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.

Nothing is Re-heated at God’s Banquet

I know I’ve made mention here of the wonderful blessing from God my wife Betsy is to me (and many others!).  Her love of the Lord Jesus is evident in all she does and her modeling of the joy that comes from reading the Bible has inspired me to read mine more.

I am not sure however, if I have ever written about another of her gifts: Betsy is a great cook.  This comes in handy given my love of eating.  She is forever creating new ways to prepare meals, making old favorites never boring.  In this season of life (with just 2 humans at the table), she prepares many of our dinners in the crockpot.  Somehow, she makes these meals in such a way that as they get reheated, they seem to taste better each night.  Chicken, pork or beef, it doesn’t matter; as delicious as they are on day 1, they’re even better each ensuing meal.

Cooking meals in this way is a great time saver, especially as her work life is very demanding of her time.  This makes it easy for me, with my limited skills in the kitchen, to simply plug in the crockpot to re-heat our evening meal.

As much as I enjoy these several times warmed up meals, the banquet table of God will never have anything re-heated on it! “That’s quite a jump in topics,” you might be thinking; but please stay with me, I think I can connect the two.

You see, just as the taste buds in my mouth enjoy my wife’s great cooking, the desire of my heart is to have even more of what God offers.  No matter how good, or even how much Betsy makes in the crockpot, eventually we finish it.  Not so with God!

Christianity 101, if you will, says that all people are separated from God by our sinful condition into which we are born.  There are many scriptures that make this point, but for our purpose today let’s go with for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  ‘All’ is one of the easiest words in the bible to understand: All means all.  You, me and absolutely everyone else falls short of the glory of God.  God is holy, we are not.  Said another way, we are in deep trouble without Him.

That’s an awful place to be, but thanks be to God, He has issued the invitation for all of us to come be with Him (the banquet table I mentioned). This truth can also be found in numerous places throughout the scriptures.  For example, Romans 5:8 tells us: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God in His mercy has made the way to take us from our lost (sinful) condition to knowing His forgiveness because of what Jesus Christ has done.  Simply put, we do not have to get ‘our ducks in a row’ before we can go to God; rather He takes us, regardless of where we have scattered and miss placed the ducks that are our life, and makes us complete in Him.

Our job is to recognize the condition we are in apart from God and then humbly ask His forgiveness.  It really is that simple!

Now back to the banquet table.  When thinking about what God offers, please don’t assume His mercy and compassion are sitting in some heavenly crockery, waiting for us to ask for some.  No, His love is made fresh and available every day as the Prophet Jeremiah wrote: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

There you have it! God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, patience, etc., are made fresh every day for each one of us.  I realize that is a tall order, but thankfully He can handle it.  He always has, and He always will.

Much as Betsy and I would love to have you all over for dinner sometime, I do not believe one crockpot would handle the demand; and as tasty as her food is, you will get hungry again.

Not so as God’s banquet table.  His never depleted supply of love for us is always available; at no charge! Jesus paid it when He was crucified and gloriously raised from the dead.  He is inviting you to partake of the divine food that satisfies the soul.  It is made fresh today, piping hot, just for you!

 

With God, Receiving is Better than Giving

Please take a moment to re-read the title of this blog.  Thanks.  I want to be clear that I am not trying to re-write what Jesus has said.  The Apostle Paul has already  summed it up: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

I’m sure we are all at least a little familiar with the saying ‘it’s better to give than to receive.’ Though Jesus is never quoted as saying those exact words, the weight of His teaching makes it clear: Giving is far superior to receiving.

This most certainly rings true is our dealings with other people.  The Lord’s instruction is that we always be willing to share our resources, time and talents to help others, seeking no gain for ourselves.  The blessing that comes from this obedience is in knowing we are pleasing God Himself.  Jesus, the ultimate servant, gave His very life that lost people (like me) could come to accept His forgiveness.  I find this truth in Mark 10:45 as Jesus said: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Any time we give of ourselves in service to others, we are modeling the lifestyle of the greatest servant ever.

Bottom line: Giving with a right heart with the right intentions is never wrong.  So what about the title of this blog?  Again, I draw your attention to the first two words; With God.  With God, our priorities change.  As clear as His word is about giving to others, so it is about receiving from Him. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33).  Go to God first, the receiving part will be taken care of.

Jesus spoke those words during a discourse on how we ought not be consumed with worry about the things of this life.  He was telling folks then (and now) that if God the Father takes care of the needs of birds and makes the lilies of the field be resplendent in beauty just because He can, He will certainly meet all our needs as well. (Notice we’re talking about needs, not wants).

I believe there is a greater blessing than these when we receive from God.  First, we learn to trust Him more.  He will do what He promises to do. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6).  Ask God to show the way and believe He is with you always as you traverse it.

My wife Betsy often remarks that the longer she walks out her life of faith, the more she realizes how much she needs God.  There is such wisdom in this! Living each day with the expressed agenda of knowing God better today than yesterday, she has learned to trust him all the more.  Betsy has met no circumstance that God hasn’t provided for or seen her through.  The Prophet Isaiah has this to say about how God responds to those who will live this lifestyle: You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3). Trusting in God is fertile ground for faith to grow!

What a thing to receive from God: His perfect peace! I know for myself that I cannot share with anyone what I do not have; hence I must receive God’s peace so that I can give it away.  Understand, it comes to me perfect from God, but I have a knack (being human) of diluting it somewhat.  That’s o.k. though, I simply have to believe/trust that He gives it.  My responsibility is to walk more closely with Him today than yesterday for as I do, more of His perfect peace will leak out of me and into those around me.  Don’t worry if this seems a little hard to grasp, for God describes His peace this way: And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7) If God says His peace transcends understanding, I’m good with that!

At this point, maybe you are intrigued by the idea of receiving from God.  His peace, building faith and trust, sounds like a pretty good idea.  But how do I receive it you ask.  Once again, the Scriptures provide the answer: “Be still; and know that I am God; (Psalm 46:10a).  That sounds simple enough, but for many of us experiencing this truth is much harder.  We must first ‘be still.’  This is difficult in our culture; for most of us are either busy doing something full tilt or we are wiped out from that activity.

Here’s a brilliant insight: To be still, we must be still.  That means we must quiet our hands, feet and mind so that we can contemplate this God I’m talking about.  Let yourself be still by ceasing the crazed pace of life.  I know it’s not easy to do because A, we’re used to doing things this way and B, being crazy busy keeps the mind so pre-occupied that it can’t/won’t think about the Almighty and all that that implies.

But if you’ll just try it, I believe you will receive from God some of what He has for you.  When you do, I promise you’ll want more.  This is the one place where our wants are important, for if we are wanting more of/from God, He will supply it.  He’ll do it in ways you can’t imagine or maybe even dream of, but if you want to spend time with Him, He’s got all of it you could ask for!

I’ll sum it all up this way: Prioritize your list by putting God always first on it.  When you can consistently do this, many of the other items on your list will melt away, for receiving from God is simply the best thing you can ever get!

#Imprayingforyou

Every Saturday morning at 7 am a group of local pastors and church leaders gather to pray at a different location each week.  This group is a great blessing to me in several ways, not the least of which is the evidence of the unity of believers the Holy Spirit brings.  There are Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists and non-denominal folks currently meeting (and have been for over 6 years now!).  We come together to seek God for our community and we also spend some time simply talking with each other; highlighting the things God is already doing here in Central New York.  We also talk about our struggles; knowing full well the challenges of ministry here.

I give you this background, so I can share a wonderful idea that was brought up just yesterday morning.  Reverend Diane Wheatley, Pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fulton, shared what had come to here recently regarding today’s technology.  Like most of us who are closer to 60 than 50, the electronic age seems more suitable to the younger generation(s) than us.  We use it as best we can, but honestly it creates more frustration with a hint of fear than it does any advancing of the Kingdom of God.

Pastor Wheatley’s insightful idea struck me as being brilliant.  Basically, she said that instead of side-stepping technology, we ought to embrace and use it.  She intends to start at her church by inviting people to take out their phone/devices at a certain point during church services and reach out to someone on their contact list.  Using whatever venue they want, folks will be encouraged to let someone else know who is not at the service that they are praying for them, right now!

She also said the same for the preaching of the Word. Why not live-stream some or all of it, again with the purpose being to let others know what it looks and sounds like at a church gathering. The message could also be recorded by members of the audience to be posted to their various accounts later.

As I have pondered these thoughts during the day, I have gotten more excited about doing these things myself.  After all, if we truly mean to be inclusive in our fellowships, shouldn’t we be reaching out to people in as many ways as possible?

The answer is a definite yes! As I look out at the various congregations I have the honor of being involved with, I see that most of the people in these churches belong to my generation.  There are some young families attending, which is a great blessing, but for the most part the local church is still ministering in the old ways to an increasing older crowd.

In his book, Building a Discipling Culture, Mike Breen explains the reason why this is: Most of us have been trained and educated for a world that no longer exists (p. 11).  I find this to be true in the clear majority of churches in my area.  Pastors and leaders have been trained with an inward focus which has precluded most of them from engaging in any new way of communicating the gospel.  All the pastors I know are hard-working and faithful shepherds of their flocks.  Yet the demands on their time have kept their efforts primarily toward keeping to a minimum the number of folks who are leaving their fellowships, thus making any attempt at using technology to reach out to non-churched people at best extraneous.

The bottom line is this: the ‘tried and true’ method of being the church is tired and for the most part useless regarding reaching new/different people.  The local church, as it currently is operating, is dying.  Attendance is receding like my hairline and no number of committees or resolutions is going to stem the tide of dwindling membership.

What are we to do?  Let’s run with Reverend Wheatley’s idea!  After all, when Jesus walked the earth, He communicated a radical message in the best way possible then, He talked with folks.  He shared the love of God in both word and deed.  As the message spread, so did His audience.  Our task is the same: Share what we know to be true about God through our actions and words.  The biggest difference (other than us not being Jesus!), is the far-reaching and instant audience that is available to us.  With the shrinking of the world because of electronic communication, let’s reach out to those who have never been to a traditional church with the means we have.  The message of God’s love is unchanging.  We ought to be sharing always and everywhere.  The easiest way to do it today is already in your pocket or purse.

Now if only someone would show me how to use snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr . . .

Giving Money to the Church?

 

The subject of money is usually touchy for most people.  For those involved with a local church, it can get downright divisive.  The idea of tithing, the giving of 10% of your income to the church, sparks many a debate.

I truly understand the difficulty that the concept of giving money causes so many.  I had plenty of reservations about it at the beginning of my life of faith.  With a sheepish grin these days I can recall my questioning of the first church leader who brought this subject up to my wife and me.  “Who decided on 10%,” I self-righteously asked.  It seemed like a random choice to me until this person gently explained that the word tithe means 10%.

Also, we were having trouble enough making ends meet.  As I have written of before, my riotous life as an active alcoholic had brought us just past the point of financial disaster.  Now that my life was becoming livable again through sobriety, I was concentrating on paying off the large debts I had incurred while now trying to properly take care of my family.  There didn’t appear to be anything left over to give away to anyone, let alone a church.

Since those early days as a Christian, what tithing is (and isn’t) has become quite clear to me.  Some of the things it is not are: an attempt to curry favor with the Almighty.  You do not have to give a specific amount before you can expect God to bless you.  As a matter of fact, the greatest blessings I have received have had nothing to do with finances.

