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Pray and Think First

Like just about every other person of faith in the USA I have been doing quite a bit of praying, thinking, and talking about our current political climate and what the future could hold.  In some ways we are seeing political history made right before our eyes and in other ways we are seeing a grotesque display of the lack of true civility and political discourse.  I confess I have not watched a single debate to date in this political season, and what I read from multiple sources just confirms that I learn more from researching candidates based on their websites, voting records, speeches, writings and businesses than I would from all those hours watching the privileged trade personal insults with one another.

As a Christ follower, who calls the Bible his guide for faith and practice, I began to ask myself what kind of leader does God favor?  I was reminded of a passage that few of us consider as we think about leadership.  In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses reiterates God’s law we find a passage that all too often gets glossed over.  In Chapter 17, verses 14-20, Moses gives the stipulations for the person the nation would choose to be their king.  Now I know we don’t elect a king in the USA, but there are some overriding principles in these verses that give me pause in the emotionally charged political season.

Through Moses God told Israel that the day would come when they would want a king.  So he outlines some characteristics for this person.  The king was obviously to be an Israelite (v. 15). He was not to acquire a large stable of horses (v. 16).  He was not to marry many wives;  nor was he to amass personal wealth (v. 17).  He was to personally write the Law of God, and carry that copy with him at all times (vv. 18-19).  He was also to not be a person who considered himself better than those he led (v. 20).  That is quite the list, and frankly no king in Israel’s subsequent history lived up to that list perfectly.  But those who followed it even partially had more successful reigns.

So what does this have to do with our American way of government?  Consider the overriding principles in those stipulations.  The leader of the nation was to be a person who understood that amassing personal wealth and power would not lead to successful leadership.  In that culture building a large stable of horses, having many wives and much wealth was paramount to the king believing that he was his own person and relied only on himself and the negotiations he could forge, for his success.  Arrogant leadership and personal power were not and are not qualities that God espoused.  And yet it seems that this is the rule for some who aspire to lead this great country. 

God wanted those who led his people to be humble and not think they were above those they were leading.  The trait of humility is one that is revered by our Lord throughout scripture.  Jesus said that the best leaders were first of all servants (Mark 10:43-45).  In any endeavor the minute a leader considers themselves better than the people they lead, they lose the respect of those they lead.  From my observations the next stage is to lead by manipulation, intimidation, and fear tactics and that is the way of many totalitarian dictators.

I get the fact that people in our country are angry over gridlock in our nation’s capital.  Angry voterHey, I live in Illinois, the state that is the new picture of gridlock as the Land of Lincoln has not had a state budget since last July.  I have seen how this gridlock of politicians who are arrogantly unwilling to compromise has affected ministries and friends that I care about.  I am as angry over arrogant, power based politics as the next person.  And yet I am reminded that “…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV, James 1:20).  It is unwise to make a major decision, even to cast a vote for a candidate in anger before considering the ramifications of one’s choice.

So who will I vote for?  That is between me and the ballot box.  But I will take time and think long and hard about my choice.  I will pray about my choice and I will run my choice through the grid of God principles for leadership.  The bottom line for me is this reminder: A leader who forgets that he or she attained their position with the help of many others is foolish at best and arrogant at worse.  A leader who simply says what others want to hear in order to attain a position of power is by definition a demagogue.  Neither of those options are remotely satisfactory.

I would urge anyone who calls themselves a Christ-follower to consider two things:   First, never forget that nothing happening in our country right now has caught God by surprise.  As Daniel reminds us about our God:  “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises others up” (NIV, Dan. 2:21).  God is in control.

Secondly, just a bit of wisdom from Paul Green, (Director of the Institute for Politics and Arthur Rubloff Professor of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago) “When a candidate tells you they are going to make sweeping changes ask two questions. 1) What are you going to change?  2) What is it going to cost me?”                                                                        
I guess my point to my fellow conservative evangelicals is to pray and think long and hard about God’s standards first before casting an emotional vote.

Worth the Wait

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Simeon-with-Jesus-2“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

Luke 2:28-32

In An Advent Meditation entitled  A Sky Full of Children  the late Madeline L’engle wrote:

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Power.  Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.  Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose, slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough, and it is time for  birth.(http://thevalueofsparrows.com/2012/12/04/advent-meditation-a-sky-full-of-children-by-madeleine-lengle/)

…and she gave birth to a son and wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Joseph and Mary followed the law in regards to their son.  He was circumcised on the 8th day and given the name Jesus (obedience to God on Joseph’s part.).  33 days later this couple and their new Baby made their way the six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  They were to offer a sacrifice and through that sacrifice set apart their first born son to God.  They could not afford a lamb but instead used two turtle doves provided by the law for those who were impoverished.

When you are poor you don’t want to stand out any more than you already do.  But when your baby is the king of the universe, the reality is someone is going to notice.  Especially someone who has a unique relationship with God and is tuned into the Holy Spirit.  Simeon was such a person.  An old man who had waited all his life for one thing…to see the Messiah, the presence of God in the flesh.  When he saw Mary and Joseph and their baby, he knew…he just knew.  What he exclaimed on that day 1 month and 11 days after Jesus was born we celebrate each Christmas.

Jesus is salvation…  (Luke 2:30)

Because of sin…and we all sin…not a one of us is innocent before God.  Acts as simple as peaking at presents when Mom & Dad had forbidden it, to crimes against humanity that have brutally paraded themselves across our TV and computer screens in the past year; are all evidence of sin   We have an innate propensity to go our own way.   Sin separates us from God…sin puts us on a path to spiritual and eternal death…and we need to be saved…in fact I submit to you tonight, that every person is looking for redemption of some kind, we all want to be loved, to matter, to be forgiven…so God provides His salvation…since he is the one who created and the one who is offended…he sets the rules for being saved.  He sent his son

Jesus’ birth is God’s plan (Luke 2:31)

God had planned long before the world was created that he would provide a means for his creation to be restored to relationship with himself.  God in his plan chose to create us with the ability to choose knowing full well that we may end up choosing our way as opposed to his.  God knew that the consequences of our sinful choice would lead to death.  So his plan was to offer up his own son to pay the penalty for our choice to live independently from him.  Jesus paid the debt we owed.

Jesus is light (Luke 2:32)

If you are not Jewish by birth, you are a Gentile.  Jesus came for Jews and Gentiles.  He came to show you the way to have relationship with God.  It is through Jesus we can be restored to right relationship with God.

The presents under your tree this Christmas may thrill you, they may surprise you, they may meet an immediate need.  But they will wear out.  They will break. The warranties will expire and you think you will need more next year.  The problem with putting our hope in the sights, sounds, lights, and gifts of the season is that the season eventually ends and life goes on.

When you and I open our lives to Jesus, we have a deeper satisfaction and fulfillment.  It is not that we don’t enjoy presents and surprises and even warranties…it is that we don’t put our hope in them, we know they will never fully satisfy the deepest longing of our heart.

That can only be done by Jesus.  He is the one we celebrate and the one who loves you and the one who invites you to celebrate him above all else this Christmas.  He was worth the wait for an old man named Simeon and now he waits for you.

Shifting Landscapes

The old adage is that “the only constant is change.”   At timsliderbar-omba2013es change is very hard and yet other times it is understood and accepted.  A few years ago we were back in the town where we spent the first 15 years of our married life.   It was the place where all three of our children were born.  It was a place where I could leave the house, and in 20 minutes be all settled in a tree stand waiting for a hapless deer to wander by.  As we drove into town I noticed immediately that the landscape had changed drastically.  The farm where I had hunted with my friend had been sold.  As we drove by I did a bit of a double take as in the place of the groves of trees and the large cornfields, were industrial type buildings.  The landscape had changed and I am not certain I have fully adjusted.

In the next few weeks the landscape of our lives as a family will change.  Unlike the shock of finding my old hunting ground being sold, we have had time to adjust and prepare for these changes and we welcome them.  The first change is what one may call an addition.  By God’s grace I will have the privilege of performing the wedding ceremony of our son David to Sarah, a wonderful, godly young lady.  Over the past few years as they have dated we have seen the character and quality of this couple grow and develop and we are excited for this change.  Their potential to be used of God in a variety of ways is truly unlimited.

The second change is somewhat different.  Just two days after Dave and Sarah are married, our daughter Jessica and her husband Jason and our cute little Maddie will leave for Mexico where God has called them to serve.  I don’t call it a loss, it is a change.  As parents we prayed for our children to come to know Jesus and then to follow him on whatever life path he chose.  So we celebrate this change as our children step out in faith and obedience to minister to a people group that most of the world has largely forgotten.

Their journey has brought a third change in the landscape of my own life.  It is a change of attitude in how we do things like supporting missionaries.  When Jess and Jason first started this journey of serving God as missionaries I was a bit frustrated with the process.  Why did they have to raise support?  Why couldn’t there just be a way that they could be paid a salary?  Why do we think this antiquated way of making missionaries “beg for money” is good?  Why did I not become part of a denomination through which they could just fill out an application and hit the road?

