Who was that masked man (or woman)?

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“Who was that masked man?” I was not a big fan of the Lone Ranger television show as a kid. I remember watching some episodes with my older brother, who was. I also recall hearing at the end of some of them the question asked by someone the Lone Ranger had just helped, “Who was that masked man?”

This all came to mind the other day as I was out doing our weekly grocery shopping. Among the many shoppers, the vast majority of whom were wearing masks, a familiar, if partial face approached me. We each tentatively spoke the other’s name and to our mutual joy, got it right. This person is a member of one of the churches Betsy and I regularly minister at. With most of the State of New York on shutdown, we hadn’t seen each other in nearly two months.

We exchanged pleasantries and inquired as to loved ones health and well-being, then went of our respective shopping chores. I had another encounter like this a little later as I approached the checkout line. This one played out exactly like the first because our identities were somewhat hidden behind the masks we wore.

As I contemplated the changes this entire Covid-19 experience has brought about, I got to thinking about masks. I think it safe to say we have all worn them, even before the pandemic. With varying amounts of guardedness we don masks to hide true feelings, for many reasons. Some of these are for our own protection or possibly the protection of others. I am not using my blog to chide anyone about this.

But I will comment about the wearing of masks for those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, with myself at the top of the list. To be clear, I totally support the wearing of PPE and following the recommendations for sanitizing surfaces and physical distancing in an effort to prevent the spread of this virus.

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(image courtesy of fedit.ukneeq.com)

The masks on my mind today are the hidden ones, or at the least the ones that hide our true identity. A devoted follower of the Lord Jesus is to be growing in His likeness day by day. No mask should hide this progress. Yet, speaking for myself, I must admit that I do put on various masks that obscure the living God within me.

One of the many of these is: the mask of indifference. Wearing this one prevents me from being able to empathize with the hurting world and worse yet, can keep me from trying to help.

Another ugly mask I slip on from time to time is one of self-satisfaction. This mask keeps me satisfied in my little world, not wanting anything or anyone to change the status quo I have worked so hard to establish. This mask can easily be turned inside out to be worn as a mask of judgment. Behind this covering I can easily judge folks as being unworthy of my time or stuff. An ugly mask indeed.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Much as the protective mask prevalent today hides much of our face, so these less obvious ones often hide our true heart and intentions. Wearing these less visible masks is in no way proper for the disciple of Christ.

This brings me back to the words Jesus shared with His original group of followers on the night He was betrayed:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35 NIV)

It is clear that in order to follow this command of the Lord (a command, not a suggestion), we must be rid of the hidden types of masks I mentioned above. How you and I demonstrate this love of others will vary with each of us. But one thing will be clear, our motivation will be to love others as the Lord has loved us.

Though the PPE mask I wear today will still partially obscure who I am to the folks I meet, God’s loving heart ought to shine through in all other ways. This makes my goal not to be acknowledged as the answer to the question, “Who was that masked man,” but rather that our all-loving God is revealed in my words and actions.

Blessings to you all and thanks for reading,

Pastor Chuck

 

It’s Personal: Part 2

 

Before we dive into Part 2, allow me to thank everyone who takes the time to read/comment on the thoughts I share.  It warms my heart that you would choose to spend some of your precious time with me.  As always, your thoughts and constructive criticism are welcome.  I only want to honor God in this venue; any suggestions you might have to help me do so will be greatly appreciated.

In Part 1 of this series we looked at the first three verses of the 23rd Psalm.  In them we discovered God describing His caring relationship toward us as a shepherd tending to his flock.  This truly is awe inspiring when we consider it is the Creator of everything who extends to each of us individually His care, guidance and protection.

This time let’s consider verse 4 (if you have a bible nearby it may be helpful to re-read all six verses of the psalm first).  There is a big change when we reach verse 4.  David, the author, is no longer talking about the Great Shepherd, he is talking to Him!

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 NIV)

Verse 4 begins with the recognition of the darkness that often engulfs us in this life.  The shadow can refer to physical death and the sadness it brings, or any other challenge in our life that wants to turn our attention away from God.  Grief can certainly be a culprit, just as disappointment and discouragement can be as well.

One of the important things to remember, especially when sadness and loss want to overwhelm you is that Lord, as your personal Good Shepherd, never leaves you.  The times in my life when I couldn’t/wouldn’t sense His presence was because I allowed circumstances to interfere with my awareness of Him.  One of the many awesome characteristics of our Shepherd is His omnipresence, He is always everywhere all the time.  I can’t explain it, I just know it to be true through faith.

