Archive for September, 2012

Welcome to the Friday Forum: a place to have some friendly discussion about issues that arise when Christianity and secular life “rub against” each other. There is no right or wrong here, just different ways to deal with things that come up. Each week I will post a topic, and my thoughts on it, and we will see where the comments take us!

I came to faith in God late in life, and only recently moved into a leadership role in my local church. In secular life I have been in construction one way or another since high school, both as employee and as owner, and so I have some knowledge of running a business. The non-profit model is very different, however, and so I find myself caught between conflicting worldviews, with different desired outcomes.

We are a small Southern Baptist church, on the fringe of the city limits – as inner-city as it gets in Houston. Founded in the late 50’s, it served a vastly different community than now exists – one with much less diversity and much more money – and like many small churches, we are shrinking…older members are passing on to glory, and drawing new people is a challenge for everyone today. Many of those who do come are barely getting by themselves. Shrinking membership and shrinking donations mean hard choices need to be made, and we have made them, and will continue to do so…but at some point, doesn’t it reach an end? When you can’t pay the bills, what do you do? How do we serve the people who are coming, who need a spiritual home?

Finances are not the only issue, of course; it’s part of a larger malaise…a clash of generations and of ideologies. I am not going into particulars, because it doesn’t matter… in the end we are divided, and without unity of spirit, no amount of money will ever solve the problems. The breach hinders our fellowship, blunts our prayers, grieves the Holy Spirit of God Himself. We cannot continue like this, but I see no reconciliation, only attrition.

This pains me deeply, because I care for and about these people…my church…my family. I am working hard to learn how to answer the calling God has placed upon me (to shepherd His flock as a pastor) and I am starting right here, as a deacon and teacher, at this church. I don’t want to see it fizzle, and I don’t think it has to; but I am beginning to feel I am in the minority. And if that is true, then maybe it should fizzle, and we should all go serve in a new and different way – maybe we needed a little “dispersion” to shake us out of our complacency. I don’t know, I’m just grasping at straws.

So here is the forum topic for this week:  If  a local church is suffering and struggling due to internal divisions, to such extent that  it can no longer sustain itself financially, is it better to hang on as long as two people are willing to meet in a dark building; or to end the dissent, move on, and find more fruitful opportunities to serve somewhere else?

Post your comments below, I will reply throughout the week, and next Friday we will discuss a different topic.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

I have written here before about some of the challenges my wife and I are facing while she battles breast cancer, including the obvious financial difficulties. This has been a great time of faith-building for us – trusting God to provide all the needs, and He has not let us down (although the lessons on the real definition of “needs” have been moderately painful…I never knew exactly how selfish I am, until now.) Now I am facing one of my greatest personal challenges – a time of success and prosperity.

All truth be told, by American standards I have been poor most of my life. My dad made a decent salary, but he lived a frugal life in general…what we had was good quality, we just didn’t have very much…so I learned to be content with only a little, and never saw him deal with money in any real way…he just said, “We can’t afford it,”, or “We don’t need it.”, and that was it. ( I still prefer reading a book to seeing a movie, and my taste in clothing runs toward the cheapest jeans, t-shirts, and tennis shoes I can find.) The problem was, I didn’t stay poor. I spent eighteen years learning and moving up in a construction trade, with the salary increases that come with that kind of longevity, and I have nothing to show for it and almost no idea how to manage it. I have defaulted on credit cards twice, and now live exclusively on cash, because I am just a little afraid of money. Years ago, I placed my faith in my bank account and my ability to earn a living, and both of those let me down every time. Recently, I placed my faith instead in the Lord, and He is good, all the time…but I don’t trust money any more, and I have trouble using it wisely; sometimes I get amnesia and start trusting in my own abilities again. That’s about the time catastrophe strikes, and all the money goes away, and I am reminded again where my life comes from. Many times, soon after this some situation comes up that tests me spiritually, and I realize that, had I still been running on my own strength, I would have badly failed…but because He had quickened me in repentance, I was focused on Him, and able to endure. This happens so often, I now view every financial crisis as a precursor to spiritual attack!
So being broke during Karen’s illness has not been a terrible hardship. We know that we are remembered and cared for, and that is enough. But just as the tide which goes out must at some point come in, work is picking up, and the money is coming back, and I am terrified. My inner man, “the flesh”, as Paul would say, responds to this news with indignation: “I much prefer not having to be faithful with my finances, because there aren’t any… it’s so much easier that way! Having wealth brings more work and more responsibility, don’t you see?” I am appalled at how many times I agreed with that voice, and set about ruining my life to make the money go away. I no longer need to do that, but learning new behaviors is hard.

