Monday, August 31, 2015

"Asleep in Church"

Have you heard the one about…

Bunny, a pastor, known for his lengthy sermons, noticed Ralph get up and leave during the middle of his message. He returned just before the conclusion of the service. Afterwards Bunny asked Ralph where he had gone.

'I went to get a haircut,' was the reply.
'But,' said Bunny the pastor, 'Why didn't you do that before the service?'
'Because,' Ralph said, 'I didn't need one then.'[i]

Aren’t you glad your preacher doesn’t talk long enough for you to need a haircut? Acts 20[ii] tells about a long sermon that resulted in more than just a pile of hair on the ground. Verse 7 says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.” According to the custom of that day, we can assume that this is the evening meal, and not lunch. So if Paul got started during dinner, then he was preaching for six hours straight!

When it got dark, they brought out lamps that filled the house with smoke, leading one young man named Eutychus to seek fresh air by sitting in the sill of an open window. But the apostle preached so long that even the fresh air couldn’t keep Eutychus awake. He could feel himself nodding off and jerking awake, nodding off and jerking awake. Finally, the last time he nodded off he did not jerk awake, because he fell three stories to his death! Yes—the Bible has a cautionary tale about falling asleep in church.

I remember one church I was part of, where the pastor preached sermons that were theologically intriguing, but he did it with such a monotone voice and dull delivery that it was tough keeping my eyes open. Staying up too late on Saturday night may have also had something to do with it. I found myself sitting there, practically peeling my eyes back to hold them open, and biting the inside of my cheek to keep myself from falling asleep. Maybe Eutychus had been trying to do the same thing, but failed.

You’ve probably had the same experience, of being drowsy in church. We go to great lengths to avoid falling asleep—hopefully because we want to hear what the Lord has to say to us in the sermon. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we get really embarrassed about falling asleep in public. Some years ago I served a church where there were two brothers who frequently fell asleep in church. Truth be told, these young men didn’t fall asleep—they went to sleep. Thinking they could disguise their slumber with a prayerful posture, they would lean forward and fold their arms on the pew in front of them, bowing their heads against their arms. Little did they know when they shook my hand and said, “Good sermon, Preacher,” that I was inwardly laughing at their messed up hair and red marks on their foreheads!

Sometimes we fall asleep in church accidentally, but sometimes we actively go to sleep. But I’m not talking about the kind of sleep that leaves us with drool in our chins. I’m talking about complete obliviousness to the things we ought to be paying attention to.

Many in church are spiritually asleep. They have tuned out the Holy Spirit long enough that no matter how much He nudges them, they just won’t wake up. It’s difficult to hear from God when you haven’t listened for so long that you just drift into oblivion. These people care more about a religious performance than a connection with the Divine. They come for the fellowship or the family reunion, but listening to God is something they haven’t done in ages, if ever. Believers need to be spiritually awake, so they can avoid a big fall.

Others in church are mentally asleep. You know, you shouldn’t have to disengage your brain when you walk through the church door—but some people do. And honestly, some religious leaders expect people to! We need to encourage people to ask the tough questions that produce hard answers. But it’s easier to sit back comfortably and say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” The problem is that when you mentally check out like that, you might know what the Bible says, but you never learn what it means. Don’t accept the opinion of your Sunday school teacher or your pastor without studying, praying, and thinking. Christians ought to be mentally awake, or else they’re in for a disastrous kind of faith.

Still others in the church are socially asleep. Unaware of the needs around them, they go about their lives with blinders on. Poverty and sickness and broken society cry for attention, yet these people would rather go around with their head in the clouds, worshiping God without noticing the hurting people beside them. Just as Jesus touched the hurting and cared for the outcast, so today’s believers are called to do the same. But we can’t do this if we don’t see the needs. If we don’t open our eyes and see with compassion, then while our faith might look alive, it will be truly dead at the core.

When Paul saw that Eutychus had fallen from the window, he rushed outside with everyone else. Dr. Luke was on the scene, and pronounced the victim dead. But Paul threw himself on the body, prayed for him, and the Lord did a miracle. The young man got up, restored to life. Just as some are spiritually asleep in church, there are certainly some who are spiritually dead. But Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” Just as He did for Eutychus, God wants to do a miracle and lift you up to walk in the way of His love. I pray that you will wake up, spiritually, mentally, and socially—before you fall. But for those who have fallen, I pray that God will restore. This is why it is written, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (Ephesians 5:14b).”

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Big" Sins and "Little" Sins

Isn’t it great when a good sermon convicts us sin and causes us to repent? Acts 19 tells the story of people who felt conviction, not because of a sermon they heard but because of a demonstration of God’s power. In Ephesus, God was performing extraordinary miracles of healing and demonic deliverance through Paul. Having watched him in action, some false exorcists unsuccessfully tried to cast a demon out of a man, with disastrous results. The people of the city immediately saw the difference between real power and false. They also saw felt convicted of their own sin of witchcraft, which was so pervasive in Ephesus that when they lit a fire to destroy their books and other paraphernalia, the value of it was estimated at fifty thousand pieces of silver.

Immediately after this powerful scene of conviction, we see an equal and opposite reaction—people who are indignant because their spiritual practices are threatened by the power of Jesus, who sets people free. Demetrius the silversmith and idol-maker instigates a violent riot against the apostles who are upsetting his business of spiritual slavery.

Whenever we hear about sin we might have many reactions—but on the two opposite poles are conviction and repentance on one hand and indignant rebellion on the other. Those who abandoned their witchcraft tools demonstrate conviction and repentance. Indignant people shout out their own justifications.

Too often we feel like we convicted of “big sins,” or we may gang up on the “big sins” in other people’s lives, yet feel no conviction for the “little sins” in our own hearts. Recently, I read an article entitled, “Nine Sins Christians are Okay With,” in which blogger Frank Powell tackles this tough reality. He writes:

I was in an engineering class the first time I watched the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Even though I wasn’t alive when it happened, I caught a glimpse of the horror thousands must have felt as the events unfolded.
And, the first question everyone wanted to know was, “What happened?”
After months of investigation, here’s what the Rogers Commission (the group commissioned to investigate the explosion) discovered: an o-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster failed at take-off. I won’t bore you with the details, but an o-ring is a small device relative to the size of a space shuttle. Very small.
It wasn’t something huge, like a puncture in the rocket booster or a hole in the cabin, that caused this disaster. It was a small, seemingly insignificant, o-ring failure.
I think there’s a lesson here for the church. What if the big sins, you know the ones you try hardest to avoid, aren’t the greatest threat to your joy and the church’s mission?
Maybe it’s the sins lying underneath, the ones considered normal or acceptable, the ones going undetected, that are affecting the church the most[i].

Now, most Christians would list witchcraft as one of the “major sins.” We have our lists of “major sins”…you know, the ones that we say will keep people out of heaven. Revelation 21:8[ii] says, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Or 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.[iii] We like to label these as “major sins” that we say will keep even professing Christians out of heaven. We do this because it makes us feel good about ourselves, because we think our sins are minor.

But are they minor? In his article, Frank Powell lists such sins as the kind of fear that stifles faith; an apathetic approach to God; gluttony; worry that is the byproduct of bearing a weight that only God can bear; flattery; being too comfortable; consumerism; and lying. We don’t seem to think these will keep us out of heaven—but we say that the “big ones” will. Never mind the fact that Jesus forgives all our sins. We seem to think these lists are just full of the “big sins,” but if we look closer we find cowardice and lying, coveting and reviling (which means speaking about someone in an insulting way). It’s just a good thing that none of us “good Christians” have done any of these things, isn’t it? Otherwise, we might never get to Heaven!

Perhaps the Word of God can shed some light on the difference between “big” and “little” sins. James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” 1 John 3:15 gives an example of this principle: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” 1 Samuel 15:23 (NLT) says, “Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.” You see, to God all sin is the same. And all people are the same. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There’s no such thing as some who are more righteous than others, just as there is no such thing as “little” sins or “big” sins. All sin is alike, which means we all need the forgiveness of Jesus.

1 John 1:8-10 gives us hope: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all (emphasis mine) unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” Just as the sorcerers of Ephesus confessed their witchcraft, we also need to say, “My rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft or any other sin you can imagine. My stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.” Indignant justification won’t gain us anything. Only humility before God and repentance will release you from your sin. Only even more humility and repentance will take away your self-righteousness and make you free at last.

