Thursday, September 16, 2010

And now, for something completely different...

I love the Marx Brothers!

Needed: Holy Discontent and a Dirty Christian Word

Revival is a term that some, both inside and outside the Church, may see as sort of a Christian "dirty word."

But revival is a Biblical concept that refers to what happens to individuals, communities, churches, or nations when they turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life.

Revival, new life with God, is something that can happen to people who have long warmed church pews, but have lost sight of Jesus, once their "first love."

Revival also happens to those who have never known or trusted in Christ, who come to worship and trust Him as their only God and Savior.

The word revival literally means, of course, to be made alive again. Revival is what happened to the Prodigal Son in Jesus' famous parable. The younger son in Jesus' story, you'll remember, took the inheritance the father had always planned on giving to him and decided to misuse his freedom as license for sin. Things didn't go well. Mindful that life with his father--representative of God--had given him both the freedom and the power to be his best self, the son set out for home, his only goal to ask for his father's forgiveness and seek employment with him as a hired-hand. He felt worthy of nothing more than this.

But when the father sees his son, he welcomes him happily and throws a party for him. The father's other son--representative for us today of good religious pew-warmers whose relationship with God is lukewarm, at best--becomes angry with his father for forgiving the younger son. He even refuses to join the welcome home party for the younger son. The father begs him to join in, explaining, "...we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."

Jesus says that "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents," that is,  one person who turns from sin and to the God made known in Jesus. When that one person repents and trusts in Christ as their God and Savior, that one person is revived--made alive again.

Elsewhere, the New Testament says that "...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

General revival, such as was experienced in the United States during the Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries, begins with individuals and churches confessing their sins in more than pro forma ways to God--and in some cases, to each other. Confession of this kind authentically owns its need of the power for living free from the sin and the death we can't get free of on our own. Revived people relish the Biblical promise: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord!" (Romans 8:1).

Humility and honesty before God, a willingness to trust God more than we trust the sins we love to commit, can ignite a contagious general revival in which hundreds and thousands of people turn in faith to Christ and find their lives, their churches' lives, and the lives of those they touch in the community and world with the Good News of new life that comes only through faith in Christ.

This is how revival has always come. In Old Testament times, God told Solomon, king of God's people, Israel, "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Our land--where only 17% of those identifying themselves as Christians bother to worship on any given week--and our whole world, need the healing, the revival, that Christ can bring.

This can happen. Someone once said that if you want to know how revival begins, get down on your knees, draw a circle around where you're kneeling, then confess your sins and ask God to help you trust in Christ alone. God will then begin revival within that circle.

In a real sense, revival begins when we're dissatisfied with the way things are. I call this holy discontent.

When we have holy discontent, we're not pleased by our own lack of love for God and others and we long to live differently. We want to be more like that person we're always trying to prove we are to others. When we have holy discontent, we hunger for--we are desperate for--God. When we have holy discontent, we will be incapable of trusting God, but we want to. We're like the man who said to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief." And just as Jesus answered that man's prayers, in spite of his feeble, weak faith, Jesus will answer the prayers of all who are willing to trust in Him, even if their trust is weak or next-to-nonexistent.

God doesn't sit in heaven waiting for us to become good enough before He hears our prayers. "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love," the Bible tells us repeatedly. God knows the intentions of our hearts and understands how hard it is for us to trust in Him. But His promise, again found in several Biblical passages, is that all who call on His Name will be saved. All of this is why David wrote back in Old Testament times: "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust." God will never turn a deaf ear to anyone who genuinely wants to want Him, who genuinely wants to trust, wants to turn from sin. Blessedly, if we give God an inch, God will take a mile. That's a great thought to my mind!

Listen: Holy discontent comes from God.

It's caused by the holes in our souls that can only be filled by Jesus Christ.

It's foisted on you by the Holy Spirit calling you to the daily habit of personal repentance and renewal.

When we experience holy discontent, a good thing to do is to go through the Ten Commandments and Martin Luther's explanation of them (or any other great Christian teacher's explanations of the Commandments), to hit our knees, to repent for our violations of each commandment, and to experience the forgiveness that can come to those who pray in Jesus' Name.

