Friday, January 31, 2014


                I picked up a book yesterday that has been gathering dust on the bookshelf. A friend gave it to me a couple of years ago, but I never really got started on it. I saw the title yesterday and decided that it was time to dust it off and dive in. The book is titled The Making of the New Spirituality by James Herrick. I am not sure where this book will lead me, but what I have read so far is both challenging and disturbing. Herrick contends that there has been a monumental shift away from historical Judeo-Christian faith toward, what he calls, the New Synthesis. He describes it as the evolution of human spirituality. People are moving away from the clear truth of the Gospel toward an eclectic, patchwork of loosely defined spirituality. This New Synthesis is not a unified movement, but a collection of efforts to rediscover ancient forms of worship and to discover and/or create new forms of worship. The concept of God has been broadened, expanded and even multiplied. Yahweh, the God of the Bible is passé. The quest now is to discover the god within each of us.

                Our small group began a study in the book of Jeremiah this week. What we read in the first two chapters of Jeremiah eerily resonates with what I read in the introduction to the above mentioned book. God commissioned Jeremiah to confront the people of Israel with their syncretistic approach to spirituality. They claimed to still believe in Yahweh, but they added the pagan gods of Canaan for good measure. Ironically, the people of Israel didn’t see this as a problem, but God did. God summarized what they were doing with a graphic illustration. "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

                For a people who live in an arid land, a spring of water is gold. A cistern dug in the ground to catch rain water is a poor substitute. God offered them fresh, abundant, living water. Instead they chose to make their own way; to dig spiritual cisterns that cannot satisfy their needs. The sins of ancient Israel are being repeated by our modern, scientific world. Many people continue to hold loosely onto faith in the Living God, while crafting their spiritual cistern from the buffet of religious options being promoted today. On the surface it seems like the New Synthesis is winning the day. Don’t be fooled. God has not given up on His world.

                This Sunday I will be preaching on the story about Moses meeting God at the burning bush, found in Exodus 3. When Moses pressed God to reveal His true nature to him, God identified Himself as Yahweh, the “I Am”. God’s message is clear. He is the God who is always contemporary, the God who is always present, the God who is always relevant. Moses needed to understand that, and so do we.

                The spiritual battle for the souls of people has been brought to the forefront. No longer is it hidden in the shadows. Satan is making a frontal attack on God’s sovereignty. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6 that we are engaged in a spiritual battle that is often beyond our comprehension. Therefore, we need to equip ourselves to fight this battle in the power of God.

                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. Ephesians 6:10-13

                Jesus offers us living water that can truly satisfy our souls. The world offers us broken cisterns that can offer only temporary relief from our spiritual thirst.

 On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."
John 7:37-38

Thursday, January 30, 2014


                Country singer/songwriter Mac Davis wrote the song, It’s Hard to be Humble. The opening stanza sets the tone for the song.

  Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way
I can't wait to look in the mirror
'Cause I get better lookin' each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man
Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble
But I'm doin' the best that I can

                Although I cannot identify with the tone of the song, I can identify with the struggle. Humility is a virtue that is much needed and hard to attain. We live in a world that gives lip service to humility, but rewards to opposite of humility. We tend to reward the arrogant, aggressive and hard-charging. We usually honor the humble only after they are gone. So in reality, it is hard to be humble.

                In Jesus’ day, humility was not looked upon in a positive light. Those who were powerful were seen as the virtuous ones. Only slaves and poor people were humble, because they had no choice. Jesus turned that way of thinking upside down. One day his disciples were arguing over who was the greatest among them. Jesus squelched the argument with some challenging words. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:25-28

                As followers of Christ, we are called to live according to His standards and not those of the world. That means that we need to learn to be genuinely humble. Paul told the Ephesians that being humble is the way to live up to their calling in Christ. As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Ephes. 4:1-2

                Genuine humility includes a couple of important features. First, it is having an honest understanding of who we are; both our strengths and our weaknesses. Humility is never putting ourselves down. It is being comfortable with our abilities, without the need to draw attention to them. A truly humble person rarely thinks about themselves, which highlights the other major characteristic of humility. Genuine humility focuses on the value of others. Because a humble person does not need to seek the spotlight, they are free to shine it on others. Paul highlights this in Philippians 2. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philip. 2:3-4

                We can be sure that, if we do not humble ourselves, God will do it for us. God takes a very dim view of arrogance and self-promotion. Our arrogance is one way that we try to take the place of God. He is not reluctant to let us know that we are venturing into dangerous territory. Peter, a man who knew first-hand what it is to struggle with overconfidence, warned us about taking the path of self-promotion. Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 1 Peter 5:5-6

                As the song says, it’s hard to be humble, but not for the reasons the song gives. It’s hard to be humble, because genuine humility is a by-product of service to others. The more that we value others, the more that we try to encourage and build-up others, the more we will move in the direction of humility. But be warned, when we start thinking that we have finally captured humility, at that moment it will slip through our fingers.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Keeping Up Appearances

                I just finished my annual study break. I spent the better part of a week, alone at a retreat cabin. On the last day, as I was getting dressed, I realized that, although I was alone, I put on different clothes each day. It was not that the clothes I had worn the day before were dirty. All I had done was read and work on my computer. I could have worn the same clothes again. Yet, out of habit, I changed my clothes. I was struck with the question, why?

