Saturday, December 31

Why Resolve NOW?

I wonder what would happen to many who make New Year's Resolutions if such were not allowed? I don't mean anything political or something like that. I am posing the question for the sake of determining why it is we make them at all, and why we make them on the last day of the year? A couple of brief thoughts:

Failed Resolutions Can Prevent Future Commitment?
First, it would seem that the humor so often associated with our proverbial failure to keep our NYRs might actually work against our making any at all. You know what I mean don't you? How often have we heard it said (or said it ourselves), "Well, if I make a resolution, I know I'll just break it, so why bother?" Perhaps, we should recognize that, humor aside, resolutions are not so bad to make per se. It was Socrates who first said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." I think he was partially right. Mankind by nature is cognitive, and therefore must exercise some judgment in their choices. It will happen. He is partially wrong (if I rightly understand him), in that one may live a very organized and thoroughly self-examined existence and still live outside of God. I would suggest many do. In such cases, then, we might add, "the examined life does not necessarily result in a worthy life, unless it yields to truth as it is revealed in Jesus Christ." So, let us make resolutions, but be careful that they conform to the dictates of Scripture. Remember, it was Jesus who asked most poignantly, "What shall it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or, what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26). Examine your life. Yes. Make resolutions? Yes, if they meet the Jesus criteria.

Why Resolve Now?
Second, why make resolutions only at year's end? This admittedly is less serious than the first concern. But I was thinking . . . maybe this fits into that class of things that make you scratch your head and go "hm-m-m." I mean consider, if something were truly worthy of our making a resolution, then why would we wait until New Year's Day in order to commit to it? Just a thought. That's all. If something is worth doing, isn't it worth doing now?

Now, what will you do? 

I'm resolving to get this posted before year's end! Whew, I think I'll make it. 

Friday, December 23

"Cookie-Cutter" Christianity

In Mushrooms on the Moor, Frank Boreham (1871-1959) of Kent, England and best known in New Zealand, writes of Henry Drummond's disdain for "ready made clothes." This may seem anachronistic to those of us who know rarely anything else these days! Now, many of us have heard of Drummond as an evangelist during the days of Dwight Moody. But his predilection toward well-fitted clothing is just one other aspect of this man of God. Boreham, in his manner, utilizes this very real issue in Drummond's life as an appropriate allegory for the way in which we Christians proclaim or live out the Gospel. In our day, one way to describe this tendency would be with the term "pigeon-holing," or "forcing one into a box," or "cookie-cutter Christians." No two born-again believers will be just alike in the manner in which they absorb or display the truth of the Gospel. Assuredly, the Gospel itself is not, as they say, "up for grabs." Oh, no. Truth remains unchanging. However, there are as many ways in which we may "grow up into Christ in all things" as there are believers. At least that is how I take Boreham's thesis.

What is the point? The "ready-made" mentality affects us in various ways. For example, it prevents mission agencies from falling prey to the tendency of colonialization, the practice of forcing upon a native population the moors of the sending country. As Drummond would aver, no two men are built the same, thus neither should their clothing be the same. Tailors must have loved this man! But another more common example of this problem is found in the philosophy called legalism. We may not perceive it a philosophy, but it certainly projects itself in such a manner. Legalistic people in legalistic churches often hold to good doctrine, but they lead the way in the selling of "ready made clothes." They expect everyone to sort of look the same, and talk and act the same. One's orthodoxy is judged by the individual's adherence to a commonly held set of standards, standards mind you that are not delineated in Scripture. 

For the individual such a mind-set is important too. It is not necessarily that they will set out to be different, per se. To pursue such may tend toward "ready-made" rebellion, a sort of "gang" mentality. There is a certain freedom in Christ that allows each to seek his own knowledge of God. No one can do that for me. In helping others find peace with Christ, or power through the Holy Spirit, it is most certainly the case that it cannot be sold in a can. The hart yearns for the water brook (Ps. 42), but each hart must drink for itself. When my daughter and her husband sat with me through premarital counseling, I felt compelled to help Rachel seek out her own faith. It's not that she tended to be a blind follower. Of course, I don't mean seek out a separate OBJECT of faith. No, that's Jesus Christ. But to seek it on her own and not because her Dad was a Pastor. During the week before our discussion, a term came to me. I don't know that it's been used before but I called what she needed, "original grace." Original grace simply put is God's reaching out to (in this case) Rachel in way separate from myself or my wife or her fiance. Granted, we are not alone in this world, nor unaffected by those with whom we consort all of our lives. We very much affect others. At some point, however, each must be convinced in his own right of the verities of Scripture. We as parents should so raise our children that that is their heritage. We, as Pastors, need to do as much for the people in our flock. No two are alike. Treat each as he deserves. Some are saved very young, and others out of a grossly sinful lifestyle. Only God really knows why it occurs this way. To each we proclaim, "Seek the Lord while He may be found."

