Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Just a pinch of incense

The early Christians had it tough.  I mean, really tough.  They were seen as outsiders, orphans, and outcasts.  The world they lived in was often hostile and overwhelming to them.  Indeed, there seems to be no good reason that these men and women should have seen their faith survive let alone thrive in such conditions.  And yet, not only did the message of the gospel survive, it grew to the furthest parts of the known world.

One of the greatest threats to the early church was the outbreak of state-led persecution at any moment.  We're not talking about public ridicule, the loss of a promotion or a job, refusal into a college or facing a reduced grade on a term paper.  We are talking about being imprisoned and perhaps even tortured and killed for faith in Christ.  Often the test that was used to determine who was a good citizen or not revolved around a seemingly innocuous ritual: giving a pinch of incense to the Roman Emperor.  This activity literally took only a few seconds to perform, but it was seen as very important to the social order of the day.  This is why emperor worship became a lynchpin of upholding the Roman peace - the Pax Romana.

The Romans were the most successful world empire in part because they were able to govern large tracts of territory without incurring the immense cost of a huge standing military.  They garnered the support of subject peoples by allowing them to keep their culture and religion as long as they accepted Roman taxation and military rule.  In order to cover the huge problems that competing religions might present, the Romans decided that they would institute Roman emperor worship as a requirement for all subject peoples.  Any group of people (Greek, Scythian, Celtic, Akkadian, etc.) could practice their own religion and culture as long as they offered a pinch of incense to the Roman emperor once per year, thus recognizing their respect for Roman rule. Anyone who refused to participate in this central activity was often deemed a threat to the social order and was branded as seditious.  They were marked for punishment and perhaps even death.

The first people who were often marked for persecution were the leaders of the early church.  The reason they stood out was that they simply couldn't participate in such activity and remain faithful to Christ, no matter how innocuous others might have thought it this activity was.  One of the most notable examples was Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna.  At the age of 86 he was arrested for supposed seditious behaviour and dragged before the Roman proconsul.  The record of early church historian Eusebius records what happened:

"Soldiers then grabbed him to nail him to a stake, but Polycarp stopped them: 'Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails." He prayed aloud, the fire was lit, and his flesh was consumed. The chronicler of this martyrdom said it was "not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.'  The account concluded by saying that Polycarp's death was remembered by "everyone"—"he is even spoken of by the heathen in every place." -

It was Polycarp's courage under martyrdom that is best remembered about his life.  He is one of the most revered early Christians for this very reason.  He is a premier example of a man of conscience and conviction who was not moved by the worst the world could throw at him.  So great was his love for Jesus Christ.

Today we as Christians in Canada are being faced with a similar kind of decision to the one that Polycarp faced: will we live to please Christ or the world?  And although our persecution is very slight by comparison, it is still real.  Will we offer a "pinch of incense" to the emperor or will we stand for Jesus?  Our society has changed a great deal in the past 10-15 years.  If you stand for holiness and godliness and biblical morality you are now faced with the prospect of being branded as a bad person.  Indeed, words are being flipped on their head in order to accomplish this.  Those who stand for biblical sexuality and morality are called "repressive", "phobic", "haters", "ignorant", "bigots", etc.  Those who stand for protecting the lives of the most innocent among us are called "anti-women".  The litmus test of whether or not you are a good citizen has come down to whether or not you agree with the current policially correct dogma that is prevalent in our institutions of higher learning, government, and the judiciary.  Deviation from this norm is being met with increasing hostility and even outright sanctions.

One of the most troubling features of persecution is not what the world does to us, but what we do to each other in the body of Christ.  Sadly, in the early church persecutions there were some who claimed the name of Christ but who are more than happy to throw their fellow brothers and sisters under the proverbial bus in order that they might escape persecution themselves.  Today I see the same pattern by some Christians who seek to gain a measure of approval from the world by criticizing their brothers and sisters of biblical conscience rather than standing with them.  They tend to find the worst examples of people who purport to uphold biblical moral values, but do so in a hateful manner and then use those examples to tar all Christians who uphold biblical moral values with the same brush.  Its a sickening thing to witness. 

