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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Myths

I am a ridiculously nostalgic person in general but especially when it comes to Christmas. My Christmas Playlist remains defiantly entrenched on my iPod all year round - even though it takes up far too much space (but what do you take off? Elvis' "Blue Christmas"? or "Mele Kalikimaka - Hawaiian Christmas"?! I don't think so!!). But I do like my Christmas traditions truthful. With the help of a couple books & the interwebs ( in particular), I found out some interesting and, sadly, disturbing revelations about Christmas.

Claim: December 25th is Jesus' birthday
Conclusion: Doubtful.
Further info: The Biblical Account of Jesus' birth does not give an exact date for the event; however it likely occurs in the Spring rather than in the Winter. Luke informs us that shepherds were "out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8). Shepherds guarded their flocks day and night only during lambing time, in the spring. In the Winter, the animals were kept in corrals at night, unwatched. Celebrating the Nativity was first suggested in the 4th century A.D. During this time, the early church fathers were taking Roman ideas, symbols, and holidays and replacing them with Christian significance - it was another way to help people who had trusted Jesus as their Savior to move from their old ways of life to new ones. On December 25, the date of the Winter Solstices, Romans celebrated Natalis Solis Invicti, "Birthday of the Invincible Sun God," Mithras. This would be the date the church picked. One church father wrote: "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."  The apostle Paul would warn Christians not to make particular days holy lest we overemphasize a particular day rather than on the Lordship of Jesus (see Colossians  2:16-17). Nevertheless, celebrating the birth of Christ can serve as an opportunity to utilize a particular day in focusing on the wonderous mystery of the incarnation - God becoming flesh - though it doesn't matter on which day this occurs.

Claim: The modern image of Santa was created by the Coca-Cola Company
Conclusion: Myth
Further info: The idea here is that Santa's costume was changed to Red & White to reflect the corporate colors of Coke Brand. It's not true. Coca-Cola was looking for ways to boost sales during the Winter months as this was not a popular time for cold, soft drinks. And they did turn to illustrator Haddon Sundblom, who created a series of memorable drawings that made a direct correlation between a larger-than-life, red-and-white donned Santa Claus and Coca-Cola (as seen in adjacent picture). However, this modern version was not created by Coca-Cola. Sundblom's illustrations were based on what had already become the standard version of Santa as demonstrated in a New York Times article published in 1927, four years before the appearance of Sundbloms's first Coca-Cola Santa Ad. The article states:
A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York Children. Height, weight, and stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.
To further stress this point, below are some illustrations of Santa from 1906, 1908, and 1925 respectively: 

So while I love a good ole-fashioned corporate conspiracy as much the next bloke, we do not get one here.

Claim: "Xmas" is a disrespectful abbreviation of "Christmas."
Conclusion: Myth

Further info: The idea is that people, at the least, looked for a way to abbreviate the spelling of Christmas and, at worst, secular society pushed this abbreviation to "take the CHRIST out of CHRISTmas." In actuality, this usage of Xmas dates back quite far and involves the Greek language in which the New Testament is written. The first letter in the Greek word for Christ is "chi" and the Greek letter "chi" is represented by a symbol quite similar to the letter "X" in the Roman alphabet. So "Xmas" was really utilized as a way of shortening the name of Christ, not X-ing out His name. 

Claim: The Suicide rate increases significantly during the Holiday Season.
Conclusion: Myth
Further info: Sorry, I don't mean to end on a downer. But can you tell me you've never heard this one before?! And the claim is all the more persuasive when one considers its logic. Christmas and New Years are occasions in which many experience profound joy with family & friends can only serve to accentuate, in others, pain and isolation associated with loneliness. And, yet, this too appears to be a myth as pointed out by the Mayo Clinic in an article originally printed in The Des Moines Register (1995):
Suicide is not linked to the holidays, at least not in Minnesota's Olmstead County, where the Mayo Clinic is located, according to Mayo Clini researchers. A study of all reported suicides in Olmstead County during a 35-year period did not find an excess number of suicides just before, during, or after Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's...holidays. Nor did researchers find a higher suicide rate on birthdays or three days before or after birthddays. However, their work, concluded in 1985, did affirm other studies showing that suicides are most numerous early in the week and least common on weekends.
I should note that there are other studies arriving at remarkably similar conclusions but I'm too lazy right now to quote them. Look it up - heck, you might discover yet another Christmas myth! (If so, please post below).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Christmas Prayer (in response to violence)

Author Max Lucado penned a brilliant and, in my humble opinion, inspired little prayer in response to what seems like escalating violence all around the world. I hope and pray it provides the encouragement needed to run to a Savior who is intimately acquainted with suffering and alienation (but also triumph!).

A Christmas Prayer

Dear Jesus,

It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord.  These children, Lord.  Innocence violated.  Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas.  But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty.  Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Your Children

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Word & The Spirit: Why can't we have both?

