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Is Lent a Catholic Tradition that Leads to Hell?

No, it is not.

When it comes to debate, there are a few key verses that Christians always have on standby. If you want to argue with people about predestination and election, pull out Romans 9. If you want to talk about Gifts of the Spirit, pull out 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. If you want to eliminate women from Christian leadership, pull out 1 Timothy 2.

lentIt is no different when we’re talking about the church calendar. Yes, Lenten season is upon us. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans observe Lent, but so do Lutherans, Methodists, and some Evangelical traditions.

But then there are those who ADAMANTLY oppose Lent. They throw around phrases like “Papist traditions” and “traditions of man.” As proof-texts they will read you Mark 7:8-9 –

“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

Lent, however, is not a human tradition intended to supplant God’s commands. No one I know pushes Lent as a means of salvation or a ticket to heaven. It’s not about righteousness through works. And Christian traditions are not INHERENTLY bad. They are only bad when we use them in place of God’s work.  Lent is one of the oldest observations in Christianity and, though it has morphed over the centuries, is about aligning our hearts with God. Doug Ponder writes:

The heart of Lent is a season of fasting, which Jesus seemed to expect for his followers to do. After all, he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt. 6:16). In Lenten fasting we abstain from worldly pleasures to realize their power over us, to remind ourselves of our frailty and continual need of grace, and to rejoice that our appetite for sin has been forgiven and will one day be erased. I know of no Christian who would object to that!

fastingIn the Bible, Paul says that certain days are special to one person and not to another (see Romans 14). The point is not to judge each other, but in Christian liberty allow for a wide variety of how we honor and celebrate Christ. Rather than lamenting the “Papal tradition” of Lent, Christians everywhere should commend other Christians who desire to set aside human appetites in order to give space for God’s work in their lives.

Isn’t this the point of any fasting?

When our fasting (at any time of year) is centered on and motivated by God, no one should condemn it. Richard Foster wrote: “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” Since there are so many works examining the BIBLICAL practice of fasting, I’m not even going to waste space defending it. It’s an expected part of the life of a disciple of Christ.

This Lenten season, get off your high horse. Examine your life and see where your appetites control you. What can you put aside in order to create space to listen to God?

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For additional reading, check out:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/beginning-of-lent.html

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/february/13.54.html?start=1

http://www.christianity.com/church/redeeming-lent.html

Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Harper San Francisco, 1998.

Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Harper San Francisco, 1988.

Alternative Facts: Taking a Stand For Truth

victoriaI’m on a journey to read at least one book a month through 2017. Most recently I read Victoria, the new historical fiction based on the life of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. The author, Daisy Goodwin, wrote the book while she was also writing the story for the Masterpiece mini-series on PBS. The book itself is a relative quick read. There is a lot of dialogue and not much dead space between events. The characters are quite engaging and I found myself enjoying the read.

Through the book I also realized that I don’t know a whole lot about British history and government processes (I’m embarrassed to think that the average Brit knows more about American history and government than we do theirs, but I haven’t asked any Brits about it). The book inspired me to dive deeper into the characters and history surrounding the narrative.  That’s the neat thing about historical fiction – you’re given dialogue and relationships that are from the author’s imagination, yet the author’s imagination is guided and constrained by actual people and events. In the case of Victoria, Daisy Goodwin used history and the Queen’s own diaries to help create her telling of the story. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that the truth of the story must be balanced against the creative license of Ms. Goodwin.

This got me thinking about current events and the brouhaha about truth vs. “alternative facts.” Before you jump to conclusions, I’m not posting to comment on any particular fact or person. I’m merely dialoguing about truth in general. Regardless of a person’s personal view of religion, politics, relationships, or ANYTHING, one cannot deny that there is such a thing as objective truth. 2+2 is always going to equal 4. Quantitative measurements are objective – it’s only qualitative measurements that move into subjectivity. Still, there is objective truth. We may interpret historical events in different ways, but we can objectively point to those historical events.

As Christians, we are called to be people of truth. A simple search of the word “truth” in the Bible will yield hundreds of results.

  • Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. (Psalm 25:5)
  • Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit. (Proverbs 12:17)
  • I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right. (Isaiah 45:19)
  • And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The Bible is FILLED with the idea that we are supposed to be people of truth because God IS truth. So if God IS truth, then telling untruths is CONTRARY to the very nature of God. That means that everyone who follows God should be adamantly opposed to the spreading of untruth. That is to say, Christians ought to be the first to stand up and say, “Wait, that’s not true. That’s a deception. That’s fraudulent. That’s a lie!”

deceive-1299043_1280But to often we don’t. We perpetuate falsehoods and untruths because they fit our framework for thinking about and reacting to the world around us. It’s easier to accept some fabrications because truths make us uncomfortable. But comfort isn’t part of the package when it comes to following Jesus. Sure, eternity in heaven will be comfortable in the presence of God, but this life isn’t promised to be a life of ease.

As people called to pursue justice and righteousness and truth, we will need to stand against deceptions wherever we see them.

Because God.Is.Truth.

These Things Could Fill You With Joy

board-142741_1280What makes you joyful?

