Archive for the ‘Holy Spirit’ Category

Helping those in need

Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. —Proverbs 28:27*

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on US and global economies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed for varying pandemic-related reasons. The food service industry here at home has been hit particularly hard.  Thousands of restaurants have closed, with most having no hope of reopening. The middle class is shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have nots. History has demonstrated that as the middle class shrinks and the lower class grows, civil unrest often increases.

To survive, many American families have had to dip into retirement savings, placing the future in question.  When savings are exhausted, losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  The ability to pay a big mortgage, something common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of both spouses.  If even one of them loses their job, foreclosure becomes a distinct possibility! To stay afloat they must negotiate with lenders, which in the long run usually means increasing the size of their mortgages and/or tapping into short term savings and retirement accounts. Early retirement withdrawals are usually accompanied by additional fees.

On top of pandemic problems, even before COVID-19 economic globalization had given rise to thousands of large companies that are loyal to neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers, especially blue collar ones, are increasingly being treated like disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table. Highly educated and skilled working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I heard many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This can and must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when those affected are members of the church. Many churches have lost touch with early traditions. The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tell us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

Even clearer instruction comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential to serving those in need outside the church.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop outreach ministries. One way for small groups to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in their church’s local area.  Charities are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.  The closest ministry filed for any church is the one inside its doors. The largest ministry field for every church is the one just outside the church doors.   

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. —Proverbs 19:17

*All Bible quotes are ESV.

The joy of the Lord

The Joy of the Lord

If you’re a user of Facebook or YouTube, you’ve probably seen videos of military service members who have been on deployments reuniting with family members.  These are moments of pure joy and happiness.  They seem to say, “everything is going to be OK now.” This type of joy is a wonderful mountaintop experience, but it is fleeting.  It’s simply not possible to sustain such temporal joy, but there is another type of joy that’s eternal.  

Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.  Karl Barth

Did you ever meet somebody you just knew was a Christian without being told?  There are some people whose face and disposition simply can’t hide the joy of Christ that dwells inside them. Often, this kind of person will invite you to visit their church. Christians want to share their joy with others. They are thankful for the joy that dwells within.  In Galatians 5:22, the Apostle Paul calls joy a fruit of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 2:3, Paul describes how he wants to share his joy with the people of the young church in Corinth.

Describing Christian joy to a non-believer can be difficult. When I was a young captain serving in the Army, I had a battalion commander who assigned me a special project.  I listened to his instructions, but they weren’t clear to me.  I asked specifically what sort of product he expected me to give him when I had completed the project. His surprising response was, “I’m not sure, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Christian joy is like that, you’ll never fully understand it until you’ve experienced it.

Joy may include happiness, but happiness is not a precondition for Christian joy.  The Apostle Peter describes joy as gladness not based on circumstances (1Peter 1:8-9). Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:4, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.”  Clearly, Christian joy does not depend on being happy.  It is founded in the assurance that:

  • Jesus has paid for all your sins, past, present, and future.
  • You have been freed from the power of sin and can choose to obey.
  • You live under God’s grace and mercy.
  • You are an adopted child of God.
  • You have eternal life.
  • God knows you by name and hears your prayers.
  • You are part of God’s church family and joined by the Holy Spirit to fellow Christians.

In Romans 15:13 Paul says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joy and peace are yours for the taking if you will put your trust in God today.

Doxology: To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.  –Jude 1:24-25

A perpetual communion with God

Do you love God?  Do you know God’s son, Jesus Christ?  Do you spend time with him daily? Revelation 22:4-5 shows us a picture of the saints in heaven enjoying a “perpetual communion” with God, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”  While this passage in Revelation paints a picture of the future, the perpetual communion it describes is available to Christ followers today. But how do we get there?

In the hustle and bustle of today’s busy, fast-moving life it can be easy to pass an entire day without having even a single thought of God. At least this is true for me and I suspect many others will recognize it as true.  So how does one achieve perpetual communion with God today?  Here’s a clue.  One of the things I admire about Muslims is their commitment to the daily prayers. Practicing Muslims pause to pray five times a day. The pause for prayer is a chance to center one’s self and refocus on their god.  The prayers go like this:  

  • First: This prayer starts off the day with the recognition of God; it takes place before sunrise.
  • Second: After the day’s work has begun, one breaks shortly after noon to again remember God and seek His guidance.
  • Third: In the late afternoon, the faithful take a few minutes to remember God and the greater meaning of their lives.
  • Fourth: Just after the sun goes down, one remembers God again as the day begins to come to a close.
  • Fifth: Before retiring for the night, the Muslim faithful pause to remember God’s presence, guidance, mercy, and forgiveness.

