Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Ephesians 1:1
    Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
    To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:

                Today is known as Halloween. It has roots in age-old European traditions. It originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of fun activities for kids like trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns.

                Within the Roman Catholic tradition, Saints is a term that is used to designate specific heroes of the faith who have demonstrated extraordinary faith. This has led to the idea that Saints are a limited number of these very special people and all the rest of us would fall into a different category.

                In the New Testament, the distinction between saints and sinners is less clear. Throughout the New Testament, the word “saints” is used 45 times; all in a general sense to mean a group of believers in Christ. The Apostle Paul routinely used the word “saints” to refer to all believers.  Rather than being a special class of people, the New Testament uses “saints” as a designation for all who have genuinely placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The word “saint” is closely linked with the idea of holiness. Saints are the holy ones; the ones set apart for God’s service.

                When we place our faith in Jesus Christ, we called out of a life of sin and into a life of holiness. This is not an optional add on to our faith, but the very core of our faith. As Paul instructs us in Ephesians 4:22-24, You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. We have a significant part to play in living up to our title as a saint. But it does not all depend upon us.

                The good news is that it is Christ who makes us into saints. He is the one who redeems us and takes away the penalty for our sins. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, (Romans 8:1) Not only that, but Christ then gives us His righteousness. 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)

                Now here is the rub; most of us do not see ourselves as saints. Instead, we see ourselves as sinners. We still have the idea that to be a saint is to be perfect in all that we do. This line of thinking is really a trap, which leads us into the death spiral of works righteousness. We spend our lives trying to earn God’s favor, while all the time being weighed down by the burden of our sin. We are trying to be our own Savior, instead of embracing the truth of what Jesus has already done for us.

                The truth that we must come to grips with is that we are both saints and sinners, at the same time! When we look in the mirror we see the sinner. When God looks on us, He sees the saint, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. The Christian life is living in that dynamic tension. We have been justified before God, and we are being sanctified to become like Christ. We are a work in process. Paul highlighted this tension in his own life. 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. (Philippians 3:12)

                The saints in Corinth were a contentious, obstinate bunk. The saints in Galatia had lost their way. Yet Paul embraced both groups and challenged them to live up to who they were in Christ. Real saints still struggle with sin, but they don’t let sin have the last word. Real saints understand that the race is not over until they cross the finish line. Real saints have their eyes on the goal and are striving to be holy just as Christ is holy. We are all a work in progress and we all need to challenge and encourage one another along the way. That is why Paul calls for us to pray for all the saints. 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. (Ephesians 6:18)

Ephesians 4:1-3
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. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Looking in the Mirror

Romans 12:3
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.

                Each morning, as I look in the mirror, I see more things that I don’t want to see. I see more wrinkles on my face and less hair on my head. I see bags under my eyes and a sagging neck. (My kids tease me that I have developed a waddle.) I also see spots on my skin that were not there before. The image that I have in my mind of me and the image I see in the mirror do not match.

                Last week, I attended a conference with a number of other pastors. As I listened to the presentations, I felt like a young, rooky pastor. Then I realized that I was as old, if not older, then most of the pastors there, and had as much, if not more, experience. My perception of myself did not match the reality.

                All of us have a distorted view of ourselves. In many ways, we see ourselves as better than we are. From a physical point of view, we usually think we are in better shape than is true. This comes to light when we engage in some physical activity and then wonder why our muscles ache so much. From a spiritual point of view, we often think we are doing better than we are. This too comes to light when our faith is put to the test.

                Paradoxically, we also see ourselves as worse than we are. I often fall into that trap; downplaying my strengths. I compare myself to others and feel less than adequate. I am timid to fully engage in activities that I am more than competent in, because I am afraid I will not measure up. The fear of failure can be a powerful de-motivator.

                The Apostle Paul challenges us to routinely look in the mirror, God’s mirror, to get an accurate image of ourselves. When Paul tells us to think of ourselves with sober judgment, he is instructing us to take an honest look at both our strengths and our weaknesses. We can summarize what we will discover in two ways.

