself and by God the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead" (Galatians 1:1 NLT).

        How about that? Even though I minister to people, my calling is not dependent on them, per se. It is the Lord who has called me and I serve at His behest.

        Oh, Lord, I thank you for the call and the appointment to this task of serving this church as pastor. I certainly would not have chosen this profession, but it isn’t about my choice. It is about Yours. And, therefore, woe is me if I preach not the gospel.

        What people decide to do about their church and pastor is up to them. Today, I choose to keep my hand to the plow and my eyes firmly fixed on you.

        As far as my trust issues are concerned, help me with them, Lord. I need your help today.

        I continue to pray for Rick as he is getting ready for chemo day #3. Give him the grace the strength to go through another day.

        I lift up tomorrow to you. I pray for the Launch Party for the book. Get the message out, Lord. I’m dependent on you to do this.

        I love you.

        “Christ the head an cornerstone,
        Chosen of the Lord and precious,
        Binding all the Church in one” (“Christ is Made the Sure Foundation,” BH 2008, 354). Amen.
        Comments

        A Problem with My Port Or ...

        With Rick very heavily on my mind and heart, I headed south to my appointment yesterday at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center. As you remember, I forgot my appointment on Monday. Thus, I had to reschedule when the doctor could fit me in. Apparently, he is real busy prior to the Christmas holiday. After that, he leaves town for several days before the New Year.

        Anyway, I don’t remember EVER going to the center in the afternoon. My appointments have always been in the morning.

        Wow—was it ever packed out and extremely busy! And, there were two new gals behind the front desk and a new nurse who weighed me and checked me out before Jean accessed my port. I asked the new nurse about Alison. She said, “Oh, Alison has left. She is gone. She may come back every now and again, but she left a couple of weeks ago. I only got to know her for three weeks because I haven’t been here that long either.”

        Christy, the other woman at the front desk, was actually in the back. We greeted one another but I could tell she was very occupied, trying to help another new employee get acclimated.

        After getting weighed (I will talk about where I am with all of that someday soon) and having my other vitals checked, the new nurse took me into the room where Jean and Connie and others take blood. Jean greeted me. I really like her. She is older than most of the other nurses, but she is probably the most out-spoken and friendly of the group.

        As she was working on me, her facial expression changed to one of concern. “Hum, John, you are causing me some trouble this afternoon!” She “stuck” the needle with the syringe into the port in my chest, and what usually happens is that the nurses push saline solution in and after that, pull blood out. I’m still amazed at the technology that allows both to happen out of the same opening.

        Well, yesterday, Mission Control, there was a problem. Jean could not get any blood to come out. She took me into a waiting room, had my lie down, and it still didn’t work.

        She said, “Well, John, this may take awhile. Do you have time this afternoon or do you need to come back?”

        “I’m here now,” I replied. “I’d like to get it taken care of today.”

        But first, I had to see the doctor. As always, Dr. Jotte was upbeat. He said, “You are doing great, but John again, with these low-grade cancers, you are probably going to see it come back. I have a patient that was doing really well, just like you are, and she went for years. Then, all of a sudden, we found a small area on one of her scans, and we just said we are going to monitor it.”

        I was prepared to give a response to this because I have prayed about it. Every time he tells me this, just to be honest, it knocks me off my perch a bit, but here was my reply: “Thanks for telling me this, Dr. Jotte. I realize that this is a real possibility, and I am ready. But the longer I go without a reoccurrence, the better, right?”

        “Oh, yes, absolutely!”

        I wasn’t done. I asked him a couple of questions related to some of the stuff I have heard about what Rick is going through (I didn’t mention him by name of course). I noticed at that point that the doctor got kind of nervous. He answered my questions, but I could tell he did not want to go there. I can certainly understand it.

        After I left my consult with the doctor, I headed to the chemo room to get this port “issue” taken care of. The chemo area was packed out. Many more people were in there than I have EVER seen. I was surprised that I could find a seat.