This being the third week of Advent, Joy Sunday, we were naturally talking about joy. It’s one of those things that the Apostle Paul talks about as “The Fruit of the Spirit.” That is to say, when the Spirit of God is in us one of the things that should be produced in us is joy.

So we tried something different on a Sunday morning and split into groups (2 men’s groups and 1 women’s group) to come up with the top 5 things we think would bring us joy (being a small church, breaking into groups wasn’t very difficult – I don’t think I would have tried this in a large church).

What about you? If you had to pick 5, what would you think the average person would say?

Here’s what our younger men came up with:

  1. a good job. The idea of having a job that both provides abundantly AND fills you with a sense of accomplishment/achievement was a big factor in people’s ideal of a joy-filled life.
  2. a new truck. I’m not sure which young man came up with this one, but I agree – a new truck would make me pretty happy, too!
  3. having the family together. Perhaps the Christmas season makes people long for family and community. Perhaps it’s being part of a military community where we are separated from family more than other communities. Either way, having our loved ones around is important.
  4. being able to play my instrument whenever I want. I think we had one young man who would rather be rocking out than attending class, but that’s not unusual. 😉
  5. success. I think this is really connected to #1, but it goes beyond a job and into an attitude that encompasses all of life.

Here’s what our older men came up with:

  1. the birth of Jesus – yes, I got Jesus-juked by the men in chapel (if you don’t know what a Jesus-juke is, read about it here).
  2. our kids’ laughter. I agree, nothing delights me quite like hearing my own kids laughing when they don’t know I can hear them.
  3. a healthy family. We live in a world with so much sickness and disease, sometimes it feels as though it will never end. A healthy family can be a real joy to those of us with sickos in the family. Wait…that didn’t come out right…
  4. a relationship with God – okay, another Jesus-juke, and they were trying to jump into my sermon notes.
  5. healthy mothers – I think this one was spawned from one dad who was at church with his sons and mom was home recovering. Being a single parent is always tough – add on the responsibility of being a care-giver for a spouse or adult parent and the burden multiplies.

And here’s what our women came up with:

  1. making others happy. I think the women are much more altruistic than we are (at least that’s how it is in my marriage!).
  2. being more involved in church. These ladies really know how to push all the right buttons for the pastor. I see some new ministries and leaders developing here! 😉
  3. good weather. If you’re the kind of person who is affected by weenjoy-the-little-things-906291_1920ather changes, this could be a BIG deal for your sense of joy.
  4. exercising. I’m not sure if exercise would give ME joy, but I sure do enjoy the benefits of it 🙂
  5. the little things in life. The ladies wouldn’t get specific about WHICH little things, but apparently it’s these little things that bring them joy.

Were these close to what you came up with?

The problem with most of these answers we come up with that our idea of joy is often connected to temporary things. None of them is permanent. Cold weather, bills, people, health, and good feelings all come and go. If we look to these things for our joy then we’re always going to be chasing.

That kind of joy is a pipe dream.

It’s not the kind of joy we see in the Bible when Peter writes:

He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while…you have been grieved by various trials. (1 Peter 1:3-6)

Finding joy in the middle of trials and tough time feels impossible, yet time and time again the Bible talks about joy in the midst of suffering. You see, from the Bible’s perspective, joy isn’t based on temporary things and events. Though such things might give us joy for a bit they will eventually fade. It is when we are able to shift focus and take our eyes off of this world and focus on what’s coming for us later that we can know joy no matter what we face in this life.

Real joy is rooted not in our circumstances but in GOD and his activity. He has worked in the past, he works in our lives now, and he has promised us a better tomorrow. We may not see that better tomorrow in this life, but the Christian faith realizes that there is more to life than this flesh and blood.

Joy is about holding on to our eternal circumstances over our temporary trials.

I might not know what you’re going through. It may be excruciating. But we know and believe that one day we will rest easy in the presence of Yahweh. All the wrongs will be made right. All the hurts will be healed. We will know a permanent and lasting joy unlike anything we have ever experienced.

Until that day, that hope anchors us here and now. May we learn to say with the Apostle Paul:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Philippians 4:11)

Amen.

Related Posts:
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Finding Fearless Faith

quotes-1449691_1280We’ve arrived at the second week of Advent, the time of year we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah at Christmas. This week we’re talking about hope. But what is hope? To many people, hope seems to be nothing more than a pipe dream – a wish.

“I hope that I get a raise.”

“I hope Uncle Frank doesn’t say anything offensive at Christmas dinner this year.”

“I hope….”

It’s nothing more than an expression of a wish or a desire. But that’s not the biblical understanding of hope. Hope is not a wish. It’s not human desire. Hope is intimately connected to faith. Hope is trusting and expecting something beneficial to come sometime in the future. It is a compelling positive view of things to come.

Romans 8:23-25 – Though we have already tasted the firstfruits of the Spirit, we are longing for the total redemption of our bodies that comes when our adoption as children of God is complete— 24 for we have been saved in this hope and for this future. But hope does not involve what we already have or see. For who goes around hoping for what he already has? 25 But if we wait expectantly for things we have never seen, then we hope with true perseverance and eager anticipation.