Instead of caricaturing and demeaning one another we need to stand together like never before.  The early church was hardly problem free, but one thing is clear: those who were men and women of biblical conscience stand out as those we honour today.  The rest were forgotten.  Let's remember that, not allowing our mind and heart to be held captive by the world's empty philosophies but by the unchanging and unshakable Word of God.  Let's stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" for the faith and refuse to give even one pinch of incense to "the emperor".  The world needs such soldiers of Christ full of faith, courage and conviction.

I leave you with Jesus' words in Matthew 5:10-12a

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven."

Monday, 31 March 2014

The cost of following Christ

It's funny how the biblical lessons that are the most obvious are often the ones that I tend to naturally ignore.  Such is the case with the lessons of perseverance in following God.  From the narrative accounts in the Old Testament (Abram and Sarai waiting 25 years for Issac, Joseph being sold into slavery, Moses leading the stubborn Israelites for another 40 years through the wilderness, Jeremiah prophesying for 40 plus years with only one convert--his scribe), to the ample teaching in the New Testament, the Scripture is clear: God is ultimately interested only in faith that endures.

Jesus boldly proclaimed the cost of discipleship on numerous occasions.  In Luke 9:57-62, He made it crystal clear that He did not judge the faithfulness of people the way that we do.  He was not impressed with short term/superficial commitments:

"Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.  And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.'  Then He said to another, 'Follow Me.'  But he said, 'Lord, let me first go and bury my father.'  Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God'  And another also said, 'Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house'  But Jesus said to him, 'No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.'

There are so many who boldly proclaim, "Lord I will follow you wherever you go", only to "fall of the rails" after a season of trial.  They are "on fire for God", but only for a short time.  Why is enduring faithfulness so hard to find?  Because it requires an authentic faith that clings to nothing other than the ROCK: Jesus Christ.  When our hearts are holding on to the things of the world, we cannot fully put our faith in Jesus because our affections are divided.  And Jesus warned us so when He proclaimed, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other." (Matthew 6:24)  He was speaking about the love of money, but by extension He was speaking about all the lusts of the this world that money represented (comforts, fame, power, pleasure, etc.).

In John 6:60-69 Jesus taught some very difficult things for the crowds of followers to accept.  And many left Him because of it.  But even after this exodus, Jesus wasn't rattled.  In fact, He wasn't even finished teaching on the subject of commitment.  He challenged His disciples with a stark choice: do you want to follow Me or not?  He was in effect giving them an "out".  Look at the context:

"Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'  When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, 'Does this offend you?  What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.  But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.  And He said, 'Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father'
 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.  Then Jesus said to the twelve, 'Do you also want to go away' But Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'

So much of what happens today in contemporary Christianity is designed to please the crowd.  Our validation comes from the blessings we receive in life or the favourable responses of other people.  But such thinking has it all wrong.  No amount of earthly blessings can ever satisfy the craving of the human soul and the fickle affections of the crowd will only produce a short-term happiness.  When this thinking creeps into the church body, it is a dangerous thing indeed.  What we need is the same kind of mindset as Peter: "To whom shall we go?"  He was "all in" for Jesus.  And his feeble faith would one day became gigantic because of Christ's work in Him.  But the road was brutal and the challenges never ended.  Yet, Peter gained the greatest prize of all: eternal life with Christ because of his dogged determination to follow the Lord.

True faith endures.  Fickle faith crumbles under duress.  It's a lesson that one cannot escape if they are serious about God's Word.  God never promised us an easy life: He promised us a purposeful life of eternal significance and intimacy with Him.  And that is found only in the ROCK of our faith: Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Thanking God for nuts and bolts

Recently, our children's ministry pastor Mark demonstrated appreciation to all of our church volunteers with a can of "nuts and bolts" mix and thanked them for their dedicated service to the Lord and our church.  It got me thinking of how blessed I am to have so many "nuts and bolts" in my life.  I just wanted to give thanks to them and to the Lord for bringing them into my life.

1. My wife Suzanne.  The most precious earthly gift God has blessed me with.  She works so tirelessly and selflessly as a hard working mother and loving/supportive wife.  I cannot believe how much God has favoured me in this regard.  Without her in my life, I'd truly be lost.

2. My parents and family.  You all are such a rock for me.  Someone to talk to.  To listen to me.  People who truly know the REAL me and love me anyways!  Children who love me equally no matter how tough the day was.  Coming home to my Josh, Sabrina and Ben is such a joy!  Being able to talk to my mom and dad is a tremendous blessing.  Your godly wisdom and supportive ear are vital to my emotional and spiritual health.  My brothers and sister and their spouses are always there for me as well.  Their support and care keep me going in more ways than I can express.  I love you all. (Looking forward to Christmas together!)

In no particular order . . . [I'm not naming names because I don't want to miss anyone, but I hope you all know who you are. ;)]

- Friends of all stripes.  Long time friends who have stuck with me through thick and thin.  I thrive off knowing people with such amazing faith and Christian examples.  Ministry colleagues who understand the pressures and joys of the ministry.  You are always willing to listen to me and pray with me.  And my Board (both present and past members) who have been incredibly supportive through some challenging times of change.  I appreciate you all so much.
- Dedicated staff/volunteers.  I can honestly say that the team I have around me at our church is second to none.  No group does more with greater enthusiasm for Christ than these folks.  They are indeed the "nuts and bolts" of the ministry.  Without them, I would be a shell of a pastor.  From seniors ministry to the children's program; from the cleaning servants during the week to the Sunday am ushering and worship teams to everything in-between, our church is blessed to have so much activity for Christ.  I fully expect a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit and blessing of many new folks coming to our church in the months ahead because of the positive trajectory that has been  enthusiastically embraced by these folks.

God is more than good, He is GREAT!  Thanks Lord for all these "nuts and bolts" in my life.  I experience your love for me in large measure through the love of these folks.  I am truly blessed.

"I thank my God upon every remembrance of you . . ." (Philippians 1:3)

Monday, 4 November 2013

And then God showed up . . .

This past Sunday was one of the most moving and transformative days for me spiritually in a long time.  On Saturday night I went to bed exhausted.  Not because of late nights/early mornings with the kids, and not because of physical exhaustion as a result of the demands of a busy life, but a deeper exhaustion: a spiritual one.  I have personally been through one of the most difficult seasons of my life and this past week I hit the proverbial wall.  Basically it was a lot of "behind the scenes" stuff that has been building for months and finally I had suffered one betrayal too many.  I was done.  As a senior pastor, I've tried to be the "spiritual one"--to rise above to fray as it were.  But secretly I was deeply hurt by people I expected better from.  And I was more than hurt too - I was angry.  While that anger might be justified, it had morphed into something else: self righteousness.  And I needed to repent.  As with most bad attitudes what began in the secret places of my life began to spill into other areas.  It even began to affect my interactions other with some people who loved and cared for me. Through the hurts I had suffered I had tried to be humble, to be forgiving, to be "above it all", but in the end, all my efforts weren't enough.  I was failing at trying to be godly - I needed a divine intervention.

On Sunday am I woke up from 8 hours of sleep well-rested and ready to face the day.  The first thing I did was check my email and found a message from someone inviting me to listen to a sermon from James MacDonald titled, "Drop the Rock".  I sat down with my coffee (everyone but Ben was asleep) and watched the message with my Bible open to John 8.  It was the story of the woman caught in adultery.  And It was about the self-righteous men who had all picked up rocks to stone the immoral woman caught in the very act of this sin.  I realized that in my hurt and anger, I had picked up a couple of rocks.  The Rocks of Rightness and Resentment.  I needed to "drop the rocks" in order to get right with God.  And as I did God did a work in me.

I arrived at church realizing that my prepared message (on the topic of "grace" can you believe that?) needed to be changed from a more technical examination of this truth to a more personal one.  I had been in no way ready to preach on this central truth before I was willing to drop my rocks.  But God knew and as a result of His grace I showed up broken and humbled by God that Sunday.  I had no idea how the morning would unfold, but God did.  And He showed up.  God showed up in a most powerful way: a way that we have not experienced for a long time in our church.  There were tears of repentance and brokenness.  There was a spirit of communion and freedom.  And there was an air of abiding love.  As we celebrated communion together, I was struck with how God is more than willing to show up if we would just repent and get out of His way.