        Another new nurse, whom I have never seen before, greeted me. Her name was Karen. When I told her what was going on, she immediately responded, “John, this happens on occasion. Sometimes your body starts to grow back ______ (I can’t remember the exact term she used) that covers this opening, but we can fix that.” She inserted some special medicine in the syringe attached to my port and said it would take about a half an hour.

        After a half an hour, still nothing. Karen took me to one of the beds in the corner and had me lie down. Still nothing. At that point, she called Diane over. They were very perplexed. Finally, Karen said, “Well, John, I guess we will just take it out for today. You will have to come back on Friday before your next treatment six weeks in the future and we will have to work on it.”

        She then pulled the needle out, and I noticed her expression changed. She called Diane over again. Both looked at the place where the needle had been. “John, if you don’t mind, I think I will put this in again.” She poked me again, flushed out the port, and when she pulled the syringe—voila! Blood came out!

        Karen and Diane were jubilant. So was I. Apparently, Jean had just not put the needle in the right place on my port.

        Karen apologized profusely. I answered, “You mean, you guys are human?” Really none of this bothered me yesterday. Why?

        I just kept thinking about all that Rick was going through. He started his chemo regimen yesterday, and I remember how I felt my first day of chemo. No one knows how scary and ominous this is until you have to go through it.

        This ordeal with the port is miniscule compared to that.

        But all of this is a drop in the bucket in light of eternity. The final chapter of Ezekiel is a reminder of this. After describing the dimensions of the New Land and what tribe will leave where and a brief discussion of where the gates will be located, here is the final verse of this fantastic book: "The distance around the entire city will be 6 miles. And from that day the name of the city will be ‘The Lord Is There’” (Ezekiel 48:35 NLT).

        The Lord is There. Bring it on, Jesus. Bring it on. Come Lord Jesus. “What if it were Today?” Amen.
        Comments

        Zealots and Foreigners

        Marilyn who is still sick (she felt worse yesterday) keeps me up to speed on Rick’s communications on Facebook.

        She sent me a couple, but since then, Rick has shared two more messages. Here is the first: “We're in our room now and resting. I was shocked at my reversal from feeling great last night to feeling like I was walking in the valley of the shadow. At times all I could say was God help me.

        It was a tough day for Jonann. She had to draw fluid off my lung early this morning. It exhausted her. But she's stood strong while I couldn't leave a wheelchair today.

        Pray that we both will have a good night of rest. Pray that the buildup of fluid will diminish. Pray the chemo will work. Great side effect is nausea (me and Kate Middleton). Pray for strength when we both feel so weak.

        Here is the most recent: Now that my great church knows, I'm at stage 4. Yet, I remember Al Mohlers prayer for me. He said god has the final word, not charts and probabilities. How true. A man in Sulphur, la has lived 7 years though he was stage 4 melanoma.

        Thanks for every prayer and every message. It makes me very humble. Some of my old students have reached out. I remember each one of you.

        Lately, the Spirit has led me over and over to Isaiah 54. God removes the curse and provides a covenant of peace and blessing. My hope is God is Trying to tell me something.

        I love each of you.”

        I have to go to the cancer doctor today (to make up for the appointment I FORGOT on Monday). I feel good and have every anticipation that things are still going well for me, but it is extremely difficult to think about all that Rick is going through. It will be hard not to think of him all day long. I do want to call him, but I just don’t feel that he needs phone calls now—from me or from anyone else. All I do is just write a brief message to him as often as I can on Facebook.

        These notes compel me to pray for Jonann as well. I can’t imagine how hard all of this is on her. Can’t fathom.

        I have to take a second right now …

        Okay, I’m back.

        Last night, I taught the folks about “Inter-Testamental History” as the foundational study for our discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I know. This topic probably does not elicit a lot of enthusiasm from the average Christian, but I will tell you: it should. There are so many things that occurred during these years when the prophetic voice was silent that have influenced the life and times of Jesus and Christians in the New Testament.