Whether or not you’re a Muslim, such a daily prayer schedule that keeps one focused on God is a wonderful idea. Abraham was the father of both Islam and Judaism.  In Genesis 17, God appeared to Abraham and “spoke with him,” announcing the Covenant of Circumcision. Genesis chapter 5 list Adam’s descendants down to Noah. Speaking of one descendant who was named Enoch, verse 24 says, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not for God took him.”  

The meaning of this cryptic passage has been heavily debated by Bible scholars. Did Enoch physically walk with God?  Was he taken up to heaven without dying?  The New Testament holds a clue. Hebrews 11:5 says, “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken, he was commended as having pleased God.” 

It appears that both Abraham and Enoch literally met God—stood in His presence while they lived on this Earth—pretty special to say the least.  Even so, they could not have seen him face to face. Moses too had a literal meeting with God. God spoke to him in Exodus 33:20, saying, “…you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”  Exodus 33:23 goes on to recount how God physically passed by Moses, showing him his back.

Like Adam and Eve before them, Abraham, Enoch and Moses were blessed to have physically communed with God.  I can’t help but think how easy it would be for me to live in perpetual communion with God if I could physically meet him. God doesn’t make it that easy, however.  As Jesus tells the Apostle Thomas in John 20:29, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

What moves someone to believe without seeing. From Jesus’ own words spoken to “doubting Thomas,” we can extrapolate that developing a perpetual communion with God requires faith. The renowned Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said, “The mystery of God is not in what is going to be, it is now…Realize that the Lord is here now, and the freedom you receive is immediate.”  Communion with God leads to liberation—being set free from the cares and worries of the day. How can one achieve this liberation? As Chambers suggests, we must first recognize that God is here now! 

How is such a close communion developed?  Unlike justification, which Luther explained is achieved “through faith alone” (sole fide), developing a perpetual communion with God requires more than faith.  It requires hard work. This work takes two forms: studying the Scriptures and praying without ceasing, as Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. We cannot truly come to know and understand God without committing ourselves to studying the scriptures, for they are the revealed word of God. Prayer is also essential.  Psalm 143 suggests we should begin each day with prayer: “Let me hear of your loving-kindness in the morning, for I put my trust in you.”

With respect to praying, one often overlooked aspect of prayer is extremely important to developing a perpetual communion with God—praying requires listening!  We need to take time to be silent and listen for the voice of God. God is with us.  His name is Emmanuel. Start getting to know Him today and begin the hard work of developing a perpetual communion with Him.  

Amazingly, the Creator and Ruler of the universe wants to spend time with you so that you can know Him better. It’s as if He is saying, “I want you all to Myself for a little while.” Take Him up on the invitation to get away to a quiet place and learn about Him.  –Dr. Charles Stanley

The tough work of prayer

Prayer is like a battle. The enemy is constantly placing barriers in your way to keep you from reaching your final objective.

Life is a series of continual distractions that make it difficult to find time to commune with God. Even if one manages to slip away to a quiet place for a few minutes, odds are they will find themselves distracted by thoughts about what lies ahead in their day or week. I’ve heard so many people complain, “My days are so busy I just can’t find time to pray.”  In reality, if you have a busy day ahead you can’t afford not to pray. Paul’s epistle to the Church at Philippi says:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:6-7

This is tough advice!  Who, after all, is not anxious about something, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?  And how difficult is it to present your prayers to God with thanksgiving in every situation? “Dear God, I thank you for allowing me to crash my car into that tree yesterday.”  Prayer is tough work indeed.

The nation has just gone through a painful, extraordinarily divisive presidential election process. The political rhetoric is still turned up to near the boiling point. Political disagreements have resulted in many friendships ending and have even caused divorces. Sometime it feels like the entire world has gone mad amidst the name calling, threats, riots, burning and looting. Many politicians will tell you that they have the answers to all our problems, but they don’t. Only God can fix this mess!

