Monday, August 31, 2015

80 Year Old Man Tears It Up on a Skateboard and What This Might Teach Us

I just watched an 80 year old man with a crutch borrow a skateboard from a young man, shred around a concrete wave and do a flip out of a half-pipe, sticking a perfect landing. The video of this feat has been going around Facebook. Maybe you’ve seen it. If you have, then you know the secret of the video: it’s not really an 80 year old man. It’s a professional-level skateboarder in some very serious makeup. It was fun gag and the looks on the faces of the observers as the “old man” did progressively harder and harder moves was very entertaining. I don’t know for sure, but I bet the longer one watched the skateboarding the more suspicious one became that this skateboarder wasn’t really 80 years old and didn’t really need a crutch. His true identity was revealed in his actions.

You might already suspect where I’m going with this. It’s not very subtle. Jesus didn’t say that people would know his followers by the way they dressed or the way walked or the color of their skin or the style of worship they preferred or how well they knew the Bible or if they were good at arguing theology or even whether they worshipped in a purpose-built church building or a rented grade-school cafeteria.

Jesus was very specific and clear about how people will recognize his followers: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV)

So if you are looking at someone and wondering if they are a follower of Christ in disguise, perhaps you could look for love, just like you could watch an apparently old man skate board and realize it is a young man in disguise.

But what is this thing called “love”? People have done absolutely horrendous things because of their “love.” Parents beat children out of love. People blow up buildings out of love. Clearly we need guidance.

You can thank the apostle Paul for some further clarity on love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Ah, that’s a little more concrete.

So, follower of Christ… would someone identify you as a follower of Christ in disguise if they followed you around for a while? If that question bothers you, the answer is not just to try harder. You can’t do this on your own strength. The answer lies in the cross and the empty tomb.

On the cross we see God demonstrating love for humanity in the most profound and moving way: one dying for another. Sometimes we act unloving because we feel unloved. Look at the cross and see the depth of God’s love for you. Sometimes we act unloving because we do not acknowledge the value of the other person and the essential equality we share with all humanity. Look at the cross and see that the person you are having trouble being kind to is a) a person who shares the same set of difficulties that all humans face and b) a person for whom Christ went to the cross.

In the tomb we see the power of God at work over the most apparently final of all things we experience: death itself. The power that resurrected Christ from the grave is the same power available to you to raise up your spirit and change your heart, enabling you to grow in love.

Try praying something like this every morning:
Father, in Jesus’ death on the cross, you showed me just how much you love me. And in Jesus’ death on the cross you showed me just how much you love every person I will ever meet. Thank you that I don’t have to be perfect in love to be a follower of Jesus, but let the power you displayed in the resurrection work renewal in me so that today I may grow in love toward every person I meet in real and concrete ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.

God bless!
Pastor John

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Our faith is in Jesus not in the Bible... and why this is important.

I preached a sermon yesterday that left me wondering if I was clear. I am writing this to attempt to clarify what may not have been clear yesterday. Unfortunately, it may not be clear today either. You be the judge.

The message was based in an encounter between Peter and and a Gentile named Cornelius recorded in Acts 10. Peter had a vision in which God told him not to call unclean that God calls clean. Then, when preaching to Cornelius (along with his friends and family), the Holy Spirit came on all those Gentiles. To me, the most surprising thing is what happened next: Peter and the Jewish Christians are, apparently, surprised that the Holy Spirit has been given to the Gentiles. Based on what God had just done in Peter's vision and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Jewish Christians decided it was ok to baptize the Gentile believers.

Though it may not have been apparent, this was a very personal sermon. It was born out of my own painful journey.

It has always been important to me to believe the right things. I gravitated toward systematic theology -- the branch of theology in which our doctrines are defined -- because I desire clarity. Unfortunately, peace was not coming. I was haunted by the worry that I might be believing the wrong thing. After all, there have been many people of great intellect, energy and passion who, having devoted themselves to the study of the Bible, arrived at different conclusions. They are all smarter and more learned than me, so who is right? Whose assertions about truth do I trust? What if I "get it wrong"? How wrong can you be and still go to heaven?