That's enough for now. You get the point. God bless you richly throughout the days ahead!

Friday, December 16

Putting Weight Behind Waiting

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18)

The setting is Israel turning to Egypt for help against her enemies. God is rebuking them for not seeking Him. This has been their pattern; it is the pattern of all of us when we faithlessly turn elsewhere for help.

Verse 18 is loaded. "The LORD waits to be gracious to you." Endemic to God is his desire to reveal his grace. God wants to manifest it. But isn't it the very nature of grace to do this? Isn't grace by definition God showing love and care and kindness toward the rebellious,  the recalcitrant? God gives when we do not deserve his gifts. That's grace. Of course, the pinnacle of God's rich grace is the cross. But he shows it in innumerable ways for all of us and always. As Paul puts it so well, "The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It [viz., the same grace] teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (Titus 2:11-12 NIV). In other words, the same exalted grace that provided the amazing atonement for mankind continues affecting change in the believer, causing him to achieve Spirit-filled fruits, "self-control, uprightness," etc. Indeed, Jehovah waits to be gracious.

Thus, Jehovah "exalts himself to show mercy." God, by all rights, should let the ax fall on all of mankind who have turned radically against him. Israel should not become the whipping boy of sin. We all fit the same pattern. Point? When by all rights God should bring down justice on our pate, and he refuses to do so, then that magnifies his grace, and his mercy. He cannot but be just. Such is God's very nature. So, for the everlasting Judge of all the earth to stay our execution is one thing. Marvelous indeed! But to go well beyond that and effect such a genetic change in us rebels that we then exhibit the DNA of God . . . well, . . . that is a mercy beyond the pale of human expression. 

Upon whom does such grace and mercy land? The answer is found in the bookend statements in this verse. "Jehovah WAITS to be gracious to you." That's the first. Then the second is, "blessed are all those who WAIT for him." Waiting is the key. It is wait of kindness and patience on God's end; it is a waiting of faith and dependence on ours. 

Let us learn to wait for God's grace and mercy and kindness and love. He delights to show it. He is exalted to offer it. We are thrice-blessed to receive it! 

Wednesday, December 14

Acquiring Peace & Zeal at Christmas

The Christmas season has a way of driving us perpetually to distraction. This entry from Thomas 'a Kempis hits the nail on the head. Read it, pursue what he says, and find rest to your souls (Mt. 11:28). But please read this slowly, thoughtfully. It will pay great dividends.

WE SHOULD enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?
Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance.

Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation? Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts.
We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent. If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.

The greatest obstacle, indeed, the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lusts, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints. Thus when we encounter some slight difficulty, we are too easily dejected and turn to human consolations. If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us. For He Who gives us the opportunity of fighting for victory, is ready to help those who carry on and trust in His grace.

If we let our progress in religious life depend on the observance of its externals alone, our devotion will quickly come to an end. Let us, then, lay the ax to the root that we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind.

If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect. The contrary, however, is often the case—we feel that we were better and purer in the first fervor of our conversion than we are after many years in the practice of our faith. Our fervor and progress ought to increase day by day; yet it is now considered noteworthy if a man can retain even a part of his first fervor.

If we did a little violence to ourselves at the start, we should afterwards be able to do all things with ease and joy. It is hard to break old habits, but harder still to go against our will.

If you do not overcome small, trifling things, how will you overcome the more difficult? Resist temptations in the beginning, and unlearn the evil habit lest perhaps, little by little, it lead to a more evil one.
If you but consider what peace a good life will bring to yourself and what joy it will give to others, I think you will be more concerned about your spiritual progress.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 17-18.