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  —Psalm 121:1-2

More than any time in recent history, America’s Christians need to join together in praying for our nation and those whom have been elected to serve. So, what about that politician from the “other” party?  Should you pray for him or her?  “God, please help this idiot to see how wrong he is.”  Well, not exactly.  You can certainly pray that the Holy Spirit would convict the individual politician to make decisions that honor God, especially politicians who profess to be Christ followers.   

If you have a beef with a particular politician—get over it.  I don’t mean this in the traditional fashion that contemporary culture says “get over it.”  I mean that, as Christians, we are obliged to forgive those who have trespassed against us, just as we pray to God to forgive us our own sins.      

“In Jesus, we experience freedom not only from sin and its hold on us but also from guilt, shame, worry, Satan’s lies, superstitions, false teaching, and eternal death. No longer hostages, we have freedom to show love to enemies, walk in kindness, live with hope, and love our neighbors. As we follow the Holy Spirit’s leading, we can forgive as we’ve been forgiven” —Patricia Raybon, Our Daily Bread

Now here’s where it really gets difficult.  Not only are we told to “forgive as we’ve been forgiven,” but in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to love our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. —Matthew 5:43-45

Is there a politician or other leader whose behavior absolutely disgusts you?  If so, think of that person, then pray for him or her. Really!  Pray that God will soften their heart.  It they profess to be a Christian, ask God to fill them with the Holy Spirit.

Since 2001, The Presidential Prayer Team has been the source thousands of Americans have turned to for encouragement and inspiration to pray for America’s leaders. It is a non-partisan organization.  I encourage you click the “About Us” link below to visit their website and sign up for the daily prayer alerts.

A Prayer for Good Leaders

Father God, good leaders, come from you. Lord, this nation needs leaders with discerning hearts and wise minds. I beseech you today asking you today to give us wise leaders that will lead this nation in the right direction. Remove wrong people that are corrupt and living against your word from influential positions. Let our leaders be people who honor your holy name for it is only from you that they will get true wisdom. It is in the mighty name of Jesus that we believe and pray, Amen. —Anonymous

Rooted in the Word

Rooted in Christ

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Colossians 2: 6-7

My wife and I lived near the Chesapeake Bay in the Hampton Roads area of southern Virginia for over seven years.  During our time there the region was struck by four hurricanes and a tropical storm.  All the storms caused great destruction of trees, as most trees in the area are evergreens, including many pine trees which have extremely soft wood.  Pine trees also tend to have shallow roots that run outwards near the surface of the soil.  We frequently saw massive pines that had snapped clean in two in the middle of the main trunk or ones that were blown down fully intact, because the roots were not deep enough to withstand the high wind.

Pine Tree Damage

We presently live in South Dakota, in the upper Great Plains.  To say it’s windy here would be a gross understatement. The average wind speed in our region is around 12 mph.  Days with 25-35 mph gusts are not uncommon. On the windiest days in the late spring and summer it’s fascinating to watch the hardwood trees in our backyard swaying to and fro in a mesmerizing dance. Sometimes they appear ready to break in two, but they always stand up straight whenever a gust subsides.  One of the reasons hardwoods are strong is that, unlike evergreens, they have deep roots, an invisible support network that provides a firm foundation.  

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord  Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word.  –From the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”

Windblown trees are a wonderful metaphor for Christians. Everybody is shaken to and fro by fear and emotions at one time or another, but not all respond in the same way.  Some are like softwoods with weak, shallow roots and some are like hardwoods, with strong, deep roots. Christians need to cultivate strong roots in Jesus.  Each of us can grow and strengthen our roots through the Word of God.

The first chapter of the book of Genesis begins with the familiar words, “In the beginning,” painting an image of two forms of the triune God, the Father and the Holy Spirit:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  –Genesis 1: 1-2

Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John echoes the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning…”, and describes the preincarnate Jesus as “the Word of God,” who was there with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit at the creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.   –John 1: 1-5

During these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic, are your fears and emotions tossing you to and fro?  Do you find your faith being challenged? If so, then maybe you need to strengthen your roots in the Word of.   Immerse yourself in scripture today to cast out fear and emotions.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.  Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. –1Peter 5:6-11

*All Bible quotes in this post are from the NIV.

Distracted Living

Zombie ApocalypseHas the Zombie apocalypse begun!

