Wolves among sheep, cowardly shephards

 

 

Part 1 in a series on the book of Jude

I have been drawn back to the book of Jude because of things I see occurring in the church in America.  We cannot be caught by surprise at the presence of evil in our churches, and in our fellowships.  Jesus told us that would happen, and Jude writes because he was compelled to discuss the many ways that evil people have crept in among the believers.  I want to spend several posts examining the book of Jude, the concept of Apostasy and the hunger for holiness, godlyness and freedom in Christ.  It is with that goal that i offer these articles as a clarification, and perhaps because in my life it has been a wake up call to live a holy life, seeking God daily, moment by moment.  I pray you will see God’s word as deep truth, and you too will join in asking God to protect his people, and build his church free of apostacy, error, slander and greed.

Jesus warned us over and over that the church would be filled with believers and unbelievers alike.
In Matthew 13 we learn that some are wheat- healthy, solid, good; and some are rates- simulations, copies, knock-offs of the real thing. To a point they look alike…but at some place in time the difference begins to show. The wheat forms heads of grain- the tires form something but there is no grain, no substance, nothing fruitful. Yet the tares are the big fake out – looking like and growing along side the true ones, only visible when the fruit should be visible.  No grain produced, no purpose except to take up valuable farmland, soil nutrients, and crowd out the good.  Consider how this is played out in churches everywhere.

And then there is the book of Jude which challenges true Christ followers to earnestly contend for the faith because there are deceptive apostates that have come in among us. Let’s read Jude’s words:

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (‭Jude‬ ‭1‬:‭3-4‬ NIV)

So let’s pull some points from this passage:

  •  Jude is compelled to write about contending for the faith. Contending speaks of a challenge, a debate, a polished understanding of the subject. Contending is used of soldiers guarding the city who are prepared and have great strategy and planning for how they will protect and defend their post.
  • Jude reminds Christ followers that faith was given once and for all.  Faith is something given once to every believer, but it is something that must be worked on, given attention to.  It was a gift to every believer.
  • Jude reminds believers that faith was entrusted to God’s holy people.  The word entrusted means to be put into someone’s care.  This faith is more than a gift – it is a sacred trust from God to his people, to be handled rightly, protected, guarded.

So we know that faith is a gift that has been entrusted or placed in our care by God.  Verse 4 furnishes the reasons for why we  are to earnestly contend for the faith… it is because of the tares, the false ones, the apostates.

Look out at the church, especially the comfortable church in America and you will begin to see how the defense of the gospel is diminishing, and the invasion of ungodly people  is coming.  Lets continue to look at what Jude tells us about these people:

  • Certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago  – God was not surprised by the presence of falsehood, of tares.  He was not taken by surprise, but instead warned of this centuries before, speaking through the profits.  Condemnation is a very harsh word – it is a noun that means “the action of condemning someone to a punishment; sentencing”.  The actions and choices these people have made are already condemned, judged, worthy of punishment.  The language indicates these deeds have been accounted for by God….
  • These individuals have slipped in among you – they live, breath, move and act among the believers.  They influence, deceive, redirect, thwart the work of God for their own purposes and devices.  They have slipped in – secretly, quietly, almost without notice they have joined us.

This brings me to a thought about how easy it is to influence one another, and how easily we can be encouraged or discouraged in our faith.  As believers we need community – a safe group of fellow believers that can hold us accountable, and visa versa.  But the people Jude is speaking of buck the idea of accountability.  They prefer instead to build influence by lies, deception, and exhorting peep pressure.  I must say that of late i have been asking the Lord to filter my thoughts, and give me discernment and wisdom to be a positive influence to other believers.  I am also praying that God would give me discernment to see the truth in situations and people that appear to be not preaching and living their faith as the Bible prescribes. So lets continue looking at Jude to see how these people are described:

  • Ungodly people – Literally the translation means “people not of God”.  How they live, what they do, say and think will be evident and apparent.  They live in patterns that God does not approve, or is not the best choice.
  • who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality –  This is the fruit of their life.  These ungodly people alter truth, using their altered perception for their own purposes and those purposes are not moral.  Simply put, they justify their sin with God’s word.  Pervert – to alter something with a sharply negative intention, to mar or damage what was whole.  There is a contrast between grace of God and license for sin…. how opposite to each other, and what a great benchmark for determining a situation.  God will always extend grace – granting us favor that is not earned, giving us blessing though we deserve hell itself.  And God’s grace is pure, whole, right and good.  But these other people choose to damage that truth, take from God’s free gift and extend instead damage, pain, injury, all for the sake of advancing their own plan or goal.  How unsettling that is!
  • They deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.- How can you miss the truth that Jesus Christ is the ruler and king over all – he was the creator, and he is the one who handles every aspect of life.  These people choose to deny this truth, living as though God does not exist. They live for their own goals with self as center of life.

It is for these warnings that God has put in place the office of Elders.  Elders are intended to be the shephards of the flock on earth, watching over the body of believers, protecting them from harm, alarm and deception.  It is a sacred office, a responsibility that should never be entered into lightly.  Scriptures are careful to lay out the qualities elders should have, the qualifications for the office.  And while i have spent several posts discussing these qualities, and how important they are to the body lets consider them in light of Jude’s announcement that tares or false teachers will live among us.

