Thursday, May 24, 2012

Every Christ Follower needs this

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)

Endurance or perseverance is needed for every facet of our lives.

Athletes in training, students studying for a degree or exam, parents trying to raise their children, single people seeking to live in obedience to the teachings of Christ, and married people seeking to live in humility and service to a spouse, need this important virtue.

With it, character and strength are formed; without it, people become whiners, cowards, quitters and failures. 

The Christian life is unlivable without a spirit of endurance.  

Christians face an unrelenting adversary. He is called Devil, Satan, and Accuser. He goes about night and day, accusing, tempting, attacking, destroying and distorting God’s plans.

If you are a Christian you are a target. If you are a Christian you will suffer for serving Jesus. The world in which the Christian lives is broken by sin. Creation groans and travails because of human rebellion against God. This broken world will be set right when Christ returns. Christians are called to endure as they journey through a world at war with God. 

Christians also fight a sinful nature. Christians often give in to their weaknesses, their negative feelings, anger, discouragement, and laziness. 

Great people, great churches, great marriages, great academic careers, great accomplishments, to the glory of God, require great endurance. Are you a quitter? Have you started something and then given up? Have you quit church? Are you thinking of quitting your marriage? Are you about to surrender faith in Christ? The writer to the Hebrews tells to look to Christ as the model of endurance: 

“Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Then he says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Hebrews 12: 2-3

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The enemy of prayer

My brother in Christ, Dan McNerney, says some of the most helpful words on prayer I have read in awhile. I pass his words on to you, trusting they will move your heart the way mine was moved to be with God.  

If I told you that last week I was praying five times per day, you would most likely think I was hanging out with Muslims. Instead, I was in a monastery with Trappist monks near Atlanta, Georgia, praying with them, beginning at 4:00 in the morning each day. How often my body and mind wanted to resist having to go to the sanctuary yet another time in order to pray with my new friends. Couldn't I skip at least one of the sessions, especially the really early one? Why, in the first place, are these monks compelled to pray so often? The answer comes slowly and silently - because Jesus prayed at least five times a day, and why shouldn't we?     Click here for the rest of the article. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to grow in your faith

  “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:1-9 ESV)

 My wife loves her gardening. Each year she buys packets of seeds like Black Eyed Susan seeds, Zinnia seeds, Daisy seeds, etc., and she dutifully plants them at various spots around the yard. 

Her expectation is that before the summer is over her garden will be transformed into a mini garden of Eden for everyone to enjoy.

How many seeds are in each packet? I don't know. A lot. 
For reasons we don’t always understand not every seed germinates and grows into a beautiful flower.

What’s true in nature is also true in the Kingdom of God. Growth or lack of growth in the church is determined by the condition of our hearts.

The truth of this parable is quite sobering. Every soil is a metaphor for four types of people in our congregations. The issue is not access to the word of God. The issue is the condition of each person’s heart. The sower, who is Holy Spirit, the preacher, or the bible study leader, liberally distributes the word of God to all.

Sadly, some folks go through the church year after year, and nothing changes in them. Why? Read through the parable again. According to Jesus, the number one reason why people do not grow and bear fruit stems from an inner life that cannot receive and obey God’s word.

Is my heart hardened by unconfessed sin? Sorry, the seed has no impact.
Is my heart filled with rocks or bad habits? The results will be disappointing.
Is my heart shallow, or immature? Then only minimal growth will occur.
Is my heart choked with thorns of worry, anxiety, and concern for this world? Growth will be a flash in the pan.

But if the soil of my heart is receptive, open, desirous of truth, grow happens and fruit will be seen by all. 

If you feel stuck, don't blame your pastor, or your church, or the people around you, or the music; look at the condition of your heart. The most compelling point of this parable for me is the word of God which Jesus calls seed. No seed, no growth. No interaction with God's word, no growth.

What’s the solution? Well, before you attend the next worship service, read the bible, or participate in a small group study, pray this prayer of David:

            Search me, O God, and know my heart!
                        Try me and know my thoughts!
            And see if there be any grievous way in me,
                        and lead me in the way everlasting!
            (Psalm 139:23-24 ESV)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Suffering a gift?

When writing to the Philippians, Paul, incredibly, calls suffering a gift, just like faith is a gift: “To you it has been granted (freely given) for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also spoke of his time in prison, with all its pain, as a gift:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. 

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.… That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I … have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” Solzhenitsyn agrees with the apostle Paul that suffering is—or can be—a gift not just for apostles, but for every Christian.

Can you think of moments when suffering became a surprising gift?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Good fruit, bad fruit

When I was a child growing up in Jamaica, we had four varieties of citrus trees in our yard. If I took you in my backyard and showed you these trees you would never be able to tell from outward appearances which was lemon, lime, orange, or grape fruit. Their leaves were so similar, the trees were almost identical. Only when the fruit was in full season could you tell which was which.  

Jesus had a lot to say about fruit. Fruit is everything. Not words, not outward forms, not religious services, not religious feelings, but fruit. Fruit tells the whole story. 

In the case of the of Pharisees, Jesus looked for the fruit of sincerity; instead he saw the bad fruit of hypocrisy. They talked a good talk; dressed in holy vestments, but from the root to the top of the tree they were evil. They even committed the sin of blasphemy when they called Jesus and his work satanic (Matthew 12: 22-32).

What kind of fruit is God looking for in our lives?

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37 ESV); see also Matthew 7: 7:17-20)

If a tree is known by its fruit, what are we known for? Here's a list of good fruit by which to examine the state of our lives.

Want to do something edgy? Take this list to a trusted friend and ask them, which of these fruits are missing, or which is present in your life? Both lists are from Galatians 5: 19-24!

