Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Answered Prayer

Today is my first day back from a week's vacation.  As is always the case in coming back from time away there is much catching up to do.  To say that it has been a bit chaotic would be an understatement, although that is in part self-induced.  Besides catching up with last week I am also dealing with preparing for another week off beginning next Tuesday.  On the one hand is a larger-than-normal amount of things to do, while on the other hand are seven days to use wisely.  All in all today has gone very well.

Among the surprises of this morning was an unexpected visitor to the house.  He had stopped by, looking for me, once about two weeks ago and I was gone at the time.  He came back today and we connected.

This man is someone I've met before and see very occasionally.  I ran into him three times in late July and haven’t seen him since.  I haven’t seen him but he has been on my mind, because I know he has a problem with alcohol and his name has been on a list of people I hold in prayer over that issue.

I often think that alcohol is a huge problem on the reservation.  I don’t know if it is such a huge problem by itself, or if that because I am a pastor here that I am more aware of it.  Either way, one result is that I have a list of people who struggle with alcohol that I pray for.  Another result is that when we gather to worship on Sunday morning we regularly ask God to be active in this community and in the people we know who struggle.  We ask God to set boundaries, to bring hope, and to bring healing.  We don’t know what those things might exactly look like but we do believe in asking them of God and trusting the results to Him.

This morning I saw two answers to those prayers.  The first was in the man who came over to the house.  He has been sober for 12 weeks, which is awesome.  I pray that God would continue to work in him, day-by-day.

And the second answer was that he was looking for me to see about expanding the AA program in our community.  Our congregation doesn’t have direct involvement with AA but we provide meeting space for them twice a week.  Or I should say three times a week, because just before leaving on vacation they asked for an additional meeting day, beginning this coming Saturday.

Or…I should say five days a week, because my visitor this morning was asking about adding two more meetings.  And not only are the opportunities increasing for people in this community who are seeking help as they struggle with alcohol, the number of people willing and able to lead those programs has increased.  So I guess that makes three answers to prayer.

What does an answer to prayer look like?  For me today it looks like visible evidence of God at work bringing healing and hope in this community, one person at a time, one day at a time.

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.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Until He Comes

Last Sunday I preached from Mark 13:1-23 and today I preached from Mark 13:24-37.  In this chapter of the Bible Jesus is teaching His disciples about what we might call "end times," i.e. the time when Jesus returns in power and glory and God's judgment on the world comes to pass.  My sermon titles were, "The Coming Judgment, Part 1 & 2."

This morning after the sermon we shared the Lord's Supper.  In the picture is my view from the front of the church, where I look towards the congregation while I preach.  This picture is taken before our worship service began, while I was getting things set-up, and there are two things in the picture I want to touch on.

First is the preaching of the word.  My Bible sits open on the pulpit, with my notes next to it.  There are a few tabs hanging out of my Bible to make it easy to find passages I want to refer to during the sermon.  Being the 21st century I could very easily put those verses into my notes, but my preference, when it comes to reading God's word, is to read it from the Bible itself.

There are possibly almost as many theories to the act of preaching the word as there are preachers.  I belong to the group that believes that, in some way, Jesus Christ must be lifted up in every sermon.  He is the center of the book; the hero, if you will.  Many preachers are quick to begin with the Bible and then move off to their pet topic, usually resulting in a sermon that either moralizes or spiritualizes the biblical text.  

The places in the world where we can get spiritual and/or moral lessons are virtually endless.  The places where we can hear of the unique love that the Living God brings to the world through the person and work of Jesus Christ are few.  Week by week I try to be a preacher who does that with the people God brings before me.  And I will admit that it is a task in which I still have much to learn.

The other thing to notice in the picture is the table sitting in between the pulpit and the pews.  It is in the process of being set-up for us to share the Lord's Supper as a part of our worship.  

Among the words I speak as we get ready to share the Lord's Supper are 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, where Paul says this in verse 26:

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

Mark 13 is a glimpse of the end of the story, from the lips of Jesus.  Or perhaps not quite the end of the story, but what C. S. Lewis called "the beginning of the real story," the time when all of God's children are gathered with Him forever. 

Every time we gather at the table to share the meal Jesus has given  us we strengthen our faith and remember the very good promises of eternal life that He has made to His children. 

And every time we share this meal we give witness to the world that we believe He will return one day.  We proclaim a life that was given over to death for the salvation of all who have faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  We do this church by church throughout the world, "until he comes."


