Wednesday, September 27, 2017

GODLY CHARACTER

1 Corinthians 10:12,
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!

                What does it mean for us to have godly character? It is an important question, but not an easy one. Quick, easy answers to what it means to have godly character mask a lack of genuine understanding. Godly character is not something we can apply to our lives from the outside, like a veneer. Godly character begins at the core of our being and permeates every aspect of our life.

                As a woodworker, I prefer solid wood to veneers. A veneer is a thin layer of an expensive wood that is glued to a cheaper wood to make it look better. On the surface, a solid piece of oak looks just like a piece of pine with an oak veneer. If you sand the one piece of wood enough, you will soon break through the veneer and expose the pine below. If you sand the solid piece of oak, it will remain true.

                The same principle is true for us. If our character is merely a spiritual veneer, when the trials and pressures of life rub against us, our true character will come through. If our character is genuine, the trials and pressures of life will reveal that as well.

                One of the reasons to use a veneer is to get a consistent look, without flaws. Veneers are created to look perfect. When working with solid wood, you often encounter small flaws that make the look less than perfect. If the image of my character is too perfect, then it is most likely a veneer. If on the other hand small flaws are evident, then it is more likely the real thing. So what are the general qualities of a godly character?

                A person with a godly character is genuinely humble. Humility is not a trait that is valued today. As a society, we celebrate the bold, the arrogant, the self-promoting. The truly humble person is lost in the shadows. In some ways, humility is seen as a weakness, not a strength. Yet, God places great value on being a person of humility. In Proverbs 3:34, Solomon writes: He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble. James picks up on this and takes it a step farther.
    But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
    "God opposes the proud
        but gives grace to the humble."
    Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:6-10

                A person with a godly character has a realistic understanding of their strengths and weakness. The problem with a veneer character is that it promotes a false understanding of ourselves. We begin to believe that the fa├žade we have created is genuine, when it is not. Paul challenges us to be honest with ourselves about the true nature of our character. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Romans 12:3

                A person with a godly character focuses more on what God thinks than on what people think. We put on spiritual veneers to impress others. We want to be seen as more spiritual than we really are. We want others to be impressed by our godliness. Genuine godly character looks for God’s approval above the approval of people. Paul was constantly struggling with people’s opinion about him. In Galatians 1, Paul puts his cards on the table, so to speak. Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. Galatians 1:10

                A person with a godly character is gentle toward others, full of grace. One of the sure signs of a veneer character is our negative response to others when they rub against us. In the heat of the friction that is caused, our true character will come through, in the form of anger, bitterness, resentment. What we want to come through is grace. A person with a godly character may have a negative immediate response, but they will deal with the other person with real gentleness and grace. Conflict is always a test of our character. Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Galatians 6:1

                A person with a godly character knows that they are unfinished. Remember that the goal of a veneer is perfection. A veneer character will always protect the image of perfection. Genuine, godly character recognizes the rough edges and imperfections. A person with a godly character sees themselves as a work in progress. They are always striving to smooth out the rough edges and work through the imperfections of their lives. Instead of hiding their unfinished state, they acknowledge it in appropriate ways. They don’t make excuses, they take steps to strengthen their character. I truly admire the Apostle Paul for this quality. He saw himself as a work in progress right up to the end of his life.
    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. Philippians 3:10-14

                We are all works in progress. God is in the process of shaping, molding, and refining our character.  As we faithfully cooperate with Him, we will more and more reflect His image and glory into our world. Let’s not settle for a veneer of character, but strive for true, godly character that goes all the way to the core of our being.

Philippians 1:3-6
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

   


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

REDISCOVERING PRAYER

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.

                I have always believed in prayer. I have practiced the discipline of prayer most of my life. I have dedicated specific times in my day and in my week for prayer. But, I have always struggled with prayer. Too easily I fall into routine patterns. Too easily my mind wonders and I lose focus. Too easily I see prayer as a last resort, instead of my first response to every situation.

                I recently reread Ben Patterson’s book Deepening Your Conversation with God. Ben is open, honest, and candid about his own spiritual journey. There are so many things that he shares with which I can identify. His last chapter on corporate prayer was especially convicting. He points out, with lazar focus, that we have made prayer a personal endeavor and lost the power and significance of corporate prayer. He boldly suggests that one of the reasons that the church in America lacks power is that it lacks corporate prayer.

