Thursday, September 30, 2010

God Our Defense

I enjoy writing.  I enjoy speaking.  Sometimes I like to be quiet and listen.  But the real "test" is to relax in God's protection when I am attacked--or when I just feel "hurt."  Can I just wait for God--or do I think I need to let people know I'm right?  Will I let God be my "mighty fortress" or do I try to build my own stronghold (not a good idea!). That's a test I have failed many times.  Preserve and forgive me, Father God, when I try to defend myself, and call, lead, carry or push me home to rest in you.

Tonight I was reading Psalm 59.  The superscription connects this Psalm with an incident in First Samuel 19:8 and following where someone (David) was assaulted and almost killed (by Saul).  Rather than defend himself, David ran, prayed and escaped (with his wife Michal's help).

Understanding this in a spiritual sense teaches me that I can rely on God to protect me.  I do not need to be afraid.  When attacked, I can be quiet and pray.  I do not need to defend myself.  I can trust God and, when he saves me (sometimes with the aid of friends and family), I can give Him all the praise.

Here's the Psalm.  Let us pray that we will allow God to be our defense always.  Pray for me, that I will not, from any lack of trust, try to defend myself.  Pray that I and all God's people will relax and let God be God.

Psalm 59

Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.

Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
   protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
   from the bloodthirsty save me.

Even now they lie in wait for my life;
   the mighty stir up strife against me.
For no transgression or sin of mine, O Lord,
   for no fault of mine, they run and make ready.

Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!
   You, Lord God of hosts, are God of Israel.
Awake to punish all the nations;
   spare none of those who treacherously plot evil.

Each evening they come back,
   howling like dogs
   and prowling about the city.
There they are, bellowing with their mouths,
   with sharp words on their lips—
   for ‘Who’, they think, ‘will hear us?’

But you laugh at them, O Lord;
   you hold all the nations in derision.
O my strength, I will watch for you;
   for you, O God, are my fortress.

My God in his steadfast love will meet me;
   my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.

Do not kill them, or my people may forget;
   make them totter by your power, and bring them down,
   O Lord, our shield.
For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips,
   let them be trapped in their pride.
For the cursing and lies that they utter,
   consume them in wrath;
   consume them until they are no more.
Then it will be known to the ends of the earth
   that God rules
over Jacob.

Each evening they come back,
   howling like dogs
   and prowling about the city.
They roam about for food,
   and growl if they do not get their fill.

But I will sing of your might;
   I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
   and a refuge on the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
   for you, O God, are my fortress,
   the God who shows me steadfast love.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Luther Against the Devil

The following is from an interesting article by Heiko Oberman entitled Luther Against the Devil.  The devil continues to prowl around, seeking whom he may devour.  Resist him--firm in your faith.
Luther’s autobiography, which appeared in 1545 as the preface to the first edition of his Latin works, has been the subject of exhaustive scholarly research. Nonetheless, Luther is not yet heard out, and his urgent admonition and warning has been missed: "Reader, be commended to God, and pray for the increase of preaching against Satan. For he is powerful and wicked, today more dangerous than ever before because he knows that he has only a short time left to rage."

"Today" means that Luther not only discovered the gospel but also roused the Devil, who is now raging terribly and gaining an unprecedented power of absolutely new satanic proportions.

This is no longer the Devil who, in a triple alliance with "sin" and "world," seduces the voluptuous flesh of man against his better "self." The medieval poltergeist is virtually harmless in comparison with this adversary, who, armed with fire and sword, spiritual temptations and clever arguments, has now risen up against God to prevent the preaching of the gospel. As long as the righteous God resides far away in Heaven, waiting for the end of the world, the Devil, too, will remain at the edge of world history. But the closer the Righteous One comes to us on earth through our belief in Christ, the closer the Devil draws, feeling challenged to take historically effective countermeasures. The Reformation symbol of Christ’s presence is not the halo of the saint, but the hatred of the Devil.

Transforming Luther into a forerunner of enlightenment means dismissing this warning of the Devil’s growing superiority as a remnant of the Dark Ages. But that would be to deprive Luther’s life of the experience of the Devil’s power, which affected him as intensely as Christ’s. Take away the Devil and we are left with the Protestant citadel, the "better self," the conscience...

...Where the gospel is preached and bears fruit, the Devil is there to get in the way --that is his nature, "today" more than ever! Fear of the Devil does not fit in with our modern era, for belief in the Devil has been exorcised by attractive ideologies. But in the process our grasp of the unity of man has been lost: living with the real Christ in one’s faith means being a whole person as opposed to an intellect that subscribes to a mere idea of Christ.