[ii] Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the NASB.
[iii] Galatians 5:19-21 gives a similar list.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Singing Through the Pain"

Dan Foster writes:
I heard Professor Bruce Waltke describe a Christian's response to pain this way: We once rescued a wren from the claws of our cat. Thought its wing was broken, the frightened bird struggled to escape my loving hands. Contrast this with my daughter's recent trip to the doctor. Her strep throat meant a shot was necessary. Frightened, she cried, "No, Daddy. No, Daddy, No, Daddy." But all the while she gripped me tightly around the neck. Pain ought to make us more like a sick child than a hurt bird.[i]

Acts 16 contains three stories that each involve a different kind of pain, and shows God’s deliverance for those who trust Him. As Paul and Silas are walking the streets of Philippi, they encounter a slave girl who is demonically possessed. Her masters make use of her fortune-telling ability to make a fortune for themselves. Tormented inwardly by an evil spirit, her weakness becomes an asset to her owners. Paul sets her free by saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her (Acts 16:18[ii])!” Immediately she is released from the pain of possession, and presumably from her slavery as her owners find no more use for her.

Jesus still sets people free from the pain of inner torment. Sin, guilt, fear, addiction, depression, despair, and broken dreams all tear at our souls, but Jesus has the power to heal. That recovery might not be as immediate as the slave girl’s healing. It might take years of counseling or confession to a trusted friend. You might need the right medication or a regular time of Bible reading, prayer, and meditation. But Jesus has the power to set you free from your pain and slavery.

Because Paul and Silas have robbed the slave owners of their valuable business, the offended parties start a riot and have the apostles thrown into prison. In the night, God sends an earthquake that breaks chains, busts open doors, and sets them free. But when the jailer sees all the prisoners gone, he draws his sword to kill himself. With a loud voice, Paul shouts, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” Trembling with fear, he asks the apostles, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:28-31).” They share the hope of Jesus with the family members, who receive the Lord and are baptized.

In this story, the jailer is set free from the pain of panic. Falling under the false assumption that the prisoners have fled and that he will be executed, he tries to take his own life. But Paul reassures him and saves his life in that way. So today, Jesus wants to set you free from the pain of panic. Surprising and scary situations arise that produce panic within our hearts, but God speaks peace to our pain, saving us from our own rash decisions. Then He speaks salvation to our souls, offering eternal life and peace.

This chapter shows the psychic girl and jailer—two people who are set free, but whose chains were not immediately apparent. Then it shows two other people who are in chains, but who are already free on the inside. When Paul and Silas are in prison, their souls remain unbound. It is their spiritual demeanor that the jailer sees, leading him to ask how he can be saved. He sees the joy in their faces, despite the pain of very physical wounds. He hears the songs they sing about Jesus, and learns that bars and chains and stocks can never fetter the soul. This calm presence of spirit is what he needs, and it’s this that he reaches out for in the darkness. This is what God wants believers to be like—people who can find peace even through tears, joy even in the midst of pain, hope even when life seems like a prison, and love even for their jailers. This isn’t a false happiness that you put on to mask your pain—it’s the very real presence of God that you can call on in the midst of your hurt, to give you strength and contentment. It’s the joy that lets you sing through the pain.

Recently I read about this kind of contagious joy:
As a third-century man was anticipating death, he penned these last words to a friend: "It's a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians--and I am one of them."[iii]

Isn’t it great to have access to that kind of joy? Philippians 4:4-5 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” God’s presence lets you can sing through the pain. And that joy is so infectious that it causes people around you, like the Philippian jailer, to see what you’ve got, and want it too.

[ii] All scriptures are taken from the NASB.
[iii] Today In The Word, June, 1988, p. 18.  August 14, 2015.

Friday, August 14, 2015

"New Direction"

Sometimes, when you’re beating your head against a wall, you have to ask yourself, “Who put this wall here, and why am I banging on it?”

