Tuesday, December 12, 2017

TRAINING FOR BATTLE


Ephesians 6:10-13
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

                I have been rereading Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Candidly, I have been struggling with it. As Willard has laid out the significance and the importance of the spiritual disciplines, I have found myself resisting. All the residue of a “works righteousness” faith has come to the surface. I fully understand the principles, but I am struggling with the proper application. What does it really mean to practice spiritual disciplines in the “real world”?

                Ephesians 6 gives us the answer in a nut shell. We practice the spiritual disciplines in order to perform well when the battle is on. Let’s look at this from the perspective of a professional football player, a concert pianist, and a soldier. Although each of these individuals are engaged in very different activities, they all fallow a similar pattern. Each of them spends hours and hours practicing certain drills. These drills may seem tiresome and repetitive, but they are essential to the individual being able to perform. These drills develop what is called muscle memory. The body is trained to respond in a certain way without having to really think about it. This is essential for the athlete, the concert pianist, and the soldier. In the heat of battle, there is no time to stop and think about what to do. In those moments when everything is on the line, a person needs to be able to respond quickly. This can happen only if the person has been trained well.

                I read about a concert pianist who was asked why he still practiced 8 hours a day. His response was telling. “If I do not practice for a day or two, I notice the difference. If I do not practice for a week, you will notice the difference.” Football players do some amazing things during the game, only because they have practiced those skills for hours and hours. Soldiers are able to overcome amazing obstacles, only because they have been thoroughly trained.  A concert pianist can make a grand piano sing, only because he or she has spent hours and hours practicing.

                So what does this have to do with spiritual disciplines? Everything! Paul tells us that we are engaged in a spiritual battle with the dark forces of our world. If we are going to be able to stand in the face of those forces, we need to be trained in godliness. When Paul tells us to put on the armor of God, he is talking about practicing spiritual disciplines. This is not a passive endeavor, but an active pursuit. Like the athlete, the soldier, and the concert pianist, we need to be practicing our spiritual skills regularly so that, in the heat of battle, we can respond in God-honoring ways. Great athletes, great pianists, great soldiers don’t just show up for the big moment. They have trained tirelessly to be ready to perform at their highest level. Spiritually we cannot just show up. We need to train faithfully to be ready to be used by God in the heat of battle.

                Practicing the spiritual disciplines is not easy, but it is rewarding. If we want to make a difference in our world for Christ, then we need to train for battle.

Hebrews 12:11
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

STAY FOCUSED

Psalm 46:10
"Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."

                Let’s be honest. At this time of the year, with all of the holiday hype, it is very easy to get distracted and lose our focus on what is important. We can spend too much time preparing for holiday events and not enough time enjoying them when they come. We can get focused on meeting expectations, real or perceived, and miss the experience. We can focus on the stress of the season and miss the meaning of the season. This time of the year highlights how easy it is for us to substitute the urgent for the important in our lives. We face this challenge throughout the year, but at the holidays, it is amplified.

                The Psalmist challenges us to take time to stop, quiet our hearts, and get focused. For all of the debate about the commercialization and secularization of Christmas, this season of the year still makes people think about Jesus. God is exalted in the displays of lights and the music playing over the shopping fray. Many people will miss the message, but for those who will stop long enough to listen, it is still there, loud and clear. Prominently displayed alongside of Santa and his reindeer is the nativity scene. As I drive to and from church each day, I see a simple nativity scene, displayed by a local business. It seems to me that the more some people try to drive Christ out of Christmas, the more they put the focus on Him.

                We can get discouraged about the mission of the church. As we look at our world, we can begin to believe that we are losing the spiritual war. At these times, we need to stop and refocus our minds on the power of Christ to prevail. Paul addressed this when he wrote to his protégé Timothy.
    In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. 2 Timothy  4:1-5

                As followers of Christ, we need to take the time to be still and rest in the reality that God is God. He cannot be dethroned, no matter how hard the world tries. The light of Christ may seem dim at times, but it can never be extinguished. In fact, the light of Christ is shining as brightly, or even brighter, than it ever has. For example, our ministry partners at Call Of Love have begun an on-line TV station on YouTube. Their target audience is Arabic speaking people around the world. The station has been available for just over one month, and already they have had hundreds of requests for more information and many people have placed their faith in Christ.


                As we go through the holiday season, let us make the most of every opportunity that God gives to us. Let us enjoy and rejoice in our families. Let us celebrate the greatest gift; a Savior has been born to us! Let us shine the light of Christ brightly into our world. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

STAY CONNECTED TO THE FAMILY

Hebrews 10:25
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

                We spent Thanksgiving this year, with my extended family, in North Carolina. Thirty of the Banfield clan were present for Thanksgiving dinner, plus a few extras. I had the chance to connect with family members that we don’t get to see on a regular basis. It reminded me of how important it is to stay connected. Even as family, it is easy to let distance and demands keep us apart. Times like Thanksgiving remind us of how important it is to stay connected to the family.

