Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sabbath for Christians

I am struck by the fact that there are more instructions concerning Sabbath than say, the day of atonement in the Bible. When God created the word, he rested on the 7th day. There is a reason why this is included in the account of creation. The narrator in Genesis explains that God set apart the seventh day as special. He commanded Israel to rest on the seventh day because he himself rested on the seventh day.

Did God need to rest? Was he tired? It would seem that an omnipotent God would not need to rest. However, I do know that he was "refreshed" on that seventh day of rest according to Exodus 31:17. I am not sure what that means for God, but I do know what it is supposed to mean for God's people. They were to take time to be refreshed on a regular basis.

When God commands a Sabbath rest for his people in Deuteronomy 5, he reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt, but he freed them and joined to a merciful and benevolent owner, God himself. Every seven days, everyone was to rest, including slaves, servants, visitors, and animals. Even the land itself was to receive a Sabbath year (Lev 25:4). After fifty years, there was to be a special Sabbath year in which all slaves were set free and all debts forgiven (Lev 25:10).

Sabbath was to be a rhythm that penetrated all of life. Every week, God's people were to rest, giving them an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their work in light of God's redeeming work. God gave them Sabbath as a gift to refresh their bodies and their souls.

It seems to me that Sabbath is a time for us to interpret our work in light of God's work. Whether it was freedom from bondage to an Egyptian taskmaster, or freedom from bondage to sin, God's work results in freedom. Sabbath was a time to reflect on God's work.

There was a time when I would have said, "So what? That is in the Old Testament and we are not under the Old Testament." The extent of any study I had done concerning the Sabbath was merely to refute Sabbatarians.

While it is clear that we as Christians are not under the law (Rom 7:1ff; Heb 7-10), there is still a lot to learn from the law. In fact, Paul calls the law our "tutor" to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24). The law teaches us lessons about the nature of holiness, sin, worship, and a number of other topics.

What are the numerous instructions concerning the Sabbath rest supposed to teach me as a Christian? Even though I as Christians am not under law, the need for Sabbath still remains. It is to be a special time for reflection, renewal, and recommitment. It seems that for so many who do not observe a periodic Sabbath in their life wind up slaves. They often become slaves to work, measuring their worth in terms of the amount of work they do or their earnings rather than in terms of the God in whose image they were created and recreated.

I suppose this means I need to take my periodic Sabbaths and they need to be non-negotiable. I understand that Sabbath rest is not the same as mere leisure. One refreshes only the body, but the other refreshes both body and soul. I need to take time to rest, refresh, reflect, reconnect, recommit, and renew. I would think this would give me the spiritual fortitude God intends for me to have for the sake of my Lord, my family, and my ministry.

The Sabbath tutors me concerning Christ. Jesus said,

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matt 11:28-30).

Jesus himself offers "rest." What is curious is that he offers rest even as he invites me to take his yoke and his burden upon myself. That tells me that if I am weary and heavy laden, I need to put down that load and come to Christ. My self worth does not come from how much money I can make, the level of expertise I have, or the position I hold in my vocation. Rather, my self worth is connected to the God who created my in his image. It is rooted in my savior who gave the very best he could give to redeem me to himself. It is on the basis of his redemptive work that I enjoy fellowship with my Lord.

This frees me from the burden of trying to measure up. He gives me the grace to work and serve for no other motivation other than to love my Lord. Indeed, his yoke is easy and his burden is light!

If I do not take time to celebrate a Sabbath periodically, I may miss this. If I do not take the time to reflect on the meaning of my work, I may work for the wrong motivations. Even if I take time off for leisure without Sabbath, I may still miss out on the meaning of what I do. Living without the Sabbath principle may cause a certain spiritual fatigue in my soul even if my body is rested. Sabbath enables me to interpret my work in light of God's work.

Lord, I wish to nurture my soul because it is what will be eternal. It is where I commune with you. I wish to feed my soul as much as I feed my body. I await the ultimate Sabbath when I am in your presence in eternity (Heb 4).

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Model Father

I recently read about Rick Hoyt, a man who has been severely disabled from birth. During birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and strangled him, leaving him severely brain damaged. He is unable to talk, walk, or use his hands. Doctors told his parents that he would never be anything more than a vegetable and that they should just put him in an institution.

Rick's father, Dick Hoyt, was unwilling to accept this. He could see in his son's bright eyes that he was not a vegetable. After taking him to the engineering department at Tufts University and fitting him with a computer that he can use to communicate by tapping a button with the side of his head, they began to communicate in a way they hadn't before. This enabled Rick to do so much more. Not only did Rick graduate High School, he also went on to college and got a degree in special education.

When a classmate was injured and the school organized a charity run for him, Rick typed out to his dad, "Dad, I want to do that."

Dad was not an athlete and not in shape, but he did it anyway. When they started the five mile race, many of the people watching thought that Dick would push his son down to the corner and come back. But he didn't. He ran the entire five miles. Afterward, Rick typed out, "Dad, when we were running, it feels like I'm not even handicapped!"

So began the first of many races, which not only included marathons, but triathlons as well. Some have told Dick that he ought to try racing on his own without Rick, since he does well even towing his disabled son around. But Dick never does. Dick makes it clear that the motivation for his running is for his son Rick to be able to live a normal life. Rick cannot race without his Dad, Dick, and Dick will not race without his son, Rick. They are called "Team Hoyt." Rick's father has become his arms and his legs in the race.

Here are a couple of videos that chronicle the highlights of this amazing journey.

(Note: You will need Flash Player to play these videos. Click here to download it)

Part 1 (click arrow twice to start video)



Part 2 (click arrow twice to start video)



After watching these videos, I was stuck by a father's love for his son. Dick gave up so much for his son, but never does he ever regret it. Rick can do none of this without his father, so his father has become his arms, his legs, his strength. Dick outputs and amazing amount of time, effort, and energy for his son. They do everything together. What an amazing father!