Tithing also is not simply a ‘box’ to be checked as if it were some way to pay for your salvation (Indulgences went out a long time ago).  I encourage folks who have a church body they call home to support it both monetarily and with an investment of their time.  Ministry just doesn’t happen; things need to be paid for, the building(s) kept up and teaching resources bought, to name just a few.  These must be accompanied with the donation of time, less any thing the church purchases for kingdom work collect the dust of not being used.

What tithing is: An ongoing opportunity to be obedient to God, and not in a 10% kind of way, either.  Being joyfully willing to give 10% (or whatever amount) off the top is the key.  As time goes on, I realize how much I have because of God’s redeeming love for me.  With this deeper understanding/appreciation of who God is and what He has done for me, I desire less of the shiny things of this world.  Those things are merely distractions that want to keep my attention from God.

The key to becoming a joyful tither, at least in my experience, is to comprehend what it is that God is looking for from us in this regard.  The Old Testament is full of examples of the Israelite’s bringing the ‘first fruits’ of their crops as a gift to God.  I didn’t have any sense of what this meant at the start.  As I said, when first considering this idea I looked for left over money after all the bills were paid.  That is the opposite of first fruits.  I have learned, over time, that God wants my giving to be off the top because I recognize everything I have or earn comes from Him in the first place.

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what about my bills.  Don’t I have to pay them? The answer is of course yes.  I never recommend someone give to a church instead of paying their heat and electric bill.  What I do recommend to folks I have this discussion with is to honestly look at the way they are spending their discretionary money.

Here’s how things changed for me once I did this: After I had read the verses from God’s word that were suggested about tithing, I felt my heart begin to change about giving in general.  It no longer looked like a fool’s game to me, but yet I still couldn’t see how I was going to be able to give anything.  Though I was beginning to see what the meaning was of giving back to God, the bottom line of the household budget still didn’t reconcile to giving any percentage of our earnings away.

It was at this point in my life when I heard yet another teaching about tithing.  This one was different, however.  Oh, it still used Malachi 3:6-11 to make its biblical case for giving back to God, but this speaker brought the entire issue to a personal level for me.  I heard him ask, ‘What is it you spend your disposable income on?’  For the first time, as that sank in, I began to see my spending was conformed to my ideals, not God’s.

After all, I made all my monthly payments plus the penalty and interest that accrued from my destructive drinking.  Both the IRS and the State of New York were quite insistent that I pay all the back taxes I owed.  God blessed me/us with a good paying job that enabled me to eventually come clean with both those government agencies.

So what was I spending my money on? Why was there still nothing to give to the church I now called home? It took and honest look at my expenditures to reveal the painful truth.

What I discovered was that while I was being good with our money, my personal concerns and comforts were still in the forefront of my mind.  The bills were being paid on time because I was working so hard to do it.  From this self-centered approach came a slightly trickier one; my kids and wife (and I) deserved take out dinners 2 or 3 times a week.  Have I mentioned I was still smoking cigarettes at this time? I certainly needed them to keep going at the wonderful new pace I was working.

As I began to ponder these things, I realized that I had placed them in an ‘untouchable’ category in our budget as if they were fixed expenses.  It was easy to do, as life was becoming such a joy to live and these types of things seemed to make everyone happier still.  Yet I discovered that at the heart of the issue was still my lingering selfishness.  This was my money I was working hard for and I would spend it on these ‘necessities’ before I would give money to church.

I came to realize that walking out this faith I was professing to have would require some changes on my part; primarily that I truly start thinking of others before myself (Philippians 2:3-4).  Doing this allowed me to get to the place where I could, cautiously, begin to tithe.  Next time I will share some of the many blessings God has poured out on us because of our faithful lives that have included tithing to the local church.

Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear your thoughts about tithing.

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!

Call Me Foolish

 

We live in a time where everyone’s opinion is to get equal hearing.  The internet and social media have given a vast majority the ability to express their views and have them read/heard at virtually that same moment.  The current culture says to embrace all views because truth is relative; what’s true for you may not be for another.  This approach does not want to hinder anyone from expressing their beliefs.  In fact, it seems to me the more unconventional one claims to be, the more that view is accepted.