                We live in a disconnected world. Even with all of the various forms of social media, we can, and often do, live isolated lives. We can substitute virtual reality for face to face reality. Even though I talk with my parents every Monday night on the phone, it is not the same as sitting in their living room holding a conversation.

                Recently I picked a book off of my shelf that I read several years ago. It is “The Spirit of the Disciplines” by Dallas Willard. In the opening chapters, Willard talks about how we have separated our physical life from our spiritual life, as if the two are not connected to one another. Consequently, we do not experience the transforming power of our faith. He makes the case that our faith needs to be integrated into every aspect of our lives. What we do with our physical being, on a daily basis, affects our ability to experience the power of God. We are spiritually weak, because we are not living out our faith in tangible ways.

                One of the foundational aspects of living out our faith is staying connected with one another. We were not created to live life as a solo adventure. We were created to live lives connected in meaningful ways to one another. That is one reason why the Bible often equates our faith to being a part of a family. The family is the basic building block of every society. When the family breaks down, the society breaks down. It is true of the Church as well. If we do not stay connected to one another as the family of God, the Church will be weak and ineffective in our world.

                Acts 2:42-47 describes the life of the early church.  This snapshot of the early Church shows the power of staying connected. The key is that they lived life together on all levels. Because of this radical style of community, others took notice. Daily, new people were added to the fellowship. They were offering, in tangible ways, what people were missing; a sense of genuinely being connected with others.

                Whenever my family gets together, we spend time remembering things from the past. One story leads to another story. We are soon caught up in past adventures. One of the things that God told the people of Israel to do was remember what He had done for them in the past. They were to tell the old stories to new generations. The same is true for the Church. One of the ways that we stay connected is by reminding each other of the many ways that God has been at work in our lives.

                Whenever my family gets together, we bring each other up to speed on what is going on in our lives now. For instance, my younger brother has opened an art gallery. We spent time, as a family, poking around the corners of his facility; both what people get to see out front and what they don’t get to see in the back. As the family of God, we need to spend time sharing with one another what is going on in our lives; both what people can see on the surface and what they cannot.

                When my family gets together, we spend a lot of time eating. The joke in my family is that we cannot get through the day without having three square meals. There is something powerful about eating together as a family. As the family of God, we need to spend time breaking bread together. Not just in formal settings at church, but at informal settings in homes and at various eateries. Sharing a meal with other members of the body of Christ can be a powerful bonding experience.

                When my family gets together, we play games and have fun together. On this recent trip, my niece and nephew set up a projector and screen in their back yard and we watched movies outside, while we roasted hotdogs and marshmallows. As the family of God, we need to have fun together. In fact the more we can demonstrate the joy of the Lord, in tangible ways, the more attractive we become to the world around us.

                Acts 2 tells us that as the Church lived out what it means to be the family of God, God added to their number daily. Lost people today are not looking for amazing worship services, as important as these are. They are looking for a place to belong; to experience genuine community. They are looking for a family. If we really want to see lives transformed for Christ, then we need to actively stay connected to the family.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Heart of Gratitude

Psalm 100:1-5
A psalm. For giving thanks.

    Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
        Worship the Lord with gladness;
        come before him with joyful songs.
    Know that the Lord is God.
        It is he who made us, and we are his;
        we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

    Enter his gates with thanksgiving
        and his courts with praise;
        give thanks to him and praise his name.
    For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
        his faithfulness continues through all generations.

                There is a funny thing about being thankful; you cannot do it silently. There is really no such thing as being thankful, if we never express our thanks. We can think about it, contemplate it, even prepare for it, but if it never comes out in a tangible way, it is sterile and meaningless.

                This is Thanksgiving week. Many people this week will give a nod to thankfulness, but will not truly engage in it. For a person to really demonstrate a thankful heart, there are at least three things that must be included.

                Our thanks must have an object. There is no such thing as generic thankfulness.  Genuine thanks is directed toward a person or an entity. David makes it very clear that the object of our thankfulness is God. As James tells us, God is the giver of all good gifts. Everything that we have and enjoy comes from the hand of God. He is the one, above all, who deserves our gratitude.
   
                Our thanks must be specific. We need to identify what it is that we are thankful for. The more specific that we are, the more authentic is our gratitude. David models this for us in Psalm 103.

Psalm 103:1-5
Of David.