When I was pastoring my first church, I had a lot of growing up to do. The same year that the church turned 200, I turned 23. I couldn’t understand why the church didn’t respond to all my new ideas. It was too painful, so when a way of escape came, I took it. I moved my family 150 miles away, and tried my hand at church planting, not even making ends meet while working various jobs that didn’t pay. These days, my wife and I roll our eyes when we talk about “the Roanoke years.” For three years I banged my head against the wall of church planting until one day I rubbed my forehead and said, “Who put this wall here, and why am I banging on it?” I realized that I had put the wall there myself, as a way of escaping God’s call to pastor an established church. I found out that I was banging on it because of my pride, and that the headache would end when I stepped back into God’s calling, and back into the sort of pulpit I was made for. So from that time, I gave up the notion of church planting, which is a great task for some people but not for me. I got back in the saddle of established church ministry.

Again, when you’re beating your head against a wall, you have to ask yourself, “Who put this wall here, and why am I banging on it?” Maybe you put it there, and maybe you’re only banging on it because you’re too stubborn to stop.

In the sixteenth chapter of the book of Acts, Paul and his companions were on his second missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas had parted ways, but he now brought along Silas and young Timothy. Verses 6-8[i] describe their travels as being a bit like Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, unable to get where they want to go because they were trying to go somewhere that God wasn’t leading: “ They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.” Specifically it says that God disallowed Asia and Bithynia, and we can assume that because they bypassed Mysia, they weren’t permitted there either.

If you’re like me, then maybe you wonder how it was that they knew they weren’t permitted in those areas. Like in the Garden of Eden, was there an angel with a flaming sword, keeping them out? Probably not. Did the Spirit of Jesus appear to them and specifically tell them, “No, you’re not allowed?” Maybe—Paul had seen the Spirit of Jesus before. Or, maybe they just kept hitting their heads against a wall as they tried to minister unsuccessfully in those areas. We’ll never know exactly, but we do know that there came a point where God wanted them to quit trying to do what wasn’t working.

Verses 9-10 say, “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Just as chapter fifteen marks a turning point in the welcoming of Gentiles to the church, chapter sixteen marks a place where the church takes another new direction. Instead of continuing to evangelize Asia Minor, Paul and his companions crossed into the continent of Europe to continue their mission.

In chapter fifteen, the church shifts to become a predominantly Gentile religion. In chapter sixteen, the church shifts to become a primarily Western religion. Byzantium becomes the hinge upon which the church swings, and from this point in history the church turns to the West. It wasn’t that God preferred the West or despised the East that the Almighty chose this direction, any more than God preferred the Gentiles rather than the Jews in the previous chapter. It is a mystery of God’s sovereign will that we do not judge—we simply observe that this became a turning point in history. At this present moment, we see the church swinging on its hinge again, with more and more Jews receiving Jesus as the Messiah, and with the most explosive church growth in the East as the church declines in the West. Who can understand God’s purposes? It is up to us to discern and follow God’s leading.

Have you been in a place where you’re banging your head against a wall, lately? Have you been trying to do one thing, but all the while it seems like one obstacle or another has been blocking your path? It may be time for a new direction. Pray that God would clarify His purpose in your life, and be open to His direction as He speaks through dreams and visions, the advice of friends and family, His written Word, the testimony of nature, or the voice of circumstance. I can’t say what that answer may be—but I do believe that there is an answer, if you will listen.

One word of caution for those who listen to God: The Lord rarely leads us in the direction we’re already going. As long as you have momentum in one direction, it’s best to follow that path—like a river flowing down its watercourse. But when you hit a manmade dam or natural obstacle, it’s then that you’re forced to find a new direction. What does water do in that case? It sits for a while and swirls, eddying and swelling until gravity shows it the way. I pray you’ll take the time to sit for a while and pray, growing in faith and grace until God shows you His new direction. Once you hear and obey, God promises, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9).”

[i] All scriptures are taken from the NASB.

Monday, August 3, 2015

"Turning Point"

If you are a regular churchgoer, then chances are you are there because somebody invited you. Or, if you weren’t directly invited, then when you visited the first time, somebody welcomed you. If you’re still attending the church where you grew up, it might be that you’re there because someone welcomed your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. If you’ve joined a church, then chances are they voted to receive you. Most churches these days are glad to receive visitors of all kinds, and welcome as members those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Because Jesus already paid a high price to show us God’s love, we want to make it easy to become part of the family.