This way of living and growing in my faith was leaving me with fear. Yet the scriptures tell us that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18 (ESV))

This is where the Acts 10 comes in to bring me peace. Peter didn't understand Jesus' full mission and intent. PETER, for cryin' out loud! He walked with and listened to Jesus personally for three years. He saw Jesus transfigured and resurrected. Jesus is, to that very day, doing miracles through Peter. And yet Peter was surprised by what God did by pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.

This is where the peace comes. Peter didn't understand everything and that was ok because Peter's faith wasn't in a book, it was in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. I don't have to understand everything because my faith isn't in a book, either. My trust is in God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

The book -- the Bible -- is still of extraordinary importance and worthy of our deepest study. But if we are trusting the Bible to save us, then we'd better get it just right or we're goners. If we are studying the Bible from this pinched perspective of fear, we will either ignore difficult verses or try to artificially squish them into what we think has to be right. But if we are trusting Jesus the real live person to save us, then the exploration of scripture becomes an exciting journey rather than fearful ride. We are free to come across difficult passages and say, "I wonder what in the world that means!" or "Holy cats! How does that fit into my faith? How does that affect my view of the way God works in the world?" (For instance, did you know that people were getting healed by touching handkerchiefs that had touched Paul's skin. Don't believe me? Check it out in Acts 19:28) We are free, based on new experiences, new knowledge, or even just rereading, to understand the scriptures a little differently than we used to... or a great deal differently. We are free to do this because our salvation is in the hands of Jesus Christ, not in our understanding of the Bible.

Let me try to sum it up. If the Bible were the "salvation formula," then we would never have peace because we can never be sure we've got it right. But the Bible doesn't save us, Jesus does. Trust Jesus — the living, breathing, hugging, compassionate, resurrected, image-of-the-invisible-Father Jesus — to save you as a lifeguard drags a drowning man from the water and then learn about and grow close to him through the Bible.

Looking back on what I just wrote, it occurs to me that this may simply be my struggle and no one else's. Sometimes the biggest deal for one person isn't even a blip on the radar for another person. And I'm still not sure I adequately expressed what I am trying to communicate. But, there it is. Good night and God bless.

— PJ

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Highs and Lows of Spiritual Life... Have You Done It to Yourself?

What do you do when you are lacking inspiration or motivation? I sat down to write this newsletter article and nothing came to me. I started three different articles and each fizzled out after the first paragraph. I feel as though my mind has caught the summer doldrums. I even googled “Free Newsletter Articles” to see what I would find!

Just like my writing inspiration, our Christian life is a series of mountains and valleys. Sometimes our spiritual lives feel like a hike through a lush forest and other times it feels like trudging through a sandy desert hoping… praying… to find water soon.

Sometimes we bear some responsibility for these highs and lows. Many of us know the thrill of stepping out in faith in some way and seeing the hand of God move in our lives. These moments don’t happen without us making a decision to exercise our faith. Sometimes we make our own desert by not watering our faith. Our habits of prayer or Bible study or devotion or worship attendance or Christian conversation slip and we are the poorer for it.

But sometimes the mountain or valley is not due to something we have done or not done. God is purposely taking us through either a season of thrilling wonder and faith or a season of desert wandering according to His good will for our lives.

If God has takes us into the desert, some fine things happen during these dry times. Spiritual hardiness is not built only in the sublime and powerful spiritual experiences many of us have had. Hardiness is built when things get hard! Muscles get strong by lifting heavy things. Paul tells us to rejoice in our sufferings because produces perseverance perseverance, character; and character, hope. This hope does not disappoint us because it is in God himself who loves us. (Romans 5). When God leads you to it, God will lead you through it. Rest assured that God is doing something good.

“But what if I have done it to myself?” you ask. What if my habits or decisions have led me to this place? God loves you no less! You might look at your desertification a little differently. God may be letting you feel spiritually parched as a form of discipline. The book of Hebrews has words for those undergoing discipline: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11). In this case, you need to let yourself be trained by the way you are feeling as a result of not praying or not going to church or not reading the Bible or in some other way letting the spiritual habits and focus of your life slip. God lets us feel the dryness, the emptiness that comes from moving away from him, because he loves us. He wants us to notice the distance and turn around.

If you are in a spiritual high place, fantastic! It’s a wonderful place to be. If you are in a spiritual low place, turn toward God instead of away from him. Examine your life for ways you might have walked away. And continue the road of faith. You, like a runner in training, are growing stronger through this difficult time.

Peace be with you,
Pastor John