I write this as one chastened.  I realize my constant need for God and His grace every day.  I cannot survive without Him showing up in my life.  Thank you God for loving me enough to correct me.  Thank you for sending brothers and sisters in the Lord to hold me accountable.  Thank you for forgiving and cleaning me and making me whole.  Thank you for showing up.  I need You.  My family needs you.  Our church needs you.  We all need You.   

Friday, 18 October 2013

Are you a victim or a victor?

It never ceases to amaze me how much the quality of my life depends upon the attitude that I approach it with.  I remember many circumstances in my life where things changed dramatically, not because circumstances changed, but because I decided to change my outlook on things.  What was not possible suddenly becomes possible. 

Allow me an example from my youth.  I have never been fond of endurance events.  Ask me to lift weights and I'm a happy camper, but running a long distance race is about as appealing as sticking my hand into a fish tank full of hungry piranhas.  When I was 17, I was being teased by a classmate who claimed to be more athletic than me the day of a long distance race that we had at our high school.  He was a big lanky guy at about 6' 5".  I was by contrast 5' 10' (and that's stretching it just a wee bit!).  And he was a very good long distance runner whereas I was far less talented.  But I was NOT going to let him beat me that day.  Even if it killed me.  So I pushed through the pain and ran the best (and really only good) long distance run of my life.  I just about passed out at the finish, but I did it!  I beat Brad! 

Prior to that event, my attitude about my abilities to do long distance running was poor.  But something changed that day which motivated to be victorious.  And in that moment I realised that my lack of success at endurance events was more of a choice than I had first believed.  I had chosen the attitude of a "victim" and adopted whatever excuses I could find not to be competitive than the attitude of a "victor". 

Romans 8:37 says, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us."  The context?  Trials and tribulations of life.  In this life we are limited by our physical bodies (and I am and never will be a great long distance runner!) and/or circumstances in life.  Not everyone will be healthy or wealthy either.  But spiritually speaking, we are given the hope of being "victors" in this life.  We aren't defined by our past experiences or our present limitations, we are supposed to be defined "through Jesus" who loved us and died for us.  Knowing who I am in Christ is the well spring of positivity and abounding joy.  

Too many people go through life as "victims" of past hurts or trauma.  They never find the victory over their pain and sin through a healing saving relationship with the Son of God.  Jesus wants to take your burden, your past, and your hurts and fears.  He wants to give you real lasting hope and joy.  He wants to change your outlook from being victimized to being victorious.  The question is: "will you let Him change you?  Will you let Him into your centre being and control you?"  If you will, all the hope of heaven and peace of God will overflow into your attitudes and actions.  Just let Him in.  Live as a victor, not a victim.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

True acceptance

A few years ago I was reading a book a man I greatly admired: a pastor whom God had used tremendously to build His kingdom.  He was very famous and wrote a very successful book that pointed people to grow in their walk with God.  I was thoroughly enjoying his book when I came to the part where writes about his own personal experience with a child who was diagnosed with cancer.  Through this event he says, "Never once did I question God's love for me.  That was settled at the cross."  I remember reading that and at first being so discouraged.  I felt so inadequate, like I was never going to be able to measure up to people like this spiritual giant.  But I was also irritated as well.  It felt so . . . phoney.  I mean really, you NEVER questioned God's love?  And it brought up a longstanding pet peeve that I had about other authors as well.  These same kinds of themes seemed to permeate the  good 'ol Christian classics that I had read.  These men would talk about their walk with God (or what a walk with God should look like) in such terms that it almost seemed as if they were from another planet. Instead of being challenged in my faith into a deeper walk with God, I was often overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy and condemnation.  I knew that if I was honest I was nowhere near where these men were modelling themselves to be. 

But one day as I was reading Scripture I saw things with a new eye.  I was reading about Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane the night Jesus was betrayed.  I had always wondered why Peter wasn't immediately arrested for cutting off the high priest's servant's ear.  I had read the passage many times before but had missed one important detail.  In John 18 we read that Jesus saw the arresting party and went out to meet them first.  As He approached them, the Scripture says that He opened up just a tiny window of His power and flattened the whole group to the ground with His divine glory.  For just a brief moment, those around Him experienced Jesus in all His divinity.  It clearly frightened the soldiers and it obviously emboldened Peter who was watching.  That's why Peter was so brave.  And it's also why He fell so hard.  Peter was relying upon what he could see with his own eyes.  He reasoned that now Jesus was going to let these men have it, so let's get at 'em!  He relied upon his flesh and when Jesus rebuked him, healed the servant's ear and allowed Himself to be arrested.  After that Peter realized the horrible truth: Jesus was going to be arrested; and he was wasn't nearly as brave or godly as he thought he was.

