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Archive for October, 2013

No Tricks, Just Treat

children-at-door-trick-or-treating

Every October 31st my dear friend, Pastor Rob Acker, and I heartily greet each other in a special way. Only we won’t say “trick or treat,” but “Happy Reformation Day!”

You see on a Halloween almost 500 years ago, long before any child ever knocked on a door for candy, Martin Luther knocked on a door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany. Actually, he nailed something to the door: a bunch of papers which contained 95 complaints against the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, there was only one church in Europe – the Roman Catholic Church. It had become corrupt and powerful. It taught superstitions that kept the masses under control. It exploited people for money to acquire lands, build grand cathedrals, and make the upper echelon leaders (bishops, cardinals and popes) extremely wealthy. Though many tried to change the church – including good priests and bishops within the system – they were met with decisive and powerful opposition, resulting in public executions.

Then came Luther. He was a monk and professor of theology at the University. In his own brokenness and search for true reconciliation with God (beyond the works of piety and penance prescribed by the Church), he started reading the Bible – specifically, the book of Romans. There he discovered something that had been lost over the centuries, lost under the corruption of the Church leadership: justification through faith alone in Jesus Christ.

And so he pounded these papers to that Wittenburg door, the Protestant Reformation began. The course of human history has not been the same since that time. In fact, Time magazine recognized Martin Luther as the most influential Man of the Millennium (1000-2000).

Admittedly, the Reformation caused a mixed bag of good and bad things – most of the bad resulting in the fractured relationship between the Catholic and Protestant Churches. But there were some really great things that happened because of Luther’s boldness and courage to stand up against corruption and false teachings:

1. It brought unconditional grace and forgiveness back to Christianity. People had to “pay,” with money or religious acts, to receive forgiveness of sin.

2. It gave common people access to a personal relationship with God. One had to go through a human mediator (priest) in order to talk with God.

3. It put “faith” back as the center of Christian belief. Obedience to Church rules and traditions were more central to belief than any actual, personal trust in God.

4. It made the Bible accessible to common people. Because of Luther’s revelation through the Scriptures, almost immediately the Bible began to be translated in the languages of the common people (before it was only in Latin or Greek, and only learned clergy knew how to read that). As well, the printing press was invented near the time of the Reformation which made the Bible even more accessible to the common folk.

So Rob and I believe there’s a greater holiday to celebrate on October 31st than the one where everyone dresses up like ghost, goblins, witches, superheroes and Freddie Kruger. We’re trying to make Reformation Day bigger than Halloween, but it’s an uphill battle. We really can’t see little kids dressing up like 16th century monks, ringing doorbells and saying, “Fight corruption in the church!” and then expecting to receive candy. I don’t think it will work.

But we have reason to celebrate today, and so do you! Because of Luther, Whole Life Worship of God can be pursued Biblically, passionately and personally, without fear or institutional distraction.

So (let’s say it together), “Happy Reformation Day!”

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Do you remember the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11)? It is a very profound story in many ways. First, it is a sign of Jesus’ divine nature – only God can bring a dead man back to life. Second, it shows the compassion of Jesus – before He raised Lazarus, He mourned over him and the loss to his sisters (“Jesus wept”). But one really neat item is HOW Jesus performed the miracle!

Before Jesus raised Lazarus, he asked several men move the stone… Did you catch that? Jesus did not move the stone; the men did. It took several people to perform this miracle: the men who moved the stone AND Jesus who raised the dead man. The men did what was POSSIBLE and Jesus did the IMPOSSIBLE. But both were needed.

We face situations in life that seem hard or, sometimes, impossible. But what do we do in those situations? It is human nature to fall into four traps when we face the impossible:

1) We try to overcome it ourselves. Then when we get beaten down, we blame God for putting us in this situation.

2) We give up. We say, “What’s the use?” Or we try to escape or avoid the situation. Or we deny that the problem exists. Or we just shrivel up in a corner somewhere.

3) We don’t give God a chance. We face a hard situation and we totally leave God out of it. Or our prayers are half-hearted. It is a good thing that God’s grace surrounds us, even when we don’t ask for it! But when we ask for God to work on our behalf it helps us to realize that it is HE who is helping us when help comes. When we don’t ask, and God helps us out of the goodness of His grace, we often don’t recognize the hand of God in it. And sometimes, “we have not, because we ask not.”

4) We ask God to help, but we don’t do what is possible for us. We ask God for healing, but we don’t go to the doctor. We ask God for provision, but we don’t give or tithe. We ask God to change our difficult relational situation, but we don’t humble ourselves to look in the mirror and to change the person we can change.

