Tuesday

Let no one grieve at his poverty ...




Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.


John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople; sermon, ca. 400

Theologian: Most Christians Infected with Prosperity Gospel‏

A reprinted article:

The Prosperity Gospel

Most professing Christians in America are infected with at least some measure of the health and wealth gospel, said one theologian.

That is, believers have no concept of a love and a joy that does not eliminate hardship and heartache, Sam Storms of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City said at a pastors conference this week.

"For most professing believers if God is love He must promise to minimize my struggles and maximize my pleasure," he lamented. Many believe it's their spiritual birthright to experience comfort and prosperity and that it's God divine obligation to provide it.

It's a disease that's rampant in the culture and in the church. People are inundated with messages from powerbrokers, media, entertainment, TV evangelists and bestselling authors that say joy is inextricably bound up in material prosperity, physical health, relational success and all the comforts and conveniences Western society provides.

For most people, joy and suffering are incompatible, Storms noted.

Thus preachers have a difficult task at hand in communicating to such a culture a genuine joy found in Christ.

The so-called prosperity gospel that teaches wealth and good health is a sign of God's favor and blessing is prevalent in the church, Storm lamented. Underlining the seriousness of the problematic theology many preachers have picked up, the Oklahoma City pastor called it a "corrosive and disintegrative pox" on the church and "a disease far more infectious and ultimately fatal to the soul than the worst bubonic plague and the affects it might have on the human body."

"We have to fight this infection in the body of Christ," he emphatically told pastors at the Desiring God conference in Minneapolis.

But the blame for the rampant "disease" shouldn't fall on the TV evangelists, Storms noted.

"I want to lay it (the blame) at our feet," he said.

"It's the pastors and leaders of the church today who fail to explain from the biblical text how hardship and tribulation are actually used by God to expose the superficiality of all the human material props on which we rely," he explained. "We failed ... to show ... how hardship and persecution and slander compel us to rely on the all-sufficiency of everything God is for us in Jesus."

That failure has left most professing Christians unable to grasp "the simple truth" that "infinitely more important and of immeasurably greater value than our physical comfort in this world is our spiritual conformity to Christ," Storms noted.

And conformity to the image of Christ is orchestrated through trials and hardship.

"If I suffer it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that He in His infinite wisdom and kindness knows can only be attained by means of physical affliction and the lessons of submission and dependency and trust in Him that I learn from it," he said.

"That's how suffering serves joy."

Everyday people are hearing about a joy less durable and far inferior than the one offered by God. Yet, Storms asked pastors, when was the last time you expounded on the nature of the fullness of joy, ... the superior beauty of God?

Citing the work of 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, Storms advised pastors on how a "Christian hedonist" should preach on the pursuit of joy.

"The pursuit of God brings 'delights of a more sublime nature', 'pleasures that are more solid and substantial . . . vastly sweeter, and more exquisitely delighting, and are of a more satisfying nature . . . that exceed the pleasures of the vain, sensual youth, as much as gold and pearls do dirt and dung,'" he said, reading from Edwards' sermon "Youth and the Pleasures of Piety."

He continued, "Loving God 'is an affection that is of a more sublime and excellent nature’ than the love of any earthly object. Such love is always mutual, and thus the love one receives from Christ 'vastly exceeds the love of any earthly lover.'"

"Edwards argued that the problem isn't the pursuit of pleasure but the willingness of uninformed minds to settle for comparatively inferior joys when God offers us unsurpassed and far more durable delights," Storms explained.

The Bridgeway pastor reminded fellow ministers that delighting themselves in the Lord isn't a choice, but a command and duty. Sin, he said, is denying a fillet mignon so you can fill your bellies with rancid ground beef.

We are not pursuing pleasure without God, but in Him, Storms stressed.

Speakers at the Feb. 1-3 Desiring God conference devoted their talks on the foundation of Christian Hedonism, a term coined by Desiring God's John Piper, and the pursuit of joy.

Bob Blincoe, U.S. director of Frontiers in Phoenix, Ariz., defined Christian Hedonism as "the desire for God," "desiring Him more than all other things" and "the confidence that there is nothing else worthy of our desire, nor rival treasure to treasuring Him."

"Christian Hedonists ... neglect every distraction, every attraction, every seduction, every sinful thought, and every temptation because we have set our hearts on the far exceeding treasure: God Himself," Blincoe said.

Thursday

Getting back up is up to us


Have you ever seen the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness,” starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas? It’s really a good flick and illustrates a concept that I have had to take to heart many times.