Elders should be knowledgable and well studied in the scripture  – why? because error can begin with subtle changes in truth.  Like a counterfeit piece of currency examined by a bank teller, the changes are subtle, but the tell knows what to look for – specific marks, watermarks, etc.  When they are not there, or they are altered the currency is counterfeit.  Likewise, a little error can lead to big error, and should be examined and corrected  quickly before it has a chance to grow and take root.

Elders should be leaders – Scripture tells us they should be the husband of one wife, having their children and home in order.  Leadership starts with a good home life…. when that is good the elder has demonstrated that he has a leadership ability and is capable to influence for good those he loves.

Elders should be courageous – Standing for truth requires discernment, diplomacy and the courage to speak truth to situations that are wrong.  Elders should be unbiased, not easily influenced by one person or another.  They should be reflecting the values of Christ to the congregation.

Elders should be accountable for their lives and faith to trustworthy brothers in the faith.  Accountability speaks of bearing one’s soul, being totally honest, and seeking counsel for living.  We all need community, and we need each other to remain strong, stand firm and live rightly.

When elders are not leaders, not strong in their faith, or are easily influenced by others who are not living rightly it is very dangerous for the flock of God.  The majority of God’s people look for and need the strength of leaders to protect them, defend the faith, and make certain that the church is a place of safety and protection for God’s people.  When elders become self serving or greedy the protection and grace of God are not present. And the sheep stumble.\

When elders choose to have no courage they open the door for deception, error, and greater problems.  And it all goes back to a church that is rightly governed versus a church that is not.

Lord, we need you now more than ever to flood our churches with your spirit.  We need you to call your leaders out and strengthen them for service, granting them great insight into your word, and wisdom to recognize truth from error.  We need you to raise up strong leaders with hearts fully yielded to you.  You have told us we do not have because we do not ask.  So we are asking – May you build your church, and not permit the gates of hell to prevail against the church.  May you call out the error of those who refuse to see error, or refuse to lead, and may you call them to step down from their neglected office.  We ask you to pour out your spirit on us, and give us deep insight into your word, and discernment for how to deal with those who are not believers.  We ask that you tear down anyone who has placed themself in a leadership role without your wisdom and insight. And Please heal those who have been hurt or injured by false people.  I claim the promise that you are triumphant over hell and the grave, and I thank you that you are all powerful and there is not anyone   Amen

 

 

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Unsettled Prayer

There are some times I am unsettled, and the words just don’t flow back to God on what set me on edge.  It is times like this that I sit quietly before the Lord, bible open, heart yielded and silent, waiting for his wisdom.  It’s a decision to wait until the answer comes, not wishing to yield to my own thoughts but rather have clarity that is God’s wisdom.

Recently I attended an event that should have been super encouraging, but instead God allowed me to see the deep underbelly of insecurity, of fear, and of the way human limitations stifle the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.

The presence of the  spirit of God was there, yet restrained, stifled by the many words of flowery speech, of laying out theological treaties before men, rather than honest hearts cry to God almighty.  And there were times that evening when the spirit was asking us to wait in silence, yet the room was  buzzing with words, with sounds, with anything but silent yielding.

My unsettled spirit found no calm, no ability to just sit and wait for word from Jesus.  Instead I found myself listening to words that were being voiced.  My thoughts turned to my own sense of judgement, of criticism.  Just because I need to sit in silence to wait before God does not mean this is true of others around me, right?  Why do I want to be so critical, to judge those who share every theological treatise verbally as though they are educating God on such things.

Still very unsettled I headed home to ask God to sort this out.  On the drive home the guy we pick up for church asked “whats with all those flowery words spoken tonight?”  Huh,I asked him’ what do you mean? ‘  He went on to explain that Christianity, and faith in general is a new thing to him, and he was not sure he would ever get some of those expressions, or details that were so eloquent and sophisticated.  He expressed his concern that Christianity was so odd and different to him.  He asked if it was necessary to speak like that to God.

Everything in me took a deep breath.   There is no way he could have known my thoughts, my unsettled spirit, and my heart on the matter, right? This was simple and pure questions of someone who is new at the faith.  If I can be honest  with him I would tell him of my thoughts, my wrestling.

I wrestled with how to respond to his questions.  It’s a delicate place – not trying to judge those who wax eloquent and flourish their theology in sweeping strides of verse, yet not undermining the simplicity of prayer as conversation.  But in my heart I also struggle too, knowing that conversation with the God I know is simple, easy, honest, and straight forward.

(Deep breath) I responded to our passanger:  Well, Prayer is simply a conversation with God.  It can look different depending on the situation  But it should be honest, reverent, and sincere.  Its just like speaking with a friend.  So all the flowery language is not necessary, really.

“Well, then, why do some people do this? Why do they have to tell us everything they know when they are talking to God.  If I were God I would be frustrated with that.  Getting to the point is so important.”

(Silently I was praying those wild prayers like “Lord, help me now to find the right words, and the right things to say.  I don’t want to deter faith, or undermine what you are doing in others. I need you now!!!”)