We’ve all heard tragic stories about distracted driving, where someone texting on a cell phone lost control of their car and caused a great tragedy. When driving, it’s absolutely crucial to keep one’s eye on the road ahead.  The advent of the internet and subsequently cell phones has created millions of distracted people.  You’ve probably seen some of them sitting at a family dinner in a restaurant—all heads down, focused on their phones and no family interaction at all.  How very sad!

According to a January 2020 article in The Guardian, a study conducted in 2014 indicated that mobile phone users receive an average of 63.5 alerts every day, most viewed within minutes whether the phone is on silenced or not. A 2016 study by Deloitte corporation found that people checked their phones an average 47 times a day, often in response to alerts. Many people are bombarded by cell phone beeps, blips and buzzes nearly every waking moment.  These distractions can even continue through the night for those who sleep with cell phones by their beds.

Unfortunately, many Christians today suffer from another form of distraction—distracted living. Distracted living is a byproduct of other distractions and cares of this world, for example partying, obsessive fitness, substance abuse, emails, texting, internet browsing, social media, television, movies, sports, and many others that that steal our time daily.

The Bible story of Mary and Martha is a perfect example of distracted living (Luke 10:38-42).  Mary and Martha were the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. They were all beloved friends of Jesus. On one particular occasion, Jesus visited their home in Bethany. There were others present as well. Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him teach, while her sister Martha busied herself serving their guests. Martha became irritated with Mary and asked Jesus to send Mary to help her. Jesus responded with a mild rebuke, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Mary was laser focused on Jesus, while Martha was living a distracted life.

People with distracted lives may become easily agitated, they often feel overwhelmed, and they frequently neglect the essential “four-F’s” of things that really matter in this life—faith, family, friends and freedom.  Christians shouldn’t allow any of these areas to suffer neglect, but they must be especially cautious about neglecting their faith. Renowned Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said, “Starvation of the mind, caused by neglect, is one of the chief sources of exhaustion and weakness in a servant’s life.” Evidence of faith neglect often includes finding reasons to skip church, not finding the time to read and study scripture, not praying, feeling rushed while praying, and even sometimes falling asleep while praying.

Christian churches around the globe will soon begin commemorating the holy season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday (2/26/2020) and runs through sunset on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.  I blogged about this very special church season in February last year  (https://divinesimplicity.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/lent-a-season-of-penitence-and-prayer/).   

For Christians, Lent is traditionally a season of fasting, penitence and prayer. It’s a wonderful time for Christians to practice disciplines to help them reconnect with their faith.  One of my Lenten disciplines is to prayerfully read the Seven Penitential Psalms the first thing each morning during Lent. I also find a good Lenten devotional and read a morning devotion daily. A wonderful version of the Seven Penitential Psalms can be found at this link: http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/intro7penitentialpsalms.html.  Lutheran Hour Ministries provides a new series of daily Lenten devotions each year.  Beginning on February 26, they can be found at this link: https://www.lhm.org/dailydevotions/default.asp.  I encourage you to take part in a Lenten discipline this year and, if you’re leading a distracted life, begin turning your attention back to God.

The Joy of the Holy Spirit

christmas-2017

This is the month, and this the happy morn, Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King, Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born, Our great redemption from above did bring; For so the holy sages once did sing, That he our deadly forfeit should release, And with his Father work us a perpetual peace. —John Milton, from his poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’

The word Joy is a much-overused in secular communications around Christmas time.  One sees the word frequently on secular Christmas tree ornaments, gift wrapping paper, greeting cards and the like. Joy is an extremely important word for Christians; it appears frequently in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (NIV).

According to one Jesuit explanation of this, a fruit of the Holy Spirit is “an observable behavior in people who have allowed the grace of the Holy Spirit to be effective in them.”  With this interpretation, two things become clear.  First, the fruits of the Holy Spirit do not appear automatically once a person accepts Christ as his or her Savior.  To reap the fruits, we must surrender our right to ourselves and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.  Secondly, Christian joy is not the same as happiness.  Christian joy can be experienced in the midst of pain and sadness. In fact, James 1:2-3 (NIV) tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

In Philippians 4:4, the Apostle Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He penned this epistle from prison.   Some people confuse joy with happiness.  They are not the same.  Christian joy comes from within, while happiness stems from external sources.  I’m happy when my wife bakes her famous apple pie.  I’m joyful in the knowledge that Christ is my Savior. I can savor Christian joy even in difficult times, just like Paul writing words of encouragement from prison.