In the movie, which is based on a true story, a construction camp in Africa is harassed by man-eating lions. These lions are unusual because they kill for sport, which made the movie downright creepy in a few parts. As the plot thickens, Kilmer, who plays engineer Col. John Henry Patterson, has a chance to kill one of the lions and fails. Afterward, he feels terrible, especially after professional hunter Charles Remington (Douglas) chastises him for making an error that hunters usually don’t make.

Remington is a good guy though. After he chastises Patterson he said, “We have an expression in prize fighting: ‘Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.’ Well my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.”

Proverbs 24:16 says, “for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again ...” According to the Puritan minister Matthew Henry, this means that a “sincere soul falls as a traveler may do, by stumbling at some stone in his path; but gets up and goes on his way with more care and speed ...”

Henry said that the fall should be understood as adversity rather than actual sin and in the context of the other verses surrounding it, he is correct. I also think, however, that this is also a good principle to remember when we commit sin or, perhaps, when we have unintentionally hurt someone. First John 1:9 says that whenever we confess our sins God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In addition to this, we also have to forgive ourselves.

Many of us, including myself, have a hard time forgiving ourselves when we’ve done something wrong. We ask for God’s forgiveness, but that doesn’t stop us from wallowing in self-pity or self-blame. I’m sure that God understands this because he knows that we don‘t want to do wrong; however, when this happens, I picture him saying something similar to what Remington told Patterson in that African jungle.

Yes, there are times when we may fall. Life is not easy, but that doesn’t mean we should lose faith and quit. We should put the incident in the past, get back up, dust ourselves off, make amends, if necessary, and keep on going. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but it is an essential part of life.

Saturday

What the cross means to me



Presented as a devotional, La Junta First Church of the Nazarene's Lenten service and dinner, March 19, 2010:

Like any woman, I like to look at jewelry, and the more sparkly it is the better. Sometimes when we’re at the mall or at Sam’s, the light hits those jewelry counters just right and something catches my eye so that I change my course of direction and go right toward the sparkling gems. “Oooooo,” is my first reaction as my husband groans. I laugh and say, “It’s sparkly,” and then continue walking. He responds, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I see this as a little joke. I am not really into buying a lot of jewelry, but it is still fun to look and it is fun to hear him groan. I do not know why, it just is.

Have you ever noticed that every jewelry store has crosses for sale? They come in gold, white gold, silver. Some are plain; some adorned with jewels. Even though the jeweled ones are pretty, I prefer wearing my plain cross. There is just something funny to me about adorning something typically used as an instrument of torture.

Beyond the jewelry store, the emblem of the cross comes in various forms. People buy crosses as religious objects, decorative pieces for the home, and as artwork. Artists depict crosses in stained glass, like the one you see above my head in this sanctuary. There are jeweled crosses, crucifixes, crosses with scrolled edges. We see them carved into tombstones and erected upon hills. We even see flowered crosses beside the road from time to time marking the place where a loved one left this world and entered the next.

In my home, I have a photograph hanging on my wall of the plain wooden cross that stands across from the entrance at Point Loma Nazarene University. I walked by that cross several times a day for the four years that I was working on my bachelor’s degree. It is in a beautiful spot. It overlooks the Pacific Ocean and there are flowers and bushes all around it. That cross seems to tell people who enter the campus that the school stands for more than just academia. We also assume that people who wear the cross or who have depictions of it in their home do so because the cross means something to them. However, what does it mean?

Well, I do not think that I have to tell you, a group of people who attend church regularly what the cross means. We all know it is where Jesus suffered a horrible death to become the sacrifice for everyone’s sin, so I thought that I would focus this devotional on what the cross means to me.

Simply put, it means the same thing. It means salvation from sin and ultimately escape from eternal punishment, but there is more to it. Arthur W. Pink, an evangelical writer from the 20th century said, “The nature of Christ’s salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a savior from hell rather than a savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of Fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.”

A little boy once prayed, “God if you can’t make me a better boy, that’s OK. I’m having a good time the way I am.”

Isn’t this how we are? Changing is hard work, yet, that is to what Christ calls us. I believe changing, is one of the elements of faith that Christ was talking about when he said. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34.

A literal example of this truth was Simon of Cyrene when the Romans forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. One of my commentaries says that whenever the Romans forced someone to carry another’s cross he had to walk behind the condemned. I’m sure that Christ used the example of carrying the cross to describe what it was like to follow him as a word picture because it was familiar to his audience. The Romans crucified thousands of people. This was a common punishment for those who rebelled, so I am sure that the Jewish people knew exactly what Christ meant. Jesus added a new dimension to the word picture, however, because people who carried crosses were usually forced. God expects us to pick up our cross voluntarily. However, carrying our own cross is our only option if we are to follow Christ.

