It’s a War Out There

The title of this blog can relate to almost any area of life today.

If you are over 50 you can probably remember a time when life was much calmer; people weren’t so uptight; the news wasn’t so depressing; political parties tended to work together in congress for the good of the people; and for the most part, everyone got along with everyone else.

Did everyone agree? Of course not, but there was a certain civility and respect that permeated our society.

The 60s change a lot of things. Many of the changes had ripple effects into other areas of life that I’m not sure we understand even today. Since then it seems that we have become more uptight, less peaceful, less respectful of other people, less tolerant not more, and less hopeful – as a nation and as individuals.

Many people – mostly the older crowd, remember life before the 60s nostalgically and long for the good ol’ days, while those who were born after the 60s scoff at the thought of every going back to the days of Ward, June and Beaver.

The post-60s crowd is right – you can’t go back. But does that mean that we’re destined for ever-increasing bickering and division in our society? Isn’t it possible for us to move forward and do it in a civilized manner, respecting our differences and honoring those with whom we disagree?

Here’s where I take issue with my own tribe. As Christians we have failed to set the example. In fact Christians have often been at the forefront of the political wars – and it’s difficult to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t. We’ve made things worse not better. That shouldn’t be.

I’m not suggesting that Christians avoid controversial issues – I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t do battle the way other people do battle. Our attitudes, methods, responses and reactions are to be distinctly Christian. If they aren’t then we may will the battle but we’ll end up losing the war. Not the cultural war perhaps, but the more important spiritual war. The war for the souls of men.

Over and over the Bible implores us to be careful how we walk through life (Galatians 5:16, Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:12). In fact we are not to act like other people act (Ephesians 4:17) and we’re not to act in ways that fulfill our natural desires (Romans 8:1).

The Apostle Paul reminds us that though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).

What would happen if Christians actually began to act like Christians? If we approached the political-cultural issues with a Christ-like attitude, spiritual weapons, and dependence on God instead of on a political party?

What would happen if we really understood that the war is essentially spiritual in nature and began to fight it that way?

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Are Christians to Blame?

Not since the 1960s have we seen chaos in our country on the level that we’re seeing it today. It seems like each morning brings more news of violence.

The burning question people are asking is: Who’s to Blame? We want to know who’s right and who’s wrong. Who’s responsible for the turmoil and chaos?

The truth is – there’s enough blame to go around.

Some have even suggested that Christians are responsible. Before you throw that one out, prayerfully and carefully read this article by Pastor Tony Evans. It should make you, if you profess to be a Christian, a little uncomfortable.

America’s current violence can be traced to Christians’ failures

The horrific shootings over the past few days, in Louisiana, Minnesota and now my hometown of Dallas, have shaken all of us. Tragically, this is even more true for the families of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and now Dallas police officers.

The events are shocking and revolting. Our prayers go out to the families and friends affected most closely by these events, and to those fighting for their lives at this very moment in Dallas. But we must do more than pray.

In 2 Chronicles 15:3-6, it says that society was falling apart, and God troubled them with every kind of distress because they continued to reject the knowledge of God. These recent spates of violence – like all our worldly problems — have happened because Christians have failed to advance God’s kingdom, to spread the faith and to do so in a loving, unified way.

Gone must be the days of only pointing fingers at others to fix what they may never fix. Our nation’s ills are not merely the result of corruption or racism, although these are evil. Our troubles can also be traced directly to ineffective Christians.

One of the real tragedies today is that the Church as a whole has not furthered God’s light, equity, love and principles in our land in order to be a positive influence and impact for good in the midst of darkness, fear and hate.

Far too often, we have limited the definition of the Church. While not in all cases, in many cases, “Church” has become an informational, inspirational weekly gathering rather than the group of people that God has ordained from heaven to operate on his behalf on Earth in order to bring heaven’s viewpoint into history. There needs to be a recalibrating of many of our churches to the unified purpose of the Kingdom of God.