The Devil will readily help theologians to "elevate" the zealous, fighting, wrathful, loving God of Israel into the philosophical concept of an "Omnipotent Being."

For Luther the disembodiment of God into an impressive "idea" is one of the Devil’s decisive misdeeds. Satan may be no doctor of theology, but he is very well trained in philosophy and has had nearly 6,000 years to practice his craft. All the encouraging victories of God which occur prior to the Last Judgment melt under the Devil’s glare. Arguments are of no help against the Devil; only Christ can come to our aid. Satan’s wisdom is thwarted by the statement "the just shall live by faith" -- faith not in an idea but in a God who, under the banner of the cross, is fighting for a world the Devil, too, is trying to conquer. Satan’s power is not unlimited; he must stay within specified bounds, but until doomsday they encompass the whole world.
See also How Luther Dealt with the Devil.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Jesus Saves Even Me

This morning I preached and shared God's gracious gift of the Lord's Supper at Cokato apartments building 1.  On the way over I picked up a bulletin from ELC/Cokato.  The scriptures for Sunday, Sep. 26 are:
    + Amos 6:1-7 (the lectionary omits verses 2-3)
    + Psalm 146
    + First Timothy 6:6-19
    + Luke 16:19-31
I suggest you take a look at those scriptures before reading on.

God is very concerned about issues of wealth and poverty.  Someone has said that there is more about economics in the Bible than about sexuality.  I'm not sure if that is true, but those who want to ignore God's concern for the economically oppressed are really not believing or reading their Bibles very carefully.  Amos, First Timothy and Luke carry God's WARNING against those of us who want to be comfortably ignorant of how the poor are exploited.  Even though it makes us squirm, you and I are the rich man in Jesus' Luke 16 parable.

We may not see the desperately poor begging on our doorstep, but they are there.  We're just isolated, or, as Karl Marx would say, "alienated" from the "means of production." (The "means of production" in today's world are often poor people.  If you doubt that, look at the labels on your clothing to see where it was made.  Or think about those who pick most of the fruits and vegetables it is good for us to eat.  Comedian Stephen Colbert's take on this was presented to congress today.)

God calls us to repent of our economic sins and receive the gift of God's grace.  And God's grace is intended to turn our hearts outward, to care deeply and passionately for those who do not have enough.

By his sacrificial life and death for us, Jesus crosses the chasm to bring us God's love, though we do not deserve it.  Amazing grace.  Even a rich wretch like me can be saved!  Wow.

Now--there are hints in scripture that Jesus cares so much for the poor and oppressed that they may just be welcomed into his eternal glory without any explicit faith in Him.  He's still the only way, but I can't limit his love--love that I see especially in the Gospels.  You can't read, for example, Luke's version of Jesus so-called "Sermon on the Mount" (Luke 6:20-26) together with the gospel assigned for this Sunday without letting that thought cross your mind.  But the only assurance or security we can have is through trusting Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  That's the only way we can KNOW that we or others can be saved.  So we always bring the good news of Jesus to people no matter how rich or poor they are.  And we pray that all will come to trust in Him as their personal savior and be born again.

If this little teaching brings questions to your mind, or if you want to challenge me, please let me know. 

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Great Engineer

Once again, as He does so often, the Lord engineered the circumstances around my life yesterday evening in such a way that a blessing happened.

When I say these things I might sound like a "know it all."  It might sound like I am bragging.

Actually, it's the opposite.  I know how weak and sinful I am, so when something occurs that makes it possible for me to be a blessing, all I can do is praise and thank God.  I do so publicly so others will know I take NO credit for myself and YOU can know there is someone they can trust to unravel the confusion of life and make it a blessing.  All praise and thanks to someone who receives me as I am and transforms me so something good can come out of this.

What happened?  Through no plans of my own, simply, I believe, because I have made myself available to the Lord--and that because I make such a mess of things otherwise--... Through no plans of my own I was able to be at my mom and dad's apartment last night and was able to help mom get to the hospital.  She's doing well now, praise God, but I am so thankful to the Great Engineer, the Holy Spirit Himself, for letting me be here at this time.

Thank you, Lord.  And thank you, Lord, for my parents, who taught me to trust and obey God first.  I have been such a rebel, but the Lord welcomes me home and uses me for his service.  All praise to God.

How has the Lord been the engineer of your life?  If you don't see it, ask Him to reveal it to you today--and ask a friend to pray with you in Jesus' name.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

God's Touch

This morning Toni and I worshiped at St. John's Lutheran Church in Howard Lake.  We heard a great message by Pastor Swedberg and received God's grace through the Lord's Supper and the prayers of caring Christians who safely surrounded and touched us with loving hands.