But now just weeks before they depart, I have had a change in the landscape of my heart.  Oh I am still frustrated with the reality that increasingly it seems that local churches don’t get behind “career” missionaries.  And I still think we ought to find ways to make this process easier. But I have also seen how through the two plus years of praying, waiting, contacting, connecting, asking, re-connecting, presenting, praying and waiting some more; how God has grown them, and me.  Had we just cut a check for an annual salary and sent them on their way, there would be so many people who would not be part of the process.  Had we just approved a job application, the sense of dependence on the Lord for each step and each provision would have been minimized if not lost altogether.  Had they just had the freedom to pack up and hit the road, our church would not have had to think about our responsibilities as a sending church.  Had we not walked this journey with them I would not be thinking right now more deeply about God’s role in each of our lives.

Long before we arrived at this point God was already aware of the changes in the landscape of our lives that would be taking place.  Like a divine architect he was involved each step of the process as he was connecting us with people who would advise and influence us.  He was tweaking his design for our lives as he was nudging our hearts and providing experiences that would prepare us for his work, and these releases.  He was showing us his great wisdom and guidance as expressed in Proverbs 16:9  In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.  Because the Lord has determined our steps and been gracious with our stumbles, we can celebrate the changes in the landscape of our lives and look forward to what he will build that will ultimately bring glory and honor to His name.  While change may be constant, I take great comfort in the constant reality of a God who never changes upon whom I can depend when the landscape of my life shifts.

 

Trust the Instructions

A friend recently purchased a home and some updates were needed.  Several of her friends including me and my wife have stepped up to help with some of the work.  I volunteered to install the cement board and the ceramic tile in the master bathroom.  It is a job I have done before, so why not?Tile

But to refresh my memory, I did some online research and even watched a few YouTube instructional videos so that I could go in with a bit of confidence.  Everything started out well. Along with the help of my friend’s youngest son, who really “enjoyed” the fact that I bust out singing when I work (classic rock songs to which I only know some of the words); we got the cement board down and the next day laid the tile.  With the help of a borrowed tile saw, I even made some pretty nifty cuts.  “Tile-man” was in the groove.

After letting the tile set up the appropriate time, it was ready for the grout.  I read the instructions on the can for the grout.  Six simple steps (illustrated even): 1) Apply the grout to a small section. 2) Spread it out with the float. 3) Work it into the joints with the float at a 45 degree angle.   4) Scrape off the excess grout with the float at 90 degrees.  5) Using a damp sponge wipe off the tiles. 6) Dry the tiles with a cotton cloth.

I just knew that the grout had to set up.  I just knew that using the damp sponge too soon would ruin the job.  I re-read the instructions, two more times.  They can’t be right.  So I decided that the instructions were incomplete and I did steps 1 to 4 ish.  The “ish” was step 4.  I left quite a bit of residual grout on the floor.  It would just dry and I would wipe it off.  No problem.  So I left to come back in the morning to do steps 5 and 6.  “It won’t take long at all, probably 30 minutes.” I confidently told my wife.

This morning I arrived to find the grout seriously stuck to the top of the tiles.  I kinda freaked.  Correction, I really freaked.  I had images of having to tear up the tile and start all over.  I would have to pay for this error.  What had I done?  The worst part of it all was it was not my house!  I began to scrape and scrub and sweat, and pray that no one showed up.  (At least God answered that prayer).  A 30 minute chore turned into a 90 minute ordeal leaving me at the point of exhaustion, and needing a second shower at 8:30 in the morning.  Eventually, I was able to get all the dry, encrusted grout up and clean the floor and in the middle of it all I learned a huge lesson with major spiritual implications.  The lesson simply stated  is: Trust the instructions.

Over the years I have talked to people who tell me they read their Bible.  But when they share a decision they have made, or are about to make, there is nothing remotely biblical about their logic.  “It feels right.”  “I have always wanted to do this.”  “It was on my bucket list.” etc.  Or the worst one in my opinion:  “I know what the Bible says, but….”   It is one thing to read the Bible, but when we read the Bible we need to trust the instructions.  In fact Satan’s oldest strategy is to try to get us to doubt the instructions:  “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1).  The simple answer is, “Yes He did.”

When I read my Bible and trust the instructions God gives I find the familiar words of the Psalmist to be ever true: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).

Life may still throw a few curve balls at me and I may not fully understand the circumstances but at least when I am trusting God’s instructions I am not making a huge mess that turns a simple 30 minute chore into a 90 minute ordeal.