In other words, revival begins when we honestly and forthrightly heed Jesus' call to repent and believe in the good news that God so loved the world that all who entrust themselves--including their sins--to Him will not be separated from God for eternity, but have everlasting life.

The joy that comes to people who are reconciled with God through Christ causes them to want to share that revival that comes from God with others. They're like Peter and John, early followers of Jesus who were ordered by religious authorities to stop telling others about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and the good news of new life given by all who turn to Christ. In the face of the threats, they said, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

Having personally experienced the forgiveness and new life they knew that the crucified and risen Jesus wanted to give to all people, Peter and John felt an overpowering need to share Christ with others. "This Jesus," they told the religious leaders who threatened them, "is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:11-12).

Once revival starts to happen inside of you, it's bound to show up outside of you, and nothing and no one can stop it...not even you yourself. "If you're happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it..." as the Sunday School song puts it.

But it's this precise insight that ought to rouse our holy discontent...and our concern. As Tom Phillips writes in his 1995 book, Revival Signs: Join the Spiritual Awakening:
People today want to know about Christ more than Christians want to tell them about Him.
This sad state of affairs is even worse today than it was when Phillips wrote those words fifteen years ago.

A Florida pastor gains national prominence not because he and his flock are sharing the good news of Jesus, or because they are repenting and experiencing the revival the Holy Spirit sends to people who humble themselves and repent in Jesus' Name. Their prominence comes from touting a plan to burn the Koran, an act irrelevant to their mission as a church and hardly expressive of the gentleness and reverence with which we Christians are told to share our faith. Meanwhile, the world is desperate for the revival only Jesus can bring!

A denomination, which has shrunk by over a million members and 1000 congregations in the past twenty years, my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), becomes more involved with lobbying the government in Washington and the acceptance of heresies designed to court the favor of the world while ignoring the will of God, than it is with sharing Jesus. (Of course, it can't credibly share Jesus anyway, so long as it remains rebellious against Jesus and against God's revealed will in God's Word.) Meanwhile, the world remains desperate for the revival only Jesus can bring!
But we shouldn't give in to hopelessness! There's no good reason to do so. After all, in Christ, we know that God is bigger than all that daunts us or threatens to rob us of the joy Christ came to give to us. We need to pay attention to our discontent and bring it to God.

Discontent among Christians can lead us to repentance and to renewal, which in turn can lead us to share our faith in Christ with others. Jesus' plan all along has been to use people desperate for Him and so desperate in their love for others that they will obey His great commission--to make disciples of all nations, to lovingly woo others into a relationship with Christ.

The person who lets God into their lives through worship and fellowship with Christ's Church, personal confession, regular Bible reading, grateful reception of Holy Communion--Christ's body and blood--each time it's offered, and intercessory prayer for others, can experience revival.

It will happen first in themselves.

And then, through the Holy Spirit, they'll follow Scripture's direction to "always be prepared to make [a defense of their faith in Christ] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." And they will be able to do it "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15-16).

In his phenomenal little book, The Church God Blesses, Pastor Jim Cymbala writes:
Every revival in church history has been started by pastors and believers who became deeply dissatisfied with the moral and spiritual climate around them. They knew from Scripture that God has something better for his people. All the great missionary movements have been spawned by men and women who became desperate to see God's kingdom extended to new regions and to those who had not yet heard about Jesus. In fact, every time people really pray, they are believing that God by his divine power can change what is into something better.
Do you feel discontent with yourself, your family, your church, your community, our world?

Turn to God. Trust in the God Who makes this promise to those who want Him:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 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. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:6-10)
  • Confess. 
  •  Trust. 
  •  Pray. 
  •  Get to know God better through God's Word, the Bible. 
  •  Share the good news of new life through Jesus. 
 Revival can happen. Every Christian should want it to happen.

Are you content with the way things are or do you long for the better--and everlasting life--God wants to bring to all people? God can answer the prayer that many of us sing on Pentecost Sunday, when we ask the life-giving breath of God to make life new, to revive us, through Jesus Christ:
Spirit, Spirit of gentleness
Blow thro' the wilderness
calling and free.
Spirit, Spirit of restlessness
stir me from placidness
Wind, wind on the sea
We dare not be placid! There's a dying world that needs new life. God is looking for people who will daily surrender to Christ and ask God for nothing more than the privilege of sharing the new life that comes from Christ with others.

