Monday, January 30, 2012

Superbowl Sunday Service Time

This coming Sunday, 2/5/12, is Superbowl Sunday. Our 5pm service would have spilled into kickoff time, and as a result, many in the church would not be able to attend services this Sunday. Because we can, we are moving the service up this Sunday only to 2pm, so now you can do both: worship the Lord and . . . not worship your favorite team, because one cannot love both God and mamman, right? Ok, enough making you feel guilty. I look forward to seeing everyone at this Sunday's 2pm Superbowl Sunday Service, where we will not discuss the Superbowl.

Knowledge + Love

You've heard the phrase, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” How true is that statement, especially when it comes to politics. It's true when it comes to religion, too, but whereas there seems to be no cure for the dangerous politico, there is a cure for the dogmatic. Love.

Knowledge of God is not a bad thing. Our Psalm tonight even expresses this, Psalm 111: Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. Knowledge of God, his kingdom, and his works, are very important in the Christian life. Jesus tells us in his prayer of John 17, that knowledge of God IS eternal life. Not that it GETS us to eternal life, or that it is the ROAD to eternal life. Or a tool to eternal life, or an element of eternal life. No, knowledge of God IS eternal life. Studying God is the best of things.

But in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul explains to us that knowledge of God may be eternal life for us, but knowledge of God without love for our neighbor may be death for our neighbor. Consequently, that is death for us, as Christ says, “Woe to you who causes one of your brothers to stumble.” As Paul says, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Knowledge helps our walk with the Lord, but love helps our neighbor's walk with the Lord. Just as when James tells us that faith helps our walk with the Lord but works helps our neighbor's walk. Faith without works is dead faith, because works is the proof of faith. Just so: knowledge without love is dead, because love is proof of knowledge.

As Paul says, anyone who claims to know something does not yet have that necessary knowledge. But when that same person loves God, his knowledge becomes more complete and helpful to his neighbor. I read a scenario by a commentator about this chapter in first Corinthians. Three Christians sit down to eat, and the first Christian asks the host if the meat has been sacrificed to an idol. The host responds, “yes.” The first Christian stops eating and lets his two friends know. The second Christian, having the knowledge that there are no gods but the one true God, laughs and continues eating. The idols are empty, they connect to nothing, no gods. The meat is not tainted, and so there is no harm in eating it. The third Christian has the same knowledge as the second Christian. There is not harm in eating the meat, BUT he has love of God in his heart, in addition to his knowledge, and so he stops eating, too, so as to keep the first Christian from stumbling. Because the first Christian believes that the idols are attached to gods.

Belief is as strong power. There are many times that if we believe we are cursed, then we suddenly notice strange things happening to us. Things that seem like the curse is real. There's a really interesting movie called Skeleton Key, and it's about hoodoo, which is like voodoo, which is bunk, but in the movie, the main character believes, and so the curses that are put upon her WORK. She is a captive to the curses, because she believed that they would have effect.

Outside of a movie, the curses work because of belief. There are many people who walk about in Haiti—whose national religion is voodoo—who believe they themselves are zombies—whose souls are possessed by others. Their belief has such a powerful hold on their consciousness, that they actually become zombies.

Well, this sounds psychosomatic. As Paul writes, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This is reality. There are no other gods. They do not exist. Idols are connected to nothing. So belief that causes effect seems like a psychosomatic symptom.

As Paul writes, “Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” In other words, some people have become so drastically brainwashed, that they cannot escape the false realities of how the world works. As Christians, we know how the world works, but there are Christians who believe the occult has power, and therefore are profoundly effected by occult practices.

Now the scene twists again, for although Paul is telling the truth and there are no such things as Gods, and all idols are false idols, here is some more knowledge to muddy the pool: there are unclean spirits. In our gospel passage, Jesus frees a man in the synagogue from an unclean spirit. Is this psychosomatic? Did Jesus practice some quick therapy on his brainwashed, deluded mind? Did he have a powerful concoction on hand—the earliest anti-depressant—that he slipped the guy, and he was cured? No. The scriptures don't lie. There was an unclean spirit. Not a chemical imbalance, an unclean spirit.

As a pastor once told me: a totem pole is just a piece of wood, but if you bow down to it, every evil spirit in the universe will race to attach itself to that pole. There are no such things as gods, but there are such things as spirits. In a way the first Christian is right. Even though there are no gods but God, there are evil spirits out there that try very hard to hinder all of our walks with God.