Our passenger continued with a ton of questions.  He seemed genuine in his search for faith, and his analytical review of what he sees.  He doesn’t always understand what he sees, or hears. He is searching for truth, and wants to process everything and find neat and clean answers.

(another deep breath, and here goes) Well, there is a passage in the gospel of Luke that gives us a glimpse into the world of two different men who came to pray.  I think it might help to understand that we each come to God with different thoughts, from different places.

Luke 18:9-14New International Version (NIV)

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Both men came to the temple to pray for vastly different reasons.  The Pharisee came to judge others, and justify his own life based on his perception of righteousness.  But the publican came humbled, yielded, broken and desperate for God’s mercy.

Prayer is no different today as it was then.  People come with different reasons.  Some come with an understanding that they are right before God because they are comparing themselves to others.  And they justify their belief with much word, loud speech, and a display of the contents of their theology for the world to hear.  Others come to God wanting only to know they are able to run to the refuge of a loving God who will accept them and forgive them.  No judging either action, but if we filter what we see through the passage in Luke we learn that God will judge this… and those who puff themselves up with a lot of words will be humbled, and those who are humbled will be exhaulted by God.  So its probably better to be humble, and not make long flowery speeches.

Yes, there are times when declaring the attributes of God is good… when giving voice to the truth of his promises move us to deeper faith.  And yes there are times when we can be silent before God.  Its often not what is said, but what lies under the words in the motives of our heart.  Only God knows the heart of a man.

Our passenger thanked me for the clarification.  I think he was relieved to know that he does not have to find himself waxing eloquent, or speaking the entire survey of theology when he talks to God.   Even though his questions were somewhat answered, I was still a bit unsettled.

When I got home I was eager to just get apart, find some quiet space and The word that the Lord was giving me in the still quietness last night is to be still, and not look at my brothers and sisters, but like the publican, to come to God simply, yielding this hot mess to his mighty hand.  Its not for me to determine what is going on in the hearts and minds of those around me.

“Lord, in your presence I rejoice that you accept this sinner, and call me to your salvation.  Take from me the propensity to judge others, to filter what i hear and see through my human logic.  And lord help me to never cause others to stumble.  I thank you that you have called us to live for you, to humbly present ourselves to your authority, and i thank you that you will sort out the details of the human experience.  Help me to always remember that judgement is your work, acceptance and mercy is mine.  May you build your church.  And may you teach us how to glorify you.”

Fear

Fear is something that enters each of our lives, and makes it’s presence known.

And fear can be a gift to motivate us to move from a dangerous situation.

But the kind of fear that shakes us to the core is something that sews seeds of doubt and distrust in the Holy One, and his plan for our lives.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” -psalm 27:1

Last night at our summer prayer meeting we reflected on this psalm. And it is an honest reflection of our human character to look at the circumstances, and miss the plan of God because fear disables us.

In my life there have been times when fear has invaded, and all but dropped me to my knees.  Yes, the day that I learned i was joining the ranks of the unemployed, and knew that we were already stressed on our finances because Steve had been unemployed for 4 months was a day when for a split second fear flooded everything, overrode all of my understanding of the character and watchcare of God.

And in these 4 years of moving to a new normal in our life there have been many times when fear has knocked on the door.  But fear has no place in my house, or in my life.  Fear is not from God, and fear is destructive to the plans God has for each of our lives, and the witness he has called us to be:

27 Only let your conversation be as it becomes the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;

28 And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God.

29 For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; – Phillipians 1:27-29

Adversary, the idea that there is an enemy that desires to devour, destroy, crush and kill is a real concept.  And it is in times when we are stretched beyond our comfort zone that we begin to sense the immensity and depth of the fight that goes on between heaven and hell for our very souls.  Yes, especially once we have yielded our very core to Jesus.  The enemy of our soul does not want us to know the victory and power of our great God and King.  He wants us to live in a defeated state, cowering back when God is saying advance… go forth.

Fear has no place in the kingdom of God apart from a healthy fear of God Almighty, in all his wisdom and holyness.

Fear is also evidence of insecurity, distrust, unbelief.  Wow, harsh words, right?  But true.  If we internalize the truth of scripture, and the promises that the Lord has given us we would live differently.  We would yield our lives and abandon the comfort of our life for the adventure and watch care of a life He calls us to.  Throughout history when there was the opportunity to shrink back in fear or run forward in the power of God we watch as the true character of what we believe comes to the surface.  People like Corrie Ten Boon and Dietrich Bonhoeffer stepped up, believing deeply that God’s Word is sure, true, and solid.  They stood against darkness, evil and all that wrong, and their story shines brightly in contrast to the millions that hid cowering in fear.

And how about the first century church, where believing and following Jesus often meant being captured and fed to lions, oe tortured and made into garden torches for the Caeser.  And how about the countless numbers of believers alive today and living in situations where their life might be required of them at any moment because they follow Jesus.