    Praise the Lord, O my soul;
        all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
    Praise the Lord, O my soul,
        and forget not all his benefits--
    who forgives all your sins
        and heals all your diseases,
   who redeems your life from the pit
        and crowns you with love and compassion,
    who satisfies your desires with good things
        so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

                Our thanks needs to be expressed. Thankfulness is not just a warm fuzzy feeling. Thankfulness is active. If we are truly thankful, it just has to come out. We cannot help it. David tells us that our gratitude should be expressed with shouts of praise and with exuberant worship.

                Thanksgiving can be a full, hectic day. There are many activities that can and will capture our attention. Be sure to include time to express your thanks to God and to the people God has placed in your life.


    

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THE SEASON OF BUSYNESS

Mark 6:31
 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."

                Every Tuesday, as I come into my office to begin my week, I review my calendar. As a part of our weekly staff meeting, I prepare a report that reviews things I did last week and things that are on my schedule this week. Today, as I put my report together, I recognized that we are entering into the season of busyness. The holidays and the end of the year come together to make for a perfect storm of activity. This week I have several extra activities to add to my regular agenda. As we enter fully into the holidays, that will only increase. All of these activities are good things, but the cumulative effect can be a little overwhelming.

                The Gospels tell us that as Jesus’ public presence increased, so did the demands upon his time. When the word got out that Jesus had healed a leper, people swamped Jesus. Mark tells us that it got so bad that Jesus had to stay out of towns and villages. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:45b) Wherever Jesus went, the crowds followed. At times the demands on Him were so great that he didn’t even have time to stop and eat. Jesus’ disciples were worn out and so was Jesus. They all needed some rest.

                In our world today we have made busyness a virtue. People love to brag about how busy their lives are. We have confused busyness with productivity and purpose. They are not the same. Busyness is just as prevalent in the Church as it is in the secular world. Many Christians measure their spiritual health by how busy they are, yet that is a false measuring stick. Someone has rightly said, If Satan can’t make believers sinful, he will make them busy.

                We all know that busyness can actually rob us of the joy of the holiday season that is before us. I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I can hardly wait until the holidays are over. I just want to be done with them.” This is one of those times of the year when we should be filled with joy, excitement and anticipation, not dread. We should be enthusiastically giving thanks to God for all that He has blessed us with. We should be wholeheartedly celebrating the truth that Immanuel has arrived.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

                What can we do to enter into the season of busyness without being overwhelmed and losing our joy? The key is what Dr. Richard Swenson calls “margin.” In order to fully enjoy this season, we need to intentionally make some space in our lives. Throughout the Gospels we are told that Jesus regularly slipped away, by himself, to pray. Jesus intentionally created space in His life so that He could handle to enormous pressure that was placed upon Him. As we enter into the season of busyness, let me suggest a few things we can do to keep from being overwhelmed.

- Intentionally plan down times.
                A wise man once told me, Dave, if you don’t take control of your schedule, everyone else will. We cannot blame our busyness on anyone else but ourselves. If you don’t plan in time to recharge your batteries, you will run out of energy long before the season is over. Jesus regularly slipped away from the crowds to recharge His batteries. Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35)  

- Be selective.
                You do not have to say yes to everything. Choose to give priority to those activities that bring you the most joy. Try not to over-book  your schedule. Even Jesus did not do everything. He was willing to leave some things undone, in order to accomplish what was most important.  I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.(John 17:4) There will always be activities that we are obligated to attend, but there are many more that are optional. Be wise about what you say yes to.

- Be fully present where you are.
                One of the major dangers of the season of busyness is to always be looking beyond where you are to the next thing. When we do this we live anxious lives and we lose the joy of what we are experiencing in the present. Jesus was always fully present wherever He was. The story of Jairus and the woman with the bleeding disorder highlights this in His life. (Mark 5:21-43)

- Choose to embrace the joy of the season.
                Our attitude makes all the difference in the world. No matter what façade we put up, our attitude will show through. The Bible tells us to choose to rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

                There is no real escape from the season of busyness, but we can manage it well. This should be a season of great joy and delight; a season of thankfulness and anticipation. Embrace the season, and let Jesus surprise you with His joy.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

   

   


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Responding to the Sutherland Springs Tragedy

Romans 8:15-17
    For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

                We were all shocked to hear of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring, Texas. There is no way to explain an incident like this. Our hearts go out to that congregation and to those families. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ and we mourn with them.

                In the face of an incident like this, we experience many mixed emotions. Our first response may be disbelief. How could anyone attack a church as they are worshiping? Our disbelief may quickly change into anger and frustration. We will be tempted to rush to “solutions” that punish the innocent along with the guilty. Ultimately, our hearts will turn to fear. This is the place that Satan wants us to go. He wants us to circle the wagons to protect ourselves, and in so doing, isolate ourselves from the world we have been called to reach for Christ.

                So what should be our response to this horrendous event. Paul’s words to the Romans can help to guide us.

    Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
    Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:9-21

Let me suggest several things to lead us forward.

- Pray for the community of Sutherland Springs and for the congregation of First Baptist. Ask God to enfold them in His arms of love and to bring the comfort only He can provide. Send a letter to the congregation expressing your prayers and your desire to stand with them during this difficult time.

- Refuse to give in to fear, which will either immobilize us or lead us to respond in anger.

- Stand firm in our faith and resist the temptation to isolate ourselves. The best way to dispel the darkness of our world is to shine the light of Christ’s love brightly into our world.

- Be intentional about engaging those around us in positive ways. It has been said that the most effective way of defeating your enemy is to make him your friend.

- Live exemplary lives in our community. The more that we live out our faith in practical ways, the more we can transform our community.

- Put our trust in the grace and power of Christ. Although we cannot protect ourselves from all potential evil that could be done against us, we can stand firm in the power of Christ. Our hope, our lives, our eternity is in His hands. We can trust Him to give us the grace we need to face any challenge.

John 16:33

    “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 

SPRINTING TO THE FINISH LINE

Philippians 3:10-14
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

                I was a distance runner in high school. I ran the two mile race, which at that time was the longest race at a high school track meet. The two mile race was eight times around the track. It was a taxing race. No one had instructed me about the way to pace a race, so I would start out fast, slow in the middle and fade at the end. Yet, every time I finished a race, I felt like I still had something left in the tank, so to speak. I was always disappointed in myself that I had not given my all.

                Since I have gotten back into running, I have been conscious of pacing myself and not leaving too much in the tank at the end. With each of the five half-marathons that I have run, I have sprinted the last stretch to the finish line. It actually felt good to give everything I had left to cross the line at full speed.

                I think that is the way the Apostle Paul must have felt. Paul had faithfully run the race of faith. He had endured many hardships along the way. It would have been easy for him to coast to the end. But he did not! Right up to the end of his race, he kept his eye on the goal. He wanted to expend all of the energy he had to win the prize. When the time came, he sprinted across the finish line.

                No distance race is won in the last hundred yards. It is won by running consistently, mile by mile. The Christian life is the ultimate long distance race. It is demanding and exhilarating at the same time. It takes determination and stamina. If we are going to be able to sprint to the finish, like Paul, there are a few things we need to keep in mind.

                We need to constantly remind ourselves why we are running the race. Paul’s highest goal was to know Christ. That should be our highest goal as well. We do not run this race to look good to others or to fulfill some religious obligation. We run this race to draw closer to Christ.

                There are two ways we can understand the word know. In one way, to know is to accumulate knowledge about. It is based on facts, information, observations. I can know another person pretty well and still remain at a distance from the person. For example, I know a lot about Abraham Lincoln, but I will never be close to him. The other way we can understand know is to be intimately connected with another person. To know a person in this sense is to be in a close, personal relationship with them. It goes beyond knowing facts about the person to really knowing the person. That is the essence of what Paul was saying. It is the reason we run the race. We want to know Christ intimately and to be known by Christ intimately.

                We also need to remember that the race is not over until we cross the finish line. Even though Paul wrote to the Philippians near the end of his life, he recognized that he still had much ground to cover. He had spent many years getting to know Christ, yet he felt that he had not yet come to the end of what he needed to discover.

                As we run the race of faith, we need to strive to go deeper and deeper with Christ. We do not want to settle for a superficial relationship. Instead, we want to explore the heights and breadth of Christ’s love for us. We want to know more about His character, as we strive to be like Him. We want to live lives worthy of our relationship with Jesus.

                Lastly, we want to give our best, right up to the end of the race. The image Paul gives us is of an athlete exerting every ounce of energy to win the prize. Paul was not talking about winning his salvation. He was determined to give his best all the way to the end of his life.

                Too often, we Christians get to a place in our life where we just coast in our faith. Maybe we were sprinters early in our race, but we have lost our drive. We focus more on what we did in the past than want God wants to do through us in the present. Paul challenges us to keep up the pace, no matter where we are in the race.

                My parents were always active in our home church. My father was the church chairman for 50 years. He faithfully led worship every Sunday. He, along with several other men, led our Christian Service Brigade program. My mom sang in the choir, helped organize church dinners, and assisted with Pioneer Girls. When they retired, it would have been natural for them to slow down. They didn’t.  They began volunteering with the Josh McDowell ministry, now called GAIN. Twice a year they would travel from Ohio to Pennsylvania to work in the warehouse organizing supplies for the ministry. Once a year they would travel to Belarus to help distribute Operation Christmas Child boxes and other supplies to schools and orphanages. They did this well into their 80’s. They continue to press on toward the goal.

                When I cross the finish line, I don’t want to look back and regret that I left too much in the tank. I want to cross the line at a sprint. How about you?