        Here is a list of some of those things: the emergence of the synagogue, scribes, Sanhedrin, the Septuagint, Chanukah (we tend to spell it and pronounce it without the C), the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and last but not least, a group of Jewish Zealots called the Essenes.

        Most scholars are in agreement that these were the folks who lived in Qumran, the community by the Dead Sea near the caves in this barren Judean countryside where all the scrolls were discovered. Why did they live there? Why did they hide hundreds and hundreds of scrolls there (not just biblical documents but other types of literature)?

        Well, the short answer is that they believed that the end of the world was coming soon. Rome was emerging as a world power and they rightly predicted that no doubt, these pagans would destroy their city and temple (of course, they were right).

        As a result, they took pains to hide what was most valuable to them—the Word of God and their other important documents. These actions preserved these scrolls in a perfect environment for hundreds of years so that they could be discovered beginning in 1947.

        Two things about all of this that are striking. First, I asked this question last night: if we knew that a growing world enemy was getting ready to attack and demolish our nation, what would we do? What would we take pains to preserve? A Coke can? A picture of Michael Jordan? A ’65 Mustang?

        The Essenes chose the best thing—God’s Word.

        Second, through these Jewish Zealots, God preserved His Word. One of the main scrolls that was discovered almost in its entirety was the book of Isaiah. It lasted so that Rick could derive comfort from it as he battles cancer in a hospital in Houston, Texas in 2012.

        Isn’t the Lord awesome?

        I’m glad that He allows Gentile dogs like us—“foreigners”—to have a parcel in His allotted land for eternity:
        "Divide the land within these boundaries among the tribes of Israel. Distribute the land as an allotment for yourselves and for the foreigners who have joined you and are raising their families among you. They will be like native-born Israelites to you and will receive an allotment among the tribes. These foreigners are to be given land within the territory of the tribe with whom they now live. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!" (Ezekiel 47:21-23 NLT)

        O Lord, my heart goes out to Rick and Jonann and their family and the church. I lift them up to you today. I do pray for healing for Rick. I ask you to give him an ear to hear what you are teaching him.

        Lord, thank you for helping me thus far. Who knows what the future holds—for any of us? But I thank you for today.

        I pray that I would preserve your Word by storing it in my heart and sharing it with everyone I meet. I pray for an opportunity to share it at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center today.

        I love you, Jesus.

        “I know not when my Lord may come,
        At night or noonday fair;
        Nor if I’ll walk the vale (a footnote here says Valley of Death) with Him,
        Or, meet Him in the air”

        Either way, Lord. Either way.

        (“I Know Whom I Have Believed,” BH 2008, 353). Amen.
        Comments

        Healing Leaves

        One of the most incredible descriptions in the final chapters of Ezekiel has to be the river that flows out of the New Temple. Ezekiel’s heavenly escort along with his tape measure appears again.

        The angel measures the depth of the water at the source and then they go a little further, and he measures again. The depth of this amazing river increases the farther out they go.

        Then, the perspective switches to the riverbank. And along this amazing river are trees growing on both sides. This abundant life infiltrates areas that were previously known as being quiet barren. One such place is the Dead Sea.

        This area is on my mind as I begin a study tonight about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Is there a more desolate or barren landscape anywhere on the planet that can compare with the terrain in and around the Dead Sea?

        Well, when this river flows, it will change the waters of that famous sea of salt to fresh waters teaming with life. And along with this radical transformation, fisherman will stand on its shores just as they do other famous bodies of fresh water such as the Mediterranean Sea.

        Can you think of a more vivid and detailed description of the New Earth than this?

        This description comes back to the trees along the banks of this amazing river of life. Here is the verse that captured my attention: "Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12 NLT).

        Always in season. Always fruit-bearing. Sustained forever by the water that flows from underneath the temple. The fruit for food. The leaves for healing.

        Healing leaves! How does that work? My imagination comes to its limit at this point. Healing will be prevalent. Healing will be abundant. It will be constantly accessible to all the inhabitants of this New Earth.