                My wife and I have been reading the Mitford books together. The main character in these books, by Jan Karon, is Father Tim, an Episcopal priest in a small North Carolina village. The author has a remarkable handle on the life of a pastor. One of the things that always catches my attention is the way that Father Tim prays. His prayers sound formal, even memorized, yet ring true and genuine. In part, because of Father Tim’s prayers, and in part, because I want to reignite my devotional life, I pulled a book off of my shelf called A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants. It comes from a distinctly liturgical context, but it has been a fresh addition to my devotional time.

                One of the aspects of this guide is that it gives a written invocation and benediction for each week. The authors suggest that a person use these prayers daily. On the surface, these prayers are old fashioned and a little stiff, but their sentiment is powerful. I have begun rewriting these prayers for my own use; adapting them to my style. It has been refreshing.

                There are two ways that we most often approach prayer. First, we approach prayer as a formal duty that we dispense as quickly as possible. Second, we approach prayer as a last resort, a desperate plea for help from God. Neither of these approaches lines up with the biblical concept of prayer. Prayer is intended to be an ongoing dialog with God; a perpetual conversation, which informs all of our lives. Paul simply says, pray continually because this is God’s will for you.

                As I have struggled with prayer over the years, there are three things that keep coming to the surface. God wants us to pray often, pray broadly, and pray specifically. Paul combines all three of these observations at the end of his description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6. Look carefully at what he writes.

    And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
    Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. Ephes. 6:18-20
                Paul instructs us to pray on all occasions with all the resources of prayer that are at our disposal. He tells us to pray for all the saints, because we are not on this journey alone. It is important that we broaden our focus beyond our personal needs. Then he concludes by telling us to pray specifically for the advancement of the Gospel.


                Prayer is not a formality to be gotten through so we can get on with the real work. Prayer is the real work. Prayer is the power source that we need to be able to accomplish what God wants of us. Without genuine prayer, we are flying blind in a spiritual fog, with no real sense of direction. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Fallacy of “Full-time” Ministry

                Growing up in church, I came to believe that God’s highest calling in a person’s life was to be a missionary overseas. Second best was to go into “full-time” ministry in the States. To be a Christian working a secular job was a distant third; an also-ran of sorts. When I was awakened to the realities of my faith, I automatically set my sights on becoming a missionary. I wanted to prove to God that I was really serious, so I was willing to go all the way. In the end, God had a different path for me to walk.

                50 years later, this subtle message still permeates the church. If you are really serious about your faith, you will go into some kind of “full-time” ministry. To settle for working a normal, secular job is somehow second best spiritually. I have talked with a number of young adults who, in their desire to serve Christ, are convinced that they have to change their course and go into “full-time” ministry. Sadly for many of them, this does not work out at all the way they thought it would.

                Many people who are part of a church embrace the reverse version of this fallacy. They have come to believe that ministry belongs exclusively to those in “full-time” service, and their role is to cheer them on from the sidelines. This mentality has created an artificial divide between “clergy” (those in full-time ministry) and the laity (everyone else).

                There is a story in Mark 5 that blows a huge hole in the fallacy of “full-time” ministry. It is the story of the demon-possessed man. Let me summarize the story. Jesus and his disciples have been out on the lake in a storm, which Jesus calmed. They landed their boat at a place called the region of the Gerasenes. As soon as they stepped onto dry land, they were confronted by a demon-possessed man. He was so violent that he could not be restrained even with iron chains. He lived by himself “among the tombs and in the hills.”

                When this man saw Jesus, he ran up to Jesus and fell at His feet. The demons within the man cried for mercy from Jesus. Jesus cast them out of the man and into a herd of pigs that were nearby. The man was freed from his bondage, much to the surprise of the local residents. Now here comes the point about “full-time” ministry.

                 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. Mark 5:18-20

                This man had experienced a “conversion” that most of us could never imagine. His first response was to sign up to be on Jesus’ ministry team. But Jesus would not let him. Instead, Jesus sent him back to his family. Jesus instructed him to tell people about what Jesus had done for him, and that is what he did.

                As it says in Ephesians 4:11-12, Christ has called some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. The key word here is some. Some are called into “full-time” ministry to prepare all to be full-time disciples of Jesus. Like the demon-possessed man, most believers are called to go back into their normal life to be witnesses to the power of Christ to transform a life. If we want to see our world transformed, we need more full-time disciples living out their faith in every corner of society. Some of us are called into “full-time” ministry positions, but all of us are called into full-time service for Christ, right where we are.

Colossians 3:17

 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him