One thing I treasure about the Lutheran Church is its understanding of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as two of the ways in which God approaches us.  It's not just words, it's not just prayers, it's not just songs.  God has chosen to give us his Word with physical signs of his love.  The Word is given with water and bread and wine.  And, thinking of the loving pray-ers that surrounded us after church, Martin Luther lifted that up as another "means of grace": the "mutual conversation and consolation of the saints."

God knows us and loves us from head to toe.  He knows we are physical, emotional and spiritual beings.  We are often afflicted and need to be healed and set free.  So he speaks through these physical words: baptism, communion and loving conversation--and, admitting we are sin filled and powerless on our own, we are touched with God's forgiveness, God's blessing, God's peace.

I'm thankful that God understands us so well.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thankful for the Word of God

Today I presided at a wedding.  It was my last pastoral responsibility at Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cokato.  Christian weddings combine what God teaches us about his creative design (see Matthew 19:4-6) with the blessings of Christ's eternal and unconditional love--the power and example of which allow couples to stay married "until death do us part."  I'm so thankful that the Word of God is so clear about both.  A double blessing!  Praise God!

If you're having trouble in your marriage, spend more time in the Word of God--especially get to know Jesus and his unstoppable love. Confess your sin and receive his forgiveness.  Then pass that forgiveness on to your spouse.

If you need help, give me a call.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Blessed Are The Liberal


Jesus said:
"You cannot serve both God and wealth."
                                     (Luke 16:13)
Use your money.  You'll see that theme in the story we find in this Sunday's gospel (Luke 16:1-13).  Use your money.  Don't worship it.  Don't count on it.  Don't just hang onto it.  Use it.  Use it to bless the poor and oppressed.  Use it to make friends and witness to God's goodness.  Sure, use common sense, but don't worry too much.  Go ahead and spend on what is worthwhile or give to those in need.  Don't let it pile up. 

When there's a chance we might really help someone, the Holy Spirit leads us to be like God, and God is unfailingly generous--kind even to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:32-36).  Might we get taken advantage of, sure.  But that happens to God all the time.

Give yourself a heart check this weekend or next week.  How do you respond when given an opportunity to give your money away?  On Tuesday night Toni and I came home to find a flock of plastic flamingos in our front yard.  It was a fund-raising effort on behalf of Wright County Faith in Action.   This Sunday at ELC/Cokato the Minnesota Teen Challenge Choir will sing--and, of course a special offering will be received. 

How will you respond when the flamingos land in your yard or the offering plate is presented to you?  When Jesus lives in your heart, you will be joyfully generous.  If not, it's time for some prayer.

Liberal generosity is a part of God's heart.  You can't read the gospels or know the Lord Jesus without recognizing this is true.  And because God is like that, he gives his sons and daughters liberal hearts.  He even commands us to love our enemies and give to everyone who begs.  If you don't believe it, read Matthew 5:38-48.

Those of us who treasure God's Word shouldn't complain when someone asks us for our money.  Yes, I do believe there are reasons why we might say no now and then.  We need to use common sense and avoid rewarding or enabling bad behavior.  Still, the Bible gives us more reasons to fear being tight-fisted than to be afraid of being overly generous.  So, when an opportunity comes to give to something that we know is good, the heart of God within us leaps for joy!

Is God a liberal?  What about the disciples of Jesus?  In terms of generosity, that is most certainly true! 

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Hard Call

He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death. (Philippians 2:8)
What follows this paragraph is from Bo Giertz daily devotions To Live With Christ.  It reminds me how important it is to be following God's Call and not my own.  A "call" is the way in which God wants us to live our lives in the circumstances within which we as individuals are living.  There are calls to family life, to employment, to service and to spiritual community (church).  Calls come to everyone--pastor or not--and any call can and will be hard.  The important thing is to ascertain whether a certain call is for me (or for you) and not for someone else.  We do that through through prayer, the assent of brothers and sisters in Christ, and the "opening of a door" or the granting of an opportunity to exercise that call.  The important thing is to make sure I'm not manufacturing my own call.  If it is to be blessed, the call must come from God.
    Life can be hard, so hard that you wonder how long you can stand it.  When Paul enumerates all of the disgusting things he had to endure, they fill up almost a whole column in our Bible (Second Corinthians 11). And he says in Philippians 2 (see especially verse 17) that he expects his blood will finally be poured out in a sacrificial cup.
    Just as the priest in the temple in Jerusalem emptied his cup with the red wine at the Lord's altar and let it run out over the stones, so does Paul expect that one day his blood will run out and be absorbed by the earth, as it did when he was beheaded a few years later. 
    Yet he says that he 's glad.  Since he was called by the Lord Jesus, his life had been a sacrificial ministry, one huge offering of thanksgiving.  Everything was laid on God's altar, the grief as well as the joy.  He even had to bring forth the Philippians faith as a sacrifice...
    Paul was able to live with all of his horrors and even to be joyful in the middle of suffering because he learned to be as Jesus was.  Christ was made destitute and poor and suffered for our sake, and He was obedient unto death; to the bitter end.
    Paul, therefore, says we also should be obedient and wish only that what happens to us is God's will.  God directs our lives, not us...
   ... "Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you" (Psalm 55:22).