It occurs to me that this is sort of the way it is with my Heavenly Father. My sins, which twisted my life, rendered me a powerless and slave to them. He took those sins and bore them upon himself. He bore them out of love for me. I can do nothing without my Father. Without him, I would still be enslaved. It is my Father who is at work in me both to "will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). Truly, I can do nothing without him. I can neither will nor work to please Him.

I am still weak, but his power is demonstrated in my weakness. He carries me through life with his strength. When I sin, I remind myself that I can do no better without Him, and that I need to reconnect with Him. I cannot do it on my own. Without him, I would be stuck right where I was. The strength that I now have is really not my own. His power is demonstrated in my weakness. He gave and continues to give to me endlessly.

What a challenge this is for me! God is the model Father, and I want to be a Father like Him. As a Father like God, I need to model selfless, sacrificial love that seeks the good of others before myself. If God is the model Father for me and I try to model myself after him, perhaps my kids will get a small, imperfect glimpse of God in me. Godliness. What a rich word, full of love.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

How I Use God's Time


"There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven--A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance … (Eccl 3:1-4)."

And on and it goes. I used to think that this was a passage that reminds us merely that there are various season of life that come and go. However, when I read the passage in context, I see something different. At the conclusion of this section, the preacher asks, "What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?" (Eccl 3:9). This is not a rhetorical question. The overall tone in the book of Ecclesiastes is ironic. The author seems to highlight the limits of traditional wisdom and the general meaninglessness of much of what humans do. The opening of the book portrays the endless cycle of life that goes on and on and on in weariness (Eccl 1:3-9). There is a circular view of time with little meaning to it. Sure, there is a time for everything. So what?

There is meaning to time, and it will not be found "under the sun." It is found it the God whom we were created to honor, serve and love. Time only has meaning in him. The time that my God has allotted to me needs to be ordered according to him. That is what a passage in Ephesians reminds me of.

"Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph 5:15-17)."

Making the most of" your time literally is "redeeming" the time. I looked up the Greek word used in this passage, "exargazo," and it means to "redeem, deliver, or purchase the freedom of." This tells me that my time can be held captive. Dominant forces in my life can take my time hostage. Therefore, I need to "redeem" it, or "deliver" it from captivity according to "what the will of the Lord is."

As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that we all have been given 1,440 minutes every day. We all use the time that has been allotted to us. We really have no choice but to use it. But to what end do we use it for?

There are many demands placed on my time. By what criteria do I determine how I allocate it? If I do not give this any prior thought, then my time will probably be hijacked by every perceived emergency or desire of the dominant people in my life. Whether it is a neighbor, friend, boss, or something else, my time may be up for grabs to whoever is the most dominant, demanding or loudest. It may be a boss, a demanding friend, a task, or something else.

Unordered time leads to a disorganized life. Gordon MacDonald shares some traits of a disorganized life, which are indications of unordered time. Some of these hit close to home, such as clutter in my life, including on my desk, in my car, on my dresser, etc. I still remember Joe Jones, one of my teachers at Harding University, who use to say, "If you have to spend more than 10 minutes looking for something, you are not a good steward of your time." Another symptom is the difficulty of enjoying intimate relationships with others, including God. God usually doesn't shout when I neglect my spiritual disciplines. My family understands when I am too busy to go to a ball game or participate in a family activity. There are other forces in my life, which can be more demanding a less understanding. However, I recognize that those forces are often not the most important thing in life and can wait.

Time is the most valuable resource God has given me. Like my bank account, I need to budget my time according to what is truly important. It has to begin with prayer and it needs to be honest. Stephen Covey has some useful time management tools that can be found easily online. I like table below. Every task and demand of my time will fall in one of the four quadrants, and each quadrant has instruction on how to handle it. It is beneficial to spend some time with this reflecting on your use of time.




Urgent

Not Urgent
Important

1 - DO NOW - Subject to confirming the importance and the urgency of these tasks, do these tasks now. Prioritize according to their relative urgency.

2 - PLAN TO DO - Critical to success: planning, deciding direction and aims, etc. Plan time-slots and personal space for these tasks.
NotImportant
Not Important

3 - REJECT AND EXPLAIN - Scrutinize and probe demands. Help originators to re-assess. Wherever possible reject and avoid these tasks sensitively and immediately.

4 - RESIST AND CEASE - Habitual 'comforters' not true tasks. Non-productive, de-motivational. Minimize or cease altogether. Plan to avoid them.

It occurs to me that for this tool to be even more effective, I need to have some clear cut criteria as to which activity goes into which quadrant. Nearly every successful organization has a mission statement of some sort. It guides how they appropriate, order, and use their resources. What about a personal mission statement? Can I articulate what my God-given mission in life is? If not, I may have a little trouble deciding which activity or task goes into which quadrant.

Here are some steps that seem to be a logical way of going about it.

1) Have a clear sense of mission. I need to have a clear sense of God's mission. My mission should be to love God and love my neighbor. Any particulars of how I carry out that mission needs to flow from this.

2) Identify the Non-negotiable parts of my time. These are things that come first that I do not sacrifice for something else. Things such as my alone time with God, my family time, etc., these are non-negotiable and come first.

3) Budget and prioritize. Ibudget other resources in my life, such as money. Time is something that I need to budget. The chart above is a good tool for this. I need to place the current demands of my time, and any demands that come up in one of the four quadrants and follow the suggested instructions there.

