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Cookie Monster said it best, didn't he?

I blame Sesame Street.

How many of you have ever been in line at the grocery store and you hear a conversation happening next to you? It goes something like this?

Mommy, can I have a candy bar?  No, dear, not this time.

Please mommy! Just one? No, dear, not this time.

But mommy, I’m hungry? I’ll get you a snack when we get home.

But mommy, I’m hungry now! You’ll have to wait sweetie.

BUT MOMMY!!!! [Screams and crying follow…]

I’ve seen moms react in a variety of ways. Some are embarrassed but I always like when they simple shrug, stand strong, and move on. To me, that teaches the child an important lesson about delayed gratification. But then, how many of us grew up with Cookie Monster demanding his cookie?

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I blame Cookie Monster

“Me want cookie”

That said…

How many of you have ever acted the way the child did but towards God? Think about it for a moment. Have you ever wanted something and thought He should give it to you at that exact moment? Have you ever wondered why He didn’t respond as you thought He would / should? Have you ever gotten… angry?

In continuing to walk through the Gospel of Matthew, the personal conviction I’ve felt in the Sermon on the Mount has been strong. Now, I’ll be quick to say, I’m not that bad. However, in the light of the Law (and the absolute perfection held only by God), I must admit to feeling like a whining baby when I don’t get my way.

The Christian journey and the process of sanctification (being made holy) calls us to accept the reality of our situation while also accepting the grace that has redeemed us. We must confess and press forward. It’s simple, yet oh so difficult…

Let’s jump into the particular text that called me to consider this more deeply.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Matthew 7: 7-8

Jesus has promised us that we only need to ask. It’s just like the little child asking his parent for a candy bar. We are to ask, through prayer, for our Heavenly Father to give us what we need. His ear is inclined toward us. But, as I imagine you are already guessing, His response is not to give us something that will harm us.

There exists a difference between wants and needs.

Jesus is clear. When you pray, it’s ok to ask God to give you what you need. It’s ok to ask your Heavenly Father. He is your Abba, your daddy.

The act and discipline of prayer changes us. It takes us closer to God as we speak and listen to Him. It allows Him to work in our hearts and minds and change us to follow Him more closely. We may not like His response to our “asks” (Yes, No, or Not yet) but we know that our Father always wants what is best for us.

Jesus illustrates this when He then gives us the example of bread and fish:

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? Matthew 7: 9-10

A quick reminder. If we don’t have our sandals on, this can sound a bit peculiar. 2,000 years ago, bread and fish were common. Think of the miracle of the loaves and the fish. Everyone connected with the bread / stone or fish / serpent analogies.

And so, when Jesus gave that example, followed by what He said next, these words were streams of living water. They nourished and refreshed those who heard them. And then Jesus said:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

Again, keeping the words in context and culture, imagine how these would have felt. These were God’s chosen people. They had been living under the rule of the Romans. They had been praying for generations to be delivered and restored. And now, they are receiving hope and words of life.

And now we have what many people call the Golden Rule.

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7: 12

What is the Law and the Prophets? Jesus summarized it later as the Greatest Commandments, but I believe the essence of it is right here. Love God and Love your neighbors. If you want people to be nice to you, be nice to them. If you want people to help you, help them.

Of course, the requirement we sometimes miss is that we need to do these things to them first. If we are cruel to others, then we shouldn’t expect them to be nice to us first. Act the way you want to be treated. Do the things for others that you want them to do to you.

Now, the last two verses deserve a bit more time. There is something a bit unpleasant that I’d like to discuss. This isn’t about any of you, but it is about all of us.

In the last several weeks, there have been two notable people in Christian circles that have stated that they are leaving the faith. I won’t say their names because that is not the important part. In fact, it’s the least important part.

One of the individuals is an author and former pastor. Over two decades ago, he wrote a book that became a best-seller. He went on to become a speaker and traveled around receiving all sorts of accolades. He pulled back from the spotlight a bit and then wrote more books and came right back into it.

And then he renounced his faith. He said that the terms that we would use to define Christians no longer applied to him.

The other person is a musician and song writer. He became a part of one of the most successful groups in Christian worship music today. Awards and all sorts of whatnot followed. He also has just come out and said that he has questions and would no longer consider himself to be a Christian.

Let’s be honest. It’s hard to hear Jesus’ words sometimes. We want to think that everyone will go to Heaven. We don’t want to think of our loved ones not going. But Jesus said very clearly:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Matthew 7: 13-14

Now, there are about three or four messages I could share from those two verses. Let’s keep it simple and to the point.

Two-thousand years ago, the gate imagery was in the forefront of people’s thinking. Jerusalem – like other cities at the time – was a walled city. They were north, by the Sea of Galilee, and to go to the Temple inside the walled City of Jerusalem, had to go through a gate. If you were riding a camel or hauling a cart, you had to go through a large gate. If you were walking by yourself, you could use the small, narrow one.

First point. The gate had to be unlocked. Our sin destroyed our relationship with God. There is no way for us to get through. But Jesus, through His death on the cross, paid the price and He opened the door for us to be restored. It is only through receiving Jesus as your Savior that you can enter.

Second. You go through alone. It’s a narrow gate. You can’t take your husband or wife, son or daughter, friend or neighbor. If they want to go through, they need to receive Him as well. You can’t do it for them.

Third. It’s not hard, but it’s not easy. I’m talking about life AFTER you walk through the gate. Life with Jesus isn’t easy. Why not? Because sin still happens. We do it and others do it. Sin has ramifications. Sometimes we cause those. Sometimes we feel them.

But life with Jesus – knowing that God is sovereign and, in the end, God wins, makes everything a lot easier. How? You simply learn to walk in trust. No matter what, God is good and He is always in control.

God will supply your needs. But that doesn’t mean He will supply your wants.

I’ve found that when God does not give me what I think I need, when I think He isn’t listening, then I have to check myself. Am I like that kid screaming for a candy bar? Am I stomping my feet and whining? That’s a pretty good sign that I’m focused on a want and not a need.

God is always faithful to provide for our needs. Trust in Him.

HOW DARE YOU JUDGE ME!?!? Or wait... Maybe you should

It’s been over five decades since the Manson family brutally murdered several people. It was not only a shocking crime but it rocked countless lives as both the brutality as well as the horrific nature of the acts came to light.

Did that sound “judgey” to you?

If it didn’t, then please read it again. What right do I have to state an opinion on things that happened at a different time, in a different state, involving people I’ve never met?

But then, why would I NOT be able to cast a judgement? Why would I not be able to offer my opinion based on what I have read, heard, and seen? Why should YOU not be able to do the same?

Well…

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Some people might cite Matthew 7:1-2: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Those two verses have been used countless times to justify behavior – either our own or that of someone else. And yet, I think we would easily state that when it comes to ‘judging’ someone like Charles Mason, Adolph Hitler, or Genghis Khan, we are quick to convict. After all, we ‘know’ they are guilty. It’s not judging as much as it is simply stating a fact, right?

Well…

For those who follow the Way (Christians), we must remember the challenge of God’s living and active Word. In order to understand His Gift to us, we need to read it in context and culture. We must also never forget that God’s Word begins with “in the beginning…” It finishes with “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” Between those opening words in Genesis and concluding with the final blessing in Revelation, we have a total of 66 books written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit using 40 people from shepherds to a doctor to everyone’s favorite IRS agent, Matthew.

The amazing thing – and one of the things that helps us to understand how the Holy Spirit was at work – is to see the connectivity of God’s Word. From a man named Moses who went from Pharaoh’s palace to become a shepherd in the wilderness to a man named David who went from being a shepherd in the wilderness to becoming king, we have threads. These threads connect together to form a picture of a Messiah Whom we know as Jesus.

We meet Him in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and we then read of the beginning of the Church – not a building, but God’s people in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Galatia, and many other places. Then we read of a revelation, given to John, of Jesus’ return and the restoration of all things.

My point is simple. To understand God’s Truth – especially about something like judging another, we have to read all of it.

These verses come in what scholars have placed as the final third of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is telling His hearers of the difference between Law and Grace. As He attempts to drink more deeply from the living water, Jesus mentions judging.

For context, let’s remember that the Pharisees had added over 600 bonus laws to Scripture (the Old Testament). Even their prayers – often made in a loud voice so that others could hear – contained judgments of others (See Matthew 6:5; Luke 18:9-14). In other words, Jesus’ hearers knew what it was like to be judged.

And so, in light of that, Jesus speaks:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? If you choose to judge someone else, then expect others to judge you with the same filter and lens. If you criticize someone’s clothing, expect someone to judge yours. If you just someone’s appearance, expect the same. Whatever measure you use when looking at another person will be the same measure that points back at you.

We then have two different illustrations. The second one might be a bit odd to our ears, but still clear.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Matthew 7: 6

Dogs were considered scavengers. You would see them wandering about, sniffing, and generally eating whatever they could find. It may sound a bit strange, but there is a bit of “disrespect” that we associate with our canine friends. They are beggars. We joke that our dog, Coco the Wonder Dorkie, doesn’t even taste food. She sucks it down – whatever it is.

So, when we are dealing with sacred things, we should give them to people who will not respect them. If I take two hours to talk with someone about faith, I don’t want them to disrespect that time by then going and laughing about it with their friends. Even if we disagree, there should be that level of “this is special to that person”.

Pigs were unclean animals. Jewish people did not eat them and, to remind us of how bad the prodigal son became, part of the giant scandal was the shock of him not only working with pigs but also wanting to eat their food. Pigs could also become quickly violent. If you threw them pearls, they would realize it was not food and turn on you.

It’s the first illustration, though, that I’d like to spend a few more minutes considering as well as some related texts.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7: 3-5

The illustration is clear. If you have a plank – a sin – in your own life, stop worrying about the sin in your brother’s life. Take care of your own sin first. Jesus uses the label “hypocrite” for this type of person. The word literally means “an actor”. If you dig around on the word origins, it points you to the two words that were put together: “interpreter” and “underneath”. That may not make much sense until you remember that Greek actors wore HUGE masks. They would speak or act behind those masks. The hypocrite holds up the mask and says, “I’m fine but you are not.”

Again, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls out a lot of people. He calls out those who give, who pray and who fast to get noticed. He calls out those who are living for money. He calls out those who worry and stress. He tells them – grace is better. Living in relationship with God is better.

And, if you are one of those people who has the spiritual gift of criticism and judging and ripping others down, SURPRISE! Those are actually not gifts. Worry about your own sins, your own struggles, your own issues. Deal with those first.

Now, what about when we CAN judge?

If we are trying to understand passages, as I said, we need to go to the immediate context. For this passage, it is within the Sermon on the Mount. We can also go to a larger context and, in this case, it would be within Matthew’s Gospel. We’d want to look for other passages that talk about the same or similar things. For example, we can look in Matthew 18.

In this chapter, we have the fourth block of Jesus’ teaching shared by Matthew. In the immediate context, someone comes to Jesus and asks who is the greatest. Jesus pulls a child to the front and says, if you want to be great, be like this child. Be humble. Be innocent. Be receptive to God’s teaching.

Then Jesus says, and don’t mess with the innocent. It would be better to be drown than to hurt one. He then illustrates going out to find the lost. If you have 100 sheep and one is missing, leave the 99 and go find the one. Restore it back.

Restoration.

What a wonderful word! We can think of a family home, a bit ‘broken and battered’ after the passage of time. And yet, after it is restored, it can be a gift to the next generation. HGTV has made program after program of people buying a dilapidated home, restoring it, and then flipping it to another person.

Jesus gives us beautiful images of restoration but we might miss the beauty in the next one because it follows…

Wait for it…

Yes, it follows “judging”.

 If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18: 15-17

We believe there is a sin by our brother. We judge it. We go to him to try to correct the sin and restore the relationship. If it doesn’t work, we try with someone else. If that doesn’t work, we try the Body of Christ. If that doesn’t work, then – and I LOVE when Matthew says this, “treat him as a pagan or a tax collector”. Matthew knows!

But we are to judge if we believe there is sin by a brother in the church. We judge NOT with the goal of condemning but with the goal of restoration.

There is a lot more that could be said, but for the sake of time, let’s focus now on this aspect of judging in the church. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. His first letter addressed many things that were getting out of hand. He was clear:

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. 1st Corinthians 5:12-13

A long time ago, I heard a pastor say, “Why are we surprised when sinners sin?” That’s a pretty great question. Yes, we are all sinners. We all mess up. But the question was really directed to those outside the church.

If someone is not a believer, then don’t be surprised when they don’t act like one. They are going to shock and surprise us.

That said, go ahead and BE SURPRISED when someone who claims to be a Christian does NOT act like one. If you see them getting drunk, wonder what’s going on. If you hear them cursing worse than a sailor, wonder what’s going on. If you see them living a bad lifestyle, wonder what is going on.

And don’t be afraid to judge them.

But when you do, be sure to heed Jesus’ words in Matthew 7. Check out your own life first. Are you doing the same thing – OR WORSE?

If I criticize and judge someone for driving too fast, I’d better be driving slower. If I criticize someone for getting drunk, I’d better not be. If I criticize someone for gossiping, then I had better be controlling my own tongue. And, when you do judge, make sure your goal is restoration.