 “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” ~ George Washington Carvergeorge-washington-carver-393757_1280

But it’s not about something we manufacture. It’s not under our control. Hope is the proper response to the promises of God.

Psalm 119:49 – Do not forget Your promise to Your servant; through it You have given me hope. 50 This brings me solace in the midst of my troubles: that Your word has revived me.

Hope lies in God’s activity, not our own. The foundation of hope is not our own desire but an understanding that God HAS been active in human history and our lives, God IS actively working in our lives, and God WILL continue to work in our lives. This three-fold understanding of God’s behavior is the bedrock on which all hope lies. No matter what happens, we know that God is present and active. That puts is in a practical place – hope has real effects on human behavior.

Psalm 31:24 – Love the Eternal, all of you, His faithful people! He protects those who are true to Him, but He pays back the proud in kind. Be strong, and live courageously, all of you who set your hope in the Eternal!

2 Corinthians 3:12 – In light of this hope that we have, we act with great confidence and speak with great courage.

Godly hope empowers us to live courageously. It’s not about taking away all of the negative possibilities in life. It’s not about avoiding all dangers and troubles. It’s about knowing who is in control. Faith in God’s tomorrow removes our fear today. If we know that, no matter what happens, God’s plan will still come to fruition, it frees us to act without fear. Our decisions are not going to derail God’s will. Other people cannot change God’s plan. We are emboldened to act knowing that God wins. Even through the difficult times, we can still hope.

Romans 5:3-5 – We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love.

Hope isn’t diminished in bad times, it’s built in them! This may seem counterintuitive at first, but people living the good life have no need for hope- they have everything they need now.

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Infinite hope. It removes our fear. It compels us to act. It sets us apart from the lost and hopeless people in the world. It’s not because of us – it’s all because of Him. This Advent season, as we prepare ourselves for his arrival, let God’s actions in the past, his behavior today, and his promises for tomorrow, be your source of hope. In a dismal and decaying world, we have this hope that builds within us fearless faith to face whatever may come.

 “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” ~ Desmond Tutu

If You Don’t Read the Bible You Don’t Have to Live By It.

Today I read an article titled, “Less Than Half of Christian Americans Read the Bible.” In fact, only 37% of self-proclaimed Christians pick it up on a regular basis. This is a real problem for Christian culture – a culture that is dependent upon sacred Scripture. More and more, our contemporary culture is turning away from the text as THE authority for a Christian’s life and thought.

american-football-referees-1476038_1280In his article, “Inerrantism as Narcissism: Biblical Authority as a Cultural Problem,” James Moseley points out that authority is a term of relationship and not of some special property. That is to say, whenever one claims authority, the people under that claim must agree, even if silently, that the claimant does indeed have authority! In a football game, if the players refuse to do what the referee says, does the referee have any actual authority? No – the players and coaches agree to the idea that the referees are in charge of enforcing the rules.

Authority, then, is the ability to influence the thought and actions of others when those particular others have agreed to submit to the influencing agent. This is especially true regarding matters of faith. The term Christian carries with it (or should carry with it?) the notion of one who lives under Scriptural authority.

The conservative and liberal camps often argue how the Christian Scripture is authoritative, but I would venture to say that the average Christian acknowledges some manner of Scriptural authority. Scripture does not contain any authority in and of itself. It is authoritative because of the authority which backs it up. That is to say, the authority of God is exercised through Scripture. Technically, then, God is ultimately authoritative Scripture possesses a secondary or delegated authority. Scripture, though, pushes that authority upon the believer. There is a relationship between text and disciple and authority is given and received when the believer confesses that Scripture is the Word of God. This is the crux of the matter for the Christian and Scriptural authority. Scripture is only authoritative through faith. One cannot prove Scripture’s authority to a non-believer using rational arguments.

Any confession of faith that results in authority yields both a sense of identity and a set of norms for faith and practice. It is the sense of identity that allows one to claim the title Christian, Muslim, or Jew. But with that confession (and thus the title) comes a set of norms for thought and action, i.e. any claim must be accompanied by life characterized by the claim. The confessing Christian acknowledges that the one true authority is God, yet the confession also acknowledges that God has revealed himself through human words. These human words form the norms and standards for that confession.

child-945422_1920
Bible Study

But when people claim the title “Christian” and accept the sense of identity without accepting the set of norms we speak of them derogatorily as “nominal Christians.” This nominalism has led many biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors to proclaim a modern crisis of biblical authority. The expression “crisis of authority” assumes that Scripture should be normative for Christian thought and behavior. Indeed “Christian praxis” without the “Christian” is merely social action or moral behavior. “Christian praxis” without the “praxis” is merely mental assent to the possibility of the Christian God without allowing God to possess any practical power or authority to influence believers.

We know more about the Bible than ever before yet there is a disconcerting lack of use of the Bible in everyday life. Scripture holds a special place in the Christian heart but sees little real function in terms of influence. Lutheran theology in particular seems to emphasize the influential and functional use of Scripture a mainstay of their theology, thus combating this lack of regular use. Scripture is not simply a repository of past revelation but is a current Word of God for the church with immediate authority.