We know a dear brother and sister who live in Pakistan.  They are among the 1/4 of 1 percent of the Pakistani population that believes in Jesus, surrounded by a harsh world of Islamic rule.  We have prayed for them for 20 years, and watched as the strain of living in such a harsh environment has aged them beyond their years.  But their prayer is not to be relieved of the strain, but to shine brightly for God and have the strength to be the witness they are called to be so that one day in heaven they can say that other Pakistanis believe, and have found salvation in Jesus.  Fear is not an option there either. Fear is not an option because they know who they believe in, and they have seen his character, his goodness, his love, and his keeping power.

When we choose to shed our insecurities, lay down the many ways we limit God to work in our lives, and yield all of this to God he will show us his love and his care.

In my life I have noticed that when i lay fear down at the feet of Jesus, and ask for wisdom to move forward in his power, and his leadership that God himself delights to respond.  Is it scarey at moments – absolutely.  But is it worth letting go of myself for the riches and depth of insight that God will show us – absolutely!

Fear is not an option.  Fear is the prisoner of war that is constantly returned to the commander in this war for our very minds and souls.

Blessings and Curses

Been doing alot more reading, and study in preparation for something later in the month… and the thought that words have power keeps echoing back through all that i read.  Words can build us up, or cut us down.  Words, not just letters on a page, but audible sounds that we recognize as language can be spoken to bring life, or take it.

We are all guilty of either speaking things that are not life, or receiving such things.  The bible calls anything that is negative, and destructive a curse.  Curses have power.

So i ask you today – what was spoken over you, to you, about you, by you?  Were the words uplifting, inspiring, and a shining example that you followed to this point?  Or were they words that limited you, sensitized you to some area of life, words you grew into, or words that prophecized that you would never amount to anything.

I think we need the good ear of Jesus as we bear our hearts before him, and take time to remember these curses… not to give them more power but to share them with Jesus, and turn them over to him… clean house, get rid of them.  Like those boxes of stuff we all accumulate, curses sit heavy on our hears and minds.  They reduce the capacity we were designed for. They limit who we have become.  And they ought not.

 

So what have you been called?  What were you told you would never be free of?  In my life it was weight… i was often told i would never be anything but fat.  As a child, as an adolescent, and certainly as an adult.

It is a falacy to recite that kids ditty “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  Names hurt… they sting deep into the core of our being.  They break down who we are designed to be.  They limit.  The give life to curses.

So today, in the name of Jesus i give you Jesus, all of the curses spoken over me by others. spoken to myself, and those lived out.  Your body was broken and poured out for our sins.  You were called cursed for hanging on a tree… I send these curses to you and ask that you wash this life clean, break every curse, and the grip they have had on my life, our lives…. amen

Broken Cisterns

spigot

I am a city kid…. and the only understanding of water sources i have known are the sinks and spigots in my house…. Water comes as i turn the handle.  It is so very easy, and so instant, yet i know there is a complex engineering design behind those spigots.  And there are people employed to keep the pressure up, the purity of the water consistent, and the service constant.  Cold on the right, and hot on the left.  A ready water source is right there in our homes, works, schools and churches  in this modern age.. piped in, pumped in to us with ease.  I have never had to search for water, with the exception of a camping trip as a child, for fun.

The bible talks about water in many ways, including storage of water.  I have chosen to write this blog about a passage i was again reminded of as my husband and i listened to the bible on his cell phone. (we love the app uversion.  its is so handy, and always with us.)  He is reading through the bible in 90 days, and over the weekend he approached the book of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah always speaks deep to my soul but i must admit i would not have wanted his job.  He was called to preach the truth, and call for repentence to a people who were stubborn and unresponsive to God.  But the book that God called Jeremiah to write speaks to us, as warning, as call to repentance and as hope for the future.  In the midst of listening I heard the passage that took me back to my first days as a christian, and a teaching that i have carried deep in my soul because I can say I was guilty of this myself.

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” – Jeremiah 2:13

Throughout the bible God does not change.  In the new testament Jesus identifies himself as the Water of Life, and speaks of his word as water to wash the soul.  And here, centuries before he speaks through Jeremiah reminding us that he is the spring of living water.  For a people who live in arrid climates water is essential, for life, for refreshment, and for sustainability. In our modern age where water is readily available we may not think as much about the need, or the absolute blessing of refreshment that water is.

In this passage God is speaking to the heart of the matter, and that matter is a serious one.  His chosen people, whom he has seen through so much history with, have forsaken him.  Forsaken is a harsh decision – it is to abandon, to lay aside never to return, to give up on.  What a contrast in terms.  God is always calling, pulling, drawing, watching over, protecting, providing.  And his people, in this passage, have dropped him like a hot potato.  In itself that is very sad.  It is tragic.  But that is not the whole story.

The passage goes on to say that instead these same people have dug cisterns.  Not being so familiar with agrarian terms, i hit the internet and learned that cisterns are defined by wikipedia as:

cistern (Middle English cisterne, from Latin cisterna, from cista, “box”, from Greek κίστη, kistê, “basket”) is a waterproof receptacle for holding liquids, usually water. Cisterns are often built to catch and store rainwater. Cisterns are distinguished from wells by their waterproof linings. Modern cisterns range in capacity from a few litres to thousands of cubic meters  effectively forming covered reservoirs.  – Wikipedia

Cisterns are a planned attempt to capture and store water.  It probably took great skills to figure out how to create such a thing, which drives home the point.  It took ingenuity, engineering, planning and skills to execute the plan. They put forth great effort to make this plan happen.  They put forth great effort to abandon God and his living water.

But the plot thickens more.  God tells us that these cisterns were built, but they cannot hold water.  As men and women we have a limited capacity for somethings, and we need to discern what is beyond our scope.  The living water is freely offered by God… without requirements to design, engineer, build and test out cisterns.  We must look to him for the source of living water, and know that he will supply our every need for that water.

So maybe there was a time when you went it alone, decided that the source of water for your life needed to be something you created, designed, engineered, and tested.  If you a re like me you would one day realize how leaky the design is, and the water contained in that cistern was fouled, polluted, and far from satisfying.

But the water of life was that and more.

(Jesus said) but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14

The invitation is there.  Jesus calls us to repent of those broken cisterns, and turn to his living water.  I just love Isaiah 55:

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
    and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.”

Ritual or Worship Style?

sttAs a child i was raised attending a Russian Orthodox church, where God lived beyond a screen of gold gilding, and icons of saints and angels…. in a house steeped with the sweet smell of incense, and Gregorian chants.  Church Slavonic was the language of heaven, i thought… for when the most important parts of the service happened they were not in English   Icons helped to visualize events of the Bible, and immortalized patrons of the church in the faces on the walls.

I loved the flicker of the candles, the smell of that sweet incense, the sense of a priest escorting us to God’s presence.   There was a clear sense of this being a sacred space, reserved for the act of meeting with a great God.

And Easter came to be the most sacred and wonderful time of the church calendar   The long hours of church services felt like we lived in church for holy week.  Thursday was one of my favorite – because the service was readings from all of the gospels, and recalled the events leading up to the death, and burial of Jesus.  On our knees in honor of the word of God, we listened, we prayed, and we knew the story well.

And after that Thursday service the frenetic pace of activity began as the men of the church carted up large and ancient pieces of furniture that would be set up to represent the garden tomb.  The women were gathering the huge amount of potted plants… hyacinths, tulips, hydrangeas, and white lilies   The smell was intoxicating.  Carefully and well choreographed everyone had a part in preparing the “grave”, which would be a visual representation of the crucified Christ, laying in state.

sttpsa

On Good Friday, in the early afternoon service the priest would bring the special textile shroud bearing the likeness of Jesus out from behind the icon screen and with much singing and incense would place it on the piece of the special furniture reserved for this purpose.  Ancient by my young eyes, but probably created in the earliest parts of the 20th Century when the Cathedral was dedicated.  I think i always loved Russian history because of the connection of my childhood church with the deep pockets of the last ruling monarch of Russia.  He was integral in funding the construction and finding the appointments, including the huge clear prismed glass chandelier that hangs in the center of the church.  A magnificent fixture that always caused me fear for the thought of the sheer size and weight of it.

I can almost hear some of you bristling at these images.  Let me say several things here, because the orthodox church traditions are probably not familiar ways of worship for many, and might be viewed as idol worship. – No, I still am convinced this custom came from an age when a majority of the people were not literate… and this was the visual representation to help people understand, much like the custom of detailed stone carving of scenes in Gothic Cathedrals of Western Europe was once popular.  Those who cannot read understand pictures.  The more accurate and detailed the architect  is the better the insight.   I remember as a child reflecting on some of the large icons, thinking that I understood the picture so much more than some of the big words, or words not always in English.  St Theodosius was founded by immigrants from Russia and Bylorussia.. so even the appearance of the written language was different than what their heart language.  Pictures helped.

Another thought crossed my mind about this way of remembering the death and burial of Christ.  It is so very sensory… the eyes see, the ears hear the songs, in acapella, and the nose takes in a bouquet of spring flower scents, mingled by the heavy incense, and Aunt Tillie’s strong perfume.  The tone is dark… the world has not yet seen the resurrected Christ, and the hope of nations lay dead in a grave.  Much like the funeral of a very precious family member, it is a dark and dim time… The orthodox church helped me to appreciate how deep a sorry this death of Jesus was… but indeed he did not stay there.  And as sunday morning came the grave was gone, the lights were brighter than ever and the songs were loud and glorious.  I learned to sense God in these things that seemed ritualistic to many.

Finally, as a follower of Christ, and born again, i must say that I understand that faith is simple.  It is taking God at his Word, and no more.

So why am i writing this post?  It is because a part of my perception of God was a part of this wonderful and sacred experience, and even though the church i attend loves Jesus, and proclaims the glorious news with wonder and power, a part of the sensory perceptions are missing.  It is the special music, and the smells, and the sense of deep reverance that the protestant church does not embrace.

Several years ago i was in a book reading group and we read a book called Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas.  The thesis of his book is that Christianity is not a one size fits all faith, but that each of us has different ways of sensing God.  Some will stand on a mountain top and feel the closest to God, others find their faith invigorated by understanding difficult passages of the bible, or intellectual things.  In total he speaks of 9 different areas that we might respond to God, and each are just as powerful and effective as the other.