Revival can start within us and take in all the world. May our prayerful surrender to Jesus Christ be the start of a new great awakening!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It Starts with the Basics

The planet is in a human-made mess--politically, relationally, economically, environmentally. Most people go through each day with no hope for their futures, earthly or eternal. How can things change? How can we change? Two Biblical passages have struck me today while studying for the Sunday sermon:
[God says:] "...this is the one [the person] to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at My Word" (Isaiah 66:2). [emphasis mine]

Proverbs 9:10 says: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." 
Humanity is out of whack, in part, because we don't acknowledge the fundamental fact of the universe: God is God and we're not. An honest acknowledgment of this foundational truth will lead us to desperation and, if we are willing, it can lead us to entrust our lives to the only One Who can erase the power of past sins and overcome death for us: the God made known to all people in Jesus Christ.

Of Himself Jesus says: 
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:16-18).
Put down your dukes! Quit fighting off the love, life, forgiveness, and hope that you need and that God wants to give to you. Embrace the life Jesus Christ has in mind for you. Be honest and tell Jesus, "There's more fear of the world in me than there is fear of You. But I've tried life without you, the world is still trying it, and it's clear, that way of life does not work. Faith is foreign to me, but I am willing to believe--to trust--in You, Jesus. That willingness is all I'm capable of giving to You right now. But I am desperate for You and the blessings that the Bible says only You can give. I hand You my desperation and ask You to turn it into faith. Take away my fear of the world and help me to fear only You."

I pray a prayer like that every day because faith--trust--in Christ doesn't come naturally to me. I need the God Who is bigger than me.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Self-control is the key to accomplishing anything in life and I am convinced that it only lastingly belongs to those who daily surrender their wills to Jesus Christ"

Today's installment of Our Daily Bread contains a favorite story of mine from the life of Dwight Eisenhower, who is one of my personal heroes.

The story recounted is one Ike told in his wonderful personal memoir, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. If you haven't read this book, treat yourself and do so soon!

Galatians 5:22-23 says that self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit which Christians receive through their relationship with Jesus Christ. Daily repentance and renewal in the Name of Christ can bring this attribute into our lives and in turn, help us to live more productively, as well as more faithfully.

The section of Proverbs on which the Our Daily Bread piece is based is a particularly favorite part of that Old Testament book for me. 

Proverbs 16:21b rings so true! We are far more likely to gain a hearing for our ideas and more apt to listen to the ideas of others when we engage in "pleasant speech." That means, I think, speaking the truth in love, as the New Testament counsels.

V. 25 is an important bit of wisdom, next to which I've written this in one of my Bibles, attempting to put the passage in my own words: "Don't rely on your intelligence, but on God's revealed wisdom." 

V. 26 makes me smile every time I read it. My margin note there says that "hunger" is the "prod in productivity." I don't know whether I read that somewhere or if it just struck me, but it's rooted in what God revealed to Solomon here in any case.

V. 28 reminds us that gossiping is contrary to God's will and that it is incredibly destructive.

V. 32 is the passage on which the Our Daily Bread piece is especially built. Those who allow the God revealed in Israel and ultimately, in the Person of Jesus Christ, to conquer their anger, are those whom God can use to make a difference with their lives. In a very real sense, the good accomplished by Dwight Eisenhower--whether it was the destruction of Nazi Germany, the passage of the first Civil Rights Law (1957) in more than ninety years (over the objections of Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson), playing hardball with the US military in which he formerly served to ensure that President Truman's integration of our Armed Forces was a fact and not just an executive order, or instituting the interstate highway system--accomplished so much good because he had control of his volcanic temper and could therefore work with anybody. 

This was valued in Eisenhower; today, it seems, at least those who are the most angry and who garner the most attention, irrespective of their ideologies, prefer political leaders who give vent to their anger, rather than being persons of self-control who can work with those with whom they disagree.

Another of my personal heroes, George Washington, also learned self control over not only his temper, but also his impulsiveness. He therefore achieved great things. (In fact, I once heard historian Garry Wills say that Washington was the greatest political leader in human history.) 

Self-control did not come to Washington naturally. As a young colonial officer, he incurred justified condemnation for leading his men into a precipitate, ill-conceived battle, resulting in many unnecessary deaths. But Washington learned from this tragedy. His faith, an underestimated aspect of his life as pointed out in my favorite Washington biography, that by Richard Norton Smith, no doubt played a role in Washington's famed self-control and ability to get along with others. 

Washington could still let loose with his anger in his more mature years. But at that time, it always seemed targeted, dealt for a purpose. He needed every ounce of self-control he could find to hold the Revolutionary Army together through a long war of attrition with Great Britain, then the greatest military power in the world, for example. 

He demonstrated this same self-control when on two occasions, he squelched attempts to make him  king of the newly independent United States. The first occasion came when he went back to Mount Vernon after the war, when many in his army and not a few in the country at large, conspired to put Washington on an American throne. (When advised before the end of the war that Washington planned to refuse kingly power and instead, go back to farm in Virginia, British king, George III said. "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.") 

Again, when Washington was almost forcibly made president in order to hold the infant republic together, many suggested that he should become king. But again, Washington demurred and went back to Mount Vernon to take up private life at the end of two terms.

Self-control is the key to accomplishing anything in life and I am convinced that it only lastingly belongs to those who daily surrender their wills to Jesus Christ. 

Paul writes in Romans 8, that believers are "more than conquerors" through the God Who has loved us through the crucified Savior, Jesus. This isn't an invitation to arrogance or triumphalism; Christians know that our only boast is the goodness of God that comes to us as gift of grace through Christ. But Paul is saying that all who trust in Christ, also share in Christ's victory over our death-dealing egotism, our sin, and our death.

V. 33 may seem strange to us today. But in Biblical times, believers would ask God's guidance over particular decisions before them, then cast lots in the belief that God would answer their prayers, and tell them what they should do. Whatever the process we use to lay our needs before God and even if we make bad decisions with good intentions, the believer in God knows that in the end, God, not us, is the ultimate decider.

'Today is a New Day'

[That's the title of a fantastic message presented by my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot. It's worth the time it will take you to read it. Glen is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois. You can receive his daily emailed inspirations by going to this web site and following the prompts.]
Today is a new day!

Yesterday is over. Yesterday does not matter.  It does
not matter how often you messed up.  It does not  matter
how badly you messed up.  The past is past.  There is
nothing you can do about it, other than learn from it
and let it go.

It is essential that we learn to let go of yesterday. 

Joyce Chapman wrote...

    If you're still hanging onto a dead dream of
    yesterday, laying flowers on its grave by the hour,
    you cannot be planting the seeds for a new dream
    to grow today.

We have to let go.  Paul understood this.
He wrote to the Philippians...

    This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind
    and straining forward to what lies ahead.
    Philippians 3:13 NRSV

That does not mean we should forget good memories. 
We want to treasure those good memories in our hearts
and minds forever.   It does not mean to forget lessons
learned. Those lessons will keep us from making the
same mistakes over and over again.  Gary Marshall said...

    It's always helpful to learn from your mistakes
    because then your mistakes seem worthwhile.

Let go of all the things from yesterday that drag you down.
Let go of all the things from yesterday that hold you back.
Let go of all the things from yesterday that cause you
    shame and embarrassment.
Let go of all the things from yesterday that cause
    you guilt.
Let go of all the things from yesterday that leave
    you with regret.

Today is a new day!  Let us join with the Psalm writer
and say...

    This is the day that the LORD has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
    Psalm 118:24 NRSV

We can let go of yesterday's guilt and regrets. 

We can let go of guilt and regret because Jesus has
taken our guilt and regret with him to the cross at
Calvary.  Jesus has set us free.  We are forgiven. 
The slate is wiped clean.  God said through the
prophet Jeremiah...

    These people that I've saved will start out
    with a clean slate.
    Jeremiah 50:18  The Message

We have a clean slate.  Every day we can make a fresh
start and a new beginning.

There are some clergy that who will tell you that God is
keeping a record of everything wrong you have ever done,
ever said or ever thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Satan might be keeping track, but not
God.  Instead, God speaking through the prophet
Isaiah, says...

    I, I am the One who erases all your sins,
    for my sake; I will not remember your sins. 
    Isaiah 43:25 NRSV

God erases all our sins. God no longer remembers our
sins.  If God has let go of our sins, surely we too
can let go instead of being crippled by guilt and regret.
Today is a new day!  Let us join with the Psalm writer
and say...

