Saturday, February 03, 2018

People with Purpose

"And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:17)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

If God wills it, it's NOT impossible!

This the journal entry from my quiet time with God earlier today. For me, what God said to me in His word today was powerful and important. It may be for you as well. But nothing can replace adopting the daily practice of quiet time with God for yourself. This message from a year ago will explain how I approach quiet time.

Look: “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” (Exodus 15:24-25)

Three days after the Lord delivered the people of Israel at the Red Sea, throwing the Pharaoh’s chariots and horses who had been chasing them, into the sea, we come to this verse. The Israelites are beginning to wonder where their water is going to come from out in the wilderness.

The people have short memories. None of them stop to think, “The Lord Who controlled the wind and waves to save us can also provide us with the water we need.”

Instead, they panic.

Not only that, they seem to forget any connection they have with God, despite having sung God’s praises just three days earlier (Exodus 15:1-18). They grumble to the man they think is in charge, Moses.

But while the people grumbled, Moses prayed.

Moses “cried to the Lord.” On that, God created fresh water for the people.

God is good at making ways where there are no ways, at opening up new possibilities, of doing “a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19).

Doubters grumble about what can’t be done.

Believers submissively ask God to do what they know only He can do.

At their best, believers remember that God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” (Ephesians 3:20) In fact, by living in the lifestyle described by Martin Luther of daily repentance and renewal, they seek to constantly remember God’s faithfulness. And in the sacrament of Holy Communion, they’s grateful to be re-membered to Jesus.

Listen: Of course, even the most fervent believers are sometimes doubters. That’s why I need to keep remembering God’s promises and God’s track record of kept promises.

Today, God extends His promises to all who believe in Jesus. Through Jesus and our faith in Him, we can know God as the One to Whom we can cry out like Moses did. Jesus says: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:7)

Jesus says that I can trust God enough to stop grumbling and to start praying: “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24)

The people of Israel were right in one sense. There was nothing they could do to get the water they needed. That was the reality. The problem was in their response to that reality: They grumbled instead of praying. Fortunately for them, Moses prayed for them.

When I think about the impossible things in my life, I can grumble, give up, become bitter.

Or I can pray to God in the name of Jesus, my God, Savior, and High Priest, Who died and rose for me.

When I pray like this, Jesus may help me get through the impossible; get around the impossible; give me the strength to endure; create a new path. I may die or I may live. I may suffer or get through without a hitch. I may be asked to sacrifice something of myself or I may be showered with miraculous provisions.

All of that is up to God as He works what’s best for my development as a child of God.

In any case, as I choose to pray--to submit, to surrender, to ask that God’s will be done, I learn the truth of Paul’s words: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8)

Respond: Lord, I need to pray and not grumble, to trust You to do the impossible rather than thinking about what I face that’s impossible.

I need to remember that if You will something, it is NOT impossible!

Give me boldness to trust in You with the things that seem impossible, Lord. Help me to remember Jesus’ words: “...with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

As I pray that, help me to not to fall into a “name it and claim it” heresy. You are not an ATM that dispenses goodies if I only believe it enough and say it enough. You are the sovereign God of all creation. As I pray to You, help me to genuinely surrender to Your will and Your will alone.

Prayer is, before it’s anything, submission to You. Help me to seek your kingdom first and above all else (Matthew 6:33). Help me to alter my requests to You as Your Word speaks to me and as I listen for the voice of Your Holy Spirit.

Above all, Your will be done!

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

On State of the Union Messages (Briefly...please)

Tonight's State the Union address, which I did not see, clocks in as the third longest ever.

This reminds me of a story about Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president. A noted orator, Wilson was lauded for his usually short speeches. A member of his cabinet asked him how long it took him to prepare his addresses.

Wilson replied: “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

That quote has often reined me in as a preacher and incited me (most weeks) to begin preparing early.

By the way, Wilson, despite his placid exterior, was a man of volcanic passions who could be as deeply wrong as he was stunningly right.

He was deeply wrong about race and the first "Red Scare" created by his administration.

He was right about what needed to happen in post-World War 1 to prevent a future global conflagration.

On this second issue, Wilson hurt his own cause by insisting that the agreement he brought home from France, the Treaty Versailles, be approved by the Senate with no amendments. His intransigence, which led to Senate rejection of the treaty, meant that the United States wouldn't play the positive role it could have played in the League of Nations toward preventing World War 2.

But on speech writing and delivery, he was a champ, which is why he became the first president since Thomas Jefferson, who loathed public speaking, to deliver the State of the Union address to Congress in person.

[By the way, I wrote about State of the Union messages and the need to get rid of their "Skutnik moments" twelve years ago here.]

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I haven't had a counter showing me the number of page views of my blog from its beginning. But since that became a standard feature for sites, it's been interesting to see the countries from which readers view it.

Below are two graphs. The first shows where recent hits have come from. The second shows the countries from which readers have logged on since the counter started.

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Freedom to Build Up, Not to Tear Down

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday.]

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
I once took some youth from a church I was serving on a Group Workcamps mission trip.

Youth and adults from all around the country converged on a site in a small city where, for five days, we worshiped, had group Bible studies, prayed, ate, tried to sleep, fellowshipped, and had a lot of fun. Most of our days were filled with going out with groups of six or eight on various service projects, each group composed of a mixture of youth and adults from various churches. The group of six youth I led spent part of each day at a local nursing home, where we interacted with residents.

Among the residents was a woman in her late eighties we’ll call Doris. She was usually congenial and fun. But on our second day, we discovered that Doris was an Olympic-class grudge-holder and that if anything reminded her of her grudges against, say, some of the nursing home employees, she would slip into a torrent of cursing until you moved her to another subject.

Some boys found it funny to set Doris off whenever they could. I have to confess that I said little to stop them when this happened and I even found Doris’ outbursts a bit funny myself.

But then another pastor told us, “You guys are egging Doris on. You need to stop.”

He was right. The boys were taking advantage of Doris in a way, giving permission to her tirades and taking God’s name in vain.

And I had just stood by. Even if Doris was no longer responsible for her own words, those who prompted her to sin and I who watched were guilty of sin. I repented.

Jesus says that we disciples of Jesus Christ, who have been saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus, are under a solemn obligation not to cause others to sin. "Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come,” Jesus says. “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:1-2)

Disciples of Jesus aren’t supposed to be moral vigilantes, telling others what to do and not to do. That was what the Pharisees of Jesus' day did. But no disciple of Jesus should ever want to cause other people to stumble into sin.

In today’s second lesson, 1 Corinthians 1:8-13, Paul shows us that Christians must also avoid tripping fellow Christians, those who may be less mature in the faith than we are, into behavior that, on its face, isn’t sinful. But the behavior may be sinful for that person weaker in the faith who look to us to provide them with a model of how to live as a Jesus-follower in everyday life.

Let me explain.

The first-century city of Corinth was rife with idol worship. People who worshiped false deities offered various foods to their idols.

After the offerings were made, there would be meals made of the food that had been sacrificed. Food prepared in this way was seen as continuing people’s worship of the idols.

Some of the food would end up going to people’s homes to be served in meals there. Even there, a connection to the idols would be retained in the minds of the families and guests who ate the foods brought from the sacrifice. Sometimes Christians would be invited to these meals, both those more mature in the faith and those whose coming to faith was more recent.

As Christians we know that all the little gods and godlets that people worship--from pieces of wood or stone to the forces of nature, from the money that the world bays for to the sex without marriage as ordained by God that many crave, from the accolades of the fickle crowd to lives of pleasure without purpose or accountability--all these idols and more are nothing.

Because the more mature Christians at Corinth knew that the idols worshiped in their town were nothing, they felt no hesitation about eating food that their idol-worshiping neighbors had brought from their places of worship. Food is food. Followers of Christ are free to eat any food that has come from God’s hand. (This does not include Tide detergent pods, which, it's feared, is a culinary rage these days!)

But in exercising their freedom, the Corinthian Christians more advanced in their faith, were confusing less mature Christians sitting at tables with them. These less spiritually mature Christians were converts to Christian faith. Christians teach and believe that there is only one God (one God in three persons). Their Christian mentors in the faith had taught them that, “You shall have no other gods before me” and that faith in Jesus is the only way to connect to the one true God of the whole universe. But these newer Christians wondered as they watched mature Christians eating food offered to idols if the teaching they'd received was true. Was the God they’d come to know through Jesus just one of many gods to be worshiped? It was confusing and risked seeing them fall into the sin of idolatry, carrying them away from God.

When the apostle Paul got wind of things, he was incensed. Look to our second lesson now to see what he wrote to the churches in Corinth, starting at verse 4: “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’...[then] there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

If you have your Bibles with you, you might want to underline or highlight the last few words in verse 8: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

“You have every right to eat that food,” Paul is saying. “But watch out that when you do it, you don’t cause those weaker in the faith or in willpower back into their old idolatrous habits.”

When Jesus Christ died and rose for us, He set us free from the harsh condemnation of the law, from works righteousness. He gives us the freedom to live.

But our freedom in Christ does not give us license to tempt others to sin, to put their eternal salvation at risk.

Look again at Paul’s words, starting at verse 10: “...if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”

The principle for us today? We need to avoid doing anything that harms another person's relationship with Jesus Christ or that lures them into sin.

You may say, “I would never do that.” Of course you wouldn’t do it intentionally. But the problem with us as disciples of Jesus is that we’re often unintentional about living out our faith.

Jesus calls us to use our freedom in Him intentionally for the good of others, whether they stand outside the faith or they are Christians.

So, for example, you and I know full well that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with drinking alcohol. (Beer is almost a third sacrament for we Lutherans. That's a joke.) Jesus drank wine and, despite the convoluted reasoning of some teetotaling Christians, we know that what He drank was real wine with a higher alcohol account than you or I would be accustomed to drinking. The Bible does warn against excess in drinking, but that’s it.

Nonetheless, I realized many years ago that although I was free to drink a glass of wine, I shouldn’t do it around people who I suspect or know have trouble with drinking. I don’t want to use my freedom to give license to others to engage in behaviors which would result in the sinful abuse of their bodies. Christ has set me free to love my neighbor, not to drive my neighbor away from Him!

In his essay, On Christian Freedom, Martin Luther writes: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

As disciples of Jesus, we are set free from the bondage of sin, the condemnation of the Law, and death.

Confident of God’s grace given to all who trust in Christ and of our place in His kingdom, we’re also set free from thinking about ourselves and our own desires all the time

We know that God has us in His loving hands, now and always, whatever happens. So we can think of others.

We can be intentional about sharing our faith with them.

We can be intentional about honoring Christ and loving and giving to others with no thought of being loved or of receiving in return.

And we’re free to think, “What can I do today or what can I avoid today to help a sister or brother in Christ grow strong in their faith? What can I do to draw them closer to Christ? How can be a faithful influencer for Christ in my everyday relationships?”

I invite you to do something this afternoon or tonight--there’s time, the only thing on TV today is the Pro Bowl and who cares about that?--and ask God to show you ways in which, this week, you can be an encouragement to deeper faith to your kids or grandkids or a Christian who’s newer to the faith.

Think of some Bible passage that might encourage them, that you could share with them.

After this reflection, jot some notes down for yourself, then seek out the opportunity to build others up in their discipleship.

This is we call "reaching in" at Living Water, the call to reach in to support and inspire our fellow believers.

It’s one great way we can use our freedom in Christ. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, January 29, 2018

Prayer Journaling Helps Us Face the Present and the Future

During my quiet time with God today, I was struck by this verse:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, 'Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.'” (Exodus 13:17)
God has just miraculously set His people free from 430 years of slavery in Egypt. They no longer would be owned by the Egyptians. They would be given their own land.

But God knows fallen human nature. He knows how habituated we can become, even to slavery. He knows that sometimes human beings opt for the horrors that are known over the risks of the unknown.

He also knows how readily we can forget God's past faithfulness, how easily are brains can be fogged over by nostalgia.

And God knows how easily we can change our minds when we face adversity or change in our lives.

God had answered His people's prayers: They were now free from the Egyptians, free to go to the land God had promised to Abraham's descendants centuries before.

When God has been faithful to us in the past it should encourage us to believe that He will keep being faithful in the present and in the future.

But that's not how the fallen human mind works.

When we're confronted with present risks, dangers, or terrors, we lose our memory. We forget God's past faithfulness and think that we're on our own, facing insurmountable difficulties.

Then we get nostalgic for days we falsely remember as idyllic.

That's what happened to God's people later in their wanderings toward the land God promised them. They forgot about how tough things had been in Egypt or how God had sustained them in slavery and then set them free. Instead, they pined for the past: "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." (Numbers 11:5)

God knows that if the people immediately faced adversities in claiming the land He had designated for them, they would turn tail and run, back to the known certainties of slavery. So, God decides to lead them by a more circuitous route, one which won't give the people an early reason for discouragement and one by which they will learn the importance of trusting in Him, even in situations in which they may have felt more in control.

There are things for which I have prayed for years. There have been times in those years when I felt like giving up on praying. But I've learned to keep praying because of my experiences with God answering those prayers in ways I never would have imagined. Or God has worked with me to show me that I needed to change what I was praying for.

There are still things I'm praying for and have been for a long time, things for which I may need to pray a long time still. In praying for them, I also need to ask God to help me pray not for the easy paths, but the faithful paths.

I need to ask Him to prevent me from looking on the past with nostalgia--which is fake history, but to instead see the past with clarity, including the times in which God sustained me through tough times, inspired me to believe, and fulfilled the promise that He gives to all who follow Jesus: "I will never leave you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5)

One way I try to remember God's past faithfulness as a way of sustaining my faith through the uncertainties of the present and the future is to keep a prayer journal. It has two columns.

In the left-hand-column is the date of the prayer and the prayer itself. I

n the right-hand-column is where things are at on any given date, including the final disposition of the prayer.

Often, I edit my requests as I sense God is leading me.

When a prayer request has been fulfilled, I highlight it with yellow.

If it seems that God has told me no (no is also a legitimate answer from God to our praying, incidentally), I highlight it with caramel.

Those yellow-highlighted prayer requests are reminders of God's power to do what I can't do.

Those requests colored in caramel invite me to learn what it means to truly pray, "Thy will be done."

(By the way, I also have items that are lilac-colored. Lilac is how I designate prayer requests I've sensed God calling me to make, often for people I've never met. I'm having this experience more often lately. I'll be getting ready for bed when the name of someone flashes into my mind, someone I don't know personally and know nothing about, someone I haven't seen anything about in years. I take that as God calling me to pray for that person. I don't need to know what their need may be; all I know is that God wants to be invited into that person's circumstances and that He wants me--and probably others to whom He communicates because God is always communicating with us if we'll just listen--to issue the invitation.)

In steering the Israelites away from immediate adversity, God was helping the people develop a deeper memory of His faithfulness, power, and grace.

The Israelites would subsequently by inspired to continued trust in God by telling the stories of God's past faithfulness.

We can be similarly inspired when we read God's Word, which records the promises God has kept and made, including the greatest promise ever made, that of the Savior Jesus, Who died and rose to give everlasting life to all who repent and believe in Him.

But we can further do this by keeping prayer journals, records of the prayers we've offered in Jesus' name and how God has answered those prayers. Such journals, over time, become personal records of God's faithfulness to us.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]