We all know the story of what happened next: Peter fell--HARD.  He denied Jesus three times, cursing and swearing to boot.  But rather than this leading to a life of substandard spirituality, Peter went on to become one of the great leaders of the early church, greater even than all the authors of the spiritual classics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  How could this happen?  How could God use such a bumbling idiot after he had failed so completely?  The answer is: grace.  Jesus extended grace to Peter.  He forgave Peter unconditionally, just as he forgave Moses for his lack of faith (and murdering an Egyptian), just as He forgave the sexually immoral, the swindlers, the brutal oppressors of the church, and just as He forgives me.  I realized that I have often tried to stand before God in my own righteousness and fail miserably.  When I think like this I live in fear: fear of being found out, fear of my righteous veneer being stripped away--fear of being exposed.

Far too many people rely upon an outward veneer to mask their true spiritual condition.  We succumb to the pressure to appear to be something we aren't: to look like we've gotten past our struggles with sin.  We start our walk with Him understanding this implicitly, but it doesn't take long before we seek to create an identity that covers up the fact that we are sinners.  We spend a whole lot of time either excusing our sin by comparing ourselves to those around us who are worse, or we create a false identity of superficial holiness and become concerned about only our outward appearance instead of the condition of our heart.  

There is victory over sin, but it isn't found in our own efforts alone.  Victory over sin is found in losing ourselves in Christ.  We become less--He becomes more.  This means that we don't try and hide our sin: we allow it to be exposed so that we can see things as they really are.  This leads to true repentance.  And when this happens, something beautiful happens to us: we feel truly accepted and loved.  Allow God to expose you--and for His grace to change you.  This is where you will be truly accepted.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Who's the boss?

I well remember leading my youngest son Ben to the Lord.  For months he had been talking to me about "asking Jesus into my heart".  I didn't want to simply lead him through the sinner's prayer without him really understanding what this decision really meant for him.  I prayed about what to say and the Lord revealed to me to ask Ben this question: "Do you want Jesus to be the boss?"  When I talked to him the next day, Ben did ask about Jesus being in his heart.  I said, "That's great Ben, but that means that Jesus is the boss now.  Are you ready to do that?"  Ben's response was so typically---Ben.  "Um, no" he said with some conviction.  And every time he would broach the subject over the next several months, I'd respond with the same question: "Are you ready for Jesus to be the boss?"  In his own child-like understanding, Ben knew that while becoming a Christian was a free gift--it required a submission of his will.  This truth is something that each child of God has to come to terms with--God want to give the free gift of salvation to all who would believe, but it is an act of surrender of the will that defines the beginning of becoming an authentic follower of Jesus Christ. 

On glorious evening before bed, Ben firmly announced, "I want Jesus to be the boss now".  I knew that he was ready.  And so we prayed together and Ben became a child of the King.  Immediately after the prayer, I went downstairs and told my wife that Ben had something to announce to her.  Ben bolted downstairs and said in a loud voice, "Mommy, Jesus is the boss now!"  And we smiled right down to the bottom of our souls.  Since then I've seen such growth in my youngest son--He truly loves Jesus.  Even though he often struggles to make Jesus the boss on some days, he is incredibly spiritually sensitive. 

What is the essence of the Christian life?  To love God above anyone or anything else (Matthew 22:37-40).  And we express this love by obedience--particularly in obedience by loving one another.  I John 3:18-23 says, " My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.  And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another."  It is so sad to watch professing Christians who are living in disobedience to Christ's Lordship--often because they lack a spirit of love toward others.  They are living under a spirit of condemnation--and they are missing out on the love of Christ.   Joy and peace are gifts that cannot be opened when our heart is in this condition.

Who's the boss in your life?  Let Jesus in.  He alone will give you the eternal peace and joy your soul longs for.