THIS IS OUR TIME

THIS IS OUR TIME

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, hobbit hero Frodo Baggins carries a ring of great power and evil, a ring that he and he alone can destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. Depressed by the burden he carries and the evil times, he confides to his wizard friend, Gandalf:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Tolkien was a veteran of WWI that killed 20 million and wounded 21 million, as well as the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 50 million worldwide, as well as the Great Depression, and the polio epidemic that paralyzed tens of thousands. He knew a thing or two about bad times and wove what he knew about how to endure them into his stories.

The Lord of the Rings is full of perseverance and faith against all the odds.

In August of 1940, 25-30 divisions of crack Wehrmacht infantry (over 300,000 soldiers) stood poised along the coast of France. They were waiting for Reich Marshal Herman Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe to wipe the Royal Air Force from the sky and open the English Channel for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, to launch. The Germans had a three-to-one advantage in warplanes when the Battle of Britain began that July and had subdued all Western Europe in less than a year. Everyone expected them to win. Everyone that is, except Winston Churchill and the millions of British who believed him when he said, “We shall never surrender!” Londoner’s sheltered in basements, bunkers, and the subway, as the Blitz rained bombs on their city. Nazi planes indiscriminately wrecked churches, hospitals, and businesses destroyed 60% of London’s homes, wounded 87,000, and killed 32,000 people. Victims overwhelmed the hospitals, and no one knew who would “get it” next.

But by the end of October, Hitler was withdrawing his invasion force from the French coast, and canceling Operation Sea Lion.

The story of Great Britain’s ultimate victory overflows with perseverance and faith.

I take great courage from these stories of our collective past because the ultimate source of their strength was the same hope we share in a good God. He loves us no less than our ancestors and, if we ask him, will give us the strength and bravery to “keep calm and carry on,” as Londoners’ did during the Blitz, and as all God’s people are called to do in a crisis.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.

Every generation faces tests. The Corona virus is our time to meet the fury of a fallen planet with faith and perseverance.

So, look out for your loved ones. Ignore the fear mongers. Follow the instructions of our healthcare professionals. Trust God. “Keep calm and carry on.”  And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a great time to watch The Lord of the Rings

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Every summer, we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden-fresh fruits and vegetables. I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But then I ate an Abbott tomato. I thought I knew what sweet was, but then I tasted a Turbeville, VA cantaloupe.

One such garden was across the street from our house. But none of its fruit would’ve been possible without Mr. Rice from down the street. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with the thing every garden needs: the plow.

The plow is hard and sharp. It rips through weeds, punctures the hard surface, and breaks up the clotted dirt. The plow prepares the ground for the beginning of life-giving things.

The spiritual life has a parallel in the plow: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in ‘putting off the old life’ and ‘putting on the new.’ Nothing happens without it.

Today is Ash Wednesday when some Christians mark their heads with an ashen cross to begin the season of Lent, a concentrated period of personal repentance before Easter. That’s good if it helps. Like an unused plow in an abandoned field, repentance has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture. But repentance is a spiritual discipline that requires regular practice if it’s to do us any good.

Nehemiah shows us how to do it.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins…we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the toughest part of the ground, the hardened surface of self. We come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t my environment, it wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my family, I did something wrong, and I’m responsible for it.”

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside, I look fine. On the inside, my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands… you gave to Moses.”

Finally, Nehemiah confessed to group sins. He used the plural pronoun, “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves responsible for what our culture is doing. But when we fail to speak up for the defenseless unborn, are we not responsible? When we fail to care for the poor, are we not neglecting our responsibilities?

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility, putting everything out on the table between God and us. That is essential if we want a response.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away, grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with Mr. Rice about that. He said, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time, there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are less than five.”