As C.S. Lewis writes, we should definitely be aware that demons and the devil himself exist, but we should not give them too much unwarranted attention. Let's not give them more power than they deserve. As it says in Mark 1:26, “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” The unclean spirits all listen to Jesus, so it may as well be that they do not exist. Demons should be seen as a minor annoyance. They may be a frustration, but they are not impossible for us to handle, because we have Christ. So, we've gone from the first Christian being wrong, because of lack of knowledge, to being right, because of the knowledge that unclean spirits exist, to being wrong again, because of the knowledge that the name of Jesus Christ is so powerful against unclean spirits, that they may as well not exist.

Christ called out the unclean spirits when he was among us, and so too, with the Holy Spirit now in our hearts, we, too, can call them out. In the name of Jesus Christ, I cast you out. Go back into the darkness from whence you came, and do not come back. In our collect today we prayed, “Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth.” God is in charge. We need to remember that. God is in charge. Knowledge of God without love of God puts us in God's place, we become puffed up, and we cause our brother or sister to stumble. Knowledge of God with love of God puts God back in charge. The knowledge is there so we know when to call upon his name and help our brothers and sisters in Christ through the trials and tribulations in their lives, even though they may not be OUR trials and tribulations. We know the nature of reality by studying God's word, and then build God's community on earth, here and now, through love.

Notice in the Mark passage that before the healing, Christ is teaching “as one with authority.” There is still some doubt as to whether he has the authority by the word “as.” After the healing, everyone is amazed. He teaches with authority. There is no “as.” He has the authority—there is no doubt. Knowledge plus love equals the authority of God. As we embrace the two aspects of true religion—knowledge of God and love of neighbor—let us remember that one of these without the other is empty, and both of them together contains the visible and understandable authority of God.

The Holy Spirit and Sin

In the sermon, "Do I Have It?," I wrote, "Our sin cannot be in the same room with the spirit—it cannot be in the same body. The weaker one is burned away, and the Holy Spirit is not weak." Now, because of Adam's original sin, we are inherently sinful. Even St. Paul said in Romans 6 that he himself is sinful by nature and does what he does not want to do. How can the Holy Spirit inhabit our sinful bodies if they are full of sin and the Holy Spirit cannot be in the same "room" with sin? No one is free of sin. The answer lies with grace. Just as when the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts through God's mercy and grace, so, too, the Holy Spirit remains in the same body with sin, constantly forgiving and constantly repairing the damage we do to ourselves through God's mercy and grace. When the Holy Spirit is in us, we are not immediately sinless, and we will never be completely sinless until the next world, but the transformative power of the Holy Spirit is working throughout our lives. As, I wrote earlier in the same paragraph: "The Holy Spirit is a transforming spirit. It is not merely enlightening or comforting. The spirit changes us into the image of God. We thirst to be like him and to cast off sin. When we get the Holy Spirit, our destructive lifestyles are cast away." This not an immediate or complete transformation, but it is noticeable. As John says in his first letter, if we say we do not sin, we are liars, but also if we say we love God and our lives are just depraved and rotten as they were before we met Him, then we are liars, too. We are not going to be perfect by any means, but there will be noticeable fruits of our walk with God, and noticeable fruits of the indwelling Spirit working on destroying our sins as we commit them and forgiving them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Romans Bible Study: Tuesdays at 7pm starting 1/31

"I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ--Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins and death." - John Wesley

God used the book of Romans to save a man, and this man was to go on and to touch the world. John Wesley, after he was saved, went on to be used by God to start a revival in the New England colonies of America that began to be such an inferno of revival--the blaze was so great that it's still known today as the "Great Awakening." And hundreds of thousands of people were saved. The awakening went over to Europe. One of the most amazing we see as we study the history of the Church--the past 2,000 years of Church history--is that most if not all of the great revivals and reformations and spiritual awakenings of the Church of Jesus Christ can be traced back to the book of Romans. That's significant. All through history when the Church has fallen into spiritual error and deadness, the Lord Jesus has brought the book of Romans to somebody's attention, and the result is that the Church bursts into life. Great spiritual awakenings have occurred whenever this book has been dusted off, opened, read, and understood. The power of the book of Romans is not just something that worked 2,000 years ago. The power of the book of Romans is something that can effect our lives today. If you're spiritually dry or dead, this book of Romans can quicken you, can cause you to come alive. If you're not a Christian, the book of Romans--if you read it and listen to it--you can't stand not being a Christian. You will become a Christian, if you listen to the book of Romans, and you begin to understand it.