What does carrying the cross mean? What is our cross?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a German theologian, went to prison for participating in a scheme to dispose of Adolf Hitler during World War II. From prison, Bonhoeffer wrote “The Cost of Discipleship.” In this book, he said that the Christian enters daily an arena of temptation and that he or she must bear the sins of others and forgive them. A Christian must “abandon the attachments of the world,” he wrote.

“When Christ calls a man,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “he bids him come and die.”

St. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20, NIV).

Therefore, this verse suggests that the cross we must carry is faith in Christ. According to Bonhoeffer, we must shun the temptation to sin; we must bear the burdens of others. In addition to this, as Galatians says that we must also bear our own weight. In essence, we have to give up our very selves to God and put Christ in charge of our lives. This is the cross we must bear – to die to ourselves and allow Christ to live his life through us. In this way, he uses our gifts, our lives, our personalities to do his will in a way that is unique to us. That is how Christ lives in us. We allow Christ to do this because we are grateful that God loved us and gave himself for us.

My generation is visually stimulated and that’s why movies speak to us so effectively. It started when I was seven. The late Johnny Cash narrated and sang songs for a movie called “The Gospel Road.” As a young person, I watched the movie about Jesus’ life with great interest, and then, when the Roman soldiers pounded the nails into his hands, the sounds of the blows seemed to fill the sanctuary and I began to weep. “I did that to him,” I thought over and over, so when my pastor gave the invitation to go to the altar, I went forward and gave my life to Christ. That movie, with its blonde Jesus no less, seems a little tame now when I watch Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” The pain and rejection and the sickness of man just blows my mind when I watch that movie. I can’t get over the fact that Jesus, a gentle, faultless lamb, would go through all of that pain and rejection for us, but he did. I am grateful for the cross. I am grateful that Jesus suffered so much so that I could have abundant life.

That abundant life comes through denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus. It comes from recognizing and accepting the salvation that only Christ provides. True joy comes when we follow this pathway in life because we unite with God, our creator, and we allow him to mold us into what he wants us to be. This process is very difficult at first because we want to be what we want to be. However, as we give up our lives bit by bit, the Holy Spirit replaces the turmoil with joy as we realize that we are becoming who we truly are. True union comes when we feel joy with God over this fact.

So this is what the cross ultimately means to me—union with God and everlasting joy in him as I give my life away. The cross is not a trinket; it is a lifestyle. It is through the cross that we become reconciled to God and how we live for him.

Thursday

Replenishment: a natural process of spring


The first time I ever saw a crocus was when we lived in eastern Michigan. My kids and I were outside sometime during late March or early April and there was snow on the ground. While the boys explored, I stood in a corner of the yard watching them.

"Mommy, look," said Andrew, who was three at the time. "A flower!"

"A flower?" I walked over to where Andrew stood pointing and saw a tiny purple flower adding regal beauty to the white snow. Later on that day I asked one of our friends about it. She told me that it was a crocus, the first flower of spring. I had never heard of a crocus. I knew about tulips and daffodils, but not about these tiny flowers.

I will never forget that day. Michigan is cold during the winter and it stays cold longer than other places I have lived. That crocus was a simple reminder that spring and warmth were on the way.

I now have crocuses at my house in Colorado and, today, Andrew, now 17, called me to say that the crocuses were coming up in the garden. They seemed later than usual this year so I thought that I would have to buy more. It delighted me to hear that they were returning to brighten the world for a short time.

Good moments from creation don't last very long, but they bring a deep satisfaction to my soul. These moments are a constant reminder of my creator. He is the same creator who fashioned the earth with such intricate detail that a little flower, with a bulb the size of a hazelnut, will appear for a short time in spring, fall dormant and then return year after year. Returning bulbs and birds that habitually migrate year after year always seem to impress on me how orderly creation is.

Although we may have chaotic times, fire may destroy foliage, tornadoes may come, lightning may strike, or floods may ravage the landscape, we can still count on God's creation to replenish itself, often in a way that is more beautiful that it was previously. God has instilled the same drive in humanity. Trouble may come, but our desire to live carries us forward, hopefully more resilient than we were previously.

Spring is also a reminder that God is in the business of constant renewal and remaking the old. He is constantly working to renew us and make us better people.

God is good, isn't he? Spring is a great time to make that known.