Yet, there is a disconnect between this warm and fuzzy approach and reality.  If current culture is as open as it claims to be, why is it a traditional belief, that being Jesus is Lord, is shunned as narrow or closed-minded? Please note that I am not defending the long-standing approach of the institutional Church.  Mankind has basically made a shamble of it and because of this I understand why so many stay away religiously.  What I am standing up for is the all-encompassing truth found in the Bible.

Relativism says that what’s true for you may not be for another.  Biblical truth, on the other hand, is true for/to all.  That doesn’t mean it is agreeable to everyone.  If my believing whole-heartedly in the eternal validity of the Scriptures makes me rigid in your eyes, I am truly sorry for your misunderstanding.  I may indeed misrepresent the truth I believe in by my thoughts or insensitive actions, but that’s on me, not God.

God’s truth applies to everyone, regardless of your denial of it.  I don’t mean to sound ‘holier-than-thou’ by expressing this when in fact the opposite is true.  It is only through humbly accepting and then allowing God’s truth to lead me that I can ever come close to sharing what I have experienced in my walk of faith.

What is this faith I claim to walk in? The Bible defines it this way: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1 NIV).  I look at this definition as being in two parts.  The first is the easier: being sure of what I hope for.  I know the true longings of my heart and have put my hope for their fulfillment in God.

It is the latter part of Hebrews 11:1 that has caused me some consternation.  Whereas as my hope is a somewhat less tangible thing, certainty in things I cannot see tends to fly in the face of my tactile tendencies.  Therefore, I do have empathy for those who want to see before committing.  There is an inevitable tension there.  The only way I have found to resolve this tension is to willingly submit to the authority God has over my life.

To do so requires that I recognize God for being who he says he is.  To the nonbeliever this sounds absurd, but not unexpected.  Hesitancy to have faith in God is not something new.  Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus a group of believers in Corinth were afflicted with doubts about many of the claims being made about Christ.  This is addressed in the first letter written by the Apostle Paul to them: I know very well how foolish it sounds to those who are lost, when they hear that Jesus died to save them. But we who are saved recognize this message as the very power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18 The Living Bible Translation).

There it is.  This is the ‘rubber meets the road’ truth around which all of Scripture is founded.  There are those who are ‘lost’ and those who have been saved through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.  It is a harsh truth that is not readily accepted by modern culture.  Again, simply rejecting this does not make it untrue.  There are certainly more warm and fuzzy thoughts about our eternal destination out there being held to by many.  The concept of being lost in our enlightened society is considered foolishness.

Go ahead and call me foolish then! If I am foolish to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, so be it.  I would rather be considered a fool than to give up the peace God has revealed to me through the Scriptures.  If the assurance I have about eternity because of faith in Jesus makes me seem simple in this advanced time, I’m ok with that.  If I am not taken seriously because I recognize my helplessness before the Almighty, I am good there as well.

The bottom line is this: It doesn’t matter what anyone else calls me so long as I answer the call of God.  In so doing I recognize and submit to my need of a Savior.  This is God’s love manifest for ALL mankind.  His offer of eternal life is extended to everyone, always and everywhere.  I’ve taken him up on it because I believe it would be foolish not to.  Won’t you consider it as well?

What my Puppy is Teaching me about God’s Unconditional Love

I’ve been at this bible study/teaching/preaching for some time now.  I believe I am pretty well versed (pun intended) on the topic of God’s unconditional love.  Both Old and New Testaments are replete with examples of the Almighty’s undying desire to call broken and lost sinners back to Him.  When faced with the pain, suffering and confusion of those I have the privilege to minister to, I often extend God’s comfort through His promise to never leave or forsake us.  No matter how dark the moment or deep the pain, His love can give us hope when all seems lost.

