07 November 2017

Finding Hope

Finding hope can be hard.  Keeping hope alive can be harder.  We watch the news in horror far too often.  We struggle with personal problems and fears.  For some those struggles are like the occasional thunderstorm, for some they are like a relentless rain.  Our minds are continually engaged with the reality of suffering, whether of others or our own.  

If we have any awareness of history, we know that human suffering is not new to any generation.  The first family in the Bible experienced a domestic murder, and it has never ceased.  People hurt others and themselves.  So much dysfunction.  So much brokenness.  

Yet even when we get a lull from the carnage blowing up our Twitter feed, we still struggle in daily life with the lack of resources, addictions, abuse, relational dysfunction and the material and social gap between the rich and poor.  And we can lose hope. 

But what is hope exactly?  Hope is a feeling.  It is a good feeling coming from the expectation of good things to come.  It is a feeling that has the ability to redirect discouragement as merely a temporary setback, and it will not give in to despair.  It causes us to be resilient.  But it is also more than this.  Beyond the feeling, which can fluctuate greatly, it is a confidence of good things to come in spite of hurt, disappointment, loss, lack, and pain.  It is a confidence that can persist even when material life is uncertain or even disastrous.  

Hope as a feeling and a confidence is always founded on something.  And our hope is only as strong as that source.  So, the question is this: What am I resting my hope on?  Is it the government?  Is it my family?  Is it my own strength and ability?  Is it my savings account, pension or 401K?  And what happens when my source of hope suddenly falls apart?

In a Christian worldview hope is built on the revealed truth that our existence is credited to our Creator, who purposed a design for our lives.  At the heart of this design is our purpose to know God and find our satisfaction in Him now and forever.  Furthermore, this purpose is only to be discovered and realized through faith in Jesus Christ.  Yet the human brokenness around us and in our own lives causes us often to lose hope.  But in those moments our search for hope can lead us to the right source.  Hardship can be the catalyst for embracing the truth and hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or, that same hardship can lead us down a path of self destruction and despair.  

According to the Bible, our brokenness is the result of sin.  And sin is the willful disobedience of God's commands.  God has revealed that this reality of sin has impacted all creation.  Sin has corrupted God's original design, including every person's heart, mind and will.  Yet, Jesus is about recovering that original design.  Through him death was conquered and a way was made to have forgiveness of sin and favor with God.  This is the good news that gives a confident hope in our lives.

If you're tired of the brokenness in your life - whatever that may be - then consider what God has revealed in Jesus and His Word.  You may be trying to do your best, yet on the inside you feel the hopelessness. It's easy to try to find purpose and hope in material things and in relationships.  And for a while it seems to work.  But in the end, only confidently knowing that all is right with the One who created you will give you true and lasting peace, contentment and hope.

If you're ready to embrace the hope that is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, talk to someone you know who believes this.  This Sunday, go to a worship service where you know the message of Jesus will be explained and where you will have the opportunity to respond.  And you will find hope and so much more.

27 September 2017

Reformation 500: Why It Still Matters Today

October 31, will mark the 500th anniversary of what historians have overwhelmingly agreed as the event that launched the formal beginning of what we call the Reformation.  At the center of the controversial movement was an obscure Augustinian monk in an insignificant German town whose search for peace with God drove him to scripture and his frustration with exploitation compelled him to activism. Both quests set him on a collision course with the established norms and authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
 
The Reformation was, of course, the birth of Protestantism, which manifested itself in various forms in short time.  It was also a revolt against the religious establishment which many considered corrupt in teaching and practice.  This conflict was intense, fracturing western civilization within its religious, political and social spheres. Because of the wedding of state and church in sixteenth-century Europe, bloody conflict between states and within their own citizenry resulted. 

Now, 500 years later the hostilities have long since ceased. Catholics and Protestants are no longer at each other's throats.  In modern western civilization, we now cherish individual freedom in regards to matters of religion.  We have effectively compartmentalized government and religion so to keep them out of each other's business, even if occasionally we find ourselves debating which has the proper jurisdiction on a certain issue.
 
500 years seems to separate two worlds completely foreign to one another.  Those of the sixteenth-century could not have imagined such individual freedom and the toleration of certain beliefs and behaviors today.  Conversely, we can't imagine people literally killing each other over what we would consider religious issues. Because of this stark contrast between then and now it may be natural to wonder why the Reformation should matter to us today. Why celebrate it?
 
Among all the complexities of the Reformation - within all its triumphs and tragedies - two key aspects of its significance for faith stand tall.  These two matters still need our historical appreciation and current attention and application.
 
The Reformation offered revolutionary answers for two vital questions:  How do I know what I should know about God? And, what must I do to have favor with God?  The reformers' answers to these turned the common notions upside down and ignited a true spiritual awakening.
 
The first reason the Reformation still matters – the reformers boldly established the Bible as the supreme authority for the church.  The Roman Catholic Church asserted that three sources of authority worked together - the Bible, the papacy, and the official laws and customs of the church.  In theory these three sources of authority worked harmoniously together.  In reality, educated men, like Martin Luther, saw clearly where popes and councils and scripture had often contradicted one another. 

The reformers defied the powers in charge and declared that for matters of faith that the Bible alone was authoritative. It was no longer a matter of what the church hierarchy declared to be true, but whether doctrine and practice was upheld by the clear teaching of the Bible.  Protestants shifted their allegiance to scripture and away from institution.  This continues to be of vital importance for us today.

Our culture suffers from the church’s a lack of biblical authority.  Individualism rules the day and our own personal right to our opinion is often our most sacred treasure, even in the church.  Our intellectual default is to respect each other's opinions, which sounds reasonable, tolerant, and enlightened.  However, it's pure nonsense if our goal is to know truth.  Truth by nature is specific and absolute, not subject to my opinion.  I am subject to it.  We have no problems with this when it comes to subjects like math or physics.  However, many push back at the notion of an absolute religious truth to which we must submit, especially in matters of morality.
 
The Reformers took Christians back to the Bible as the authority for matters of faith.  The Word of God would no longer be subject to the control of the church; it would be unleashed so it would dictate to the church the truth of God.  Today, we need to be grateful for this rediscovery of proper authority for the church and for every individual Christian.  This still matters today. 
 
The second reason the Reformation still matters - the reformers, through the Bible, recaptured a biblical understanding of how each of us can have forgiveness and the favor of God.  This understanding became captured in the phrase justification by faith alone.  In other words, personal salvation was not the result of earned merit through a sacramental system of religious works and observances.  The Roman Catholic Church had conditioned people to think of salvation as doing.  Protestants seized upon the biblical truth that salvation was about believing after which came the doing.  Salvation was through grace through faith solely based on the merits of Christ. 

Today, this still must be repeated over and over because human nature continues to want to earn God's favor.  Martin Luther found himself desperately seeking to accomplish various aspects of devotion in acts of penance and spiritual disciplines.  However, he never achieved peace in his soul, but only became more aware of is own hopeless sinful condition.  Only when he was enlightened to the truth of the Bible - that the just shall live by faith - did he finally encounter the truth that brought spiritual transformation and satisfaction for the soul.

We must never lose sight of the biblical truth for each man and woman.  Reconciliation with God comes through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.  Our relationship with our Creator is not based on what we can bring and offer to Him; it is dependent on faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  And if that faith is real, then it follows Him, loves Him and keeps His commandments.  This still matters today.
 
The Reformation is not dry, dusty irrelevant history.  What we wrestle with today in regards to questions of authority and how we have favor with God is exactly what they were wrestling with then.  Their voices still speak loudly to these matters to which we need greater clarity and stronger conviction.  We would be wise to renew our commitment to that which they sacrificed so much.

29 August 2017

Following Jesus Begins with a Commitment to Corporate Worship

I've recently arrived at what was an "ah ha" moment, but it probably should have been obvious to me after all these years in ministry.  Here it is: Sunday morning worship is the beginning of the believer's progress in true Christian discipleship and the foundation for wanting to share the Gospel. If a Christian doesn't have a commitment to  gathering weekly for worship with his church family, he will neither progress to a more mature discipleship nor to sharing his faith with others.

A commitment to weekly worship is how a believer can first demonstrate that she is truly following Jesus.  One might object here and say, "I don't have to go to church to be a Christian!"  I wouldn't technically argue with that.  But I would have to question the maturity of a Christian who wants to defend that statement.  If you're a nominal worship attender, let me ask you a couple of questions.  Are you truly growing as a disciple of Jesus by growing in the Word of God and learning to live a more God-honoring lifestyle?  Are you sharing your faith with others?  I would guess the honest answer would be "no" to both.

Here's the point: If we want to be engaged in real, life-transforming growth as followers of Christ, we can't reach that with a half-hearted commitment to weekly worship. Gathering consistently for worship is the foundation for a natural progression of spiritual growth.  We must have an intention to be regularly present.  And when we are present we must nurture our attention to be on God's worth and the welfare of others around us.

When we come to worship with spiritual focus, we become active participants rather than passive spectators.  We learn to be God focused and less me focused. We share in exalting Christ.  We practice being Spirit-filled and tuning into what God speaks into our lives through the preaching and singing of His Word.  I believe until we do this regularly, we will have little desire to grow in faith or share Jesus with others. Of course, simply warming a seat each week out of a sense of duty or tradition won't really do it either.  However, authentic, personal worship in a corporate setting is the catalyst that causes us to want to grow in faith and share the Gospel.  Anyone I know who seeks deeper discipleship and takes the time to be involved in outreach programs is already a faithful attender of weekly worship. But I have never observed a half-time or less worship attender faithful to small group discipleship or outreach efforts. 

Now, listen to what I'm actually saying.  I'm not saying you can't be a genuine Christian and be uncommitted to Sunday worship.  And I recognized some people have careers that may require their presence on some Sundays.  But if you can choose to be in worship most of the time, but don't, you will not progress in your relationship with Christ like you could.  It's just not going to happen.  Let me tell you why.

Jesus said that the one who wanted to follow him had to "deny self, take up his cross daily, and follow" (Luke 9:23).  This following is a first-priority commitment to make myself second to Jesus - period.  If I can't begin to follow Jesus by making Sunday worship a priority, then how will I successfully follow Him in stuff that takes even greater commitment?  Furthermore, worship takes practice to get it right.  That may sound strange, but think about it.  We have to learn what worship is, what we're doing, and why we're doing it.  It takes practice to get all that straight in our minds and hearts and get dialed into what worship really is and what it is not.  If we are absent most of the time, then we can't get better at it.  This is why it's critical that pastors teach the congregation these things and that those leading worship have a sound, biblical understanding.  Gimmicked up worship leads people's minds, hearts and emotions in the wrong direction to the wrong things.

The purpose of corporate worship is to declare God's greatness and goodness to God Himself, to each other, and to unbelievers among us.  And when we do this God receives glory, we are strengthened and the lost are draw to Christ.

When we learn to worship, we essentially tune ourselves spiritually to make more of God and less of ourselves.  We begin to hunger more for His Word, have a deep sense of gratitude for grace, and delight in His beauty.  We learn to trust Him more and find our greatest satisfaction in our relationship to God through Christ.  Only when this begins to happen will a desire arise in us to pursue God with deeper discipleship in small groups, personal Bible study, prayer, service, and consistent giving.  Only when we worship will we develop a passion for the Gospel that will compel us to be trained to share our faith more effectively. 

The fact will always remain that Jesus called us to follow Him with our whole lives.  He said, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).  The point again is real commitment.  Jesus made it clear that loyalty divided is no true loyalty at all.  We can't say we follow Him and at the same time gaze longingly back for this world.  It's an all-in commitment. It's us who think we can make that commitment less than He made it and still think it's a real commitment.  

If we desire a satisfying relationship with Christ, then we have to be all in, whatever that means and whatever that costs.  This pursuit is a life-long endeavor.  No one ever arrives.  However, a simple way to progress spiritually is to shift priorities away from all those activities that consistently displace worship to a serious commitment to gathering for worship.  This is the  prerequisite for nurturing a desire to grow as a disciple and becoming an effective witness for Christ.

If your enthusiasm for Christ isn't what you think it should be, then I would challenge you to be honest about your attitude concerning corporate worship.  If it truly doesn't constitute a firm priority for you, then I would suggest there is a direct connection between your level of dissatisfaction and your absence from worship.

Maybe you would take the following challenge.  Make a six month commitment to make weekly worship your greatest commitment for Sundays.  If at all possible, choose to put it first and don't allow other things to take you away from it.  Come with the attitude of submitting yourself to God, listening attentively to the preaching of God's Word, and participating enthusiastically.  Don't expect it to be perfect, but expect God to work in your life.  Don't expect your spirit necessarily to soar immediately, but do expect change to emerge.  If you do this, don't be surprised if God doesn't whet your appetite and give you a desire to want to get closer to Him, more involved in your church, and a burden for those who need to love Jesus the way you will.   

Finding Hope

Finding hope can be hard.  Keeping hope alive can be harder.  We watch the news in horror far too often.  We struggle with personal proble...

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