                We are all caught up in an unconscious quest to keep up appearances. When I was in school, any child who wore the same clothes two days in a row would have been laughed at, at least behind their back. Most people would wonder about a person who showed up to work every day in the same outfit. The first question that would come to our mind is, don’t they have any other clothes?

                This need to change our appearance daily is born out of many possible motives. We may feel the need to wear something different so that people won’t think that we are poor and can’t afford different clothes. We may feel the need to wear something different to demonstrate that we have fashion sense. We may feel the need to wear something different to impress those around us. We may feel the need to wear something different so that we will fit in with everyone else. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are often controlled by what others think about us, so we must keep up appearances.

                Jesus addressed this significant issue when he confronted the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious elite of Jesus’ day. They were men who dedicated themselves to obeying the Law, down to the most minute detail. That is not a bad pursuit, except many of the Pharisees wanted everyone else to know about their piety. What other people thought of them mattered, so they had to keep up appearances. A noble endeavor, keeping the Law, morphed into a self-promoting legalism designed to impress others.

                In Matthew 23, Jesus issued a series of scathing indictments against the Pharisees for being more concerned about their outward appearance than their heart. He brings his point home with a particularly graphic analogy. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Matthew 23:27-28

                In the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, Jesus makes the point over and over again that what matters to God is not just what we do on the outside, but who we are on the inside. We can portray the right image, while at the same time be far from God.

                We still struggle with keeping up appearances, even within the Church. We can become consumed with our buildings, our programs, our worship experiences, and neglect nurturing our souls. We want to be known as effective, cutting edge, even trendy, yet fail to cultivate our walk with Christ. We feel like we are serving Christ, but in reality we are performing for a human audience. The problem with keeping up appearances is that the standards are continually changing. Fashion in clothes changes almost quarterly. Fashion in “church” is constantly changing as well. We can expend much energy chasing the latest fad, and miss Jesus. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Love is…?

                The Valentine’s decoration went up in the stores as soon as the Christmas decorations came down. It is amazing how quickly we can change directions. No time to stop and reflect. We must push on. Valentine’s Day means different things to different people. In elementary school, exchanging Valentines means acceptance. In high school it may symbolize friendship or adolescent romance. For married couples it may be an affirmation of their love for one another. For some singles, Valentine’s Day is a reminder of their singleness. At the heart of Valentine’s Day is the question, what is love?

                There have many answers to that question questions. Love is blind. Love is a many splendored thing. Love hurts. Love is confusing. Love is never having to say you are sorry. Love is being accepted for who you are. Love is knowing that someone cares about you. Love is becoming vulnerable. Love is sharing life with another person. Most people define love as an emotion or a feeling. We often speak of falling in love, as if we had no choice.

                The Bible tells us that God is love. Love is not just something He does, it is a part of the very essence of who He is. So if we are going to understand true love, we would do well to go the source of all love. The Bible completes the statement “love is…” in a number of ways. Here is just a sampling.

                Love is a gift we receive from God. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

                Love is sacrificial. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 1 John 3:16

                Love is a conscious choice. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:11

                Love is practical. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18

                Love is unconditional. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

                Love is selfless. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

                Love is a command. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:34-35

                Love is at the very heart of what it means to be made in the image of God. God loved us so much that He sent Jesus into the world to die for us. He wants us to not just receive this love, but to share this love with those around us. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Can’t We Be Good Without God?

                Do we really have to be in a relationship with Christ to be good? I struggle with that question, because we often distill the Christian life down to being good. If that is all that it means to be a Christian, then do we really need Christ? After all, there are thousands of very good, moral people in our world who have nothing to do with Jesus. So, do we really need Christ to be good?

                The place we need to start is to ask, what does it mean to be good? The most common answer would be to do what is right. This might be further explained as treating others with kindness and respect. Obviously it involves obeying the laws of the land, as well as adhering to the standards of the community in which a person lives. On the surface, it looks like we can be good all on our own.

                But there is a fundamental problem. Not everyone’s idea of what is right is the same. One person may feel it is right to disobey a particular law, because they feel it is unjust. While another person would feel obligated to uphold that law, because it is the law. There is another problem with making doing the right thing as our standard. It is primarily an outward, superficial act, that does not address what is going on inside of us. For example, I may outwardly treat people with courtesy and respect, yet inwardly loathe them. I would look good on the outside, but not be good on the inside.