I am amazed even as I look over the paragraph above.  I mean, how is it that God’s unconditional love can be offered to me? I have been a screw-up of major proportions, both in my life before I came to know Jesus as Savior and sometimes since then, too. Yet, I am assured of an unfailing love that calls me to eternal life; simply because it is His will to do so.  I know both in my heart and in an academic sense that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ has made this possible.  It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Him!  His love is absolute and unconditional.  I cannot earn and certainly don’t deserve it, but it is extended to me (and all of us) without reservation.

Knowing in my ‘knower’ this to be true, I still find myself struggling with the application of it from time to time; especially in regard to showing the love of God to others.  Ministry is not complicated: Love God and be a conduit for His love to flow from me into others.  However, if I am being honest, there are more than a few times when I pass judgment rather than love.  I too often find myself being critical of others instead of offering grace.  The bottom line is this: In the day to day struggles and challenges of life, I do not always recognize or even look for God’s unconditional love in the world around me.

Thankfully, one event in my life this past week has more fully opened my eyes and my heart to God’s unconditional love.  It is through the puppy my wife and I brought home that I find myself more aware of and grateful for God’s continuous care of me.  ‘Violet’ has been a wonderful example of both giving and receiving love unconditionally over these last seven days.  With only a slight change, I am finding the old adage to be true: A new dog can teach an old dog new tricks!

It took Violet all of about two hours to become bonded with my wife and me.  With food served at regular intervals, plenty of walks outside to work on potty-training and lots of time on the floor playing with toys, we watched her love for us grow before our eyes.  Even when she was loudly reprimanded for getting into the modem wires, the love never left her.  Violet simply loves us, all the time.  The correlation to the love described in the Bible is clear: God loves us because He is love.  The Scriptures then tell us we can return love to Him: We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19).

Much as Betsy and I didn’t have to earn Violet’s love, God’s love should not be viewed as ‘a carrot on stick’ either.  I for one am so very glad for the way God loves us.  Far too many live under a dark cloud, realizing that their life’s choices are not necessarily right or healthy, and condemning themselves for it.  It becomes easy to believe the lie that you are not worthy of God’s love, and the self-loathing perpetuates.

The mis-conception so many are under is that God loves like we do.  We equate human, imperfect love with His holy and faultless love.  Because we see love through our human paradigm, our understanding of God’s love is skewed.  Our experience tells us that to love is often risky and many times downright painful.  Once broken, the human heart can never fully heal itself.  What a blessing that God’s heart doesn’t operate like ours!

His unconditional love is always there.  We here on earth are left to respond to it in one of two ways: We either joyfully accept His gift of love or we ignore it.  The first option is obviously my counsel.  When one can truly allow themselves to be loved by God, attitudes and outlooks change for the better.  Those things that used to consume us with worry can be seen in a clearer light.  Realizing God’s love gives us a new and better perspective on the events of life.  Ignoring or denying this heavenly love leads only downward, toward bitterness and despair.  Life lived outside of the Almighty’s love is ultimately futile.  There simply are not enough shiny things, money or fancy vacations that can fill the void that is in you.

If you are struggling with some facet of God’s love, might I suggest you too experience some ‘puppy love.’ No, I’m not saying go listen to Donnie and Marie Osmond’s song with that title.  Rather, allow yourself to simplify your understanding of what God’s love is.  That’s what Violet has been showing me and honestly, I have a greater grasp of, and deeper appreciation of how, God shows His love because of it.  Allowing yourself to accept God’s love isn’t always easy, but it need not be complicated.  Remember He loves you first and always, no matter what.  Your job is to respond to that love.  I’ve got to stop for now, someone needs to go outside!

The Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

 

I am asked many questions as I continue this ‘second’ career journey of being a pastor.  Some of the more frequent ones are: ‘You mean you quit a good job to do this?’ (Answer: Yes, this one has better benefits!); ‘Where is your church?’ (We are currently ministering out of our home); and the question that gives birth to this blog, ‘Do you teach only from the New Testament and/or what do you think about the bible as a whole?