        As I was reading this passage in Ezekiel, the Spirit took me to a similar description in the final chapter of the Bible—Revelation 22: "Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations" (Revelation 22:1, 2 NLT).

        In Revelation, the river flows from the throne of God and from the Lamb, but the result is very similar to that of Ezekiel 47. Life, perpetual life, springs up wherever this river flows. These trees bear fruit, never out of season, for all twelve months of the year. AND, once again, “the leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”

        I’ll tell you—this is so reassuring. I’m glad we won’t have to deal with disease in heaven.

        Yesterday, I was shocked to get a message from Dr. Jotte’s office. I missed the call, but Cathy from the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center called. Get this: I FORGOT MY APPOINTMENT WITH THE DOCTOR ON MONDAY! I still can’t believe I did that! I’m glad I didn’t forget a treatment or something like that. It is a routine check-up, but still … They rescheduled me for Thursday.

        But what does that tell you?

        I’m getting ready for this Book Signing Party at church this coming Sunday. This is a book about what the Lord has taught me through my cancer experiences, and yet, I forget an appointment with the oncologist! Go figure.

        I still have to deal with cancer, even though I forget to. Ha.

        I still have to deal with cancer as I think about Rick and what he is going through.

        I still have to deal with cancer as I hear about others such as Mike Toby who is seriously ill.

        I am no exception. All of us are in this boat.

        Yesterday, Marilyn got sick. A virus hit her hard in the afternoon. We still have to deal with sicknesses and illnesses of all sorts.

        But someday, medicine that will cure all diseases will be as plentiful as leaves on trees and those leaves will be there every months of every year for eternity.

        Praise God! Here is a phrase that comes to mind. “Ris’n with healing in His wings” (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” BH 2008, 192). Amen.
        Comments

        The Danger of Holiness

        An interesting reference in the passage for today—I will get to it in a moment. But first, I just have to mention a couple of things.

        First, on the children’s Christmas musical Sunday--Calla wrote it! It is called, “The Heart of Christmas.” And in addition to all the ways that the boys and girls did a great job in it—the message came through: the birth of Jesus is absolutely essential to the gospel message. Amen.

        Second, I was so grateful to the Lord to be able to spend some extended time in prayer yesterday. It took me back to my days of chemotherapy. For whatever reason, after chemo, I just honestly did not feel like doing a whole lot. I remember just sitting on this couch one day (I know this sounds rather weird). And I had this conversation: “I just don’t feel like doing anything. What am I going to do—just sit here all day?”

        “You and I could talk?” Just a polite invitation from the God of the Universe. It makes me want to cry. Why does He have to remind me? Why don’t I just jump at the chance? Instead, I race through my litany of requests and jump off and run off. Something is out of whack here.

        Back to yesterday—I felt that the Lord called me to stop, sit down, and talk with Him—at length. And, as a part of that conversation, I opened a Word file on my computer and jus typed out some questions I have for the Lord. I wrote them down, and I’m going to come back to them each day if possible.

        I’m not going to share those questions in this forum, but I may confide in a friend or two. We will see where the Lord takes it.

        Third, I’m still burdened for Rick. Apparently, he was able to go home for the weekend. You might ask how? Well, I do believe that there is a man at Temple Baptist Church who is a pilot and owns his own plane. I’m fairly confident that he was able to shuttle Rick and Jonann back and forth between Ruston and Houston.

        However it occurred, I’m glad Rick was able to spend time at home over the weekend before returning to Houston Monday morning. The tests continue as they try to get an idea of what is going on with him.

        Fourth, I continue to be excited about Steve. I am praying for him as he begins his work in earnest this coming Sunday. I plan to visit with him at length on the phone today, but our ultimate goal is to use Skype in our conversations during the week.

        Fifth, I am excited about the Book Signing Party this coming Sunday after the service at church. I have purposely not spoken a lot about the book in this forum until I have “my ducks in line” in some ways. I’m still working on those “ducks,” but I feel closer than ever. Stay tuned.

        Back to the passage for today—I’m still very perplexed as I read these final chapters of Ezekiel. There is a lot in them about sacrifices and ritual offerings. I feel as if I am in the Pentateuch. But again, I reiterate that there is one thing that makes these passages different—repeated allusions to the “Prince.”

        In the discussion of these sacrifices, there is a reference to how they are prepared and the procedures involved with that. This brings me to the verses that have captured my attention for today: "In my vision, the man brought me through the entrance beside the gateway and led me to the sacred rooms assigned to the priests, which faced toward the north. He showed me a place at the extreme west end of these rooms. He explained, ‘This is where the priests will cook the meat from the guilt offerings and sin offerings and bake the flour from the grain offerings into bread. They will do it here to avoid carrying the sacrifices through the outer courtyard and endangering the people by transmitting holiness to them’” (Ezekiel 46:19, 20 NLT).

        “Endangering the people by transmitting holiness to them”—what on earth is this all about?

        Here is the Message version: "Then the man brought me through the north gate into the holy chambers assigned to the priests and showed me a back room to the west. He said, ‘This is the kitchen where the priests will cook the guilt offering and sin offering and bake the grain offering so that they won't have to do it in the outside courtyard and endanger the unprepared people out there with The Holy’” (Ezekiel 46:19, 20 MSG).

        Coming into contact with holiness is DANGEROUS.

        I am reminded of an explanation I heard of this in seminary. One of my Old Testament professors was teaching us about holiness and why God told the people of Israel to stay away from the mountain when Moses was up there receiving the commandments from the Lord. He said something like, “Men and Women, holiness is nothing to be trifled with. In fact, it is dangerous to get to close to it. It would be like getting to close to something that is radioactive.”

        Gulp.

        I do think all of us are rather flippant about the privileges we have as believers. I have the privilege of going into the presence of Holy God and it is NOT radioactive! Why? Because Jesus has paved the way through the sacrifice of Himself on the cross.

        Unmediated, however, the holiness of God is dangerous even if it passes by on a plate.

        In this scene in Ezekiel, the priests are careful to prepare the sacrifices in the New Temple Kitchen far away from the people.

        Honestly, this raises more questions than it answers for me. Here is a huge question: if this is talking about our eternal worship in heaven forever in the presence of the Prince, why is it dangerous for God’s people to be in contact with The Holy? Won’t every inhabitant of heaven experience the eternal joy of unmediated and un-radioactive interaction with the Lord face to face?

        Humm. Food for thought.

        In the meantime, I will praise the Lord for His holiness and rejoice in the mercy that allows me to receive the Holy Spirit and by virtue of the living God dwelling in me, live a life of holiness that please Him.

        O Holy God, I praise you for the privilege of interaction with you. Thank you for the time you and I could spend together yesterday.

        I confess the sin of neglecting the kind of communion with you (not just the parroting of multiple prayer requests) I experienced through cancer chemotherapy.

        Thanks for Calla and her work. I lift up Steve as he begins his interim ministry with us. I pray for Rick today. And I commit this coming Sunday’s signing party to you.

        “O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;
        It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth”

        (“O Holy Night,” BH 2008, 194). Amen.
        Comments

        Dayton's Solo A Cappella

        Yesterday was a mixed bag of sorts.

        First, my mom and sis got to church but had to turn around and go home. My mom’s recent physical issues prevented her from feeling as if she could sit through a service. Marilyn just brought her back home.

        It was a good decision. But my mom was upset. She REALLY misses it when she can’t get to church and she wanted to be there for the children’s musical and to meet Steve and his family.

        Please pray that she gets over this recent round of “issues” she is dealing with.

        Second, we voted on Steve yesterday. I think this vote must have caught folks off-guard, even though we have been talking about the transition for weeks.

        To be honest, it was kind of an awkward Sunday to have such a vote. We had more guests than normal, and I just didn’t feel as if I could say and do all I wanted to. We voted and an overwhelming majority voted in favor of Steve. I was glad for this. I wanted to spend time introducing them and allowing them to say some things, but time was marching, and I didn’t want to extend the service any longer than necessary.

        But I’m glad that Steve can start. We voted him in on an interim basis for a few months. This will allow Jorge and Vida to be able to step away. They are both tired and need the break. Plus, it will give us some time to get to know Steve and his wife Beverly better. Their daughter Stephanie has been coming with them.

        And, more importantly, it will allow them to get to know us.

        I hope that some type of arrangement can be made for Steve to come on staff, but we will see how things go. In the meantime, they will be commuting each week from Pueblo. For those of you who are reading this and are not familiar with Colorado geography—it is about 120 miles from Pueblo to Denver—quite a commute.

        But I appreciate the folks in the choir being willing for the interim period to move practice to Saturday afternoons. That way, Steve and Beverly can come up Saturday, have practice, spend the night with their daughter who lives in Castle Rock, lead worship on Sunday, and head back to Pueblo Sunday afternoons.

        Quite a trek, eh?

        I really appreciate Steve and Beverly being willing to do this for a few months. Please pray for them to have a safe trip on Saturdays and Sundays.

        This interim will allow us to work out the financial challenges of all of this as we are still seeking to call a youth pastor as well.

        I’ll be sharing more about all of this in subsequent posts. Plus, I am going to write a letter to the church this week as well.

        This is a very urgent and crucial time we are facing as a church.

        Again, I wonder if people in our church see this. More than ever, one thing is clear: we either take proactive steps to grow (and I believe calling Steve is a part of that) or this church will continue to decline and die. And it won’t take that long, either.

        All of this is accentuated because of another thing that happened on Saturday. I had another family tell me that they feel led to leave the church (again no problems or issues). I understand and support them in their decision, but it felt as if someone had kicked me in the stomach. I’m still not over it.

        Well, let me turn things around a bit and talk about the children’s Christmas musical. It was fantastic. In fact, when I finished my meeting with the Youth Pastor Search Team after the service, I called Calla to tell her that I thought it was the best children’s musical EVER.

        It was very simple—just a story of a couple of children putting their family nativity scene together. Sydney and Justin were the main narrators, and the other boys and girls filled the choir loft, each of them coming forward to speak/sing and put a figure in the scene which was on a table in the middle of the platform.

        The boys and girls were enthusiastic. They sang out. They smiled, and it was evident that they were “into it.” Every single one of them did a great job.

        But I think the one aspect of it that stood out to me was Dayton’s solo. He just launched into singing “Silent Night,” and he sang A CAPELLA. It was very powerful, and it hit me between the eyes. The Lord used it.

        It showed me, that in spite of all my worries and concerns and struggles with the church and my concerns for my mom and everything else I am worried about, THE LORD IS STILL AT WORK. And He is working behind the scenes, in quiet and unobtrusive ways.

        The birth of His son in the manger at Bethlehem did not come with a marching band and a special news report on Bethlehem 5, the local TV network.

        It was very quiet at the back of stable in a cow trough in a small, dusty wide place in the road called Bethlehem.

        I may not see it and probably would not understand it or comprehend it if I did, but after Dayton sang that solo, I felt a peace that in spite of everything, the Lord is at work.

        Okay, Jesus. Okay.

        In the description of the land of promise in the latter chapters of Ezekiel, there is one character that keeps emerging over and over—“The Prince.” "The prince will be required to provide offerings that are given at the religious festivals, the new moon celebrations, the Sabbath days, and all other similar occasions. He will provide the sin offerings, burnt offerings, grain offerings, liquid offerings, and peace offerings to purify the people of Israel, making them right with the Lord" (Ezekiel 45:17 NLT).
        Oh, Prince, you do indeed make all the difference. Thanks for using Dayton in my life yesterday. I turn that church—it is Yours—You bought it at a high price—over to you and leave it there. Amen.
        Comments

        The Prince and a New Order of Priests

        Again, as I continue to read these latter chapters of Ezekiel, my questions about what is going on here proliferate.

        But there is another character introduced into this discussion fairly early in the chapter. He is simply called, “The Prince.” Here is what the Lord says about him, “Only the prince himself may sit inside this gateway to feast in the Lord’s presence. But he may come and go only through the entry room of the gateway” (Ezekiel 44:3, NLT).

        Certain folks, “uncircumcised foreigners,” are not allowed in the temple precinct, but the people have done it anyway, and therefore, the Lord levels an indictment against “the men of the tribe of Levi.” Most of them were disqualified from their roles as priests. However, one family emerges.

        "However, the Levitical priests of the family of Zadok continued to minister faithfully in the Temple when Israel abandoned me for idols. These men will serve as my ministers. They will stand in my presence and offer the fat and blood of the sacrifices, says the Sovereign Lord. They alone will enter my sanctuary and approach my table to serve me. They will fulfill all my requirements" (Ezekiel 44:15, 16 NLT).

        A Prince and a New Order of Priests—this is a crucial aspect of worship in the new temple.

        As I look at all of this, I am still not convinced to embrace a dispensational view of eschatology. I am not going to go into all the particulars of Dispensational Pre-Millennialism here in this forum (It is too early on Sunday morning—ha). And these statements that I am going to make right now may be a bit of a caricature, but I just can’t believe that sometime in the future, the Lord is going to revert back to the sacrificial system (or a facsimile thereof) that was in place in the Jerusalem temple prior to the exile.

        Obviously, what is portrayed in Ezekiel is NOT like that old system at all, and I just believe that these descriptions, especially when you throw a reference to the “prince” in the loop, are symbolic references to the worship that we will enjoy as believers with the Lord forever. I believe, in short, that the church is the New Israel. All of us because of what Jesus did on the cross and because of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us as the temple are members of “the family of Zadok.”

        I guess we will find out someday, right?

        I’m looking forward to it. I do know that whatever forms worship in heaven is going to take—it will consume our attention and minds and hearts forever.

        I really do struggle with the fact that just stopping, dead in my tracks, and praising and exalting and magnifying God—seems to be more and more difficult.

        I’m noticing this in myself more and more as I pray with the other guys in our Sunday morning prayer time. Last week, I said, “Hey guys, this is Thanksgiving week. I would just like for us to spend more time thanking Jesus. Let’s do that, before we move on to specific requests. Let’s just thank Him and praise Him for as many things as we can think about.”

        We did a little better, but it wasn’t long before we were into asking the Lord for things. And please understand—there is nothing wrong with this. The Lord wants us to ask Him. But what I am saying is that praise and worship—especially those time where we just adore Jesus and acknowledge those aspects of His character that we appreciate—seems more and more difficult.

        I need to stop and spend some time praising and thanking Jesus this morning.

        “Praise the Lord, He never changes, I come to Him, He’s always there
        He comforts me on every level, takes the burdens that I bear
        Praise the Lord, He never changes, He’s never any other way
        And He’ll be the same tomorrow as He was, and is today” (“Praise the Lord, He Never Changes,” www.bensonsound.com, accessed December 2, 2012).

        Amen.
        Comments

        Conversation with Steve and Beverly

        Before I get to the events for this very busy day, I just need to mention a couple of things. First, I praise God for NOT being selected. Ha.

        Last night, Bill called to tell me that his juror number was indeed in the range of those selected for Monday. When I got back to the house, I checked my notice that I had received from Adams County and my number was NOT in the range of those chosen. Again, thank you, Lord. Sorry, Bill.

        Second, I did not see the exact message myself, but Rick put a note on Facebook that he had spent the entire day—12 + hours—getting tests. I’m sure he was very tired when the day was done. I didn’t even try to call him yesterday. Apparently (this was another message), he will be at MD Anderson until Wednesday.