I recently visited a friend who is quickly approaching death. He’s the godfather of my children and a friend of over 35 years. While it was sad knowing I probably won’t see him again in this life, it was also joyful to know that he is secure in his salvation through Jesus Christ and we will see each other again in God’s eternal kingdom.  

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. —Luke 2: 10-11

My prayer for you is that you will allow the joy of the Holy Spirit to work in your life. May your heart be filled with the joy and peace of Jesus Christ during this Christmas Season and in the coming New Year!

What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart. —Christina Rossetti from her poem ‘In the bleak midwinter’

 

 

A Heart of Stone

Heart of Stone

Political discourse in America today has become vitriolic — constant lying, name-calling, bickering, accusations and spewing pent up anger. Indeed it has gotten so bad that even the president has joined the fray.  Social media outlets like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook only serve to exacerbate the situation, as they have become bully pulpits for angry politicians and journalists.  It’s gotten to the point where I dread looking at social media or reading/listening to the news, as there is a paucity of objective discussion and reporting everywhere. Personal civility and decorum in America is rapidly declining, particularly in the political realm.  

           Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.                                           –Proverbs 16:24*

 Words are like bullets—once they’re let fly there’s no taking them back. The Epistle of James calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).  By using this  strong comparison, James emphasizes that Christians must be mindful of the colossal power of what proceeds from their mouths.  The epistle goes on to note the inconsistency of praising God with one breath and cursing people made in God’s image with the next (vv. 9–10). Words can demean and destroy.

When you have learned to walk in the light of the Lord, bitterness and contention are impossible.”  —Oswald Chambers

This leads me to ask the question, “How radically would America change if suddenly all the politicians who profess to be Christians started behaving like Christ followers, becoming beacons of light in the dark political landscape?”

In January 2017, the New York Times reported that 91 percent of the new Congress identified as Christian.1 The Times went on to say that this figure was only slightly less than the 95 percent reported in 1961. Allmost all US presidents, including President Trump, have been Christians according to Pew Research.2

Christianity isn’t a label or tag; it’s a life, guided by the Holy Spirit, where an individual endeavors to be Christ-like in thoughts, words and deeds.  Inevitably, all Christians transgress and fall short of the glory of God along the way, but striving towards the ultimate goal of Christ-likeness remains a constant.

Restoration and transformation are two recurring themes in the Book of Ezekiel. Restoration is displayed in God saving the people of Israel from bad shepherds, giving them societal safety, reuniting tribes, and God’s children being restored to a right relationship with Him.  God’s ultimate restoration of his people is exemplified by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. 

On the other hand, Ezekiel describes transformation as a personal, spiritual experience. To the ancient Hebrews, the heart was the locus of a person’s being, their mental processes, emotions and personal will. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines hard-hearted as, “having or showing no kindness or sympathy for other people.”  In the passage from Ezekiel 36 below, evidence of spiritual transformation in God’s children is the softening of their hearts. 

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  —Ezekiel 36:26-27

One of those laws referred to in the Ezekiel passage is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus quotes this verse in Mark 30:5, after being asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” In the next verse, Mark 30:6, Jesus adds to this, “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”   

This brings me back to politics.  Christians who also happen to be politicians don’t get a free pass when it comes to loving their neighbors.  Christian politicians contributing to the Capitol Hill vitriol need to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves whether their actions glorify God. Are they being patient, humble, pure and obedient to God?

In Colossians 3:8, Paul tells us to put away anger, wrath, and malice; instead, he says in verse 12, we must, “…put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering.”  This is the model Christ gave his followers through many examples in his own life; it’s the model all Christians should strive to adhere to in their actions towards believers and nonbelievers alike.

Christian politicians should display a Christ-like heart—Ezekiel’s “heart of flesh.”  Christians behaving like Christ can bring real healing transformation. Around 312 A.D, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, Rome recognized Christianity as a legal religion.   This remarkable feat, going from persecuted underground church to a legal religion, recognized by the Empire, was accomplished not by violent revolution, but through years of adhering to the tenets of the faith while suffering terrible persecution.