I pray that I can become a better steward of the time that God has allotted to me.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

God's Common People

Having completed a Revival Meeting in my home town of Plattsmouth, Nebraska has caused quite a bit of reflection. It had been nearly fourteen years since I had been in Plattsmouth and preached a sermon. It was there in that little congregation that I first cut my ministry teeth. I preached my first sermon as a teen there. I remember the bus program for which the church was known for around town. I remember the active Youth Group of some 21 teens. I remember the skit group that existed, the Eye Openers. I remember some of the full time preachers in the years I was there such as Clay Ross, Chris Thurber, and Paul Stidham. I remember worship attendance of 120 people. I remember the Youth Rallies, Area Wide Men's Fellowships, Area Singings, and Gospel Meetings we hosted. I remember the regular visitation, the Jule Miller Filmstrip Studies, and the outreach and evangelism that was a part of the congregation. I remember the church growing to the point it undertook a building program to accomodate the growth. I remember the air of excitement and joy I felt. I remember that at one point a majority of the people on Tammy Lane were Christians.

I felt a surge of excitement go through the congregation again. It doesn't matter that there are now less than twenty people in the congregation. God has demonstrated time after time that our size, ability, appeal, etc. doesn't matter. What matters is that we ordinary people believe in an extraordinary God. If God can call an 80 year old man to lead an entire nation out of bondage, then he can lead a common person like me to lead my freind to Christ.

During our revival, I was challenged and encouraged as I watched a small group of us go out into the neighborhood with the Gospel. I watched a young woman who was enthused about serving God go out on our first day and speak to a man about the Gospel. The man agreed to a Bible study. The weather didn't cooperate the next day, so we didn't do a whole lot. On day three, another study took place. We usually had only one team out, and a couple of times we had two. In what amounted to only two and a half days because of the weather, we managed to knock on 86 doors, found 34 at home, and had two Bible studies.

Since there were no baptisms, someone might wonder why I was so happy about that. In 1 Corinthians 3-4, it is clear that we are servants who plant and water, and God caused the increase. In other words, results are not my job. My job is to be faithful. The rest is up to God. I am sure that after we left those two studies, that the Holy Spirit worked on the hearts of those who heard. Essentially God has now placed the ball in their court. We were carrying out God's desire, and we can do no more.

This young woman from Plattsmouth is on fire for God. I learned that she has some health issues which would slow her down. I couldn't tell because she was so passionate about what was happening. I very much enjoyed working alongside her and the other members of the congregation. She is a reminder that when it comes to serving God, there are no excuses. It is not about my abilities or my limitations, about about God and what he can do. All God requires is faithfulness, trust, and commitment. In 2 Cor 12:7f, we are reminded that power is perfected in weakness. If I am limited, if I had shortcomings, quirks, lack of talent, etc. then this is great. God can display his power in me even more.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

My Highest Calling

If God's calling orders my life, then everything else becomes secondary. I think Paul is a good example of a man who made the move from driven to called. When he reflects on his life before he came to Christ, he gives an impressive list of accomplishments and things to be proud of (Phil 3:4-6). Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees and stood above the rest in his zeal for Judaism's ancestral traditions (Gal 1:14). Saul, as he was called then, was sharp. His accomplishment outshined everyone else. Paul's resume appeared to have given him pride and confidence.

It is interesting to note that Paul calls this having confidence "according to the flesh." He now considered those shining accomplishments as loss (Phil 3:7). In other words, he put them away. They no longer define him. He threw them out as trash for the sake of knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of His suffering, and being conformed to his death (Phil 3:10). The call of God through Christ changed Paul from the inside out. Paul considers himself to be "least of the Apostles" and "not fit to be called at Apostle" (1 Cor 15:9). Paul made it clear that his motivation was not to be a man-pleaser, because if that were his motivation, he would not be a slave of Christ (Gal 1:10). After all, Christians were on the margins of society, they were ridiculed, hated, and persecuted. Having rank or status was no longer something important to Paul (Gal 2:6). Paul had his share of critics who denounced him for his simple way of ministry (2 Cor 10:10). But this was not a threat to his identity. All that mattered to him was doing God's will (Gal 2:20), which he could do regardless of the critics. So when Paul was thrown in prison, he was not distressed (Phil 1:12-14). He found that he could live out God's calling no matter where he was. Even when some ambitious rivals preached the Gospel, trying to "one up" Paul, who was in prison and probably an embarrassment to them, it did not cause Paul to feel threatened or competitive (Phil 1:15-18). His sense of identity was wrapped up in Christ, not in his accomplishments, which were really not his anyway. He recognized that he could do nothing without God being at work in him to will and to work for Him (Phil 2:13).

What a change we see in Paul before and after! The major difference appears to be Paul's motivation. As a Jew, Paul seemed to be motivated by his desire for personal achievements and success. After being called, his motivation underwent a radical change. Paul's sense of identity and purpose was wrapped up in the person of Christ, not in his job, role, abilities, or anything else. He could comfortably be with people in weakness and fear and much trembling (1 Cor 2:1-4), because it was not about Paul, but about God in him. He recognized that the power of God works through his weaknesses (2 Cor 12:7-10). He comfortably realized he was nothing, and the God whom he had dedicated himself to was everything. In this, he found peace and joy.

As I look at John the Baptist, I see the same sort of thing. At one point, the people had stopped following John and were now following Jesus. John was a popular preacher and many people had been going to him. In fact, Josephus says more about John the Baptist than about Jesus, which indicates the amount of popularity that John had. But now, people were leaving John to follow Jesus.

"And they came to John and said to him, 'Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.' John answered and said, 'A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, I am not the Christ, but, I have been sent ahead of Him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease' " (John 3:26-30).

Some of John's followers felt threatened, but not John. John had a clear sense of God's calling in his life, and it had more to do with God and his purposes than about John himself.