    This is the day that the LORD has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
    Psalm 118:24 NRSV

The Father celebrates when his children come home.
So welcome home! 

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, the
younger son asks for his inheritance early. After
he receives it from his father, he takes off to a
foreign and exotic land.  He is the life of the party
until his money runs out.  Then he is stuck with the
lowest of the low jobs for a Jewish man:
feeding the pigs. 

Luke tells us that suddenly it dawned on him that his
father's servants have it better than he does.  So
he decides to go home.  He rehearses his apology to
his father and even offers to give up the rights
of a son and instead be a servant.

What kind of reception does he get? Jesus tells us...

    But while he was still far off,
    his father saw him and was filled with 
    compassion; he ran and put his arms around him
    and kissed him.
    Luke 15:20 NRSV

Joy, celebration, compassion and love - that was
his father's reaction to his homecoming.  The father
welcomed him home, not as a servant, but as the long
lost son who has come home.  The Father explains...

    Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine
    was dead and is alive again; he was lost and
    is found!
    Luke 15:23-24  NRSV

What did the father and all of his household except
the older brother do?

    And they began to celebrate.   
    Luke 15:24 NRSV

Our Father in heaven is filled with joy, compassion,
and love when any of his wayward children come home. 
When we come home, it is a time for celebration.
When we come home, it is party time.

So, believe that you can make a fresh start and do it. 
That is what God offers to us.  Paul writes...
    Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone
    united with the Messiah gets a fresh start,
    is created new.
    2 Corinthians 5:16 The Message

It does not matter what has happened in the past. 
You can have a fresh start, a new beginning.  Paul
explains further...

    If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation.
    The old things have gone; everything is made new!  
    2 Corinthians 5:17  NCV
The old is gone.  Everything is made new.  You can make
a fresh start.

A sculptor ruined a huge piece of beautiful Carrara marble.
It was left in the courtyard of the cathedral in Florence,
Italy, for almost a hundred years. Artisans thought it
was beyond repair.

In 1505, a young sculptor by the name of Michelangelo
was asked if he thought anything could be done with
"The Giant." He measured the block and carefully noted
the imperfections caused by the bungling workman of an
earlier day. To his mind came the image of the young
shepherd boy David. He carefully made a sketch of that
biblical character as he envisioned him. For 3 years
he worked steadily, his chisel skillfully shaping the
marble into a beautiful towering figure, 18 feet high
and weighing 9 tons.

Beginning fresh often is a product having the vision
to see beyond the ordinary and into the extraordinary.
The Bible is full of stories of people and nations who
were able to envision what could be. 

Hara is a mother and recovering addict who has been
incarcerated multiple times on drug-related charges.
"I never committed a crime sober," she says. She used
alcohol and drugs on and off for 22 years to help her
cope with a very painful life.

Hara has made a fresh start. You can too. On February
20 this year, Hara was released from prison. Again.
This time, though, she was determined to do something
different. To help her in her quest for a new life,
she sought the help of Connections, a program of
Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. Connections
works with incarcerated women and their families,
as well as women re-entering the community following

The Connections staff knew that Hara was serious
about change and willing to work at it. The people
at Connections went to work helping Hara in her
transition from prison to the free world.

The staff helped her get a bus pass, put together
her resume and find work.

Hara, who is in recovery from her addiction,
insists that there are people like her who want
to change. And that once they're able to change,
they can reach out to others who are struggling
-- in a way that others who haven't been through
these hardships just can't.

That's exactly what Hara does. While going to college,
she works at Project Success, which helps people,
including those recently released from prison, make
a way to go to college.

She's also a volunteer for the Department of Women's
Justice Services, part of the Sheriff's Department.
A passionate speaker, Hara talks to incarcerated women,
women on furlough, social workers, youth and church
groups.  She tells those just getting out of prison...

    Never give up. Whatever your problem is,
    I say it's not who you are.     You can change.
    You can start life over. 

Today is a new day!  Let us join with the Psalm
writer and say...

    This is the day that the LORD has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
    Psalm 118:24 NRSV
It is time for a fresh start and a new beginning. 
Will you make one?