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

The Evangelical Church

Reports have been coming out of China for some time now about a new government crackdown on Christianity. Whether or not this is something new or just a cyclical pattern of behavior for the Chinese government is unclear. You can read any number of reports simply by Googling Christians in China.

What is clear is that Christians, especially Evangelical Christians, are facing greater persecution in China today than they have for some time. Yet in spite of the persecution the Church in China is growing. By some estimates there are over 160 million Christians in China, making it the most Christianized nation in the world by total numbers.

One of the amazing aspects of this story is that the primary growth of the Church in China is among young professionals. These are people who stand to lose much in this spiritual confrontation between the Church and the government. What is the attraction for these young professionals that would cause them to risk their jobs and their future? It is what they find in the Church that is missing from their lives. Some have referred to the love that they find in the Church. Others use words like acceptance and relationships. What they are finding in the Church of Jesus Christ is exactly what they aren’t finding anywhere else.

And isn’t that what the Church – in China, in America, in Africa or any other place, is supposed to be? Aren’t we supposed to be the place where people find what is missing from their lives? The place where disenfranchised people find the love of Jesus Christ? Where unacceptable people find acceptance? Where people too caught up in the frantic pace of life find meaningful relationships? Aren’t we suppose to be the place where people find what they can’t find anyplace else?

I want to suggest that the people in China aren’t really so different from the people where you and I live. They all want the same things. They all need the same things. The address may change but people are basically the same the world over.

So why is the Church in China growing in spite of renewed persecution and many of our churches in the West aren’t? It might be because the things we are offering people aren’t really what people need. We offer glitz, they need substance. We offer shows, they need relationships. We offer out-of-this-world programs, they need to be loved.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not decrying the American Evangelical Church. It’s certainly not your father’s Oldsmobile – it has changed greatly and not all of the changes have necessarily made it better. But I’m not ready to throw it all out and go back to the church of the 60’s. What I am suggesting is that the Chinese people who come to the Church are looking for the right things. Ultimately contemporary music, on-stage bands, light shows, slick videos, and dyn o mite (for those of you who remember Jimmie Walker) children’s programs, by themselves, won’t meet the heart needs of people. Jesus based love will. Unconditional acceptance will. Genuine relationships will.

Maybe we can learn from the Church in China. Maybe they have something to teach us.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Heaven: The Celestial North Korea?

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A trend that has become decidedly more noticeable in the recent past is the aggressive position of atheists and atheistic organization in getting out their message and their confrontation of Christianity. In fact it now has its own name: the New Atheism. The “new” doesn’t refer to a new set of beliefs as much as it refers to a new attitude and new tactics.

According to one source; New Atheism is a social and political movement in favour (sic) of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”
This is happening not only on an academic level (Christopher Hitchens et al.) but also on a more popular level (Bill Maher for example).

Prior to his death, Christopher Hitchens was one of the New Atheist who championed this new approach. Take this statement for example: I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually true…. There may be people who wish to live their lives under cradle-to-grave divine supervision, a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque. . . . Just consider for a moment what their [the devout’s] (sic) heaven looks like. Endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation, and abjection of self, a celestial North Korea.

I want to make several observations, first about New Atheism in general and then about Hitchens’ view.

Christians should not despair over the new vocalness of atheist, in fact we should welcome an open and honest conversation with those who oppose our faith. It is in the spiritual darkness that we are told to shine the light of the gospel (Matthew 5:14-16). In one sense people like Hitchens are doing us a favor – they are bringing the conversation out into the open; they are instigating the dialogue. We don’t have to wonder how we can bring up the subject of the gospel with our neighbors, they have done it for us. Let’s rejoice and take advantage of the new opportunities!

As for Hitchens’ view of God, the Christian life and eternity, I think that we can take away several things. First we need to ask ourselves where his views came from. Is that really the message that we as Christians are communicating by our lives and message? I rather suspect that it comes from a very prejudicial reading of the Bible, however, we need to keep in mind that for most people their views on God, the Christian life and eternity are going to come from how we live and what we communicate. If they have defective views perhaps it is our fault.

Secondly, we need to know what we believe and why we believe it. How do you respond to the charge that we as Christians live under cradle-to-grave divine supervision, a permanent surveillance and monitoring? How would you explain heaven to an unbeliever? Will it be as Hitchens claimed a place of, endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation, and abjection of self, a celestial North Korea? (Notice the truth mixed with error – heaven will be a place of endless praise and adoration, as should our lives be today. It will not be a celestial North Korea). Too often we despair over criticisms of our faith instead of searching for ways to answer them.

Thirdly, it seems to me that Hitchens operates from a world view that is not just centered on man (anthropocentric) but expressly self-centered (egocentric). Life and eternity are all about Christopher Hitchens. In contrast in the Christian life God is at the center of our lives and our eternity (theocentric). When anyone installs themselves at the center of their universe they have enthroned themselves as the ultimate authority, as their own god. That might give them an ego boost but it’s a dangerous place to be.

There have always been atheists (2 Peter 3:3-4), people who choose to deny the existence of God and fashion their lives in their own image. As we come to the end of the age – and we’re there (Hebrews 1:2) their voices will grow louder. That’s when our lights need to shine the brightest.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve