Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘how can I make my worship more heartfelt’ Category

Don’t Get Mad, Get a Life

FIGHT CLUBOur beloved battle hymn foresees the Lord returning to trample “on the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”  Well if that’s a fair description of the end of time, then surely we have arrived.  Those bitter grapes are everywhere, indeed, the world is a vineyard.  Without a doubt, we are awaiting the last trump!  (Don’t scream at me: that last word is not capitalized.)

Here is the USA, fight clubs still sweep the country, not among gangs like MS-13, but championed by young, well-educated, urban professionals.  College students riot after being offended by trigger words.  Popular politicians are shouted down and hounded off the stage at town hall meetings.  If your business flight isn’t delayed while stubborn passengers are pummeled and dragged off the aircraft, it may be forced to land prematurely due to furious passenger assailing the flight attendant. Meanwhile, social media like Facebook and Twitter are so charged with rage, insults, and vitriol that ordinary people are afraid to sign on for their daily dose of baby pictures.

What gives?  C.S. Lewis offered a precise diagnosis of today’s world three-quarters of a century ago.  “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither.”

There’s a powerful idea we’ve abandoned, and it begins with trans.  Does anything come to mind? Not transsexual: but transcendent.  People who cherish transcendent values can live with disappointment and adversity in life because their spiritual convictions lift them above the moments of mundane frustration. Because they believe in heaven, in divine wisdom, and in the power of love, spiritual people literally transcend the down times by trusting Providence and practicing delayed gratification. People of true faith believe many of the best things in life are invisible at the moment, and other treasures are awaiting the fullness of time.

Materialists, on the other hand, expect satisfaction every day because they live in a world filled with things; and things are supposed to bring us joy.  Who wouldn’t be happy with the newest smartphone, the most gargantuan HD TV,  and a futuristic home where smart devices do everything for them effortlessly?  Apparently, that’s not nearly enough for most people.  Look again at the seething multitudes all around you.  To paraphrase a former president, “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to smartphones or social media or antipathy to people who don’t agree with their ideas as a way to explain their frustrations.”

People who hope only in the here and now have no patience with delay and defeat, even the most fleeting variety.  And therein is found the crux of our national despair.  We suffer from the most powerful forms of addiction; big money and big government.  And now that both of us have failed us miserably, we are left in the misery of withdrawal.  We traded away the transcendent spiritual truths that could lift our souls from the Slough of Despond.  Very soon, perhaps an old cliche’ will begin to resonate once again: Jesus is the Answer.  The world is not enough… seriously.

Lift up the Cross!

 

Does God Gamble?

does-god-gambleGambling is not even a possibility for God: he already knows the outcome of every competition, the answer to every question. But there is a moment in the Bible when God makes a bet with the Devil!  It’s found in the most ancient book of the Bible when Satan taunts the Almighty and questions the sincerity of a holy man named Job.  The devil insists that upright man of faith doesn’t seriously love God but simply plays along for the benefits. In fact, he’s so convinced that he makes a wager: take away all blessings the guy has enjoyed and he will quickly walk away from his faith.  The sudden deaths of all his children and the loss of all his possessions leave Job’s walk with God completely intact.

So Satan makes a second wager. “Okay, but take away his health and I guarantee you he will curse you to your face!”  God permits his faithful servant to be physically afflicted within an inch of his life because He places so much confidence in Job’s personal allegiance. Wow!

People are wrong when they suppose the story of Job is written to explain why bad things happen to good people.  Neither Job nor his friends could have ever understood why he was stricken: the reason was a wager in heaven they could not have detected or explained! The real question raised by Job’s story is this: Who wins the bet?

The answer comes in Job 2:10.  When Job is covered from head to toe in agonizing, oozing, festering boils, his agony leaves him writhing in pain day and night.  What’s more, the mysterious condition costs him his respected status in the community.  Friends turn their backs and abandon him.  His grieving wife encourages him to curse God and die.  And to all of this, the man of God replies, “Must we receive only good things from God and never anything bad?”  The narrator then summarizes, “In all of this, Job did not sin.”

So God wins the wager- of course!  In all his misery and disgrace, Job clings to his confidence that God is good and loving.  Yes, he complains; but in all those cries of frustration, his concern is only that God doesn’t understand.  He pleads for some way to stand before God and make his case; to clarify anything God has somehow misunderstood!

Job’s tireless pursuit of God answers the other big question raised by the story: do believers really love God or do we just play along for the blessings?  There is no doubt that Job’s faith is fourteen karat, the real thing.  And ours?

Sometimes you and I make Satan’s case. We are attracted to popular titles and slogans that promise faith will make us happy: God’s Best for You; Your Best Life Now; Every Day a Friday!  We seize upon the fantasy “If God is in this, everything will go smoothly!”  When friends enjoy prosperity, we slap them on the back and say, “You must be living right!”

Except that Job was living right.  So was the Apostle Paul.  So was Stephen, the first martyr; and William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament in hiding; and Lottie Moon, the missionary who died of malnutrition because she gave her food to orphans during a famine in China.

The first and best blessing from Heaven is God Himself.  It is He who gives us life, meaning, and purpose.  It is Christ who holds the forces of the universe together by the power of His Word.  And it is He who makes Heaven heavenly, ensuring that all those other wonders of eternity can satisfy us.

In the face of a life seeming to collapse all about him, Job insists, “God is enough.” Whatever happens here, he confesses, when the skin worms destroy my flesh, in my flesh I will see God!  Job is one of the first people in the Old Testament to truly understand resurrection.  He’s also one of the very first to truly understand faith.  Blessings are just a by-product of faith: the presence of God is the prize!

To hear Pastor Cole’s compelling message, click Is God Enough.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

Barefoot Worship

moses-and-god

This doesn’t sound very romantic or culturally sensitive, but it’s a fact.  When Moses takes his famous detour to a burning bush and finally encounters God, the Lord doesn’t reward the old man with benefits: he gives him a job. (Exodus 3: 1 – 15)

I think many of us in church life today have regressed to the smarmiest form of bait-and-switch evangelism.  We invite our friends to church, hyping the chance to make new friends or find someone to date.  Then there are all those other benefits: good cheer for the down and out, relationship tips for the lonely, great coffee for those in need of caffeine. Behind all this is our hope that one benefit or the other will lead them to God.

But that’s not how it happens in the Bible.  Jesus doesn’t heal every sick person in Israel, or feed every hungry mouth, for that matter.  The select signs and wonders he performs are geared to raise questions in the minds of all the other people. Christ understands that true worship begins with Mystery.  The greatest questions are about God and living water, not emotional urges and financial needs. We are asking for disappointment when consumers come to our churches in search of benefits. (Then most hurry away once again.) Moses begins his worship quest with questions he cannot answer.  Why isn’t that bush consumed by those flames?  Is that really what an angel looks like?  True worship is driven by mystery.

We minimize the power of God when we pass him off as a mere psychologist who can bring closure to the grief-stricken; or a relationship coach who can enhance one’s marriage. And we prepare our friends to behave like immature children: always asking what God can do for us next, never pondering our place in His Grand Design.  Benefits are a by-product. The point is God, knowing Him and actually being known by Him.

So it’s significant when God actually calls out to Moses by name.  Yes, this indicates He is not a stranger; that he knows this sheep herder who is coming his way.  But he doesn’t read the mind of Moses and offer to help him with his anger problem or relieve him of that stinking job tending sheep when he’s been educated in geometry and astronomy back in the palace at Egypt!  No, God simply says, “I’ve decided to free my people who are trapped in bondage in Egypt, and I’ve selected you to go and talk to the Pharaoh.”

That’s really what we all need in this world: an eternal Father and and a magnificent mission.  Consumers get the goods, but they never accumulate enough possessions or pleasure to fill the hole in each of their hearts.  Faith and Purpose do that, and who knows it better than the Creator who designed our souls and our brains, and hardwired us with DNA?  Significance follows life-giving relationship and service.

So don’t invite your co-workers and neighbors to worship because it will help them with their melancholy or offer them a short-cut back into the dating scene.  Tell them the truth: God is better than the Bomb.com, and church services can be an opportune place to search for Him.  Ask  them to join you in worship because you sense they’re looking for something valuable, and you suspect the answer to their questions starts with a capital G. And, by the way, there’s great coffee there… if they still need it.

To hear the companion audio message, Take Off Your Shoes, click here.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childlike Faith vs Childish Religion

childlike-faith

Kids take the winding path when adults choose the short cut.

Children wish they could make time move faster, but grown ups want to slow it down.

Little guys would rather play than eat. Big people want their meals on time.

And none of those distinctions were in the mind of Christ when he coached his budding apostles, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)  When the Lord called for childlike faith, he had a specific quality in mind which he explained with his next statement: humility.

That is, kids realize they’re  small and need the care of more powerful individuals. That’s why toddlers become so clingy and insecure when one parent is away: they want as much adult care as possible.  As a result, little kids are comfortable being out of control.  Sure, there are those terrible two’s and occasional tantrums, but kids spend most of their time living comfortably under the authority of bigger people.

New Testament faith is the cultivation of that kind of dependence among the children of God.  Have you ever noticed how often people of faith are compared to children in the Bible?  I’m thinking children of Israel; the warning about causing one of God’s little ones to stumble; the directive to call upon your Father who is in Heaven.  Have you ever wondered why the model prayer set forth by Jesus includes a plea that God will provide us with our daily bread each day?

Childlike faith is the recognition of my scale in the universe: small, lacking in resources, and dependent on outside intervention from someone more powerful. Turning to God is not a last resort for people of faith; it’s the first line of defense in a world that seems seriously out of our control!

I have come to believe that’s why awe and wonder are so lacking in the Christian Faith of this particular generation.  Awe is a combination of love, fear, and surprise that leads to reverence.  An awesome motion picture leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence.  An awesome rocket launch leaves masses gazing quietly at the empty sky. Moments of wonder leave us feeling small; speechless in the presence of something vast and beyond our reach.

The trouble with grown ups today is that we have fallen in love with devices we believe can give us complete control.  My smart phone gives me mastery of my calendar, my photographs, favorite music, plus instant access to all my friends wherever they are.  Alexa orders flowers for my wife and turns the AC up or down!  That sense of personal power is a carefully curated illusion, but an illusion all the same.

In fact, cherished relationships can crash and burn quite suddenly- often completely apart from our actions.  Circumstances change, health conditions spiral downward, finances go south, best laid plans hit the wall, and cars come crashing through restaurant windows. Just last month a friend diagnosed with Stage IV cancer early in December was gone to be with God by Christmas Eve!   In the most important areas of life, the only thing I can affect is my own behavior; which can often seem useless at best.

Childlike faith doesn’t chafe at the authority of God.  Neither does it need to understand what God is thinking when he takes a particular course of action. Children learn to deal patiently with major decisions whose only explanation is “because I said so.”  So do children of God.  Because unless we are converted to childlike faith, we will never enter the Kingdom.

Take some time to be dazzled by the presence of God and the timeless power of His Holy Word.  Go out of your way to offer God true worship this week.  And lift up the Cross!

For last week’s message, The Trouble with Grown Ups, click here.

 

That’s It? Now What?

 hope

As presidential campaigns go, 2016 may not actually be the nastiest ever. Even before the internet and 24/7 cable coverage, US voters have frequently been dragged down by shocking, depressing campaign fodder. Candidate Grover Cleveland was paying child support for an out-of-wedlock offspring, inspiring the slogan, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?” His opponent James Blaine was left reeling when a personal letter surfaced, confirming his corrupt dealings with the railroads. Before that Abraham Lincoln was slandered as “a horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the night man.”

And despite everything we’ve heard from talking heads and anguished neighbors, the current political divisions may not be the most serious crisis that has ever confronted our nation.  When Abe Lincoln took office in 1860, he was quickly robbed of his newfound joy as states in the south began to nullify the election and announce their secession from the Union.  The situation is certainly ominous today, but things must have looked awfully grim at the outbreak of World War I, amid the suffocating grip of the Great Depression, and during the Nazi terrors of World War II.  The constitution has been imperiled in the past, as well.

If we have learned anything, we have surely learned that no war will ever end all wars; there is always a next one.  And elections only settle things for four years. The next campaign begins almost immediately.  We have also been reminded time and again that campaign promises have a very short shelf life, that all leaders have feet of clay, and that God never promised anybody the American Dream.

As citizens of Heaven, our hope is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth. The church is not a museum of American cultural history: we are the Embassy of Heaven located on hostile soil in a foreign land. Whatever happens in the political world here, we must represent the values of the Kingdom of Light. Whether freedom seems to be rising or falling across this land, we must advance the interests of the Kingdom.  We make disciples.  Sometimes that’s easier when the world seems otherwise hopeless.  Maybe these times are like that.