Friday

The cure for "showy" spirituality


When our family lived in the small town of Bad Axe, Mich., the circus came to town. It was a big deal. It seemed like everyone in Huron County showed up to go to the circus and we were no different. Although we liked living in Bad Axe, after growing up in Southern California, we found the small farming community a veritable entertainment vacuum, so the circus was our chance to “get out on the town,” so to speak.

This circus was no different than any other small circus. There were clowns, elephants, trapeze artists and huge snakes. The boys seemed to enjoy the atmosphere and so did we. The circus seemed to have a good display of showmanship that was fun for everyone.

Unlike the circus, spirituality is best enjoyed when it is not showy. Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who were both in the temple one day. The Pharisee stood up to pray and thanked God out loud that he was not like the scumbag tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector prayed silently asking God to forgive him for all the things he had done.

At the end of their prayers, Jesus said, the tax collector went home justified. The tax collector’s heart was in the right place. He didn’t care about the opinions of others. He just wanted God’s approval.

M. Robert Mulholland wrote in his book “Invitation to a Journey: Road Map for Spiritual Formation,” that the cure for showy spirituality is to fix the heart. This is done by practicing three spiritual disciplines: silence, solitude and prayer.

Silence, Mulholland said, “is fasting from speaking to listen to God.” By giving up our voice, silence helps release control of our relationship with God. Through our silence, God takes the reins and begins to tell us what we need to know.

Practicing silence leads to solitude, which is fasting from fellowship with others to be alone with God. Part of solitude is drawing away from others, Mulholland said, but the main crux of the discipline is to be ourselves with God and to “acknowledge who we are to ourselves and to God.”
Out of this recognition and the peace that it brings flows prayer, In prayer we offer everything we are to God. It is through prayer that God works to change us into what he wants us to be.

Through this process of letting go, we become more and more comfortable with who we are and with who God is. When we reach this point it does not mean that we have “arrived” at a place where we no longer need God to work in our lives, it means that we look at ourselves realistically and, therefore, we do not need to compare ourselves with others to make ourselves feel better. It is through these disciplines that we become able to have compassion on others and ourselves as well.


Movies provide good viewing for Lent


During the time I was growing up in the Nazarene church, the church had a prohibition against watching movies.

I guess with the advent of the VCR and later advances in home movie viewing, it became increasingly difficult for the denomination to enforce such a rule. Instead the church encouraged a guideline: to watch whatever was true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. The guideline works much better than the prohibition, especially when Hollywood is producing movies that have great moral themes. I have watched two recently that would be excellent to watch during Lent because of their strong scriptural undertones of Biblical reconciliation and forgiveness.

The first film I would recommend is the 1998 version of “Les Miserables” (or, if you are really ambitious, read the book by Victor Hugo). In this classic tale, Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing bread and is freed after 19 years of hard labor. After his release, as he makes his way to his parole officer, Valjean has a life-changing encounter with a priest and learns about reconciliation and forgiveness. Valjean then spends his life giving this gift to others, sometimes at great cost to himself, while being pursued by a former prison guard who recognizes him.

The second movie is the 2001 flick “To End All Wars,” which is based on a book written by Ernest Gordon. Gordon was a British POW in Thailand during the Japanese occupation of that country. He was one of thousands of POW’s who was used as slave labor to build the “Railway of Death.” After World War II, Nelson was ordained in the Church of Scotland and later served as Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. The movie adaptation of his novel shows what happened to four allied POWs who were in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

“We were treated worse than animals,” he said years later, as quoted by The Internet Movie Database. “The conditions were worse than you could imagine.”

The prisoners learned to live in their circumstances and also won limited sympathy from their captors by conducting secret classes in which they studied the classics, including the Bible. Because of lessons learned through their study, some took beatings for others, and one died in place of another who did not deserve it. This caused considerable consternation among their captors, who followed the Japanese warrior code of Bushido. The movie demonstrates the evolution of the concepts of forgiveness and eventually reconciliation between prisoner and captor.

Through such dramatic and interesting examples, the movies give us a glimpse of what it is like to live triumphantly in adverse circumstances and to truly forgive. While watching these movies, I asked myself several times whether or not I could forgive like Jean Valjean or Ernest Gordon, or ultimately as did Jesus.

“Faith thrives when there is no hope but God. It is luxury and success that makes men greedy,” Gordon also said.

In our day of relative ease and comfort, perhaps it is through the sacrifice practiced during Lent, the praying, fasting and giving of alms, that helps makes this kind of forgiveness possible.