                Another way to look at what it means to be good is to see it in terms of conforming to the reason for which something exists. For example, a hammer is good when it is used to drive nails, but not so good if it is used in place of a screwdriver. This gets at the heart of what it means for human beings to be good. Being good is not so much a function of our outward actions, but of our fulfilling our purpose in life.

                From a purely pragmatic point of view, the purpose of human beings is to perpetuate the species. If that is our main purpose in life, then we should all be having sex as often as possible, with as many partners as possible. That is what the animal kingdom does. We know in our hearts that that is not right. Some people argue that, because we are just the product of the evolutionary process, our lives have no true meaning or higher purpose. If that is true, then there really is no good or bad, just survival. But, if we really do have a higher purpose than just existing, being good is defined by that purpose.

                The Bible tells us that we were created to live in relationship with God, the one who created us. Because we were created in the image of God, good is defined as reflecting that image in how we live our lives. When Jesus was asked to define the purpose of humanity he summarized it as two, interwoven mandates.
                One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." Mark 12:28-31

                Jesus made it clear that we cannot do the one without the other. Our love for others springs out of our love for God. If we are not in a right relationship with God, then all of our efforts to be good fall short of the mark. Isaiah puts a pretty ugly spin on this idea in Isaiah 64:6. All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. His point is that, if we live in open or even subtle rebellion against God, then even our best efforts at being good are worthless. Why? Because we, by being good, are trying to take the place of God. We make ourselves the center of the universe. We elevate ourselves, the created beings, above God, the Creator.

                Paul reinforces the idea that we can only truly be good when we are in relationship with Christ. He shines a more positive light on the subject in his letter to the Philippians.
                If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
                But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 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. Philippians 3:4b-11

                It is very possible for people to do much good, yet not truly be good. Unless we are in a relationship with God through Christ, all of our goodness is just self-promotion. All of our best efforts fall short of the purpose for which we were created. Paul summarizes this for us in Romans 3.
                But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:21-24

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pause, Reflect, Recharge

                At the beginning of every year, I slip away to a quiet place for my annual study break. For many years I traveled north, to Trout Lake Camps, to settle into an amazing retreat center for several days. There were always a number of other pastors there, who were taking advantage of the same opportunity to pull away from the demands of ministry and recharge. Three years ago, my schedule did not line up with the scheduled study break at Trout Lake. So I headed south to Pine Lake Camp for the Iowa version of pastors’ study break. When I arrived, I discovered that I was the only one who showed up. What felt like an embarrassment to the camp staff turned into a blessing for me. I am now enjoying my third study break in the solitude of Pine Lake Camp’s retreat cabin.

                The holiday season is a mixed bag of experiences for me. I look forward to the special services and events that surround the season. I also look forward to having all of our children home again. This year we stretched Christmas over a longer period of time due to the varied availability of our children. Our daughter was the first to arrive and stayed the longest; just over three weeks. She was followed by our son from California, who managed to carve out two weeks to spend with us. Our oldest son and his wife arrived, after some frustrating travel delays, to round out the family for about five days. Our informally adopted son arrived just two days before the others had to leave. He stayed several days after the rest of the clan departed. Finally, upon his departure, the house was empty and quiet again. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the time we had with our family, but we were both ready for a break when the dust all settled.

                So here I am at study break, reflecting upon the year that has past and looking forward to what comes next. As a classic introvert, I relish this time to recharge my batteries in solitude. There is so little solitude in the normal routine of ministry. There is always something to prepare for, someone to meet with, some crisis to be handled, some meeting to attend. It is important for me to disengage periodically. That is a big part of my experience at study break.

                I am not alone in my need for time to pause, reflect and recharge. Jesus was anything but an introvert, yet he needed regular times away from the crowd. Time to be alone with His Father. Time to sort through the demands of ministry. Time to catch His breath. Mark records one of those times early in Jesus’ public ministry.

                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

                This was Jesus’ common practice. Before He chose the twelve disciples, He spent time alone in prayer. After He had fed the 5000, He retreated to a solitary place to recharge. Jesus routinely pulled away so that He could be more fully engaged when He was with the people.

                Most people today have a hard time with solitude. They fill their lives with people, activities and noise, so that they never have to be alone. I saw a cartoon the other day that made exactly that point. The cartoon is called Zits and it features a family with a teenage boy. You see the boy and his girlfriend maneuvering their way through several frames of amorphous swirls, calling out to one another. In the final frame they lay exhausted on the floor holding their smart phones. “We hit a WiFi dead zone and were alone with our thoughts.”

                We all need times of solitude where we are alone with our thoughts and with God. When we fill our lives with noise, it is hard to hear God speaking to us.

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

Psalm 46:10