To my congregation: A response to the Supreme Court Ruling on Same-sex marriage

Yesterday’s (6/26/2015) landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states did not come as a shock or a surprise to me.   Quite frankly, I expected it.  Obviously this news exploded in social media and opinions on both sides have been strong and will continue to be so.  I fall on the side of the conservatives and am not sure that I can really add much to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.  So largely I am directing this blog post to my own congregation that I have had the amazing privilege of pastoring for the past 19 years.  My response to yesterday’s decision has been to focus on three core anchors of my faith that do not change regardless of how the shifting sands of culture reshape the national landscape.   So here are those anchors:

God is still in charge

The psalmist writes: The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:19).  In a psalm that speaks of redemption and forgiveness and compassion the reader is reminded that God can be this kind of God because he is the ultimate ruler.  That means that God’s standards, whether they are adhered to or not, are still the ultimate standards and God’s ideals as set forth in His Word, the Bible are still the ideals for which we should strive.

I think it was comedian Mark Lowry who once quipped, “Did it ever occur to you that nothing ever occurs to God?”

God was not shocked or surprised by yesterday’s ruling and I don’t believe he is wringing his hands in panic.  He is on his throne and he will bring glory to his name in his time.

God’s Commands have not changed, nor will they

Jesus gave us an illustration of how to live in a culture that seems fundamentally opposed to us in Luke 17:25-37.  It is the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  The impetus for the parable was the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25)  Jesus put the question back to the inquirer and asked him to sum up the law to which the reply was: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (v. 27)  After Jesus approves of the answer Luke says the man “wanted to justify himself” and inquired as to who was his neighbor, to which Jesus responded with the ensuing parable.

This summary of the greatest commandments is also found in Jesus words (Matthew 23:27 and Mark 12:30).  For me they are a constant reminder.  God is to be loved with every fiber of my being.  That means he is to be first in my thinking, first in my decisions, first in my responses to culture.  I am to be wholly devoted to Him at all times.  Yeah, I know, none of us do this best, so I refer you to Psalm 103 above “he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (v. 14).  The fact that I fail to always love God with all my being does not change the reality that this is his command for which I should strive.

I am also to love my neighbor as myself.  On any other day the Samaritan would have done anything to avoid the Jew and vice-versa.  The Jews of the first century hated the Samaritans, it was racism plain and simple and ugly.  No doubt the Samaritans were not necessarily fond of the Jews.  But on that day the only thing that mattered was the care and concern for a fellow human in dire straits created in the image of God.  Anyone who crosses my path is my neighbor and I may fundamentally disagree with just about everything in their lives but because of who God is they deserve my respect.  So I will continue to show love and respect to each person to the best of the ability God gives me.  I reserve the right to disagree with them, but will strive to do so with gentleness.  When I have the opportunity, I will engage in conversation to try and understand and yes, to even maybe help them see what I understand to be Biblical truth, but will strive to do so without name calling or verbal abuse.

No matter what the culture says or does, I am to live by the commands of loving God and loving others, even when I disagree with them.

God’s Word is still my guide

This is getting long so let me wrap it up with this final anchor.  As a pastor, for the past 30 years, I have devoted my life to learning and studying God’s Word, the Bible.  It has been my guide and I have strived to the best of my ability to understand it and then allow its truth to speak to me and the culture in which I live.  The Bible I read has a lot to say about marriage between a man and a woman which is foundationally the created order.  The culture in which I live has, long before the same-sex marriage issue, twisted, reshaped, re-interpreted and re-purposed God’s ideal.  But all that has not changed God’s ideal.  He still is crystal clear.  So to the best of my ability I will continue to follow God’s Word, regardless of the changes in culture.  I will do so, without apology, without reservation, with great resolve and with a commitment to being a person of gentleness and compassion.

Our world is changing and will continue to change.  Since Genesis 3 the prevailing culture has been on a trajectory away from God and will continue to do so.  For me, these are three key anchors that I will continue to grasp, come what may.

The Myth of Happiness

“All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.”  Happy_minions

“Does he/she make you happy?”

“I just want my children to be happy.”

“Don’t worry. Be happy.”

“Can’t nothing, bring me down I said. Because I’m happy.”

I don’t know when it was that I started observing that the depth of joy in many people’s lives is described by the term happy.  For some reason that bugs me more than a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong I am just like the next person and I enjoy the pleasurable sense that being happy brings.  I am happy when my wife and I are laughing and just being together.  I am happy when I get to spend time with my grandchildren.  I am happy when I am having a good round of golf.  I am happy when I enjoy a really good steak.