I am not expressing any profound insight, today – I wanted to share a real struggle I face, and ask for your prayer. I feel we need to confess the areas we are weakest in, to open ourselves to receive God’s healing and grace, and that is what I am doing. I invite you to do that also – seek out some area of your own life, where you know the right thing, and you try, but it’s scary and you don’t believe you have the hang of it yet, and confess that weakness to God and to your brother. I encourage you to give it a look, and comment here if you like: we can pray for each other, and share some stories of how great God is!

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

“We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone”

-Martin Luther

That line from an old Pink Floyd song pops into my head from time, usually when I’m feeling in a rut. The song tells of a wasted life, spent “running in place”, expending effort to no avail, and oblivious to the real race already in progress…that is the horrible part. I can kind of understand choosing to stay on the hamster wheel – no surprises, an easy routine to maintain, no one expects too much from you – I wrote previously about adult children who will not grow up. But to suddenly find out that your life’s work has been…not even wasted, but moot?!? That would be enough to stop anyone in their tracks, wouldn’t it? Who could want such a thing? It turns out I did, I just didn’t know it.

I was 37 years old when I realized that I had spent most of my adult life, and a ridiculous sum of money, time, and energy, driving and pushing and straining to become something I suddenly found out I could not achieve…I was trying to be my own savior. My unspoken personal ambition was to have enough (whatever) to never need anyone else, and then to have so much that I would be able to give to anyone who needed… but only so they would know how wonderful I was. Of course, I knew that nobody can be their own savior, in any sense of the word. (Didn’t make me try any less…I once sat through a two-day motivational seminar, and came away with one quote – “The impossible is only what I haven’t done yet.” Pretty much meant I was not allowed to quit, even if it seemed pointless.) I did not want to admit what we all know, deep down: we all need someone else; the richest man alive must have someone to buy from or sell to, or his wealth may as well be worthless piles of sand; the great actor needs an audience; even the lonely hermit needs someone to run away from. Spiritually, we are none of us are complete in isolation, nor sufficient for eternity. The bible teaches us that God exists in community apart from His relations with man; and that we are made in His image; so community must be a necessary part of us as well, and especially community with our Maker.

There are some problems with the idea of needing community with God, though, aren’t there? First, it means I am not God. I am not the final authority on my life, and I must answer for my decisions. It also means that there can be no community unless I acknowledge His authority, as my Lord and King, because that is who He is, and He will not receive me in anything other than truth. My plan to be the hero for everyone else goes off the rails, too, since it is predicated on filling my own needs first. Look at the mess this makes of all my presumptions and pretensions! And I wanted this?

All I can say is, I was relieved when I finally ran out of ideas, plans, plots, schemes, lists, methods… and excuses. I had been away from home twenty years, and still needed my dad to bail me out (sometimes literally). My first marriage had fizzled almost instantly; the second was on the rocks after ten years of stormy sailing; I was a raging workaholic; and alcohol and cocaine had done more than a fair share of damage by then. Then one day, Karen looked at me and said she was leaving, with the kids, and she would call tomorrow – to find out which I wanted to keep:them or the drugs, because I couldn’t have both anymore. I sat there, in a dark, empty house – the lights were off because I had put the money up my nose – and I asked myself what I really wanted. Hours passed, and the only answer I had was…something I didn’t already have. At this point, I can only describe it as a vision appeared. It was a door, simple yet elegant, rich wood, plain knob. The door was closed, and there was a warm, inviting light coming from under the door…a light which only made my dark room seem even darker. I understood I was being offered a choice: stay where I was, with all that I had around me; after all, it was all mine…or open the door and step into that beautiful welcoming light. The door was not locked, but there was a cost to open it. I would have to step out of my hamster wheel, accept whatever or Whoever I found on the other side of that door, and learn a new way to live. It was not a difficult choice to make; keeping it has been another thing entirely, but I would not go back for “all the kingdoms of the world”.