The answer to those last two is that I understand the entire Bible to be the inspired word of God.  I believe it contains timeless, infallible truth.  For me to arbitrarily decide to only consider one part, or only certain sections as being relevant would be rather presumptuous of me.  I based this belief on what the Apostle Paul wrote to his young understudy Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)

Now, teaching from the fullness of the Scriptures can be a daunting task.  There are several (many?) parts, sections or verses that I do not fully understand, making it difficult for me to teach them.  And in full-disclosure, I am not familiar with either the Hebrew or Greek languages, which make up the majority of the Old and New Testaments.  I compensate for this lack of knowledge by having been instructed in the use of language tools, which allow me to delve into the original texts without having to be well-versed (pun intended) in Hebrew or Greek.

Using those tools on the two verses mentioned form Paul’s second letter to Timothy helps to strengthen my faith in the truth of God’s word.  The little word ‘all’ gets the ball rolling.  Allow me to get theologically deep for a moment: ‘All’ means all! The entirety of the Bible is covered in that little word.  It stands to reason, then, that if all the Bible is from God, I ought not be ignoring any part of it simply because I don’t fully get it, don’t see how it applies or, I don’t agree with it.

To the last point I need only put myself in Job’s place as he was lamenting to God the great calamities that had befallen him, wondering why they happened and by the way, where were you, God, when all this was going down? God’s answer to Job helps me when I find myself starting to question and or whine: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” (Job 38:4 NIV)

If I am to take all of Scripture as inspired of God, I must take this humbling question to heart.  In doing so, I am more inclined to see my place in the universe as somewhere away from the very center of it! Taking in the totality of Scripture as being God’s own word allows me to also better process this type of response He gave to Job.  Though I will never fathom the depth of God’s character, I can know enough of it to realize that He wants only the best for his kids; and sometimes He must speak to us in ways or allow things to happen, that are sure to get our attention.  God is indeed love, peace, mercy, forgiveness and so much more, but He is also a God of justice, order and holiness.  I am not to bend His truth to fit my likings, rather I am to conform my will to His.

Helping me to do this is another word I investigated from the 2 Timothy passage above: God-breathed.  To the best of my knowledge, this wording is used only this one time.  The word translated God-breathed in the original Greek meant direct communication from the deity.  I have also heard this referred to as God exhaling his Word to us.  The overall sense to take away is that the written Word of God contains the very essence of God.

This raises the level of the Bible! It is not just a book of good ideas and healthy recommendations, but rather it is the heart and mind of God; His entire character and nature are contained on its pages (or at least as much as we can take in).  He has poured Himself into the Scriptures.  His perfect truth is reflected on every page.

There’s the rub.  If His character is accurately and completely portrayed in what we read in the Bible, there are some difficult things that we must be reconciled to.  The existence of a literal heaven and hell and that my sinful choices do have real consequences are just two off the top of my head.  That God in His perfection is angry when I blatantly act/live/speak in disobedience to what He has said is almost enough to make me say, ‘Enough, I can’t handle anymore of this truth of God’s word stuff.’

Yet God’s word is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  So don’t stop now, read on! As true as it is that God is holy and righteous and hates sin; His love, mercy and forgiveness are equally true! As difficult as it is for us to wrap our minds around this, we must.  God is all these things I’ve mentioned, and infinitely more.

We must not fall into accepting only the parts of God (and therefore the Scriptures) that we are comfortable with or fit into our concept of how God is.  Those who believe He is only about judgment miss out on His unending love and kindness.  Conversely, if we take only the ‘softer’ side of God into account, we quickly lose sight of His holiness.  When that happens, we tend to go far to easy on ourselves and our thoughts and actions.  We cheapen the unfailing love of God by telling ourselves He will forgive us anyway, so what I do in the here and now is not that important.