The application of this theology could be one of the most difficult aspects of Scriptural authority. While most Christians acknowledge the theoretical functionality of Scripture, allowing Scripture to be the major influencing force in life and thought is difficult. When we flat out refuse to allow our lives to be molded by the text, we have rejected the authority of the text.

Yes, Christianity exists beyond the text. People followed God before it was written. Cultures without a written language still follow Yahweh. But the Christian faith was born into a textual relationship, understanding that God revealed Himself through the Old Testament and continued to reveal Himself through the inspiration recorded in the New Testament. A Christianity devoid of Sacred Scripture is not an authentic Christianity at all, but a cheap replica that desires to hold to the “nice” elements of faith without being accountable to the Word of God.

And that’s not okay.

How to Tell When You’re Obsessed

Do you remember what it was like to obsess over the girl you used to like? That guy you had a thing for?

“She didn’t smile at me when we passed today. Why didn’t she smile at me?”

“We had so much fun, but why hasn’t he called back? It’s been 12 hours – why hasn’t he called me? Should I call him? Easy – don’t want to seem too anxious. Should I have my friend ‘bump into him’? Why hasn’t he called?”

Maybe you never obsessed over a guy or a girl. But I bet that at some time in your life you’ve obsessed over something! What are some things you’ve obsessed over in your life? There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with collecting comic books. Every month had a visit to the comic shop to get the latest editions to see what Superman, Batman or the X-Men were going to do next.

What price were you willing to pay to satisfy your obsession? You can always tell how valuable a thing is to us by the price we are willing to pay for it (or the price at which you’re willing to let it go). The real value of an object isn’t given it by the seller. The real value of the object is given it by the buyer – how much is it worth to you? Look at some of these crazy items. What would you pay for some of these gems?

picture1
3-Pack of Name-Brand colored toilet paper
picture2
Name-Brand leather flying disc (okay, a frisbee)
picture3
A leather, silver, and gold Monopoly set
picture4
A genuine crocodile skin umbrella

1. Colored Toilet Paper (3-pack) = $20
2. Leather Flying Disc – Single Frisbee = $305
3. Leather, Silver, & Gold Monopoly set = $7,570
4. Crocodile Skin Umbrella = $50,000

Now YOU might not pay those prices for those “luxury” items, but that’s the selling price! People can become obsessed with silly things. Christian writer Ted Dekker writes in his book Obsessed:

Life is hardly worth living without an obsession. God himself is obsessed. With His creation. With humans. With the love of humans. You think he created with nonchalance? Let’s throw some mud against the sky and see if any of it sticks? Not a chance. We are created for love, for obsession. So we do indeed obsess, though usually not over the right idea.

God himself is an obsessive God, obsessed with his love for his creation, for us! I mentioned that the value of something isn’t determined by the seller’s price, but is determined by the price the buyer is willing to pay. In His obsession for us, he couldn’t have paid a higher price than he did – the cross. This is the kind of obsession we need to have towards God – a single-minded fixation that puts no limits on the cost. When we understand this kind of obsession some of the crazy stories in the Bible don’t seem so crazy. When you’re obsessed with Him you’d be willing to build a big boat in the middle of the dessert. Noah did. When you’re obsessed with Him you’d dance in worship without caring what your wife thought of you. King David did. Jesus himself even talked about obsession for God in Matthew 13. He told his disciples a parable about a man who discovers a treasure buried in a field. Wanting that treasure more than anything, he re-hides the treasure, sells off everything he owns, and goes to buy the field. Unethical – maybe a bit – but the point is that we need to be fixated on finding God.

That’s all well and good, but how do we get to that point of obsession? It’s not like we can simply turn it on at will. True, we can’t turn it on at will. But I believe that this ties into my last sermon about going deeper with God. A friend once said to me, “I’ve been a Christian for a while. I’ve read the Bible. I know what I’m supposed to think and what I’m supposed to do. But what’s next?” I think that this sums up where many of us are. We know what we’re supposed to know. We’ve heard sermons and been to Bible studies. If someone asks us what it takes to build your Christian life we can faithfully recite the answers without even thinking about it: read the Bible, pray, fellowship, obey. We know all that. So what is next? How do we get to the deep end? How do we discover that obsession within our souls?

It comes from an encounter with Jesus. For the cripple at the pool of Siloam it was encountering Jesus that made his legs whole. For blind Bartimaeus it was encountering Jesus that gave him sight. It is encountering Jesus that breaks our addictions. It is encountering Jesus that restores our relationships. We need to have a face to face encounter with the Living God! This is the story we come upon in Mark 5, and in this story we find 2 lessons and 2 questions. Let’s read:

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

There are few images in the Bible that are as unsettling as this. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a troubled soul. Jewish teaching held that there were 4 tests for insanity: 1) a mad person sleeps in graveyards, 2) a mad person tears his clothing, 3) a mad person walks around at night, and 4) a mad person destroys anything given him. In this one person we find all 4 tests fulfilled – what we have here is a madman, and every word of his description emphasizes his pathetic condition. Here is a man who is made in God’s image and the unclean spirit causes him to horribly distort that image. It makes one ask, “Is there anything happening in my life that distorts God’s image in me?” Though we here may not be struggling with actual demons, we do struggle with things that distort God’s image in us – anger, hate, jealousy, or lust, to name just a few.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God that you won’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”

At this point of the story we see several interesting things happening at the same time. Look at what the demon is saying to Jesus – he addresses Jesus by name and says, “I adjure you by God.” In Jesus’ time, if one wanted to perform an exorcism, one needed to know the name of the spirit. When you knew its name you had power over it. Then you could command it under oath (adjure) to leave the body it inhabited. What the spirit is doing here is trying to exorcise Jesus! “I know your name – you are Jesus. I command you by God, leave me alone!” The irony is rich. He thinks he can take on Jesus in a power encounter. But it’s all talk – no one can outdo God.