How do you know when to judge and when not to judge? What is the bottom-line? It’s tough, but let me give you some simple guidelines.

First, is it a sin? Does God’s Word clearly state that whatever it is that the person is doing is wrong? And when I say that, I don’t mean that we take things out of context. A ‘popular’ odd, “am I sinning” question follows an Old Testament prohibition against wearing clothing with mixed fibers. That’s a sin. Well, in culture and context, that was referencing a problem with the pagans. They did stuff with clothing that was wrong. Without going into details, let’s just say that God gave His children a prohibition against it. If you, as a parent, have ever wondered about something your son or daughter was wearing, it’s kind of the same thing. (But it is not a sin today to wear clothing of mixed fibers!)

If it is a sin, then is it your business? Here’s what I mean. If Bert goes to Ernie and tells him something that Big Bird did, it’s not yet Ernie’s problem. Bert needs to go to Big Bird first. Then, following Matthew 18, if it is a sin, then Bert and Ernie can go to Big Bird. What do we call it if someone just runs around blabbing? GOSSIP!

So, if it is a sin and it is your business, then go to the person in Christian love. Don’t be cruel. Be kind and loving. Don’t challenge them but ask them about it. See what’s going on. Love your neighbor.

From there, seek restoration. Seek to help the person move forward. Don’t seek to keep beating them over the head. Seek to heal and restore them.

Why does that matter? Because that is what Jesus did for you.

He didn’t sin. I did. I broke God’s Law and my relationship with Him.

Jesus is the one who, in love and mercy, came and did what was required to restore it. That’s what Law and Grace are all about.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Quarterly Vexed but No Longer Stressed

Some 35+ years ago, our family home was robbed. A thief (or thieves) broke in a back door and took an assortment of things. I can’t remember any of them EXCEPT my collection of 1976 quarters. Depending on your age and life circumstances, you may or may not immediately grasp why that mattered.

The quarter coin had the same design for thirty-three years (1965-1998). George Washington’s portrait was on the front and an eagle was on the back. However, for one year, 1976, that changed. In recognition of the 200th anniversary of the beginning of our nation, the back of the coin featured a colonial drummer, thirteen stars, a flame, and the words “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one).

I thought they were very cool and started collecting each one I found. While I didn’t have a lot, it was a thrill to find another and add it to the collection.

And then they were gone.

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Just like that, my quarters were taken by a thief in the night. While other things mattered to the rest of the family, I was shocked that my quarters were gone. Someone took my stuff.

The Bible clearly states that stealing is wrong. Our culture affirms this as one of those universal truths. Professors force students to wrestle with the ethical quandaries of this through exercises like “Is it ok to steal food if your family is starving?” Bottom-line: Stealing is wrong.

So, if I want stuff and I don’t have stuff, what am I supposed to do? The simple answer is work hard and earn it, but let’s go beyond that for a moment. What exactly is “stuff” that we want and what exactly is “stuff” that we need?

To know what really matters, we need to turn to God’s Word. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said in words that flowed like streams of living water:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6: 19-21

Jesus knew that people then, just as people still do today, like their stuff.

He went to illustrate this in a simple, clear, and easily understood way.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad (unhealthy), your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Matthew 6: 22-23

This is one of those figurative passages that is clearly meant to be understood in the context of which it is given. Through the eye, we see “stuff”. That “stuff” flows into us and impacts everything about us. For example, if nothing but violence and dark images flows into my life through television, games, and activities, my body will be “filled” with that darkness. However, if I devote my time to studying the Word and praising God, my body will be full of light.

Jesus then says very clearly:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Matthew 6: 24

The treasures (or masters) that should guide our steps are those things that bring glory to God. Micah 6:8 states it this way:

He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly. To love mercy. And to walk humbly with the Lord your God. Micah 6:8

Money is not bad. The love of money is a sin. The love of money to get more stuff is sin. If you try to serve God and money, you will be disappointed. You can’t be driven to pile up stuff and also serve God.

When Dennis Rodman played in the NBA, he had a salary of $27 million PLUS endorsements. After he left the NBA, he couldn’t pay his bills and sustain the lifestyle pattern that he had created for himself. No more stuff.

Willie Nelson had a tax shelter that was illegal. As a result, he owed the IRS $16.7 million. His lawyer was able to get it down to $6 million, but he still couldn’t pay it. The IRS raided his home and took all of his stuff.

Major League baseball pitcher, Curt Schilling, earned over $114 million during his career. He went bankrupt when a video game company he helped start folded. He had to sell all of his stuff, including a very famous bloody sock.

Movie director Francis Ford Coppola filed for bankruptcy protection for the SECOND time when he had $52 million in the bank. Why? He owed $98 million. So much stuff lost to even more stuff.

You cannot serve both God and money. PICK YOUR TREASURE.

To help make that decision even easier, Jesus gives us a reason.  Immediately after one of those glorious “therefore” attention grabbers, we read:

Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:25-27

Jesus isn’t saying we should be starving or allow others to starve. He is telling us so clearly that life is more than satisfying our stomachs. Focus on God.

And then I love the follow-up imagery of those who stress over clothing:

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Matthew 6: 28-30

For the third time in less than 100 words, Jesus says Do not worry. He reminds us of the flowers of the field. They don’t do anything – and yet they are beautiful. They are arrayed in different colors with all sorts of shapes and sizes. And yet, when it was time to light the fire, you wouldn’t think twice about using what you once admired to take care of a need.

Once again, Jesus says ‘don’t worry’:

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6: 31-33

Our primary focus should be on one thing – God. We should pursue Him, seek Him, want more and more of Him each and every day.

The Sermon on the Mount keeps circling back to Law versus grace. Do you want to try to live perfectly or do you want to try to live in freedom? Do you want to live stressed and depressed or do you want to live in freedom and love?

There is a word I enjoy. It’s an old word that isn’t used much anymore – “VEX”. The dictionary defines it as to “cause distress or anger or frustration”. Does thinking about tomorrow ‘vex’ you?

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6: 34

This is the verse that loops us back to everything else. Focus on God. Don’t let tomorrow vex you. Don’t let it worry you. Tomorrow is tomorrow.

Although I feel like I’m stating the obvious, let’s be clear. This does NOT mean we shouldn’t plan. God’s Word is clear on that fact. BUT – God is in control. God is sovereign. God will take care of today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. And you know what else? He’ll even take care of the one after that one too. God was, is, and will always be sovereign.

None of the above means that there aren’t times when I fail. I worry. I make sure my doors are locked. But as I seek to take each step forward, it’s not so complicated to trust and remember that God has this. And that. And the other thing too.

Is anything vexing you right now? Is it money? Is it work? Is it the future? Kids? Family? Parents? Your car? Your house?

WHY is it vexing you?

If it is a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty, then let me encourage you to work on that more and more. Seek to truly, deeply, and passionately trust God. If I – or you – choose to give ourselves over to worry, then we are ignoring the love, and grace, and mercy that Jesus is offering. We are missing the blessing of the promise of His protection and security and peace.

The next time you are tempted to worry, I want to encourage you to do something. Stop and imagine Jesus sitting on the top of the mountain. Imagine Him smiling down at you. Imagine Him saying, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”

And then, take a step forward in faith. Knowing that He is faithful. Knowing that the Holy Spirit is there to guide your steps.

Why you should NOT pray the "Our Father"...

I know. I know. I know.

Run me out of town on a rail. Have me drawn and quartered. Cover me in tar and feathers.

I’m sure those are a few of the ideas that barely scratching the surface of the minimum level of punishment you are thinking I deserve for suggesting such a thing. You might dislike me even more if I suggest that praying the Lord’s Prayer is a bit like being a telemarketer.

Before you seek my destruction, please bear with me for a moment. Allow me to explain when reciting the Lord’s Prayer is sometimes appropriate but usually, it is NOT the thing to do.

The context of the Lord’s Prayer as we see it in Matthew 6 is very important. We are in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has just finished guiding those who are listening to a very simple – yet radical – concept.

Prayer is relational.

He admonishes those who pray in a way as to be seen by others.

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. Matthew 6:5

For a simple image, picture a street preacher, standing on a box, and shouting out a message to anyone passing by. This act gives us a glimpse of what it was like 2,000 years ago as a person would stand and shout out their prayers (in ‘church’ or out of it).

But Jesus then tells us that prayer is to be relational. Read His words carefully:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6: 6-8

Again, if we go back in time, we must imagine the first century home. Unlike our homes today, it was a very open place. If you travel to the Middle East and view some of the ruins or recreated models, you can see how open they were. In fact, picture “making your bed” (that is, rolling up your mat), making breakfast, and then sitting at the table for breakfast. It’s quite possible you never changed rooms!

With that understanding, Jesus’ words to “go into your room and close the door” take on an even greater degree of relationship. Who is going to see you behind a closed door? No one. It’s you and God.

And, for those of us who have come to believe that we should spend HOURS in prayer, take another look. “Do not keep on babbling” is a clear command. Those who think that the number of words (i.e. time spent) is important, Jesus corrects that.

God already knows your heart!

WHY? Why did Jesus then continue and give us what we call the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father)? Honestly, I think the answer is very simple. To teach us how to pray.

Wait. Didn’t I begin by suggesting we STOP praying the Lord’s Prayer?

Well…

Yes…

But…

Let’s get to the point. I do think it also helps if we bring Luke 11 into the conversation. This parallel text tells us that one day, Jesus’ disciples were watching Him pray. Seeing the Messiah pray had a powerful impact on them. They then did what disciples do. They went to their Rabbi and asked to learn. Specifically, they asked Him to teach them to pray like they do.

If you struggle to wrap your mind around that, imagine going to the greatest baseball player and asking them to teach you to play the game. Or going to the greatest concert pianist and seeking guidance. Or the greatest writer, or scientist, or…. Whoever is the greatest, most accomplished, most bestest (yes, I said that) at something and saying “PLEASE TEACH ME!

Jesus taught them. He said:

Go to the Father. Really, go to your Daddy. Your Abba. Go to the One who loves you fully and completely. Recognize Him for who He is. Praise Him.

Do you have anything you need to confess? Remember – He knows. He knows what you’ve done. Just like your earthly parents or teachers most likely know what you did (eyes in the back of their heads!), God knows. He still loves you.

The act of confessing is not about saying what God knows but it’s really about repenting of what you’ve done wrong. Yes, the movie did tell us that “love means never have to say you are sorry” but I believe that is a lie. Repenting is about TRULY feeling convicted that what you did was wrong.

So, we praise. We repent. And then we can ask. Remember, God already knows what is on your heart. God knows what you want – as well as what you NEED. Personally, I’ve found that asking God for things helps me in an important way. When it’s something I want versus something that I need, my heart changes a bit. When I ask, I often hear myself and realize how silly it is. I then change my ask to my yield.

Yielding is the process of saying: God, YOUR will be done.

It’s really not about me. It’s not about me having, or knowing, or doing everything. It’s about my yielding to God and allowing Him to direct my steps to what He knows I truly need. Whatever that might be, all I really need is Him. I need to be restored in my relationship with Him. Jesus, God the Son, did that when He gave His life on the cross. Because that is true, I now need to walk in faith with Him. I need to listen to the Holy Spirit as He leads me where I should go.

Can we circle back to the Lord’s Prayer as we finish?

Yes, you can pray the Lord’s Prayer. But if (when) you do, I would encourage you to do one primary thing. Say it as a corporate prayer. By that, I mean that you can pray it with others. There is community and relationship by praying with others and the Lord’s Prayer allows us to do that.

If you want to pray it by yourself, go ahead. But remember that it is a model of prayer – not a mandate. It’s not to be said over and over and over. Think of it this way:

Once upon a time, I had a job that caused most of the population to hate me.

I was a telemarketer.

I would call people during the dinner hour because “they needed” to have their carpets cleaned. I had a very clear and direct script which I was directed to follow exactly and monitored for saying it the way it was written. If a potential customer was interested, that person would be passed off to a manager. The manager would then try to close the sale.  

But I had my script.

The manager was the one to really talk with the person. Their job was to find common ground, build rapport, and “add-on” services. Granted, it wasn’t a real relationship, but it had all the markings of one.

Try to apply that to your relationship with God.

Do you follow a script or do you have a relationship?

Do you try to convince God to do what you want Him to do or do you seek to really build your relationship with Him? Do you seek true love and communication?

How then can you pray?

Praise God for who He is. Look around and praise Him for His creation, His beauty, His everything.

Repent of those things that you need to confess. He already knows what you’ve done wrong. But if there is a burden on your heart and mind, give it to Him.

Ask Him for what you need. But as you do so, remember that He knows the difference between your wants and your needs. So, as you pray…

Yield to Him. Trust Him to do what is best. Trust Him to guide your steps.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

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Happiness is a warm puppy... (And other thoughts about life)

Are you happy?

How would you answer that question - especially if you had to explain your answer?

Are you happy because you are healthy? Financially secure? Your kids are doing well? You have a job?