It was not political or military power that ultimately convinced Rome to accept Christianity, but the perseverance and faithfulness to Christ’s teachings by the early Christians. The tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and longsuffering displayed by Christians prevailed over Roman cruelty and oppression. American politicians could achieve a lot by following their example.

 Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.  —from an Anglican Prayer of Confession

 1 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/03/us/politics/congress-religion-christians.html

2 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/20/almost-all-presidents-have-been-christians/

* All Bible quotes are taken from the NIV Bible.

 

Transformed not Conformed

Parthenon

The Parthenon (Temple of Athena) Athens, Greece

The lines between right and wrong are growing increasingly blurry in American society today.  Modern culture encourages us to be more accepting and inclusive. Our elected officials have passed many laws at the national, state and local levels that conflict with a Christian world view. Americans are bombarded with modern culture images, messages and social mores in the broadcast, cable, print and web news sites, as well as on the ever-increasing social media and other Internet websites.   

Despite the rapid social changes and pressures to conform, for matters of Christian faith and living the deciding question remains “what does the Bible say?”  When the Apostle Paul and Silas visited the city of Berea on a missionary journey, Paul preached the Gospel in the local synagogue, where it was received with great enthusiasm. Acts 17: 11 (NIV) says that the Berean Jews “…received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The Bereans recognized the authority of the Scriptures. Acts 17 goes on to tell us that as a result of Paul’s preaching there, many Berean Jews believed, as well as many prominent Greek women and men.

My wife and I are currently participating in a small group study examining the collision of Christian, Jewish, Roman and Hellenistic cultures during the ministry of the Apostle Paul.  Hellenistic culture was the pervasive Greek culture that influenced the entire Mediterranean region during Paul’s time.

Paul’s journeys led him to Corinth, a flourishing, modern Roman colony that Julius Caesar had intentionally populated with second rate Roman citizens, most of whom had failed in life while living in Rome. In Paul’s day, the city was wicked and corrupt, filled with prostitutes, crooks, swindlers and lowlifes. Corinth had a Jewish synagogue and Paul was eager to share the Gospel there.

Paul arrived in Corinth with only the possessions he was carrying.  Shortly after arriving, he met a Jewish, Christian married couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade and they owned a business in Corinth.  They took Paul into their business and invited him to live in their home, where Corinth’s first house church was established. 

Paul frequented the synagogue in Corinth, but met with much resistance from the Jewish leaders.  Growing weary of Paul’s message, these leaders eventually drug him before the local Roman proconsul Gallio in AD 51 and brought a series of charges against him. When Gallio learned that the dispute was about Jewish law and that Paul had not violated any Roman laws, he refused to judge the case and told the Jewish leaders to settle the matter themselves. Paul’s attempt to convert the Corinthian Jews failed.

After this, Paul turned away from the Jews in Corinth and took his message to the local gentiles.  Subsequently, many converted to the faith.  These converts included a high-level Corinthian leader named Erastus. The NIV translation of Paul’s epistle to the Romans refers to him as the “Director of Public Work” in Corinth. After Paul’s eventual departure from Corinth, he wrote to the Corinthian church, telling them that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). What a concept for people surrounded by pagan shrines and magnificent Greek and Roman temples!

Paul also journeyed to Athens hoping to spread the Gospel.  Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a city full of temples and idols.  There Paul had the opportunity to preach to the Areopagite Council (or Areopagus), a powerful, court-like body made up of Athenian aristocrats.  Despite Paul’s immense knowledge of the Scriptures and his skills in persuasive speaking, he failed to persuade the Areopagus. Paul failed to establish a church in Athens and departed the city in disappointment. 

Like Paul, Christians today will not always succeed against the tide of negative cultural change and influences, but they can remain steadfast in their beliefs without succumbing to cultural pressures. Paul succeeded in forming churches in some places and failed in others, but his approach was always based upon the same foundation—a deep knowledge of the scriptures; reliance upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and living in a manner that glorified Christ.