No one can contain Jesus Christ. If you’re taking notes, we now find our first lesson: (1) It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s going on in your life, Jesus is ready to encounter you! This man came from the tombs. He was considered unclean and untouchable, but Jesus doesn’t stop this encounter he welcomes it. That’s encouraging news for us. No matter what our problems, our flaws, our addictions, or our demons, Jesus stands ready to encounter us. But will you run to Him and fall at His feet?

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

The name “Legion” has ties to the Roman army. A Roman legion was made up of anywhere from 3000-6000 troops. And you thought you had problems! Of course, this could be one final attempt on the unclean spirit’s part to put a scare into Jesus! But it’s evident who is in control. The person in control doesn’t beg, and the demon has been begging Jesus since Jesus arrived. They beg permission to go into the pigs and Jesus permits it. And the first thing they do upon overpowering the pigs? They destroy the herd.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well.

When God starts to do stuff, people can’t help but talk about it. This is part of the power of personal testimony. I saw God do something and you’re not gonna believe it! If God starts doing something and we tell people about it, you’d better believe they will come out to see for themselves what’s happening. So the pig herders go to tell the town and countryside what they saw – when everyone returned they see the whacked-out crazy guy sitting by Jesus, clothed and sane. And here we see our second lesson: (2) When they encounter Jesus, people do change. Before, this man had been in an unbreakable grip of destructive evil; now Jesus has shattered the grip of evil and restored him to full human life. It is encountering Jesus that heals the sick. It is encountering Jesus that breaks addictions. It is encountering Jesus that restores relationships. We need to have a face to face encounter with the Living God! God may love you the way you are, but that doesn’t mean God wants you to STAY the way you are. An encounter with Him means you’re going to change.

But not everyone is happy with what has happened. The response of the people is fear – not of the once crazy guy – they fear Jesus! He has demonstrated supernatural power and an authority over the spiritual and natural world. If he cast the demons out of all of the sick people, there wouldn’t be enough pigs and livestock to hold them all. Every farmer and rancher would go out of business! The locals are apparently more concerned with their way of life than for the life of this man or the Lord of Life standing before them. This brings up our first question: (1) Are we more interested in “business as usual” or the power of God to deliver our disordered lives and the lives of those around us? Sometimes we can start to see God as a concept, an idea by which we should live our lives. It’s when we start to think like this that we begin to care about business as usual. But God is not an abstract thing – God is the creator and giver of life and His power can deliver our disordered lives and the lives of those around us. Oh, how we need an encounter with Jesus.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

What a life turn-around. He goes from being demon-possessed to being Jesus-obsessed. He has had an encounter with Jesus Christ and is forever changed – he becomes obsessed. And Jesus sends him out to spread his obsession to others, and all the people were amazed. Our second question brings us back full-circle: (2) What is your obsession? Do you have a single-minded fixation on God? I believe that the church knows what it needs to know – at this point going deeper is going to mean developing the personal experience of God and his love and power. We need a fresh encounter with the Lord of Life, so that we can be healed, restored, set free, and set loose to obsess about God and spread our obsession everywhere we go. The demoniac would not have had his encounter with Jesus if he hadn’t run to Jesus and fallen at his feet. That’s where we need to be. Seeking God and asking him to encounter us, to intervene in our lives. The Christian band Skillet writes in their song My Obsession,

You’re my only infatuation…My purpose, my possession, live and die in my obsession, my obsession.

– It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s going on in your life, Jesus is ready to encounter you!

– When we encounter Jesus, we do change.

– Are we more interested in “business as usual” or the power of God to deliver our disordered lives and the lives of those around us?

-What is your obsession?

Why God Would Never Use a Woman (or other misfits)

eye rollBut I’m Just A…

God has a crazy way of looking at things – a crazy way of solving problems. You would think that NORMAL people would encounter a problem and then find the best possible solution to overcoming the problem. Not God. God throughout history, rather than choosing the BEST possible solution to carry out the Divine Will, God seems to choose the less-than-desirable solution.

The minority.

The weakling.

The outcast.

The long-shot.

I once hear a song with the line, “He uses improbable people for impossible tasks.” That pretty much sums it up. He used a young shepherd boy to fight a giant and save a nation. He used a murderer with a speech impediment to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He used a woman to lead the Israelite army to victory over Sisera. He used a low-born peasant bastard (please excuse the harshness of the word, but imagine the reaction of ancient listeners finding out that Jesus had no earthly father) to be the Salvation of the world.

And those are just a few examples.

HOW CAN THIS BE?!? It doesn’t seem right. In fact, many of the people God uses are people we would tell to sit down and stop rocking the boat. That’s not how things are done. You can’t do that. You can’t say that. You’re just a…

And we buy into it. Many of us go through life believing, “I’m just a…” and we fill in the blank with whatever limitation fits our life.

I’m just a child.

I’m just a woman.

I’m just a minority.

I’m just a cripple.

I’m just a felon.

I’m just a….

The problem with “I’m just a” kind of thinking is that it means we’re putting ourselves in the driver’s seat and not allowing God to drive the bus. In the big picture, it isn’t about US. Whether you’re a superstar or a superdud, YOU are not the critical element in God’s plan. God can use whomever or whatever He chooses. This is what Jesus is saying in Mark 4:

26 Here is what the kingdom of God is like: a man who throws seeds onto the earth. 27 Day and night, as he works and as he sleeps, the seeds sprout and climb out into the light, even though he doesn’t understand how it works. 28 It’s as though the soil itself produced the grain somehow—from a sprouted stalk to ripened fruit. 29 But however it happens, when he sees that the grain has grown and ripened, he gets his sickle and begins to cut it because the harvest has come.

30 What else is the kingdom of God like? What earthly thing can we compare it to? 31 The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the tiniest seed you can sow. 32 But after that seed is planted, it grows into the largest plant in the garden, a plant so big that birds can build their nests in the shade of its branches.

33 Jesus spoke many parables like these to the people who followed Him. 34 This was the only way He taught them, although when He was alone with His chosen few, He interpreted all the stories so the disciples truly understood.

God’s work isn’t about the grandness or immensity of the event. God can use something itty-bitty and worthless to bring about something phenomenal. The farmer isn’t doing the work to make the grain grow. God does it. The mustard seed is tiny, but look at what it produces. God’s work doesn’t have to have the best and the brightest to have tremendous results. I’m sure this was a great comfort for Jesus’s disciples, who once or twice probably thought that their rabbi had lost it. While many people try hard to gain followers, Jesus often seems to intentionally repel them. “Go and don’t say anything.” “Go keep quiet about what I did.” “Demons, be silent!” Jesus is the complete opposite of a media hound. So his words can serve as comfort – God can work incredibly even through the small and insignificant.

Let us have ears to hear this message – we are called to follow and be his disciples. No matter how insignificant we might seem to the world (I’m just a…), God can utilize us for great things. We may not even know the extent of our work, but like tossing a stone into a smooth lake, the ripples keep going and going.

So don’t allow the “I’m just a…” label to stick. And believe me – people WILL try to stick it to you! But not God. God will make sure that His will is accomplished, and it’s very often done by the misfits and outcasts.

So if you’re one of the misfits and outcasts, the excluded and minority, the unlikely and improbable, you’re in good company.

Keep an open ear for how God might want to use you.

7 Qualities of Servant Leaders

This week is the one year anniversary of my arrival at my current duty station, Naval Air Station Meridian, and a guest preacher, an ordained retired Navy Chief, filled the pulpit for me. His text was Mark 10:44-45 ~

“Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So Chief’s sermon was about servant leadership, and the 7 qualities of a servant leader:

  1. A servant works to please God regardless of the consequences.

consequencesUltimately, our service is not about our own greatness. That’s the paradox of Jesus’s statement on greatness. The disciples desired greatness. Jesus said, “If you want greatness, humble yourself.” You see, servant leadership serves for a purpose outside of the self. The disciples approached life with a “What’s in it for me?” mentality. That kind of thinking limits our service because we have our eye on the end result. If negative consequences are in the future, we won’t serve. The authentic servant leader works to please God regardless of the outcome.

  1. A servant positions himself/herself daily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Since pleasing God is the goal of the genuine servant leader, we must align ourselves with God on the regular. How can you know which way to walk if you’re walking your own path? When we position ourselves to follow Jesus, we don’t have to be concerned with developing the path – we walk His.

  1. A servant understands we may never see an earthly reward.

cups-1444419_1920Earthly rewards are nice, but if you’re in it for the reward you’re still in the “What’s in it for me?” mentality. When we serve for God’s sake, God’s glory is the ultimate goal. It doesn’t matter if we receive accolades or rewards. I’m reminded of every great preacher and theologian I’ve ever heard or read. My thought always comes back to, “Who was it that introduced this person to Jesus?” While the famous preacher/theologian gets the recognition, the person who started them on their spiritual path often gets none. But look at the fruit of their labor! Because of their service, unknown numbers hear the gospel. We serve for God’s glory, not our own.

  1. A servant understands that everything he/she is and has needs to be yielded to God.

Since we serve for God’s glory and at God’s pleasure, everything we have and are need to be surrendered to God. This isn’t about you! If you think it’s ever about you, you’re in the wrong line of work. Being a servant leader is never about the self. Since it’s ultimately about God, the servant leader surrenders everything to God. The right attitude says, “This is who I am and what I have – I give it back to you to use for your purposes.”

 

  1. A servant will be ready to walk alone.

sand-768783_1920When we follow a higher calling, we’re going to have people walk away from us. Some will fail to understand what it is we’re doing. Some will flat out reject what we’re doing. The servant role isn’t the popular role. It’s not the role that wins positions of power and the head seat at the table. While influence and power might be the result of authentic servant leadership, it’s never the goal. Genuine servant leadership is unattractive to many because it calls us to place others first. That’s hard to do, but it’s a path we need to be ready to take.

  1. A servant sacrifices for others.

The Bible has multiple examples about putting the needs and desires of others ahead of the self. The Apostle Paul said, “Consider others as MORE IMPORTANT than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). And the ultimate example is that of Christ, who sacrificed EVERYTHING for the world. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We didn’t earn his sacrifice – he offered it. Thus…

  1. A servant is never greater than the Master.

bible-1245795_1920It’s kind of hard to even contemplate the servant being greater than the Master when the Master gave everything in His service. In the military and law enforcement we see examples of men and women who will sacrifice themselves for the sake of their battle buddies – the Marine who jumps on a grenade, the cop who gets shot while dragging a partner out of harm’s way. We (rightly) hold such individuals in a place of honor – self-sacrifice like that is too rare. But Jesus died even for messed up people. Jesus died for his enemies. His sacrifice has no equal. And if Jesus was willing to sacrifice for everyone, are we too good to attempt the same?

As Christ-followers we’re called to be servant leaders to this world. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you came from, or where you’re going. This is a call upon all of our lives.

Are you willing to step up and answer the call?

Jesus Vs. The Python Spirit

chains-19176_1920Going through the motions leaves one dry and empty with a cold religion. There is no intimacy with God. Authentic faith is about experiencing the power of the presence of God and His Spirit. You see, when we encounter Jesus our lives are changed. When we are changed, we are no longer captive to the things that used to keep us in bondage. Our great unknown today is a slave. But not just any slave, every slave. See, we are all slaves. Did you know that you are a slave? The only question is, “Who is your master?” We do not have only one slave in the story. The story is really all about spiritual power, hardness of hearts, and the ability of the gospel to change lives. This story is set up like a western showdown. It’s a showdown between different sets of slaves to see whose master is more powerful. Luke tells us the story in Acts 16:16-22:

16 And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain girl possessed with a python spirit met us, which gave her masters much business with her fortune telling:

snake-419043_1920The word python was originally used in Greek mythology for the snake that guarded the sacred place at Delphi, where divine prophecies were given. The python was killed by Apollo, the god of prophecy. The word was later used to describe fortune tellers who were thought to be inspired by the serpent called Python. Plutarch calls these people ventriloquists – their utterances are beyond their conscious control (they are only dummies, puppets). So she’s not really a fortune teller, so to speak. She’s a puppet through which a powerful demon speaks, telling people things about themselves that are true!

When you encounter someone like this you know that you’re dealing with one of three options: it’s God, a fraud, or a demon. There is no other way around it. The Bible warns believers to stay away from that kind of hooka-booka nonsense. At any rate, this girl brought in a lot of business with her fortune telling. And for some reason she attaches herself to the preachers. We don’t know exactly why. Perhaps in her possessed state she realized she needed some help. Perhaps the spirit in her was trying to antagonize Paul and Silas.

17 She followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, “These men are servants of the most high God, that are proclaiming to us a way of salvation.”

There is a possibility that the spirit in the girl is trying to create confusion and trouble for Paul and Silas. In Jewish and Christian circles, the expression “most high God” means the one true God, the Almighty. It’s the Greek expression for the Old Testament’s El Elyon. Genesis14:18 reads ~ “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of El Elyon, of God Most High.” But that’s not necessarily how pagans understood the expression. In Philippi the term ‘the Highest God’ could have been misleading. It was a pagan title for Zeus. Could it be that, as people are drawing in to hear about Paul’s God, this python spirit is trying to distract them and prevent people from hearing about Yahweh, about Jesus?

It makes me think of Oprah Winfrey and her spiritual guru, Eckhart Tolle. He tries to claim that the spirituality he promotes is compatible with the Christian faith. It is all under the same big spiritual umbrella. All he is really doing is confusing people from hearing the real truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Eckhart Tolle says there are multiple paths to “God.” The Bible says there is one path.

demon-1294136_1280There is also a power play going on here. In the ancient world, knowing someone’s name and knowing where they come from give you power over that person. Often times people would have a public name but keep their real name private among close friends and family. In standard exorcisms the exorcist has to identify and name the spirit being cast out. The act of naming gives you power over it. In the gospels we see Jesus run into several demons. The funny thing is that they try to exorcise Jesus! They use the standard exorcism language. They identify him by name and where he is from. “I know who you are, Jesus, Son of the most high God!” They knew his name, but they didn’t really know his true power or authority.

I get that same sort of feeling here in Acts 16. Here are Paul and Silas, out and about doing ministry, telling people about God and Jesus, and here comes this spirit who tries to exert authority over them. Remember, this passage is all about mastery and slavery. The spirit wants to show that he is in control. Thus we have a showdown. It’s a showdown between slaves. On one side, the girl, slave to the python spirit. On the other side, Paul and Silas, slaves to the most high God (even the spirit recognized this).