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, November 19, 2016

Trusting The Ending

A number of things have surprised me in the aftermath of our recent presidential election. 

The first thing was the identity of the winner. Early in the election season I had decided that, in my opinion, neither of the people who would emerge as the candidates of the major party would receive my vote.  Consequently as the election season moved on and the pool of candidates decreased I paid less and less attention to both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, which, for all practical purposes, meant I didn’t pay much attention to the actual election.  I figured that Clinton would win, and was surprised when she did not.  Poor candidates, each in their own way.  One of them won.  Time to move on.

And so the next thing that surprised me was the lack of "moving on" happening in some portions of the electorate.  Outrage over the result.  Protests.  Typing in ALL CAPS online.  Many people do not like how the election turned out but I imagine that the generally held opinion that the United States is the greatest country in the world has not changed.  Celebrities who promised to move to Canada should Trump win have abandoned their promises.  One of the things that makes this country great is that since Washington-to-Adams, we have a 219-year history of peacefully transferring power from one government to the next. 

The third thing that surprised me was the level of lament heard within the church, specifically by people who pastor congregations and preach the Word of God each Sunday.  Again, my belief is that these were two very poor candidates, and so I don't think it really made much difference if Poor Candidate B emerged the victor over Poor Candidate A.  And yet for some pastors the outcome compelled them to make significant changes to their sermon last Sunday.  When compared to eternity I think the outcome of a presidential election in the United States is not particularly significant.  When compared to the struggles of daily life in places like the Middle East, the outcome of a presidential elections is not particularly significant. 

And the last thing I want to mention today as a surprise was the level of lament noted above that was found among pastors of my own tribe, i.e. pastors  located within the Reformed tradition.  These people, whose roots are in the theology that emerged in the writing and preaching of John Calvin, and whose confession of faith is grounded in either the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity, should understand the idea that come what may, God is sovereign.  His rule, His providence, His promises, are unfailing and they may be found in even the worst of events.  And world history, over just the past 100 years, has some pretty horrible events.  These are pastors who perhaps are not trusting in the ending.

I have been preaching through the Gospel of Mark and so last week and this week I am preaching Mark 13.  This is the chapter of the Bible where Jesus takes some time alone with His disciples to teach them about the coming judgment of God.  In a more concise manner than the Revelation of John, and perhaps with a bit clearer imagery, Jesus prepares His disciples for the moment in time when He will return in power and glory and this age that we live in will come to an end.

The chapter contains words of warning that hard times will come.  Hardship that will be clearly more intense than anything the world has ever seen.

We are also told that believers in Jesus won't be exempted from that hardship.  Jesus goes so far as to say that His followers will be hated for one very specific reason: Their allegiance to His name.

There are also words of encouragement.  Jesus will gather all of His followers to Himself.  No exceptions.  And also the promise that while heaven and earth pass away, none of His words will pass away.  Therefore Christians who are living at the time of Christ's return can face the hardship of those days, not in fear, but in confidence, that the one who holds them will never let them go.  They are His, not for a time, but for all time.

So as Christians let us read the news and follow the events of the day, but not as people who have no hope beyond this life.  As Christians let us be mindful of the days we live in, but remembering that they are but a moment compared with eternity in the presence of our Savior and Lord. 

In His kindness God has given us a glimpse of the end of this age and a preview of the age to come.  Let us live and serve God, trusting in the ending of the story.

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, November 16, 2016

It’s a Free Country?

For most people in the United States, the words, "It’s a free country" are a statement of fact, and not a question.  We citizens of the US treasure our freedom and we use that sense of freedom, for better or for worse, to justify all kinds of thoughts, words and actions.

I myself am a lifelong resident of the United States, the country I was born in and the country in whose military I served for four years.  But I find myself living in a part of it where there are a number of caveats to the idea of freedom, leading to the question that makes the title for this post.

For a little more than three years my family and I have lived on the reservation of the Jicarilla Apache Nation (The Nation).  The Nation is sovereign but not quite in the sense of other nations that we consider sovereign in their relationships with the United States.  For example, Canada has its own government, issues its own money and exchanges ambassadors with the United States.  Canadian citizens don't vote in the elections within the United States.  The Nation also has its own government but it uses the same money as the United States and is represented in Congress as a part of the delegation from New Mexico. 