So I keep reminding myself that faith and hope are mostly the same.  Our hope is not the last gasp of a desperate victim who clings to bland, wispy optimism.  My hope in Christ is as certain as my hope that the sun will come up tomorrow; that payday will come in two weeks.  I have been instructed and inspired by the confidence of those men who wrote the Psalms, not to mention my own experience with Christ.

Psalm 130: 5 – 6 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.  I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 23: 1 – 2 To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, So our eyes look to the LORD our God, Until He is gracious to us.

Isaiah 40:31 But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

I will be distracted neither by the winds of politics, nor the fashion of catchy slogans. Campaigns and candidates come and go, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

Prayer is a B_ _ch

BEACH CHAIRSThe strangest thing: no one has ever asked me, “Pastor, could you please teach me how to pray?”  That’s crazy because I’m frequently asked to teach people how to study the Bible, how to share their faith, how to fast, how to prepare a sermon, even how to find their spiritual gifts.  Despite the fact that 95% of church folks confess, “I know my prayer life is not what it should be,” no one has ever asked me to show them how to make it right.

That’s why I think prayer is anti-American.

The same Americans who boldly fight for the right to pray at football games and commencement ceremonies aren’t even up to a minor skirmish when it comes to a quiet conversation with God in private.  And it’s not because most church people are actually lost, or because they don’t love God.  It’s just that prayer seems like a waste of time for many Americans.  It’s a fact: we value our time and we’d rather spend our limited hours doing something– actually doing it ourselves.  Invite us to a Bible Study.  Organize us for a mission trip. Rehearse us for a worship spectacular complete with music and fireworks!  But don’t ask us to just sit down and do nothing. That’s un-American, isn’t it?  Doesn’t the Bible say something about working while it’s still daylight?  Indeed.

It also says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)  For all my frantic, over scheduled, hyper-drive fellow saints, I want to offer up a fresh, new paradigm for prayer. For my fellow worshipers in the USA who cannot imagine anything meaningful happening in a prayer closet, except maybe coming out of it, would a new image help?

Devotional prayer is much like a trip to the beach.  You have to take off your shoes and slow down.  You walk more slowly and finally you just stop.  You need to hear the roar of the sea, and fall into the rhythm of the waves.  The noises of people slowly fade into the background as the cry of the gulls begins to do something inside your heart.  The things you do on a beach are not much different from regular life- sitting and lying around, running or throwing a frisbee, walking or standing around in the surf.  The presence of something vast and a purpose that is profound make everything seem different on the seashore.

God moves slowly.  Granted, he was able to release the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt so quickly that there was no time for the bread to rise.  But more commonly, the God of Eternity tends to work in seasons, generations and even centuries.  Not so much in seconds!  No one can outrun God, but when he pauses to talk, you could run past Him! So prayer requires that highly motivated, overcaffeinated people do something almost impossible: slow down and come to a halt.  Be still and listen.  Devote yourself to stillness even if nothing happens for a bit.  In an invisible Kingdom, important things can well be happening when it seems like nothing’s going on.

Most of us are familiar with the episode in 1 Kings 19 in which God speaks in a small, still voice to one very discouraged Elijah.  You may recall that God first sends a mighty wind that blasts the rocks on the mountainside apart.  Then he sends an earthquake that rocks the whole region.  Next he dispatches a raging fire that scorches everything in sight.  Only after all the chaos is finished do Elijah’s ears detect the gentle whisper of Eternity: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  We can read the entire account in less than five minutes.  It probably lasted for hours! The legendary man of God stood there waiting for hours, enduring all manner of terrifying phenomena, before he was finally rewarded with the gentle sigh of a loving Go. Sometimes you can do nothing but wait.

“But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31.)

Devotional time alone with the Father is not much like 21st Century America, but it is so very much like 1st Century Jesus. In only three or four years, he managed to accomplish everything required of him to redeem the world and launch the Church, and he did it in spite of all the days and nights he spent alone in prayer.  Dare I say because of all the days and nights he spent alone in prayer?

The first step forward into the presence of the Almighty God is counter-intuitive to us in America: stop.  Let your life slow down. Let your heart slow down. Be intentional and find a quiet place: force everything to stop for fifteen minutes even if nothing supernatural happens.  Somewhere in the Kingdom of Light, something supernatural will occur.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

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