Happiness is a strange thing. In his book, Soul Hunger, Otis Ledbetter points out that the word is rooted in an old English term “hap” that meant “luck” or “chance”. If you consider some of the other words tied to it, “happenstance” (it just happened); “haphazard” (random or ‘it just happened’); or “haplessly” (unlucky),  you can see that meaning. Personally, I think that it would be easy to swap happy for ‘contentment’. However, when we go back to the root, the word ‘luck’ might be more accurate.

So then, why is it that we are so driven to pursue happiness?

Now, let’s be honest. You are thinking it, right? It sure beats the alternative! Who wants to be unhappy? As we normally think of it, I would not argue at all.

But these is another thing we must consider: What does GOD tell us about pursuing happiness?

As I attempted to surf through the pages of God’s Word, I kept circling back to the concept of “shalom” or peace. Jesus said in John 16:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. John 16:33

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1st Thessalonians 5: 16-18

And also to the Philippians:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4: 11b-13

While I don’t want to misinterpret Scripture, I do believe it is simple. Seeking “happiness” is really seeking peace. We want to be at a place where we are emotionally and spiritually at rest.

This all came up as I was studying Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:

Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. Matthew 6: 1

I believe that Jesus is calling us to do a bit of examination of our hearts.

Have you ever done something for another person? If so, WHY?

To be clear, there is an expectation that we will do good deeds (acts of righteousness). Jesus expects IT. It Is not so that we can earn our salvation. In the previous chapter, He has just finished giving the people a list of “you have heard it said” examples. Those lists went beyond the Law (Jewish rules for life - Mosaic Law). Jesus wanted people to know that keeping the Ten Commandments was good - but they didn’t really grasp how much more intense the Law truly was. For example: You’ve heard it said, “Do not commit adultery” but even looking lustfully is the same thing.

So why then do we “do good stuff”? We should be doing them as a response to grace. We don’t have to earn our salvation! (We couldn’t if we tried.) Therefore, when we consider the depths and richness of the grace we have received, our hearts cry out for us to respond and reflect it.

Jesus then gives an example of what it means to do an act of faith or an act of grace. He says:

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. Matthew 6: 2

Do you get the simplicity of what Jesus is saying? If you’ve seen someone driving the bright red convertible sports car, top down in 40-degree weather, zipping in and out of traffic, then you’ve seen someone who announces themselves with trumpet blasts. It’s not literal but it is the same idea. The person wants to be seen.

The Pharisee exemplified this attitude. In Luke 18, we read of one who went into the Temple to pray and did so loudly. He wanted others to know that he was praying. He wanted people to know that he wasn’t like the “sinner” in the corner who was weeping over the depths of his sins. Some people give and do things so that others see it. That’s their reward.  

As He taught, Jesus was clear: WHEN you give, just give.

Too often, we have the attitude of the little girl given two dollars by her dad. He told her that one dollar was to give in the offering plate at church on Sunday. The other dollar was hers to spend. She ran to get candy but tripped on the curb. One dollar fell into the sewer. She looked up & said, “I’m sorry, God. There goes your dollar.”

But this is not just about money. Opening your wallet and handing over a dollar or two is NOT a bad thing to do. When you are blessed, it’s good to be a blessing and give. But again, it’s not just about money…

We cling so tightly to things that really aren’t ours. We are instructed in Scripture to support those in need. God’s Word is abundantly clear from beginning to end that we are to support others in need out of what we have. Do you have an abundance of clothing or shoes? Things you haven’t worn in a calendar year or two (or longer)? Clean out your closets and give it away. Do you have an extra hour? Can you volunteer to tutor? Your answer to “what can I give” is going to be unique to you. Regardless, the instruction is clear. WHEN you give.

Jesus’ illustration should make us smile. It sounds impossible, but it’s plain, simple, and clear.

When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matt. 6: 3-4

Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole. Giving – whatever it may be – should be almost reflexive. Don’t count pennies or have the attitude of “why am I always the one volunteering”. Don’t do it with expectations. Simply reflect generosity in who you are as a person.

Let me leave you with one final thought.

There is a website called “Where’s George?” You can enter the serial number off of a dollar bill and then receive updates as others enter it. I went on the web site and looked at one.

On October 14, 2013, it was entered when someone received it as change at a military academy in Virginia. The next time it was recorded was almost a year later in Paris. The person stated that they had cashed in euros at the airport and received it. Vermont, New York, Ohio, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Canton, Missouri – north of the Hannibal area, and then last recorded on January 24 of this year in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The person received it in a tip jar.

That one-dollar bill has traveled over 10,000 miles. People noted it in gas stations, Walmart, and casinos. It’s a very well used and well-traveled bill.

Here’s my point. Live generously - with everything.

Jesus Christ is God the Son. He left Heaven – a place of beauty, joy, and pure light – to live a life on Earth. This is a wonderful and beautiful planet that displays God’s incredible and creative hand. However, it’s also a world broken by sin.

We sweat when it’s hot. We get thirsty when we don’t have water. Our stomach grumbles when we are hungry. We get tired when we do too much. People hurt us. People die. There is great sorrow and struggle even in the midst of joy.

Jesus left Heaven to be born on this earth. He then gave His life on the cross for our sins. He didn’t die for what HE did wrong. He died for what you do wrong. He died for your sins.

That thought should overwhelm you when you consider what grace truly is.

The challenge is simple. What will you do with your faith. Jesus calls us respond to grace by living upside down – by living in a way that defies earthly logic.

Jim Elliott, the missionary who gave his life trying to share the Gospel, said:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.

Your calling is to live a generous life. If you have time, give it. If you have treasure, give it. If you have talent, give it. Don’t hold back from any opportunity to reflect God’s grace.

Yours in Christ, Marty

Keeping it Simple in the Beatitudes

With both of my children now in the college years, my wife and I will be entering an interesting transition season of life. Simple questions (like cooking for two) will arise. Traveling to see the kids (two hours or fifteen hours) will become a consideration. Honestly, dealing with the reality that no matter how long we stare at the front door, one of our kids isn’t going to walk through it will be a significant change…

One of the blessings of marriage as God has created it is something that we can easily overlook if we aren’t careful. A husband and wife should complement one another. There are gifts my beautiful bride of almost 24 years has that I fall short in displaying. Likewise, I like to think that there are gifts that I bring to the marriage that serve to bless and complement her. Although things aren’t perfect by any means, with Christ at the center, we have been incredibly united as one.

While I may have teased you into thinking that this is about our marriage, it’s actually about YOU! How is Christ at work in you and your life?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting in the Beatitudes for my home church. My mind has been taking me back to the hillside at the Sea of Galilee. I’ve been blissfully resting, looking down at the Sea, feeling the cooler temperatures, and allowing the faint breeze to give me comfort. And then, considering the phrase we see in the translation of the ESV, I use my ‘informed imagination’ to hear the words in verse two, which states, “[Jesus] opened His mouth and taught them saying…”

As I reflected on those words and tried to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking, I couldn’t help but hear other verses begin to come into my mind – especially the images of “streams of living water” we find in Isaiah and John. I could literally picture Jesus opening His mouth and words, like water, flowing down the mountainside to the listening ears waiting.

These ears had been hearing Law from the Pharisees and teachers. These ears had been hearing of the sword of Rome. These hearts had been waiting and wanting to receive God’s promises of deliverance and rescue.

And then, they began to hear words that reached to the depths of their souls.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

While there is much to be said about each Beatitude, I’ll instead touch briefly on the highlights and ask you to do what I did: Open your ears and your heart to let the Holy Spirit speak.

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Blessed does refer to happiness. God does want you to be happy. But let’s never forget that our definitions of words and our outline of “God’s plan for our lives” may not exactly be the same as what God actually has in store.

For example, when we hear “poor” our minds can quickly go to the concept of money or wealth. When connected with “in spirit”, we then think of lacking spirit the same way we might lack money.

A better way to think of this might be to build a better contextual bridge. If we are “poor in spirit”, then we are broken, we are humbled, or, to use money words, we are bankrupt. We recognize that without Christ, we have nothing. In that empty state, we have no choice but to look up. We realize that our efforts to earn “Heaven-points” (to earn our salvation) are meaningless. If we open our eyes and realize, in our brokenness that Christ’s hand is reaching down and lifts us up out of the pit, we receive the Kingdom of Heaven (salvation).

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Again – it’s a bit strange. “Happy are those who are sad?” How does that work? In a legitimate way, I think we can understand this as, when we are sorrowful, we will receive God’s peace and comfort. I know that I find strength when I trust in God in my grief and mourning. It’s a blessing to think of Him.

But John MacArthur does point out that we can also look at this another way. Jesus is continuing a thread of looking sin. In that light, “blessed are those who grieve over their sins and the sins in the world.” We will find comfort when we realize that God is sovereign. As we look in the Word and see examples like Joseph and his brothers, we will find comfort. As we look at David and see how God brought a man after God’s own heart to the throne, we will be at peace. As we look at what the Prophet Jeremiah went through when trying to share God’s Truth with a rebellious nation, we will find strength. Over and over and over again, God worked through sin then and He will still do so today.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

I read comics as a kid (before they became ‘graphic novels’) and I remember an ad in the back for a solution to the “98-pound weakling syndrome”. The ad promised that you could become nothing but muscles instead of being the person who got sand kicked in his face.

The word “meek” in context means a gentleness of spirit. In other words, if I wanted to, I could be a jerk. I could be mean. I could be a bully. However, I choose not to do so. I choose to be humble and gentle. I choose to present a mild response when I don’t have to do so. It’s the black-belt who could break another person in half but instead chooses to walk away.

There is strength in being strong enough to submit and trust in God.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

We all know what it means to be hungry or thirsty. I would wager to say that just about every person has uttered a variation of “I’m starving” when he or she is five minutes late to a meal. But that isn’t real hunger or thirst.

The words are talking about a deep and passionate hunger and thirst for RIGHTEOUSNESS. We are tired of sin. We are tired of when it seems like evil is winning. We want God to intervene and SMITE someone! We want to see righteousness, the right and true and pure things triumph. We will be filled.

Be happy. Be blessed. Be at peace. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But, as we trust in our sovereign God, we trust that it will, HIS Will, will be done. He is always at work and will always bring out the good in His perfect timing.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

As I mentioned above, mercy was deeply craved by the Jewish people. When they went to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, they received more Laws. If they went to the Romans and asked for mercy, the Romans responded with the sword. A Roman father could be shown a newborn child. He could say thumbs up or thumbs down. If a Roman didn’t like his slave, he could kill him and bury the body – no questions asked. There was no mercy.

When we go to God, we are shown mercy. It’s not about what we have done, are doing, or will do. When we fall down at the foot of the cross, we receive mercy.

Mercy should always be reciprocal. I don’t mean that we show mercy to God. I mean that we, when we understand the mercy we have received, should reciprocate by demonstrating that to others. Let the grace we have received flow back out to others.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

We could make a case that no one is pure in heart because of sin. However

The abortion debate has been revived as some states pass new laws. While I think debate is good, this brings me to the idea of pure in heart. Our local paper recently had an opinion piece written by the head of a group that wants to allow abortions at any point. Women were listed who had late third-term abortions. The author wrote her own story of learning that Trisomy 18 was a possibility and choosing to end the pregnancy.

Throw stones if you wish, but when I think of pure in heart, I think of moms who love their children unconditionally. I think of a mom who, even though the odds are incredibly high that a child will be born with a “condition” still loves the child. The plain and simple truth is clear. It is difficult to raise a child with special needs. To do anything else is simply murder. It would be called murder if it were done after the child were born. While is it not when a 25-week old is killed in the womb?  

The word that we have here for pure is “katharos”. We might think of the English word “cathartic”. If something is cathartic, it can give us a release or some relief. If we want to have this for our hearts, then we should listen to the Apostle Paul:

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. 2nd Corinthians 7:1

If we want to be pure in heart, the first step is to simply stop and ask ourselves, “In what ways am I not pure? Where am I willing to compromise?” Then ask, it that Biblical? Or have I dug my heals into the ground on something that is a non-essential for the Christian faith?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Do you want to hear something funny? If I read that verse using this translation in certain churches, people would get mad at me. A literal translation would put “sons of God” in the place of “children of God”.

Twenty years ago, no one cared. It was understood that ‘mankind’ meant everyone. In context, there was an understood plurality. We didn’t need to say humankind or another word that would not be considered sexist.

While I never want to cause another pain, I’ll be honest and say I don’t care. This is not a salvation issue. The world will not end if I use “children of God” instead of “sons of God”. It also won’t end if I use “sons of God” instead of “children of God”.

Here’s the point. On the one hand, I appreciate the point of being clear in our meanings and accurate in our translations. Jesus said we should call God “Father” so that is what I will do. On the other hand, our culture is different. Is this a place where we can have peace? Then blessed are those who work to bring reconciliation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

To be honest, I have to confess that I struggle sometimes with the “backwardness” of the evangelical Christian faith. Trying to live Biblically (instead of, say, like someone who preaches a prosperity gospel), isn’t exactly lucrative. It would be nice to be chauffeured to the airport, get in my private jet, fly to somewhere, say a few words, and then fly off to Hawaii and rest-up. (Yes, some people do that.) Personally, I get to fly coach while my knees often touch the seat in front of me.