                From a human point of view, we are far weaker than we think we are. Because of sin in our lives, we are truly handicapped. Satan wants us to take pride in our own abilities and to depend upon our own strength, but he is setting us up for a fall. Jesus highlighted this malady in at least two of the churches mentioned in Revelation 3; the church at Sardis and the church at Laodicea. To Sardis He writes:  These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (Revelation 3:1) And to Laodicea He writes:  You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17)The antidote to this overinflated view of ourselves is found in 1 Peter 5:5-6. 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.

                The other side of the equation tells us that, in Christ, we are far stronger than we think we are. Timothy struggled with a lack of confidence in his ability to serve Christ and the Church. Paul reminded him that, when God calls us, He empowers us. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7) When we rest in the power of Christ, we are more than competent to face the challenges of life. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:37, No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. The key for us is to tap into Christ’s strength.    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. Ephesians 6:10-11

                I went to see my doctor yesterday, for a regular check-up. After we reviewed my blood pressure and my lab results, we talked about the half marathon that I had just run. He asked me if I would ever run a full marathon. I told him that I would not, because my knees would not handle it. He leaned forward and said, “Do you know what that is? That is wisdom.” Knowing our strengths and our limits is wisdom, whether that is physically or spiritually. It is good for us to look in the mirror on a regular basis. It helps us to keep an accurate view of who we really are.

James 1:22-25
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Unity not Uniformity

                There is much talk today about diversity. Diversity is being held up by our culture as a primary virtue. The more diversity that there is, the better. Yet, making diversity the goal has had an unintended consequence; we have sacrificed unity. The motto of the Untied States of America is “E Pluribus Unum”, out of many one. We used to regard America as the great melting pot, where people from diverse backgrounds could come together around common hopes and dreams. Whether that was ever really true, today we have become a nation divided by our diversity, not unity in our diversity.

                The Church has always struggled with the issue of diversity and unity. From the very beginning, the solution that the Church came up with was to strive for uniformity. In other words, to be accepted as a genuine believer in Christ, a person had to conform to all the Jewish laws and requirements. This caused a major split between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. It came to a head at the first Jerusalem council, where Paul and Barnabas made the case for unity in Christ over uniformity. (Acts 15)

                Paul articulated the true ideal of unity, in Christ, in both his letter to the Galatians and to the Colossians.
    There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28  
    Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11

                Paul was not denying our diversity, but raising our unity, in Christ, above all of the things that would naturally divide us. In fact, Paul often used diversity as a tool for sharing the Gospel.
   Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

                Throughout history, the Church has struggled with the conflict between unity and uniformity. Up until the time of the Reformation, the Church lived under the banner of uniformity. Everyone had to conform to the norms and traditions of the Church, or be excluded. The Reformation ushered in a time of great diversity in the Church, with which we are still living.

                Today, we are struggling to regain our unity in Christ, without negating our real diversity. We don’t want a generic, lowest common denominator church, where unity for unity sake is the banner. Neither do we want a rigid, legalistic church, where uniformity is the expected. What we want is genuine unity that allows for honest disagreement, without causing divisions.

                Paul set the standard for us in Romans 14:1-8. Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
    One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. The essence of this passage has been summarized in this way. Unity in essentials, Freedom in non-essentials, Charity in all things.

                Satan is working overtime to fragment the Church. He is effectively sowing the seeds of conflict as the moral and social battles of our society have filtered into the Church. Uniformity excludes and keeps people away from Christ. Diversity for diversity sake divides us into smaller and smaller camps that are ineffective in reaching others for Christ. The goal is real unity that knits a diverse group of people together, in a miraculous way, under the banner of Christ. True “E Pluribus Unum” can only be achieved through humble submission to Jesus Christ.

