Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Syrian Refugees - Samaritan's Purse

Click on the link below to watch this important video about Samaritan's Purse and the good work they are doing with Syrian refugees.  Then, prayerfully consider giving to the cause.

The Rising Tide - Europe Refugee CrisisYou've probably seen footage on the news of refugees arriving in Greece by boat, but you've probably not seen anything like this. You've heard opinions about who they are or what they want, but you can see it firsthand in this video. These are the ones lying destitute on the road, and we must be the Good Samaritan. As team leader Dan Stephens shares, "We are the first faces they see when they land." It's our calling to show them the love of our Savior, and that is what many of you have helped us to do by your generous gifts. Learn, pray, and get involved here ▶
Posted by Samaritan's Purse on Wednesday, October 7, 2015

"Loopholes in Love"

            In his book, God Without Religion, Andrew Farley writes about Christians’ relationship with the law.  He says:

One day, while visiting the local Mennonite town, my wife and I witnessed a scene we’ll never forget.  A horse drawing a carriage was trotting through the middle of downtown…towing a bright yellow speedboat!
We laughed and laughed at the hypocrisy of it all.  Yes, the Mennonite man was obeying the letter of Mennonite law.  But he had found a loophole of sorts that enabled him to enjoy just a bit of weekend “freedom.”[i]

            In Luke 10, Jesus meets another such person who was always looking for loopholes.  As a lawyer, he is good at finding legal exemptions and ways of following the letter of the law without necessarily obeying its spirit.  He comes to Jesus with a question about what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.  Knowing the man’s relationship with the law, Jesus meets him where he is.  “What does the law say?” he asks. 
            “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength,” replies the lawyer.  We think that’s pretty easy.  We love God because He loves us.  But the next is a bit harder: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is more difficult because not all our neighbors are lovable.  Yet we can get by with the letter of the law if we realize that technically this only calls for a selfish kind of love, a self-serving care.  If I love my neighbor as I love myself, then I’m only loving him for the way it benefits me.  See—even following the letter of the law, we can do so with the wrong spirit.  But, in a sense, we can get by—sort of. 
            Following the letter of the law is okay, Jesus says.  If that’s all you’re after.  Shrugging, he says, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”  But then the lawyer looks for a loophole, a way that he can meet the legal obligation without having to really love his neighbor, even with a selfish love.  He figures he can limit the number of people that his love should apply to.  So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  What he really means is, “Who can I get out of treating like a neighbor?”  In response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”  And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same (Luke 10:30-37 NASB).”

            Jesus’ point is that there are no loopholes when it comes to love.  Eternal life is loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength.  It’s loving your neighbor.  Our problem is that, like the lawyer, we like to look for loopholes, exemptions, and excuses for following the letter of the law and not the spirit that God intended.  We’d like to just barely get by with the minimum that’s expected.  Following the law seems like enough for us.  But getting to the spirit of it—that just seems too hard!
            The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story thought that they had loopholes that exempted them from helping someone in need.  First, since they were on their way to sacred duty in the temple, and since touching blood would make them ceremonially unclean, they believed it was their spiritual duty to not help the man in the ditch. Second, they rationalized that if the bandits had assaulted the man then stopping to help him might make them vulnerable as well.  Third, it’s ironic that the Samaritan could have avoided the Jewish victim because of racial stereotypes.  We might expect this, but the Samaritan is blind to ethnic differences. 
            We are guilty of the same kinds of justifications, looking for loopholes in the law that might allow us to get out of loving our neighbor.  We depict ourselves as spiritually superior, afraid that, like the Samaritan’s blood, something about “those people” might rub off on us and make us unclean.  We let our fear of vulnerability keep us from reaching out to those in need, all the while claiming to be righteous yet never displaying the love of Christ.  And unlike the Samaritan, we allow our racial and religious bigotry to paint people according to our stereotypes.  We look for loopholes.  We ask, “Who is my neighbor, anyway?”  We hope that Jesus never points to our worst fear and says, “Here’s your neighbor.”
            The parable of the Good Samaritan is given to us in the context of Jesus’ conversation with a lawyer.  We can be pretty good lawyers ourselves, trying to find loopholes, trying to get away with following the letter and not the spirit of the law.  But those of us who are in Christ are not bound by the Jewish law anyway—we are under a new covenant of grace and love.  Jesus no longer expects us to love our neighbors as ourselves (which is selfish love).  In John 13:34 (NASB), Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  Loving people as Christ loves us—now that changes everything!  This is a higher path even than the Golden Rule – doing to others what we would want done to ourselves.  Suddenly our motivation is no longer selfish, but divine.  And it’s with divine, not selfish love, that Jesus wants us to love our neighbor.  “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked.  It’s everyone—no exceptions, no loopholes, no excuses.


[i] Farley, Andrew.  God Without Religion: Can It Really Be This Simple?  Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI.  2011.  Pg. 37.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"An Open Ear"

            This past week when I was in Richmond for a denominational conference, I met my son for lunch on campus at VCU, where he is a student. We enjoyed a good meal, had some good discussion, and when it was time to go I hugged him goodbye and told him I loved him. When I walked out the door and headed toward the parking deck, he followed me. "Are you going to walk me to my truck?" I asked. He nodded, and we walked together, climbing several flights of stairs to my vehicle. "Well," I said, "I've got to get back to the convention," I told him.  I gave him another hug, but instead of walking away, he lingered. "Do you need something?" I asked. His eyes told me that he did need something but that he didn't want t to say. "Do you need some money?" I asked.
            "Well, I always need money," said the college student. so I handed him the largest bill in my wallet. Still, he looked as if he needed something.  So, leaning on my tailgate as men do when they want to have a manly talk, I said, "You know, I can be late to the conference.  What's up?" And finally the real conversation began.
            In Psalm 40:1 (NASB), David writes, "I waited patiently for the Lord; And He inclined to me and heard my cry." As my son demonstrated, when you want the Father's attention, the best thing to do is give him your attention.
            All of us go through times of struggle, where all we want to do is talk to our heavenly Daddy. David describes his situation as one in which he feels himself in a bog of quicksand. Perhaps you've felt that way yourself--maybe you're feeling that way now. Academic problems, financial woes, medical situations, or relationship troubles, and so many other things threaten to overwhelm us.  But God is the One who lifts us out of the pit of destruction and gives us a firm place to stand. He does this when we wait patiently for him.
            Waiting on God is the patient act of inclining the heart heavenward. David doesn't say that God heard his prayer--he says that God hears his cry.  This inclination toward God isn't a wordy discourse, but a silent waiting that is anything but idleness. It is trusting that God already knows our hearts. Romans 8:27-27 (NASB) says:

...The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

            This means that when we pray, we don't have to worry about words.  The Spirit knows what we mean. God knows our hearts. All we need to do is wait patiently for God, and He will incline towards us. Mercy Me sings the song "Word of God, Speak", which says:

I'm finding myself at a loss for words
And the funny thing is it's okay
The last thing I need is to be heard
But to hear what You would say

            In this kind of prayer, the key isn't knowing what to say, but resting in silent trust of God.  Verse 4 (NASB) says, "How blessed is the man who has made the Lord his trust." Trust is active passivity. It is allowing yourself to be God's patient, to let God to work on you instead of trying to do the work yourself.
            The problem with prayer is that we've been taught to talk a lot, and to listen very little.  But in verse 6 (NASB), David says, "My ears You have opened." Over the years I've learned that prayer is MOSTLY about listening to God, and only a little bit about talking. When we fill the air with our words, telling God everything that we want, we get so distracted that we forget to listen to what God wants. How are we supposed to pray "Thy will be done," if we never listen to discern God's will?  What we need is less talking in prayer, and more listening.
            In an interview with Dan Rather, Mother Theresa said that when she prays, he doesn't talk to God--she just listens.  Rather asked her, "What does God say?" In reply she said, "Oh, God doesn't say anything. He just listens." When we wait on God, and God inclines toward us, this mutual inclination is called meditation and contemplation.
            Contemplative prayer doesn't give God a list of everything we want or need. In contemplative prayer, we simply say as David did, "Behold, I come (Psalm 40:7 NASB)." Perhaps this one-sentence prayer is all we need in order to simple BE in God's presence. When we do this, we discern His will, and His word is written on our hearts (v 8).  Some other one-sentence prayers from this psalm might also be, "Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; Make haste, O Lord, to help me (v. 13),)" or simply, “The Lord be magnified (v.16)!”  Maybe a one-sentence prayer, or a one-word prayer like "Come" is all you need, to rest in God's presence and listen for His voice.
            This week His really showed me something in the parking deck with my son. Sometimes we don't need to say a word about what we want. Sometimes all we need to do is patiently wait on God, and God will incline toward us. This silent trust is the greatest kind of prayer.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"Out of Body Experience"

I knew a man who had an Out of Body Experience. He died on the operating table, and was brought back to life. He described the typical things you always hear about: seeing a bright light, going through a tunnel, meeting Jesus and seeing his loved ones. When he recovered from his surgery, he had quite a tale to tell.  I even invited him to tell it from my pulpit. But the problem was that he never showed any evidence that his life was changed (other than being lengthened) by the experience. I had hoped that this man, who never gave any thought to spiritual things before, might actually be transformed by such an event. I knew him for years after the incident, and stayed in close connection to him, and I never saw any repentance, spiritual growth, or fruit in his life.  I'm glad I'm not the Judge, because if I were, I'm sure I'd get it wrong--but people like that make me wonder.

You see, the Christian life about spiritual transformation. It's not about saying you've had a mystical experience. It's about a relationship with the living God, not about joining an organization. Too many people think that being a Christian is about attending a church or getting baptized. What it's really about is Jesus changing you. Eternal life is about leaving behind your life that's based on the things of this world, and exchanging it for a life focused on infinite things. It's about putting your selfish self to death and taking up your cross daily to follow the Lord.

Now I know that as soon as I say this, some readers will say, "Wait a minute!  Eternal life is about living eternally: your soul living forever in heaven with Jesus after you die." This is what we are so familiar with: the idea that eternal life is about living forever. That it’s about an eternal duration of life.  I'm not arguing against this. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about an afterlife, either experiencing God’s mercy or apart from knowing God's love. I am suggesting, however, that eternal life means more than that.  You can live an eternal life here and now, and you don't have to die in order to have an Out of Body Experience.

Certainly, death will be the ultimate OBE.  In fact, Paul tells us to so look forward to it that we eagerly desire the upcoming state of life:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2 Corinthians 5:1-4 ESV)

Paul describes the earthly body as a physical tent that we wear.  He says that our spirits groan to be free of this tent, and to be clothed in glory and ultimate life.  We long for the day when we can be free of the encumbrance of these physical bodies and their limitations.  We look forward to putting on our resurrection bodies, which will be forever free of pain, sickness, and injury.  That will be a permanent Out of Body Experience.

Usually, when we use the term OBE, we’re either talking about people who intentionally leave their bodies through religious euphoria or drug-induced states.  These people have an OBE without dying at all. Trance states, dreams, and visions are the water in which mystics swim. Paul describes it this way:

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Corinthians 12:1-4 ESV)

Many believers seek these kinds of OBEs, but this is not the ordinary Christian experience. These phenomena are exceptions to the spiritual rule.  Instead, the real Christian life is supposed to be an everyday Out of Body Experience, in which we no longer focus on the things of this world but transform our reality into a spiritual one.  Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Jardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”[i]  This is eternal life—to daily walk around having an OBE, where you are transformed into a spiritual being having a human experience and not the other way around.  Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9:

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  
Being at home in the body means living this physical life—something we’re all doing right now.  But feeling at home in the body makes it impossible to please God.  As spirit-walkers, God calls every believer to no longer feel at home in the body, but to be guided by courage as we try to please God.  As everyday visionaries who don’t need a trance-induced state, believers walk by faith, not by sight.  Hebrews 11:1 (ESV) describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  This faith-insight gives us courage to face whatever life has to offer, confident that God will see us through.  I pray that for you, every day will be an Out of Body Experience, and that this experience will transform your life.

