Have We Forgotten Who We Are?

freedom-in-Christ

One of the hot-button issues in our culture (the United States) is the debate on immigration. The failure of our government to tackle a comprehensive policy on immigration has only served to intensify the problem. Ignoring problems only makes them worse. Let’s be fair to our current crop of politicians: this is not a new issue – it is one that has been ignored for a very long time by people of every political persuasion.

The Immigration debate has, however, raised an interesting question: Have we forgotten who we are? We tend to divide the population between immigrants and non-immigrants. But that’s a false division. We are a nation of immigrants. Even those we call Native Americans were from someplace else. The only difference is one of time – when did your ancestors arrive on these shores? Being a fifth generation American does not make you any different from a first generation American.

From early in our history the world recognized our unique status as a nation of immigrants. Imprinted on the pedestal of Lady Liberty is the famous poem by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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Why Can’t We Get Along?

grace-2

Our world seems to thrive on adversity and disagreement. I just checked one of the largest on-line news agencies – every article on world events was about disagreements, people not getting along. That’s the world we live in.

But forget about the world, we can’t change it. What about people? People like us, just ordinary people. Why can’t we get along with other ordinary people? Especially, why can’t Christians get along with other Christians? Admit it, we don’t always.

I want to offer four observations that I believe have the potential to eliminate most disagreements between Christians and help us get along with each other. We may not be able to change the world but we can change our behavior.

1. Give other people the benefit of the doubt.

Have you ever noticed how we often tend to assume the worst of other people? When someone says something we don’t like we immediately assume that they were trying to hurt us. Maybe they didn’t mean what they said the way you heard what they said. Maybe there’s more to the story than you know that precipitated their actions. Maybe it’s really YOUR problem and not theirs. Many times a situation can be diffused simply by giving people the benefit of the doubt.

1 Corinthians 13:7 says that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The phrase believes all things means to see the best in others, not to automatically think the worst of them. Christ-like love is always ready to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

2. Treat people with respect.

It sounds easy but we don’t always do it. If we would learn to treat other people with respect it would diffuse so many difficult situations and avoid so many conflicts. Marriages fall apart because couples never learn to treat each other with respect. Churches split because people never learn to treat other people with respect. Politicians are at loggerheads (a state of quarrelsome disagreement) because they never learn to treat other people with respect.

Matthew 7:12 says whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Except for a few oddballs we all want to be treated with respect. Notice that the burden is placed back on us – how we treat others is the point not how they treat us. If we train ourselves to treat other people with respect we’ll find that we will get along with them much better.

3. Refrain from being a Crusader.

By this I mean that we don’t always have to correct everyone. Sometimes we just need to let them be wrong – in the long run it probably won’t make that much difference. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. After college I took a job working for a large Christian organization. One day I was given contradictory instructions by two of the leaders. Convinced that one of them was wrong I took it upon myself to straighten out the situation by going to the other leader, hoping that he would put this man in his place. It wasn’t that I was wrong in my analysis – but I was wrong in how I attempted to handle the situation. I remember to this day, forty-one years later, exactly where I was when that man said to me, Steve, don’t always be a crusader. His words have stuck with me all these years. Not that I’ve always succeeded in following his advice, but he was right. We don’t always have to correct everyone and make sure that they know they’re wrong. By the way, I have great respect for that man even though his words stung.

1 Corinthians 10:24 says, Let no man, then, set his own advantage as his objective, but rather the good of his neighbor. When the good of the other person is our real objective rather than straightening them out, we’ll handle the situation differently.

4. Throw out the record.

So many times we don’t get along with other people because we remember that at some point in time they offended us. Remember the proverbial little black book with all the girls’ phone numbers in it? Many Christians keep their own little black book in the back of their minds filled with every slight that has ever been committed against them, real or perceived.

1 Corinthians 13:4 says Love thinks no evil. The idea is that when you are living in Jesus love you don’t keep an account of the evil things people have done to you. Some translations put it this way: Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs that others do. Throw out the record and see if it doesn’t help.

Getting along with other people, especially with Christians should be a priority for us. Not getting along isn’t an option.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Lessons From Haiti

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It’s been awhile since I blogged – six weeks to be exact. During that time I was preparing for and engaged in ministry in Haiti. I’m finally back in my routine and able to reflect on things that happened during the time I was in Haiti.

On this trip I had the opportunity to teach a course to 40 pastors on Angelology and Demonology; preach in three churches; preach five evangelistic meetings; take our music team to four different venues to give concerts (they also sang each night of the meetings); visit four different ministries in Haiti to see how God is using them; and meet with two groups to discuss ministry in Haiti.

As I’ve had an opportunity to look back at all that took place I would say that it was a mixed bag – some blessings, some discouragements. Some things went right and some didn’t. Some expectations were fulfilled and some weren’t. Sometimes I was frustrated and sometimes I wasn’t. That’s often how it is in ministry.

Not that it makes it any easier to deal with. I’m just the kind of person who, in the words of Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader The A-Team in the 1980s television show of the same name, loves it when a plan comes together. But even our best conceived plans don’t always come together the way we envision them – especially in Haiti.

Since my return I’ve been reminded of two passages in Proverbs – A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps (Haitians often say man proposes but God disposes – not a bad translation of Proverbs 16:9). The other passage is Proverbs 19:21 – There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel—that will stand. In the end we have to surrender all of our plans, ideas, hopes and dreams to a sovereign God.

Why? Why can’t it be OUR plans? Why does it always have to be HIS plan? There are two simple reasons: 1) He knows what He wants to accomplish. Ministry isn’t about us, it’s about Him. Whenever we insist on our plans we make ministry about us; we put ourselves in the center instead of Christ. 2) His plan is best. This is a direct consequence of reason #1. If God knows what He wants to accomplish then it stands to reason that His plan is always going to be better than my plan.

So whatever was accomplished in Haiti through our rather ineffective efforts was accomplished because God had a plan. A plan that was certainly different from my plan. But a plan that was far superior to my plan. And so I leave the results to Him, praying that in some small way our team made an eternal difference in the lives of a few people.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What the World Needs Now is . . .

Compassion

Back in 1965 (some of you can remember that far back) a song was released called What the World Needs Now is Love. It was destined to reach number 7 on the charts that year. If I remember right it was later used to sell soft drinks.

The message of the song was summarized in the words, what the world needs now is love, sweet love it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. No argument that the world lacks a lot of love. I think however that there’s something else missing in our world that is just as important as love and that is compassion. I know it doesn’t sing as well but it’s still true. We don’t live in a very compassionate world.

I’m not saying that our society is totally bankrupt when it comes to compassion. I just think that we’re very selective in our application of it. We show compassion to the person fighting cancer. We show compassion to the family who just lost everything in a fire. But in other areas we feel justified in withholding our compassion.

There’s little if any compassion for people who come illegally to our country to find a better way of life for their families. There’s often little to no compassion for the drug addict who wastes all of his/her money to support a bad habit. Or the prisoner who is serving time because they committed a crime. When it comes to issues like these our fallback position is that we are a country of laws. But do laws preempt compassion? Yes, they might have broken our laws but that doesn’t mean we can throw compassion out the window.

We often read in the New Testament that Jesus had compassion on people. He was moved by their sickness, hunger, and poverty – things over which they had little control. And we understand that kind of compassion and even agree with it. But there’s one story in the New Testament that puts an entirely different slant on the issue. It’s the parable of the Lost Son, or more commonly called the parable of Prodigal Son.

We don’t need to retell the entire story because you’re probably familiar with it. It might be a good idea, however, for you to read it again. You’ll find it in Luke chapter 15. Here’s where the story intersects with compassion. The prodigal son made all of the wrong choices. He rebelled against his father; rejected his father’s home, standards and love; and lived a wanton and wasteful life. Not unlike many people today.

But when he returned to his father, the Bible says that his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him (Luke 15:20). He didn’t lecture the son on his violation of the law. He didn’t make him serve a probationary period before he could return to the family. He didn’t make him grovel. The father related to his son, not on the basis of the law, but on the basis of compassion.

