Just Ask!

This year I plan to preach more regularly  on prayer, at least monthly. Todays posting  addresses my first text on prayer for this year. 

Matthew 7:7-10 and James 4:2 enjoin believers to ask God for the resolution of our needs. Jesus promised us that if we ask we will receive. His half-brother, James, explained that we don’t have because we don’t ask. If we believe Jesus’ promise what often holds us back from asking?  Four reasons come to mind. 
1. Pride We are often ashamed to admit our own neediness. Its my experience that this is especially true of American men. Admitting we have needs we can’t meet runs counter to the self-sufficient spirit that so defines our culture. But Jesus promises reward to the poor in spirit. While we should use common sense and take care of the needs we are able to satisfy, I’m finding I need God’s providential intervention much more than expected. 


2.  Apathy. We may lack a clear desire of what we want Christ to do for us through answered prayer. Jesus once asked a blind man “What do you want me to do for you?”  Mark 10:51. While the blind man knew exactly what to say, I am seldom that desperate or ready with an answer. Do you know what you would ask for if Jesus posed that question to you?  A second promise from the Savior is that whatever we desire when we ask we should believe and He will give it to us. Mark 11:24. This is a dangerous promise not intended for a selfish disciple. But once we identify what we are desperate for, are humble enough to ask, and believe for it, we can be sure the answer is within reach if we ask the Savior. 

3. Unbelief. The larger the ask the harder the task to believe.  I limit God’s work in me by failing to believe Him for the awesome changes only He can accomplish. Is there anything in my life that cannot be explained by human endeavor?  Anything that I have to explain as a “God thing?” If I claim to have the supernatural gift of eternal life there ought to be something unexplainable, mysterious and, well, supernatural about it. 

Herein lies the wonder and thrill of knowing Jesus! I should never become settled down in a comfortable existence without occasionally encountering something only God can do. His word to the doubter is found in Matthew 19:26 “all things are  possible with God.”

4. Fear.  Everyone has been disappointed by unfulfilled expectations. Afraid to hope and be disappointed, we shy away from asking God for His intervention, we learn to suck it up and tough it out. Behind this hopeless existence is the assumption that God is indifferent to our situation. But Jesus again rebukes this fear in Matthew 7:11, if you then being evil known how to give good gifts to you children how much more shall your Father in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” 

Imagine if God really did want to answer our prayers and provide for our needs!  Imagine if He was more anxious to give us what we need or even want than we are to give gifts to our children! How much easier would it be to ask Him for His blessings. The good news is it’s not necessary to imagine such a good thing. We can believe it because Jesus said our Father is perfectly good. He does not give us what we want all the time, or even what we think we need. But He always gives us what is best for us. 

The Futility of Knowledge and Wisdom

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  Ecclesiastes 1:18 
These words were written by the sage and philosopher king, Solomon. They contradict the quote from Hannah Arndt and the spirit of the age. Whose words ring more real?  My money is on Solomon. 

But if his words are true, why are they true? Why does knowledge and wisdom increase sorrow. Isn’t it said that the solution for all human maladies is education?

Arndt’s statement assumes a good heart and that evil always redesides outside if me. Solomon knew that evil was innate in the human individual. (2 Chronicles 6:36). Just because we know does not mean we do. In fact knowledge has no power over the will. The human will, untouched by the divine influence of grace, is not naturally subject to the law of God. (Romans 7:13-25; 8:7).  We see this illustrated on the daily news. 

Therefore knowledge provides only a reason to do right.  It requires the will, empowered by divine grace from the Holy Spirit alone, to make knowledge beneficial and practical and real. 

Sunday Synchronicity

For many years it seemed that my activities and experiences on Sunday were out of synch with my life the remainder of the week. Sunday life means attendance at church where we sing hymns, receive communion, give an offering and hear a sermon.  Since these are strictly Sunday activities it  felt as if  my spiritial life  didn’t fit with or was foreign to “normal” life. But is this accurate?  I’ve begun to challenge that notion. 

Just because Sunday activities are different than Monday thru Saturday activities doesn’t make Sunday life out of synch with the rest of our week. In fact, a very strong case can be made that worship activities on the Lord’s day contributes to a more synchronized life rhythm. Worship without labor becomes irrelevant or at least unproductive; but labor without worship deteriorates into a chasing of the wind. We need both work and worship to be balanced. In fact, a truly Christian worldview attaches spiritual value to every mundane task-even that of eating and drinking. 

With that said, most days my heart prefers the rhythm of Sunday. 
 

Surprises in Scripture

Anyone who takes time to read the Bible with an open and hungry heart will occasionally encounter verses that jump off the page, stand up and demand attention. This happemed to me this morning as I was reading Isaiah 8. A verse I had never noticed suddenly caught my attention. Today’s blog addresses this phenomenon. 

Hebrews 4:12 says “For the Word that God speaks is alive and full of power [making it active, operative, energizing, and effective]; it is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating to the dividing line of the breath of life (soul) and [the immortal] spirit, and of joints and marrow [of the deepest parts of our nature], exposing and sifting and analyzing and judging the very thoughts and purposes of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 AMPC

http://bible.com/8/heb.4.12.AMPC

The power and mystery of this phenomenon is explained by the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. The Bible is full of verses waiting to be released upon our hearts. But my question for today is,  “why does this phenomenon happen?”  

The Holy Spirit, who applies truth to our minds knows exactly what we need at any given time. So when a verse I’ve never noticed before surprises me, I can be sure the Holy Spirit is communicating with me along a line of thought that I need to hear and apply. He knows my thoughts, my struggles, temptations and inner arguments. He uses the Word to awaken my heart to His truth. At that point it’s critical for me to stop reading and allow the truth to sink into my heart. If there is something for me to do differently, I need to obey. If it is a point of encouragement, I need to take heart. 

The bottom line is we never know when the Holy Spirit will cause a passage to come alive to us suddenly. But when it happens, He is speaking His truth into a need we have at that moment and it would benefit us to pay attention. 

Having Grace

Grace as a human quality is resiliency in trouble; it is kindness in response to criticism;  gentleness returned for harshness. It is treating others well when they haven’t earned it. 

Grace is not a natural human quality. Gracious living is only possible when we ourselves receive grace from God first. No grace coming in means no grace going out. Supernatural grace to respond in kindness, gentleness and resiliency comes by the disciplines of prayer, humility and servitude. 

Oh how we need grace! 

Solitude: Alone but not Lonely

Today I am returning to a previous theme; one which I have a difficulty practicing: Solitude.  I believe we were made for socialization with God and others.  This seems counter to solitude.  But solitude can actually enhance our bonds and relationships with those whom we love and love to be with. 

Gordon MacDonald wrote about the importance of solitude in his book Ordering Your Private World. Here’s just one reason he says solitude and silence is so critical:

The archenemy of God has conspired to surround us at every conceivable point in our lives with the interfering noises of our civilization that drown out the voice of God.

What is the purpose of solitude?  Spiritually, and specifically for the disciple of Christ, solitude is elementary to the one on one relationship we share with Him.  Solitude provides quietness for Him to speak to us and for us to meditate on Him.  It disconnects us from the tyrannical demands of the clock.

Why is solitude good for us?  I took the day off from work and find myself sitting in a local public library. Its quiet except for the music playing through my Bluetooth headphones.  But the stillness of the day and  stillness of the moment have helped me think about things I would not normally take time to consider.  How often do we have the luxury of pondering the more important relationships and decisions in our lives?  If you’re like me it’s not often enough.

Where am I headed in life?  How can improve my marriage?    Should I put in for a promotion?  Where are the areas of my life where God seems to reworking me?  What are my feelings right now?   Am I sad?  Why?  Am I happy? Why? Who am I becoming?  What is the Spirit teaching me?

A vital piece of solitude for the believer the Word of God. The Bible is the source of light, truth, healing and correction. We cheat ourselves when we neglect its power and benefits. 

Solitude requires that we disconnect from distractions.  At times it may mean we close our eyes and listen to God. At other times it may mean getting buried in a book. Prayer may effective at other times.  It may mean writing (which is therapy for me), listening to music which speaks to your heart needs. Whatever the method you use, the outcome should be a brighter outlook, a clearer understanding, a deeper peace, a calm mind and heart. It should increase our mental and spiritual stamina. 
 

I Miss Old Fashioned Church

I’m a sentimental traditionalist. There aren’t many of us left anymore in the church. But I really do miss what I remember to be “Old -Fashioned” Christianity. 

I understand that old doesn’t mean better. After all I’m using my high tech smart phone to write this blog. But there are some things about Christianity which are no longer extant but I miss them. 

I miss the sacredness of Sunday. Today, Sunday’s sacredness seems to be limited to an hour or at the most two hours in the morning while the rest of the day is spent  like a second Saturday. But as a child growing up Sundays were special. Sundays meant dressing up, seeing friends and hearing the gospel story. It meant small churches, big dinners, family gatherings and peaceful naps. Sundays were special and different all day long. 

I remember the rays of the Sunday morning sun splashing red, gold and blue light on the pews and wood floors  through the multi-colored stained glass windows. Modern church architecture has exchanged the stained glass windows for dark theatre walls and spotlights.  The stained glass windows made my sanctuary a refuge within which I found the  beauty, majesty and wonder of God.  

I miss the simple preaching of the simple gospel. Contemporary sermons must frequently address the complex, sophisticated issues of modern culture.  My pastor’s education was minimal but his walk with God made up for that and his messages were inspiring, and sometimes humorous. Children’s church was called VBS and only lasted a week each year. Pastor’s messages were simple enough for a child’s mind but stout enough for adult digestion too. 

I miss Sunday School.  Oh, I still teach a small Sunday school class but I miss the prominence Sunday School programs once played in the life and growth of the Church. Today’s model of discipleship may be better suited to the busy schedules and specialized demands of today’s Christian adult. And unfortunately Sunday School classes were (are) often prone to digress into heated debates, but done right, Sunday School can be an affective table-setter for morning worship since it engages the mind in the Word of God. 

I miss the testimony part of old fashioned church. Modern worship has become so group-focused that the individual believer is muted in corporate worship.  Admittedly as a teen I thought testimony time was a waste of time. But looking back, the colorful stories and quaint, familiar expressions of individual saints sometime moved us to tears and at other times incited thunderous laughter. 

Finally, I miss the time-tested hymns and songs of our faith. We had no pipe organ but granny could still pound out the rhythm of How Firm a Foundation. And we sang with such gusto!  Most hymns and songs were written with poetic beauty.    Every true classic song weaved a story of salvation from sin’s pit, through daiy struggles of life and ended with a verse on heaven’s hope and splendor. 

The Old Fashioned Church isn’t entirely extinct. I co-pastor one in northeastern Oklahoma that would still identify as Old Fashioned in many ways.  But sadly, the church is moving away from  simple and personal worship which served us so well for so long. Will today’s form eventually be labeled Old Fashioned and be traded for something newer?  


Is Thanksgiving a Distinctively Christian Practice?

Rockwell, Thanksgiving.jpg

Rockwell,Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is here again.  Unfortunately, its proximity to Christmas has turned it into a warm up act to Black Friday.  To add to that, the NFL has successfully established itself as a Thanksgiving tradition just as fitting as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and grandma’s pumpkin pie.  Indeed one could also argue that the annual tradition of feasting in honor of “Thanksgiving” is itself a diversion from the original spirit and purpose of the holiday. But my purpose is not to complain about how this wonderful Christian holiday has been supplanted by Shopping and football.   Instead, I want to re-introduce the notion that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday.

Webster to whom we Americans have turned for the official meaning of words for the last 175 years, defines “Thanksgiving” as a the act of giving thanks, a public acknowledgement or celebration of divine goodness; a prayer expressing gratitude.”  Note the distinctly religious and even Christian flavor of this definition, suggesting that true thanksgiving includes a conversation between man and God.  Thanksgiving in its purest and most rational form is spiritual and recognizes the goodness, providence and mercies of God.

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Some will argue that such a definition excludes the unbeliever from the practice of thanksgiving; that thanksgiving as a distinctly religious and even Christian exercise should therefore be rejected.  So can an unbelieving, non religious person be thankful without invoking God?  Can Sam Harris, the notable American athiest, engage in true thanksgiving today?  Most would likely say “yes.”  But I would propose a challenge to this response  If you’re curious, read on.

To be sure, I cannot read my own heart very well, not to mention Harris’ mind and heart.  I am sure that Harris, and other unbelievers, skeptics and non-Christians find plenty of good things for which to be grateful on a day such as this.  They can cite the gifts of family, friends, health, and even life itself as treasures for which they can be grateful.  And we might add that we all can and should be grateful for such things.  We shoud recognize those in our lives who have impacted us through their investments in our well-being, our relationship and comfort.  Spouses, parents and children should be thanked for their love for us; Doctors, nurses and other health professionals should be recognized for their service to us;  Teachers, mentors and coaches should be praised for their patience and dedication to us;  civil servants–fire, police–should receive our blessing of gratitude as well.

imageOne can feel gratitude for others without invoking God.  However, this merely “kicks the can down the road.”  For once your spouse, physician or local firefighter is thanked, who do they have to thank?  Traced back to the origin of goodness, every blessing, every gift originates somewhere else.  None of us are first sources of goodness.  We all have had blessings and gifts poured into us.  To simply express thanksgiving to another human being or even to the universe is to shift the duty of thanksgiving off of one creature and onto another.  Only when we acknowledge the goodness of God as a First Source of goodness can we really finish the circle of Thanksgiving.  James 1:17 claims that “…every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights…”  Only God is worthy to receive our offerings of Thanksgiving.

Spiritual Attrition

(The impetus of this blog entry was a request for doctrinal clarification posed by a friend whose Sunday School class is studying the topic of backsliding.  No interest in finger pointing or falsifying of positions underlie the post.  Dissenting comments are welcomed as long as they remain respectful, Bible based and charitable)

The debate over the nature of salvation is a long standing one which will not be resolved here. However in an effort to help clarify the conservative Arminian position, I offer the following thoughts for the reader’s consideration.

What examples of spiritual attrition can be identified in Scripture? 

Illustrations from Scripture.
1. Adam and Eve Fell Genesis 3:1-20. What were the results of their fall? Forfeited privileges of the Garden, Lost Spiritual life. Acquired shame. Inherited death.
2. Saul fell 1 Samuel 10:9 vs. 1 Samuel 18:12. What were the results if his fall? Withdrawal of God’s presence and peace. Eventual Forfeiture of the kingdom.
3. Israel fell as a nation and lost their inheritance Hosea 9:3. What were the results of their fall? Bondage in a foreign land. Loss of inheritance. Loss of testimony.
4. Ephesian church was warned to repent and do first works again or have candlestick removed .  Revelation 2:5.

What are some passages relative to the doctrine of Spiritual attrition?

1. Ezekiel 3:20. See also chapters 18 and 33. If the righteous sin their righteousness will not be remembered but they will die in thier sin.

2. Galatians 2:18. If I rebuild the things I destroy I make myself a transgressor. This contradicts the theory of forgiveness of future sins.

3. Galatians 5:4  Anyone who claims salvation apart from faith has fallen from grace.

4. Galatians 6:1 If a brother be overtaken in a fault restore him. 

5. Hebrews 4:1-11 Unbelief will cause us to fail to achieve the salvation promised and we will Fall just like Israel.

6. Hebrews 10:26. Willful sin after receiving the truth negates the sacrifice of Christ and we are in jeopardy of judgment.

7. Hebrews 10:39. We are not those who draw back to perdition (judgment)

8. 2 Peter 2:18-22. There is a real danger of being allured from the truth, entangled by sin  AFTER we come to know Jesus.

9. Jude 24. God is able to keep us from falling into apostasy. The context refers to more than minor failures but moral and spiritual death.

What are some of the reasons from theology and logic concerning spiritual attrition? 

The faith argument.
1. Salvation is always by faith.
2. Faith is always either living or dying.
3. In dying there comes a moment of death.
4. Once the faith dies eternal life dies.
5. To say that we are saved by faith but kept by election is unBiblical.

The freedom argument.
1. God’s nature is love.
2. He created us to love Him.
3. Coerced love is not genuine love.
4. Therefore he gave man freedom to choose.
5. Salvation is a love relationship and as such cannot be coerced.
6. We remain free even after salvation.

Closing observations.

Often Calvinists and Arminians disagree over semantics such as the definition of sin. When we dialogue we discover our similarities.

1. At the core of the debate is the nature of salvation. Is eternal life completley God’s Sovereign work?  If yes, then whatever God does is utterly perfect and eternal. It cannot be destroyed or thwarted by man’s sin. If man has any responsibility or participation in salvation, then salvation is fluid to the degree we participate in God’s eternal life.

2. One significant point of disagreement is over the nature of faith. Is faith a work or a quality?  Arminians would say it’s not a work since faith and works are juxtaposed by Paul but synthesized by James. If faith is a work, then salvation must be by works, for we are saved BY FAITH. But Scripture teaches both salvation apart from works and salvation by faith.

3. Another critical question is “What did Jesus provide when He died on the cross?”  Did He pay the debt in its entirety or did He only provide the payment for sin?  This may sound like splitting hairs but humor me and keep reading.  If we choose the former all sin (past, present and future) has been forgiven already. If we choose the latter then it falls upon us to draw from his atonement for our sins.   Failure to do so results in unresolved sin which will bring judgment.  How we interpret the cross will determine how we interpret the nature of salvation.

4. Of course Calvinists believe that the Arminian doctrine of backsliding compromises the power of God and the permanence of salvation. And of course Arminians do not teach that God loses the backslider but that the backslider forfeits his own relationship by committing spiritual suicide.  

5. When does spiritual attrition result in loss of eternal life? Only God can determine that line. Happily the Holy Spirit does not evacuate the believer at the first sign of failure. But if ignored, it seems apparent that He can be pushed out of our lives by negligence and willful transgressions, resulting in the return of darkeness, bondage, and ultimately, death

6. In the long run it is easier for me to concede that a backslidden Christian never was a true believer than to believe that Christians can persist in known sin. However I believe there are ample Scriptural, theological and logical reasons to hold to the fluidity of eternal life and the possibility of spiritual attrition.

Two Laws of Reproduction

wpid-wp-1442070543126.pngThere is a law of reproduction. The Law of Likeness. We pass down our weaknesses to our children. I see it in my children and, if you’re honest, you see it in yours. Adam begat Cain IN HIS OWN IMAGE because sin had infected the race. We cannot transfer what we do not own.  If we have become sluggish, brutish, undisciplined, careless, uncontrolled, etc in our personal lives, our children will inherit these habits too. This is “life in Adam” “the old man” or “old nature” as the Holy Scriptures describe.    Fortunately the same is true of positive habits as well. If we nurture devotion, faith, courage in ourselves our children tend to add these habits to thier lives by example.  wpid-wp-1442070524271.png

But we know people who have risen above the habits and weaknesses of thier parents.  In Scripture, Josiah was the son of Amon and grandson of Manasseh, both of whom were evaluated as evil. (2 Chronicles 33:2, 21)  Under the law of likeness, Josiah should have inherited his father and grandfather’s hunger for evil. But Josiah chose to seek the Lord at an early age and was graded as right in the sight of the Lord (2 Chronicles 34:2)   This demostrates that God has another law of reproduction. The Law of Grace.  This law acts as a countermeasure against the Law of Likeness to reverse its curse. Without this law there would be no hope of salvation for any of us due to the Law of Likeness.  God responds with mercy and forgiveness to those who love him and obey him. His Law of Grace neutralizes and reverses the effects of the Law of Likeness, allowing us to break free of its power.  Scripture calls this “Life in Christ,” “the new nature,” or “new birth.”

What spiritual likenesses did you inherit from your parents which you want to break free from?  You don’t need to languish in despair. There is hope.  The secret is nurturing a love for and an obedience to God and His Son, Jesus Christ.