When i reach seasons like Easter, and long for the breath and depth of the services leading to the celebration of Easter I thank God for his heart to make each of us different.  And I thank him for those childhood experiences in incense, and gregorian chant.  I thank Him for the opportunity to communally share in the deep deep sorrow of the cross, of this one solitary death that impacted all of humanity.  And i thank God for the desire he put in my heart to sense him and seek him in these ways.  I pulled the attached movie off my old church’s website and wanted you to just get a bit more of the insight into what i miss.  Click on the lily below to see the movie.

lilly

 

Do you have dreams?

Dreams, or aspirations for your life, your family, your education, your career, your future…. We all begin our lives growing into a life that is not just happenstance, but one that is directed with purpose and intention.

What are the dreams you have for your life?  Have you ever written them down?  And more importantly have you ever taken that written list and layed it down before the Lord and asked him to filter and show you what His plan is for your life?

I listened to a webcast on saturday afternoon that reminded me again how needful this exercise is to my life, and the hopes of the future.  The speaker reminded us that dreams are often God given, and there are things each of us is uniquely gifted to do which will impact our world in a powerful way.

So here is the exercise.  Take a piece of paper, or a page of a notebook, divide it in half.  Be still, and quiet, and honestly write down the dreams you have for your life.

dream

Take that list of dreams, and lay it before the Lord, and quietly ask Him what His dreams are for your life, and how He would like to use this list in your life.  Pray, and seek the Lord for the answers.  Be willing to be quiet, and still and look for the answers.

But do one more thing…. keep this list someplace safe, and check back at 6 months, a year, 2 years later.  Watch as the dreams come to fruition.  Dreams are a start, they are a gift from God to spur you on to good works, and to great things for the glory of His name.

Waiting in the Wilderness

wild3

The wilderness is that far place, away from the comfortable, away from ease, away from the place that you think you should be.   But the wilderness and the waiting are part of a plan God brings to us to shape us into his image.

Remember with me the Israelites as they are freed from Egypt… for the first time in centuries they are able to flee from the oppression of slavery, and their domination by the Egyptian culture.  The emotional culmination of their hopes and dreams were coming true.  As they put their sandals on, and loaded their carts it had to feel like a foreign place.  They were being called away from the familiar, even with its burdensome slavery.  They were being released from those shackles, given opportunity to start again, begin a new chapter of life.

And then as the Israelites seem trapped at the edge of the Red Sea with the Egyptians, who changed their mind on this freeing of the slaves, charging after them.  No place to run, no place to hide… but they are not alone because God is there.   God intervenes with a powerful miracle, parting the waters so the entire troupe can cross on dry ground safely.

They have seen miraculous things, and known the powerful saving hand of God… yet he directed them into the wilderness.  In my  thoughts I have always read through the wilderness experience without great thought about what Lena Abujamara mentions in her book “Stripped“.  She develops the idea that the wilderness was a purposeful place to train and develop  character in the people of Israel.  The wilderness is inevitable – it is a time of stripping away those things that hinder us from our relationship with God, and strips all of those idols, and things that take our attention away from God.  The wilderness can be a bootcamp, or it can be a lengthened protracted painful experience.  Teach-ability, and willingness to yield to the training, surrender the authority for handling this life to God and it will go well.

So the challenge is to go through those times in the wilderness with a willingness to remain teachable, looking for the direction and leading of the lord.  And to obey.

Lean into the pain

If you woke up each day and that one nagging prayer request you begged God to answer was never answered what would you do?  How would you cope?  Would you accept the silence, and embrace the situation?  Would you slowly dull spiritually as you focused on yourself?  Would you continue to believe, pray, wait and watch?  Or would you run in another direction?

If you woke up each day to a house that is noticeably silent because you do not have a spouse, or your spouse is no longer there (whether dead, or divorced), how would you go on? 

If you woke up each day to that incredible pain, that reminder that our bodies are not in an eternal state, but slowly degrading, breaking down, how would you go on?  Would you lean into the pain, and push on to live?  Or would you draw back and make every effort to avoid pain?

If your obedience to follow Jesus at all cost appeared to separate you from life long friends, would you go on?

If you gave your very best to your job, worked incredibly hard, are punctual and productive, and offer your skills above and beyond, but your employer only points out some obscure shortcoming in your life but blessed the inept coworker with a big raise would you still work hard?  Would you still care?

If you were challenged with going on in a place in life that is the most challenging, or caving in to something that has the appearance of ease, relief from painful situations, but would take you from the narrow road to heaven what would you do?

I had a conversation with a friend recently who has been wrestling with a season of struggle, suffering, and profound pain.  She offered these questions with the hope of some answer that would be salve to the wounded soul. She has loved and followed the Lord for many years.  She has always been noted for a deep sense of joy, and of peace that only comes from God.  Her heart is so big and her love of people is so great.  And life has brought some deep and wounding scars to her heart.  These last few years have brought challenges larger than life, pain deeper than she has ever known, and a prayer request that has gone un-answered.

As I listened to her talk, and watched her face it was apparent she wanted a balm, a salve, an answer.  Like all of us, she wanted some of the nagging unwanted trials of life to just flee away, and allow for a time of  refocusing on the Lord, and allowing the heart to heal.