Monday, December 12

What Motivates You to Get Out of Bed?

OK, the real question should be, "What motivates us to do anything?" James Emery White posted this on his blog, Church & Culture. Please read my comments at the end of White's article, because I believe even his conclusion can become misconstrued.
“What gets you up in the morning, and powers you through the day?” It’s an interesting question someone recently asked me, and for some reason, it made me reflect.  It’s not that I hadn’t heard the question before, or answered it…it had just been a while. Or maybe it was the way it was phrased. What really does get me up in the morning? What really does power me through a busy day of work, responsibility and challenges?
What drives anyone?
As I reflected on my own life, and the lives of other leaders I’ve encountered, it struck me that most of us are motivated by one of four things:
1.      Adrenaline
There are people who, if they weren’t building a church, closing a deal or beating a deadline would be racing cars and  jumping out of planes.  They are adrenaline junkies, and live for the rush and the thrill of adventure.
There is certainly a need for a bias for action, but neither a church nor a business should be merely a facilitator for a personal rush.  Further, adrenaline alone will often cause a leader to drive an organization into the ground, not to mention themselves. 
2.      Ego
I know an older, seasoned leader who had a new church planter in his city tell him that he wanted to pastor a big church.  That was what he was in the game for – a big church.  It was rather shocking to hear it put so baldly.  But there are many who, whether conveyed in subtle tones or not, seem driven to gain a platform for their life.  They want to be a Christian celebrity, to write and speak, and to be famous.
We all have pride and enormous egos. 
All of us. 
Many times our ego is what allows us to have confidence (such as an athlete who, in the fourth quarter, says “Give me the ball.”).  But unchecked, ego is among the most deadly and destructive of pitfalls.  And when our egos run amuck - leading us to create cults of personality, minimal accountability, and the church or organization all about you and your name/fame - then it ceases to be a God-thing.  You’ve moved from Spirit to flesh, regardless of the “success” you might be achieving in the eyes of the world.
3.      Personal Fulfillment
In recent years I’ve sensed a new motivating force, particularly among church planters.  They don’t feel called to plant a church as much as they have in mind a particular life and ministry, and planting seems the quickest and most direct way to achieve it.  They know where they would most like to live, the position they want to fill, and the kind of church they want to lead…so they start it.
So they pick their chosen city, place themselves in their desired position, and design the structure and style according to their sensibilities; often with very little sense of calling, much less of willing sacrifice.
If you’re going to be a church planter, some of this is unavoidable.  But if your motivation for starting a church is simply to create a dream life, dream job, in a dream location, in a dream context, then it’s simply a means to an end. 
And the end is all about you.
4.      Cause
Then there is being motivated by the cause. Meaning, the cause of Christ. And yes, this is what I believe all of us should aspire to.
Many of you will be familiar with the writings of Jim Collins, and specifically his description of a “Level 5 Leader.”  This is someone who “blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”  They are often very strong leaders – Collins highlights Abraham Lincoln as a classic Level 5 leader – but “their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves…for the company and concern for its success rather than for one’s own riches and personal renown.”
This is why I hold the pastor of a church that has been built family-by-family, in rented facilities and then land and then construction, sticking with it over a long period of time, in the highest regard. 
They have been tested and found faithful.   
If it had all been about adrenaline, those early months and years of modest growth would have led them to pursue something that would give a more immediate rush.
If it had all been about ego, the lack of fame and renown while they labored – often for years – in obscurity would have led them away to whatever would promise them their fifteen minutes of fame.
If it had been about their own personal fulfillment, the enormous price necessary to build a church over time would have led them to laziness, short-cuts, or simple abandonment after a season or two.
Their life and ministry tells me they are driven by something deeper.
The cause of Christ.
And that’s the kind of power that will get you through any day.
Now, this may seem picky, but for the sake of truth, I would suggest that even the "cause of Christ" could be misunderstood. It seems that an ego-driven person could claim such, as well as the adrenaline junky. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be as Paul did, for the love of Christ constrains or controls me (2 Cor. 5:14). Causes, though good, can easily devolve into an objective pursuit, where love cannot. Again, perhaps picky, and perhaps this is what White had in mind. But I just wanted to state it plainly.


Sunday, December 11

Soft, Effeminate Christianity (Re-Post from Challies)

This is too good to pass up, a word of advice from a seasoned believer. I re-post this thanks to Tim Challies. Tim writes:
I came across this quote by Horatius Bonar and thought it was worth sharing. Bonar is warning against a kind of soft and, in his word, effeminate Christianity, that may come about when Christians are too afraid to fight for what is right and to protest against what is wrong.
And now, Bonar's words:
For there is some danger of falling into a soft and effeminate Christianity, under the plea of a lofty and ethereal theology. Christianity was born for endurance…It walks with firm step and erect frame; it is kindly, but firm; it is gentle, but honest; it is calm, but not facile; obliging, but not imbecile; decided, but not churlish. It does not fear to speak the stern word of condemnation against error, nor to raise its voice against surrounding evils, under the pretext that it is not of this world.

It does not shrink from giving honest reproof lest it come under the charge of displaying an unchristian spirit. It calls sin ‘sin,’ on whomsoever it is found, and would rather risk the accusation of being actuated by a bad spirit than not discharge an explicit duty. Let us not misjudge strong words used in honest controversy. Out of the heat a viper may come forth; but we shake it off and feel no harm.

The religion of both Old and New Testaments is marked by fervent outspoken testimonies against evil. To speak smooth things in such a case may be sentimentalism, but it is not Christianity. It is a betrayal of the cause of truth and righteousness. If anyone should be frank, manly, honest, cheerful (I do not say blunt or rude, for a Christian must be courteous and polite), it is he who has tasted that the Lord is gracious, and is looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God.

I know that charity covereth a multitude of sins; but it does not call evil good, because a good man has done it; it does not excuse inconsistencies, because the inconsistent brother has a high name and a fervent spirit. Crookedness and worldliness are still crookedness and worldliness, though exhibited in one who seems to have reached no common height of attainment.

Friday, December 9

It Is Not Said in Heaven, "Moral, Moral, Moral Art Thou, O God!"

How many true Christians fall prey to the temptation to settle for morality, when God demands holiness? The Church for all her blessings, must not allow this to be her purpose, to make their country a moral place in which to live. Christians indeed should be the most moral of people, but one may be moral and still go to hell. Thanks to DGM for emphasizing this in the following article.

Hear these words from C. H. Spurgeon:

"Holiness excludes immorality, but morality does not amount to holiness, for morality may be but the cleaning of the outside of the cup and the platter, while the heart may be full of wickedness. Holiness deals with the thoughts and intents, the purposes, the aims, the objectives, the motives of men. Morality does but skim the surface, holiness goes into the very caverns of the great deep—holiness requires that the heart shall be set on God and that it shall beat with love to Him. The moral man may be complete in his morality without that.

I think I might draw such a parallel as this. Morality is a sweet, fair corpse—well washed, robed and even embalmed with spices—but holiness is the living man, as fair and as lovely as the other, but having life! Morality lies there, of the earth, earthy, soon to be food for corruption and worms—holiness waits and pants with heavenly aspirations, prepared to mount and dwell in immortality beyond the stars! These two are of opposite natures—the one belongs to this world, the other belongs to that world beyond the skies.

It is not said in Heaven, “Moral, moral, moral are You, O God!” But, “Holy, holy, holy are You, O Lord!” You note the difference between the two words at once. The one, icy cold. The other, oh, how animated! Such is mere morality and such is holiness! Moralist—I know I speak to many such—remember that your best morality will not save you! You must have more than this, for without holiness—and that not of yourself, it must be given you of the Spirit of God—without holiness, no one shall see the Lord."


Wednesday, December 7

My Mother's Faith: Strength Out of Depression

Most of my readers already know that my mother went to be with the Lord last Friday at 8:30 AM. She was 90 and her health had been failing. Yesterday was the funeral. My brother Carl videoed everything per my Dad's request since he is hard of hearing and would miss so much of the service. Two grandsons gave their take on Mom's affect on them. My sisters (Kathi & Christine) each gave reminiscences of our mother that were both humorous and lovingly indicative of the kind of mother she was.  People seem to enjoy those memories even though they do not apply but to the family. They really did do a good job. I had the privilege of speaking about Mom's faith. Below is what I said. Each of us felt compelled to write everything out, for composure's sake as well as trying to keep to the time-frame allotted. I believe that while the following pertains to my mother, the truths about which I speak apply well beyond her to all, especially to those who suffer from depression like my Mom.