It’s hard to live in a way that says I will be happy and blessed if I am persecuted for righteousness. And, let’s be honest. The North American Church doesn’t exactly know true persecution. If we left this country, we could see an entirely different level of persecution.

In China, churches have been raided and people have been arrested for their faith. A church was closed because they refused to allow “security cameras” to be installed. In 2018, the magazine, Bitter Winter, reported that police stations in a city were evaluated based on the number of Christians that were arrested.

In Syria, over three months, 150 families were forced to flee imminent death and are now scattered between refugee camps. A church was burned and its remains were painted with jihadist slogans. Other places have been bombed and Christians are arrested and held by ISIS.

North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya – the list of countries goes on and on. Arrests, executions, and a multitude of different trials have occurred and will continue to occur against people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ.

The Beatitude calls us back to that longing and thirsting for righteousness. If you find it, if you live it, and are persecuted for it, then BLESSED are you. Righteousness is God’s way rather than man’s way. It’s being a person of faith rather than slapping on a church name tag and being a member of a club rather than a person who identifies in the heart with Christ.

If you are persecuted for your faith, then yours in the kingdom of heaven. Salvation is yours. Grace is yours. Eternal life with God is yours.

The Beatitudes end with what we might call “Answer D” or “All of the Above”. It presents a goal for the end of life, a blessing that comes if we strive to walk in relationship and faith with Christ.  

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

There is an expression: Begin with the end in mind. Know what your goal is and figure out how to get there.

The end for a Christian is Heaven. There, we will receive our final reward. Until then, we have to do our best to press forward in faith. It’s honestly not that complicated. It’s rather plain and simple.

Live what you believe while loving God and loving others.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

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In Memoriam: Robert "Bob" Fenn

From a very simple beginning in 1954, amazing things happened when God called a man named Robert Godfrey Fenn, to organize a simple conference to learn more about men and women understanding their faith and finding places of ministry…

I first learned about Lay Renewal when a man named Joe Schluchter came to a church where I was serving as a Youth Director. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but I began to see how God could be at work in what we were doing. But honestly, I had no idea Joe was from Lay Renewal. Nothing about that event had been about the ministry. It was all about God and His plan for our specific church.

Not long after that, I felt it was time to leave seminary and pursue other work. Tom and Ruth Donner approached me with Trulah Monroe (people I knew from church) and asked if I wanted to interview for a position running the Resource Center bookstore. I knew two things: I needed a job and I liked to eat.

That day, almost 23 years ago, I learned the saying, “God loves you and Bob Fenn has a plan for your life.

The interview was, well, odd. I had my suit and my resume. I had rehearsed questions and answers in my mind. Those things seemed insignificant. What mattered? Bob wanted to tell me how, if I was called to serve through Lay Renewal, I could serve God by using my gifts and talents through the ministry. It wasn’t how qualified I was. It was whether or not God had called me there. I went home and told Diana, my bride, how excited I was! We prayed and God opened the door.   

As I look back, the list of the things I learned from Bob, this mighty man of God, is long. To be honest, I was not very smart. Granted, I knew stuff, but I just wasn’t that smart. Over those next several years, Bob taught me as only a man who is seeking to follow God’s heart can teach and disciple a very immature person. Want to hear some stories?

One day, a truck pulled up and dropped off a pallet of books. I immediately ran back to start unloading it. I was a guy in my late 20s and this was the job for me! Imagine my shock as Bob and his beautiful wife, Delores, told me they would do it. They were both in their 70s. Delores was a very petite woman. I thought, “Are you kidding me?” But, as I observed this dynamic duo, I saw love and grace at work. They worked as one to demolish box after box after box. As I learned over the years, they weren’t perfect, but they were amazing as a couple bonded in Christ and marriage.

And then there was the day I learned that Bob’s desk was made of a door. Not “made” of a door – like someone had cut up pieces artistically and reshaped them as a door. His desk was literally a door on top of a couple of small filing cabinets. There were options but he was simply practical. He needed a workspace – not a fancy desk. The door was available and Viola!

Bob had an incredible gift of encouragement. I came to him one day with a crazy plan to pick up and “180” the counter in the Resource Center. I wanted to create a more inviting entry. On paper, the exact specifics were a bit, well, fuzzy. However, I could see it all in my head and, when I told Bob that I knew that it would work, he told me to go for it. It worked beautifully! (Thank you, Lord!)

LRM stocked Christian books in a secular business on what is called a “racking” program. One day, I remarked how some of the books were “bubble gum” (meaning in a rather derogatory way that they were good for a few sweet minutes of chewing, but then totally lacking anything that lasts). However, Bob gently reminded me that there was always “the right book, at the right time, for the right person”. While he probably should have rebuked my judgmental attitude, he instead reminded me of grace.

And, speaking of those Christian book racks, in yet another refirement (in his 70s), Bob took on the job of caring for those racks himself. He would drive (60+ miles depending on the location) to the thirteen different stores, check inventory, pull old products, and put in new ones. He did this until the chain sold in 1999. He re-fired again in yet another role at LRM with a Turn-Around Church program.  Finally, at 78, he and Delores moved back to Dallas.

Over the years, I tried to call him regularly. He was one of the few people I called when I was asked by a church in St Louis to begin serving bi-vocationally. Honestly, I was hoping he would tell me no. As Executive Director of Lay Renewal, I thought I had no place in pastoral ministry. (You know, the whole “lay”, non-ordained thing!) And yet, his “YES!” was crystal clear. He told me I would learn so much that I could then use in the churches we were serving. I’m still not sure I believed him at the time, but his prognostication has proven so unbelievably accurate. One pastor told me, “It’s easier to talk because you are one of us.” (And I also love the church family I am so blessed to serve!)

The frequency of those calls to Bob decreased over the years, but I still did my best to stay in touch. Last year, on a trip to Houston, I was able to connect through Dallas. I left the airport and drove over to have lunch and catch up. It was a good visit, but I could tell that he was getting tired. Some of our conversation began to repeat. It was challenging, even when we spoke last month, to understand that my mentor, a spiritual father, was struggling so much…

Even in those struggles, I could always hear the smile in his voice. He provided encouragement and a calling to persevere. He continued to ask probing questions and share blessings: Have you tried this? Good idea. Have you tried that? That’s wonderful! Do you still talk to…?

I can still hear the sound of his voice exhorting me to push forward. To keep seeking God’s direction. To be bold and courageous. To keep following the Spirit’s prompting. To keep sharing the beautiful, wonderful, inexplicable – and yet mysteriously simple – Gospel to anyone who will listen.

Over two decades later, I still look back and wonder why he was willing to take a chance on me. I still wonder why he put up with my goofy ideas to move things, invite authors in, to take a risk on a conference, to talk to the GM at a radio station about a program, to not kick me to the curb if an idea flopped, to give me encouragement to try another ridiculous, outlandish, and crazy thing…

<<sigh>>

I’ve written only about how God worked through Bob in my life. Perhaps that is selfish, but as I try to celebrate his Home-going balanced with my personal loss, that’s my focus. I want you to know the heart, soul, and passion of this great man of God as I knew him. I want you to love him too – even if you never met him.

There is so much more that could be shared about Bob and Delores’ family. They were blessed with FIVE daughters and many grandchildren.

There is so much more that could be shared about those they connected with over the years. At the first book conference I attended with Bob, I was in a bit of awe as I heard story after story of things he had done and people with whom he had connected. And yet, he never said anything to brag. It was just a collection of ways God was at work.

There is so much more that could be shared about the lives that he touched as he faithfully walked where God called him. I am frequently hearing from person after person after person who knew him, loved him, and were blessed by him. During a book conference one year, I met Geoff Moore. If you don’t recognize his name, he wrote many Christian songs – including the one that my wife and I danced to at our wedding. It was nice to meet him in person and even more of a blessing when he told me that he received Christ as a result of a lay renewal event. While he had not been there, the church had been so impacted and transformed that he went there and heard the Gospel.

Can you imagine the threads of connection? Can you imagine the grand tapestry of faith because one man answered the Call? Can you imagine how one changed life became dozens of changed lives? And how those dozens became hundreds? Then thousands? Then tens of thousands?

Bob Fenn was an incredible man of God whose legacy will continue. He wasn’t flashy or fancy. He wasn’t in it for “Bob Fenn”. He simply wanted to see God glorified.

He will be greatly missed. But his legacy will live on as long as more men and women continue to answer the Call to step forward in faith. I don’t think Bob would have wanted anything more.

Robert Godfrey Fenn – January 23, 1926 – March 21, 2019

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A 17-mile distance of 343 miles...

What if I told you that two churches were 17 miles apart? If we held a meeting between those two churches, it would take roughly 15-20 minutes to go from one to the other, right?

Nope.

If you drove, it would take 343 miles to make the commute. These two churches, located in Alaska, are best traveled to by water or air.

For me, that is a pretty solid illustration of a dilemma we often see in churches. Two people, sitting only a few pews apart, are radically separated by other obstacles. One of those may be a pain from years past. Another might be a perceived slight from only a week ago. Yet one more is due only to a passing glance – received as something greater. And then they both wonder why the church is stuck and their own spiritual growth is lacking…

How often is a “God-movement” RIGHT THERE and yet so far away?

The LRM team has been working to expand our connections with churches, pastors, and leaders around the country. We’ve begun to work cooperatively with an organization in Colorado that assists churches with communication and outreach. Our goal is simple: TO SERVE MORE CHURCHES! But there is a problem…

--- Complacency ---

I get it. I really do. I think a good (but not perfect) synonym for complacency is comfort. If it is hot, we seek to cool off. If it is cold, we seek warmth. If we are hungry, we seek food. If we are sad, we seek happiness. On and on it goes as we seek to move away from the negative to the positive. But…

The problem comes up when we seek to LIVE in the “comfort”. The problem comes up when we seek to exist where things are simple, and nice, and peaceful, and don’t cause any disturbance to our bubble. And that’s where comfort takes a horribly wretched turn into complacency.

Take my first example of the churches in Alaska. Imagine you love your car and it is your favorite way to travel. You like the seat warmer and the stereo system. It’s so nice to be in the familiar. (Because I drive more than 20,000 miles per year, I absolutely know what that is like!) However, if I want to go back and forth in one day, it wouldn’t make any sense to insist on driving, would it?

Does it make any sense to sit in anger and stare at the back of someone else’s head?

Does it make any sense to let a disagreement from years past to continue to choke out growth?

Does it make any sense to lose a Biblically-solid and compassionate pastor because you like your pew?

So, here’s my point. For 65 years, LRM has been serving churches in the Process of Renewal. We have been seeking to partner in ministry as men and women are renewed through the Power of the Holy Spirit to not only receive the gift of grace but to then go forward and serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. We’re not stopping!

As I was in Oklahoma last month, I spoke with pastors and leaders to encourage them to truly seek renewal. As I went to North Carolina next, I did the same thing with a local church family. We had team members – faithful responding servants from CA, NJ, NC, OH, PA, SC, and GA – likewise making that challenge to seek more of the Abundant Life Jesus offers.

--- Complacency is NOT an option! ---

The reality of walking with Christ is simple. Believe in faith. Live in faith. Don’t let the little (or seemingly big) things distract. Just press forward and let the Holy Spirit work through you.

Yours in Christ,

Marty



From a Silent Beginning to a VERY Loud Call to Respond

Imagine for a moment that you had to write a recommendation letter for your child. Or your spouse. Or your best friend. To be clear, I don’t mean imagine writing it just so they can get the job (or whatever). That’s easy to write something that is both true and “well-spun”.

1998 baby boy

Way, way back when

Only imagining the future…

I had to write one recently for my son as he was applying for a college scholarship. Honestly, I’d never heard of this and I wasn’t sure where to begin. But, after a lot of thought and prayer, I did my best to present an honest and clear representation of the love, respect, and admiration I have for my son. (Yes, I should do one for my daughter too. Another day!)

But I was thinking of this as I was studying John the Baptist. His father, Zachariah, had to compose something for his son. If you’ve read the account in Luke 1, you know that when Zachariah was told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he laughed and doubted the angel. He was then struck mute as a consequence of doubting God.

For months, he was unable to speak. For months, he communicated only through gestures and a tablet. (Not the kind you think. “Apple” was a fruit back then – not a tech giant!) And when his son was born, he wrote, “His name shall be John”. He was then able to speak. Instead of launching into all of the stuff he’d kept pent up for so long, he burst out in a song of praise! His words included a bit of future-highlights of the life of his newborn son:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1: 76-79

I know most parents hold pretty high expectations for their children, but WOW!

So, what was John like?

We don’t know about his childhood years. When we meet him, he seems like a bit of a crazy-man. He’s wearing clothing made out of camel hair and has a leather belt. His regular diet consists of locusts and honey. He doesn’t hang out in the Temple area. Instead, he preaches by the Jordan River and baptizes people who repent.

(If you flip on the television on a Sunday morning and watch one of the preachers, can you imagine any of them doing that?)

Now, if you read my last post, you probably can guess that I’m going to say that there was a point to this. And you are correct.