Good Fruit                               Bad Fruit
Love                                         Sexual immorality  
Joy                                           Impurity
Peace                                       Sensuality
Patience                                    Idolatry

Kindness                                   Sorcery
Goodness                                  Enmity
Meekness                                  Strife
Self-control                               Jealousy
Faithfulness                              Fits of anger

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hungry and Hurting

These were the harsh realities facing two sets of people in Matthew 12: 1-14.

The disciples, trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of Jesus' ministry, did not have time to cook, or stop at the local diner for a snack. So as they walked through a farmer's cornfield, necessity met opportunity and they plucked corn from the stalks and began to eat on the Sabbath.

Jesus goes into the local synagogue on the Sabbath and meets a man with a withered hand. If you have a disabling condition your mobility and range of activities are limited. Once again, need meets opportunity and the man comes to Jesus, the great healer seeking help, in church!

Jesus, despite Sabbath laws, reached out to the man in his pain. "Stretch out your hand," were his powerful words, and the man's hand was immediately healed and restored like the other. 

As the saying goes, "No good deed goes unpunished." Jesus' detractors came after him for allowing his disciples to eat food on the Sabbath and for healing a hurting person on this holy day. 

What is it about religion that causes people to miss the point? Part of the answer is idolatry. The enemies of Jesus made their religion and their rules more central than their relationship to God.

Rules instead of a relationship with God
 Rabbinic teaching developed numerous regulations and definitions of “work” that were supposedly prohibited on the Sabbath. But these legalistic regulations were never God’s intent for the OT law.

Jesus’ opponents believed that the Sabbath could be broken only in extreme cases of life and death. Since the disciples were not going to die from hunger, and since the life of the man with the withered hand was not in danger, they believed feeding the hungry and healing the hurting should wait until after the Sabbath.

Religion that God prefers…
Is a religion that puts mercy on the same plane with righteousness; it’s a religion where words and actions do not contradict each other.

According to James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

Talk about missing the point! He (Jesus) said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep (no biological egalitarianism here)! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
(Matthew 12:11-12)

Where and how does your faith intersect with hurting and hungry people?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Signs of trouble

This article was written by one of my favorite church consultants, Dr.Thom Rainer, 10 warning signs of an inwardly obsessed church. I need to warn you, these signs are disturbing!

Any healthy church must have some level of inward focus. Those in the church should be discipled. Hurting members need genuine concern and ministry. Healthy fellowship among the members is a good sign for a congregation.
But churches can lose their outward focus and become preoccupied with the perceived needs and desires of the members. The dollars spent and the time expended can quickly become focused on the demands of those inside the congregation. When that takes place the church has become inwardly obsessed. It is no longer a Great Commission congregation.
In my research of churches and consultation with churches, I have kept a checklist of potential signs that a church might be moving toward inward obsession. No church is perfect; indeed most churches will demonstrate one or two of these signs for a season. But the real danger takes place when a church begins to manifest three or more of these warning signs for an extended period of months and even years. Go here to see the 10 signs!

Based on your understanding of your church, how many of these signs do your church exhibit, and what is to be done to turn away from such unhealthy patterns? Share your thoughts below. 
You may also read related articles on this subject by clicking here.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

That was easy!

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Try to imagine that you have never heard these words before. What would you expect Jesus to say after “I will give you rest”? You surely would not expect Him to say “Take my yoke upon you and go work like a beast of burden!”

On the surface, this doesn't sound exciting, for two reasons: 
1. “Yoke” referred to the piece of wood that would unite a pair of oxen as they pulled a plow or a cart. And remember, in this time period, oxen performed all the most difficult tasks. They were the heavy machinery of the day. So to have a yoke around your neck was to be engaged in the most difficult physical work imaginable.

2. “Yoke” always refers to something painful, such as the yoke of legalism, or slavery, or political oppression. Outside of this passage, there are no positive uses of the word “yoke”

What then does Jesus mean when he invites his followers to take on his yoke?

I was helped by the little phrase, my yoke. Jesus is also wearing a yoke. Jesus built the yoke and he invites us to take his yoke and walk with him. This is not an invitation to walk alone, or work alone, or struggle alone. This is an invitation to live in close relationship with Jesus. This is an invitation to rest!

Apart from him, our earthly burdens are heavy and soul crushing. Coming to him, we must throw off our yokes of trying to be perfect, trying to find acceptance for ourselves through pleasing people, or trying to appear happy in the midst of our pain. 

Instead, he invites us to walk next to him under his yoke. You are already loved, accepted, and forgiven through the work of Christ. This is why it is easy and light. 

Are you weary and burdened? Are you burned out, just going through the motions? Are you living in a fog of unbelief, struggling by your own power to do endless tasks, saying with your mouth that you believe in God’s promise of power but proclaiming with your life that only you can accomplish God’s work?

Stop whatever you are doing and come to Jesus through prayer. Imagine taking off the heavy, oppressive thing that weighs on you. Imagine him coming beside you right now, today, to help you live your life and face your problems one day at a time. 

As you work, strive, labor, remember that you labor through His energy that works powerfully within you. Actively depend on God's strength to accomplish His work through you.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

This parable has something to say to the church!

A typhoon stranded a monkey on an island. In a protected place on the shore, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed to the monkey that the fish was struggling and needed assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish. A tree leaned precariously over the spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down, and snatched the fish from the waters. Scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments, the fish showed excitement but soon settled into a peaceful rest. An Eastern Parable

Translation? The fish died! Relevance to the twenty-first-century church? Everything.
Our world is changing so rapidly; and more than ever the church needs more than good intentions.
We often enter a crisis with a great deal of enthusiasm, even compassion and heroism. But so often the result is tragic.

From The Monkey and the fish, by Dave Gibbons