"Why was the United States invented?" asked our 6-year old son, Gage, at the dinner table last week. "Yeah, dad, you said it was a newer country. What caused people to move there?" chimed in our 8-year-old Mason. Okay, Oelschlager, think. Well there are a myriad of issues but I decided to go for the 1st amendment, which also happens to be in my wheelhouse as a pastor. "Religious freedom." (Come on, Ryan, simplify). "People wanted to worship Jesus in slightly different ways. For instance, some people who loved Jesus wanted to study what God says in the Bible without the government or anyone else telling them how they should understand the Bible (see the Puritans). Their focus was understanding and putting down deep roots in Jesus. But others wanted to celebrate, sing, and worship the Jesus of the Bible without outside interference (see Quakers and guidance by the Spirit or "inner light"). So while the other group focused mostly on the Bible, their focus was on celebration, worship, and the mysterious bigness of God." 

"But Dad," said Gage, "Why can't they do BOTH?"   

"Yesssss! You are exactly right, Gage. They can...and so can we." He smiled really big, just as his dad was.

In some ways, I want to end this blog entry here as it gets to one of our key goals as Christians and in local churches. Preaching, teaching, group and personal study of God's Word that is anointed and empowered by the Spirit and responses of thanksgiving, praise, and obedience (ie. worship) that are prompted and sustained by the Spirit. 

It's not one to the exclusion of the other. Both are needed. Let's look at why.

Reason #1: People find ultimate satisfaction in something containing both truth & power. 

Consider the number of times you've read profound statements in birthday card, on a Facebook Status, or from a good book (maybe even a Christian book). They might ring true but at most you consider how it applies to everyday situations of your life sticking with it a few days and usually you tend to carry on as before. Likewise, you find something that helps you change - for better or worse - but the results (if for the better) are temporary. And even if you get the weight loss you wanted or the discipline with your finances sticks, your inner being still longs to consume something else and your soul remains bankrupt. And usually such changes do not stick. In other words, truth is missing. Truth, in its very essence, is enduring, not transitory.
I was reading about such a man in the Book of Acts recently. It's an account that's easy to pass over (one of those "next-versers" that's easy to gloss over for some bigger and more flashy story). This Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, seems to have spent his life trying to find satisfaction in something containing both truth and power. Check this out:
So, being, send out by the Holy Spirit, [Paul/Saul and Barnabas] went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prohpet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him, and said, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time." Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord  (Acts 13: 4-12).
Before even meeting Paul and Barny, this proconsul - described intentionally as an intelligent man (by which this most certainly implied, at this time, he one who is well-read) - noticed that truths and platitudes were not enough when empty of power. Thus, he had on his staff not one but two magicians (he had Sigfried and Roy)! Thus, through a combination of truth and power - Word and Spirit - this proconsul trusts his life to Jesus. 

Such persons seeking both truth and power exist today. We live in an era that has seen the poverty of modernism (the idea that science, truth that emerges from scientific method, and technology can save humanity) and the poverty of its response - postmodernism (no one has a stronghold on the truth, but each must interpret and gain his/her own truth primarily through then lens of his/her own experience). People are recognizing the inherent flaws in the breakdown of the postmodern mode of life and thought as well. It just doesn't hold up - society falls apart unless there are some agreed upon truths and standards. Thus, even if they are unfamiliar with the technical jargon, more people are seeing the need for both - truth and experiential power. I would suggest such persons are, like Sergius Paulus, ripe to trust Jesus. 

Reason #2: Worship, like much of life, works best with a leader and responder. 
Two dancers work best when one of them takes the lead and the other responds. Two people can ride a horse together but only one can take the reigns if they hope to go anywhere. Business meetings work best when a leader sets the agenda & leads allowing for others to meaningfully respond. The pattern we see in the Bible is that God's Word leads and the Spirit then moves people to respond accordingly in worship.  

Like Eugene Peterson once said of prayer, worship of God is "Answering Speech." God spoke, the darkness/formless void responded (see Genesis 1). God speaks His Word and we respond through the Holy Spirit with speech of thanksgiving & praise as well as with ongoing obedience & serving others with our gifts - ie. worship. Or as my good friend and SCC worship leader Lisa Welman, likes to put it: "Worship requires Revelation & Response."

Let me offer a quick but necessary disclaimer before I head any further: I fear making too much of this because this because the Spirit and the Word are likewise so enmeshed. For instance, the Spirit wrote the Bible (II Peter 1:20-21; II Timothy 3:16). This should also give us pause to insinuate that people who love the Bible are less sensitive to the Spirit's leading since the Bible itself was inspired by the Spirit (thus, a person sensitive to the Bible is sensitive to the what the Spirit wrote about living). Also, preaching, teaching and communication from God's Word is most effective when empowered by the Holy Spirit. So Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5: "Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." Likewise, when we respond to God's Word, the Spirit speaks words through us that are consistent with and "flavored" with God's truth - "When he, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Nevertheless, having made this disclaimer, the larger pattern of the Bible and the exercise of spiritual gifts both seem to point to God's Word taking primacy. 

We see the Word of God take the lead, for example, in the ministry of Jesus. His closing sermon to the disciples at the last supper takes the lead (John 13-16) and they all respond in praise to God - with a prayer (John 17) and a hymn (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26). Four chapters of teaching the Word of God and then an opportunity to respond with Jesus in prayer and and singing a praise song to God. Throughout the Book of Acts, we see the Word of God take the lead as it is taught and preached and people responding, sometimes in unusual and miraculous ways, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the example above from Acts 13 and our pal Sergius, notice even with the miraculous working of the Spirit through making a man blind, it his astonishment "at the teaching of the Lord" that proves to be the conclusive word on that matter. Likewise as we dip into Acts 14: We see the Lord does signs and wonders by the Spirit in order to "bear witness to the word of his grace" (Acts 14:3).

Also if you read the lists in the New Testament regarding gifts of the Spirit, you will notice that the "Word Gifts" have primary position. In his book The Holy Spirit, theologian Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way:
Central to the exercise of any gift of the Spirit is the ministry of the word given to God's people...In the lists [of spiritual gifts] which do exist (Romans 12: 3-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 28-30; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:10-11), it is clear enough that the ministry of God's revelatory word is central to the use of all other gifts; it stabilizes and nourishes them; they give expression to that word in various ways (208).
Likewise, Pastor Peter White, in his book The Effective Pastor notes: "It is significant that in all four New Testament lists of the gifts...the 'Word gifts' come first. We do not have to look fare to see the reason for this. God has given us minds. He addresses and changes us by way of them (see Ephesians 4:17-21)" (52). 

What does this mean for SCC? Due to the primacy of God's Word in leading us and the mission of our church to introduce people to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, our primary objective in corporate worship needs to be faithfully preaching God's Word in a way that reveals our need for Jesus or how to respond in faith and obedience to Jesus. Then respond in song, thanksgiving, prayer, and praise as the Spirit leads.

As the Spirit has clearly been at work (doing overtime) at Sunrise, I think it's also important that people have opportunity to exercise all the spiritual gifts. We should provide safe places for people to experiment, experience and potentially grow practicing these gifts as well, especially since some of these gifts are more of the mysterious sort (and often misunderstood - see tongues, prophecy and prayer for healing). Two venues seem especially appropriate: Community Groups and Simply Worship. Regarding the latter, when I was a pastor at a Vineyard Church in North Chicago a number of years ago, we were keen to keep the Word of God primary in its leading position during the Sunday AM corporate gatherings. The first Sunday of the month, however, we would hold a Sunday Evening Service to which all were invited. As preaching had already taken place that morning, this service was dedicated to worship and gift ministry. People would pray together, offer prophetic words in a responsible manner, and speak words of encouragement/knowledge/wisdom. And because it was a safe atmosphere, where there was error and misunderstanding (especially when people had little knowledge or experience in using such gifts), the intimate environment allowed for gentle but genuine correction. Perhaps our next "Simply Worship" service might provide such an opportunity - in fact I pray that it will. "Simply Worship" will take place at the Harquail Theatre this Sunday, December 16, 7:00-8:30 pm. 

Reason #3: To defeat a false dichotomy of Word=Head & Spirit=Heart
One of the great frustrations for Christians who tend to side with one camp or the other on this matter is how one is characterized or thought of by the other. I've witnessed those in "The Word" camp view the Spirit camp as less stable, less intelligent, less deep, and often misguided by their emotions. Likewise, I've witnessed those in "The Spirit" camp view the Word camp as dry, lacking in love & emotion, and far less open to work of God's Spirit. 

Let's look at what God says about this false dichotomy: 
Point #1: How can you say you are a person of God's Word and not possess a full heart of emotion & passion?
Most would agree, no New Testament book contains the lucidity of doctrine and theology as that of the Book of Romans. Justification by faith, human bondage to the sin nature, the purpose of the law in pointing us to our need for Jesus - awesome truths without which we'd be all mixed up about living for God and where we stand with Him. But Paul closes this portion of doctrine & theology not with some home-run hitting doctrinal zinger but with praise, glory, zeal - HEART:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
Point #2: How can you say you are a person full of the Spirit and not consistently read and think hard on God's eternal words? Paul criticizes those who possess a lot of passion when it is not based on knowledge of the truth. "I bear witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2), or as the New Living Translation puts it: "I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal." What a waste! Zeal thinking it's for God but has no direction - because it is not guided by God's truth. Likewise, those who are especially open to the Spirit, also open themselves up to "other" spirits (of the non-godly origin). Having encouraged prophecies, Paul says to "test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Likewise, the apostle John: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). How does one test the spirits? According to the Word of God!
Let my final word on this be that spiritual people need the mind of Christ and the truth of God and word-y people need to submit to the Spirit to understand any of it. I take my cue here from from 1 Corinthians 2:13-16:
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned..."For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
I have no problems boldly declaring: (1) Those who love, sing, praise, & pray to God with great sensitivity to the Spirit are missing out on depth and are far more open to deception without an abiding faithfulness to reading, listening, and then responding to God's truth. 
(2) Those who love, study, read, meditate on and listen to good preaching and teaching from God's Word are missing out on unseen opportunities and far less open to God's doing more than we can ask or imagine without consistently asking for the Spirit's leading in prayer, His help in service, and His anointing in speaking.  

Word-Spirit / Truth-Power / Head-Heart. With respect to each of these, I gotsta agree with my son:  Why can't we have both? 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mailing it in defines Mailing it in as: slang for doing the least amount of work possible to produce a adequately finished product. 

I want to be honest with those whom I am privileged to serve as their pastor - I mailed it in this past Sunday. 

I continually get to experience the grace of God (His love for me made active through a undeserved gifts) - and last week was no different. I had some wonderful times of fellowship with folks in the church and Katie and I were led one sweet night last week to stop our busy-ness and spend an evening giving thanks and praise to Jesus. But basking in the glow and a spirit of contentment, I mentally/spiritually felt myself begin to mail it in as it pertains to Sunday worship. Joshua 9 contains such a straightforward and practical message about seeking the Lord in prayer when making important commitments - I felt I had a pretty good handle on the passage (pride!) and decided I'd focus on enjoying my kids and the beautiful back half of the week/weekend (the best time of year weather-wise in Cayman has begun - breezy & cool). So while I worked on the sermon, put together an order of worship, and coordinated with other key Sunday Worship co-laborers, I sort of just trusted the Scripture passage and my heart to get in the right place in the nick of time. But upon arrival Sunday morning, I felt distanced from others and everything going on -- this distance continued during and after the service as well. So, first of all, I'm sorry dear brothers and sisters of the Sunrise Family. I did not serve you well. I also don't mind saying: If Sunday's message encouraged, convicted, or produced fruit through you, then it is entirely by the grace of God!! Praise be to Him!

I don't know if you've experienced a similar phenomenon - your heart begins to distance itself ("prone to wander, Lord I feel it" as the great hymn says) from what God has called you to do and how he has called you to work - as an employee, as a husband/wife, as a mom/dad, as a member of a community, as a volunteer. I have too. And I've had better moments, where God helped me to stop mailing it in before it started

Here are three strategies I've found helpful for putting a stop to a mail-it-in moment:

(1) Pray for those whom you serve and those with whom you work.

I don't know the nature of your particular line of work or vocational calling. Some of you serve others fairly directly in your work- nurse, teacher, HR, sales, pastor, etc. But for those of you whose work affects other companies with a very slow trickle down effect to real people, even still you recognize your work affects more directly those with whom you work - your example of working hard and working hard so they never feel they have to pick up your slack. 

One of the ways to stop a mail-it-in moment in your work is to care so deeply about persons involved to the point that you would desire and believe your work would provide significant benefit and/or growth in their lives. 

How do you care more about persons you serve or with whom you work? It's not a matter of thinking of other people more. According to a report published by the U.S. National Scientific Foundation, our brains produce somewhere between 12,000-50,000 thoughts per day. Of these thoughts, 10-25% are directly fixed upon other persons. This means that at least 1200 thoughts you have per day are about other people. And yet you don't necessarily walk away from a thought caring about that person more. The thought just passes by. 

The apostle Paul gave us a great example of how to care about such persons more - taking an otherwise passing thought and praying it. For Paul, prayer would lead to love and love would lead to prayer - a cycle of praying passing thoughts about others whose GDP is love. Listen to how Paul's prayer for the people of the church in Philippi lead to love and then love leads to prayer:

[Notice a thought...a 'remembrance' leads to prayer] I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from this day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. [Here comes love!!] It is right for me to feel this way about you all because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. [love that now leads to prayer] And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more...(Philippians 1:3-9).

It's easier to persevere in the work your doing when your love increases for those who stand to potentially benefit from the work. 

(2) Make sure you enlist others to be prayerfully invested in your work.

When I pray for something for someone, I am invested. I wish to know what happened. What did God do? How did something I got to be a part of turn out?

You might not believe it, but a simple weekly request of your Community Group or a group of close friends to pray for you will help them become more invested in your work - even if you have, in your opinion, the most boring job in the world (#3: Construction Flag-Traffic Person; #2: Exit Sign Designer; #1: Pillow filler). 

And when you know others are praying, it gives you more confidence that God is at work in your work. He is helping you, using you, and doing things in and around you which you previously never even thought or conceived of.  

In the above passage from Philippians 1, notice Paul had enlisted the Philippians who were "all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel." Paul's life work was a defense and confirmation of the gospel. The Philippians were prayerfully invested. As were the Ephesians, whom Paul also enlisted: "Pray also for me, that words may be given me so that I might fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I might declare it fearlessly as I should" (Ephesians 6:18-19). 

I have enlisted a few key individuals, who showed interest in praying that God's Spirit would powerfully use my preaching, the worship, greeter teams, audio-visual volunteers, children's ministry workers to greatly glorify Himself on Sunday Morning. They have now begun to gather about 30 minutes before the service to labor in prayer. I have a higher level of confidence knowing that my persevering in my work will be worth it - it is going to be used by God as it prayed for by friends!!

(3) Work hard and expect second-hand results

Christ's hard, literally excruciating work on the cross for us produces in us a surety about our spiritual status before Him (we are in the Family!!), which in turn produces great contentment and deep joy. Yet He asks us to respond to His work with work of our own. This response, thus, does not include: "Let go and let God." This was my mistake last week - I understood God's work for me but misunderstood what was the proper response. I let go and let God -- and so let my work go. 

The Bible says I ought to work hard on my growth as a Christian (Philippians 2:12), to work hard at the mission God has assigned me (Colossians 1:28-29a), and work hard at my job (1 Corinthians 15:10c). So I should expect to work.

But as I work, something funny sometimes happens: I trust that my hard work ought to produce results. Such that, if those I serve or with whom I work don't immediately respond to my work, I am prone to become insecure some times, depressed at other times, and embittered at still other times. Such that I am tempted to mail-it-in next time around. 

Our Father knows the human heart, however. So He reminds us of something else - there is Someone else working with and through us. So the Apostle Paul completes all the above thoughts about hard work: 

  • It's "God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13)
  • I struggle to live out the mission God has assigned me "with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Colossians 1:29b).
  • When working hard at my job, I'm reminded with Paul: "It was not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10d). 

In each case, the Lord is faithful to show up in my hard work - to give me strength to do the work and the grace to produce results that possess a certain authority and finality. I'm reminded of Joshua, who in between inconvenient, mundane obedience (circumcision and observing Passover - Joshua 5) and daunting but thrilling obedience (marching around a city while singing with friends while they waited for the miracle of crumbling walls - Joshua 6), has the pre-incarnate Christ visit him in the form of a Warrior, sword in hand. Help with the very task with which he needed help and results. Jesus present to initiate, then join, then win the fight! Jesus produces second-hand results as Joshua works hard. Jesus is the second (and most important) hand.

A slightly more modern person who exemplifies this tension of hard work and second-hand results is George Mueller. Mueller preached in a local church every week for over six decades in 18th century Bristol, England. But he most is famous for his tireless work with orphans. Through Mueller's work and influence, the care of orphans in England skyrocketed from 3000 to over 100,000 by the end of his life. Mueller famously said about work: "Work with all your might, but trust not the least to your work." 

In other words, don't expect your work will secure for you anything or yield results in-and-of-itself. Unless the grace of God goes with you, does the work, and produces the results, it will be in vain. And Mueller lived out this saying. He never (never!) solicited charitable funds for his orphans. He simply prayed and relied totally on the grace of God - monies would show up, often anonymously, at his doorstep and often just as the last shilling had been spent. He didn't trust His own efforts but for God to work.

You do your part, trust Jesus do His. We are freed to persevere well in our work when we can trust God to take care of giving us the strength to do it and producing the results to win the day! If people don't respond to your work, well, that's His problem. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Political Debates: Some things we'd like to hear

I no longer live in the United States and now consider Cayman home. Nevertheless, while I do not always wish to engage in the political process, I am still a U.S. citizen and do feel I have a responsibility to stay informed and ultimately vote. I am also admittedly further motivated by the fact that my vote counts toward the State of Florida - a historically closely-contested State where votes really 'matter.' So, yeah, I have been watching these U.S. Presidential debates. And I know even some of you non-Americans have as well (in part because 95% of our media here in Cayman is American-based). 

After the first couple debates (including all the gross exaggerations, unrealistic promises, and run-of-the-mill venom therein), I started jotting down some things I wished to hear in a debate. Most of them have to do with just being refreshingly forthright and honest. Certainly feel free to comment if you have any more you'd like to hear:

  • "On that issue, I basically agree with everything my opponent said. He summed it up pretty well so I won't waste anyone's time by needlessly talking any further."
  • "It's good that you brought that up, because I shouldn't have said that. It was a mistake and I'll tell you why."
  • "There's a simple explanation for the apparent inconsistency of my position: I've changed my mind. Every good leader changes his mind from time to time. I've changed mine and here's why."
  • "I'm not going to promise that. Some - even most - things are out of my control. And while I can't promise that, I can commit to do my best."
  • "My opponent is stronger or at least more knowledgable in that area than I am."
  • "I won't pretend to know or understand every American's hurt."
  • "It's possible for me to disagree with their decisions, their ideas, and their convictions without despising them. Just because I don't think everyone is doing what is best does not mean I don't want what is best for everyone."
  • "There are some sacrifices we will need to make over the next 4 years that will likely affect each individual and the comforts to which he or she is accustomed."
  • "There are a number of problems that neither government nor politicians can fix. That doesn't mean we don't care, it just means we are not gods nor should you expect us to be."
  • "You raise a complex issue to which there is no clear-cut answer. I can understand why my opponent thinks the way he does, but let me try to explain the trade-offs and why I think my position makes more sense."
  • "I don't know."
  • "I do have weaknesses and more than just: I care too much."  (Side note: Saw a debate a while back featuring three candidates who were asked: "What is a weakness of yours?" The first candidate refreshingly responded: "I'm not very strong at organization but, knowing that, I try to hire people who are." The next two candidates slammed him and proceeded to say their only weakness was "they care too much" and tend to, thus, get impatient when they can't enact positive change as quickly as they'd like...I proceeded to immediately gag.")
  • ""I recognize that this is an unpopular position, but let me explain why I hold it."
  • "That's what she said."
Ironically, should any of these ever be uttered, they would likely be viewed as "gaffes" for which the candidate would get utterly slammed by media, late-night comedians, etc.

For those interested in realism, my good friend and fellow pastor, Aaron Graham of District Church in Washington, D.C., put together a thoughtful, helpful, & very brief (only 4 points!) piece on how a Christian should engage with the political process. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Should Christians participate in Halloween?" (re·dux)

(This post is a re·dux of something I posted around this time last year. It seemed to be helpful to some folks - or at least received a lot of reads for my humble blog. So I thought I'd re-post now that we're in to October. Enjoy.)

"Should Christians participate in Halloween?" 
Admittedly, this is a strange image.

Every year I've managed to dodge this question fairly successfully - preferring to respond: "But the real question is: Should Christians participate in Valentine's Day? The origin of love according to Hallmark and the Peanuts card that Ramsey Rives gave me in 3rd grade is a Greek mythological figure who shoots arrows -- not Yahweh. Well, that's heresy right there (see 1 John 4). Okay, I'll wait for that. This is a legitimate and serious question and I've been asked by a host of persons about it this year. Katie and I have actually given it quite a bit of prayerful and biblical consideration over the years so here we go...

A word of grace. Wherever we land on these types of gray-area issues, I always encourage folks from Romans 14:4: “To his own master a servant stands or falls.” In other words, We each will have to give an account to God but we should not demand others give an account to us. But we often do demand, don't we? If not in word, through our attitudes or our judgments toward others about 'other' things (but really, it's all about that thing).  Pressing accountability is not true of every or even most issues. Most issues aren't matters of Christian liberty or gray-areas. Most issues Scripture is pretty clear about. So while we should refrain from being demanding of accountability about drinking in moderation, watching R-rated films, or perhaps (??) certain language we use, the same isn't true for "sleeping with someone" before marriage - some will argue that this is a gray-area issue so they can keep doing who they are doing  but Scripture (not to mention wisdom!) gives us clear instruction with regard to "keeping the marriage bed pure" (Hebrews  13:4). So with this issue of Halloween, some will walk away happy, even smug with what the Oelschlagers have decided to do, while others will be infuriated. Which is why my intent here is not to change a person's mind as to whether they should celebrate it. It ain't gonna happen. My hope is that, by considering the matter from God's Word, we extend further grace to persons on both sides of the issue.

Where I my "Megatron" costume. I do not think it is wrong for Christians, who have a clear conscience in doing so and are not causing a ‘weaker’ brother to stumble, to participate in Halloween. Let me give a few thoughts to support that statement – allowing God’s Word to be our primary guide.

The counter argument. The two major points against Halloween:  (1) That we are celebrating an ancient druidic/Celtic holiday in which spirits of the trees were worshipped and (2)  add to that the continued existence of modern day witchcraft, sorcery, ghoulishness still celebrated today around Halloween (even though isolated & amongst a small minority at least in Cayman's varied cultural landscape). These are both serious matters. We are called to be “in” the world yet not “of it” (John 17). So we are equally called to guard our hearts from evil yet also be a friend to sinners. 

God’s Word. While it doesn’t speak to this issue directly, it does speak to a surprisingly similar issue. Namely meat sacrificed to idols/false gods/demons. 

1 Corinthians 10:19-31:  19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?  20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.  21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.  22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?  23 "All things are lawful," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.  24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.  25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.  26 For "the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof."  27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.  28 But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience-  29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience?  30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?  31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

A few notes:
Conscience. If your conscience (see also 1 Corinthians 8) doesn’t allow you to participate & if God has convicted you it’s wrong, don’t do it until/unless God changes your mind. Far worse to do what you believe God has told you is wrong than to do it doubting with every timid step.
     >>> If you can in good conscience, dress up your kids, have them walk around the neighborhood & pilfer candy from the neighbors (but "Take only One" if they aren't home), do it without being burdened. 
     >>> If because of your past, concern for your kids, deep belief/suspicion in dark spiritual forces being harder at work, don't do it even if you acknowledge someone else's freedom to do differently.
Idols & Candy. You might make the parallel of meat with Candy or with costumes. Were either dedicated to the Celtic figure Samhain or any sort evil spirit? Likely not. Could they have been, sure. Was that a Wiccan who just handed me a tootsie roll and cursed it with a spell that will make me prematurely bald? Perhaps. Is it likely? Depends on your culture, where you live, etc. But likely not (I hope someone put Rogaine in my bag just in case).
So verse 28: “BUT if someone says to you, “This party, candy, costume is in honor of Samhain who we believe to be the Celtic Spirit of Halloween,” don’t eat it, put it on, participate. Lest we cause a young Christian or non-Christian to confuse our faith in Christ with hypocrisy. 
Helpful? Then the next logical question comes from v.23: I can understand how the participation in Halloween can be “lawful” or “permissible” (NIV), but how can it actually be "helpful" or "build" someone up??  Great question (see two points below).

Your situation. If our children had a strange unhealthy interest in ghoulish, ghastly, fearful, & all things “dark,” I would certainly abstain. Also, if we weren’t being intentional about exposing our kids on a daily basis to the truth & light of God’s Word & the truth and light of the Rescuer Jesus Christ, then I might also be more hesitant about making much of any holiday lest they put all their hope & attention on a self-indulgent occasion to stuff themselves full of Laffy-Taffy (not to mention the potential of impish evil spirits...although they do act rather impish themselves after a half-bag of High Fructose Corn Syrup and a pint's worth of Red Dye #3) . If we ran into a haunted house or a block party that stressed the perverse, spiritual strangeness, fear-based entertainment, Katie and I would have no problems walking away from it. So I think, practically and with wisdom, you must take into account your own situation as well – being brutally honest about your spiritual state & influences.

Your neighbor’s situation. If you don’t think participating in Halloween poses a spiritual stumbling block for your neighbor (and that’s an important “if"), consider the immense benefit of participating, especially if you are trick-or-treating. There are few opportunities in our culture where people will actually walk up to our door and meet us face to face. There are few opportunities where we can actually walk up and down the streets in our neighborhoods with those who do not know Christ- and they will do this with you willingly and won’t think we are stalking them. Halloween can be a great opportunity to get to know people. I believe you have the opportunity to meet and enjoy some fellowship with the unbelievers God has put around you- and in a setting that they initiate. The ‘dangers’ of Halloween, for our family, do not outweigh these opportunities. Now, of course, being ‘separate’ on these days can be opportunities as well. It might be important to communicate your convictions by turning off the light and not answering the door. I'm sure in some contexts God can and does use this. But Katie and I have decided that we would rather be overtly engaging with those around us on this night with love and wisdom rather than abstain altogether.

The response of someone with a different conviction than me. I get pumped whenever people go to God's Word &, with the help of His Spirit, get it. This past week one of the person's with whom I engaged on this topic had a different personal conviction. She didn't begin to share my conviction about participating in Halloween, but she did look earnestly at God's Word & extended grace. Here are some excerpts from this person's response (which is right on!): 
Halloween is a very sacred day for those who follow Wicca - one of their most "holy" days which is where my struggle to feel ok about it all stems.   I fully realise that people aren't practising Wicca or celebrating anything with evil intent and aren't trying to glorify evil by celebrating Halloween so this is definitely where I get, just because I believe it is wrong doesn't make it wrong and it isn't wrong for somebody else to do it but if I believe it is wrong for me and I do it then it would be wrong.  Is that right?  LOL (YES it is anonymous person!!!!).....

I don't get any holy brownie points for choosing not to celebrate as opposed to another brother or sister in Christ who does but what I do get is that it is ok to feel the way I do about Halloween and at the same time make sure my heart is in check and not get self righteous and maintain a good heart attitude toward others that do.  Correct?  (Yes, and love the "holy brownie points" comment!)
In conclusion: No matter whether you decide to stay at home or participate, 1 Corinthians 10:31 is a good note to end on: 31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

I realize I responded to this question largely from a “family” point-of-view and you might not even have children, but I think trick-or-treating & carving pumpkins (not dance parties, club scenes, etc.) is where this dilemma is most visible. As just being at a club and partying is itself another dilemma over which we ought constantly to be submitting our hearts unto the Lord, examining our conscience, and striving to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of it’ (ie. In the world, but with a mission). 

To balance out my family's conviction with the equally valid personal conviction that it's not glorifying to God to celebrate Halloween, I provide for you (BELOW) this Halloween evangelism tract, which has no doubt graced the bags of many an unsuspecting child, for your amusement/edification. My favorite part is the clown and the lone ranger praying together to trust Christ. Makes me wonder: Can clowns know Jesus? (subject of my next post).

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Get to know our New Associate Pastor - Richard Bulbring

Just posted a brief bio & profile of Richard here on our website.

You can meet Rich, his lovely wife Tamryn, and their two cute chillins' (Noah and Annabelle) this Sunday, September 16th. They arrived safely on island last night. 

Please lift them up in prayer as they settle in, find God's perfect place for them to live (I know, it's [insert your neighborhood here]), and begin this journey with us! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Living together before Marriage: Two helpful articles & a question we should all be asking

Confronting cohabitation before marriage, I'm convinced, needs to be at the forefront of any strategy for healthy marriages over the next 20 years - in every church and for every every pastor, Christian counselor, and indeed every Christian. Whether you tend to be for it or against it, it is happening at an alarming rate and isn't going away. No less here in Cayman. This scenario is all too common among ex-pats in particular: A young single professional moves here and is looking for a roommate. He/she meets another young single professional of the opposite gender - maybe they even start dating or at least engage in a 'good-natured' flirtatious friendship - WA- LA!! "Why don't we be roommates?!" Problem solved.

Here are two articles suggesting that the problems are, in fact, just beginning:

This first one is actually from a secular perspective that was featured in The New York Times in April of this year. It provides very helpful statistics and insight as to why - Jesus and the Bible aside - cohabitation before marriage carries with it tremendous risks that the persons involved sort of unconsciously slide into. I am admittedly disappointed at the author's final conclusion. She almost seems to mount her argument only to 'give in' to the prevailing tide of cohabitation at the very end. Indeed, she fails to see the logical link between her assertion that 2/3 of Americans now see cohabitation as a step toward marriage (which she uses as a positive about premarital cohabitation) and the fact that this 'step' is likely still a 'test.' She seems to ignore that it is a test which no one can ultimately pass because the commitment that bonds together and sustains mutually beneficial living for both parties (ie. marriage) is noticeably absent - see next article.

This second one is from Family Life Today. It actually includes some overlap with the NY Times article (proving that, yes, the Bible does align with experiential, modern data - we should expect it too if it is truly inspired by God and authoritative for life!). However, it also debunks the helpfulness of "the trial run" theory from a biblical perspective. 

I just want to add one thought (okay, with a couple 'sub-thoughts'):

The question every person should be asking - married, single, child, elderly, teenager, potential premarital co-habitor. It comes from an often overlooked verse in the Bible:
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and the adulterous (Hebrews 13:4).
So two things. First, you may have heard someone say: "Does the Bible actually say not to have sex before marriage? It talks about adultery but that's once you are already married." You can say "yes" and, with a spirit of gentleness and love, point to Hebrews 13:4. The author, rather intentionally it seems, includes two situations that God will judge: (1) the "adulterous" (Gk. moichos), which refers to anyone who is specifically unfaithful to his/her spouse;  (2) the "sexually immoral" (Gk. pornos), which is a much broader term referring to anyone who engages in sexual activity outside the confines of marriage between a man and a woman. Premarital cohabitation, which despite anyone's best intentions and will-power, nearly always includes sex at one point or another falls into this latter category and was probably even an example the author had in mind while writing it.

Second, Marriage is to be held honor among all (ie. not just married people). So this verse is for my 8-year-old and 5-year-old also - Katie and I try to live out our marriage (through respecting one another, serving one another, being affectionate with each other, putting each other before even them) in such a way that they have a high regard for marriage. In other words, certainly any cynical singles who publicly scoff at married couples need to deal with Hebrews 13:4. Furthermore, the way you treat the girl/guy you just started dating, the manner in which you conduct yourself with your long-time boyfriend/girlfriend, decisions that you make with your not-yet-married partner reflects not only what you think about just marriage but also, according to this verse, what you think of the God who commands us to honor this gift He's given. 

So the question all of us should be asking: Will this decision honor marriage among the people around me?

These are people who are still looking for hope, looking for a different sort of life - Does your relationship reflect that difference?

(And now may God give us the grace and discernment to take these truths and apply it lovingly to conversations with our friends or apply it to our own cohabitating lives!)