When I observe our culture and see the poison it produces, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

In Ready or Not: The Return of Christmas, Maureen Jais-Mick wrote: “Society never actually wanted the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God-with-Us, does not sell computer games or cologne. Society wanted the cute stuff–rustic stable, adoring shepherds, fluffy sheep, cows, donkey, holy family, infant Jesus, gift-bearing kings, stars, angels, St. Nicholas, reindeer, fir trees, holly, and presents. The pagan stuff they will retain–even if they do dye the trees powder blue and decorate them with miniature hanging appliances and Disney ornaments…The marketplace will also retain some of the traditional hymnody, but in arrangements that remove them from the realm of traditional worship. Ancient chants are popular, too. They sound religious and profound and–best of all–nobody understands Latin, so no shoppers are offended.”[1]

I was reflecting on these things as I meditated on Mary’s song, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55. I wondered, what would it be like if a young woman stood at the rail above Santa’s house at the mall and began singing, in a pure, clear voice, this song? What if the whole sound system went quiet right after Jingle Bell Rock and one voice stood out above all the rest with this little hymn?

I think stunned silence would follow. A few would lock on and quietly enjoy her song. But most would look away uncomfortably, shuffle their feet, or go on shopping because the singer would be doing something foreign to us. She wouldn’t be performing or entertaining. She would be worshiping. And true worship at Christmas is about as foreign to us as Elmer Fudd at Easter.

Christmas is thing centered. Worship is God-centered. Things leave hearts empty. God fills hearts with peace, and joy, and confidence. Worship is the thing we’re missing at Christmas. The lack of worship – personal worship – is what is leaving us so empty.   

Mary’s heart was full of God. Her song made eight references to the activity of God in her life and the life of Israel. God filled her mind, her heart, and her mouth.  That is worship. And that kind of worship does not come about by accident. Worship that enters the presence of God is worship that comes from a life consumed with his greatness.

Getting there requires a disciplined focus on God. But that kind of focus is difficult for 21st century Americans. We have too many distractions. Too many screens, songs, and sugary treats. Not enough silence, serious reflection, and self-denial. Those things may sound like Christmas downers, but they characterized Mary’s life and made her song possible. It is not unlike landing an airplane or sinking a difficult putt. Stay focused, and it’s a thing of beauty. Get distracted, and it gets ugly.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Jingle Bell Rock as well as anyone. But worship that arrives in the presence of God is the result of a mind that has made a habit of focusing on God – his goodness, his holiness, his power, his mercy, and deeds – to the exclusion of everything else. When you learn to sing Mary’s song, nothing else will quite measure up.

[1]    — (Cresset, Dec. 1995 ).  Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.

 

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).

THE WATER BUG IN MY TRASHCAN

Scratch, scratch, scratch. I lifted my fingers from the keyboard and listened, but the noise had stopped. I refocused on the sermon I was writing and clicked away at the keyboard, trying hard to put in print the thought flitting through my head before it escaped into the ether of ever-shrinking memory.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. There it was again! So soft any conversation, any music, any noise above the faint whir of my computer would have squelched the sound. But I was completely alone in my office and I could definitely hear…something. Was it a mouse?

That’s when I remembered. We’d been having problems (since solved you’ll be happy to know) with water-bugs in our building. That’s probably not their real name, and the pest-control man assures me they aren’t cockroaches. But I was picking up three or four a day in the hall near my office, crunching them between my fingers in a paper towel, and tossing them in the trash. Apparently, I hadn’t squeezed the last one hard enough. He was trying to climb out of the trashcan and make a break for the baseboards.

I decided to let him scratch while I warmed up lunch. (Don’t judge! Would you go digging through your trash to re-squish a bug? I didn’t think so). That’s when this thought hit: How like conscience is that bug in the trashcan. How easy it is to miss a sound like that in the constant noise of 4G life.

The Scriptures show us the power of a keeping a clear conscience: great boldness in any conflict.[1] It also warns that failure to keep it clear can lead us, among other things, into meaningless babble and shipwrecked faith.[2] But the quiet required for reflection and confession is hard to come by these days. We have to be intentional about it.