Join us Tuesday nights, beginning on January 31, at 7pm at Grace Lutheran By-The-Sea for an in-depth study of the Book of Romans, and bring anyone you know who may have never heard St. Paul's letter and is in need of a spiritual awakening.

Board Game Friday at the Front Porch Cafe

Each Friday from 3:15pm until closing, a group of board gamers meets at the Front Porch Cafe in Nags Head to go head-to-head on many different kinds of abstract strategy games. These games are in the same vein as chess, but some are obscure, original, and all are quite fun. We have card games like Lost Cities, German games like those from the GIPF project, and beautiful wooden games like Cathedral and Quoridor. Don't expect to roll dice and press your luck. This is pure strategy, and it is a great opportunity for young people to develop their strategy minds with these brain-burners, especially in the winter months when “there's just nothing to do.” Please come to the Front Porch Cafe in Nags Head (Milepost 10 1/2, S. Croatan Highway) and join in the fun!

Toler's Treasures - Jan 2012

Did you know that the biggest pizza ever made was in Tallahassee, FL and it fed 30,000 people? You didn’t? We’ll, how about the fact that Coke was first bottled in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1894? Here’s one more. The longest sand sculpture (over 10 miles long) was built on Myrtle Beach in 1990. Oh the things you can learn after spending over 3,000 miles in the car…with 2 kids!

We pray that you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Thank you so much for praying for our family on our tour of the Southeast. It was such a blessing to reconnect with friends and family during the holiday season. As we settle back in to life here in Dallas, we look forward to our next semester of classes. We will be taking Second Language and Culture Acquisition, Cultural Anthropology, Field Methods, and Field Data Management. Once again, prayers are greatly appreciated! We continue to pray for you and thank God for your partnership in this ministry.

Please enjoy our attached January Newsletter.

In Christ Alone,

Kris and Susan Toler

Click here to read the January Newsletter

Monday, January 23, 2012

What Do I Say?

One of the biggest hurdles to evangelism, the thing that turns us away from doing anything the most, is when we think to ourselves, “What do I say?” When we think of opening our mouths to someone and preparing that perfect opening line, that icebreaker to evangelism, we lock up. We avoid confrontation altogether, even though it may not be confrontation at all. We are conditioned to think that any talk of religion is confrontational, so we don't even try. However, Jeremiah said the same thing to God in his first chapter. And God responded that he would give Jeremiah the the words to say. Be not afraid.

Jonah is commissioned twice by God to go to Nineveh. I want to compare the first commission of Jonah with the second commission, and see if we can get a better idea of how God gives us the words to say. Here are the two commissions:

Go at once
to Nineveh
that great city
and cry out against it
for their wickedness has come up before me

Get up
Go to Nineveh
that great city
and proclaim to it
the message that I tell you

The first commission is before the storm and the fish. The second commission is after the fish. What's so special about the fish? That's where Jonah repents of his sin, trying to run away from God's plan for his life. In the fish we hear the following in Jonah's prayer: “Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?””

So the second commission has the additional words, “get up.” Jonah was probably in temple on his knees when he got the second commission. We think that he was spit out by the fish and immediately dragged his stinky, fish-smelling self over to Nineveh. I think God gave Jonah some time to repent and get back into a routine of being a servant of the Lord, on his knees in the temple.

Nineveh is still a great city, but in the first commission, God lets Jonah in on the details of what he wants him to do: cry out against it—and the WHY: for their wickedness has come up before me. The second time, the Lord is not giving Jonah so much details. Like Jeremiah: when you get there, I will fill your mouth with words. Proclaim to it the message that I tell you. Jonah just needs to go and be God's mouthpiece, and he needs to not think so much. He needs to be in a more subservient role. He cannot know the details this time, because we have seen what he does with too much information. He runs away.

So, we, too, must not be too involved in the management of our evangelism. We know we are called to evangelize, and that is really all we need to know. God gives us the words to say when we get there, when we are face to face with our subject. If he gave us the what and the why before we set foot outside our homes, we probably would never leave our homes. We would stay in bed with the covers over our heads—our own personal Tarshish.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, God gives him the message to say: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The effect is astonishing. The whole city repents, including the king. Never has anyone been able to produce such an effect in a single day. This could only come from the power and grace of God. A SENSE of God filled the city. The simple phrase that Jonah spoke became a contagion—a virus that spread throughout the whole city until everyone was infected.

