January 31, 2006

Don't like the preaching?

Occasionally someone complains they do not like the preaching in their church. They either want "biblical teaching" or “deeper sermons." I'm mostly concerned with preaching being biblical. That is a legitimate concern. I'm less concerned that it is not as deep as some would like.

The Bible describes preaching as either false or true, milk or meat. There is no category called “deep” although Paul's teaching is described as having "some things that are hard to understand."

As for the other descriptions, we are told to desire the Word like a baby desires milk. Other passages suggest that if we are not getting meat, it is either because we are not saved and not ready for it (Hebrews 5) or carnal and not ready for it (1 Corinthians 3).

Either way, I would caution the unsatisfied to be careful they do not reject the basics simply because they are hungry for more than the "milk" usually fed to new Christians. These are the foundations of our faith and uphold everything else. We need them deeply impressed on our hearts, and we need to obey them.

Any complaints about basic preaching could indicate disrespect — either for the simple content of the sermons, or for the preacher who delivers them. This too is dangerous ground. The people of God wandering in the wilderness came under judgment when they complained about manna and wanted more meat. On that, I need to be remember that Paul
said heartier meals are for those who obey the lighter fare. How can I learn more if I'm not digesting and using in my life that which I've already learned?

As for not liking the preacher, I need to watch my attitude there too. David refused to speak or act against ‘the Lord’s anointed’ even though Saul was not acting like he should. David’s respect for the leader of Israel says far more about David than it did about Saul.

In the same vein, I must respect my spiritual leaders. They may not be perfect, but when they are teaching truth and are doing their best to live for the Lord, any criticism of them says far more about the critic than it does about the leader. It is difficult for even we who are teachers to remember that being teachable is far more important than the content in a Bible study class or the delivery of a message. If I want to learn, God can use anyone to teach me.

January 30, 2006

A Twist on Time Management

Zion spreads out her hands, but no one comforts her; the LORD has commanded concerning Jacob that those around him become his adversaries; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them. (Lamentations 1:17)
The city of Zion speaks of God's people and their relationship to Him. They were once great, but affliction strikes and when they reach out for help, nothing and no one comes to their aid. When the Lord declares their sinfulness, everyone around them becomes their enemy. They are now the unclean ones.
When I sin, God has the same power to turn everything against me. Life’s daily routine become a complex and difficult challenge. Things like my computer, the dishwasher, whatever I am using does not function as it once did. People are not helpful; either not calling or are negative and disinterested in my problems. Routines are upset. What was once easy becomes difficult. Nothing goes right.
The amazing thing is that just the opposite can happen when I am relying on the Lord. Ordinary chores are delightful and go quickly. Routine is a joy that I breeze through. People are encouraging, calling just when I need to hear them. Even difficult tasks are unexpectedly easy. Everything goes right.
While not every bad day happens because I messed up, it's a good idea to check that possibility. Knowing that God can 'smooth the path before me' is excellent motivation to keep short accounts with Him!

January 28, 2006

Two Deeply Rooted Realities

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one! (Job 14:4)
Job struggles with the disasters that happened to him. He speaks sorrowfully. He knows that all men are unclean, and it is futile to try and do anything about his own sinfulness.
Over the past few weeks, Job's conclusion has hit home with me. Reading Charnock is part of it. I see how deeply man pits himself against God. Struggling against my own sinful attitudes also instructs me. I know without a doubt that only God can cleanse my heart. If He does not do it, it will not happen. I cannot, even will not, do it myself.
Charnock also makes clear that God created people to know Him, to know that He exists and to know that He made us. While human beings go through all sorts of futile exercises to deny God and push Him away, we simply cannot escape that innate knowledge of His being.
But sin has made just as deep a mark in our souls. As Job says, it cannot be erased by our own efforts. It is part of our fallen human nature and we know that we have it. We are sinful. We don’t live up to our own standards (are they really ours?) — and fight to rise above the reality of what we are to what we hope to be. Yet we know our failure.
Woe to those who deny the reality of God and their need for Him, then try to live with the reality of their failure. Woe to those who grasp that there is a God and that they need Him, but refused to acknowledge the reality of their uncleanness. No one can push away both truths, or accept one without the other, and remain sane.
standards are far above ours, but so is His power to forgive our sin and remake us into His image. Job was talking to God in this cry of despair, knowing that God exists, knowing that he was unclean, affirming that no man can make himself clean. Job also knew that God alone can remove impurity. When He forgives our sin and fills us with the Holy Spirit, He does the impossible — He brings a clean thing out of an unclean!

January 27, 2006

TV or a pure heart?

"You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity" (Ezra 9:11).
The Old Testament people of God were given new life in a new land. It is the same for New Testament believers in Christ, except our new land is not a physical place but a spiritual kingdom. However, the physical world I live in is just as unclean as ancient Canaan was, and the people who live in this world without God are as unclean in His sight as those pagans were. Apart from the grace of God, our land is filled with impure, unclean abominations.
James 1:27 says we are to keep ourselves “unspotted from this world.” How does a believer stay pure in an unclean environment? Without retreating into a rabbit hole and thinking I am “27 miles from the nearest sin” (a claim made by a Christian school in southern California), what practical way can I keep myself clean from all the stuff that goes on around me?
My first thought is keeping better tabs on how much television I watch. It does not take a genius to recognize that most television shows are not produced by godly people who want me to think about the Lord.
Yet I like Law and Order, CSI and other programs where bad guys are chased down and brought to justice. I even justify watching these shows because “I want justice” and isn’t that like God? Yet am I praising God during the process? Learning how to be more like Jesus Christ? Thinking pure thoughts? Even prompted to go out and fight evil?
This verse and the Holy Spirit speak sharply to me about my television habits. I’ve become lax about what I put into my mind. God tells me to not think like the world thinks but renew my mind. The tube will never do that for me — only the Word of God can give me a pure heart and transform the way I think.

January 26, 2006

Spiritual battles

Every now and then God shows me through a dream that I've got a sinful attitude that needs some attention. In my sleep I can excuse 'stinkin' thinkin' and a lack of power over it, but when I wake up and the thoughts continue without a fight from me, then something needs to be done about it.
A preacher once said these things are an indication of deep-seated thoughts and values in the subconscious mind. They sneak up on us while we are weak, tempted or even asleep. The cure is to bring them out in the open and subject them to the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to change them. Then put them back. In other words, fight back by saturating my mind with the Word “which is able to save my soul” using verses and passages that pertain to the problem area. Of course the sinfulness needs to be confessed and forsaken, but if it keeps coming back, the root needs to be exposed.
This morning I realize this is a spiritual war, and I need to remember what the enemy does in such a battle, and the role of God in this battle. The enemy slings flaming arrows —— lies about God, His law, my salvation and my standing before God. On the other hand, Jesus is always interceding for me, offering His life and power, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and other armor with which to defend myself.
I cannot fight a persistent sin using the enemy’’s weapons. This seems so plain and logical, but how many times have I been spiritually attacked and agreed with the lies that I was hearing? God can’’t help me. God doesn’t care. I’’ve gone too far this time. I am powerless against all this. I don't have a choice. Blah, blah.
All of that gives the enemy his weapons. How foolish. What about giving God His weapon? It is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. What do I need to study? What do I need to memorize? What can I fling back when the flaming arrows threaten? How can I have my mind so saturated with truth that it automatically goes into ‘fight mode’ when I hear some of the garbage that tends to bring me down?
Romans 12:1-2 tell us to not think like the world thinks, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The only way I know how that can happen is to let the Holy Spirit change me as I read, study, think about and obey the Word of God. Those subconscious thoughts must be exposed, then saturated with and controlled by what God says. While God promises to forgive and cleanse my sin as I confess it, getting those deeply rooted sinful attitudes pulled out into the light will not happen apart from my willingness and cooperation.

January 24, 2006

How do I live when no one is looking?

Back to Charnock's discussion on "practical atheism." He says for some, the outward appearance of being religious is the only thing they desire about religion. It looks good, earns them 'points' in society. They have no regard for the will and rule of God.
Others will believe whatever a religious man or a preacher says because they esteem the man not the Scripture from which he quotes. They have no regard for the will of God, and make man the rule, not Him. He says such people will even accept that which is contrary to the will of God as well as what is true, simply because they are more respectful of the channel than they are of the fountain.
While Charnock focuses on unregenerate men, this can be true of believers also. Our old sinful nature resists God. We hear His rule and resist. Our hearts are prone to wander. And who has not done that which impresses others because we respect them, and our motive is not for God at all?
Someone once said that true manners are what you do when no one is looking. I think it is the same about spirituality. When I worship, do I express fervor because others around me will notice? Do I honor Him because they expect me to? Accountability is one thing, and a good thing, but when I want to look good and pretend to be good, I'm avoiding true accountability. If I fake it and my heart is not in it, I'm just a hypocrite.

January 23, 2006

Life Changes in a Moment

Yesterday I walked upstairs in our church after teaching my class and saw a Guerny at the front door. At the top of the next stairs, on the landing in the foyer, a wall of people stood facing the door. Behind them, I could see someone on the floor with a half-dozen paramedics around him. A person in the 'wall' told me Chuck had collapsed a few minutes before.
I could see people in the sanctuary so joined them. Not one person looked up; everyone was praying.
Later we were told that Chuck had a severe heart attack. As God would have it, a paramedic was visiting our service from out of town that morning. The ambulance arrived quickly, within 5-10 minutes. Chuck was not breathing but they used CPR. By the time he was taken to the hospital, he was breathing on his own, but the heart attack was ongoing. At the hospital, powerful anticoagulants broke up the clot that was causing the attack. They put him on a respirator. This morning, he is awake and responsive but not talking. Life for Chuck and his wife changed in seconds.
Someone pointed out that Chuck was in the Congo last year. What if that had happened in a remote African village? Another said that it could not have happened in a better place; we live in what a city that is said to have the best heart doctors in Canada, maybe North America.
All this is good, and our hope is that he recovers.
I think of that
Bible verse that says, "In Him we live and move and have our being." This traumatic event is a huge reminder of how fragile life is, and how we depend on God for every moment. Our lives, Chuck's life, is in His hands.

January 20, 2006

Rejoice with those who rejoice!

Our 14 year old granddaughter played in a recent basketball tournament. Her team won their first three games then won the gold medal game with about twice as many points as their opponents, a team from a Christian school. I was told that school only has 28 girls in it. That half of them made the last game in a tournament was a real accomplishment in itself.
When the medals were handed out, the silvers were first. Everyone clapped. Then the gold medal winners were called forward one-by-one for their medals. The team from the Christian school, the losing team, dropped to the floor and began pounding with feet and hands and cheering loudly for each player.
Do other sport teams ever counter defeat by rejoicing for the winners?
Their example in applying Romans 12:15 blessed, convicted and motivated me more clearly than a sermon!

January 19, 2006

Actions speak louder than words

Titus 1:16: “They profess that they know God, but in works they deny him.”
I spent nearly an hour wading through the outline of Charnock's discourse on Practical Atheism (The Existence and Attributes of God). It is complex, repetitious, and extremely convicting. How often am I guilty of living as if God does not exist? I see it in just the outline — and am fearful to read and study beyond that.
I know that all is not lost. God has been gracious to me. I do know forgiveness and possess the life of Christ. But so often I live as if none of that happened. I decide my day. I reach out only if pressed to do so. I'm often busy doing my own thing and resent the phone ringing, or someone asking a favor. I can say I love God all I want, but what is really going on in my heart?
And I sit here wondering what to put in my blog today since I said something like this yesterday. That is not God-honoring either. I’m thinking of publication instead of thinking how He is speaking to me. This is a form of faking it, of putting on an “I’m okay” front to the public when under conviction. Even without reading it all, Charnock’s chapter about practical atheism cuts at me. How many hours in the day do I think about God? The answer to that shows me how much I need grace, and how much less I am devoted to God than I thought.

January 18, 2006

Practical Atheism

Charnock's next chapter is a discourse on Practical Atheism. He says that those who will not worship God, or give homage to a false god or gods, or are unconcerned about any spirituality or religion, or are without the true notion of God, or define Him to suit themselves are “practical atheists” and this is natural to humanity. He adds it is:
1. Not natural by created nature but by corrupted nature. Our created nature and its powers of reasoning can deduce the existence of God, however that nature has been corrupted by sin, depraved, touched in every part by “the serpent’s breath” and in that corruption we can live as if there is no God.
2. Universally natural. Psalm 58:3 says, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” Sin entered the world through one man and effects all humanity. We are sinners from birth, and because we are, we sin, and we deny that God exists. There are none who seek God. Charnock says, “There is not a hair’s difference between the best and the worst . . . the distinction is laid either in common grace bounding and suppressing it; or in special grace killing and crucifying it. . . . None seek after God. None seek God as his rule, as his end, as his happiness . . . he desires no communion with God; he places his happiness in anything inferior to God; he prefers everything before Him, glorifies everything above Him; he hath no delight to know Him, he regards not those paths which lead to Him; he loves his own filth better than God’s holiness; his actions are tinctured and dyed with self, and are void of that respect which is due from him to God.”