We might not be able to raise the dead, but there are stones we can move out of the way. We are not able to feed the 5,000, but we can offer our lunch to Jesus. We are not be able to heal ourselves from leprosy, but we can wash in the lake seven times (like Namaan did, under Elijah’s instructions in 1 Kings). All these Biblical miracles involved both God and human beings working together.

The take-away from John 11 is to:

1) Ask God to do the impossible, and

2) Make ourselves available to the possible thing He is calling us to do.

Being in the flow of Jesus’ life and love means to be in tandem with God through prayer and action. Both are expressions of faith…

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Jesus gave us some great gems of teaching in His Sermon on the Mount. One of these well known nuggets is what we know as the Golden Rule. It goes like this:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 7:12)

This Golden Rule reminds us to give out grace to others. I want to pass on to you a prayer that I received from my friend, Cheryl. It talks about this great application of the Golden Rule.

“Heavenly Father, help us remember that the jerk who cut us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and was rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry and spend a few precious moments with her children.

Help us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change correctly is a worried 19 year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging for money in the same spot every day (who really out to get a job!) is a slave to addictions that we can only imagine in our worst nightmares.

Help us to remember that the old couple walking annoyingly slow through the store aisles and blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last year that they will go shopping together.

Heavenly Father, remind us each day that, of all the gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts to just to those who are close to us but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judgment and quick to forgiveness and patience and empathy and love.

Help us to live by the Golden Rule and to love with all our hearts (as You have loved us). Amen.”

As the Lord has shown us grace and mercy, let us pass it on to others! Let’s be a funnel of His love to the world. It’s what Whole Life Worship is all about!

What are your thoughts and applications of the Golden Rule?

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Prayer of Tears

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Something very powerful and unusual happened this morning in my Personal Worship Time with the Lord. As I prayed through a Psalm in the Morning Office (“The Divine Hours” by Phyllis Tickle), I started to weep … uncontrollably. Now to those of you who know me well, I am not resistant to weeping. When I am moved, whether preaching, leading worship, sharing with a friend, or praying to the Lord, I will weep. But usually there is a “context” to my weeping: I think of something or I feel something strongly and it moves me to tears.

However, in this moment of prayer there was literally no context. There was nothing going through my mind, no emotional scenarios running through my heart. Just tears in the presence of God.

As my mind raced, “What is happening to me?” I realized that something must be going on at a deeper level within me – my soul.

Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about my soul; that oft neglected aspect of my being that is always assumed, but never paid any attention. My soul gets a lot of lip service in preaching and teaching, but – until recently – never really given an opportunity to speak. But as I’ve learned in my reading of great books (Barton, Nouwen, Merton, Foster, Willard, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross), the soul is very powerful. On the positive side, it is the soul that connects with God. It is the soul where my True Self is formed. My soul is like a child: genuine, innocent, receiving love without reservation, giving love without pretense. On the negative side, when my soul is neglected life begins to leak out. When my soul is repressed it will “act out” in deep and sometimes, embarrassing or violent ways. So my soul is also like a wild animal (thanks to Parker Palmer for that word picture): hiding in the woods until it is safe, vicious when cornered or trapped.

These great writers have encouraged me to create safe places for my soul to come out in God’s presence through solitude and silence. As a Whole Life Worshiper, I want my soul to connect freely and powerfully with my Lord. I understand that the transformation that transpires in the worship dynamic cannot take place without honesty and surrender in the deepest parts of me – my soul. So I’ve invested a lot of time (for me, anyways) to solitude and silence. I’ve created environments of silence by turning off the radio in the car. I’ve purposefully silenced my mind and ego, through Silent Prayer. I’ve given time for my soul to come out and be heard, to feel safe and to be validated.

I think my soul safely came out this morning in God’s presence. And it came through tears.

The ancient writers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Anthony) talk about the “Prayer of Tears.” It is a mysterious prayer, sometimes a prayer of knowing, but more often a prayer of “unknowing” that comes with a flood of tears. I may have experienced that. All I know is that I didn’t drum it up. It just happened.

It wasn’t an inward flow – sometimes I feel the presence of God or the Love of God come on me and it moves me to tears, but it wasn’t that. It was more of an outward flow, a cry, a longing. As I sit in reflection, I sensed it might have been a longing for “home;” my eternal home with God. Or it could have been a child’s cry for his Parent that he misses. It’s hard to name at this time.