When we talk to someone in public, we shouldn't worry about what we say. When God's power and grace are behind our words, they will spread like a contagion. In our gospel reading, Jesus knows this, because he does the same thing: he merely says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That is not a very potent phrase in itself. I don't think I would be successful with that phrase in a coffee shop. People would just stare at me—or would they? If the power and grace of God were behind that phrase, perhaps I would be able to build up a following. It's all about having faith. Jesus knows the will of the Father, and he had no problem saying a mere, “follow me,” to Matthew. He didn't even include the second part of the phrase for Matthew. What would it have been? “And I will make you a taxer of men?” Matthew was already a taxer of men. All Jesus said to Matthew was two words: follow me. The power and grace of God did all the rest. Everyone immediately drops their nets or leaves their tax booths. They leave the stuff right there. They aren't worried that the stuff is going to get stolen. Sometimes Dad is left behind, too. Standing with the net in his hands, watching his sons run off with some guy. This is drastic stuff, and we aren't capable of making it happen. Only God is capable. He makes it happen, and when we have faith in him, he will give us the perfect phrase to say.

I was talking to a young man the other day, and I just couldn't figure out what to say to him. What do you do? He answered homework, and left it at that. Suddenly, it just popped out of my mouth: do you like music? Yes. What do you listen to? The Beatles. Me, too. The face lit up, suddenly he was accessible. Music is easy, but when was the last time we asked someone what their spiritual life was like? Do you believe in the supernatural? Do you believe in God? Sometimes just a phrase like that might be the opening. Maybe we should try that this week. Ask one person this week if they believe in God—obviously where you don't know what the answer will be—and see if the power and grace of God come rushing through the one phrase and leads the conversation into a contagious flurry that brings someone closer to Jesus.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Covered Dish Dinner This Sunday

Good Shepherd will be having a covered dish dinner this Sunday, January the 22nd. There is some Chicken Divan, carrots, and rice left over from our Ruthie's Kitchen meal . Plenty of bread and about 5 slices of apple pie and 5 slices of coconut custard pie. Fruit or salad would be a great addition to all of this. Please come and join in the fellowship!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ruthie's Kitchen Tuesday Evening

Church of the Good Shepherd will be the host of Ruthie's Kitchen this Tuesday evening (1/17/12) at His Dream Center (205 Baltic Street, Nags Head), in which all churches on the OBX participate to feed the homeless, poor, and hungry. Setup will begin at 4pm and dinner will be served at 5pm. I have written about how Christians desire to remove themselves from the world in order to not be stained by the culture's brush. The Apostle James says that this is only one half of what religion is all about. The other half is to visit the poor and needy in their affliction. The Christian cannot have one half of the equation without the other, and both are needed to practice true hospitality. Ruthie's kitchen will give us the opportunity to practice both outreach and upholding the truth in Christ. We hope you will want to join us in this expression of true Christian love.

Generational Healing

So, we are in the middle of a full-blown Healing Service from the Kenyan prayerbook. We usually replace the prayers of the people with healing prayers, but this is a new year, and I wanted to use the full service this time. There's so much richness there. Some things you may have noticed are the references to “ancestors.” We refer to God as, “God of our ancestors,” and he is the God of our ancestors. Why this focus in the healing service?

Well in Africa—and Kenya is part of Africa—there is an emphasis on ancestors, because a lot of these people came from cultures in which ancestral worship is a big thing, and the reason these tribes and cultures converted to Christianity is that the missionaries who served them were able to convince them that the one true God was the God of their ancestors and that their ancestors were not gods themselves. Translating scripture into the native language usually unlocks a passage, like Acts 17, that resonates powerfully with a culture. Once that transfer of allegiance is made, the reminder that God is the God of their ancestors needs to be repeated, for a reminder, just as everyone in the Old and New Testaments had to be reminded. How many times is God referred to as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob? Peter references the ancestors in our Acts passage. People back then understood God in context of the ancestors.

