Tuesday, November 27, 2018

LIVING IN THE SHADOWS


                If I am honest with myself, I spend too much time living in the shadows. One of the greatest fears that many of us have is being exposed. There are parts of our lives that we do not want to be made public for any reason. We do not like to feel vulnerable. For all of the talk today of living a transparent life, few of us actually do. There is a part of our lives that we intentionally leave in the shadows. John Eldridge has said that there is a question that plagues every man. “Am I good enough?” “Do I measure up?” Many of us spend our lives trying to prove ourselves, which usually means we hide our faults and our vulnerabilities.

                One of the most well-known chapters in the Bible is John 3. We are quick to embrace verses 16-17. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  We are not so quick to move on to verses 19-21. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." If we do venture into these verses, we usually use them as a spotlight on those people out there, and not as a mirror into our own hearts.

                Because we are in the process of being sanctified, our lives are a mix of what is good and what is evil. Our desire is to emulate the good, but we are afraid of exposing that which is not so good. I know from personal experience that it is a frightening and humbling experience to be exposed. We are in a constant battle between the light and the darkness. Therefore, we find ourselves, at times, living in the shadows.

                Paul talks openly about this struggle in Romans 7.
                We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
                So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:14-24)

                There are many scholars (who are much more qualified than me) who explain this passage as Paul’s pre-conversion experience.  I believe that this was Paul’s constant struggle throughout his life. I know that it has been mine. The more that I grow in my faith, the more aware I am of all of the ways I fall short. I am keenly aware that I have vulnerabilities. I periodically stumble and fall, then I beat myself up for not measuring up. Praise God that the balance of my life has fallen on the side of the light, but I cannot deny that there are still parts of my life in the shadows.

                Paul answers the question he posed with a resounding expression of praise. Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25a) Later on in Romans, Paul makes one of the most amazing and encouraging statements for all who struggle. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2) It is not that the struggle has gone away; it still remains. But in our struggle, we know that we have the ultimate victory in Christ Jesus. Paul’s words give me hope in the midst of my struggles. Instead of giving up the fight, I fight harder to move out of the shadows and into the light.

                I have been rereading Larry Osborne’s book “Accidental Pharisees”. Today I was reminded of how we can create a spiritual fa├žade to hide behind. Like the bully who beats up on others because he is insecure, so we can project a kind of spirituality that hides our insecurity and vulnerability. Coming into the light does not mean being perfect, it means being genuine. It means being honest with our struggles and dealing with them instead of trying to hide them.


   


   

Saturday, November 17, 2018

TIME TO GIVE THANKS


              In many ways, Thanksgiving is the forgotten holiday. Many people rush past Thanksgiving in their headlong plunge into the Christmas shopping frenzy. For many people, Thanksgiving is just a day to overeat and watch football. When you leave God out of the Thanksgiving picture, it does seem to be rather hollow. Because there is confusion about the true meaning of Thanksgiving, some people have substituted a new tradition called Friendsgiving; a time to celebrate your friends.

                Being thankful is one of the things that the Bible repeatedly challenges us to do. In the Psalms alone, we are challenged to give thanks 20 times. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he tells us that thankfulness is at the heart of God’s will. Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
   
                As I have been reflecting on Thanksgiving, I have been aware of so many things for which I am thankful to God. Let me share with you a short list of things I want to give thanks to God for.

                Having been prompted recently to think about my experiences in Ukraine, I am reminded of things I take for granted every day. I am thankful for central heating, paved roads, indoor plumbing, and fully stocked grocery stores.

                This year, Suanne and I will be traveling to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with our family. I am thankful for a reliable car that will transport us from the frozen tundra of North Dakota to the less frozen sands of Western Michigan. I am thankful for the opportunity to spend time with our two grandsons. I am thankful that our entire family will be together.

                I am thankful for 31 years of ministry at Bethel Baptist Church in Mankato, MN. I am thankful for the lessons that God has taught me along the way about what it means to be a pastor. I am thankful that God has been patient with me as I have grown in my faith and in my skill as a pastor. I am thankful for all of the people I have been able to invest in spiritually and all of the people who have invested in me. I am thankful that God allowed me to invest the vast majority of my ministry in one place.

                I am thankful for the opportunity to continue doing ministry in Cavalier, ND. I am thankful for a church that desires to grow in their faith and in their influence in the community. I am thankful for people who have embraced us and made us feel at home in a new environment.

                I am thankful that I have free access to the Bible. I am thankful that the Bible is God’s living word, which speaks into my life. I am thankful that the Bible is relevant in every culture and to every generation.

                I am thankful for my wife, Suanne, who has been my partner in life and in ministry. She has made me a better person and a better pastor.

                Above all, I am thankful that I am a child of God, through my faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for me on the cross of Calvary.

Hebrews 12:28
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

KEEPING OUR FEET ON THE GROUND


                I have been attending a weekly men’s Bible study. We have been studying the book of Hebrews. Sometimes our discussions get pretty deep. This morning was one of those times. Our group is made up of men with a variety of backgrounds and a wide range of theological understanding. At times our discussion elevates to the rarified air of profound and often confusing theology. When this happens, I will often try to bring us back down to ground level. This morning, after the Bible study was over, one of the men stopped by my office and thanked me for putting things in simpler terms.

                When Jesus was teaching the crowds profound truths about the Kingdom of God, He used stories that they could all identify with. He took common situations and common objects and used them to illustrate deep theological truth. I am sure that the Pharisees, who loved arguing the subtler points of the Law, thought that Jesus was simplistic, but He was able to communicate on a level that common people would understand.

                I am a reader, and so I have read many books on theology and our faith.  Some of those books have left me cold. All that the author has to say is true, but he communicates it in a way that makes it confusing. It is as if we have something profound to say, we need to say it in the most complicated way possible. The books that I resonate with the most are those where the author relates theology to real life situations. In order for me to grasp abstract concepts, I need to see them in concrete terms.

                Years ago, in order to sharpen my skills as a communicator, I enrolled in a course on writing children’s books. One of the first lessons that I learned from that course was in my writing to show rather than tell. I can state a fact; the black cat entered the room. Or I can show my audience a black cat; the cat curled itself around the corner of the doorway and sauntered into the room. The sun played off of the sheen of its black coat as she padded her way toward her favorite chair.

                Just like in writing children’s stories, we need to learn to show people theological truth rather than just state the facts. One of the gifts that God has given to me is the ability to see theological truth in common things. When I preach, I am always looking for some way to connect the people to the truth in terms that they will comprehend. My role is not to impress people with the depth of my knowledge, but to instruct people in the truth of the Gospel. The less complicated I can make that the better.

                I just finished rereading a book by Larry Osborne titled “Spirituality for the Rest of Us.” In that book, he makes the case that we have made following Jesus more complicated than we need to. In our attempts at being spiritual, we have made discipleship more complex and confusing than it needs to be. We have raised the bar so high that few people will ever attain it. To paraphrase what Osborne is trying to tell us, we need to get our heads out of the clouds and keep our feet on the ground.

                I have run across a poem several times in my reading that has often challenged me. The essence of the poem is that we have a choice of how we will live out our faith. The author uses a door into a garden to illustrate his point. He speaks of those who, having walked through the door, venture as far into the garden as they can and as far from the door as they can. But he states that he prefers to stay by the door, to help others find their way into the garden.

                There is a place for deep theological study. There is value in venturing into that rarefied air. There is also the need for us to keep our feet on the ground, so that we can help others find their way.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5
    When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

   

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS?


                As I write this, the Cleveland Browns football team has won 2 games, lost 6 games, and tied 1 game. In comparison to their performance over the past two years, this is success. Compared to the rest of the NFL, this is failure. Success is a very relative concept. It all depends upon what standard is used to measure it.

                I often vacillate between seeing myself as successful and as unsuccessful. To be honest, most of the time I lean toward the unsuccessful side of the equation. It is a personality fault of mine. I tend to be far harder on myself than others are. But just to put things into context, for the past 31 years I served as the Senior Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Mankato, MN. When I began, we were a congregation of about 75 people. When I left, our average Sunday worship attendance was 240. That looks like success. But if you look closer, you will see that there was a time when we were averaging about 400 in worship. We failed to break through the 400 barrier and fell back to 240. That looks like something less than success.

                I have been rereading Larry Osborne’s book “Spirituality for the Rest of Us.” In that book he reminds us that God’s measure of success and our measure of success are radically different. God weights success more heavily on the side of faithful service, rather than on tangible results. It is not that results are not important, but they are not the final word about success. Many who have had amazing tangible results have proved, in the end, to be failures in God’s sight.

                In my devotions today, I read the parable of the ten minas, as recorded in Luke 19:11-27. In this parable, the master gave ten servants each on mina. One mina was an amount of money roughly equivalent to three months wages. The master charged his servants with putting his money to work for his benefit. After a while, the master returned to settle accounts with his servants. The parable records the results from only three of the servants. The first servant returned the original mina plus ten more. The second servant returned the original mina plus 5 more. The third servant returned the original mina. The master was pleased with the first two servants. They were both commended for their faithful service. The master was not happy with the third servant. He was deemed unfaithful and cast out. The master measured the success of his servants by their faithfulness to the task, not their results.

                I have struggled with the idea that God measures success by faithfulness. Too often I have heard Christians excuse the lack of results by claiming that they have been faithful. I believe that true faithfulness will bring results. The results may not be dramatic, but they will be there. You can make the case that in the parable, the third servant was faithful in guarding his master’s money, but he was negligent in not accomplishing anything with it. We cannot use faithfulness as an excuse for not trying.

                In the end, God is going to judge our performance on what we have done with what He has given to us. He is not going to judge us against what others have done with what they have been given. God expects a return on His investment, but the real return He is seeking is faithful service for Him.

                Here is the really good news. If we faithfully stay connected to Jesus, the results will come, and God will be pleased with us. "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) If we are faithful in our service for Christ, we can leave the results in God’s hands.

                True success is far more profound and meaningful than numbers of people attending a worship service or the number of dollars placed in a savings account. True success is measured by how faithfully we accomplish the task that God has given each one of us to do. God has entrusted us with time, energy, and material resources. How we use these for His glory will be the measure of our success in life. Our success may come in the form of raising our family well, or being the best employee we can be. It could mean leading a small group Bible study, or leading an entire congregation. It could mean being a good neighbor to the people who live around you. One day God will settle accounts with us, and He will measure our success by how faithful we have been at living our life for His glory.   

1 Corinthians 4:2
    Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.

Luke 12:42-44
    The Lord answered, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.