A Meditation on Our Mother's Faith 
 Maria Bowers Nelson
February 21, 1921-December 2, 2011

It is true that Mom could be quite humorous. She also appreciated the arts: classical music and even opera. I remember as a 5-year old sitting in a wing chair listening to a record of Beethoven's Fifth and Haydn's 104th and being enamored. I don't remember being as excited about opera though I have listened to them as well because of her influence. But, it is equally true that Mom had to deal with depression. And this made her hold her faith more firmly than someone who does not feel this trial. One thing you cannot say about her is that she was a cookie-cutter woman. But neither was she a cookie-cutter Christian. Mom could be somewhat private about her spirituality. But it was there. It came out in different ways. I have found that people who live out their Christianity through the heaviness of depression tend to cast off superficiality and exhibit a rather no-nonsense faith. There isn’t room for pious platitudes. It’s useless if it doesn’t meet me in my pain. One of the verses that Mom came to love years ago and that is emblazoned on my memory is this one from Joel 2:25:

I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten, . . .”

If famine and locust swarms represented the times of drought and depression, then to Mom this verse was a promise of restoration. She would say, “Oh, I LOVE that verse!" And then she would repeat it like someone doing a reading of a poem before an adoring audience. She saw the value of such healing words. And who loves healing more than those who experience pain so very deeply? In the face of such a promise, crying would be exchanged for laughter; nightmares give way to visions of joy, and laments would be replaced by praise to God. A couple of days ago, I had a chance to read what she had written in her Bible from years ago. She recorded this from Pastor Seume on March 24, 1963, “The mystery above must be lived out in the misery below. The misery below is where most people are living.” And therein lies the battle. But you fight it. And you fight it by God’s unceasing grace.

In the spirit of others who suffered deep depressions like the hymn-writer, William Cowper and the beloved prince of preachers, C. H. Spurgeon, Mom grabbed for comfort wherever she could find it. Is it any wonder that one of her favorite hymns (and mine), which Phyllis heard her affirm, is “Oh, Love That Will Not Let Me Go”? Perhaps without knowing it, Momma identified with this hymn because she identified with its author, George Matheson. Engaged to be married, Matheson knew he was growing blind. Upon relaying this fact to his fiancé, she called off the marriage saying that she did not believe she could marry a blind man. In spite of this heartbreak, he found great help in his sister as blindness overtook him. Some time later, however, his sister fell in love and was to be married. Now he would lose her too. On the afternoon of the day she was to be married in the evening, and while alone in a room, he writes: 
Some­thing hap­pened to me, which was known only to my­self, and which caused me the most se­vere men­tal suf­fer­ing. The hymn was the fruit of that suf­fer­ing. It was the quick­est bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the im­press­ion of hav­ing it dic­tat­ed to me by some in­ward voice ra­ther than of work­ing it out my­self. I am quite sure that the whole work was com­plet­ed in five min­utes, and equal­ly sure that it ne­ver re­ceived at my hands any re­touch­ing or cor­rect­ion.
I believe the last two stanzas bespeak Mom’s faith and hopefully ours as well!
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
I don’t think Mom would’ve understood that attitude so popular these days, that God never meant us to suffer or to have to endure trials, or even depression. She, like all of us did not particularly relish such depression, but I suspect neither she nor we could be what we are in Christ without those times. But that is not the end of the matter. Mom loved to read of consolation in Scripture or to hear it in a hymn. It's verses like these from Paul that help us understand why:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.  –2 Corinthians 4:7-9
Mom used to say to us children, “You can’t always have what you want.” Simple advice, but profound. In the end, however, we who love Christ will get far more than we could ever want. The eternal joy of heaven vastly outweighs all the suffering any of us faces. One thing is certain, no one knows that so well as Mom, who has now had restored to her all the years the locusts had eaten.