One of the characteristics of God's calling that stand out to me in both John and Paul are that they both understood stewardship. John recognized that his followers were not his, that his ministry was not his, and that nothing he had accomplished was truly his. "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven." God gave him everything, including his ministry. Because they belonged to God, John was only to happy to give them back when his Lord wanted them. This was no threat to John. The same could be said for Paul. Paul understood his ministry as a "stewardship of God's grace" (Eph 3:2). There was no need to compete with rival preachers for notoriety. His ministry was not his, but was God's.

Losing notoriety was no threat to Paul's identity when rival preachers tried to "one-up" him for selfish ambition. Followers leaving John to follow Jesus was no threat to John's identity. In fact, it is probably that John's role changed some when Jesus began his ministry. His identity was not wrapped up in his "career" so-to-speak. His identity was wrapped up in the calling of God. His role, surroundings, and situation in life changed, but his calling did not. Paul understood this, which he why he never missed a beat, even when thrown in prison.

I suppose my role and situation will change. The time will come when my kids will grow up and leave home. I may get too old to preach from the pulpit. I may get out of what we typically call "full-time ministry," and take a so-called "secular" job. However, if I understand my calling correctly, than any job I do will be sacred, whether it is flipping burgers of preaching from the pulpit. It all belongs to God. His calling remains constant even though my situation in life may change. It all belongs to him, and I serve him through everything I do. Therefore, whatever my hands find to do, I will do with all my heart as for the Lord and not for man. My motivation should always be to please God above all else.

I remember reading some words from brother Lawrence in Practicing the Presence of God. He came to realize that to serve God, you don't necessarily have to change "what" you do, but change "why" you do. All we do should be for the love of God, whether it is something small and menial, or something huge. God is not impressed with "what" we do. God is more concerned with "why" we do. My highest calling, then, is to love God, to be with him, to be like him.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Driven Life - Good or Bad?

I can't think of a better word for it. Gordon MacDonald calls it "drivenness." Many folks admire people that are driven. They get things done. They can often be found it key positions in successful organizations.

I used to think of drivenness as a positive thing. I remember reading a couple of books in the past with the word "driven" in the title, such as The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life, both by Rick Warren. However, the way Rick Warren uses the word "driven" is not the type of driven I am thinking of here. What Warren calls "driven" I would refer to as "called," because what motivates us should come from God. So I don't use the word "driven" in the same way. Here are some characteristics of drivenness:

1. Often gratified only by accomplishment. Sees life only in terms of results. Doesn't appreciate the process, only the product.
2. PreOccupied with Symbols of Success. These include things such as a "title," office size, special privileges, and other indications of notoriety.
3. Caught in the Uncontrolled Pursuit of Expansion. He want to "climb the ladder." Doesn't appreciate achievements of the past and is never satisfied. Always wants more and will leave if what he is a part of is not growing fast enough.
4. Limited regard for integrity. Since the driven person is so preoccupied with success and achievement, he will succeed by any means possible. He will spend little time with the inner self. Ethics slide and he can become deceitful, even deceiving himself.
5. Tend to possess limited or undeveloped people skills. Projects and personal goals become more important than the people around him. People are valuable to the driven person for how they can help the driven person fulfill his goals.
6. Tend to be highly competitive. Each effort is a win-lose game. Other successful people are seen as competitors or enemies to be beaten.
7. Often has a volcanic force of anger. He cannot take questions, constructive criticism, disagreement, etc. His anger can come out in ways other than violence, such as verbal brutality, insults, put downs, and general vindictiveness.
8. Tend to be abnormally busy. The driven person is too busy pursue relationships with other people, much less with God. He never thinks he accomplishes enough and is always attempting to do more. Sometimes he tries to impress people with the fullness of his schedule and will even complain about. But he will never accept a way to lessen his work load. His "complaining" is really nothing more than bragging.

When drivenness is described in this way, I can see that it is anything but positive. Even though many organizations value driven people (including churches) because they get things done, it is done at the sacrifice of relationships and other things that are important. It occurs to me that even though King Saul was a driven person and we typically see him as a dismal failure, most of the people under his rule probably saw him as a successful king. He had a string of leadership victories even after we begin to see the signs of drivenness. The call of God is not what motivated Saul, but his own drive to hold on to what he had and to accumulate more. As I look over the characteristics of drivenness in this list, and can point to events in Paul's life that can be placed under all eight of them.

I have spoken to people that worked long hours into the evening because they wanted to be successful. It is humiliating for your boss to indicate that he thinks you are not dedicated enough. I remember reading a book several years ago by Paul Faulkner entitled, Achieving Success Without Failing Your Family. It never really became a popular book in the business world because Faulkner makes it clear that you cannot have it all. Contrary to what others had been saying, you cannot be a huge success in your career AND a huge success in your family. You have to choose. If you are going to be a huge success in your career, it will cost you. I have also met ministers who were driven. I met a guy whose goal in ministry was to become a minister at the Richland Hills Church of Christ, one of the largest Churches of Christ in the country. It was all he ever talked about. Everything he did was geared toward that. There were signs of drivenness in his ministry. His family paid the price. I have known students who were driven by the desire to be better than everyone else in whatever they did. They chose their friends on the basis of their status. They dated people who would help their image. They fought tooth and nail for the lead parts in the play, or on the cheerleading squad. I have known a housewive who were driven by the desire to have the postcard house and the postcard family. This is what mattered more than the emotional well being of her children. And the list could go on.

There were those in scripture that were driven. In addition to King Saul, there was Peter, James, John, the Apostle Paul, and others. Out of these folks, we probably have a clearer picture of Peter and Paul. Both of them had agendas. Both of them were go getters. Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees and had an immaculate record. He was sharp. However, Paul calls his pride and confidence in these things as putting confidence in the "flesh." Paul experience a transformation from being driven to being called. Paul's motivation was no longer the desire to accumulate success and notoriety, but the desire to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his suffering and be conformed to his death. There is no notoriety in these things. He endeavored to live as Christ did. He wanted to humble himself as Christ humbled himself. He wanted to become the least of these. This was the call of God. If someone tried to overshadow Paul and his accomplishment from self-centered motives, Paul could rejoice because the name of Christ was still being preached. The call of God is not about Paul's accomplishments, but about God's accomplishments, regardless of who God accomplishes them though.

It occurs to me that if I have the right attitude God can use me in a more effective way. But then again, he may choose not to. I don't want to be like King Saul with all his driven tendencies. I want to be motivated by God's call, not my desire for significance as the world defines significance. It seems that what this boils down to is a question of motivation. Am I motivated by the call of God, or am I motivated by the desire for my own significance and notoriety? Where is my focus?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Memorial for our Mongee

For the Telgren family, 2006 is a year we do not want to repeat. In my wife's own words, it has been the year from Hell. We just lost her mother, whom we all affectionately referred to as "Mongee," to a battle with complications related to a stroke she had back in April. The memorial celebration was earlier this week, and it is now sinking in that we will no longer be able to just pick up the phone and talk to her, or drive down to see her.

Her memorial service was "different." She had told us that she didn't want anything that looked like a funeral or felt like a funeral. She wanted us to come in what she was used to seeing us in, even if that meant shorts and t-shirt. We shed tears of both sorrow and joy as we shared stories and memories of Mongee. From water balloon baseball and other numerous games such as Charades, Taboo, and Trivial Pursuit, there was always fun in the house. I remember watching the family dance around together in the kitchen to the tune of "Yakity Yak." I remember listening to her funny stories about family and other people she had known over the years. I remember how she threw herself into the holidays for both the kids and later the grandkids. It didn't matter whether it was Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentines or Christmas, anything that had anything to do with the kids was a huge deal. I remember stories about her fierce devotion to her kids, especially when she felt any of them had been unjustly treated. For such a small lady, she sure was a spit fire! The office staff at the school would see here coming and they would scatter. You just didn't mess with any of her kids. If you did anything to jeopardize her family, you had better watch out! Family was of utmost importance to her, which is why she adopted her oldest sister's four children when she and her husband both died. That adoption ran the kid count in their family up to 10! I remember when I was dating my wife going over to her house and it feeling like summer camp because there were so many kids there! For a long time, I couldn't keep straight who belonged there and who the visitors were. There were always a lot of the kid's friends there and they were always welcome. I heard a couple of the kids honestly say that they were really bad kids and that Mongee still put up with them and still loved them and looked out for them. I heard the stories and can only imagine the range of emotions that she must have went through in caring for all those kids. Only someone with a lot of true love in their heart could do such a thing.

I heard several people remark after the service that they had wished they could have known her better. As I reflect on this wish, it occurs to me that there was nothing keeping anyone from this. Distance was not a real issue. I knew my grandmother real well even though we lived four hours away. The reason? My Dad was devoted to driving us out on an average of once a month to spend the weekend with grandma. Time wasn't an issue. We all make time for what we value in life. The issue is that we did not realize the nature of time. Time is the one thing we cannot set aside for later. Once it is gone, it is gone. Mongee was only 55 years old when she died last week. Just a year ago, we buried Papaw, but we never dreamed that a year later we would be saying good bye to Mongee as well. I don't know how much time I have. How will I use my time for what is really important? Time is perhaps the most precious resource that God has given. However, I do not know how much of this resource I will have. Will I maximize my time by investing in what is really important in life, or will I bury it in the ground? God has granted me health, the ability to walk, work, and talk. He has given me wealth, and has blessed me with people who love me. Will I maximize those blessings or will I bury it in career, possessions, work, and things of this nature? Will I be able to enter into the joy of my master by investing in what is truly important, or will I be in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth? What is truly important in life, and what do my actions say is truly important?

After the memorial service, several family members came up to me and asked me if I would do their funeral service when the time came. I didn't ask them why they wanted me to do it, but I think it may have had something to do with the fact that this "unusual" memorial was so light hearted, different, fun, and personal. I have to be honest. In a way, it was both sorrowful AND fun doing this memorial because of who Mongee was. I guess the question for me is, who am I going to choose to be? Will the blessing of God shine through me to my kids, their friends, and all who know us, or will I be another guy who has a job and pays the bills? Oh how empty and self centered it would be if I were focused on these things rather than what is really important.

I still have time. I don't know how much, but I still have it. Therefore, it is not too late. I don't have to lament that I didn't get to know someone or someone didn't get to know me. I don't have to lament that I was not able to be more of a blessing or someone was not able to be more of a blessing to me. I don't have to have any of the regrets of wasted time. I can maximize it as the blessing that God intended. I can use it so that my kids and their friends can have fond memories of the Telgrens and how they loved their kids and loved people. It is not too late.

I love you Mongee and I will miss you. Thank you for taking the Proffitt kids and raising them, especially Stacey. She has been my partner, my lover and my best friend along this journey. Who she is says something about you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Flesh vs. the Spirit

I used to think that walking according to the Spirit and not the flesh as having to do merely with moral behavior. I have come to realize that it goes much deeper than this.

"But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (2 Thess 2:13).

"He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (Tit 3:5),

This tells me that the Spirit sanctifies me and renews me. This renewal means that I put off the old self and put on the new self. It also means that I am no longer conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of my mind. The transformation needs to come from the inside out. My mind needs to be renewed. I need to walk AND think according to the Spirit.