This chapter is organized with great complexity. That makes me want to ‘skip it’ yet I can see that even this is an expression of the flesh. I would avoid the complex (discovering God) for the ease of ruling my own life. Even by making this statement I am avoiding a deeper and personal look at the awful truth expressed above. It is true of me. I know God. I know He is here with me right now, but I want to govern my own day, make my own to-do list. While I want His ‘help’ with that which is difficult, I want to choose my challenges rather than trust Him to present them to me. Certainly I don’t want to admit that I prefer my own filth to God’s holiness — the word ‘filth’ is too graphic. I’d rather paint those shameful choices white with excuses and reasoning. Nevertheless, Charnock’s brutal honesty smacks me in the face and demands that I pay attention. Who will be sovereign today?

January 17, 2006

A Focused Mind

In the 1600's a theologian, Stephen Charnock, delivered Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Baker Book House published these in two volumes. This year I decided to use them in my devotions. While Charnock needed a good editor to clarify this wordy masterpiece, it is otherwise a deep and wonderful read.
The first discourse (chapter) is about the folly of denying God's existence. In the last section of this chapter, he offers ways to apply what he has said to our Christian lives. The following are some of his thoughts, mingled with my responses:
The natural inclination to worship is as universal as the notion of a God; idolatry would otherwise never exist. People who turn their backs on everything else still will give homage to some superior and invisible being... Some would render Ecclesiastes 12:13, “To fear God and keep His commandment is the whole man.” In other words, without God, we are not fully human, but mere beasts. Worship and obedience completes us, makes us whole... God framed the world with order, elegance and variety, not to no purpose but that reasonable creatures should admire and honor Him for it. We are not made in His image for some idle contemplation but for due and heartfelt homage... He created the world for His glory. Those who know there is a God but do not give him the glory due Him do so to their own condemnation (Romans 1:21). Charnock says, “He that denies His being is an atheist to His essence; he that denies His worship is an atheist to His honor.”
It is our wisdom to acknowledge and worship Him. If He is not in all our thoughts (Psalm 10:4) it is as if our minds are like flies oftener on a manure pile — than on flowers. What comfort is there in Him without thinking of Him continually, and with reverence and delight? "A God forgotten is as no God to us."
Those who know about spiritual gifts say that a teacher has a great interest in all things; otherwise he could not do research. As a teacher, I know one fleshy side of this gift is being easily distracted. My mind that loves all things struggles to center itself on one thing. My worship is like a butterfly that cannot seem to land on that one flower, and even when it does, cannot stay there for a sustained period. Charnock challenges me today. Finding flowers is not difficult — the challenge is remaining there!

January 16, 2006

Becoming Unflappable

James wrote that we ought to consider it a joyful thing to be tested because a test develops our ability to endure, and when we can persevere under tests, we become mature. In teaching this section to a ladies Bible study group, we came up with a modern term to describe that goal: God wants us to be "unflappable."

When I think of the things that have tested me, and the many times that my response was anything but "unflappable," the grace and patience of God amaze me. Yet He is right; the more He tests me, the more unflappable I become. It doesn't happen because I decide to "grin and bear it." When a test comes, little or enormous, God eventually shows me that He is in control, He will take care of me, and He Himself is unflappable. I cannot imagine God getting as bent out of shape as I do when life takes an unexpected loop. Looking at Him with that in mind changes the way I think, and consequently the way I act.

Another thing that helps is taking a long hard look at what He says about whatever makes me flap. It might be anger, or fear, or rejection. Every time I see myself in His Book, I must confess my sinful thoughts and actions, relying on Him to forgive them and cleanse me. But He also says to be 'renewed' in the way I think, so I need a second long hard look at the goal. (Unflappable isn't in there, but I look for confident, accepted, or whatever biblical word fits the test I just flunked). Read, study, meditate and God takes my stinking thinking and replaces it with His thoughts about the matter, making me ready for the next test!

Why a blog?

After seventeen years of writing a weekly newspaper column, a few years of leadership with a writers' organization that left me no time to write, and three months of 'retirement' from some of those leadership tasks, that still small voice challenged me to write again, this time a blog. My response was an immediate 'yes' (who am I to argue with Him) but I've no interest in blogs. This will be an adventure.