We don't have that issue in the Western world, so we tend to not think about our ancestors in relation to God, but maybe we should, and this is why: because the root causes of our present day problems are past problems. Just like a genetic disease can be passed down from father to son, so spiritual diseases can be passed from generation to generation. We know that emotional diseases are passed down. Romans 5:12 reads, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so death spread to all because all have sinned.” This is not just a philosophical statement. This is plain truth. Sin is transferred from person to person like a very contagious disease. Sin is so pervasive, that we sometimes wonder that maybe we should ask God to take away our free will instead, since we can't seem to get rid of sin. If we just allow God to control our every action, at least the sin won't spread.

Every time there is evil without repentance, the effects of sin and the pain that goes with it are passed down through the generational lines. We can't escape our parents. We can't escape our parents' parents. We can move across the country to escape, but their effect follows us wherever we go. I'm not just picking on parents. We could be affected by any relationship: a brother, a son, an aunt, a niece. Whenever one of us turns away from God, we turn to something else, and that 'something else' then becomes our god. Even if that turning away was temporary, the new god has been allowed into the generational line. And that god takes on life—there's a demon out there who is perfectly happy to attach itself to that false god we created—and then he won't go away, unless we order him to through the name of Jesus Christ.

These tribes and cultures in Africa and other places, their ancestors were usually at war with other tribes, and so the gods of revenge and unforgiveness were allowed into the camp. Not knowing the name of Jesus, the tribe never commanded the gods to leave. Alcoholism and sexual abuse are two effects of sin that permeate our own culture, but because we don't really delve into genealogy in our culture, until we are in our later years, we never understand that that some kind of emotional abuse we received at the hands of an immediate relative can be traced back to perhaps physical abuse that relative received at the hands of someone we never even met.

Another activity in the western world that is often overlooked is occult involvement. People way back in our family line may have joined organizations or clubs that have rituals, or were involved in new age practices—had someone read their palm once, for example—and that stuff blocks healing from happening. The demons associated with those things clung to someone in the family tree and has not let go. We need to renounce those things, even if we are unaware that anything like that has happened. It's not just a problem with the person engaged in that activity. It's so easy to say, “well, that's THEIR problem, and all I can do is pray for them.” No, their funk gets on us, because we are attached to them through invisible family ties, and we have to renounce them for ourselves. We have the clean out the attic, so to speak, and Jesus has the best broom. There are things that we don't know about, but Jesus does, and when we are up here, at the altar, picture Jesus cleaning out our attics, so that his healing power can work our lives.

Jesus is also the way to forgiveness, as we all know, and we know that abstractly, but have we ever pictured Jesus in the scenes of our lives that disturb us most? That remembrance that we bury in the furthest part of our minds, that we don't want anyone to know about, even ourselves, have we ever thought about that incident in the context of Jesus? There's that horrible remembrance of abuse, or that things that we ourselves did that we most regret, and we can't bring ourselves to think about it, but what if we did? What if we pictured the scene in our heads, in crisp detail, because those incidents are remembered most vividly, and this time we put Jesus in the room, too? Why not? HE WAS THERE. He was in that room when that thing happened, that thing you blame yourself for, or that you blame another for. Jesus was there, and he was holding us in our grief, but we denied his presence, and so we didn't feel him there. Perhaps this time, we can picture Jesus there, and give him his rightful role to play. Perhaps this time we can turn the pain and the hurt over to him, let him bear those things for us. As it says in our Isaiah passage, “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” That is not an abstract thought. Not a metaphor. He is the bearer of all the sin in the world. Really. All the worlds sin, every ounce of the millions of tons of sin that the people of the world have produced through all time can be laid upon Christ's shoulders, and he can bear it. He is God, and he can bear a God-sized load of sin.

Then we can ask Jesus to forgive that person his or her sin. Jesus was there. Just because the incident happened years and years ago, doesn't mean this asking of forgiveness is impossible. Jesus works across the space/time continuum. Then we can ask Jesus to forgive us, too, if we feel we are to blame, and we are harboring this pain and hurt. We can ask forgiveness for being unable to forgive the other person. Jesus does the work. We picture the scene in our heads an watch as Jesus does the work for us. Then we have removed the obstacle to true healing.

In the hours of his death on the cross, the sky turned black, and he cried out to God, “why have you forsaken me?” He was taking on the sin of the world. Then he died. In those three days between death and resurrection, he obliterated all that sin. Then he defeated death itself and rose again. He took care of sin and death in just three days, surely he can take away that disturbing remembrance that keeps us from being truly healed. Let us give all our sins over to Jesus and ask his forgiveness for ourselves and others. AMEN.