John 10:14-16
 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”


Tuesday, October 10, 2017


John 4:13-14
Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

                I turned on the faucet and noticed that the water was a dark color. I didn’t think too much about it, until I turned on the faucet on the outside of the house. The water ran brown! We contacted the neighbors, with whom we share a well, and asked them to check their water. We discovered that our well was going dry. It was beginning to pump sand. We had to have a well driller come in and sink a new well for us.

                There are times in our lives when our well runs dry and we begin to pump sand. That was the case with the Samaritan woman Jesus met at Jacob’s well. Jesus had sent His disciples into town to get food, while He rested at the well. It was noon. While He was resting, a woman from the town came to draw water.

                It is important to note that it would have been unusual for a woman to draw water at noon. The women would come in the morning and in the evening when it was cooler. It would have been a social time, as well as a functional necessity. This woman was intentionally avoiding the other woman, by coming during the heat of the day.

                Jesus struck up a conversation with this woman, and soon revealed that she had sunk a number of wells in her life; all of them going dry. With the reality of her dry wells exposed, Jesus offered her water that would truly satisfy her soul. He invited her to sink a well in the one relationship that could sustain her and satisfy her deepest needs.

                Most of us don’t identify with the woman at the well. We view this story from a distance. We tend to apply it to those people out there who have not come to faith in Christ. I want to suggest to you that, even as followers of Christ, we can dig dry wells. Here are a few common wells that we dig.

                We can sink our well in the popular culture of the day. It is so easy for us to do this, because we are enticed to buy in every day. We can buy into being relevant and cutting edge, with the hope that it will make us effective in ministry. But because popular culture is so fluid, we soon become spiritual chameleons. We find ourselves always just one step behind the latest trends. One day we wake up in flip-flops and ripped jeans, only to find that everyone else is wearing Armani suits. The deeper we sink our well in popular culture, the more we pump sand.

                We can sink our well in all of the latest technology. Technology is a great tool, but a brutal task master. Just like popular culture, technology changes at a rapid pace. Often, by the time we have secured all of the latest technology, it is out of date. We are constantly being told that there is a newer and better version that we have to have. Social media can begin to dominate our lives and drain us of energy. The deeper we sink our well into technology, the more sand we pump.

                We can sink our well into the approval of others. We are all susceptible to this, to one extent or another. Ministry is all about building relationships, but it is easy to make the approval of others more important than the goal of serving Christ. Seeking to meet everyone’s expectations, so that they will like us, is another dry well that pumps sand.

                Even pursuing theology can become a dry well. When I was in seminary, our President warned us that the greatest danger we would face in seminary was that we would become theologians and lose our faith. Good theology is essential to our faith, but when it becomes our primary focus, it dries up. Intense study can morph into a passion to be right and to prove how smart we are. We find ourselves fighting marginal battles, over obscure points of theology, for the right to be king of the theological hill. We are soon sucking sand.

                Ministry itself can become a dry well for us. We can create programs and systems to advance the work of the Gospel. These are not bad, but when they become primary, they begin to drain us dry. We can put more and more effort into maintaining “our” ministry. We give all of our energy to keep the ministry afloat, which requires us to sink our well deeper and deeper. Soon, we are sucking sand, again.

                After we have sunk a number of dry wells, we find ourselves sitting next to the Samaritan woman, longing for water that will sustain. It is there that Jesus will meet us. There is only one source of living water, and that is Jesus. If we are not sinking our well deeply into our relationship with Him, we will run dry. The means of drawing water from Jesus’ well are not unknown to us, but they are often neglected. There are four basic tools we need to sink our well deep in Christ.

                The first is regular, personal study of God’s Word. We don’t study the Bible to gain theological knowledge or to learn interesting Bible facts. We study the Bible to grow closer to Christ. We study, not to speak to others, but to allow Jesus to speak to us. As Colossians 3:16 says, let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

                The second tool is prayer; both individual and corporate. Prayer is one of the ways that God shapes and molds our hearts. In prayer He makes us aware of the things He wants us to focus upon. In prayer, we learn to depend upon Him and trust Him. Through prayer, God wants to reveal His majesty and glory to us. Prayer is not an Amazon wish list, but a dynamic dialog with God.