Much as the psalmist now recognizes the personal presence of the Lord, we must too.  Acknowledging His presence doesn’t mean we simply bury our heads in the sand with regard to our pain.  To the contrary, being aware of the loving guidance of our Shepherd ought to encourage us to open our hearts to Him.  Verse 4 states that I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Here is another key point for us: We are to walk through this valley.  In other words, keep moving! Don’t get stagnant and wallow in a pool of self-pity.  Yes, the loss and pain you feel hurts.  Let it hurt, but don’t allow yourself to get comfortable in your pain.

We need to then find the way that works best for us to deal with our hurt or loss.  The best example of how to do this can be found in what David wrote next; I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Fearing no evil tells us to have complete trust in God, that His very presence as our Shepherd is the balm we need for our wounds.  His rod and His staff comfort us as well.  These are the tools the shepherd used to protect his flock from danger.  The rod was a club used to beat back predators.  The staff was used to guide the sheep along the right path and was also used at days end to count each sheep as it passed into the pen.

For us to know this level of godly care, we must allow the imagery of the shepherd protecting and caring for his flock to bring us comfort.  Our Great Shepherd knows exactly how to guide us so that we can live in His peace.  He can care for every wound we might receive as we occasionally veer off the path He makes for us.  It is this level of personal care that only God could extend to each of us.

If you are aware of your personal Shepherd’s presence today, I rejoice with you! If, however, you are not in that place, I gently remind you of how the Lord feels about the sheep that have wondered: He leaves the ninety-nine in safety to go retrieve the one missing.  Why? Because it’s personal; to Him as well as us.

Is God Non-Denominational?

 

I am blessed to live and minister in an area where there is a great amount unity displayed among the various Christian churches.  Many of us have been able to recognize that God calls us to work together for His purposes.  This is not to say that the pastors I know, along with other church leaders, aren’t caring for their individual flocks.  They are, but they manage to do it in ways that keeps their focus outward toward the greater community, where there is still so much need.

Allow me to share several examples of the unity of the Spirit that exists here.  One Sunday per month a different church will host a community worship service.  Upwards of 11 different fellowships will be represented at one of these.  The hosting church supplies the worship music and those who organize these gatherings bring in preachers/speakers from outside our immediate area to help us see even more clearly God’s plan to reach all people.

Another way in which God displays His unity is through the Saturday morning prayer group.  Every Saturday morning at 7 (that’s right, 7 am) this group has met to pray, seeking to know God more deeply that we may be better able to minister His love to our community.  The group has faithfully gathered for the past 6 years for this purpose.

God calls us to be unified under His banner.  On any given Saturday, pastors/leaders from the Assemblies of God, Methodists, Lutherans and non-denominal churches gather to cry out to God, together!  Though each of our Sunday worship services has a different flavor, we are learning together that the ‘Main Course’ is the same throughout.

Therefore, I’ve titled this brief blog, God is Non-denominational.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to the earth to make salvation possible for all mankind.  Having done this, the Lord also established His church.  At no point in the Scriptures do I find Jesus declaring anything about denominations.  It is His church, with Him at the head.

Please don’t conclude I am bashing denominations.  I’m not.  I merely point out that they are a man-made add on to what Jesus had established.  As man-made, they are immediately flawed because of our less than perfect nature.  My admittedly brief study of the history of denominationalism seems to make one thing clear: the more rules and regulations we make regarding our particular brand of church, if you will, the murkier we make the way to knowing Christ.

Again, let me be clear, I am not picking on denominations or calling them a bad thing.  I have dear friends both in leadership and in congregations  who faithfully serve God under these different headships.

The caution I extend to all, myself (a non-denominational pastor) included is this, we must be conscious of who are we edifying through what we do.  Is it God our Father or some long-standing tradition in our church.  I have sat in on board meetings where much time was spent discussing what were the appropriate colors to have on the altar for a particular season.  To the tradition that might be important, but wouldn’t that time have been better spent talking about how we could meet the spiritual and physical needs of both people inside and out of that church?

Is there value in denominations? Absolutely! I came to know the saving grace of our Lord Jesus while attending a Lutheran Church many years ago.  Many people are still receiving excellent spiritual care in many various houses of worship.  This is a good thing.

But let us all remember, it is God first, last and always.  Anything we construct on the path to Him must not serve as a roadblock to faith.  May we all, regardless of our denominational affiliation, recognize the call to unity God has placed on us.  Together, with the Lord leading all of us, we can truly impact our communities for the Kingdom of God.