So there are days when I feel short of breath, and days I feel closer to death. But those things no longer frighten me. I try to have the attitude of Paul:  in his patient endurance, made possible by grace; in his steadfast effort for the Kingdom of heaven on earth, and most of all the joy of knowing what awaits me when I do die…”To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21)

Following hard after Him,

Nick

One Calling in the Wilderness…

Posted: September 24, 2012 in Sunday school
Tags: , , , ,

(On Mondays I will be presenting an abbreviated version of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, verse-by-verse, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wants us to…as the holy Son of God, the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.  Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.)

Having set the stage with his prologue, the Apostle John now introduces the actors through a series of “the next day” stories. John recounts the baptism of Jesus from a unique perspective – that of the Baptist himself. We are allowed the glorious opportunity of seeing a prophet of God witness about the fulfillment of what he has been proclaiming. We also have insight into the earliest roots of Jesus’ public ministry on earth – calling His first disciples, and demonstrating who He is to them and to all who will see: He is the Son of God. Verses 19-28 comprise the “first day” of the series, and we see John the Baptist being interrogated about his identity and authority.

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”  He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

(v. 19-21) – When reading John’s Gospel, it is necessary to keep historical context in mind. When John uses the Greek word “Ioudaios” (lit., “the Jews”) to describe those who question and persecute Jesus and His followers, he is not condemning an entire race. He has in mind a specific group of Jews…the political and religious leaders of the Sanhedrin, represented by two main sects – the Pharisees, who taught in the synagogues, monitored adherence to the Law,  and controlled public opinion; and the Sadducees, who oversaw worship, commerce, and the courts from within the Temple. John clarifies here when he says. “the priests and Levites”, referring to both those who studied Mosaic Law, and who by tradition served in the Temple.

So why would the Temple officers be questioning some guy who spends all his time standing in the river, yelling about repentance and the Messiah? Well, for one thing, John the Baptist is already a minor celebrity in Jerusalem – his father was a priest, troubled by disbelief; his mother gave birth at an advanced age; and he was vowed a Nazarite at birth, a vow which he kept his entire life. (Luke 1) His ministry of baptism in repentance, in preparation of the coming Messiah, had been received very well, and rather a large group of followers had formed, and word was spreading.  Also, what John preached did not make sense from a Jewish perspective: While it was necessary for a convert to Judaism to be baptized to “purify” them from Gentile uncleanliness, there should be no reason to baptize a Jew – being Jewish was enough! They were “born ready” for the return of the King…or so they thought.

They accost the Baptist, demanding he identify himself, by suggesting a series of historical figures, each having a return foretold in the Scriptures: first, the Messiah, literally “the Appointed One”, promised to save God’s people from death and despair; next, Elijah, the OT prophet predicted to return just before “the day of the Lord” (Mal 4); last, the Prophet, a unique individual expected to appear in fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses to raise up a prophet “like him” to lead the people in repentance and freedom. (See also this reaction to Jesus.) The Baptist rightly declares he is none of these.

 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ” Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands One you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”  This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

(v. 22-28) –  The priests, having run out of people for the Baptist to be, and getting desperate to get the answers they were sent to get, finally ask the plain question, “Who are you?”, and wait for an answer. The Baptist obliges them with an answer that carefully establishes his reliability as a witness in Jewish courts of law. We will see later why this is important to the structure of his testimony.

He first explains his mission and his particular role in it, by quoting Isaiah 40:3, claiming to be nothing more that a voice – with no recognition of self, not even his name. The Baptist views his role in terms of how it serves God’s larger plan of salvation, not how it serves the Baptist (an implied contrast to the familiar self-promoting nature of many contemporary “prophets”).  Implicitly accepting that explanation,  and his previous denials, the priests then question the authority by which he baptizes. John replies by pointing indirectly at Jesus as his authority, further declaring that He is already among them, they just do not know it yet. (The Apostle makes a frequent refrain of this theme that Jesus is present in but not received or recognized by the world, and it is only by and through God’s power that He is revealed.) The Baptist then uses a familiar image from daily life to illustrate the magnitude of glory revealed in Jesus – the lowly task of removing sandals. He is making a contrast between the apparent status that he is held in (as evidenced by the crowd of followers, and by the interest in him shown by the priests) and his actual status, relative to Jesus. Since the Jews have seen the Baptist and know him, they have a reference point to apprehend how much greater than he Jesus really is. Here again, cultural context is critical to understanding the whole text.  All the prominent cultures of the New Testament – Jewish, Greek, and Roman – contained the idea of levels of social status, extending even to the servants and slaves of the time. The worst jobs went to those of the lowest status, and one of the very worst jobs involved cleaning the feet and footwear, and as such only the very lowliest slave would be subjected to such humiliation.  It is this abject subjugation, John says, that his own worldly status falls short of, when seen relative to Christ, God”s Anointed One. John the Baptist, here as always, preachs that he would be surpassed by the One to come, as it should be.