If we rewind (which gives us both culture and context), we need to head back to around 175 BC in Greece. The king, Antiochus IV, wanted to conquer Egypt. To do so, he wanted to calm things down and bring people together. But, in bringing people together, he wanted to erase who they were. The process was called “Hellenization”, meaning to make people Greek.

A key target of this was the Jewish people. As we know, the Diaspora, or the Scattering, was done when the Jewish people were taken captive by Babylon. That resulted in God’s people being all over the place – including Egypt. Regardless, the center of Judaism was Jerusalem. It’s kind of like the fact that there are baseball fans all over the globe, but Baseball Heaven is right here in St. Louis.

Antiochus’ plan was to replace the high priest in Jerusalem with someone who was loyal to him. Even though this may not sound like a big deal, from Scripture, it’s easy to see why this might be a problem. God had given very clear instructions on who could be the high priest. While the first step in the lineage was to be from the tribe of Levi, God had then given different roles for the family. High priests could only come from the line of Zadok. He was a son of Eleazer, who was a son of Aaron, the brother of Moses.

Antiochus put a man named Joshua in place as the high priest. If you want to know whether or not Joshua followed Antiochus or not, it’s worth noting that the first thing Joshua did was change his name to Jason, a Greek name.

Lots of things happened in the years that followed, including a shift of power from Greece to Rome, but to jump to the time of Jesus, the high priest was appointed by Herod. [He was from the line of Esau, the brother of Jacob. Jacob’s line was the one from whom the twelve tribes came – included the tribe of Levi (priests) and Judah (the prophesied line of the Messiah)].

OK – Seriously. Why does any of that matter?

I’m glad you asked. Clothing can communicate a message. For example, last year, First Lady, Melania Trump wore a jacket that said, “I really don’t care. Do you?” Immediately, the press went crazy. What does it mean? What is she saying? And, regardless of whether or not they were right, answers were flying around.

Matthew’s Gospel has a very specific reason for mentioning clothing:

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. Matthew 3:4

John the Baptist was making a clear statement with what he wore and what he ate. [If you want to, check out 2nd Kings 1. The king of Israel, Ahaziah, fell and was injured. He sent some of his men to visit the prophets of Baal. As they were traveling, they met Elijah, the true prophet of God, who was wearing (insert drum roll) a garment of hair with a leather belt.]

Do you see? It’s not just a strange sense of fashion. John had a purpose. Elijah had spoken to a very corrupt nation and king. Turn around and follow God. Repent and stop sinning. John’s message was the same. I’m here, just like Elijah, to call you to repent. Knock off the sin and turn back to God. And guess what? The Messiah is coming!

And don’t forget the food. Elijah trusted in God to supply his food. John did the same. While John could have indulged in food from the Temple, he knew that corruption abounded there. From the priesthood to the junk happening in John 2, the food was NOT proper to eat. As unappealing as it might be, Leviticus 11: 20-23 tells us that locusts are considered ok to eat.

John came for a clear and specific reason. Remember? Even his dad realized this and sang a song about it! ;)

Matthew, writing this Gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wants to let his Jewish readers know all of the prophecies that had been fulfilled at the time of Christ. We read in the Gospel:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Matthew 3: 1-3

Let’s hit a quick summary review.

·      The current church leadership and the Temple had been corrupted.

·      John came to call people to repent. He physically demonstrated repentance and following God.

·      The call to response was then up to the hearers.

So…

What are you going to do?

I realize we live 2,000 years later, but the Message hasn’t changed.

Follow God.

He loves you. He knows you won’t do it perfectly. And He still loves you.

The plain and simple truth is this: Sin has consequences. If you don’t like the word “sin”, then let me say it this way: Doing stupid things will have consequences. [If I speed in front of a police officer, I shouldn’t be shocked if I get a ticket.]

God is omniscient (all-knowing, all-seeing). He knows the stupid things you do. He knows you deserve the consequences.

And yet…

He loves you.

Jesus, God the Son, loves you. He gave His life for you. He took care of the punishment that we justly deserved.

That’s pretty cool.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, loves you. He lives in you now – to offer comfort, support, encouragement, and strength. 

So, rewind back to the beginning. What if you asked someone to write a letter of recommendation for you? Don’t think about what it would say. Think about what you would WANT it to say.

What can you do today so that, when that letter is written, it truly reflects who you want to be?

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Help me not lose hope... Please...

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Hope is a fragile thing

What can you do?

If I asked you to tell me a few significant events that happened in the 1860s, I imagine you might start with the Civil War. You might mention a few other things as well, but I doubt something like the Boshin War would spring to mind. Like me, your response would be: “What is the Boshin War?” (For the record, it was the time when the shoguns in Japan lost power and the Samurai class almost disappeared.)

The difference between the two is perspective.

If you are Japanese and living in Japan, you study “your own” history. That time period was extremely significant for the Japanese culture – as was the Civil War for our own Nation.

I mention these things because, to be honest, I’m starting to lose a little hope.

The United States has been in a partial government shut down for far too long. Rather than seeking to meet and find a solution, it’s turned into a “nah nah” type of battle with BOTH sides thumbing their noses.

Then, during this time, a photo surfaced of a young man “smirking” in the face of a Native American. Rather than seeking to know what happened, it became an extremely false narrative of distortion and twisted reality.

A video was shared with me that presented a bigger picture of the incident. When I saw others continuing to put forward the picture and false narrative, I attempted to engage in three conversations about it – asking people to use caution because of the potential of far reaching ramifications impacting so many.

The first person watched the other information and removed the post. The second person said they would explore it more. The last person (and others who chimed in) said no. I was a bit shocked by responses in the last group who went so far as to accuse of racism because of the hat worn by the young man and even tell me that everyone needs to learn something about interacting. (NOTE: Irony define: refuse to discuss something and then say that people need to learn how to interact…)

While I am smart enough to solve all of the world’s problems, I know my solutions would never be accepted. So, in that light, I’m going to ask us all to consider something completely different.

What’s up with Herod, Cleopatra, and a toddler?

Two thousand years ago, Herod, the leader of Judea, and Cleopatra, the co-regent of Egypt, got along. Then they didn’t. Then they sort-of did. But in that back-and-forth, the bottom-line was that they would have their own areas. Herod controlled what we call Israel and Cleopatra had Egypt. (Yes, I’m jumping over a LOT of detail.)

In light of that, there existed a “safe-zone” in Egypt if someone, say a father, mother, and toddle, needed to get out of danger. Say some evil guy (Herod) wanted to kill any boy two or under, and say some not-so-evil guy (Joseph) was told in a dream to take his wife and Child (Mary and Jesus) to safety, well, they would go to the safe zone.

And then, say the evil guy (Herod) died, and say the not-so-evil guy didn’t quite feel safe enough to go back to one place (Bethlehem) but instead chose to go to another place (Nazareth), well, would that mean anything?

I’d encourage you to read through Matthew 2:13-23 for the full narrative, but I would like to invite you to consider a few simple things that I think will help us all.

First and foremost, God is sovereign. Now, what does that mean?

Simply put, God is the King. He is the ultimate authority over time and space. He is in control.

To be clear, God, in His sovereignty and love, has chosen to give us free will. What does that mean?

HE LETS US SCREW THINGS UP!

If that is a bit too blunt for you, I’m sorry. But it’s true. He has chosen to allow us to sin, to make mistakes, to do the wrong thing.

That said, He also has chosen to bring good out of our free will.

Take the example of Herod. This guy was evil. He was twisted and sick and demented. He was also intelligent and powerful. As all of those things mixed together, he killed his mom, wife, three oldest sons, etc. This guy had serious issues. Come on! He ordered the slaughter of all the boys two and under in an entire area because he was afraid of a toddler!

And yet, God had known before the creation of time what Herod would do.

·        Hosea 11:1 told us that the Messiah would return from Egypt.

·        Jeremiah 31:15 told us that there would be a cause for great weeping in the region Herod ordered the slaughter.

·        Isaiah 11:1 told us that the Messiah would come out of Nazareth (branch).

Why didn’t God stop him? Why didn’t God stop Herod from being born?

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works…

We should be grateful.

Are you shocked by that? Do you think I’m wrong? Do you think I’m crazy?

Let’s do what some call the “Flip Test”.

If you sin, if you make a mistake, if you do something wrong, then what should God do? Should God eliminate you? Or should God have never let you be born?

Before you counter with “well, I’m not as bad as Herod”, stop. Sin is sin is sin. Wrong is wrong is wrong.

Some applauded when a certain legislature approved abortions in the third trimester. For decades, the reality is clear. In the third trimester, a baby could be born prematurely and survive. There has been NO doubt that he or she is alive.

But now it’s okay to murder that living child…

And people applauded.

This is why I’m starting to lose a little hope.

It’s considered acceptable to take one photo and use it to ruin a teenager’s life, the family’s life, the school’s reputation…

It’s considered acceptable to call someone a racist because we don’t like the hat they are wearing.

It’s considered acceptable to murder an innocent, helpless, undeniable life.

But I still think we should be grateful that God allows us to have free will. In His amazing love and deep, deep compassion, He allows us to have the ability to be stupid. We can screw things up and the world doesn’t end.

He can then take our “wrongness” and bring good out of it.

This is why I keep reminding myself I CANNOT lose hope.

God knew the depths of my sin. He knew the depths of despair that my sin – and the sins of everyone one else – would cause. And so, God (that’s the Triune God) decided to allow silly humans to give it a shot. We could try to follow the Law (Pentateuch) perfectly. If (WHEN!) we failed, we could offer a sacrifice. And another. And another. And another…

And then, we have Jesus.

Jesus came to live the life we could not live and give the sacrifice we could not give. In so doing, he restored our relationship that was broken by sin. He reconciled us to God the Father as we were now washed whiter than snow.

We now have the Holy Spirit – present in us each and every moment of every day. We have a Comforter, and Encourager, a Guide.

I’ll be honest.

I don’t care what your hat says. I don’t care where you stand, how you smile, how you talk.

I care about you.

I want to know that you know Jesus. I want to know that you are living a life that is different. Not perfectly! Just different. Just one that is seeking to honor God with what you say and do. When you fall down (and you will), allow the Spirit to pick you back up.

So, let’s talk. Over coffee. Over the internet. Over the phone. Wherever. Whenever.

Life is precious. Let’s try to make it matter for good.

Yours in Christ,

Marty

The Worth-Ship Paradox and Our Own Awareness

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“We Three Kings”

What’s wrong with it?

Music is powerful. It can make us weep at the depth and richness of its beauty and it can make us rejoice in exuberant dance. A carefully written and orchestrated song can inspire, teach, and move us to action. Or, it can make us think or do the wrong thing. Please allow me to explain…

First of all, the song in question is NOT exactly wrong. It’s just the first line. (I’ll toss out several things, but feel free to skip to the Gospel text below to move along if you wish.) The only part we might specifically cite is “Kings” which was more of a translation issue. Likely, they were not kings but rather magi and an assortment of astrologers, enchanters, and other people desiring to see the fulfillment of a prophecy. There were probably a lot of soldiers as well. (Traveling a distance with gold necessitated having protection.) [NOTE: if you wonder about all of this, Daniel is a good Book to read. His God-appointed influence over the Babylonians / the East was astounding! Imagine the scene as he taught Numbers 24:17 and the excitement it built.]

And, to be fair, it’s not the writer’s (John Hopkins) fault that we read “Three” as only three and make them figurines that we put around the creche. There were three gifts and at least three presenters, but he doesn’t say ‘only’ three. (J Warner Wallace covers this concept extremely well in his book Cold Case Christianity in which he describes the accounts of witnesses. Different testimonies do not mean someone is lying. It simply means that they had different perspectives.) And, 100+ years ago, “from Orient” was an appropriate term to use for “the East”.

ALL THAT SAID, let’s jump to a truly beautiful aspect of the song as well as the gifts the visitors present. To set up the foundation, Matthew’s Gospel states:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2: 3-11 (Micah 5: 2-4)

Let’s look at these gifts, the amazing accuracy of the song, and why it all matters:

Gold is a gift for kings. Hopkins’ song: “Gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, Over us all to reign” describes it perfectly. The gift of gold was perfect for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The second gift was frankincense. The song states: “Incense owns a Deity nigh. Prayer and praising, all men raising, Worship Him, God on high.” The verse doesn’t necessarily connect unless we know one thing – frankincense is a type of incense - and then do another thing – rewind to Exodus 30. As we interpret Scripture with Scripture, we can read about incense being offered on the altar of God. Check this out:

Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come. Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it. … Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people. Exodus 30: 7-9, 34-38 (emphasis added)

Isn’t that kind of cool? Frankincense is the only incense that could be offered on the altar of God. If you mixed up this particular formula and used it for any other reason was grounds to be cut off from God’s people.

The last gift is highlighted in the fourth verse of Hopkins’ hymn. Myrrh – “its bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom – sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb. The hymn is very poetic in “life of gather gloom” – which is what you see around death. Myrrh was used for embalming a body. Draw your own conclusions as to why the magi would have brought this gift to a toddler and his family…

So, even though I’m not a big fan of the words “three” or “Orient” in the song, the rest of it is pretty on point.