How Would Jesus be Received Today

 

I sometimes wonder how well Jesus would be received if He came to the earth in this day and age.  I’m not talking about His promised Second Coming, but rather if He and His message were being heard for the first time right now. The gospels tell us that He ruffled quite a few feathers in the religious establishment back then.  So many in fact that those very same ‘religious’ leaders plotted to have Him killed.  I hope we as leaders who follow Him would be less territorial; yet even so I’m sure there would be many meetings of church boards and committees formed to discuss what was going on!

I’m more intrigued to know how every day folks would receive His message in this enlightened time.  His message of love and forgiveness resonated with many when He walked the earth; so much so that we are still talking about Him 2000 years later!  Would it today?  After all, Jesus didn’t teach a complicated system.  It can be boiled down to this: Love and obey God, love others, and be as forgiving as you have been forgiven.

The Good News of salvation because of His death and resurrection is straight forward.  It is just as straight forward when dealing with sin.  That’s where I think the greatest resistance would be today.  Jesus taught that sin was an affront to God; it is what keeps us separated from Him on an eternal basis if it is not dealt with by trusting in Christ’s forgiveness for salvation.

It is here that I believe today’s culture would take exception to what Jesus was telling them.  You see, the things that are going on in our society aren’t all that different from the vices and problems people had 2000 years ago.  Granted, life seems to happen at a faster pace now than it did then, but that doesn’t change the basic things still confronting people.  We may call them different things and certainly technology puts all sorts of things out there in the moment, but the condition that plagues humankind now is the same as it was then.

What is that condition? The seeking of gratification of our desires above all other things.  Frequently, these things are not in line with what God has in mind for us.  When we follow these unhealthy desires, we are then in disobedience to God.  In a word, we sin.  Generally, our culture doesn’t like that word.  What current society champions is that individuals have the right to do whatever and whenever he or she chooses is.  Scripture would define this attitude as selfishness.

We as humans have gained almost immeasurable wisdom over time.  Our understanding of how things work, the progress in science and medicine have made our lives quite comfortable in many ways.  Unfortunately, I do not believe we have learned how to consistently put the needs of others before our wants.  Nowhere does this seem more evident than in our society’s embracing of the breakdown of traditional sexual values.  Current culture calls this being progressive and open. But these thoughts are a contradiction to what Jesus taught, hence my belief that He would meet considerable opposition if He were bringing His message of obedience to the Father to the world today.

Today’s ‘anything goes’ mentality has become so pervasive that it seems to ostracize someone like myself and others like me, who proclaim as unchanging truth what the Bible teaches. God clearly states in the Book of Genesis that He created humankind male and female and that marriage was to be a union of the two into one.  The physical aspect of biblical marriage is designed to not only have us pro-create but also to have it be such a pleasurable act!  How far we have fallen from our Maker’s plan for marriage and His over all desire for us to live in peace under His headship.

This is but one example of the ever-widening gap between what is acceptable in today’s world and what God intends for people who willingly follow His decrees.  As I look at the places where I minister, I see much pain, disillusionment and despair.  Much of the pain and suffering I am called to bring comfort to is the result of lives lived, and choices made, that are outside of God’s desires.  If I were to see that current lifestyle choices were bringing true peace and happiness, I might re-consider my stance on biblical truth.

However, it is not happening; and because I know that our God is a God of love, I will continue, with His help and to the best of my ability, to minister that godly love at every opportunity.  One of the ways I do this is to gently explain that God has not arbitrarily set up rules for our conduct, but rather He has only our best interest at heart.  The lifestyle God wants us to live is good for us!

Please know that I hold no judgment against anyone who is caught up in the lies of today’s society.  I am simply to follow the example Jesus gave, to minister His love to folks right where they are in hopes that they can come to experience the freedom His truth is all about.

I started this blog out wondering how Jesus’ message of love would be received today if He were to be delivering it personally.  History shows that mankind, for the most part, has refused to embrace the call of obedience to the Word of God.  People, having not really changed much over the millennia, would undoubtedly harbor the same doubts that they did when Jesus walked the earth.

Don’t let this dissuade you!  I believe the power of God to transform lives is still active today.  I know this to be true because He did it for me!  It is that hope that there are others who will receive the loving forgiveness of the Savior that motivates me each day.  Jesus has already come to deliver the message of salvation.  I need only be a carrier of that hope and in so doing let others see that the power of God is readily available, for everyone!