                The third tool is fellowship. God did not design the Christian life to be a solo journey. Colossians 3:16 goes on the say, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. Hebrews 10:25 resonates with Paul’s words. 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 can encourage one another through corporate worship, but we also need to interact one-on-one and in small groups throughout the week. We are most vulnerable when we are alone. We are strongest when we stand together.

                The fourth tool is service. Jesus made it clear that if we want to tap into His living water, we need to sink our well into service. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:42-45

                Overall, the key to sinking our well in the right place is humility. Our wells go dry because our focus is on us and not Christ. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 1 Peter 5:6


Tuesday, October 3, 2017


2 Corinthians 3:5
Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.

                Have you ever been called incompetent? I have. It happened to me twice while I was working at Samaritan Hospital in St. Paul. I was hired as the night Lab Technician on weekends. I was the only one on duty Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. After I was hired, I was informed that I would have to do EKGs. That was something that I had not been trained to do. I was given a half hour introduction on how to perform an EKG and then I was on my own. The first time one was ordered I messed up. The Doctor on duty that night pronounced me incompetent. That little incident pushed me to make sure that I got it right the next time. On another occasion, a lab test was ordered that I did not recognize. I told the nurse in charge that it was not on my STAT list. I soon received a call from the attending physician who informed me that I was wrong and told me I was incompetent. That too spurred me to make sure that I was ready to perform that test the next time it was ordered.

                There have been many times, over the past 35 years of ministry, that I have felt incompetent. I encountered that feeling on my very first day as a young associate pastor. The Senior Pastor was out of town and the message came into the office that one of the church members had died. I was dispatched to go and comfort the grieving widow. I felt completely unprepared to face this delicate situation. As I drove to the home of the widow, I prayed that God would give me the right words. I do not remember anything that I said that day, but a unique bond was formed with that widow, which has lasted for decades.

                I have often felt inadequate as a leader. Yet, through the years, God has continually placed in positions of leadership. Many of those times, others have affirmed that I was to lead. On a couple of occasions, I have been told that I was inadequate for the task, yet God still used me to lead through that difficult situation. What I have learned over the years is that my competence is not dependent upon my talents and skills. My competence is dependent upon yielding my talents and skills to God and allowing Him to use them for His glory.

                Think of how many leaders in the Bible were basically incompetent to lead, until God got a hold of them. Think of Moses, Gideon, David, Peter. All of these men had major flaws, yet God used each one in a powerful way. Moses was a fugitive; reluctant to go back and face Pharaoh, full of excuses why he was the wrong choice. Gideon was timid, scared, and full of self-doubt. David was young and inexperienced. Peter was brash, often speaking before he thought; jumping into situations that he should not have.

                All of us could use incompetence as an excuse for not stepping up to the plate in service for Christ. I can tell you, from firsthand experience, that Jesus doesn’t accept that excuse. He didn’t accept it from Moses or Gideon, and He will not accept it from us. If He calls us, and He has, then He will empower us to accomplish the mission.

                Paul understood this clearly. Paul had all of the theological training that one could want. Yet, when it came to serving Christ as an Apostle, he felt out of his depth. He had to learn that his skills and talents could take him only so far. At some point, he had to rest in the power of God to take his efforts to a new, higher level. That is exactly what happened. Paul was constantly dealing with those who called him incompetent to lead. Instead of attacking them and defending himself, he turned to Christ. He was able to draw strength from the truth that it was Christ who empowered him to spread the Gospel and lead the Church. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

                We all feel incompetent at times to serve Christ. We all have excuses about why we are inadequate and why God should use someone else. The bottom line is that none of our excuses matter. When Jesus calls us into service, He makes us competent to serve, whether others agree or not. Our confidence is in Christ and not ourselves. As Paul says, in Romans 8:31, What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?