Not every organization is that way. Some want to make it tough to get in. A lot of college fraternities and sororities have seriously had to dial back their hazing rituals because they were cruel and illegal. A group of people were asked, “What are the craziest initiation rituals you have ever experienced?” One said, “My first job was as a cashier in a small family-owned grocery store. Apparently, the stock boys had a tradition that went back years where they'd tell the new guy that one of his jobs is to shake up the Italian dressing bottles every couple hours. It makes them look better, after all!” Another responded, ““My boyfriend said at his job their favorite was making the new guy mop the freezer floor.” One college student responded: “Had to drink a gallon of prune juice then walk 12 miles back to campus. [i]

We’re certainly glad that the churches we’ve joined never had hazing rituals like that. However, the early church wasn’t as easy to get into as ours are today. Up to that point, the church had been predominantly made up of Jewish believers in the Messiah. But, largely due to Paul’s evangelism efforts of Gentiles, non-Jews were beginning to tip the scales. Threatened by the influx of “outsiders” into the church, many of the Jewish believers began to teach that if a Gentile man wanted to become a Christian, he had to first be circumcised and had to keep the whole law of Moses. It seems to me that the goal of this wasn’t truly conformity, but an effort to keep outsiders out. Who would be willing to submit to such a thing, after all? In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we read about a council in Jerusalem, where the church had to decide how far initiation rituals were allowed to go.

Peter, Paul, and Barnabas all made convincing arguments for the inclusion of Gentiles. In verse 11[ii], Peter said, “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

After much debate, finally Jesus’ half-brother James said, “It is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:19b-21).” Though there must have been many who disagreed, the council decided to adopt this standard, and wrote a letter to ratify the decision.

This was a turning point in the life of the church. Before this, Christianity had been a Jewish sect. After this, it was a separate religion. Anyone was free to come to Christ through repentance and faith, regardless of their race, nationality, or background. The behavioral requirements that the letter imposed weren’t designed to keep people out, but to keep them from offending the very Jewish Christians who had welcomed Gentile believers. Because Jewish believers would be bothered by Gentile converts who ate defiled meat, they were kindly asked to avoid it. Because so much pagan worship involved sexual ritual, they were also reminded to keep themselves sexually pure. And that was it. Suddenly a wall that kept Gentiles out came toppling down, and the church was a welcoming place to all who would receive Jesus.

Without realizing it, many Christian fellowships today operate the same as the Jewish church did in the first century, imposing rules and expectations that are difficult for people meet. Sometimes they may even intentionally want to keep some kinds of people out of the church. Yet Jesus who said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” wants today’s church to make the same turning-point decision that the first generation of believers made. Jesus throws his arms open wide to receive all who will come to Him. How can we fold our arms and not receive all who would respond?

Recently, I read a story that reflects our need to receive all God’s people, without limitations:
One Sunday morning a children’s program leader noticed a little girl standing outside the room, looking in with great eagerness at the fun the other children were having. The leader went outside and invited the little girl inside. 
“They’ll all laugh at me.”
“Why do you think that honey?”
“Because I don’t have any shoes.”
Heartbroken at this little girl’s poverty, and knowing that she really wanted to join in, the leader tried to convince the little girl that the other kids would not laugh at her. But despite her assurances the leader could not persuade the little girl to join in with the other kids. Another leader came over, one who seemed to have a great ability to minister to children in situations like these. He took the little girl aside and spoke with her.
This second leader then left the little girl and rejoined the group to lead the next activity. Before he started he said, “OK everyone, before we go any further I want you all to take your shoes and socks off and place them by the wall. For the rest of today we’re going to operate with bare-feet.” The little girl who had no shoes beamed, ran over and joined in with the rest of the group.[iii]

Instead of expecting people to become like us, or instead of keeping out people who just aren’t like us, maybe it’s time we became a little more like them. That’s what God did—became one of us so that He could save us. It wasn’t because we deserved it. It was only because of God’s grace. Acts 15:11 says, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Everyone who is saved, is saved by God’s grace. Isn’t it time we had our own turning point, and learned to show the same grace to others?