As Christians living in modern American society, we can learn a lot from Paul. We live in a culture filled with idols—people or objects we value more than God.  We may not literally bow down to these idols, but we worship them all the same.  Rather than existing as statues and shrines, today’s idols are more likely to adorn the covers of gossip and fashion magazines, make movies, play professional sports, or work in politics, i.e. modern cults of personality.  Some people idolize inanimate objects like money, expensive cars, exquisite homes, extravagant vacations, or their jobs. Others make idols of wealth, drugs, alcohol, cell phones, social media or Internet porn. I shudder to think what negative effects the advent of the sex robots will have on our culture. 

Today, in a world that’s filled with idols, Paul’s warning to the church in Rome is more relevant than ever:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good,  pleasing and perfect will.  Romans 12:2 (NIV)

J.B. Phillips’s, author of the bestselling book Your God is Too Small, paraphrases Romans 12:2 like this: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity”

Christians must let God’s spirit shape their lives, not the influences of modern culture. Let Colossians 3:12 (NIV) be your guide:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,  clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Christians in the early Church influenced the culture around them because they loved one another and cared for the sick, the homeless, orphans, widows, lepers and other disenfranchised members of society.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity didn’t occur through power and intimidation, but through weakness and self-sacrifice. Think about these words from Paul:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults,in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV)

Christians in America cannot stem the tide of the negative cultural influences that constantly collide with our lives and Christian world view, but we can focus on the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to shape our hearts and minds. In this politically charged era, we still have certain obligations to our laws and government that we must adhere to as the price for living in this great nation; but as  Jesus said, we must “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”  We must obey the laws of the land and work to change those laws when necessary, but we must not allow our Christian beliefs to be conformed to modern culture. In every situation, remember to ask, “What does the Bible say?”

 

 

Too much to pray for!

Prayer

Renowned Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said, ‘Prayer does not equip us for greater works— prayer is the greater work. Yet we think of prayer as some commonsense exercise of our higher powers that simply prepares us for God’s work. In the teachings of Jesus Christ, prayer is the working of the miracle of redemption in me, which produces the miracle of redemption in others, through the power of God.’

The older I grow, the more it seems like I have more to pray for than I can handle.  Is this is a common dilemma for Christians as they grow older?  I’d like to hear from readers who share the same or a similar problem.  

My prayer list is getting too long to manage.  It includes numerous categories including family (spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws and extended family members); friends; colleagues at work; clergy; those persecuted for their Christian faith; my church; my former churches; local leaders; state leaders; national leaders; military service members; and even the abused and missing children on the evening TV network news.  Where should I begin praying on a prayer like this?

 I’ve tried ‘checklist’ praying–simply going down the list and asking God’s blessing for each category, but that feels very hollow. I’ve tried lifting up specific prayers for everyone and everything on the list, but my ability to concentrate usually fails after five or 10 minutes into the prayers.  I’ve segmented my prayers to pray for one category at a time on my prayer list.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them (and us) the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. It’s a beautiful model for praying, but should not be the only prayer we pray; one of the purposes of prayer is simply for us to be with God and to listen and experience the glory of his presence. Our Lord’s prayer goes like this:

Our Father who are in heaven (recognition of God’s supreme authority in all creation),

Hallowed be thy name (affirmation of God’s perfect nature),

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven (a petition for God to restore the perfect order on Earth that he has intended since creation),

Give us this day our daily bread (recognition that God sustains us),

And forgive us our trespasses (a plea for God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ),

As we forgive those who trespass against us (an acknowledgement that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God and a reminder to forgive others),

And lead us not into temptation (a plea to God to spare us from testing, as Job, Jesus and so many Christian martyrs have been tested),

But deliver us from evil (protect us from Satanic forces),

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory forever, amen (a final acknowledgement of God’s supreme authority in all creation).

The Lord’s Prayer is a beautiful way to begin or end any prayer! 

St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (8:26-27) tells us, ‘…We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (NIV).’  I try to apply this wisdom when I’m feeling overwhelmed.  Sometimes my daily prayer is simply, “Holy Spirit, please pray for me and my family.”  I also pray this prayer for individuals, when I feel troubled about/for them, but I don’t know how to pray for them.

One thing I’ve learned is not to pray too much for myself.  When I do pray for myself, it usually entails asking God for forgiveness.  Psalm 51 and the Lord’s Prayer are my ‘go to’ prayers when I pray for myself. They are more than sufficient!

So how should we pray?  I would love to hear your comments and ideas on prayer. Please consider leaving a comment. 

To Be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.    —Martin Luther