Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Change

Part of me dislikes change – perhaps a sign of growing old.

Another part of me is intrigued by change, wondering what the future holds.

This battle between lovers of change and lovers of tradition spans the centuries – inside and outside the church.

Personally, I draw a boundary between my basic beliefs about the faith and my views of church structures and ways of worshiping.  There are core beliefs about God that I will not surrender, whatever the current fad.  But I am willing to give ground on the way the church worships and is organized.

I do believe, however, that there are certain principles which should guide us when we try to bring in change.  Do these structures and worship styles bring us closer to God?  Do they help us grow spiritually?

Or, are we trying to entertain a jaded generation suffering from a surfeit of television and video games?

I admit that the song styles of 50 years ago are out of touch with the current generation.  And every generation of hymn and song writers has stolen from popular music.

I enjoy many worship choruses of the last 15 years.  There are lilting songs that bring me before the throne of God.  But some other choruses seem to me to say very little about God.  And constant repetition does not improve things for me.

You can see that I’m a cranky throwback.

As for church structures, I am not sure that any really new structure has been invented in hundreds of years.  My wife and I and our small children joined a church in 1975 that was considered to be on the leading edge of change in our city.  It was centred on small groups and a very open style of Sunday service with people sharing their needs.

Now, people talk about small group ministry as if it is something new.  But, when you think about it, it is as old as the Book of Acts.

The early apostles set themselves the task of teaching the word of God and leading group prayer.  Their aim was to help believers become more like Christ and keen witnesses to Jesus.

That is still the main task of the church, whatever its structure or style.

[My wife and I will be away until the end of May so I will not be posting anything for the next 10 days.]

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Blessing others

A friend has sparked my interest in blessing others.

For some months, she has made a practice of blessing members of her extended family in daily prayers.  She says she has seen some unexpected answers to prayer since she started this practice.  In one case, a long-lost step-sister got in touch with her and they have since spent happy times together.

I have started doing this recently and what I find is that I am blessed when I bless others.

It is almost as if God says: “I am pleased when you bless others.”

I am sure that the apostle Paul knew the personal benefit of blessing others when he wrote in Romans 12:14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

Blessing those who persecute us runs counter to everything a normal human being feels.  It is much easier to bless people we like.  But, hard as it may be to bless persecutors, I am sure the end result is the same – God is pleased and he pours out his joy on us.

In this sense, blessing brings about a change of heart.  And it brings us joy.

I am not sure what happens in the spiritual realm when we bless others.  I cannot prove it – or point to Biblical support – but I believe it brings about good.  In the case of persecution, it frees us from bitterness and anger.  Bitterness and anger can create a personal prison.  It may be that, in so doing, we are freeing others from a prison of our own creation.

What about blessing people we like?  It must bring about good, too.  It is a prayer that God pour out his goodness on others.  And he loves doing that.

Over the years, my wife and I have prayed for our children and grandchildren and God has swamped us with blessings.  But I have not made a steady, regular practice of asking God to bless other people.  My prayers have focused more on dealing with a particular problem or urgent need.

A few days ago, I spent some time praying through our church telephone list, asking God to bless the people I knew in particular ways.  And I prayed his blessing in more general ways on those I didn’t know.  I am not sure what God did in those circumstances.  But I felt lighter and more joyful in my heart.  It raised my spirits and increased my faith that God is at work in their lives.

I believe God is prompting me to make this a regular practice – for my good and for the good of others.

God is for you

One of my favourite preachers recently hammered home the message: God is for you!

Most Christians accept that as truth.  But many – and I include myself – frequently fail to act as if it is true.

The preacher I mentioned, Alan D. Wright of Reynolda Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, used the example of Moses and the children of Israel to illustrate his point.

He noted that Moses led the children of Israel out of crushing slavery with the Lord’s guidance and power.  After being afflicted with plagues by God, the Egyptian people were so eager to see the Israelites go that they gave them jewellery and other goods to hurry them on their way.

But the children of Israel complained once they escaped into the wilderness.  They even rebelled against Moses’ leadership.  And they refused to enter the promised land after hearing some scary reports from their spies.

In essence, they doubted that God really cared for them.  They doubted God’s great promises for them as a people.

Alan Wright brought this down to my level in his sermon.  Are you so bogged down in your sins and your failures and your setbacks that you have stopped believing God loves you and is for you?

Failing to believe that God is for me suggests that I doubt God means what he says.

God promised the Israelites a land of their own.  He was ready to give it to them.  But they doubted God would give it to them.  They looked at their circumstances – not God – and they refused to take God’s gift.

The interesting thing, of course, is that they would have had to fight for the gift.  They would have had to trust God and his power.  God wants us to rely on him so we go through trials that take us beyond our own strength.  These trials build our faith and prepare us for the next level.

So, believing God means what he says and acting on it is essential if I am to obtain his gifts.  And see his promises fulfilled.

Finding pleasure in God

There are times when I forget myself and just bask in the joy of the moment.

Quite often these days, that happens at family gatherings.  I realize I am becoming a romantic old fool.  But I am glad that God has planted that joy in me.

There are other times, though, when I am dissatisfied.  Like my father, I have regrets about things that I have not done or accomplished.

Where does this dissatisfaction come from?

In part, it comes from the widespread need – particularly among men – to achieve.  You want to be recognized by others for what you have done.

But, in large part, it comes from God.

Unconsciously, I have bought into the old Christian idea of service.  I must serve God.  Unless I help God out, he will be diminished.  He won’t reach his goals.  I will have let God down.  Or God will have let me down because I have not reached my goals.

But that is not what God is looking for from me.  He wants a close relationship with me – just as he had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  So, I will only find satisfaction in God.

I admit there is a lot about serving God in the Bible.  But Jesus said in John 15:13-16 that he no longer called the disciples servants but friends.  Why?  Because there was a new intimacy in their relationship – they knew him and he knew them.

Over the years, I have read a lot about “practicing the presence of God” and silent contemplation of the Lord.  I have also read and re-read books about being thankful to God for his gifts.  Occasionally, I have practiced what I have read.

But the idea of accomplishing something for God has muscled its way back into my mind and heart.  Hence the feeling of dissatisfaction.

Recently, I have thought a lot about this dissatisfaction.  I realize I am comparing myself with certain standards of success that I have set for myself.  When I realize I am falling short, I feel discontented.  And that is a sure route to sin – of mind, word and action.

Instinctively, I know that I will only find true and lasting joy in God – not in what I accomplish for God.

So, I am resolving to slow down and draw closer to God.  He is waiting to embrace me just as the father did in the great story of the prodigal son.

Divorce among Christians

It’s hard to understand why the divorce rate among evangelical Christians is so high.  One survey in the U.S. found that divorce among evangelicals was higher than among other faith groups and considerably higher than among athiests and agnostics.

Evangelical Christians place a lot of emphasis on the importance of marriage.  So, you would expect more marriages among evangelicals would be solid and lasting than among other groups.

Of course, you see a great variation among Christian families.  One friend said last night that everyone in his family has stayed married – his parents, his wife’s parents, all his brothers and sisters and all his wife’s siblings.  Others tell a sadder story.

I suppose there are a variety of reasons for the divorce problem.  Like society in general, some Christian young people jump into marriage without any preparation.  And they are influenced by society which suggests that if you don’t get what you want, you leave.

What do we need to do to put Christian marriage on a solid footing?

There are some commendable efforts.  Alpha marriage courses and Marriage Encounter are a couple that come to mind.  I know that our church’s youth leadership has talked about marriage and dating issues with our own young people.

But the real need may be helping troubled marriages before they split apart.  To do that, we need to see which couples are struggling.  As a long-time believer, I realize that’s hard to do.  As evangelicals, we tend to hide our problems from other Christians.  I admit I tend to conceal my feelings from others.

A story I read today about divorce in the U.S. said that many evangelicals who are about to break up just drop out of church because they can’t face their former friends.  Clearly, they feel ashamed and they believe they will be condemned.

Our church recently offered a peacemaking course which quite a few people took.  It was all about handling conflict – not running away from it, but facing up to it.  This would be very valuable for couples having problems in their marriages.

But most of all, we need a fundamental change in our hearts.  We are not perfect people.  We should be able to talk about our problems without feeling our friends will condemn us.  I say that to myself as much as to other Christians.

The cost of divorce is huge.  It is costly in money but the human cost is much greater.  I have seen it in Christian couples who have broken up.

The awful thing is that children who grow up in broken homes will have their parents’ divorce as an example.  It may drive them to seek a lasting marriage.  But, I fear that they may do what their parents did.

Letting go

When I was in my late teens, I floated with the tide, letting the world take me where it wished.

The results weren’t great.  I enjoyed life at university – to an extent, at least.  I didn’t know where I was going, but life was pleasant.  However, I didn’t attend classes and the inevitable happened – I flunked.

My father and I had a heart-to-heart talk.  He said I was on my own and I had to find work.  He suggested I take a university course and try to get back into the university full-time the following year.

That year – the year I was out of university – I found Christ.  That changed my life.

I passed a university course and returned to school full-time.  This time, I was a different man.  I knew life had a purpose and the purpose was following God.  I also wanted to work hard.

Eventually, I got through university and began a career in journalism.  From then on, I was obsessed with doing a good job.  I prepared for everything thoroughly and tried to cover all the bases in every story or project I undertook.  I feared failure.

Looking back, I realize I became a control freak in my career.  Although I was a believer, I did not fully surrender my concerns to Jesus.  I worried them to death.

Instead of floating with the tide, I sometimes felt I was trying to swim up a waterfall.

Was I wrong?

I wasn’t wrong to work hard and do my best.  But I was wrong to not let God take care of my worries.

Of course, I realize that’s easier said than done.  It’s easy to say: “Let go and let God.”

Yet I also know that letting go is the secret to a powerful life of faith in God.  Do what you can and then turn over the results to God.

George Muller is the great example of this.  He ran a group of orphanages in England for decades in the 1800s without ever appealing for funds.  He simply prayed with faith and left the results in God’s hands.  He always received enough from interested people to feed, clothe and house the orphans – and never more than was needed.

So, now I’m learning to let go – a bit at a time.  God is great.  I need to have faith in him and trust that he will do what needs to be done.  He always has.

Be still

God commands me: “Be still and know that I am God.”

This command in Psalm 46:10 is inviting – I can picture myself peacefully being still in his presence.  Yet, at the same time, it seems such a waste of time.  I could be doing something or planning something.

It’s a little like that story in Luke 10:38-42 where Jesus is visiting his friends Mary and Martha.  Martha is doing things, running around preparing for a meal and being a good hostess.  Her sister Mary seems to be slacking off, just sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him.  Martha gets upset and protests to Jesus, asking him to tell Mary to help with the preparations.

Jesus’ response is that “Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.”

People have wrestled with these words for centuries.  They seem wrong.  Shouldn’t we be working hard?  Shouldn’t we be doing good things for others?

Yes, of course we should.  There is a lot of scriptural support for working hard and doing good.

But, God also tells us to “be still and know that I am God.”  Why?

Because without being still, I really can’t know God.  And if I don’t know God, all my running around in busyness is futile.  The important thing, as Jesus suggested to Martha, is to know him and enjoy him.

It is true that I can get to know God better through serving others.  But I can’t see God at work unless I am looking for him.  And I won’t be looking for him unless I spend time in his presence – getting to know him.  Being still before God helps me be active for God.

This is something I have known for a long time.  And when I am quiet with God – listening to him and his promptings in my heart – I feel his peace steal over me.  I gain insights I did not have when I was thrashing about in bed worrying at night.

The apostle Paul touches on this in Romans 12:2 where he tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  When our minds are renewed, we will be “able to test and approve what God’s will is.”  We will know what God wants us to do when our minds are renewed.  How do we renew our minds?  One way is simply being still so that we can know God.

Those who make this a habit say that there is nothing better than spending time in silence before God.

I am taking this to heart.  I want to know him better.