The weeping continued as I mumbled my way through the Morning Office, climaxing when I uttered the first words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father.” There I had to stop for several minutes. Our Father. Abba…

I still don’t know what it all means. It is a mystery. But I know something happened. Some sort of exchange took place. Something good.

It is well with my soul.

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Purell_Hand_Sanitizer_Dispenser

One of the values we hold dear in Whole Life Worship is the transformation. We believe that Christ not only came to bring us eternal life, but abundant life, as well. This abundant life occurs as we are changed or transformed by the power of Christ through His Spirit who dwells within us. The theological word used to describe this process is “sanctification;” that is, to become holy or Christ-like in character. Sanctification allows the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, etc.)  to be genuinely demonstrated through our lives.

Now, if this were true, why do so many Christians struggle with transformation? Why are these Christ-like character qualities lacking in people who bear His name? Why does it seem that many Christians are just as worldly, just as impatient, just as worrisome as anyone else?

The answer is not easy, but I believe one reason why we don’t see more “fruit of the Spirit” coming from Christians is that many choose the path of “sanitization” over “sanctification.”

Sanitization is fake sanctification; it substitutes true transformation with “image orientation.” Sanitization makes a person look good on the outside (through religious acts and behavioral management) but leaves them still putrid and foul on the inside. Jesus identified “sanitization” in the Pharisees when He called them “white-washed tombs” (Matt. 25:27).

Sanitization is kind of like make-up: it is convenient, hides a multitude of sins and comes off with soap and water (once you are out of the public eye.) With sanitization, you don’t have to hassle with confession or denying yourself or taking responsibility for your own actions or relying on the power of the cross. Sanitization is easy – it’s so much easier to act “nice” than it is to be good. It’s easier to act out “modesty”, than to travel the path of true humility. It’s easier to keep busy with church activities, than it is to meet with Jesus regularly in your quiet place. And it’s far easier to put a WWJD sticker on our car than to actually drive like Jesus would! (ouch!)

But sanitization is not real. It shrivels up under pressure. It is a “house of cards”; a façade. Jesus talked about this in Matt. 7:24-27. The house built on the rock (hearing Jesus’ words and doing them) is the process of sanctification. The house built on sand (hearing Jesus’ words, but not doing them) is sanitization.

How do we choose the path of sanctification over sanitization? That is a topic that would take far more space than I have left. But here are some principles to ponder:

  1. Get rid of our spiritual make-up kit; it didn’t make us look that good anyway!
  2. Understand our faults, our areas of character growth. Ask Jesus to reveal them
  3. See our trials as God’s way of answering point #2!
  4. Ask for God’s grace and then rely upon it.
  5. Obey the leading of the Spirit

Purify my heart, cleanse me from within and make me holy. Purify my heart, cleanse me from my sin deep within (“Refiner’s Fire” by Brian Doerksen)

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fork-in-the-road

I had a nice conversation with my mom and my sister, Janet, today. We talked quite a bit about spiritual discernment. I’ve greatly enjoyed Ruth Haley Barton’s new book, “Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.” Although it is a book about group discernment, the processes shared are very good for personal spiritual discernment.

So we talked a little about Ruth’s book and shared some of our own experiences with discernment; especially how our false self can lead us astray with strong emotions toward certain choices in life. It is easy for well-meaning Christians to confuse strong emotions with leadings from the Holy Spirit, or to assume that God’s will is something that we feel passionate about. I call it “’You Light Up My Life’ Discernment” (based on the 1980’s Debbie Boone song) – you know: “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”

I can’t remember if I came up with it or my little sis, but one of us said, “You know, not every good idea is a God idea.”

There is a big difference between the two; sometimes it is the difference between right and wrong, between good and bad, even life and death.

Sarah had a good idea when she told Abraham to get her slave, Hagar, pregnant. It was a pragmatic solution to a spiritual revelation. After all, she was barren and God gave them a promise that involved their descendants. So she decided to “help God out” with a good idea. That “good” idea ended up being a terrible decision; not only causing immediate devastating familial issues (leaving Hagar and her son through Abraham, Ishmael, destitute) but also causing violent enmity between two people groups (Arabs and Israelis) that has lasted almost 4,000 years … and is still going strong!

That’s what could happen when we assume that any good idea, based on a spiritual premise, is God’s idea.