But last week the check engine light on my van, not only went on, but it mocked me by flashing on and off with regularity.  I was not happy.  This past winter the furnace that heats the sanctuary of our church went out and I was not very happy.  The bill for new furnaces was over $13,000.00 and we had to set up for a service in the gym.  You guessed it I was not happy.

All of the above, both the positive and the negative have one thing in common.  They are all driven by circumstances.  In my mind that is the deal with happiness, it is circumstance driven.   And that, in my mind, is also the myth of happiness.  I do not have the power to fully make someone happy because I do not have the ability to control my own circumstances, not to mention those of another person.  I am discovering in my own life that happiness should not be the goal, but it is merely a byproduct of fortunate circumstances.

I have spent most of the last 30 years studying the scriptures and I have never found a place where God promises to make me happy in the way we typically use the term.   We find often the reminder to rejoice or even be happy if you will in the Lord.  I think that is the key.  It really isn’t whether we use the word joy or happiness; it is the object of our joy or our happiness.  When one’s happiness is based on one’s circumstances then it will be a fleeting reality.  It will ebb and flow.

On the flip side, when one’s joy is based on his/her relationship with Jesus Christ and a true belief that no matter what my circumstances, I am promised that nothing can separate me from the love of Jesus (Romans 8:31-39) then I have a quiet confidence.  A calm that buoys me when I face struggles and an anchor that keeps me grounded.  This is why as he sat under house arrest, the Apostle Paul could write to his friends in Philippi and say “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).  His circumstances did not impact the core reality in his soul that he was loved by God and living in obedience to God.  It is not that you or I can make each other happy; I am convinced that we can’t in a lasting way.  But we can choose to live in daily relationship with Jesus and experience the true meaning of happiness, which is wrapped up in the eternal love of God, that is greater than our circumstances.

 

Oooo…a horsey!!

I had some time between appointments the other day and so I wandered over to a local Imagecoffee shop, got my all time favorite, a hazelnut latte and settled into an obscure corner to check email and do some reading.  I had not planned on observing people until I heard a high pitched exclamation: “Oooooo!! A horsey, mommy!  A horsey!!”   Yep my grandpa ears had heard the squeal of wonder and excitement in the voice of a small child and I had to look.  A little girl about three years old was pointing to a black and white close up of a boy with his horse.  Her gaze was one of wonder and her smile was infectious.  Her mother acknowledged the picture and gently ushered the little girl out of the shop.  The look on the little girls face was one of satisfaction.  She had seen a horsey, even if it was just a picture and her day for that moment was complete.

I had never noticed the picture of the horse even though I had been in that shop many times.  And that is when it struck me that I may be losing my sense of wonder and awe in this amazing world that God has created.  On observation I was not alone.   For the next few minutes, like a spy in a bad movie, I pretended to read a book on my ipad as I studied the people who came and went.  

There were the coffee shop newbies, who study the menu, aren’t quite sure what to order or how and finally just get a plain coffee.  They nervously look about to make sure they are not being watched and leave quite quickly.  There are the regulars who know the staff and their drink is usually ordered for them as they approach the counter.  They exchange some banter and a few laughs as they leave.  A few business people come and go, dressed in their power suits, heading to something important.  Then the young dude opens up his laptop just as his appointment comes in and a sales presentation is under way.  And of course there are those who just wanted to be alone, reading or checking email.   No one noticed the picture of the horse.  No one noticed the other pictures that had been chosen by someone to grace the walls and create an atmosphere.  We all just went about our business.

That little girl and her exclamation made me think about the warning Jesus gave to his disciples and to us.  In Matthew 18 the disciples asked Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  He had a little child stand in the middle of the group and he said: “I tell you unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).  

The point of what Jesus said and the reminder I received that day is simply this.  Children are by nature dependent and trusting and that reality enables them to open their eyes and see the world with awe and amazement.  As adults we strive to be independent and we have learned that there are few that you can trust, so we put our heads down, focus on the task at hand and plow ahead.  Faith and dependency are the stuff of childhood.  As a result we can lose our focus.  We can even forget the reality of God’s presence in our lives.

We need to change and become like little children, dependent upon our Heavenly Father for everything, even the very skills we have to do a job.  We need to change and become like little children, trusting our Heavenly Father for every aspect of our lives.  Then and only then can we have the freedom in our spirit and in our lives to look at the world around us in awe and maybe, just maybe be heard to utter “Oooooo…A Horsey!!”