Isn’t that how God relates to us? Before Christ we were worse than illegal immigrants, drug addicts or criminals. In fact in God’s eyes we lived in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (Ephesians 2:3). In other words we did what we wanted to do. It was all about us. And God, just like the father in the story, had compassion on us.

I’m not advocating that we ignore our laws. They are important. Without them we would live in anarchy. But for the Christian laws never preempt compassion. In fact for the Christian you could make the argument that compassion always trumps law.

Somehow we need to figure out how to implement compassion even in the most difficult situations because What the World Needs Now is Compassion. And if they don’t see it in Christians they won’t see it anywhere.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

One Title – Two Messages

Bowing

Occasionally someone in our church will recommend a song for us to sing – something they heard at another church or on the radio. We welcome suggestions at our church and look into requests to see if the song has potential for us to use in our worship.

This past Sunday one of our worship team members suggested a song called Bow the Knee. When I began to search for the song on the internet I quickly discovered that there are two songs by this name (sometimes you’ll find four or more songs with the same name!). The song that had been suggested is this one – and it’s a good song. You can actually watch the writer of the song (Ron Hamilton) sing it here. Its message is along the lines of recognizing who God is and bowing before Him. Similar to the Apostle Paul’s statement (Philippians 2:9-11):

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The other song by the same title has a different message. Written by Chris Machen and Mike Harland it takes the idea of bowing before God in the direction of accepting the work that God is doing in our lives, even when we don’t understand it.

There are moments on our journey following the Lord
Where God illumines ev’ry step we take.

There are times when circumstances make perfect sense to us,
As we try to understand each move He makes.

When the path grows dim and our questions have no answers, turn to Him.

Bow the knee;
Trust the heart of your Father when the answer goes beyond what you can see.

Bow the knee;
Lift your eyes toward heaven and believe the One who holds eternity.

And when you don’t understand the purpose of His plan,
In the presence of the King, bow the knee.

There are days when clouds surround us, and the rain begins to fall,
The cold and lonely winds won’t cease to blow.

And there seems to be no reason for the suffering we feel;
We are tempted to believe God does not know.

When the storms arise, don’t forget we live by faith and not by sight.

Bow the knee;
Trust the heart of your Father when the answer goes beyond what you can see.

Bow the knee;
Lift your eyes toward heaven and believe the One who holds eternity.

And when you don’t understand the purpose of His plan,
In the presence of the King, bow the knee.

You can listen to this version here.

Two songs. Both songs with a good biblical message. Both true.

As Christ followers we need to recognize who God is. He IS King of all the ages and He alone deserves our worship.

It is also true that this God who is high and lifted up is one that we can trust on our journey through life even when you don’t understand the purpose of His plan. The writer reminds us of a truth that we need to hang onto; don’t forget we live by faith and not by sight – see 2 Corinthians 5:7.

Wherever you are today – rejoicing in the goodness and greatness of God or struggling to understand the heart of the Father – stop long enough on your spiritual journey to bow your knee.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Finding Value in Suffering

Pool of Bethesda at the far end

I need to be clear from the start; I’m using the term suffering as a generic term for problems, hardships, trials or miseries that comes into our lives regardless of scope or size. For the purposes of this discussion, suffering is anything that causes fear, anguish, pain or discomfort. It includes disappointments, discouragements and sorrows. I’m not talking here just about the great sufferings of life. I’m talking about even the smallest sufferings.

The most common human response to suffering is avoidance. We don’t like to suffer and we don’t want to suffer so we will do anything to avoid problems. But suffering is a fact of life – and it’s a fact of life that we desperately try to explain as if our ability to rationalize it somehow makes it easier to accept. As a writer in the New York Times observed, even when we can offer some plausible explanation for our suffering does that change all the many times when suffering leaves us with no seeming benefit at all, and only a resentment of those who tell us to look on the bright side and count our blessings and recall that time heals all wounds (when we know it doesn’t)?

Perhaps without knowing it, the writer has put his or her finger on the crux of the matter – suffering leaves us with no seeming benefit at all. But what if, in our haste to avoid problems, there really is a benefit to our suffering? What if there is a value in all of the hardships, the disappointments, the sicknesses, the pains of life? What if good can actually come out of our suffering? What if, in the eternal scheme of life, suffering is really on the positive side of the balance sheet and not the negative?

For the Christian suffering is not only a part of life, it is part of faith. We know that suffering is redemptive – Christ suffered for us the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:8). That in itself gives eternal value to suffering.

But what about our suffering? What value is there in the sufferings of our lives that gives them value?

Here are some random thoughts on suffering for you to reflect on. If you are struggling with suffering I encourage you to take the time to read through this list. It may not make suffering any easier, but it does show that suffering is not arbitrary; there is value in our suffering.

Suffering . . .

provides us the opportunity to minister to others (2 Cor 1:3-5)

forces us to look beyond our limited self to see something greater (Hebrews
4:14-16)

reminds us of our mortality (1 Peter 1:24-25)

reminds us that something better is waiting for us (Hebrews 11:8-16)

produces thankfulness in us (Phil 4:6)

produces a spirit of rejoicing in us (Phil 4:4)

drives us to dependency on God (2 Cor 12:7-10)

motivates us to greater heights of prayer (Phil 4:6)

keeps our attention focused on the One who can help us (Hebrews 12:1-2)

provides us with an avenue to show God’s grace in our lives to others (1 Peter
2:11-12)

increases our dependency on God (1 Peter 5:7)

creates in us a desire for something better – heaven (Romans 8:18)

affirms that we belong to Christ (Hebrews 12:4-8)

keeps us from becoming complacent in this life (Romans 8:18)

shows us the ugliness of sin (Romans 5:12)

clarifies the things of real value in life (James 1:2-4)

deepens our compassion for others (Hebrews 2:18)

brings the reality of heaven into sharper focus (Hebrews 12:13-16)

reveals the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7)

brings us into a greater fellowship with Christ (Phil 3:10)

produces hope in us (Romans 5:3-5)

For the Christian there is value in suffering even when we cannot explain it. Don’t miss what God may be doing in your life through suffering.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

The Grace Factor

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Sometimes we have those favorite passages from the Bible that we like to quote. We often do it for encouragement or to explain something we don’t understand. One passage that people use like this is from the book of Isaiah: For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Our normal thought process runs something like this: we can’t explain what God is doing in our lives so our fallback position is that God’s mind just works differently than our minds, so God must have some purpose or reason for – not answering my prayer; for allowing me to suffer; for not blessing me etc.

While all of that may be true on some level, the passage in Isaiah has a very specific context and that context is all about God’s grace.

The two verses just before this set the context. Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7).

It is in the context of God’s mercy and forgiveness that we learn that God’s mind works differently than our minds. God is willing to forgive the wicked who seek Him, call on Him and forsake their sin.

What God knows is that we struggle in this area. When someone has hurt us, wounded us, sinned against us, we struggle to forgiven them even if they seek our forgiveness. We just want to get even. To let them feel our hurt. They deserve at least a little pain. But not so with God. Whenever someone who has hurt the holiness of God by their sin comes seeking Him, He’s there. When they call, He’s listening. When they repent, He’s willing to forgive.

Why? Because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. His ways and thoughts are higher, much higher than ours.

There are two things that we can take away from this passage. One, and this is the primary teaching of the passage, is that God’s grace is not something that He jealously guards but something that He willingly and enthusiastically gives away to those who need it. That’s how His ways and thoughts are higher than ours.

The second takeaway is that this is exactly how we are to live. We are to be grace-givers on a magnitude that we have never before imagined. Grace is not something you keep, it is something you dispense, something you give away freely and without reservation. Unless you give it, grace is not grace. It only becomes grace through the unselfish act of giving. God is not only showing us the magnitude of His grace in this passage – He is challenging us to live the life of grace.

The apostle John touched on this same issue when he wrote: And of His fullness we have all received, and grace piled on top of grace (my translation of John 1:16). Since we have received grace in a magnitude that we cannot begin to understand, we need to give grace in a magnitude that others do not expect. That’s the Grace Factor.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve