Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Rejoice in the Lord always."

Yesterday a man whom I was privileged to call a friend went home.  Charles Butler was called from this life to be in the presence of Jesus Christ, his faithful Lord and Savior.  I believe Charles lived on this earth for 87 years.  It was but for a time, with much that was good and also with its share of struggles.  Charles has left us and is now in his Lord's presence, forever.  And much as he loved life here, with his family and friends, the place he is now is his true home.   

I didn't meet Charles until fairly late in his life.  And I think that by the time I began to consider him a friend the illness that claimed the life of his wife, Marilyn, was already advanced.  My perception of his later years was that his greatest loss was his wife and his greatest longing was to see her again, which I have no doubts happened yesterday.

Among my own memories of Charles, the most dear are the ones of the mornings we spent together in prayer.  For a number of years we were involved in the leadership of a men's ministry and one of the activities of the ministry was a regular prayer meeting on Wednesday, before work.  The number of people present varied but for several years the core of the group was Charles, another man, and myself.  As Charles got older we moved the meeting to his home, so that it would be easier for him to attend.

Good prayer meetings begin with scripture.  Sometimes one of us would open a Bible and read but often it would be Charles who started us, reciting from memory either Psalm 51:1-12 or Philippians 4:4-7.  In the Philippians passage Paul says this:

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."[1]

Today Charles is rejoicing with a gladness that overflows and will never end.  The Lord is near to him in a way that I can only imagine.  His Savior has been faithful and brought him home, to join in the everlasting praise of His glory.

[1] Quoted from the 1984 translation of the New International Version.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Finding Our Way

When I left Rochester for Dulce I received a gift from the leadership group at our church.  It is a picture with a Bible verse on it.  The picture is an outdoors scene, showing a path through a forest.  The path is made of wood, with a few steps going up in the distance, and the Bible verse is this:  "Teach me your ways, O Lord; Lead me in a straight path." 

According to the picture the verse is Psalm 27:11.  I can't fault the wisdom of the Psalm.  It is good to seek guidance from God.  It is good to ask God to show us His ways.  We should want to stay on His paths and not run off other ways, going according to whatever whims or temptations catch our attention.  And if God's path is straight, so much the better.  It is so much easier to follow a straight path, one that we can see a far way down, than one that winds and only reveals itself gradually and in small pieces.

So I was looking at that picture and thinking of writing something like I just did in the previous paragraph, when I opened my Bible to read the verse. And it turns out that Psalm 27:11 says something just a bit different than the picture in my office.

"Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies."

That verse is from the English Standard Version of the Bible but I did a quick comparison and something similar is in all the major English translations.  David, the author of the Psalm, does want the Lord to guide his path, but there is more to it than just that.  David is in great danger as he seeks God's direction.

On Sunday mornings this summer and fall we have been working our way through the first letter of Peter. One of the consistent things has been the presence of hardship and suffering among the people Peter wrote to, and the ways that they should live as Christians in the presence of that suffering.

Peter and David are both teaching us the same thing, which is that life as a follower of God in the world is a life in which hardship naturally follows.  And in reading each of them we see that we need for God to provide the direction for our lives.  There is no other way.  If God does not guide our path we will stumble around in the wilderness, becoming more lost with each step. 

There are many things about God we won't understand during this life.  Why we have to go through any particular hardship is one of those things that we rarely understand until after it is over.  But we do know that God will show us the way.  Let us seek to stay close to Him, in good times and bad, knowing that the path He shows us through any trial will always be the one that brings us a bit closer to Him. 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

To persevere

I have served as the pastor of the Jicarilla Apache Reformed Church for just over one year.  Something I have learned about the people I serve is that when it comes to prayer and the desires of their hearts, they persevere. 

In my Webster's Dictionary the word "persevere" is defined like this: To persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counter influences, opposition or discouragement. 

Here is what I mean.  Each Sunday as we gather for worship there are three ways that people share the things that they would like prayer for.  One is healing prayer.  We invite anyone who feels a need for healing to come forward, be anointed and prayed over in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

On any given Sunday between four and ten people come forward.  I bless and anoint each person by name and then we invite anyone else to come forward and lay hands on the group as I lead a prayer for them.  No one ever shares what it is that they desire healing for.  If I know the reason it is something I have only learned incidentally. 

The second way prayer is shared is through verbal requests.  Before beginning our congregational prayer I ask if anyone has anything they desire to be lifted up in prayer.  This past Sunday there were 16 different requests.  Some are very broad and others are specific.  They can be about situations in the world or our community.  Most frequently they involve friends and family members.  It is common to ask merely that a particular person's name be brought to God, trusting God to provide whatever it might be that is needed in the situation.

And the third way prayer is sought is by private request.  We always have some slips of paper available and people write down the people and situations they desire prayer for.  They put the requests in the offering basket or pass them to me after worship.

Each of these various ways of seeking prayer shapes the way I pray for my congregation during the week.  I have the things that were shared publicly and the private requests, and I try to remember who came for healing prayer. 

Here is where perseverance comes in.  As a congregation we have prayed, and as their pastor I have prayed, for a number of people and their same requests, for as long as I can remember.  To apply the dictionary definition, we have persisted in prayer in spite of counter influences, opposition and discouragement.

I serve among a people who know that God isn't some kind of overly generous grandparent, who always gives us what we want whenever we ask. 

I serve among a people who know instead that God is God, and that God acts in ways that we don't always understand, but in ways that are always good.

And I serve among a people whose receive answers to prayer.  For one person the counter influence of alcohol may be at bay for the day.  For another there is respite from opposition during the time we gather for worship.  And another may know encouragement as they feel the hands of others laid on their shoulder as prayer is lifted up. 

On the reservation I see the struggles of people's lives differently than I would if I served a congregation back in the Midwest, where we came from.  And I see a different way of people persevering, in prayer, with faith that God hears them and will one day answer them.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 17, 2014


I was over at our church building this afternoon, getting ready for a funeral tomorrow.  In our liturgy this kind of service is known more properly as a "Christian Service of Witness to the Resurrection."  In practice with my congregation we don't use that language, not because it isn’t right or good, but because at a funeral I am the only one holding anything more than the card from the funeral home in their hands.  Those words, Witness to the Resurrection, should have prepared me for what was going to happen today. 

I was going through the service, from beginning to end, aloud and with the sound system turned on.  And I got to the Apostles Creed.  The words of the Creed are:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy, catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.  Amen.

I was aware that as I was reading the last paragraph I was reading more slowly.  And as my mouth said "the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting" my brain was saying "Wow!"  It was a breathtaking moment.

We have all had those moments that we call breathtaking.  They are beautiful and powerful.  They usually catch us a bit by surprise.  Sometimes we know that something good is coming, and yet when it does come we find ourselves amazed.

Some of the places we find those moments are in sunsets; the first glimpse of a newborn baby; the kiss when the minister declares a couple to be man and wife. 

Today, preparing for a funeral tomorrow, I was reminded what all the breathtaking moments of our lives are intended to point towards.  They point to the most breathtaking moment possible, the one when Christians will pass from this life into the next.  When Christians will experience the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, life everlasting in the presence of Jesus Christ, their Savior and Lord.

It will be a beauty that we can barely imagine on this side of heaven, and yet the sure promise to all who believe.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Lord is here

In my devotional time this morning I read Ezekiel 48 and Psalm 104.  In the last chapters of Ezekiel the prophet has been bringing hope to the exiles of Israel, telling them of the restoration that will come to them as God returns them from exile.  Chapter 48 is the final chapter of his prophecy, and the book ends with this sentence about the Lord's city:

"And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord Is There."

Psalm 104 is a psalm of praise to God.  In my Bible it has the title "O Lord My God, You Are Very Great."  In verse after verse after verse the psalmist proclaims the greatness of God.  He goes to great lengths in describing the greatness of God as evident in the work of creation.  And he responds to God in praise, saying this in verses 33 and 34:

"I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord."

I felt blessed in having these two pieces of scripture come together in my reading this morning.  Today, like so many days, the news of the world is bad.  Today it is Ebola and ISIS.  More recently it was Ferguson and Gaza.  Farther back it was smallpox and the Civil War.  And farther back it was an itinerant rabbi in Palestine.  And before that was the original bad news, when a serpent said, "Did God actually say?"

Yet in the presence of bad news that seems to have no end there is a truth that remains.  God is good, and all things are in His control, no matter how they appear in our eyes.  Ezekiel's prophecy was that the Lord would be present, eternally, in His city.  And the Lord is present, today, and every day, in this world.  The Lord is not just there, but He is here.  And He will not be moved.

And knowing that the Lord is here, I will sing praise to Him, today and every day.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Left Behind

Tomorrow morning I am going to be preaching from 1 Peter 4:1-6.  In verse 3 Peter writes this:

"For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry."

Peter is writing to teach and encourage Christians how to live as people who are very different from the largely unbelieving culture around them.  He gives them a list of the kinds of things that they may have done as an ordinary part of their lives before they came to have faith in Jesus.  These are things that they did in ignorance of God's ways, because they did not have faith and so they didn't know, and didn't care, about the things of God.   When Peter says that this list is what "the Gentiles want to do" he does not mean 'Gentiles' in the sense of referring to all people who are not Jewish, but in the sense of all people who do not have faith in Jesus.

And the key for us here is this phrase: "For the time that is past suffices."  We have done these things, or things very similar to them.  We have come to learn that they are sinful.  And in Jesus we have been forgiven of our sins.  Peter hasn't written a complete list of every sinful behavior, but he has given us a list that helps us to see the kinds of things that displease God.  I think that this list is saturated in selfishness and living for the pleasures of the moment, without any thought or care for anyone else.  But "the time that is past suffices."
Have you ever gone on a trip to visit someone that was very dear to you?  The trip ends and you get into the car to drive home.  You look in the mirror as you drive away and see them waving at you.  If it was in your power you would turn the car around and go right back to continue your visit.

Our sin can be something like that.  We are forgiven in Christ and heading in a different direction.  We look in the mirror and see it calling for us.  We remember how, in our ignorance of sin, we used to enjoy those things.  We may feel a yearning, a strong yearning, to go back.

Peter is saying to us: "Those things are in the past.  Drive on down the road and don't look back at them.  Don't let desire for them arise in you again.  They are left behind, and rightly so."

We can't remove any of our sin from our past.  It happened and we can’t undo it.  But, in Christ, we can leave it behind and be glad to be headed in a different direction. 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

From Everlasting to Everlasting

"Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God."  Psalm 90:2

This past weekend our congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary.  I'll admit that the congregation's beginning might not have been on the first Sunday in October of 1914.  We do know that the church building was finished and its first worship service was on Christmas, 1914, so it seemed reasonable to set an October date for the celebration.  The first members had to be gathering by sometime in the fall, and Dulce, New Mexico, as beautiful as it is, is not the kind of place people seek to travel to in the winter.  So the first weekend in October it was.

It was a busy weekend.  We had a dinner and program on Friday evening.  Saturday morning there was worship and the biannual meeting of the Rocky Mountain churches of our denomination.  And Sunday we gathered for worship, followed by a potluck lunch.  It was a lot of activity and a lot of fun.

Many people took part in the different activities of our celebration.  There were current church members and their families.  Several community leaders, along with members of other local churches were present.  National leaders of our denomination made the trip to Dulce, along with a contingent of people from Denver who hold this congregation dear to their hearts.   

With all of those people present many pictures were taken and have begun to circulate.  My personal favorite is this one.  It is one I took, with my phone, intending to capture something of our gathering as we shared the potluck on Sunday afternoon.  I wound up capturing something unexpected.   

This congregation goes back 100 years, and my family and I have been here for just one of them.  As I look at the picture and recognize individuals I see people with deep roots in this church.  I see the pastor who came here in 1994.  And the wife of the pastor who came in 1989.  And the pastor who came in 1973.

I see people in their 7th, 8th and 9th decade of life who have shared memories of this church from their 1st decade.  Those are precious memories, and I feel privileged to have heard them.  It never occurred to me when I was taking the picture that so many people would be recognizable in it.  And when I look at it I see many people who have become dear to me over the past year.

The Jicarilla Apache Reformed Church has been present here in Dulce for 100 years.  Our celebration was an opportunity to look back, and to look ahead.    

The 100 years of ministry, the three days of celebration, the instant of a picture, are insignificant in comparison to the "everlasting to everlasting" of God.  But each child of the God in this picture has a preciousness in His sight that we can barely grasp. 

I am thankful to have been a part of the centennial celebration of this ministry, but, more than that, I am thankful for each person whose life has been changed, eternally, through this ministry, people who will one day be joined with their Savior, in His eternal glory.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.