“You make beautiful things out of the dust…. You make beautiful things out of us…”

The song lyric was softly playing in the background, and I stopped to pray.  There it is.  We are in a place where the broken things in our lives are being made into new, blessed, special works only God can do.  For this season we may have been called to challenges that take us to our knees, grip our very soul, and show no sign of easing up, or appear to go unanswered….But we are not in heaven yet… and until we get there we will feel the sin scarred life on earth.  And we are human, our character is in development.  We are desperate for the power, strength and leading of our Great God.  Without his strength we are nothing….

So I turned back to the bible, to read passages that might give encouragement, leading, prompting and refocus of these issues.  At the heart of the matter it is where our heart is that will tell us how we will get through challenging things.

The book of Hebrews is where I gravitate when hard questions come… and the reason I go there is because that first century church was wrestling with many of these issues.  Some commentaries suggest that many of these believers were ostracized by society, kicked to the curb, treated as unwanted by society.  Some lost their prominence or position or power because of their faith in Jesus.  And some questioned if they should go on in this hard and rough path.

The theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ over all.  He is greater than everything that life can throw at us, or pile on us.  It is powerful, the argument is one that compels us to examine our faith, and this amazing gift of salvation.  Our time on this earth is temporal, but eternal life is forever… The pain and struggle will one day melt into a place of peace, free of disease, discouragement  or tears.  The compelling request is to drink deeply in the word, to find our peace in Jesus, and to follow the many examples of those who have gone before us.

We chatted about Hebrews, and about life.  Instant life application is always challenging.  Pain is something we want to run from.  Social scientists call that “fight or flight response”.  Physicists refer to the process as “ seeking the path of least resistance:.  If we are truly honest we will agree that nobody likes pain, or trials, or challenge.  And when the situation becomes protracted, continues far longer than we had imagined with no end in sight, we grow worn down.  We grow tired.  We want that path of least resistance to a place of freedom from pain.  And yes, we want to fly away from the pain.

Almost thirty years ago an older Christian told me one piece of advice that has both been a concept I have embraced, and a practice that has seemed odd.

Lean into the pain – Don’t shy away from feeling, sensing, living through the deep and challenging places where pain is real, whether physical, mental, spiritual.  Pain is a gift that we are given to understand life.  This gift helps us to learn more about the goodness of our God, and the way He works in our lives.  So when pain comes, and it will come, Lean into it. Embrace it and give it back to Jesus in prayer.  Simply acknowledge the pain to Him, and ask Him for help through it….. through it, not around it, but through it.  Ask Him to show you the lesson in this place, and ask for insight into the way this will be used for His Glory. 

There are many living examples of people who have wrestled with life in profound ways.  And when this struggle was yielded to the mighty hand of God the results have changed the world. 

 

I have been thinking through this idea of leaning into the pain. And over the past decade I have wrestled with it.  When my mom died in 1993 I knew that life would never be the same. The pain of her departure for heaven ripped a deep wound in my heart and soul, but as I took this to the Lord in prayer he began to work on my heart and the pain.  The waves of intense grief were less frequent, less intense, and in its place was a new set of eyes for those around me.  I saw the comfort of the Lord in my life through that pain… and I sensed the gift of ministering to others who have grieved in the way I received comfort.

Leaning into the pain can be distilled into a number of points, which are by no means a full list.  Here is what I believe it means:

1         Acknowledge the truth of the current situation.

2         Speak honestly to God about the current situation

3         Examine your heart

Pain is not the enemy, but a choice instrument used by God to refine his people, to conform us to his image, and to ultimately bring us to the place where we bring him the greatest possible glory.

leadership

Leadership is one of the single largest challenges of our age – perhaps of all ages.  In secular life it is easy to see how lacking we are of strong, determined, selfless leaders that steer the course of our government, and business.  Stall-ward strength, determination to bear solid core values has melted into self serving, selling out to the highest bidder, and conceding to malfeasance  misfeasance  nonfeasance.    We have grown to expect that our political leaders will not lead well, or will not lead at all unless the outcome brings reward to their pocketbooks and wallets.  Some companies have in recent years hit the rocks, made the headlines, and even gone out of business because the captains of industry steered their ships into the rough rocks and destruction.

Its an academic topic – Are we experiencing a “brain drain” from the region?

Its a business school push – How do we develop solid leaders with tools to lead well.

Its an issue of the church – Development and selection of leaders must be on God’s calling, not secular skill sets.  The bible contains concise job descriptions (if you will) of the positions of Elder (Bishop/Overseer) and Deacons in 1 Timothy 3.  Lets take a look at them:

Qualifications for Overseers (Elder) – 1 Timothy 3:1-7

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Qualifications for Deacons (Deacon) – 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife,managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Both of these positions came at a point of growth of the church.  Things were becoming too much for the early church.  Structure had to be established… The flock of God needs under-shepherds… men who would watch over the very souls entrusted to them by God.   The role of elder is noble, but a heavy weight of responsibility to 1. live as an example to all, and 2. to lead, teach, counsel with the sheep.  The role of deacons is also an important part of the church, as workers tasked with specific jobs or roles – the origin of the position was to care for all of the widows, to ensure that everyone was treated equally, and received equal portions of the welfare.