Walking according to the flesh can take on the appearance of religion, yet be devoid of the Spirit of God. Several years ago, I remember reading a book by Gayle Erwin entitled, The Jesus Style. In it, he talks about the "style" that Jesus conducted his ministry in. First of all Jesus is born in a barn to a Jewish working class family in a backwater place called Israel in a insignificant town called Bethlehem. That would be like being born in Toadsuck Arkansas. He is given a very, very common name, "Jesus," which is a Greek form of the Hebrew name, "Joshua." Jesus chooses a band of ordinary people to be his disciples, which included people such as fishermen, a tax collector and a zealot, which would be like having a member of the KKK and an African American on the same team. Then there is the way he died - crucified on a cross. In 1 Corinthians, Paul said that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks. I couldn't fully relate to this because we do not use crosses the way they were used in the 1st century world. A modern day equivalent would be an electric chair, gas chamber, or hangman's noose. If people were to hear a preacher say, "Take up your hangman's noose and follow Christ," or sing a song that said, "At the electric chair the electric chair where I first saw the light…" or say, "I am gassed to death with Christ nevertheless I live…" we would be ridiculed and mocked.

My flesh would want to do it all differently. I would want the savior to be born in a wealthy and powerful family with influence where he could receive the finest education and be groomed for being a ruler from birth. He would need to have a name other than something so common as "Josh," perhaps Joseph Witherington III, or something like that. He would need to assemble a dream team worthy to carry out the mission. He would need to go to the finest universities and theological schools and get a couple of Bible scholars and theologians to expound intricate theological questions. He would need to go to Hollywood to find a couple of good-looking guys with charisma to be the front men for his organization. He would also need to go to Wall Street and get a financial guy to manage his enterprise. He would need to get an architect that could build and impressive headquarters with its own zip code. Finally, he would need to go to Gold's Gym and get some body guards and put them in black suits with dark sun glasses. My flesh would want to have him die on a battlefield in a glorious battle, not in a gas chamber or electric chair. My flesh would want to clean it all up and make it socially palatable and acceptable. I would want to make gold jewelry out of the cross. I would want to build ornate, breathtaking, beautiful church buildings. There should be no low-lifes, losers, or people like that in the church. They need to be cleaned up to look "respectable."

I remember meeting a lady who bragged about her church of over 1,000 people. It had impressive architecture, a modern art sculpture out front, a foyer that rivaled a shopping mall, numerous programs, a school, a counseling center, a fleet of buses, and a professional ministry staff that would rival CEO's of any cooperation. One of the guys on the ministry staff had an MBA. What is all of that compared to a little church in Toadsuck Arkansas? I have preached in places like this where the building is aging, little white wood frame building on a hill. The parking lot is gravel, the carpet is worn, the pews are run down, and a retired guy and along with a preaching student serve as the preachers. It appears that there is no comparison between this lowly, backwards church and the huge, successful church in the city. But when I think of that little church in the hills, I don't think of the building. I think of people like Clint, who would drive you over 2 hours to Little Rock if need be. I think of Brenda who would invite you over to her place for lunch. I think of George who had the spare room that he would offer out hospitably. I think of Clara who was wealthy but generous with any need that arose. I think of the bedridden Mrs. Chamblis who couldn't get out of bed, but faithfully sent letters to World Bible School Students. I think of Glenna who would listen to you like you were the most important person in the world. When I think of that little church, I don't think of their aging building, but of wonderful, sweet, godly people.

Isn't this what God looks at? My flesh may look at stained glass windows, ornate decorations, impressive programs and things of this nature. However, if I am in tune with the Spirit, I will see it as God sees it. All the stuff that my flesh sees is invisible to God. He looks past the fa├žade and into the hearts of his people. As Jesus demonstrated, ministry is all about people.

There is a reason why Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit before they went out. They needed to go out in the Spirit rather than in the flesh. I notice that they didn't try to clean up the foolishness of the cross. They gloried in it and spoke the message boldly. The power of God was displayed in their weakness. This is a challenge for me because my flesh often wants to rely too much on human philosophies of management, leadership and wisdom. I sometimes have the tendency to evaluate spiritual things with fleshly measures of success. My flesh wants what makes me look good. I sometimes want to have a contingency plan for everything before moving forward, which tells me I may be relying on my flesh rather than on the power of the Spirit. I sometimes make ministry more complicated than it really is. I need to be filled with the Spirit and walk according to the Spirit and think according to the Spirit rather than the flesh.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

School Shootings and Safety

"It could happen anywhere!" is the sentiment of several people after a deadly shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Reporters have been speaking about how the community has been "devastated," and how their sense of safety in this "insulated" community has been shattered. There is no place that is safe.

In other news, there are more discussions about metal detectors, police officers in schools and things of this nature. As people scramble to pass new laws and rules to try and make schools a safer place, it becomes more glaringly apparent that these people do not understand what is going on.

The problem is not lack of security in schools. The problem is, and always has been a spiritual one. Darrell Scott, the father of Columbine martyr Rachel Scott, called the Columbine shooting a "spiritual event." There was more going on than meets the eye. Changing the surroundings without change in the inner person changes nothing. Metal detectors, police officers, locked doors, and such will not solve the real problem. True change comes from the inside out. As tragic as they are, the shootings are really symptoms of a deeper problem, which is a disconnect from the God who created us all. The result of this disconnect is frustration, anger, and hopelessness, which can lead to violence.

We live in a dark world which is under the influence of Satan. The Bible calls Satan the "Ruler of this World." I think these Amish people probably understand this better than most Evangelical Christians who seem to confuse nationality with Christianity, which are very distinct from each other. Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, which is why his disciples did not engage in "holy war."

I think it is interesting that in all the news coverage, very little attention was given to how this Amish community was actually dealing with it. Contrary to many a reporter's depiction that they have been "devastated," a counselor who has been with the victims' families says that there is no bitterness or resentment, though there is sadness. In the midst of the sadness, the Amish are already speaking forgiveness. Some reporters almost seem appalled at this.