So, if a water bug was scrambling around in the back of your conscience, could you hear it?

[1] 1Peter 3:13-16

[2] 1 Timothy 1:5 & 19

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?

Think for a moment about your Bible. Perhaps you have a favorite, but most American Christians have multiple versions.  I’ve had an NIV Study Bible on my desk for over twenty years, an essential resource for my work. I carry a personal Bible in my briefcase, well-marked from years of prayer and preaching. And I have multiple versions on my smartphone via the YouVersion app.

Do the same with your favorite Christian writers. Many of us can point to a few key authors or books that strengthened our faith. Chuck Swindoll, Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, John R. W. Stott, and Haddon Robinson not only line my shelves but shaped my soul. Then there are the tools like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries that help us understand God’s Word in its historical and cultural contexts.

We don’t just have libraries, we have great treasuries of wisdom and knowledge on our shelves.

Now, imagine you’d never had a single one. Imagine being a new believer and the only resource you have is a 100-year-old edition of the King James Version that is difficult to understand and doesn’t even have a concordance in the back.

Imagine being a new believer and not even having that.

Now you know what it is like to be a follower of Christ in most of the non-English speaking world. That is why I visited Nepal and India last week, to find out how important Bible translation and the development of companion resources really is in the rest of the world.

In short, it is enormously important.

I met some fascinating people as well. Consider: Last year it became illegal to proselytize in Nepal. If you are caught with a Bible on your person, or talking to someone about your faith, you face a fine roughly equivalent to a year’s wages and imprisonment for five years.

Yet I worshiped with 1500 Nepalese Christians who are willing to take that risk. Why? They know the power of the gospel first hand, to heal, to deliver from demonic oppression, and to set them free from slavery to dark spiritualities. Their goal is to finish planting a strong, well-led church in every village in the Himalayas in the next decade!

I also worshiped with and preached to over 700 Indian pastors and church planters, some who traveled for days by bus and on foot, who are committed–in spite of official government opposition–to planting churches all over India. They want every people group in that hugely diverse country to know Jesus and experience the peace he brings.

If they even own a Bible, these brothers and sisters and millions–yes millions–like them have at best a 100-year-old Hindi translation from the King James. It’s hard for monolingual Americans to comprehend how this separates them from the Word. Hindi is the national language of India, but there are 11 other major language groups in the country and dozens of derivative dialects from each major group. Imagine trying to read the Word of God in Spanish with the equivalent of your High School Spanish level learning.

Yeah, it’s like that.

What’s on your bookshelf? Are you digging into those riches, or letting them gather dust? And what would you be willing to do to help your brothers and sisters in Christ in the global south share in that great treasury?

WALK IN THE SPIRIT: What Does Freedom From Sin Mean?

“Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16.

From time to time people ask questions that remind me how deep the discouragement and how hard the battle with sinful impulses can be. One of those came from a friend last week who asked: “What is freedom from the chains of sin?  Freedom to never sin?  Freedom from the worst consequences of sin?  I’ve been pouring over Romans 6 (don’t have to sin), 7 (it’s not me that sins but sin in my flesh), 8 (there is no condemnation),” but he had reached no conclusions.

He is right, of course, about Romans 6, 7, and 8. We are free from slavery to sin and free from the eternal consequences of it, but as long as we live in these fallen bodies we will continue to struggle with the impulse to sin which is why the ministry of the Holy Spirit is so crucial.

Maybe a Star Wars illustration will help us think about it.

At the end of act one in the first movie, Luke, Han, and Leah are trying to regain the Millennium Falcon, fighting their way through. On the opposite side of the hangar, Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi are in a duel to the death.

Darth Vader is overpowering and gloating. “Now I am the Master!”

“Only a master of evil,” says the old Jedi.

Then Obi Wan says: “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

That scene illustrates two metaphors for the Christian life: First, it is about power, but not the kind of power most people imagine, and second, the power we seek comes to us in a counter-intuitive way; to live, to have real power, we must die.

Our lives before the Spirit comes are full of darkness (Titus 3:4-7). A dark life is a life that tries to get its own way all the time; to have its own power. It follows dark impulses. Paul defines that darkness in Galatians 5:19-21.

Hear it in Eugene Peterson’s brilliant paraphrase from THE MESSAGE:

“… repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”

It is the worst of human behavior. And Paul is talking about Christians! When we live according to our ‘old man’ or ‘flesh’ or ‘sinful nature’ as it is variously translated we are capable of all such things. We look no different than the world.

But don’t get discouraged. Paul chooses his words very carefully. The original tense of the verb translated “those who live like this” (v.21) means “habitually practice”.

If your life is marked by this kind of behavior, day after day, week after week, year after year, you are kidding yourself about your salvation. The Spirit doesn’t reside in you.

But a life lived in the power of the Spirit is not like that at all.  It’s a life where the light grows stronger and stronger each day.  It’s outlined in Galatians 5: 22-23.

Here it is again in Peterson’s paraphrase.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

How does all this come about?

God wants our lives to be full of His light, full of his power.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Like a Jedi Knight we have a part to play, we must learn how to, “Walk in the Spirit so that we won’t fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Otherwise we will fall back into the habits of darkness.

To walk in the Spirit, we must learn the difference between Spirit and Flesh, how the two operate in us. I’m doing some ministry traveling for the next two weeks and won’t be sure of my internet connection, but if I’m able I’ll write more about the differences between the two and how to walk in the Spirit next week.

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

Thunk! “YES!” I fist pumped. Thunk! “Just one more!” I said to my partner, did my wind up, and tossed. Thunk! “We won! We won!” I shouted, threw my hands up and did a victory dance. It was a classic come from behind victory. I could hear Jim Nance intoning, “It was a cornhole tournament unlike any other.”

Everybody at the church picnic turned and looked at their nutty pastor and smiled.

Hey, don’t laugh. At my age, sporting victories are few and far between. I celebrate them whenever I get the chance. In fact, I celebrate—a word with roots deep in worship of God—any time I can think of an excuse to do so, and so should you.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Joy is what heaven is about. It is the driving energy of life. Without it we wither. Partying with God is essential to a happy life.

Have you considered how much joy there is in the Bible? The New Testament begins with it and is filled with it. Do a concordance search on “joy” or “rejoicing” and you’ll be amazed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Children do joy automatically.

G. K. Chesterton explained, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[1]

God has an immense capacity for simple joy that we have lost and need to regain. The ability to party with God, the spiritual discipline of celebration, is a crucial step in reclaiming our joy. It is crucial because joyless Christians help no one.

Put yourself in the position of someone looking for answers in life. You’re looking around at the people you know, the people you see in the hair salon, the other moms at the baseball field. You’re watching them because you know they go to a church that says there is more to this life. Yet you don’t see any joy. You see crabbiness. You see selfishness. You see someone who can find the fly in every ice cream cone of life. Are you going to be interested in her spirituality?

Somebody out there in the spiritual world wants you to find all the faults in others and all the sadness you can swallow, but it isn’t Jesus Christ. Francis de Sales wrote, “The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence he desires that everyone should be like himself.”[2] Misery loves company.

Joy is an absolute necessity for healthy spiritual life. Without it we shrivel and become vulnerable, more vulnerable to temptation than ever. Fulfillment, contentment, and dare I say it, pleasure, are essential elements for a strong soul. When we fail to find these good things God wants us to have, and then celebrate the goodness, sin seems better than what He has to offer. Temptation’s power is multiplied in an unhappy soul.

So, I urge you, learn the spiritual discipline of celebration. Learn to take each good thing out of each good day, even the corn-hole victories of life, and revel in the goodness of God.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, quoted by John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 61

[2] Francis de Sales. Quoted by Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted. P. 64.