You know my burden, Lord. You've already carried it. You carried my weaknesses and took my suffering upon yourself.  My sin became Yours.  You were tempted in everything and know how hard it can be.  Therefore I come to You with everything, even things that no one understands.  You--who were always obedient unto death--help me take every day from Your hand, even the most difficult ones, right up until the last day comes.
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Monday, September 13, 2010

Sozo

Here's a verse from one of the scriptures assigned for Sunday, September 19:
"God our Savior... desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (First Timothy 2:3-4)
What do you think about when you consider being "saved"?  The word "saved" is a translation of the Bible word sozo.  Today my friend Mike Swecker, pastor of prayer and care ministries at Hosanna! Lutheran Church gave me a list of over 100 Bible verses where the Greek word sozo is used in the New Testament.  It means a lot more than heaven when we die.

In the Bible Sozo means:
  • Restoration of a good relationship with God
  • Being kept safe through God's protection
  • Wholeness and well-being in every area of life
  • Rescue of our natural, physical life
  • Emotional recovery and restoration of health
  • Deliverance from disease and evil
  • Freedom from eternal death and punishment for sin
  • Permanent separation from the devil and hell
Mike gave me a book too: Freedom Tools for Overcoming Life's Problems by Andy Reese.  I've registered to be trained in "Sozo" ministry upcoming on Friday September 24th, 7-9 p.m and Saturday, September 25th, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.  Go to this link to learn more about the Sozo training sponsored by Kristi Graner and her "Dare to Believe" ministry.  The training will be held at The House church in Burnsville.

As we learn in First Timothy 2:3-4, being "sozo"ed (saved, healed, rescued, delivered, preserved) has everything to do with the TRUTH.  The Sozo ministry deals with the ROOT causes of this world's suffering--it leads us to confess our sin, speak forgiveness and extend mercy in a way that allow for a deep knowledge of our Father God's love.  And that is something God wants us ALL to know--not just in our heads, but also in our hearts--throughout all we are--from head to toe.

Sometimes our church life helps us "handle" or "hide" our pain and sin.  Sozo ministry is said to go deeper.  I look forward to learning more and running it through my Biblical and theological filters... if it makes sense, I hope to add something like this to future ministry.

If you want to come along, let me know!

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Open for the Lord's Business

Whatever help Toni and I can give to anyone, we are here and available.  Please contact us
If you could use counsel, prayer, or just a listening ear, please don't hesitate to "use" us.  We will find great joy in serving you.

--------------------------
* corrected email addresses as of April 9, 2012

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shepherd's Canyon

Toni and I are thankful for the eight day “Shepherd’s Canyon”* retreat we completed Friday morning. I’m convinced it was God’s will for us to be there with counselor-leaders John Johnson and Barbara Brunworth.

The invitation for the retreat came via email on July 21—the day after the July ELC/Cokato** church council meeting. As I think about those days in July—with the council meeting, the “Shepherd’s Canyon” invitation and the suggestion*** that came the next day—as I think about those days in July I can see how it was all divinely engineered. And that divine engineering is even clearer now that we’ve completed the retreat.

So what went on? We were certainly well cared for and well fed! Thanks to friends who helped pay our way, and thanks to the many churches and other donors who support Shepherd’s Canyon, we were able to join two ELCA pastors and one LCMC pastor at Thrivent’s Heartwood Conference Center and Retreat for eight days of learning, friendship, counseling, conversation, rest and recreation.

Heartwood is located as its name suggests—out of the way in the heart of the northern Wisconsin woodlands. It’s not too far from the Namekagon River, so on our day off (Wednesday) we went canoeing for three hours. While at Heartwood, we did some hiking, played some tennis, and generally spent time together as husband and wife.

The retreat couldn’t have come at a better time. The stresses that led up to my resignation and the uncertainties that follow have been challenge enough—but we’re also facing the change of life that happens to everyone when children grow up and move away.

For the first time since 1987 Toni and I don't see at least one of our kids coming in the door every day. Our kids have moved on: Naomi and Jonathan are in Minneapolis and Daniel is in Moorhead.  Not only do we miss having at least one of them around, this transition time means we end up focusing more one each other—on the good and not so good qualities we each have and the ways our personalities have interacted over the years.

Having time together at the retreat just as the school year was beginning, and benefiting from the expertise and companionship of other couples and Shepherd's Canyon counselors: It was all was just what we needed at this particular moment. I’d like to give something similar to every couple—especially at this time of life.

Each morning (except Wednesday) was spent in “group.” John and Barb led the four couples in getting to know one another, telling the stories that led to our coming to this retreat, and learning about spiritual and practical topics: truths about change, pain, conflict, resilience and stress, emotional affairs, toxic behaviors in a marriage, and keys to joy and happiness. Barb gave us guidance to be used on a prayer walk and in private couple conversations.

Afternoons were spent in individual and couple counseling sessions. All of the couples dug deep and dealt with significant issues. I believe we all grew stronger in our relationships with one another and with the Lord. Each evening John led us as we read and prayed through the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50) and the account of Jacob wrestling with the Lord (Genesis 32:22-31). Between times we sang and ate—a lot.

Right now Toni and I are with her parents in the Hayward, WI area. After celebrating her mom’s birthday Saturday, we’ll head toward home on Sunday, stopping for worship in Grantsburg, WI on the way. After that we don’t know what will be happening. We’ll meet with friends about what is going on in Cokato, we’ll move some furniture to the house our daughter Naomi is renting with some friends, Toni will return to her work as a massage therapist as we seek the Lord’s will about our future.

We and the other couples now have renewed hope and readiness to look toward the future. We thank and praise Jesus, our Good Shepherd, for his wondrous care every day, but especially now as we have experienced His Holy Spirit was at work in and among us at the Shepherd's Canyon retreat.  Thank you Lord Jesus, for your work in the lives of Shepherd's Canyon founder Dave Anderson, retreat leaders John and Barbara, and for the other couples who accompanied us for the last eight days.

-------------

    * The retreat was advertised for church workers who “have exhausted their best and seek renewal.” It came about through the work of Dave Anderson, a pastor’s kid who saw first hand, in his childhood home and in his own life work later on, the special stresses that come upon church workers and their families. I think every pastor could benefit from a retreat like this, especially in times of transition. Some of Dave Anderson’s ancestors were founding members of ELC/Cokato, and he has relatives who are still members there. Dave and his wife Barb are now members of the AFLC, the “Association of Free Lutheran Congregations.”

    ** ELC/Cokato is Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cokato. ELCA is the nationwide denomination, the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” LCMC is another denomination: “Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.”

    *** The “suggestion” I referred to came through two different Christian friends who had not talked with each other—the suggestion was that perhaps it was time to seek some way for the ELC/Cokato church and I to amicably separate. After conversation and prayer the day that suggestion came (July 22), I made a phone call that eventually led to the Tuesday, August 5 “transitional support agreement” with the ELC/Cokato church council and then, subsequently, to my resignation.

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Joy Among the Angels

From next Sunday's assigned Gospel reading:
"Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:10)
I've reached the turning point of the novel I mentioned Wednesday: Frank Peretti's Piercing the Darkness.  On pages 318-321 we have Sally Roe's salvation day, the day when she surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ.  What joy!

Here is a part of Sally's prayer--the prayer that made the angels sing and shout and dance!
    "....I've been told that You love me, and that you've arranged for all my wrongs to be paid for and forgiven. I've come to understand that Jesus died to pay my penalty... 
    "I've wronged You.  I've ignored You.  I've tried to be a god myself.  I have served other spirits.  I have killed my own offspring.  I've worked so hard to lead many away from you...
    "But if you will have me . . . if you will only accept me, I would be more than willing to hand over to You all that I am, and all that I have, whatever it may be worth... 
    "Jesus . . . I want you to come into my heart.  I want you to forgive me.  Please forgive me."
Then the novel takes us deeper and higher...
    She was crying and she couldn't stop... with a new freedom the heart of stone became a heart of flesh, and she and the Lord God began to talk about things as the minutes slipped by unnoticed and the world around her became unimportant.
    Above, as if another sun had just risen, the darkness opened, and pure rays of light broke through the treetops, flooding Sally Beth Roe with a heavenly light, shining through to her heart, her innermost spirit, obscuring her form with a blinding fire of holiness.  Slowly, without sensation, without sound, she settled forward, her face to the ground, her spirit awash with the presence of God.
    All around her, like spokes of a wondrous wheel, like beams of light emanating from a sun, angelic swords lay flat upon the ground, their tips turned toward her, theirhandles extending outward, held in the strong fists of hundreds of noble warriors who knelt in perfect concentric circles of glory, light and worship, their heads to the ground, their wings stretching skyward like a flourishing, animated garden of flames.  They were silent, their hearts filled with a holy dread.
    As in countless times past, in countless places, with marvelous inscrutable wonder, the Lamb of God stood among them, the Word of God, and more: the final Word, the end of all discussion and challenge, the creator and the Truth that holds all creation together--most wondrous of all, and most inscutable of all, the Savior, a title angels would always behold and marvel about, but which only mankind could know and understand.
    He had come to be the Savior of this woman.  He knew her by name; and, speaking her name, He touched her.
    And her sins were gone.
    A rustling began in the first row of angels, then in the next, and then, like wave rushing outward, the silken wings from row upon row upon row of warriors caught the air, raising a roar, and lifted the angels to their feet.  The warriors held their swords Heavenward, a forest of fiery blades, and began to shout in tumultuous joy, their voices rumbling and shaking the whole spiritual realm.
    ...Then the wings took hold, and the skies filled with warriors, swirling, shouting, cheering, worshiping, their light washing over the earth for miles around.
It's just a novel--but a picture of the truth--what joy when one repents and receives the forgiveness of God!  Will you pray now for God's grace to wash over you and set you free?  Will you recognize that you can't help yourself, that you need the Lord?  Pray, and then tell someone.  Share the joy!

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Holy Pain

On Thursday morning we heard Dr. Barbara Brunworth read part of Chris Miller's "A Holy Pain." It was very meaningful to me. I share it here with the hope that someone else will find it helpful too. For more on this subject see http://www.whereisgod.net/index.html.
"I don't understand. Everything is coming apart. I've come before God asking Him to convict me and reveal my sin to me. I pray and meditate over His Word.  I seek Him regularly, desiring to be more like Him.  I strive to obey out of a love and desire to please Him.  I come to Him regularly in confession of my sin with a desire to repent.  I have had victory in many areas and people have commented on how God uses me regularly in their lives.  With all of this why has the bottom dropped out of my life?"
As I read about the lives of great Christians and as I counsel with people in the Church, I've observed that there are regular times in the lives of God's people that He works in them in deep unintelligible ways.  It is the pruning that our Lord talks about in John 15:2 where He says, "He prunes every branch that bears fruit that it may bear more fruit."  It is through times of suffering and affliction which the apostle Paul describes in II Cor 1:3-10 and II Cor 4:8-11 where He says we are "always carrying in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body."  It is the testing and purifying of our faith which James refers to in James 1:3.

It is during these times that God seems to pluck us away from those around us so that He might begin a very personal work.  These are not times to resist but times to savor.  It's as if He takes out of the pile of raw ore only to put us into the crucible.  It is then that He turns up the heat. It is then that he separates the branch from those around it so that He might carefully and selectively prune the branch leaf by leaf, twig by twig.  It is during those these times that the Master pruner looks not only for twigs that are dead but also for unhealthy fruit.  It is during those times that the Master smelter turns up the heat on the crucible so as to remove the slag contained within the ore.

I believe it is during these times that God creates in us a holy pain us. It is holy because God has given it to us for His good and perfect purposes. It is holy because it has as its goal Christ-likeness. It is painful because it strips us of things we have grown accustomed to having. It is painful because it means the removal things we have grown to love. It is painful because the sources of our identity and self-image are challenged and if impure are burned up.  It is painful because in the end we feel stripped naked, standing alone before God.

If we look at it from God's perspective it is a holy pain because through this very lonely process He begins to remove all those things which either are or have the potential for competing with Him.  At times God gently inflicts holy pain to gain our attention but at other times God overwhelms us so that our idols instantaneously crumble to the ground.  At times we may sense that God is dealing with that which is most precious to us.  It may be our reputation, our ability "to do or to perform" our job, with that which is most precious to us, our prestige, our visibility or a relationship.  When we believe God has set His sights on "my precious" (as Gollum would say in Tolkein's The Hobbit) we become very protective and defensive.  In many ways, some of which can appear very pious, we bear our spiritual fangs at God and tell Him "hands off this. You can have this or that but 'this' belongs to me!"  That sort of response verifies that this "precious thing" needs to go.  Many times the thing we are willing to die for is the very thing God will deal with first.  It is in this area that God will begin to inject a holy pain.