"One Thing"

                When I was a teenager, I was in a church play entitled, “A Little Dinner Magic,” loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler.  In the play, a modern American family finds out that Jesus will be coming to dinner.  In their haste to make all the preparations, they end up bickering with one another.  Their perfectionist determination keeps them from giving attention to the visitors who show up at their door: people in need who the family doesn’t have time or inclination to help.  Finally, Jesus speaks to them and reveals that He was there all along, that he showed up at the door in the form of strangers.  Hanging their heads, the family understands that in all their distraction, they missed the One Thing that matters most.
                What would you do, if you found out that Jesus was coming to dinner?  What would I do?  When I have guests at my house, I’m usually the last one to sit down to dinner.  I’m busy running around, making sure that everybody has what they need, because I think a lot about the value of hospitality.  But in all the taking care of my guests, I can sometimes forget about my guests. 
                Jesus’ friend Martha was the same way.  In Luke 10:38-42, the Lord and all twelve of his disciples stop by the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  Martha complains to Jesus that, with all the preparations that need to be made, Mary isn’t helping.  She’s simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach.  Jesus surprises his hostess with his response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her (vv. 41-42 ESV).”
                Let’s not be too harsh with Martha.  After all, Jesus isn’t.  His answer is tender and compassionate.  With great love he calls her by her name twice.  He is concerned about the things that concern her.  He is aware of the great burden of hospitality that thirteen men place on the household.  When Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion, he isn’t saying Martha has chosen the bad part—only that Mary has chosen the better.  He says that she is worried and upset over many things, but only one thing is necessary.  What do you think that “One Thing” is?
                The first thing that he might mean is that she is so busy preparing many different dishes, and only one thing is necessary (like a casserole).  Certainly, hospitality has its priority—but there is a degree of extravagance that prevents a person from truly enjoying time with their guests.  Perhaps Martha is busy preparing many things, but Jesus would rather she kept it simple so she too could sit and visit like her sister.
                There may be something else that Jesus means by “One Thing.”  Martha is likely so desperate for Jesus’ approval because she feels herself unworthy to sit at His feet. Only one thing is needed: a sense of her own value that doesn't need someone else's validation.  She’s rushing around trying to make Jesus happy by her good works, and doesn’t even realize that Jesus is already happy with her.  We can be the same way, trying to please Jesus so much that we forget that he is already pleased with his children, and just wants us to spend time with him.
                There is another factor at play here, contributing to Jesus’ “One Thing.”  Martha is trying to manipulate her sister by using Jesus, rather than going straight to Mary herself.  Jesus was a big believer that if you have a problem with someone, you should take it up with them and not gossip to other people about it[1].  Only one thing is needed: Honesty about her feelings.  Jesus wants us to be honest about our feelings as well.  It’s tough to say the hard things that need to be said to our loved ones, to take ownership of our own hurt feelings and disappointments.  But if anything is going to change, we need to be honest about the way we feel.
                Finally, Martha is so preoccupied with material things that she can't focus on spiritual life.  Only one thing is necessary: spiritual priority.  It’s easy for us to become so focused on this physical life—the earthly demands that take up so much of our attention.  But Jesus wants us to sometimes be more like Mary, who has chosen the better part.  Mary knows that it’s okay to focus on the spirit instead of the flesh, and Jesus wants us to know that as well.
                In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays a man named Mitch who is having a midlife crisis.  He and his friends take a trip to a dude ranch to find themselves.  Jack Palance plays a grizzled guide named Curly.  In a teachable moment, Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?”  He holds up one finger and says, “This.”  Mitch asks, “Your finger?”  Curly replies, “One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [squat].”  Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’”  Curly smiles and says, “That's what you have to find out.”  I think that Jesus is pretty much saying the same thing to Martha, and he says the same to us as well.

                We want to make God very complicated with our systematic theologies and high-pressure sales, our works-based salvation that imagines we have to somehow pleased God either by how much we do for him or how well we behave.  But God is simple, uncomplicated, straightforward. God only asks that you be present in the moment and take the opportunity that is provided to love Him and follow Him.  In Psalm 46:10a, the Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  This is the simplicity, the “One Thing” to which Jesus calls us.   I pray that, like Mary did, and like Martha learned, you will be able to be still, and know.