But lets go back to elder… how is an elder selected?  In my church a committee is formed to select suitable persons in the congregation.  From their opinion a name is decided upon, and at the annual meeting a vote is taken, then he is prayed for.

Ultimately God will watch over the decisions, and it is my prayer that those chosen to lead meet the criteria of the scripture.  Why? Why is that important?  Because the very purity of the role, the power to discern and obey the Spirit of God, rests on the ability of godly men to have the courage to obey, to follow hard after God, to establish a good reputation with all people;whether they are within or outside the church, and whether or not the word of god will be upheld.  These are weighty matters that speak deeply to the character and teach-ability of each of us.  Lets look at the qualities of an elder:

  • must be above reproach
  • the husband of one wife
  • sober-minded
  • self-controlled
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • able to teach**
  • not a drunkard
  • not violent but gentle
  • not quarrelsome
  • not a lover of money
  • must manage his own household well
  •  not be a recent convert
  • he must be well thought of by outsiders

The list speaks deeply to the character of the person, with one exception – able to teach is a gift or skill that is supernaturally gifted by God.  Character reflects what is going on deep inside… the very wiring of a person.  It speaks of discipline, ability to manage well, with love and care, not falling into the propensity to drink too much, or argue.  In our time it seems very current to see that they should not be a lover of money because so much of the rest of the world runs hard after money.  Self controlled and sober minded speak to the discipline.  But the qualities also look to the family around the man – is their home in order with children yielded to obedience, faith, teachability?  And is the wife a support for her husband?  Is their marriage good?

Why such emphasis on these qualities?  I pulled this from something I read years ago… i think this helps to capture the idea in a systematic and clear way:

The elders in a church set the precedent for what faithful pastoral leadership is in that
church. Therefore, elders must not only have character, which qualifies him to lead
God‘s people, but also the competency to accomplish the duties Jesus his Senior Pastor
has assigned him. The duties of the elders are many according to Scripture. Elders,
deacons, and members share the load.

 Prayer and Scripture study (Acts 6:4)
 Ruling/leading the church (1 Timothy 5:17)
 Managing the church (1 Timothy 3:4–5)
 Caring for people in the church (1 Peter 5:2–5)
 Giving account to God for the church (Hebrews 13:17)
 Living exemplary lives (Hebrews 13:7)
 Rightly using the authority God has given them (Acts 20:28)
 Teaching the Bible correctly (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:2)
 Preaching (1 Timothy 5:17)
 Praying for the sick (James 5:13–15)
 Teaching sound doctrine and refuting false teachings (Titus 1:9)
 Working hard (1 Thessalonians 5:12)
 Rightly using money and power (1 Peter 5:1–3)
 Protecting the church from false teachers (Acts 20:17–31)

All of these are mandates of scripture, ordained by the word of God to continue the church, to advance the kingdom of Heaven. Character must line up with purpose…. to ensure faithfulness, obedience, teachability and solid leadership of God’s people.

When character does not match the church is opened for error, for mishandling of the role, or for a bad example of leadership both within and without the church.

Error is something that dates back to the garden of Eden, and that infamous temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden… The serpent put a spin on the words God spoke, cast doubt, appealed to a dark side of human character, and nobody stepped up to say different.  Eve listened, not to the pure truth of what God said to her, but to the lies that fed into the story, appealing to the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. Subtle disception lead to the introduction of sin into the world.

By the same token, an elder must know the word of God, and know the truth, and be able to differentiate truth from error.  They must be able to clarify, correct, encourage, and foster faith based on the word of God clearly presented with no room for error.

Elders should be older in the faith… tested, tried, allowed to have developed character, faith, and discernment.  It is so sad when you see a young believer put into the role of an elder because of their new found faith and zeal.. while their faith is exciting, and noticable, they have not endured challenges, developed a depth of their theology, or a depth of the ways the Lord works.  Likewise they become “bate: for the enemy to pounce on, attack and disable.  Young believers dont have the same level of experience or knowledge about spiritual warfare to combat the onslaught of attacks.  It will come with time, but the burden of leading the church should not fall on a young believer’s shoulders.

One final thought – In the book of acts we see the choosing of a new leader done through much prayer… and examination of the character of the man in their ministry in the church, and in their world.  While prayer is present, i wonder if  our modern church looks first at the outward appearance, community stature, career position/ influence and make a decision to promote those who look successful in the world.  I wonder if we disqualify people because they have endured challenges, reversals, great loss, or great trial.  I fear that our humanity gets in the way of the plan God has for leadership.  We can be so subjective, so discriminating.

Lord, the church is your work, and you privelege us to be a part of that great work.  May you remain strong in our churches, leading us with all power and wisdom.  May you select leaders that are strong, and faithful.  Help us to be wise and discerning of your spirit, choosing the people that are your choice.  Order the steps of every committee making these decisions, and give wisdom to every congregation to choose and vote wisely.  And may the Lord protect each man that steps into these roles.  Keep them free of critical spirits, judgements, and misuse of position.  Protect their families from the attacks of the enemy for Jesus, you are the victor. The enemy is defeated.  Amen