18 And she did this many days. But Paul, wearied, turned and said to the spirit, “I proclaim to you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he went out the same hour.

But this showdown is short-lived. You see, there’s really no contest. The evil spirit even foreshadows his own demise! Look again at the end of verse 17: “they are proclaiming to us a way of salvation.” And then Paul whips around and says, “Hey bub, I proclaim to you, in Jesus name, come out of her!” And the demon leaves. In the Greek the word is literally “goes out.” And gives us a funny little play on words in verse 19:

19 And when her masters saw go out the hope of their business, they caught Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace to the rulers,

Luke makes a humorous play on words: the leaving of the spirit (the python spirit went out) is the same leaving of the masters’ hope for business (hope went out). When Paul exorcised the demon he exorcised their source of income as well. They don’t care about anything else, just their cash flow. Never mind the miraculous exorcism that just took place. Never mind the state and well-being of the young girl. They saw their profits dry up and they became livid! Something similar happens later on when Paul is preaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-29). The unbelievers react violently when the gospel threatens their income. What becomes of the girl, we are not informed. You see, the story takes a turn here.

Paul and Silas were in a confrontation with a slave to the python spirit. Now they are in a confrontation with men who are slaves to the world. Sometimes the gospel of Jesus and the people who believe it are going to come into conflict with powers and enemies. Sometimes those powers will be spiritual, demons and darkness. Sometimes those powers will be people in authority or in a position over us. You might not be struggling with an actual demonic presence, but there are other presences, other temptations, you might struggle with serving when you ought to be serving Jesus Christ.

20 and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, 21 and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.

Romans were forbidden by law to convert to Judaism. Any evangelism would be seen as contrary to that law. Paul and Silas are in a bind. They know that they shouldn’t legally be telling people about Jesus and preaching the people need to change. But they know that people DO need to change, and that people will be incomplete without Jesus in their lives. Paul and Silas, they chose to serve God no matter what the cost. So when these angry merchants bring Paul and Silas before the magistrates they don’t stand alone as men. They stand as servants of the most high God.

22 The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.

You may know how this story ends. Paul and Silas get thrown in prison. But not just the minimum security “D” block. No, they get put into the inner prison, the pit, maximum security. This is a time to get glum. This is a time to be negative. But not these guys. Tertullian was a church leader foundational in helping establish Christian theology. He introduced the word “Trinity” to Christian vocabulary. He once said, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” Did they feel like worshiping? Probably not. They were likely tired, aching, and scared. Yet they worshiped anyway.

As they’re praying and singing to God through the night, a massive earthquake comes and the doors fall down and the chains fall off! There is no hint that Paul and Silas are praying for release, though the other prisoners might have felt the earthquake was an answer to prayer! What the slaves to the world tried to do to Paul and Silas God disarms in the blink of an eye.

When the jailer finds the doors and chains destroyed he’s about to kill himself. Better suicide than public humiliation, beating, or possible death at the hands of the Roman authorities. But Paul stops him saying, “Wait, we’re all here.” And the jailer calls for a light (this is the deep dungeon, remember?) and asks Paul and Silas, “What do I have to do to be saved?” What exactly the jailer meant by his question of salvation is difficult to say. He may have heard the possessed girl earlier in the week that these men had come to proclaim the way of salvation….

And Paul and Silas tell him the only thing that matters – salvation comes through Jesus Christ. In the power encounter with the girl, the slaves of God overcome the slave of evil spirits. In the power encounter with the merchants and magistrates, the slaves of God overcome the slaves of the world. And now, in the dark of the prison, the slave to the Roman authorities, the jailer, asks what it takes to switch sides and be a slave of the most high God.

Friends, if there is anything that God would have us understand through this story it’s this: slaves of the most high God are really free. The girl, slave to the python spirit, is finally set free after an encounter with the most high God. Paul and Silas are literally set free from their chains! Even the jailer, bound to the Roman authorities and about to take his own life, finds the freedom offered by being a slave to Jesus Christ. Slaves to evil spirits, the things of the world, or the people of this world are really in bondage. 1 Corinthians 7:22-23 says:

“For the slave who has been called in the Lord is the Lord’s free person. In the same way, the free person who has been called is Christ’s slave. You were bought for a price. [So] stop becoming slaves of people.”

I am sure that we all know people who are bound up, trapped in lives, behaviors, and attitudes that enslave them. Even people in the church are in bondage when we should be experiencing freedom as slaves of the most high God. What would our Master have us do as His slaves? If we walk in the power of the presence of God’s holy spirit, how does that change our everyday lives? When we have a power encounter with Jesus Christ, we will be changed.

You may be a slave to lust and pornography. You may be a slave to gossip and slander. You may be a slave to anger or mastered by your short temper. You may wrestle with the spirit of complacency. Or maybe you are a slave to a critical and judgmental spirit. How would our Master have us act and live? There is a reason why we aren’t experiencing the freedom that comes with being a slave to the most high God? Have you asked Him? Have you hit your knees, acknowledged your slavery, and said, “God, I want to switch sides. I want to be slave to you alone and nothing else”? It’s time to get serious about who you serve.

Make up your mind.

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