Monday, January 9, 2012

True Worship

My study of John Stott's The Living Church continues with his idea of true Christian worship. According to Stott, true Christian worship has four main characteristics:

1. Biblical worship. A seemingly contradictory set of actions take place during worship. We shout aloud and we kneel. We engage in fortissimo and piano. We cry out for joy and weep with repentance. This range of emotions mirrors the range of emotions of the Bible itself. Each worship service moves from the fall of man, through the law, to the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Each service travels through the Bible in its entirely and places us on our spiritual journey for the rest of the week, re-aligning us on the straight and true path God wants us on.

2. Congregational worship. You can't get more corporate than the Lord's Supper. Thomas Cranmer envisioned the people all gathered around the table, participating in the Eucharist. This was a radical departure from the non-participatory nature of the worship service at that time. The congregation did not even get to partake in communion, and as the services at the time were in Latin, no one understood anything. Cranmer's idea is still radical, as churches still engage in largely non-participatory services, even the rapidly-growing non-denominational churches. Humans still desire to be audience members rather than disciples.

3. Spiritual worship. The Christian worship service is the only place to find true transcendence. There is no need for drugs, sex, cults, mysticism, or eastern, new age, or sci-fi practices. In the presence of the trinity, one will find him or herself transported onto a supernatural plain. As we reject modernism and post-modernism, we find ourselves in reality, which consists of both natural and supernatural realms.

4. Moral worship. Worship is not relegated to Sundays. Worship flows through all of life. As we move through all three of our main spaces--home, work, and church (or thirdspace)--we feel the presence of the Lord in our lives. He is near, he is true, and he is deep. He is actively interested in all we feel or do. He is ever-present, and that knowledge gives us the strength to live life in his Image. We reject destructive lifestyles, we reject sin, and we embrace our place in God's kingdom.

Ruthie's Kitchen on 1/17

Church of the Good Shepherd will be the host of Ruthie's Kitchen a week from Tuesday evening (1/17/12) at His Dream Center (205 Baltic Street, Nags Head), in which all churches on the OBX participate to feed the homeless, poor, and hungry. Setup will begin at 4pm and dinner will be served at 5pm. I have written about how Christians desire to remove themselves from the world in order to not be stained by the culture's brush. The Apostle James says that this is only one half of what religion is all about. The other half is to visit the poor and needy in their affliction. The Christian cannot have one half of the equation without the other, and both are needed to practice true hospitality. Ruthie's kitchen will give us the opportunity to practice both outreach and upholding the truth in Christ. We hope you will want to join us in this expression of true Christian love.

Healing Service This Sunday

In the spirit of change in this new year, we are going to have our Healing Service this Sunday, as usual, but this time we will be using the full-blown Kenyan Service of Healing from the Our Modern Services prayerbook. This is a bit more than the altering of the prayers of the people and the laying on of hands, although both of those are included. The readings are oriented toward healing, and my sermon will discuss what Generational Healing is. I hope to see everyone there this Sunday, as we all need healing, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, or societal.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Do I Have It?

Our passage from Acts sure opens up a can of worms doesn't it? Maybe I should leave that alone. Nah, let's have some fun. So, John's was a baptism of repentance but not of the holy spirit. Well, what does John say in the gospels? Well, if we look at Mark 1:8, we read, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” So John the Baptist agrees: his was a baptism of repentance.

So, here we are: 2012. Which baptism are we in? John's or Jesus'? We each must ask this question of ourselves, and I've blown off the question for myself, too. I've told people in the past things that are easy, and can be glossed over, things that delay the question or bury it. These are things like, “if you are asking the question, then you DO have the Holy Spirit, because someone who does not have the spirit does not ask the question.” Another thing I've said in the past is that we may have the spirit, but we can QUENCH it. As Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, “Quench not the spirit.” God is a gentleman, and he loves us, so if we decide to turn our backs on him, he allows our free wills to do so. He backs off. So, we can quench the spirit, if we choose. I do think these statements are true, to a degree, but I also think it helps with our discipleship and our relationship with God if we seriously ask ourselves this question: do we have the Holy Spirit?