And speaking of “on point”, we need to recognize what else the magi did and why WORSHIP MATTERS:

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2: 11

Worship is, literally, WORTH-ship. You are giving value or worth to someone or something. The magi bowed down, an act of humility, and worshipped this small child FIRST. And then, in giving value to Him, they gave gold to the king, frankincense – an incense reserved for God, and myrrh, a perfume that was used at death.

These magi, or wise men, had been given insight generations prior. And one of the amazing and astounding things to me was that they handed down these teachings to generation after generation. Look for the signs. When you see the signs, the Messiah will be born. Go and worship Him.

NOW COMES THE REAL QUESTION FOR YOU AND FOR ME…

Who else had been given those SAME signs? God’s Chosen People. The Scriptures were given to them by God through Moses. They could also see the same stars in the night sky that the magicians, enchanters, and astrologers could see

From the beginning, God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. He is demonstrating His love, His grace, His mercy, and everything else about His beautiful, wonderful, and amazing character. God the Son chose to come to this earth, to be born as a man, to live a sinless life, and to die for our sins. God the Holy Spirit is now present in our lives and with us each and every moment of every day. He is here to comfort, encourage, and guide us.

Here’s the thing. There are signs from God all around us. Yes, I’m talking about the obvious signs in the beauty of Creation. But I’m also talking about the living and active Word of God. I’m talking about how plain and simple the Scriptures truly are IF we are willing to stop, read, study, meditate, and allow the Holy Spirit to use our minds and hearts to draw closer to God.

And then, we have to respond.

Will we, like the magi and those with them, bow down and worship? Will we give to God the worship (literally - the worth-ship) He truly deserves?

It’s not (thank goodness!) about what we bring. Yes, the gifts of the magi were awesome and wonderful, but the WORSHIP was much, much, much more important. We will never be good enough, right enough, or perfect enough to bow down. We can’t wait until we get this in order or that in order.

It’s all about our willingness:

To bow down

To worship

To surrender.

What will you do today?

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Four Women, a Calendar, and a BIG "WHY?"

When I asked my 17-year old daughter to tell me the worst thing her older brother had ever done to her, she declined to answer. It’s not that the two of them have not sparred over the years. I simply think that (overall) they have had a positive relationship. Honestly, I kind of feel the same way about the relationship I had with my older brother. I remember the times he beat me up (as boys do), but I also remember the times he stood strong against others who threatened me.

Families are a fascinating thing. I’ve seen siblings mercilessly tease one another but when an “outsider” joins in, they immediately turn into staunch defenders. Things that are joked about between family members are completely off limits to anyone who does not have the same lineage.

In studying Matthew 1 and the genealogical record of Jesus, there are a few “family” things that jump out to me as the New Year dawns. I have to wonder how the ‘rest of the family’ felt about the names that the Apostle included…

For example, if you were going to list a woman while giving the paternal line, Ruth would be a safe one to sneak in there. As we read her story in the Scriptures, we see a woman who loved and cared for her mother-in-law (Naomi). Ruth was willing to go out and glean in the fields with the other poor. It’s (sort-of) easy to overlook the fact that she was a Moabitess as we consider her true character.

But Tamar? She was chosen by Judah from the women of Canaan. She then disguised herself as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law. While we might try to neglect those facts and focus on the reasons why, it’s still a bit “icky” in our modern culture.

But Rahab? True. She did hide the spies and assist them in sneaking out of Jericho, but come on. She was not temporarily disguising herself as a prostitute. She was one. She was well known in the City as a woman of ill-repute. While listing Salmon was “fine”, sharing his wife’s name in such an important listing was, well, befuddling.

And then, the coup-de-gras – the reference that seems the least desirable to include… Well, let’s get around it by not naming her but simple calling her “the wife of Uriah”. Maybe that will make people forget the great sin of King David. Maybe that will make them forget about his lustful act with Bathsheba and then the subsequent arranged murder of Uriah (one of his very special ‘mighty men’!).

Why, oh why, Matthew, did you have to include three of those women?

Before you give me the “Bible answer” (he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), I’d like to toss out a couple of possible simple truths…

1.    The Bible is extremely pro-women. I know some choose not to read Scriptures this way, but I find God’s love for both men and women to be deep, rich, and powerful. From Miriam, Moses’ sister, who lead the other women in song and praise to Deborah, a Judge, women are key. We see passages like Deborah challenging Barak to step up and lead the army but then the honor went to Jael, who ultimately killed General Sisera after the battle. And consider a woman like Abigail, the wife of Nabal, who stopped David from acting in anger. So even before we arrive at the New Testament and see women like Eunice, Lois, Priscilla, and Lydia, the foundation is well-established.

2.    We must also note that three of these women were foreign women. Tamar and Rahab were both Canaanites. Ruth was from Moab. (Bathsheba married Uriah, who was a foreigner, but she was an Israelite.) This matters because Matthew reminds his readers that God’s love and grace extend outside of the Jewish race.  He clearly has an open door for those who were NOT biologically Jewish.

3.    And lastly, I think we need to recognize a key beautiful and powerful lesson that we can draw from these women being included. God’s grace is more powerful than any sin. We have a human tendency to ‘rank’ sin. (“I may have cheated on my taxes, but at least I never murdered anyone.”) But God, in His great compassion and mercy, chooses to offer love and forgiveness to those who would repent of their sins and receive Christ.

As we read the genealogical record of Jesus, we can see a very diverse listing of both men and women. Even as we see many names that we recognize and possibly some that we don’t, we can be assured that the prophecies concerning the lineage of the Messiah came true. Matthew’s purpose is achieved in offering this proof.

But I do believe it goes beyond a “simple listing”. This is where I believe we get to see the true Power of his writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As we recognize the names and remember the sins (Abraham lied; Jacob was a deceiver; etc.), we should also take that special blessing to pause and recognize the power of the inclusion of four women. It should make us recognize the expansiveness of God’s grace. It should remind us that just as God offered forgiveness to David for his wretched sins, so too was that grace extended to Bathsheba for any of her sins.

So, as you hang a new calendar on the wall for this New Year dawning, I hope you will also stop to recognize the blessings of everyone and everything that brought you to this particular point and time. Recognize how God is at work in your own life as well as those who have come before. And then, as you keep pressing forward, remember to extend a bit of His love and grace to those around you.

Perhaps God might have a plan in place for your life that is going to have an impact a generation or two down the road!

Yours in Christ,
Marty

Hope begins in the first 39 'episodes'

When I’m watching a show that begins in the middle or at the end, there is sort of a strange sense of relief when you get to the point where you started. That moment that drew you in finally arrives and you finally get to stop wondering why the car blew up, or why someone was shot, or why that person was crying, or whatever. Things that were jumbled around now make sense.

This Christmas Season, as I have been reflecting in the Gospel of Matthew, that illustration came to mind. Why?

The previous 39 Books.

Starting in Genesis, we have the beginnings of a picture that continues to unfold. We see beauty marred by sin. We see a man (a people, really) given a Promise. We see splashes of darkness as Abraham lies, Sarah laughs, and a seemingly endless parade of people leave God’s path to pursue their own.

But…

In each point of darkness, there is always that faint glimmer of light. We see how sin is redeemed and the consistent Promise of Hope is carefully detailed within the growing landscape of life.

The story continues to grow and develop around that Promise. We see it. We know it is coming. We’ve tasted enough to know the ravenous hunger that is rumbling through every fiber of our being. And then we get to the page in the Script that I wish didn’t exist. You know. The one that says “New Testament”.

I wish it wasn’t there because the entire Book (all 66 books) doesn’t need an interruption – a separation that in some way implies that it isn’t connected. Without the first 39, the next 27 are not the same.

Seriously.

When is the last time you picked up a book and started more than halfway through it?

We need these 39 to make any sense of the next 27. When we begin Matthew, we have the “14s”.

·       14 generations from Abraham to David.

·       14 generations from David to the Exile.

·       14 generations from the Exile to the Promise fulfilled.

It all makes sense.

We aren’t the Jewish readers to whom Matthew was originally writing, but IF we have read those first 39, we are able to be blessed with a basic understanding of just how amazing that quote from the Prophet Isaiah is:

 “The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1: 23

In faith, we believe the Promises.

Mary, the virgin, was with child through the Holy Spirit. The supernatural conception points us to a birth that is not the ‘normal’ birth. It tells us that the Immanuel is more than a man. It reveals to us that Jesus is also God.

The greater context of Isaiah calls us to follow chapter 7 into chapter 9 where we read even more of the prophecies of the Messiah. In chapter 9, we read words that Matthew will quote later in chapter 4 of the Gospel – the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. We read:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

In some churches, the tradition of Advent is recognized. The first Sunday is a Sunday of Hope. For years, God’s people had looked forward in HOPE to the restoration of their relationship with God. Not everyone had the right expectation.

Based on their histories, many expected a physical king who would rescue them from the Romans or anyone else in power over them. They wanted a Moses. They wanted a Joshua to lead them against their enemies so they could reclaim the Promised Land. They wanted a Samson or a David or someone like their previous leaders.

Isn’t it wonderful that they (WE!) got something better.

The Messiah, the Rescuer, the Restorer, the Promise was “Immanuel” or God-with-us. The Messiah wasn’t like a Moses who could “only” escort them out of their physical slavery. The Messiah IS the one who brings reconciliation by releasing us from spiritual slavery and washing away sins.

Please don’t gloss over that.

The birth of Jesus that we recognize this Season is what opened the Door to eternity.

Whatever you are going through right now, remember the promise of HOPE. Look forward to what God will do today, tomorrow, and forever.

God always keeps His promises.

From the beginning, even as we broke the beautiful, wonderful, incredible relationship, God promised to redeem us. As the Story then unfolded, He proved to us that we couldn’t do it but He loved us anyway. Jesus would do it for us.

That’s something to celebrate this Season AND beyond!

Merry Christmas to you and yours from everyone in the Lay Renewal family!

Separating Iris Bulbs (or untying the knots...)

While I enjoy working outside in the yard, I confess I usually have no idea what I’m doing. I pick up little things here and there, but most of those come AFTER the fact – like that little fact about iris bulbs.

Without telling the long version of the story, suffice it to say that I recently decided to remove a 20-year old garden. At the front of it, were the iris bulbs. When Diana and I planted these, we did not realize that every 3-4 years, you should separate bulbs. As a result, the area was essentially a blanket of connected bulbs and roots so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to divide. And, like many things in life, that started my thinking and praying.

As I sought to make sense of the mess, I couldn’t help but ponder the Church.

Reflect back for a moment on your own church’s history. Do you know its roots? Do you know how it began – whether it was a few years ago or long before you were born? Do you know when it started growing? Do you know the signs of beauty that began to pop up here and there as God moved? Those are positive memories!

Do you also know a time when it became, perhaps a bit too overgrown? To be clear, I don’t mean that in an overly negative way. “Growth” is not in and of itself a bad thing. But there are bad types of growth. Many churches have continuously added program upon program. Nothing stopped. They just kept piling on more and more. Then, a decade or so later, they realized that not everything fit within the mission and vision of what God was calling them to do. They needed to do a bit of “separating”.

But then, the leaders learned that not everyone wanted to see that happen…

Even though the healthy thing to do – for even greater future beauty and growth – is to carefully work through things to sift and separate, there is resistance. Someone’s “special bulb” is not one they are willing to let go. Because of the meaning it had “back then”, it “must” stay. (This is the way we’ve always done it… plus I remember when…)

Think for a moment of those times in Scripture when Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus wasn’t calling people to a new Law but to a deeper understanding of faith. It went beyond the Law’s rules and regulations to a deeper understanding of a Savior filled with grace and truth. He was calling them to freedom from the Law’s ceremonial requirements and offering a relationship-based invitation to become new creations.

Now I have a request for you, our faithful supporters, team members, friends, and family. This is not the first time I’ve asked this and I’m sure that it will not be the last either.

WOULD YOU PLEASE PRAY INTENTIONALLY FOR THE MINISTRY?

The requests for information and events continue to come in. However, the registrations have stalled. We have received very specific date requests and confirmed the ability to meet those times. Nevertheless, we are still waiting for church leaders to make that last step and actually register. We need to see registrations!

When we are able to partner with a church, God continues to do great things through His servants. I have no doubt that we have great things in store as the Holy Spirit moves and we continue to walk in faith. But the walls of the enemy need to be broken down so we can press forward in the Light of Christ.

PLEASE CONTINUE YOUR PRAYERS AND SUPPORT AS WE PURSUE GOD’S DIRECTION!

The Pursuit for Deeper Faith

For some time, I’ve been working with a church in a relatively “non-exciting” way: through reviewing and consulting on survey data. I said “non-exciting” only because processing and statistics isn’t exactly glamourous. HOWEVER – the Process of Renewal on which this church is embarking IS exciting!

I’d like to share a bit with you about another recent LRM event – a Catalyst weekend. Although the church was initially considering a Celebration weekend, there were a few signs that it might not be able to be what the pastor and leaders were prayerfully seeking to achieve. Therefore, after more prayer, they determined to hold a Catalyst first.