As we study scripture we may see God inflicting a holy pain upon His people (Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses) but a few stand out, as does a series of episodes in the life of David.  Through these episodes we can see God working for a purpose and we hear the words of a godly man who had come under a holy pain.
[There are times when God seems to "zero in" on those things which are most important to us; those things that we've allowed to have places in our heart that are reserved for God alone. Sometimes God sets His sights on "my precious" as Gollum would say and we forbid God from touching that which is so important to us. Our defensive response to the possibility of losing "my precious" reveals that it must go. Sometimes that which is removed is a friend, a role, money, social standing, reputation or a position we have. If we love it more than God, it may be pruned from us and the holy pain of God sets in.]

God does not afflict with holy pain because we've been "bad" or need to be disciplined. Holy pain may come because He is taking us to new depths of a relationship with Him. What may seem like punishment is actually blessing. It causes us to look inwardly into the corners of our being that need His restoration and a deep repentance. When God afflicts with a holy pain we are forced to to look at ourselves; our sin, our weaknesses, and those things we have clung to instead of God. It is painful because our over-inflated views of ourselves burst before our eyes and we are forced into the arenas of brokenness and humility.
(The author, Chris Miller, then walks his readers through a series of events in First Samuel 17-21 and continues...)
After his lies to Ahimelech [when holy pain comes we often act out of character] and his foolish behavior in Gath we find David alone in the cave of Adullam (I Sam 22:1).  He was cold, isolated, and hungry.  He had no where else to run.  It was just David and God, together in a cave. 

Human beings don't like pain, even a holy pain, and so we run from it.  Not only do we run from it but we are experts in finding anesthetics to dull that pain.  T.V., work, blaming, eating, more church activities, more relationships, more vacations, more restaurants, more clothes, new projects around the house, a new promotion.  We feverishly scramble around trying to find something to dull the ache.  When we find something that works we do our best to perfect our newest painkiller. 

All the while God will let us run our course until we have nothing less.  We're in a cave and that's when God begins to do a deep cleaning.  You see, regardless of what the world and some churches say, God's greatest desire for us is not our happiness or comfort.  His greatest desire for us is our Christ-likeness.  He wants us holy on the inside--not just an outward fa├žade of religion with dead men's bones inside.

God never gives up on the cleansing process.  He will chase us down even if that means stripping us of all we deem valuable and worthwhile and putting us alone in a cave with Him.  Most of the time it was in the cave that that we come to our senses, admit our deepest fears and feelings to Him and finally allow Him to heal and cleanse us of all those dead and corrupting things that still dwell in us.

Psalm 142 is a psalm David most likely wrote when he was in the cave of Adullam.  After all the running, lying and foolish behavior, after trying to find solace in everything but God, David comes face to face with himself and his Lord.  David stopped ignoring and running and delved into an honesty that most people never experience.  The Psalmist says, "I cry aloud with my voice to the Lord, I pour out my complaint and my trouble before Him.  When my spirit was overwhelmed within me me, you knew my path.  I look to the right and see for there is no one who regards me; no one cares for my soul."

There's no religious jargon here; only a pure honesty that comes from openly responding to a holy pain.  It is an honesty that stops running, stops pretending and comes not only to the inflicter of the pain but the Healer of it as well.  It means admitting feeling alone, overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless, deeply troubled and not knowing what to do with these confusing and muddled feelings.  Responding to God's holy pain mean admitting we are "brought very low" and that it's all too much for me to handle (Ps 142:6). It means asking God to take me out of the prison I'm in rather than to break out of it myself (vs 7). 

The question many may ask is, "why does God go to such an extent as to inflict his holy pain, strip us of so much, bring us to a cave and stand us before Him?"  I believe the answers are numerous.  First, I believe God wants us to be holy in our innermost being. He isn't concerned with external appearances.  He wants people who are pure and just not only outwardly but also deep in the areas of honesty, integrity, purity and justice.

Another reason God inflicts this holy is that He wants to burn up any crutches we may be carrying with us.  When he has removed all the idols we run to when pain comes our way, we are left to run to him.  We are blind to our idolatry.  If we run to spouses, friends, mentors, spiritual leaders, and even enemies before we come and fall before God those are idols and a jealous God will do what it takes to remove them.  We must see that if we think we can ease the holy pain without running to God in humility and repentance we will do just that.  We would rather run to an idol that says "you're OK" than see ourselves in our moral wretchedness.  We would rather clamor for something that affirms our own twisted view of ourselves than allow God's light to shine in our evil and darkened hearts.  Our God will stand for no competition--no matter how good and right someone or something else may appear! 