To conclude, for now, if God’s truth is all encompassing (it is), where to we go from here? Please know that I am not promoting any ‘middle of the road’ compromise.  Anytime I/we attempt this, something important invariably gets left out.  Instead of middle of the road, I am suggesting we go ‘full circle;’ meaning that we, as best we can, consider the fullness of God’s character as it is described to us in the bible.  Because He is God, He can be both all judgment and all mercy rolled into one.

Truth be told, He has told us the truth, and nothing but the truth.  Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NIV).  The sooner I/we can accept this awesome truth, the more willing we become to reign in our self-will so that we can discover His will for us, which truthfully is far better than we could ever hope or imagine.

What is God’s Will for Me?

 

“What is God’s will for me?” As I speak with folks, this question often comes up.  Generally, there is some frustration in their voice.  They have been praying and seeking direction, but somehow the answer seems to elude them.

We pastor-types tend to make this out to be pretty heady stuff, this trying to figure out what God’s will is.  In many cases, we have made it a more complicated issue than God intends it to be.

To help us get our minds around this topic, let’s start with the big picture and work from there.  With this wide-angle lens with can say with 100 percent clarity that God’s will is for every person to come to know Him as Savior.  His has spelled this out in the familiar John 3:16 as Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The Apostle Peter also tells us; The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).

The Bible clearly establishes that God’s heart is for all people to come to Him, acknowledging their need of a Savior.  It really is that simple, God’s immeasurable love is always on display through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is an open invitation to absolutely everyone.  If you are reading this and you have come to know God’s forgiveness, I rejoice with you!  But like those old Ronco veg-a-matic tv commercials, “Wait, there’s more!”

To find it we must begin to look at the  picture with a narrow focus lens; that being God’s will for your life now that He has called you to His fold.  Once again, we can find some straight forward instruction as to how to do this from the Bible: Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV).

Sounds simple enough as at first glance it appears God is saying to keep a bright outlook most of the time, pray a lot, and remember to say thank you when someone does something nice for you.  But if you will read those three little verses again, you will find that God is saying much more about what His will is for you.  We are not to qualify or justify our actions by self-righteously deciding to withhold our gratitude, not bothering to pray or opting to be sour instead of joyful.

Realizing God’s will for us in these things is a full-time and faith-filled response to the above mentioned love the Almighty offers to each of us.  Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as: Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (emphasis added).

The faith that is borne at our salvation brings us the surety of eternal life and makes us certain of that which we cannot see with our physical eyes.  Saying yes to Jesus allows us to know the truth of the Scriptures.  In the context of knowing God’s will we can then find the comfort of: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28 NIV). As the power of that verse sinks more deeply into your heart, we can better see how we are to be joyful always, for even as things may be bleak or painful around us, we have God’s promise that He is working things out ultimately for our good!

The instruction to pray continually does not mean to be reciting prayers non-stop, but rather to be aware of the presence of God always.  The more we do this, the more likely we are to be in a constant conversation with Him.  I encourage you to simply try living in the constant awareness of God’s presence.  Conversation for most of us comes much easier with someone we are familiar or comfortable with.  We have established God’s will for you is to be in contact with Him.  It becomes possible if you are willing.

The third piece of knowing God’s will, we are told, is to give thanks in all circumstances.  Here again we experience the tension between what we are currently going through and the higher call of being thankful always.  The Expositor’s Commentary explains it this way: We need to recognize that seeming aggravations are but a temporary part of a larger plan for our spiritual well-being. Out of this perspective we can always discern a cause for thanks.  I’m not saying this is easy for any of us to do, in fact it’s downright impossible on my own.  Ah, enter faith! God is bigger than what my circumstances of the moment are!

Having said all this, you will note that I still have not given you specific insight into what God’s will is for you.  The reason is simple:  That’s not for me to do! I would suggest, however, that if you will incorporate the instruction given about being joyful always, praying continually and being thankful in all things, you will find yourself much closer to God on a daily basis.  As He nurtures your relationship to Him, your faith will grow. As it does, your ability to see and trust His purpose for your life will increase, revealing His wonderfully personal will to you!