The election season highlights some of the unique things about living on the reservation.  The reservation sits within two counties and I'm registered to vote in Rio Arriba county.  So last week I could cast my vote for president, congress and a number of other offices and issues relevant to New Mexico and Rio Arriba county.  But I live on the reservation as a non-tribal member and so I was not able to vote in the recent election for the Nation's president, vice president or legislative council. 

Going a step farther, as a non-tribal member there are rules and restrictions as to where I can go on the reservation.  I have no explicit rights to any kind of housing or the other benefits that are available to members of the Nation.  There is also a sense of restriction to what might be called "freedom of speech," in that there are a variety of things which I feel are "off limits" for me to express an opinion on.  For me to do could easily result in my being told to leave the reservation, which actually happened to a pastor here once.  I don’t write this as if  I feel suppressed in any way but merely as a statement of fact.  I live here, and serve God here, so long as the Nation allows.  This fact is basically true of all the non-tribal members living on the reservation. 

So I live as a citizen of the United States within the boundaries of land belonging to the Jicarilla Apache Nation, voluntarily surrendering some of those things I might ordinarily claim as within my rights as an American.  But I do so knowing that there is yet one other place to which I hold citizenship.  In Philippians 3:20 the Apostle Paul writes,

"But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…"

No matter where believers in Jesus live on this earth, they all hold in common the fact that their true citizenship lies elsewhere.  There are Christians living all over the world with  restrictions that citizens of the United States would never accept. 

You see, there is only one place where there is a truly free country.  The freedom there is not based on its geographic location but is grounded in the nature of its ruler, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Non-citizens may look toward it and shake their heads.  In so many ways it seems a country like any other, with rules and boundaries.  Give up the ability to live as I choose in order to live in ways that look more and more like the ruler's?  I don’t think so.

But from the inside the perspective is completely different.  In the presence of true freedom in Jesus the "freedom" given up in order to follow Jesus shows itself as just so much slavery. 

The United States is truly a great nation and there is none like it in the world.  But it doesn’t compare in the least to the freedom that comes in living as a citizen of heaven under the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"You Shall Be Holy…"

The 2016 election for the President of the United States is over.  Two major candidates.  One won, and the other lost.  Many Americans are relieved that the election itself is over.  There were strong opinions on each side and I had the sense that whichever side a person was on there was the feeling that if their candidate won all would be well and if they lost it would about the worst disaster that ever befell these United States.

After the election I got involved in a discussion where I expressed the viewpoint that in my opinion each of the major party candidates was disqualified from serving as President on the basis of significant problems with their character.  I felt their character faults were such that I could not vote for either one. 

That opinion received a bit of "push back."  How could I dare equate the character of these two candidates?

My response was to offer one example for one candidate and one example for the other. I said that it may be an "apples to oranges" comparison, but the result was the same, that their character faults were so severe that I could not vote for either one. 

I know that there were a lot of people voting who held reservations about the person they were voting for.  Their plan was to basically pinch their nose and vote for the lesser of two evils.  I had considered that option earlier this summer but here is the thing: A vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil. And when I considered my vote that way I knew the "lesser of two evils" wouldn’t be an option for me.

And this is where I am actually thankful for the post-election conversation push-back, because it helped me to understand my position from a point-of-view shaped by the Bible. 

The "lesser-of-two evils" argument makes a certain kind of practical sense.  We use it when faced with two poor choices and there doesn’t appear to be any other way to go.  And I will grant that the character faults I found in the two major party candidates may not have been any kind of big deal to many other voters.  Over 60 million people voted for each one.  Nonetheless, I knew that I, in good conscience, could not vote for either one.

As children of God we are not called to make choices solely based on their practicality.  Instead, God calls His children to live with a completely different point-of-view, one grounded in who He is.  In Leviticus 19:2 God says,

"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

God doesn't suggest that we consider being holy.  He commands that we who follow Him "be holy," and He commands it based on His own holiness.  And that command shapes our choices and way of living beyond the practical thoughts of the here-and-now. 

While it is a command of God, living on this side of heaven it is a command we can pursue but never fully achieve.  Our world is fallen and saturated in sin.  Every Christian will struggle with sin for as long as they draw breath.  But the Good News is that in Jesus we can know the forgiveness of our sins, those times when we fail to make holy choices and live holy lives.

So let us be people who live with open eyes to the world around us and the choices that lie before us.  Let us be people who seek to live in ways that reflect who God is and to shine His light into the world.  And when we falter, let us seek the mercy and grace that only come at the hand of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

Addendum: In a bit of irony I didn’t cast a vote for President last week.  I had intended to write-in my vote, only to arrive at my polling place and learn that write-in votes are not allowed in New Mexico.  There were eight candidates on the ballot.  Besides the two major party candidates I was only familiar with three of the minor party candidates and since I wasn't going to vote for them either I left the presidential choice on my ballot empty.  

Monday, November 7, 2016

Something That Will Last

Tonight it is Monday, November 7th, 2016.  And that means that tomorrow, November 8th, will be the end of a very long election season.  Sometime late tomorrow the people of the United States will know who the next president will be, a decision that will also, in a general way, give a sense of direction for our country as a whole. 

This election season has been long and polarizing.  Has it been more filled with harsh words, conflict, misunderstanding and fear than any other election?  Possibly, but possibly not.  Personally, I'm not that concerned with the end result either way, so I'll wait until after my Wednesday morning prayer time to turn on my computer and find out the end result.

Presidents come.  Presidents go.  Kingdoms come, and they also go.  As a country the United States has been on the scene since 1776, or 240 years, but one day it will come to an end.  That day may be soon or it may be several hundred years in the future, but one day it's end will come. Of that I have no doubts.

Something else I have no doubts about is the permanent nature of the word of God.  The Bible speaks of this in several places, including Mark 13:31, where Jesus says,

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

Those words came to my mind earlier tonight, as we were closing the gathering of the youth ministry we have in Dulce each Monday evening.  School-age children come for a time of fun and learning, built around the idea of teaching them God's word as a foundation for their life.  They come to learn, memorize, and understand the meaning of the Bible.  They come to learn something that has power past the span of their lives, however long that may turn out to be.  As adults leading the program we are making an investment in the children of our community that has both earthly and eternal consequences. 

On November 8th get out and vote.  The election is important but the outcome and its effects are only for a season.  So at some point during the course of the day take a few minutes or more and spend it in God's word, investing your time in something that is eternal. 

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, November 3, 2016

God's chemotherapy

One of the practices we have when we gather for worship each Sunday is to offer prayer for healing.  I extend an invitation for anyone in need of healing of body, heart, mind, soul or spirit to come forward. Sometimes I read the words of James 5:14, which say:

"Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."

Each Sunday anywhere from one to a dozen people come to the front of the church, where they stand in a semicircle.  I go around the circle and make the sign of the cross on their forehead, using a little oil on my thumb.  As I do so I say their name, adding, "I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."  Those who have come forward for prayer then join hands and I invite anyone who would like to lay hands on them as we pray to come forward.  When everyone is in place I also join their hands and offer up a prayer that God would bring the healing they seek, closing the prayer in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I never ask why anyone comes forward.  Sometimes I know, such as the Sunday following the sudden death of a member's daughter.  Other times I think I have a general idea, because of things I am aware of in a person's life.  And other times I just don't know, and I don’t need to know.  We are God's people, gathered to worship, and I pray with whomever the Spirit moves that morning.

Does God answer their prayer and bring the healing they desire?  Yes in some cases, and not yet in others. 

In three years as their pastor I have prayed with some people on Sunday morning many, many times.  Practically speaking, what is the point of praying with the same people each week, lifting their concerns to God one Sunday, and lifting them again the next Sunday, and the next?

The point is this.  Each Sunday I lift them to the Lord. praising Him, thanking Him, and asking Him to be powerfully active in whatever way it might be that they need healing, leaving the results and it's timing in His hands. 

In a sense our healing prayer is like chemotherapy.  I have a friend with an incurable cancer.  He was diagnosed several years ago and received an initial period of treatment that put the cancer into remission.  His doctors have no cure for the cancer.  All they can do is monitor its status in his body and regularly give him chemotherapy: powerful, nearly deadly medication, designed to keep his cancer levels low.  To the best of my knowledge he will receive chemotherapy for the remainder of his life.

Our healing prayer is like chemotherapy, in the sense that in its own way the prayer is an ongoing kind of treatment for something that is not right and for which we long to be made well.  But there the similarity ends, for where chemotherapy uses deadly chemicals, prayer is a treatment that by it's very nature brings life.   

The specific healing may not be provided immediately, or it may not come for a very long time.  But to approach the Lord God Almighty and to trust that His word and His promises are unfailing, is a powerful act of faith.  In the darkest storm of life the light of God may seem to be invisible, but in our prayer for healing we trust that it is there and we anticipate the day when we will see it in all it's 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.