As a spiritual event, it is plain to see that the gunman really had no power over any of these people. He sent the children to Heaven, and caused sadness in their families, but he did not "devastate" them. "Devastate" is such a strong word. If we truly understand God, the nature of our world and our place in it, we will recognize that there is nothing on this earth that can "devastate" us. Jesus himself said that no one could have any power over him unless the Father has granted it. The book of Revelation tells us that as believers, we have been "sealed" by God, and this seal protects us. Even though Satan, the beast, or some gunman may shoot us dead, he really cannot touch us. Our body is temporal, but who we really are is out of reach of the enemy.

The real battle is not stopping a killer's bullet, because we will always have killers with us on this earth. That is not to say we shouldn't be concerned about it, because God is. The governing authorities are established by God for this very purpose. However, this deals with the external. The real battle is spiritual. What will believers do with this tragedy? The fact that this Amish community is already talking forgiveness shows that the gunman neither devastated them, nor did he ever have any control over them. It was the gunman who was in bondage. He was enslaved to the "old grudge" he was carrying out. These believers will neither be enslaved to bitterness nor to a cycle of revenge. They will display the Spirit of Christ who has set them free.

As I reflect on all of this, it occurs to me that the battle rages around me every day. Although the ways I am wronged cannot begin to compare with what happened this week in Pennsylvania, the warfare is still there behind the scenes. I realize that, like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18, I need to look not at what is seen, but what is unseen. Satan's tools include fear, resentment, hate, selfishness, and a host of other inner attitudes. I have little control over external circumstances. However, with the help of the Holy Spirit that has sealed me, I do have control over my inner circumstances. Surely if they can forgive someone who killed their child and prevent Satan from getting a foothold into their heart, I can also forgive someone who has talked behind my back! If Jesus can forgive those who put him on the cross while he was on the cross, I should be able to forgive anyone!

I suppose it is good to stop on a regular basis and spend some time in solitude and silence. Silent prayer. Being with God. Hanging out with him. It is NOT wasted time any more than being with my wife is wasted time. It is in those silent moments that my inner self comes to the surface. There is no activity or noise to push it into the background. Sometimes I don’t' like what I see, yet God in his love and grace helps me to reorder it, if I let him. He will not force it on me. I have to be willing. Like Elijah in the cave, there are times when I need to listen for his whisper.

And what a powerful whisper it is! It is there that I learn what true safety is on this earth. It is not safety from thieves, robbers, and murderers. It is safety from any of them touching me, who I really am, my inner self. God is there, and they cannot penetrate there. It is a fortress for my soul. There, I am safe in the arms of my Lord.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Non-Conformist Conformity

I am currently reading a book by Gordon MacDonald entitled, Ordering Your Private World. Over the next few weeks, I am going to reflect on what I believe is the key statement in the book:

"I believe that one of the great battlegrounds of our age is the private world of the individual."

I think that this is a significant observation. Yet I do not think many of us realize it. The Adversary's tactic is one of diversion: placing the scene of the battle where it truly is not. MacDonald talks about sinkholes in our inner lives, which can give way when we accumulate more and more on the surface. It reminded me of my Dad and his garage.

My Dad has a garage behind his house that began to crack and lean. The ground had begun to wash away beneath it. At one point you could actually crawl beneath the garage. I will tell you what Dad didn't do. He didn't repaint it. He didn't try to restructure it to where it looked level. He hired someone to straighten the building, repair the foundation and fill in the gaps.

How easy it is to miss what lies underneath has been slowing eroding and washing away. After all, it is what is beneath the surface that no one notices. In fact, it can be ignored for a large amount of time without any apparent consequence. They fill the garage full of nice cars. They paint it and decorate it and keep accumulating more things in it. Cracks can be merely filled in and painted over to where they are out of sight. It isn't until the something breaks or collapses that you realize how serious a problem there is. The ignored inner life simply cannot withstand.

I have observed that this is the culture in which we live. Our culture prizes the accumulation of success and the symbols of success, such as the fancy cars, the big houses, the designer clothes, and things of this nature. This focus on externals leaves a gaping hole that can often collapse under stress. In fact, I remember reading an article that stated that stress is the number one killer in America. According to this article, 70-80% of all illnesses in medical practice are either caused by or made worse by stress.

I believe that people in general recognize that there is a void in their lives. I have observed that things of a "spiritual" nature have become very popular in the last couple of decades. People have consumed movies, books, items to wear, workshops, and a host of other things of a spiritual nature out of a hunger for something many of them cannot articulate. New Age bookstores and Buddhism have become attractive to many westerners.

One of the things I found strange is that when unbelievers began to crave something spiritual and something transcendent, they didn't go to church. After seeing the wave of books, workshops and classes on spiritual formation in Christian circles in the last five years, I began to understand why. Even believers were craving something deeper than their surface Christian veneer. The emptiness of accumulating more must have plagued Christians, their churches, and their ministers along with the unbelievers around them. Building mega-churches, marketing style ministry, multiple programs and services, the drive and pride of tangible results, and the pressure of the expectation of the minister as C.E.O. produced a large gaping hole beneath the surface of many ministers, churches, and ministries. Many ministers and church leaders were burning out and suffering stress related illnesses just like the unbelievers in the world around them. Marriages in churches were seeing the same divorce rates as the unbelievers in the neighborhoods around them. People in the church were suffering from the same stress related illnesses as people out of the church. Is it any wonder why seekers didn't go to churches? Many churches did not look a whole lot different that what they were trying to escape from, only it was in Christian dress. The veneer was different, but underneath, it seemed to be the same.

No wonder Paul said, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2). What that means for me is that I need to be transformed inwardly. I need to order my inner self in such a way that I will exert influence on the world around me and not the other way around. I need to spend time on my inner self with God. I like Eugene Peterson's Paraphrase of Romans 12:2 in The Message: "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out."