Next week we will continue in Chapter One, verses 29-34, as John the Baptist, having established his credibility,  continues his testimony the next day.

Welcome to the Friday Forum: a place to have some friendly discussion about issues that arise when Christianity and secular life “rub against” each other. There is no right or wrong here, just different ways to deal with things that come up. Each week I will post a topic, and my thoughts on it, and we will see where the comments take us!

I am very blessed to be the father of four young adults; a blended and blurred conglomeration of kids I acquired over the course of  two marriages, with women who had history before my story – only one of the four has my DNA, but they all have me! God has used them to teach me an awful lot about Him, and about myself. I was not the father they should have had, in the beginning, but they lived; and we laughed, cried, loved, and did the best we knew how. They have grown with us in the Lord as well, starting from zero eight years ago, but like many others their ages (23-26) they are restless and straying away from the straight path. Their stories vary, but the common threads span across an entire generation it seems: a profound refusal to accept responsibility for anything, coupled with a bizarre inability to think more than five minutes into the future. This wasn’t learned by example – both I and their mothers  taught, demonstrated, and rewarded hard work and thoughtful planning, including being honest when we didn’t do it, and so becoming the perfect negative illustration. And it worked, sort of… They know the right answers, they just don’t care to take the test. I resist the temptation to feel guilty (mostly), and I pray and plead and talk to them constantly. I set limits and boundaries, because there are limits and boundaries in life, and we all have to learn to abide; they don’t push the boundaries,exactly…they won’t even acknowledge the boundaries exist, or would ever apply to them if they did.

We have run out of options, and frankly out of patience…the two living with us are about to become homeless; the one living away on her own isn’t getting any more money or sympathy; the married one is going to have to learn how to depend on her husband rather than her daddy, even if her husband isn’t all that dependable. I am amazed at the reactions – not the kids, of course they hate it – but friends, family, even church members are shocked:  “How could you turn you back on your children! What kind of a parent are you! God blessed you with them to love and care for, and you aren’t doing it! That doesn’t seem very Christian to me! You’re only thinking about yourself!”

So here is the forum topic for this week:  Is “tough love”, holding your kids accountable for their bad choices, even if it hurts them to do so, a proper Christian attitude? Post your comments below, I will reply throughout the week, and next Friday we will discuss a different topic.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

It’s Thursday of a treatment week, and that means it is relatively peaceful in the house tonight. Karen spends most of her day in bed during this week – the combined side effects of eight different medications leaves her pretty much exhausted just sitting up.  So, I spend the majority of the evening at my desk, listening to her sleep, and writing…and praying.