The Catalyst is much simpler to facilitate. There are three options: David, Moses, or Ruth. A 30-Day pre-event devotional guide is used to both prepare hearts and minds as well as develop interest in the event. Instead of preparing required aspects of the Celebration like housing, transportation, and more, the church only needs to have housing for two leaders and arrange for two church dinners (and even those can be flexible!). The only “mandatory” that is consistent between the two is the prayer vigil.

In many respects, it was just like a Celebration. We had a Friday late-afternoon team meeting. During it, we reviewed guidelines for discussion groups and talked about sharing testimonies. The difference was that instead of having visiting team members, the church members served in those roles – both experienced as well as first-time group leaders. We also equipped them to share 9-sentence faith stories.

The church then gathered for dinner and fellowship before we began the general session. We dove into the Word and walked our way through the Story of God’s rescue of His children through Moses. We then shared faith stories – usually in 9-sentences but some felt led to share a bit more (PRAISE GOD!). We then dispersed into small discussion groups. When those completed, we gathered together once again for review and celebration. The other times [Saturday morning and Saturday night (with a bridge to God’s rescue of His children through Christ)] finally wrapped up with a special time of shared prayer. On Sunday morning, we gathered for a unified worship service.   

The prayer for AFTER these weekends is simple: continue. We pray that the sharing of stories will continue. We pray that the relationships and group conversations will continue. We pray that ALL God has done will continue.

And, I’m not changing direction, but have you ever noticed the way in which the Apostle Paul interrupts himself in the Letter to the Ephesians? In the middle of his missive, he stops and PRAYS!

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3: 14-19

While it may seem random to us, we know that Paul, writing through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is moved to pray before he begins to give practical instructions for the Church. In that same respect, I lift up each church with whom we are given the honor of serving. LRM is dropped into the middle of all that is happening. As the church then moves forward, we pray that they can continue to take steps forward to deeper faith and outreach. But, because just like the Apostle we are no longer there, we must pray for these things to continue (and for the NEXT event!).

So, would you please continue with us? Will you continue in prayer and support for DEEPER? In whatever way we are able to serve a particular church, may God continue to move them towards His purposes and will!

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Heroes without Capes - #Suffering

We all have heroes, don’t we? From comic books to cartoons to the wave of movies that continue to bring in millions of dollars at the box office, the desire to have people who can go above and beyond to defeat enemies and rescue us from danger is a common theme.

Now, all heroes may not wear capes, do they? I would guess that you have some heroes in your life. If you think about your family, you may have someone who, even if they couldn’t fly, seemed to be able to do incredible things. They knew you and were always there to do or say the right thing.

Or maybe it was a friend. Someone who was always there for you. Someone who did those extra things that were always able to give you a smile or lift of encouragement. Someone who was a calming presence no matter what chaos was around.

Or maybe you have someone that you have never met. It might be an athlete or businessperson or maybe even just someone you read about. Their life has impressed you and you want to do things or be like them in some way.

The more I study the book of Job, the more I’d like to meet him. While he is not perfect, he is certainly impressive. And as I hear his story and reflect on his response, I’m encouraged. Day after day as he went through this terrible struggle, he responded in faith. When his wife told him to curse God and die, Job trusted. And – before you judge his wife – remember that all of these things were happening to her too. She also lost 7 sons and 3 daughters – I can’t imagine.

But Job also had to stand up and be faithful as these three friends came to him to offer comfort and sympathy. We don’t know a lot of details about the lives of these three men, but those verses in chapter two tell us that they came together in agreement. Word was getting around. When they heard what was happening, somehow they communicated with one another. Then they joined together to travel and offer words of comfort and blessing to their friend. Seven days and nights, they wept and grieved with Job. And then – and remember this – Job spoke first. In the depths of his grief, pain, and sorrow, he began to speak and then they responded.

Each one speaks more than once. Eliphaz and Bildad have three speeches recorded. Zophar has only two. If I am honest with myself, I can see a bit of myself in each person. If I am sitting down with someone – or if I am reflecting on what is going on in my own life – I want to see what I or that other person did wrong. Why is this happening? Is the suffering a ramification of some sin? Or is God trying to teach me or them something? Is God trying to use whatever is happening to draw me or that person closer to him or her?

Remember: I am not God. You are not either. Therefore, neither you nor I know all of the answers. All I can do is speak to what the Word says and how the Holy Spirit is drawing me to understand Him better.

Here is an honest truth. I do believe that God uses circumstances in our lives to bring us closer to Him. It’s hard to imagine, but I know that in many of my own struggles, I’ve found no other choice but to seek God. From the depths of pain, I can only look up and trust. Even if no answer is ever clear, I know that He is sovereign.

Here comes the “but”…

As much as I wish it didn’t happen, if I am being honest, I must confess that I find myself at times reverting to Zophar’s response.

To put it simply, his response is: Stop sinning and do something.

Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear. You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning.  Job 11: 13-17

To paraphrase: Hey Job, your heart isn’t right. Put away your sin. Be perfect. Lift up your face to God and all will be well. Life will be brighter than the noonday sun.

Doesn’t that sound great?

But let me put a slightly different spin on it. Should we think of it this way? I can’t help but think that this has something to do with the idea of service – and not in a good way. What do I mean?

Make a bargain with God. Get better so that things will go better. Make a deal with God so that things will work out. God, if you will fix this, then I will do that. If you will heal me or heal this other person, then I will do that. If you will make this situation or that situation work out, then I will do this for the rest of my life.

I was speaking with my dad one day and I don’t know how we got on this subject, but we were discussing faith and he brought up a time when he was in the service. He spent almost 20 years in the Air Force and flew in planes in Vietnam. He wasn’t the pilot, but they would take planes and swoop down over enemy lines and take pictures. As you can imagine, they were shot at – a LOT.

On one flight, they were shot down. As he was calling in for a rescue, with lots of enemies all around, he began to make promises to God. “God, if you get me out of this, I will…” Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

Are any of us not guilty of doing the same thing?

Now, it may not have been during these exact circumstances, but haven’t we all made a promise or tried to bargain with God in some way?

I don’t want to be too hard on anyone this morning, so I’ll just continue to pick on myself. When my parents first separated, I wondered what I could do to fix it. When I began living in Central America and things weren’t going as I thought they should, I wondered what I could do to make it right. When people around me have gotten sick or in trouble or struggled, I came back to asking God for bargains. I may not have always called them that, but I confess that I put them out there.

There are two simple problems with that approach. First, if things do go better, we conveniently forget our promises. Second, if things do NOT get better, we can blame God for not doing what we wanted. Regardless of whether or not God might be a little smarter than we are (He is); regardless of whether or not God chose to work in a supernatural way; regardless of anything and everything, we forget those simple words that were included in the way Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done”. We continuously want it to be “my will be done”.

Here’s a simple reality. Job had done nothing wrong to cause the present situation. His three friends, who went there to provide sympathy & comfort, didn’t provide those things. They began to try to fix Job’s problems. They began to act in God’s role.

And it’s incredible to read through Zophar’s second speech. He has no sympathy for Job and puts him in with those he calls the “wicked and the godless”.

Though he flees from an iron weapon, a bronze-tipped arrow pierces him. He pulls it out of his back, the gleaming point out of his liver. Terrors will come over him; total darkness lies in wait for his treasures. A fire unfanned will consume him and devour what is left in his tent. The heavens will expose his guilt; the earth will rise up against him. A flood will carry off his house, rushing waters on the day of God's wrath. Such is the fate God allots the wicked, the heritage appointed for them by God. Job 20: 24-29

I don’t know about you, but if these were my comforters, I would go back inside my house. I’d go into our closet and close the door. I’d curl up into a ball in the darkness and I wouldn’t come out.

Let me share a few closing thoughts with you that I think are a much better option. I think there are some ways that we can actually provide service in the midst of suffering so that Christ is truly revealed through it.

And it is important to make that connection to suffering. In Isaiah 53, we read of Jesus being the “Suffering Servant”.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:4-7

First of all, if you are going through suffering, please serve by enduring it.

What does that mean?

If you endure something, that means you push forward through it. I am NOT telling you it will be easy. I’m not telling you that you have to be silent and can’t share with others. I’m not telling you it will be quick. I’m simply telling you to find a way to trust God. Find a way to dive deeper into His Word and connection with Him so that you can enjoy the great blessing of love and fellowship with Him. The more we can reflect a Christ-like attitude, the more others can be drawn to Him through us.

Jesus endured pain we can’t imagine and He did it out of love. He did it so that we could be restored in our relationship with the Father. Sin was conquered and, when we receive Him as our Savior, our eternity is secured.

Second, if you have an Eliphaz, or a Bildad, or a Zophar around, please serve by ejecting from them.

What does that mean?

My dad has ejected from three planes. Two were in combat and one was flying over a field. That third time, he was in a plane and suddenly it started shaking – very violently. He called out to the pilot and there was no response. He followed the procedures you were supposed to follow, but as the plane continued to shake and the pilot didn’t respond, he did the final step – he ejected. He got out of the plane and away from the problem.

If you have an Eliphaz, or a Bildad, or a Zophar, then eject. That does NOT mean you have to go away from that person, but stop listening to things that are going to pull you down rather than build you up. When Simon Peter told Jesus that He would not suffer and die, how did Jesus reply? “Get thee behind me, satan!” Jesus then told all the disciples that they would have to take up their crosses DAILY. Let me put this simply. Smile back. Love them back. But don’t get sucked into the muck and the mire. Life is too short. Don’t accept more pain.

And lastly, if you know someone going through suffering, do NOT, I repeat, DO NOT be an Eliphaz, or a Bildad, or a Zophar. You can sit with them. You can cry with them. You can love them. But please serve by easing up.

We all will experience some form of pain or struggle in life. This is a fallen world. We sin and people around us sin. Things happen as a result. As things happen to you or to others, try to be a blessing. Try to find a way to reflect grace rather than gloom.

Yes, there are times we need to speak the truth in love. I’ve had to do it with people that legitimately were going through things that were the result of their own making. And while I ABSOLUTELY know that I did not do it perfectly, I pray that I am doing a better and better job of it every day.

And I also want YOU to know that I see so many of you doing this as well. Honestly, many of you do a much better job of it than I will ever do. Many of you are the “super heroes” I see in life. I know many of you are enduring stuff that I don’t think I could. You are being the light and love of Christ to others.

Continue to press forward in faith. Strive to have more of Christ reflected through you every day. Whether it is a person on the street or a person you meet from across the globe, may we be messengers of grace and truth.

How will the Church survive? Through Deeper Faith

From time to time, I work with a church on LRM survey data. While pouring over data and statistics is not an “exciting” way to serve, it is still a privilege to be able to study the health of a particular Body of Christ and consider possible options for getting stronger.

A recent phone consultation itself was interesting. There are details I cannot share, but the conversation was good and the leaders asked many questions that were focused on spiritual growth and outreach. And, to me, that is what it is ALL about. The ABC’s (Attendance, Building, and Cash) are barometers of health, but NOT the goal.

The heart of Lay Renewal continues to be focused on serving the Church as it renews, motivates, and equips men and women for ministry. We believe in the Power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s living and active Word so that people are strengthened in their faith and walking forward to share the Gospel Message of salvation through Christ alone. The world may focus on “bigger is better” but we know that DEEPER is best!

Consider for a moment what happened in China in early September. Christianity Today and other news sources have reported increasing hostile persecution. For example, on September 5th, police raided a church and burned Bibles, furniture, and crosses. On the 9th, the government shut down the largest church in Beijing. Why? They refused to have cameras installed that would allow services to be monitored. China is also considering a series of rules and restrictions for the Internet that would block faith forums, streaming services and more.

How can the Church in China survive? Through deeper faith.

Voice of the Martyrs shares the stories of persecution in Nigeria. Pastor Silas was attacked and killed by Fulani herdsmen. Pastor Vincent was also killed when the church he served was attacked. The wife of Pastor Jacob and six church members were killed during a church attack. There are now over 7,500 people living in refugee camps.

How will the Church in Nigeria survive? Through deeper faith.

The examples of persecution and suffering around the globe are shocking and tragic. And yet, as some churches focus on the ABC’s, the true mission of the Church is found in striving to fulfill the Great Commission. The true mission is found as we go deeper into relationship with God and love others more deeply through His strength!

So, why is the definition of the word “persnickety” at the top of this letter?

When we work with a church in the Process of Renewal, the survey portion can be a risky time. It requires looking inwardly to see how the church family is growing spiritually and reaching out to impact the community. It requires the leadership spending some time examining how they are serving and supporting through their roles. There can be some incredibly convicting information produced before, during, and after this step. Truthfully, some people can be rather persnickety as they attempt to ignore crucial information and push the trivial to the top.

BUT…

The blessings come when churches are honestly willing to assess how God is calling them to deeper faith. The blessings come when churches are committed to considering what they have done, what they are doing, and what God is calling them to do in the future. And the blessings aren’t found in the ABC’s. The blessings are found in deeper faith – renewed men and women who are seeking to do more for Christ and Kingdom!

Yours in Christ,

Marty

Suffering and (God's) Silence - More reflections inspired by one of Job's friend...