The problem is that we still make the same mistake today – constantly. Churches and ministries come up with good, innovative ideas that would attract people, win them to Christ and grow the churches. We assume that it must be a God idea because God wants people to come to Christ and see the Kingdom expand. But as we follow through on these ideas, they don’t work out. In some cases, the “wheels fall off the wagon” and the church or ministry implodes. In other cases, there might be some semblance of success, but coming at a great cost – making you wonder if it really was successful.

In our personal lives, we don’t fare much better. We pray that God would lead us in a major decision and then we go with our gut. Or we weigh out the “pros” and the “cons.” We might as well “flip the coin” and pray for God’s sovereignty to intervene (some would say this is actually Biblical and point to the Old Testament use of the Urim and Thummin).

It’s not that we don’t want God’s ideas. We do. It’s not that we don’t want to exercise good spiritual discernment in decisions. We do. But for most of us, we lack the process that leads to good spiritual discernment.

Barton’s book gives us some great tools for a truly God-led discernment process that keeps us from falling into the traps of the “false self,” relying too much on strategy, or “You Light Up My Life”/”I’ve got a good feeling about this” decision making.

I won’t spoil the book – she writes it so well – but let me leave you with two “teasers.”

1. The key to spiritual discernment is learning to hear God’s voice through the rhythmic spiritual practices that allow God to speak to our soul (solitude, silence, Scripture, Sabbath, examen).

2. You know that you’re closer to a discerning decision when you can get to the place of “indifference” toward any option.

If you are wrestling with a discernment issue, if you feel like you might have some good ideas but not certain if they are God’s ideas, then I encourage you to read Ruth’s book.

Lead me, LORD, in your righteousness – because of my enemies. Make your way straight before me. (Psalm 5:8)

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As parents, and now grandparents, Letty and I have had the honor of teaching our kids how to pray. The best times of prayer come at night as we thank God for the day and ask for His protection over us as we sleep. Every now and then the kids get a little flippant or trite in their prayers to God. When that happens I’ll interrupt them and say something like, “Remember WHO you are talking with.” And they’ll stop their prayer, understand what I said, and proceed; this time with a little more serious tone to their prayer.

Now I know that kids will be kids, and I don’t want to be overbearing with them. I certainly don’t want them to lose the joy of praying to God who loves them and meets them just as they are. But I do want them to know that the One they are talking with is LORD God Almighty. Yes, He is also their Best Friend and the Lover of their souls. But He is also the One who sets the stars in the sky, who makes the mountains quake and the oceans roar.

In reflection, I also realized how easy it is for me to be trite and flippant in my own conversations with God. We all need to be reminded Who we are talking with when we pray.

I came to a fuller realization of this when I did my “prayer-pause” through the Lord’s Prayer this morning. After I prayed “hallowed be Thy name,” I stopped dead in my tracks. “I am talking with GOD! The One I call ‘Abba Father’ is the Sovereign of the Universe.”

It was one of those “let all mortal flesh be silent” moments. I thought about those angels in Isaiah 6, who fly around the “train” (the lower garments) of His glory. They cover their faces and their feet in His presence. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty! The whole earth is filled with His glory.”

And this is the One I am about to ask for help to get my lost prescription filled?

This is the Person I am asking to bless me so that I have a good attitude during a meeting?

I dare to come before such Holiness and request some financial help so we can make it to the end of the month?

Really? Seriously?

When we reflect on the true dynamics of prayer (that the most profane dare to ask the Most Holy for a favor) it seems ridiculous, if not absurd and ludicrous.

And yet the Holy One would not have it any other way! He looks beyond the issues of propriety and protocol (made possible by the sacrifice of His Son) and has pity and mercy on us. He does meet us right where we live. He sees us with pure eyes of love. He hears us and He responds – every time for our good.

And that makes Him even more Holy to me. And it makes me love Him more, and trust Him more, and be in awe-filled worship of Him even more. And it makes me want to be like Him.

I am reminded of the words of Psalm 5:

“But I, because of your great love, can come into your house. I bow down in reverence toward your holy temple. Lead me, LORD, in your righteousness.”

As I realize who I am talking with in prayer, the One who is both “Daddy” and “Holy,” I understand the nature of worship. It is the tension of intimacy and reverence. It is the tension of reckless, crazy love combined with holy, fearful awe. It is the tension between kissing the face with affection and the falling on my face in humility. No wonder one of the Greek words for worship is pros-kuneo. Pros is the root for “deep reverence.” Kuneo is the Greek word for “kiss.”

As we pray, let us become more aware of Who we are talking with. To Whom we pray is surely more important that what we pray for. That is the Whole Life Worship perspective.

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