        I do pray that, at that point, they let him go home at least for a while …

        When I was diagnosed in July 2010, we talked about going to MD Anderson for my cancer doctor and for treatments, but I chose just to stay here in town, if possible, and to be at home. I felt that this would be the best environment for me.

        I know that others, for various reasons, choose to go to another town for their treatment. I believe this makes things even more difficult. This is another challenge Rick and Jonann have.

        Third, I was just so thankful that I was able to spend some time outside yesterday just enjoying the sunshine and the unseasonably warm weather. It was 64 degrees! Wow. I thank the Lord for this on the last day of November. I know we need the moisture, but I’m glad that we haven’t had a huge snowstorm yet.

        Well, anyway, back to today. I’m excited that this is the day that our worship team is going to get an opportunity to meet Steve and his wife Beverly. We are voting on this tomorrow. It isn’t exactly “official” yet, but I’m excited that it looks as if the Lord has brought this couple our way to succeed Jorge and Vida as worship leaders.

        Jorge and Vida are excited, I know. Jorge told me Wednesday that he and his family really need a rest. For the past several years, they have been leading worship in two congregations! So, here is their normal schedule on Sunday mornings. They get to church before 8:00 AM to have practical with the choir in the English speaking church. The service is at 10:05.

        After the service, they scramble to eat some lunch before the Hispanic service at 12:15 or so. Usually, they are walking out the door on Sunday afternoons at about 3:00! Think about this and add three kids to that mix! Usually, a gal in our church, Kelley, takes the kids home with her in the afternoons on Sunday. This is HUGE. But still, both Jorge and Vida have full-time jobs and a lot of stuff going on in the week. PLUS, they took the time and effort to minister to folks during the week and train new musicians. They have done a commendable job.

        But I get tired just writing all that stuff! It is too much, and I’m glad they are taking this step.

        I’m also grateful for Steve and Beverly, and I have every confidence that the Lord has put this together. I believe that it is going to be a huge step forward for our congregation and their ministry will build on that of Jorge and Vida.

        As I have already indicated, Steve and Beverly are going to meet with the worship team for a question and answer time. If we get done with that early, then I think Steve is going to take some time to practice with the group. The challenge is that Calla will be doing a rehearsal with the children today in the auditorium as they prepare for their musical tomorrow. This is going to present some challenges, but we will figure them out.

        After practice, Steve and Beverly and I will be spending some time together visiting about “stuff.” I’m looking forward to it.

        Please pray for this whole process as you remember Rick again today.

        The passage I read in Ezekiel is a curious one. I’ve always struggled with it. I will admit that it throws a monkey wrench in my eschatology, a bit. Let me quote a few verses: "Every day for seven days a male goat, a young bull, and a ram from the flock will be sacrificed as a sin offering. None of these animals may have physical defects of any kind. Do this each day for seven days to cleanse and make atonement for the altar, thus setting it apart for holy use. On the eighth day, and on each day afterward, the priests will sacrifice on the altar the burnt offerings and peace offerings of the people. Then I will accept you. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” (Ezekiel 43:25-27 NLT)

        I wrestle with what is going on here because the sacrifice and death of Jesus forever put an end to the NEED for these types of sacrifices, right? Why, then, in the new temple do they seem to be re-instituted? What is going on here?

        Food for thought. More later.

        Lord, I thank you for all the ways you show mercy. I’m grateful for the reprieve on jury duty. I lift up Bill, as he has to go. I thank you for getting Rick through a very difficult day. I continue to lift him up.

        I’m also grateful for these two couples that have been/will be involved in worship leadership in our church. I pray that you would encourage both couples as you have used them to encourage me. I give you this process today and tomorrow.

        Most of all, Jesus, I thank you for your birth in the manger at Bethlehem and your sacrificial death on Calvary’s cross. I pray for the children’s musical tomorrow and for Calla as she leads it. May you be lifted up and exalted, Lord Jesus.

        “I know not why God’s wondrous grace
        To me He hath made known” (“I Know Whom I Have Believed,” BH 2008, 353). Amen.
        Comments