Our God is deeply committed to our becoming like Jesus.  There are no restrictions in God's plan of attack.  He will prune.  He will turn up the heart.  He will wrench out of our grip anything which we blindly and unknowingly hold onto.  He will inflict a holy pain so we might learn to come to Him, obey Him, and trust Him alone.

When God inflicts a holy pain it hurts deeply.  In the beginning it may feel like a dull ache but later, as God works in deep and untouched caverns where sin flourishes, it may feel as if He's pulling abscessed teeth with a pair of pliers.  It is good for us to cry out as we watch the pus drain.  For as we see ourselves as God sees us, pus and all, it is then that hte healing balm of God's grace, mercy, and faithfulness are applied.

This author does not write from a "head-knowledge" of the subject but rather from having been stripped and taken to a "cave" over the last seven years.  There has been much in my life which has been impure and unrighteous.  In my love for Christ I desired and I pray to me made like Him.  While God needs no one's permission to afflict with His holy pain, He took my prayer seriously.  One by one they disappeared; family members, the role and job of being a pastor, a bank account, friends, and my mentor.  All the things I thought I needed He removed and stood me naked before Him in order to show me all I need is Him.  When I genuinely humbled myself before a Holy God, admitting my self-sufficiency, my self-righteousness, my fears, my inability to control my world despite all my efforts to do just that, when I saw that all I deemed as "necessary" wasn't really necessary, a faithful and loving God began to rebuild and restore that which had been torn down.  I had not committed great sins.  I had fought many giants and won.  I wasn't under God's judgment; I was under his purifying hand.  God wasn't scolding or "sending me to my room."  He was taking me to new depths of living, understanding, trust and real holiness.  Before my prayer could be answered, I needed to learn something about my lie, my motives, my God, and myself and for that God took me to the cave.

God took David to the cave not only to develop a "real" holiness but also to prepare him to be King.  As God inflicts us with a holy pain we must remember that it is not to damage or destroy but to purify and prepare us for service in His kingdom.  With that in mind we can face the "caves."  We can stand amidst the loneliness and the holy pain knowing that a loving and faithful God is at work in the life of His child.
(Information about ordering a 52+ page manuscript copy of Holy Pain go to http://www.whereisgod.net/miller.htm.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Only God's Strength

Want to feel strong?  Want to feel self-confident?  Want to handle things on your own?  If so, stay away from Jesus.  Jesus will expose your weaknesses, your sin, and your inability to do lasting good.  In fact, God often commands people to strip off their own strength in order to experience His blessing.

One place where we learn this is assigned as the gospel reading for Sep. 5 (see below).  We also see that in the story of Gideon and his army in Judges 7.  It's a key Bible lesson--we cannot and should not try to do anything significant without letting God take our own strength away so we rely completely on Him.

If you are experiencing weakness or fear, and if what you're dealing with is related to your relationship with the Lord, this is no time to try to get stronger on your own.  Instead, it's time to release everything to the Lord, emptying yourself so he can fill you with His strength alone.  And that strength is the most "real" thing in all the world.
Luke 14:25-33
25 Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, 26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, "This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
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Piercing the Darkness

I'm part way through a Frank Peretti novel. Like any human book of fiction there are problems with it, but I am captivated by the story of Sally Beth Roe, a young woman who had committed a terrible crime but, because she had been schooled in extreme post-modern thought, she was "void of conscience, without remorse... A child in an infinite yard with no fence, the center of her own universe..." Still "the spirits had found her: Despair, Death, Insanity... 'Murderer,' they said, 'worthless, guilty... why don't you give it all up.'"

It's at that moment that "her hand fell from her lap and thumped gently against" something that was hard and unyielding.  "I could pretend," she thought, "Just for the sake of discussion, I could pretend that this is a fence, a limitation, a boundary."

Her post-modern schooling, however, didn't allow for boundaries.  Her well trained self said "Ah, come on... There are no absolutes; you can't know anything for sure..."

But, for some reason, at that point she cried out to God.  "I need a fence," she cried, "Even if I'm on the wrong side of it, I need a fence... because at least then I'd know where I am."

Here are a few lines from page 207.
She rested against the hard plaster wall again, panting in hurt, anger, and despair.

"O God, help me!"

The spirit of Despair slipped and fell.  His talons had lost their grip.

...She didn't know if she felt better.  She felt a little foolish...
But somehow that was the beginning of a change for Sally Beth Roe.  Somehow, that was the first step in leaving the darkness of her own ways behind.

Tonight, if you feel despair, pray.  Really pray.  Cry out to God.  Know that there is something solid, something permanent, something firm.  And know, because of Jesus, that "something," though firm and immovable, is full of love for sinners like you and me.

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