Do we? Well, there's one decisive sign that we have it. I'll ask two other questions first. How do we know if we have a poetic spirit? Do we write 400-page novels? Nope. We write poetry. We are drawn to write poetry. We feel poetry from our deepest soul, and we have to write it. How do we know if we have a heroic spirit? I know! We hide in a hole in the ground! No. It's the opposite of cowardice. We thirst for adventure, we are willing to plunge into danger without fear. So, how do we know if we have the Holy Spirit? Love of holiness. Not whether we are good at theological debate or whether we can defend the faith. It's not an irreproachable character either. No, it is the desire for a sanctified life, the burning prayer to be sanctified, the offering our lives on God's altar.

In other words, someone who has the Holy Spirit is not someone who has “just enough” Christianity in their lives. One with the Holy Spirit yearns to “be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect, to be holy as God is holy.” We want to shroud the Holy Spirit in mystery all the time, but the simple fact is that someone with the Holy Spirit is someone who has a spirit of holiness.

The Holy Spirit is our direct access to God. It's like Christ installed an Ethernet cable or a telephone wire direct to our hearts. We have direct access to God through prayer. Before Christ, the average person did not have direct access to God. Even the holiest of people like Moses or David had to go up on mountains or talk to God through prophets. Now, we can access the creator of the universe whenever we want by just thinking about him and talking. Because we each have direct access to God, the Holy Spirit becomes the great equalizer. The rules of our world do not have special privileges with God. The poorest and lowliest—the slave—has just as much access to God. In fact the poor have more access, because the powerful are to busy feasting on the world's pleasures to be praying.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of wisdom. This means that a child with the spirit is wiser than his own teachers who do not have the spirit. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of discipleship. I met a guy who says that every church has to be run like a business if it is to succeed, if it is to grow. Well, the Church may be an exception to that rule. A big church without the spirit may as well be a secular business. A small church that grows slowly and yet is spirit filled is the goal, not a failure. In fact, to the wise, everything in the world—all that the world says is good and true—is dross in comparison to the knowledge of God.

The Holy Spirit is a transforming spirit. It is not merely enlightening or comforting. The spirit changes us into the image of God. We thirst to be like him and to cast off sin. When we get the Holy Spirit, our destructive lifestyles are cast away. Our sin cannot be in the same room with the spirit—it cannot be in the same body. The weaker one is burned away, and the Holy Spirit is not weak.

The Holy Spirit influences belief. In our passage, the Ephesians believed. They held truths about God and Jesus in their minds, but they held them COLDLY. Do you know someone like that, who knows everything there is to know about the Bible and Christianity, but their heart is not in it. They don't drop to their knees in passionate prayer. They cannot bring themselves to submit to God and worship. They end up falling away. The Ephesians had no life or spirit to their faith. With this second baptism, where Paul baptized them into Jesus, they acquired new belief. Now they REALLY believe.

It's like someone told us a joke and we didn't get it, and we thought really hard and long and we suddenly believe that we get it. We have logically reasoned our way into understanding the joke. Ah, ok, it wasn't very funny, but we get it. It was a good joke after all. Yes, we nod. We may even give a polite chuckle. Years may go by, and then someone tells the joke to us, and we laugh and we say, I know that one. It's funny because of X, Y & Z. The guy says, no and explains the joke to us. Oh, NOW we get it. We had never gotten it before. Now we finally get it.

We get it when we suddenly know how near God is to us. Most Christians in this country are effectively deists, thinking that God is not very interested in their lives until we are really in pain and hurting, and if we pray to God NOW and promise that we will be good from now on—we will never do another dumb thing as long as we live—maybe God will lower himself and help us, take the pain away. We get it when we suddenly know that God has always been close to us. We were the ones who were too busy. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to this fact.

We get it when we suddenly know how true the truth is. We get it when we suddenly know how deep Christ is. When someone has really received the Holy Spirit, he is aware of the intense and intimate reality of Christ. Jesus becomes the dearest person in the universe. He does everything for Jesus. We know we have the Holy Spirit, because we respond in gratitude: we respond to what Jesus did for us on the cross. He emptied himself and took the form of a servant—he came to serve us—and he took our place on the cross, so that we could live forever in eternal life with Jesus, face to face with our maker. When we know this is true with all of our heart, he know the Holy Spirit lives within us. AMEN.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

An Amazing Conversion Testimony

A friend of mine is part of a Prison Ministry Bible study, which has grown up to as many as 18 people at times. One of the inmates could be described as a Wiccan Seeker, which means he has practiced the Wiccan religion, but is looking for something more. The whole group has been praying for him for a long time. Here is a testimony from my friend about a recent occurrence in the prayer group:

"[TJ] said he was feeling great--he has been very depressed since I met him a couple of months ago. He told us why. ... He got a call from his parents today. They told him they hadn't realized how much their silence the last two years was affecting him, and they apologized and told him they really loved him. His mother promised to write him once a week, at least, and she would send him his address book and some other things he wanted (not contraband). They also promised to visit at least once a year (I don't know how far they have to come). TJ told us he bawled his eyes out for joy [when] he took the call.... He also told us he was convinced that no Wiccan god could have accomplished this miracle, so he was turning back to the "man who wrote this book," which he held up. Gene started to say that was all well and good, but he shouldn't put his faith in a man. I interrupted Gene and said, "TJ is holding up a Bible--the man is God!" Gene immediately apologized. TJ was raised a Catholic, so we are going to help him and welcome him home. I have been praying for him since I met him. God really does answer prayers, and perform miracles!"

Christ as Creator

Christmas Eve we talked about Jesus Christ's three tiny tasks at the beginning of everything: creation, life, and light. In other words, through his son Jesus Christ, the Word, God created everything (creation), sustains everything (life), and sanctifies everything—cleans it all—makes it holy (light). Tonight I want to talk a little more in depth about the first of these: Christ as Creator.

Thinking of Christ as creator helps us see Jesus in a different light, and it helps us see creation itself in a different light. Many times in the gospels he speaks about nature, makes a reference to nature, or an analogy to nature. When we realize that this is the guy who AUTHORED nature—he is not talking to us like a detached human. No, he was the one who made these things! When he walks about salt and light, birds and lilies, logs and specks, dogs and swine, fish and snakes, sheep and wolves, grapes and thorns, he is talking about things that he has had intimate contact with. He was the agent through which all of these things were created. His analogies suddenly have a deeper authority.

Creation is seen in a new light, too. Creation suddenly becomes a testimony to the Lord's power and love. Think of all the psalms where creation cries out in joy to the Lord. We're not just making a clever literary device. These aren't just metaphors or personification. These things were created by the Lord, and if they had voices they would cry out for joy to the Lord. So much more so should WE cry out with joy to the Lord for having created us.

I know a man who loves nature. He loves to hike. He travels around the country and goes hiking in many different places. He loves to sleep outdoors. He looks forward to each year's big trip, and he plans and he packs his things, and he purchases new things for survival out in the wilderness. He does not believe in God. When he looks at nature, the most profound thing that comes to his mind is that 100 years from now we will all be dead. Nature becomes the religion, and mankind's place in it becomes bleak and insignificant. God's place is not even there.

To Christians, wherever we turn is Christ. He authored everything natural we see, and if we look closely, we can see part of his mind, the creative part that conceived of the odd and beautiful things we encounter each day. The cold abstraction of my friend's “natural religion,” which never converted a heart nor amended a life, does not chill our thoughts. To the Christian, all science becomes lighted up by the redeemer's presence, for God did not just redeem men but nature, too. We look around and we see the stage where the great play of love is played.

Think of how much effort goes into the sets of a play or a movie. When I went to college, we had experimental plays without scenery. What happened when we watched them? We had to fill in our own scenery in our minds. This helps the mind focus on the characters, but then everything becomes about the characters. This is the opposite of natural religion, where man and God aren't even there. A religion without scenery puts man as the center, and at the same time it puts nature and God out in the cold.

The scenery in the story forces us to think about the author of the story. When we see the Dream Center or that bank that looks like a flying saucer, we think of George Crocker and how much of an avant-garde artist he was. When we see the natural world, we think about the author of creation, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, through him all things were made.

Cathi and I went out on the beach this past week. It was too cold to take our shoes off, but being out out on the beach with the waves crashing and no one about, we felt a pure peace, and our conversation turned to the creator, because we were essentially nestled in his arms. We are bird lovers, too, and living in what is essentially one of the finer aviaries in the world tends to refocus one's attention from himself to something larger.

When Jesus was born, a star—a heavenly body—led the wise men to Bethlehem. The baby was born in a manger with animals all around him. These were not filthy conditions, because Christ has created all the animals that surrounded him. When Jesus was crucified, darkness came over the land when it was noon. There was an earthquake when he died. There was another earthquake when he rose from the dead. Nature cannot be separated from Christ. Let us pray that we, too, will never be separated from him.