The Church and only the Church has been given the keys to the kingdom, so we have unique access to God that nobody else has. It’s about time more churches start using those keys to unlock doors, so that we get greater heavenly intervention in our earthly catastrophe. This is not to negate or downplay the great work countless churches have done throughout time in our land. I applaud and am grateful for all of it. What we have been ineffective at, though, is a unity that increases our impact on a larger collective level. When we unite as so many churches did during the civil rights movement, we can bring hope and healing where we as a nation need it most.

Thus, I believe that the call of the Church is to come together as one on three levels.
One is to pray and call what the Bible calls a “solemn assembly,” which means a sacred gathering with prayer and fasting to invite God’s manifest presence to reemerge in the culture.

Secondly, the Church must move people from membership to discipleship. Just being members of the Church is not good enough anymore. We need visible, verbal followers of Jesus Christ who are public with their witness and trained how to do that. If the Church doesn’t train people to do that, then they have failed.

And third, churches need to come together in their communities and do good works, such as adopting schools across the nation, that are visible so that people see the benefit of the Church in their community. The presence of God’s people in public is desperately needed right now for the good of the Church and the good of society, which we are called to serve.

Unless the Church steps forward collectively to fulfill its God-given role of influencing the conscience of our culture, our country will keep spiraling downward into the depths of fear and hate.

We must do better. We must unite. We must stand together and commit to one another that we will usher in a wave of change, justice, life, safety, rightness, equity and dignity for all. And above all, we must not let fear or hatred divide us. Peace, unity, love and nonviolence should be our rallying cry and the catalyst for change in our nation. Through this, we can seek to transform the remnants of tragedy into the foundation of a stronger, more equitable future.

It’s time for the Church of Jesus Christ to stand up and show our nation a better way.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Don’t Expect God to Make Everything Right

Linda Randall popularized the song God on the Mountain. If you’ve never heard her beautiful voice you can listen to her sing it here. I’ve mentioned this song in some of my previous posts – it’s got a great message of encouragement.

My wife was part of a duet that sang it at our church this past Sunday. The chorus of the song says:

For the God on the mountain, is the God in the valley.
When things go wrong, He’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times
is still God in the bad times.
The God of the day is still God in the night.

There’s always been one phrase of the song that bothered both me and my wife. It’s the phrase when things go wrong, He’ll make them right. I know that ultimately God will make everything right. But I don’t think when most people hear the song they’re thinking long-range. They want God to make it right and to do it now. And if that is how people understand this song aren’t we offering them a false message and a false hope?

The reality is that God doesn’t always make things right in the short-term. In fact He may not make them right in our lifetime. He didn’t make everything right for the unnamed heroes in Hebrews chapter 11. He didn’t make everything right for countless missionaries through the centuries who have been martyred for their faith. When we expect God to make everything in life right we’re missing the point of our faith

So with apologies to the author (Tracy Dartt) and to Linda Randall who made it so popular, our duet made a slight change in the wording of the song. Instead of singing when things go wrong, He’ll make them right, they sang when things go wrong live by faith not by sight.

After all that is the defining mark of a Christian – living by faith. Paul tells us in the book of Romans that the just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17). And he says explicitly in 2 Corinthians for we walk (live) by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). That’s who Christians are; it’s what they do.

The Christian life is not waiting for God to make right the wrongs of our lives. It’s not even wanting God to do make them right. That’s living by sight; by what we can see. We’re to live by faith; by what we can’t see but know to be true. So when life goes wrong we show our faith, not by asking God to make everything right but by trusting God even when we can’t see and we don’t understand. That’s faith (Hebrews 12:1).

Don’t expect God to make everything right. If He does it’s called grace and you can be thankful. But if He doesn’t we still need to live by faith.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Have We Forgotten Who We Are?

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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Lessons From Haiti

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

Heaven: The Celestial North Korea?

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

I’m Tired of Easy Answers!

I don’t know when it happened but somewhere in the past of Christianity we began to look for easy answers to the complex issues of life. How often has someone said to you, when you were in the middle of a spiritual struggle – Prayer changes things or God will give you peace or Just Trust God or Just Believe. Maybe you hear the echoes of your own voice here. We have reduced the struggles of our faith to a series of clichés. To sound bites.