Prayer has become a wonderful thing to me…meaning I spend a lot of time wondering about it.  I have “discovered” something life-changing about prayer I never realized before, and maybe you never did either. Follow my reasoning, if you will… Since God is omniscient and eternal, He already knows what I am going to pray; in fact He has known since before I was born, before the earth was created. This belief creates a wonderful intimacy, because I cannot control His opinion of me by what I  tell Him about me – He already knows exactly who I am and what I have done, and He will still have to do with me in spite of that, actually BECAUSE of that! That just blows me away, to experience such acceptance and love unconditionally…and it shames me when I don’t love Him back the same way.
What’s that? A Christian who doesn’t love God? Heresy! No, just a ruthlessly honest self-appraisal: I do not love God unconditionally, at least not all the time. In truth, I don’t love anyone unconditionally, all the time. I know this to be true because of how often I find myself angry at the very people I should be loving, because they let me down in some way. They broke a promise, or said something mean, or made a choice that went against me in some way, and I take it as a personal affront. I become resentful. I withdraw, lest I get disappointed again. In short, I stop loving them. It’s not only people, I treat God the same way, any time He isn’t performing up to MY satisfaction. I become forgetful, losing count of all He has already done to demonstrate who He is, because my eyes are filled with my own image, not His. And grace overcomes even this. He is patient, waiting out my rants, my whining, my complaining, my blaming…yes, I take all this before Him, because I know He already knows; because it is safe to rage and roar and weep and wail before Him, He isn’t surprised at my behavior, He already saw this from the beginning, and still He waited for me to reach this place, this time. Then, once I am spent, and empty of myself, and still and silent…He speaks to me. He forgives me. He loves me, and He heals my ragged heart; He fills my empty cup; He lifts my burdens, and places His yoke upon me, and it is light to bear. I am blessed, because I follow Him, and accept His love for me.
I did not learn this kind of prayer all at once. There were years of talking at God, then talking to God, before I began to learn how to talk with God. I am not done learning: the most important lesson so far is that there is always more to learn. The second most important lesson was the real meaning behind the title of this post – letting go, and letting God. We must let go of delusions of control, of pride, of anything which our hands grasp on to, before we will be able to let God love us like He wants to. I just wrote a whole bunch of words to say the same thing that the Apostle Paul manages to say in just two verses, so I will give him the last word, from Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)

“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Following hard after Him,

Nick

More Words for Wednesday

Posted: September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

We are not made with the ability to always make right decisions. However, we are made with the ability to MAKE a decision…then go about the business of making it right.

 

Andy Andrews, from his blog

Words for Wednesday

Posted: September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

“In the university marketplace of ideas, Christian religious belief is generally held suspect because most assume that, lurking beneath the surface, is an absolute argument for truth that wants to upend secular systems of thought and faith. They are right.”

-Gary Burge

John:  The NIV Application Commentary , p.185

…will be back to try again later! That isn’t how that the old saw normally ends, but here lately that feels like the core truth – we may get stronger after a particular adventure, but we are not finished! Let me build that out a little.

Yesterday Karen went for her second chemo treatment, and so today we know the side effects will be on display.  (That interview I promised with her is in the works, hope to have it later today.) Her first round taught us much, and overall she came through like a trooper…but now she is facing it again, and she knows it will be back at least twice more in this stage, and then weekly starting in November. I am concerned, not so much about her body (the doctors are well qualified to maintain her physical health) but about her spirit.  I know from experience how frustrating it can be to want to do things and be too sick to do them; but when the treatment makes you sicker than the disease, it can really screw with your interior logic, and doubt finds a foothold. It can get hard to believe that the outcome is worth all the pain…that there is any purpose which justifies all that we are going through. Sometimes it can even appear that we’d be better off just letting the sickness run its course, and dealing with it later on, when we are “stronger”. That of course is dead-end logic, because problems almost never get better by themselves. In physics, the word “entropy” describes the idea that the universe cannot sustain itself, and that eventually decay and loss robs the system of energy, bringing it to a stop. William Butler Yeats expressed it perfectly:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

“The Second Coming”

The poet is inspired by the devastation of war, but cancer is a war too, fought on the most precious of home fronts – our very own bodies – and a survey of that battlefield can be even more disheartening. We ponder over what remains after destructive forces which are supposed to “save” us have spent their fury…and we despair, “Is it really worth all this?”

Beyond the body, there is an unseen battlefield: that of the spirit. As Christians we are told the spiritual battle is the most important, the one with eternal consequences, and therefore we are best prepared when we avail ourselves of the protections heaven offers…the armor of God.  There is a reason we need such mighty protection – it’s not a one-time fight! We will be assailed again and again, simply because we choose to remain faithful.  Jesus tells us many times that this is to be expected; one of my favorite instances occurs in Revelation, when Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that He knows about their sufferings, but relax – it’s going to get worse! And then He reminds them of the reason we endure…because the reward is worth the pain it costs to get there.

Cancer hurts, and it kills. Curing it appears to hurt worse, but Karen’s prognosis on the other side makes the cost worth bearing, we believe. In the same way, sin hurts, and it kills. Once we turn away from sin, seeking the cure of forgiveness in Christ, life can seem to hurt worse than the sin did. But we have a glorious prognosis on the other side of this life, and we believe that makes all we have to suffer to get there worth every step.

Following hard after Him,