Getting and Staying Spiritually Fit

 

I happened to watch some of the Winter Olympics the other day.  I was fascinated by the biathlon as I watched these athletes cross-country ski various distances and then stop to do target shooting at dollar sized target at 50 meters (160 feet).  Such a test of skill and physical endurance.  I’ve never been a skier, but I have done some target shooting with rifles, shotguns and handguns.  My eyesight, which has never been sharp, made hitting the bullseye next to impossible.  I cannot imagine attempting to be accurate during strenuous physical activity as these biathletes were doing.  Racing against each other with the pressure of shooting straight seems implausible to me.

Yet, one after another they did just that.  How much practice went into this I wondered.  Countless hours of skiing, weight training and target practice were undoubtedly accumulated to gain this level of proficiency.  Obviously, not everyone has the skill and the persistence to make it to the Olympic Games.  What sets these top-notch athletes apart from the others? In addition to their natural abilities, the dedication to hone their skills didn’t waver.  I am sure that sacrifices had to be made if they were to reach their goal.

As a teacher/preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am always looking for examples in the events of the world around us that shine light on biblical truth.  The above-mentioned biathletes have accomplished this for me!  As I said, I am not skier nor a marksman.  Yet the results of these competitors’ tenacity in preparation can still inspire me as I apply that same principle to my life of faith.

The athlete’s I mentioned didn’t just wake up one day at their peak of physical abilities, it took much hard work and practice.  St. Paul uses this same line of thinking to encourage us about our spiritual condition as well.  In his first letter to his young apprentice Timothy, he wrote the following: Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8 NIV).

Notice that Paul does not discount physical training.  He recognized, as we should too, the importance of maintaining our health through physical activity.  We are not to ignore this in the pursuit of a deeper spiritual life.

Having said that, the Apostle does not apologize for what is of far greater importance.  Deepening our spiritual lives provides benefits in the present as well as for the future.  The plusses in this life might be; a greater sense of peace and purpose, or simply a deeper assurance that God does indeed have everything under control.

The question is, how do we train ourselves to be godly?  Maybe first we ought to consider what it is to be godly.  I define being godly as: practicing what I preach! I can espouse wisdom and good counsel in this venue, praising God for all His wonderous deeds both then and now.  If, after having done this, I close my laptop and go about the rest of my day seeking to fulfill only my selfish desires, I am hardly being godly.  To further hone my definition, I would add that my life is to be lived in such a way that points always to God and that my being transparent ought to give hard evidence that I am devoted to the Lord.

If living life in love and honestly wanting to be of service to all is my goal, how do I train for it? Going back to our athlete’s example, they didn’t suddenly wake up one day ready to compete in the Olympics.  As I said, they put countless hours into their preparation.  This same approach works in training in godliness too!

Like the athletes in their pursuits, I didn’t merely come to one morning with knowledge of the Scriptures.  I spent (and spend) the time to read them.  I sought out people with deeper understanding of God’s word and asked them to teach me.  Probably the greatest lesson these devoted folks shared with me was this: God will reveal as much of Himself to me that I desire Him to.  Much the same as prayer is, the reading/studying of God’s word is done to know Him more deeply.  With this in mind, I do read/meditate/study the Scriptures every day expressly to deepen my relationship with Him.

Another training discipline I have embraced to become more godly is the memorization of passages and verses of the Bible.  If, as I believe it is, the Scriptures contain the very essence of God, what better nourishment could I possibly ingest? God desires me to follow Him whole-heartedly and by His grace He has supplied me with the manual to do so!  If my bible is sitting on the shelf collecting dust, I can assume my relationship with the Almighty is crusty as well.

The last point I will draw from the example of the Olympic athletes is this: making the time to do the training required for excellence.  I am positive that they built their schedules around the activities they undertook.  The training was the priority, and they made the appropriate time available to achieve their goal.  The same mind-set should apply to our training in godliness.  If I wait until it is convenient to do so, I most likely will never get to it.  If I think I will put the time in after everything else is done, I am fooling myself.  To train in godliness is to take on the responsibility of growing in the faith.  No one can do it for me, I must make the commitment to do so.

Listening to the interviews of the Olympic athletes, I have yet to hear one say they regretted the hard work and sacrifice they put in to get to this stage of their career.  Likewise, I have yet to hear anyone lament the time and effort they have made to grow in godliness.  I take that as great encouragement and hope that you do to.  Wherever you are on your faith journey, there is always more opportunity to grow in it.  If you put the time in to do so, the rewards will be great.  The bible doesn’t say we will get a Gold Medal for our efforts, but it does tell us that the faithful will receive a crown of righteousness!