All of the above statements, and others, have an element of truth in them and perhaps that is why we find some comfort when we repeat them. But they are not the entire truth – there is so much more and that is why they ultimately do not satisfy. A partial truth can never be the answer to the spiritual struggles of life.

I’ve already addressed the issue of trusting/believing God in my post of January 27, 2014, The Problem With Faith, but what about prayer and peace?

It is true that prayer can change things – but it’s not always the case. And sometimes we find peace but at other times we just don’t have any peace. Why? Because those are easy answers.

Prayer really isn’t about changing things, it’s about getting to know God. What most Christians mean by prayer changing things is, “God did what I wanted him to do.” As if prayer was a button to be pushed to release exactly what they wanted from the vending machine. Prayer is not a button to be pushed; it’s a relationship to be pursued.

Prayer does ‘work,’ but it works very differently than we’d like. It still ‘works’: When we can’t trace out any direct result from our prayer. When the opposite of what we prayed for happens. In those moments when we feel very distant from God. When we bang down the door of heaven for years and are not sure anything is going on up there at all.

There are scores of people inside and outside the church whose spirits are crushed because they prayed (fervently) and: They didn’t get the job. Their mom died of cancer. Their child was born without a heartbeat. They ended up in a car crash that left them permanently disabled. Prayer doesn’t ‘work’ because I got what I wanted and they didn’t.

The parade of saints across the centuries would have been shocked to see prayer reduced to God-doing-what-I-asked-him-to-do-when-I-asked-him-to-do-it. God is not a puppy to be trained or a chef in the kitchen who prepares food to suit our every whim. He is sovereign.

As Richard Foster says: For those explorers in the frontiers of faith, prayer was no little habit tacked on to the periphery of their lives; it was their lives. It was the most serious work of their most productive years. Prayer—nothing draws us closer to the heart of God. Do things happen supernaturally when we pray? Well, yes they do. But often in ways we cannot understand or even trace out.

I think Christians can take consolation in the fact that when we pray, we often don’t know what to pray for or even how to pray, yet the scriptures tell us the Holy Spirit will translate the prayer into something better than we could phrase in the moment.

So pour your heart out to God. Pray about the things the scripture says are close to God’s heart. And when something ‘goes your way,’ be grateful and offer it back to the God who gave it to you.

And when things don’t go your way, understand that God is still very much in control and very much loves you. Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is absent.
(from Carey Nieuwhof, Pastor at Connexus Community Church near Toronto, Canada).

Another example where we need more than easy answers is the area of peace. I wrote about this last week in a post titled Is it Really Possible to Have Peace? Let me just add this to what I wrote there. God promised peace to His followers (John 14:27) and He told us to let peace be the ruling force of our lives (Colossians 3:15). But too often we glibly throw out the line to the hurting soul – God will give you peace. Only that’s just half the answer. The other half is that God will give us peace when we begin to live in what we might call the way of peace (see last week’s blog for a more complete explanation). Having peace in our lives hinges on living a life worthy of peace. You can’t expect the result without the effort.

Make no mistake about it God has answers for our problems – they just aren’t easy answers. The problem is that life is complex and we can’t throw easy answers at complex issues. In addition to that Christianity itself is complex. God’s way of doing things is often hard and difficult and causes some messy situations for us. Don’t get even with the person who hurt you – be a blessing to them (Romans 12:19-20). Don’t hate your enemies – love them (Matthew 5:44). Don’t try to avoid trials – rejoice in them (James 1:2).

The truth is that Christianity can’t be reduced to a series of clichés. Whenever you reduce our faith to sound bites it cheapens the Christian life. Do you really want a faith that is that easy, that simplistic?

Don’t look for the easy answers. And please don’t offer them to someone who is struggling with life. Get into the complexity of the Christian life. Learn what it means to pray. Learn how you can have peace. The work will enrich your spiritual life and make the struggle worth the effort.