In the book, Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey tells the story of a man named Richard. He’d met him years ago and they had developed a friendship and working relationship. One day, as Richard’s book on Job was about to be published, he asked to meet with Philip. Richard then told him that he no longer believed in God.

It was a bit of a surprising conversation, but Richard told the story without a lot of the blanks that he’d left incomplete before. He had been drawn to God when searching for ways to keep his parents from divorcing. He’d had a lot of questions but those were set aside by people who told him to simply “trust God”. While that is good advice, the lack of answers only made him struggle more.

Now, for Yancey, these questions weren’t as much of a problem. If you don’t recognize his name, his books have sold over 14 million copies. Titles like What’s So Amazing About Grace and The Jesus I Never Knew have won awards and books like The Problem of Pain and A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith are almost painfully honest in the questions that are presented. 

As Yancey continued to speak with Richard, one of the questions that he shared with him that he had struggled with was simple: “Is God silent?

I will come back to that later, but I want to look at Job first. As we look in the Word and at our theme, we need to make sure that we are addressing the specifics of Who is being called “silent” and why it matters when we are suffering.

At the end of chapter 7, we read Job’s words:

If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more. Job 7: 20-21

Job doesn’t know why he is suffering. He is crying out to God and asking why. He is asking what he did wrong. He is wondering why God is silent. Why isn’t He answering? Then, as we turn to chapter 8, we hear from Job’s second friend, Bildad. We don’t really know anything about Bildad. As I read through his words – ignoring the text but reading them for their beauty – he sounds like a poet. Picture this:

What he trusts in is fragile; what he relies on is a spider's web. He leans on his web, but it gives way; he clings to it, but it does not hold. Job 8: 14-15

I love that imagery! Even so, Bildad isn’t very nice. His first speech begins:

Then Bildad the Shuhite replied: "How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.” Job 8: 1-2

Bildad doesn’t know or doesn’t care why Job’s words are not being answered. Imagine if your “friend” told you, after you’d lost 10 children and just about all of your worldly possessions that your words are a “blustering wind”. I’d be very upset! But Bildad tells Job that God’s silence is not something he needs to worry about.

Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin. But if you will look to God and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place. Job 8: 3-6

In Bildad’s opinion, God’s silence shouldn’t be the focus. Job should focus on what he, Job, did wrong. Bildad blames the death of all of Job’s children on something that they had done wrong. Their deaths were the just penalty. Job’s punishment must therefore be happening because he did something wrong too. 

But Bildad begins with one false assumption and then lumps another on top of it.

My reflections in Job were inspired in part by a book called The Fellowship of the Suffering. In it, Dave Ripper and Paul Borthwick phrase Bildad’s thoughts this way:  

Who does Job think he is to expect an explanation from the God of the universe? While Bildad rightly magnifies God in his exhortation, he wrongly minimizes the people of God made in His image, by surmising God doesn’t have time for them. Even though some of what Bildad communicates has theological truth behind it, the cruelly impersonal way he shares this message chokes out any of the life found within it.”   Fellowship of the Suffering p 22

Bildad is right that God does NOT pervert justice. That is not in God’s character and God does not do things that are outside of His character.

But Bildad persists in blaming all of this calamity on Job. Again, with beautiful words that completely lack any heart or compassion, he throws stones at Job.

The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning. The light in his tent becomes dark; the lamp beside him goes out. The vigor of his step is weakened; his own schemes throw him down. His feet thrust him into a net and he wanders into its mesh. A trap seizes him by the heel; a snare holds him fast. A noose is hidden for him on the ground; a trap lies in his path. Job 18: 5-10

If you think that is bad, Bildad’s third speech contains a pretty hefty slam against Job. Thankfully, it is very brief:

Dominion and awe belong to God; he establishes order in the heights of heaven. Can his forces be numbered? Upon whom does his light not rise? How then can a man be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less man, who is but a maggot — a son of man, who is only a worm!"  Job 25: 2-6

Has anyone ever heard the expression, “With friends like these…”?

When people are throwing stones at you, the normal responses are defense or to throw stones right back at them. I’m guilty of doing that far too many times. I’m trying to change. I’m trying to absorb what people tell me and prayerfully consider any truth that might be in it. But it’s hard.

It was hard for Job too. You can tell from his words that he’s hurt and upset. That said, I love one of his responses:

If it is true that I have gone astray, my error remains my concern alone. Job 19:4

Think about a simple question: Have you ever offered someone solutions to whatever problem they put before you?

Now, have you ever learned that the person really didn’t want solutions? All they wanted was understanding.

In Fellowship of the Suffering, Dave and Paul state that very simply:

“What Job needs isn’t solution but understanding.” Fellowship of the Suffering p 22

What Job – and probably each one of us – needed was not a bunch of answers. We usually know the answer. When we are suffering, we just need someone to listen. We need someone to tell us that it is going to be ok. We need someone to love us.

And let’s come back to the big question: Is God silent?

In Disappointment with God, Yancey shares his own question and the path that God took him on to find an answer. In Exodus, we read example after example of God speaking. When Moses met with God, the Israelites were afraid. They asked Moses to speak with God for them.

Beyond that direct conversation, the Israelites had a lot of ways that God revealed Himself and the direction to them. If you remember, as God was leading them through the wilderness, He gave them a pillar of fire at night and a column of smoke by day. It’s kind of like checking the weather by stepping outside. Is it hot? Yep. Does God want us to move today? Nope. The cloud isn’t moving.

God also gave them something called the Urim and Thummim that the priests used. They developed 613 laws to guide their behavior. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. God was very, very clear!

And yet, when we read Numbers, we see how people refuse to listen. The 12 explorers went into the Promised Land and came back with incredible reports of a land flowing with milk and honey. However, 10 of them also said the people were too scary. If they went in, they would be defeated. In spite of Joshua and Caleb trying to tell them to trust God, the people rebelled.

Then, when Moses told them the ramifications of their actions would be to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness, they rebelled again. They decided they’d rather go forward than walk in the wilderness and die. In Number 14, Moses tried to tell them to stop, but they would not listen.

Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!” But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.” Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them… Numbers 14: 40-45

I found Yancey’s conclusion to be true, but also kind of upsetting. Yancey said:

I had second thoughts about crystal-clear guidance. It may serve some purpose… but it does not seem to encourage spiritual development. In fact, for the Israelites, it nearly eliminated the need for faith at all; clear guidance sucked away freedom, making every choice a matter of obedience rather than faith. p 46

Let’s think about what this means. What happens if you know, beyond every shadow of a doubt, what you are supposed to do, BUT you don’t like what you are supposed to do? What do you do?

The Israelites knew what they were supposed to do. God told them through Moses, through the Law, through the signs in the sky, through everything EXACTLY what they were supposed to do.

And they rebelled.

What’s my point?

This is a hard conclusion, but I believe it. God is NEVER silent.

Let me say that again: God is NEVER silent.

God has given us the answer – Trust Him. Trust that we are forgiven through Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. Trust the Holy Spirit Who is present in us to give us guidance, encouragement, and peace. Trust God.

God is never silent.

We are the ones who don’t listen. To quote something else Yancey said, “The Israelites give ample proof that signs may only addict us to signs, not to God.” In other words, they had clear direction. They just didn’t listen.

If you are struggling, it’s ok. It really, truly is ok. It’s ok to ask questions and to wonder what is going on. It’s ok to ask for God to show you an answer.

But you can’t just ask. You have to listen. As God tells you – through His Word, through the Holy Spirit, or through whatever means He presents – you have to listen.

If the answer is clear, praise God and walk with Him. If the answer is not clear, do what Job did – trust God. Granted, Job wrestled and struggled and fought, but in the end, he trusted God.

We have to do the same thing.

Your "truth"? Your friend's "truth"? Does suffering come after sin? #Questions

If you want to make my blood boil, tell me about “your truth”.

Seriously, try to tell me how something is true for you but it may or may not be true for someone else.

Granted, I understand the concept of perspective. For example, the Gospel accounts of Resurrection morning (Easter) list different accounts. However, while that may seem to question the veracity, I believe it only affirms the Story. We have different perspectives highlighting what was pertinent to the respective author. There aren’t different “truths” but rather different points of view, or perspectives.

In the conversations that we read in Job, we have different perspectives on God. There is only ONE God. There is only one Truth about Him. However, as these four (and eventually five) men wrestle back and forth, their perspectives on Who God is vary.

Let’s begin with Eliphaz.

He’s from Teman. It’s a city in the region of Edom (south of the Dead Sea) which was named after Esau (see Genesis 25 ff.). Those details aside, we simply don’t know anything else.

Job is the one who speaks first. After the seven days / nights, he begins by cursing the day of his birth. He calls down curse after curse after curse. He wonders why he was born at all and why he is still alive. He wonders Why, o why, will death not come?

Wow.

Have you ever been there?

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by struggles that you just wanted to quit? Maybe curl up in a ball and hide? Wave the white flag and surrender?

I have.

To be clear, I’m not talking about suicide. I can’t say I have never thought of it, but even the smallest thought left quickly. Why? Suicide does nothing. The person may feel “free”, but the suffering of everyone else continues. I can’t share the stories I know from others because those aren’t my stories. (Even the ways in which my life has been personally touched by suicide involve the stories that are more heavily felt by others.)

But what I am trying to share is the point of being crushed by circumstances so much that you don’t know what else to do. I know what depression is because I’ve been there. I know what emotional pain is because I’ve been there. I know what it is like to crawl into bed and never want to get out.

And to wonder how much longer it can go on…

I believe Eliphaz had the best of intentions. It’s offensive to think otherwise. [How many of you would be willing to go seven days and seven nights sitting with another person in the depths of his or her grief?] And so, as he began to respond to Job, I think he did it with kindness.

Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied: “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking? Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees.” Job 4: 1-4

Look at it this way. There is the sense of a plea: “Don’t be impatient with me. I have to share.” And then he calls for Job to remember the times in which he, Job, has spoken with others. “You’ve instructed. You’ve strengthened feeble hands and weak knees. You’ve supported those who are stumbling.” Don’t you have the sense that Eliphaz is almost begging Job to listen?

Eliphaz’s next few words hurt. And then they sting. And then they irritate. And then they make me want to say “Them’s fightin’ words!

But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed. Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of his anger they are no more. Job 4: 5-9

It sounds sort-of ok at first. Perhaps a gentle reminder? We don’t know Eliphaz’s heart to know whether the “piety and confidence / blameless ways and hope” are intended to turn his eyes back to God. Maybe there is back-handed love in reminding Job that the innocent do not perish and the upright aren’t destroyed? (I say back-handed because Job would most likely have immediately thought of his children who perished.)

But then the stinger breaks skin as Eliphaz continues with “As I have observed…

In Eliphaz’s worldview, suffering is a result of sin. Job must have done something wrong or else he would not be going through what he is going through right now. Seven dead sons and three dead daughters. His animals and servants all dead. This is not normal so, Job, what did you do?

Eliphaz then justifies his words by claiming to have a secret vision from God.

A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it. Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on people… Job 4: 12-13

In words that make me think of sitting around a campfire while someone tells ghost stories, Eliphaz goes on to describe how his hair stood up when a spirit glided past him. “Fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake.” Spooky stuff!

Granted, in this “secret vision” he shares, there was some truth. We cannot be more righteous than God. We should not place our hope in our own abilities and good works. That’s all truth. That is something that we should all believe. God is perfect and we are not.

But some truth doesn’t equal all truth.

If I tell you that I can count to ten and then say: “one, three, five, two, eleven, eight, nine, four, thirteen, six, seven, ten”, have I really counted to ten? I’ve included all of the numbers you need, but I also added in two extras. I also didn’t have the numbers in the right order. So, while you may say that I have successfully counted to ten, I haven’t really, have I?

Eliphaz’s overall theme is wrong. God is not a cosmic hammer-swinger. He’s not waiting to smite us for a misstep (sin). And, if you continue to Job 15 and read his second speech, you see it doesn’t get any better. To summarize: If you are bad, bad things happen. If you are good, good things happen. In the third speech (Job 22), Eliphaz states how Job was really not the greatest man in all the east (which we read in the very beginning of the book). He accuses Job of withholding food and water from those in need; taking clothing from those who had nothing; being cruel to widows and orphans. All of the things that we thought Job had done right, Eliphaz now says Job did wrong.

Eliphaz’s bottom-line: Job sins and Job is punished.

Honestly, there are days when I wish Eliphaz was right.

If he was correct, then I could do some good things and I would feel better. I could tell a friend that the reason he went through job struggles is because he was sinning. If he stopped whatever that particular sin was, the punishment would stop. I could tell friends that all they needed to do to fix financial struggles was to be better.

Poof. Be good and life is good. That would be easier.

But here is the problem. Suffering is not the result of sin. To be clear, it can be. If I decide to rob a bank, get arrested, and thrown in prison, I will suffer. That suffering is a direct result of my sin. If I am in a bank and it is robbed and the robber shoots me, the pain I feel is the direct result of the bank robber’s sin.

There is a difference between the punishments for sin and consequences of sin. While I don’t want to leave the conversation hanging, I do want to take a break now. Email me your thoughts (or corrections to my thinking!) or comment if you wish.

Yours in Christ,

Marty