"The inside out." What does that mean? It has been much easier for me to deal with the outer world. After all, it is what is most visible and measurable. It consists of my work, possessions, accomplishments, and things such as these. It is what is easy to measure and evaluate. But my inner self…. Well, I was not even quite sure what that means. MacDonald says that this is where "choices and values can be determined, where solitude and reflection might be pursued…a place for conducting worship and confession, a quiet spot where the moral and spiritual pollution of the times need not penetrate."

"Need not penetrate"…that is instructive for me. There should be a place that the world cannot touch. This is a place unaffected by the external circumstances and influences of the world. It is a place that is the source of my life: My directions. My aspirations. My decisions. My thoughts. All of these flow from this place within. Painting over the cracks that form from a hollow inner life will only promote the growth of that hollowness. If it is empty, nothing will flow from within. This is what needs to be transformed rather than conformed. This is the most important part of my life that I need to tend to. This is the place from where true life flows.

Perhaps this is what Proverbs 4:23 is all about: "Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life."

For me, the key word in this proverb is diligence. I need to beware of the barrenness of a busy life. I need to beware of getting caught up in external things only. I need to ensure that my inner spring is not polluted. The true living water originates with God. As long as the spring is okay, then everything is truly in order. Everything is "okay," regardless of external circumstances. I will not be obsessed over the externals. I will not neglect what is truly important. I will not let the world squeeze me into its mold without me being aware of it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Practical Apologetics

I remember sitting in a Christian evidences class at Harding University with Ed Myers talking about apologetics. After talking about the evidences for the authenticity of the Bible and the existence of God, he concluded with this statement. "Love is the strongest apologetic of all."

His point is well taken. When I reflect on the truth of that statement, I am struck by the fact that I know of no unbeliever who was won mainly by a well-reasoned argument. I only know of two people out of countless others for whom apologetics removed obstacles to their faith. It didn't cause their faith, just removed obstacles to it.

When I was a new Christian, I can remember getting into religious arguments with relatives and friends and doing nothing more than alienating them or turning them off from any further dialogue we might have had. What was my problem? It still hadn't sunk in what the greatest thing was. "The greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:7), wrote the Apostle Paul. "Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light" (2 Jn 2:10), said the Apostle John. "By this (love) will all men know that you are my disciples" (John 13:35), said our Lord Jesus Christ. Living in the light means living in love. Living in love is how unbelievers will see the light of God.

I recently read an account of a problem in many ivy-league schools. These were among some of the intellectually brightest in an upcoming generation. Many of these students were poised to become the next policy makers and shape the direction of the country in years to come. Part of their training involved courses in ethics. As with many other classes, many of these students received the highest marks. One of these students recounts the repeated character problems in many of her fellow students. While they could effectively and intelligently discuss ethical dilemmas to the point of teaching classes on the subject, they often had more character flaws than the blue-collar workers that barely had a high school education in the neighborhoods around the school. Sexual impropriety, lying, cheating, and deception were common practice among many of these students. Yet they all had excellent grades in their ethics courses. Many of these would go on to become doctors, lawyers, judges and politicians. Ethics had become nothing more than an interesting intellectual subject. However, it did little to change their life. If anything, it provided a way to dodge the inconsistencies in their life.

The same thing can happen in my spiritual life. I can get advanced degrees in theology and expound its implications from a sound, intellectual vantage point. I can defend the authority and authenticity of the scriptures with a sound academic method. While it is important to have intellectual honesty and soundness, there is much more to the faith than this. Knowing is every bit a relational exercise as it is an intellectual one. When Jesus prayed in John 17:3, he affirmed, "…this is eternal life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." The goal is not for me merely to know scripture, but to know God. The goal is not for me to merely know about God, but to know God. John wrote, "God is Love" (1 Jn 4:8). Since God is love, I am to love (1 Jn 4:7). Knowing God means walking and living in his presence in such a way that his character becomes my character. Since God is love, I am to love. In this way, I walk in the light of God that shines out in my life and draws people to God. To be sure, when others see my godly character, this by itself will not save them. Those who are lost need to hear the Gospel, which has the power of salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). However, that initial draw to the Gospel comes from seeing the light of God in my life.

Early Christians demonstrated this in their lives. Most were not as intellectually sophisticated as their pagan counterparts. In spite of this fact, Christianity took hold of the world. God worked in the lives of everyone that abandoned themselves to him through a change of character not merely through intellectual arguments. This new freedom to love others without fear of loss made such an impact, that in a short period of time the Gospel had gone out to Rome, Asia, Africa, Britain, and India.

The mighty power of God displayed in the beauty of love could not be contained. Here is a quotation from the pagan emperor Julian that sheds a little light on the outsider's perspective of Christianity.

“Atheism (i.e. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render to them.” -Julian 332-63

Pagans referred to Christianity as atheism because they did not worship the pantheon of gods and did not worship an image. Notice how a Roman, with all of his sophistication views the cause for the spread of Christianity. It wasn't through the mighty intellect of all those Christians, but through their simple, yet powerful acts of God's love.

Truly, love is the greatest apologetic. Through it, people experience something of God. These early Christians have left an example and challenge. Pour as much energy into living out the character of God as in intellectual prowess. Perhaps I need to put more energy into the former than the latter. Instead of "How can I win this argument?" the question for me should be, "How can I represent God and his interests to these people?"

None if this is new to me. It likely may not be new to you. I have no problem expounding and explaining the importance of all of this. In years past, I made good comments concerning these issues in some of the Bible classes I was in. As early as my teen years, I did devotionals and sermonettes on them. The same was true of many of my Christian friends. However, like those Ivy League students, we talked more than we walked. We knew our scriptures well. We had been indoctrinated well, but not educated well. The knowledge we had was not the same as the transformation that we were supposed to have had. I wonder if people saw God in us, or merely a religious argument. There lies the challenge.