Sunday, September 14, 2008

Don’t Sin Today

As a believer my approach to God is one of simplicity, and as the writer of this blog I endeavor to boil down ideas, current issues, truths & lies to their base elements. My question is always, “What is the real issue here?” This causes me to be a constant listener and observer, and sometimes I see and hear things that simply resonate God’s truth.

One such incident was a phone call with a friend who pastors a church in Ukraine. My friend invited me to a conference to preach on evangelism, and during the conversation he began to relate to me a difficult pastoral situation that he was dealing with.

Some Christians had created such a mess with their lives that he simply could not untie the knot that they had made. The main reason is that they had kept the knot secret for so long no one could remedy the problem. If they had sought help early on much pain could have been avoided. I sighed over the phone, and exclaimed, “What could be done?”

“Don’t sin today”, was my friend’s response. This really struck me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Don’t sin today! He was not telling the people who made the mistake; he was telling me. He was telling himself. He was telling his church not to sin today.

The real impact of this was simple and profound. Daily sins that grow and go unchecked often lead to public disasters. The Bible says that it is the little foxes that spoil the vineyard, and seemingly insignificant unchecked sin can have an eroding effect on every aspect of life. Like a house built over a sinkhole all seems fine until one day the headlines say: Million Dollar Home Swallowed Up, Major Ministry Swallowed Up, Family Swallowed Up or Corporation Swallowed Up.

“Don’t sin today” has another implication apart from scaring our pants off (for some it should scare their pants on). It is impossible unless we are walking with God every day. Not walking with God today is a sure plan for sinning today. The two are mutually exclusive. I fear God just writing this…

Now walking with God does not imply "going on a walk" with God. We also need to be going where He is going. This relates to being a fisher of men because that’s where He is going.
Matt 4:19 Not being a disciple and not building His kingdom means that we are essentially building our own kingdom. This is also a sure recipe for sin and disaster either today or in the near future.

God’s wisdom for us is simple and direct.

But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him. Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. Ps 4:3,4

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin and if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. 1 Jn 2:1,2

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Look Straight Ahead

I came late to the school soccer game today, but Abbi could not play the first game because she had been sick. She could still watch though and called me to ask when I would get there. I said it would be soon.

When I arrived I saw her with friends, so I did not bother her. At the end of the game she did not see me and got worried. My cell phone rang, and the call was from her. I turned around to see her standing there looking right past me as I answered hello.

“Daddy, where are you?” I was 5 feet in front of her.

“Abbi, look straight ahead.” She was so stunned to see me right in front of her that she literally jumped in fright.

Now change the story completely around. There is no phone, but there is prayer. We are not talking about your earthly dad; we are talking about God the Father.

The game is life, and we are sometimes too unwell to participate so we just watch. God does not seem to be there, but He is quite close. We may call often and not see Him, but when He answers He is nearer than we expect. Just call and look straight ahead.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works. Ps 73:28

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Here I Am, Send Me!

In June of 1993 I experienced a sound that to this day I have not forgotten. I did not simply hear it, but I actually experienced it. The sound was the whizzing of an electric motor followed by a kerplunk. It was the sound of the landing gear closing on the plane as we left Raleigh, NC on our way to start a church in Lviv, Ukraine. I had quit my job a few months earlier, and the sound of the landing gear closing was like a giant umbilical cord being severed. All that was safe and secure was cut off, and our future was literally in the air. We were being shot from a cannon, and since we were some of the original missionaries at that time the net on the receiving end was not yet in place. The method of sending in those days was “Ready, Shoot, Aim”, and I felt ill-prepared for the task ahead.

Every missionary has their own version of this story, and I was reminded of our story just recently after I returned from a missionary pastors’ retreat in Warsaw, Poland. One of the common themes discussed was the lack of people who were willing to go to the mission field. “How could we generate more interest?” was my constant thought. The harvest was fruitful in many places, so how could we promote the need? Is there a better way to do this? What can possibly motivate someone to rip themselves up from their roots and choose such a path? The answer was elusive until I recollected how I was originally motivated towards missions.

I honestly would not have picked myself for a mission team in those days, and I often felt like a football player whose position was third-string bench. When all the other players were injured the coach would probably look in the bleachers for replacements before sending me in the game.

Still, I was the one that went, and this is the case with most missionaries. The secret of what motivated us is not found in methods and slick presentations, but it is found in God. We are ordinary people with ordinary giftings who simply had an extraordinary encounter with God. Something had gripped us to such a degree we could not let it go.

Isaiah was a man of God and a prophet, and something quite profound happened to him that I consider to be the motivation and basis of all true mission endeavors. The first thing was that he saw God, and he saw Him in all His glory. Heaven opened and shook beneeth his feet as the praises of God and of His holiness proceeded forth from all the angels. This scene struck the prophet: “Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Is 6:5

Isaiah was acutely aware of his spiritual condition, and he was also aware that not only was he polluted by sin, but the whole nation did not stand a chance before the holiness of God. In much the same way all true missionaries are acutely aware that they live in a world that is under the judgment of God. The renowned missionary Hudson Taylor even published statistics of how many thousands of Chinese entered a godless eternity every day, and this motivated him and a whole generation to literally lay down their lives to reach these dear people. Radical compassion and identification with lost people were and are essential for a missionary.

Isaiah also let God remove his own sin and guilt. The circumstances of this are rather incredible because it shows just how serious the sin issue was as angels took a hot coal from the altar of God to bring to him and touch his lips. Imagine the terror of the moment. The angels could not touch the coal themselves, and Isaiah was already laid waste by the presence of God. However, even as God’s holiness and judgment touched him he was not injured. Instead, his sin was removed. His guilt was gone, and he could not only stand before God but he could answer a specific question that was forthcoming.

Now came the call, and the call was not from angels or from man. It was from God. "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Is 6:8 Even before God could tell Isaiah where he would be sent or what he would be doing Isaiah jumped in response, "Here am I. Send me!" Is 6:8 God then sent him to those same people of unclean lips, "Go and tell this people…” Is 6:9

There you have it, and to this day the preparation of any missionary is unaltered. They have a revelation of God, His holiness and their own inability to stand before him. They also understand His goodness, His greatness and power on behalf of those who believe. As for me I grew up knowing about the historical Jesus, but when He revealed to me that He was King of kings and Lord of lords I soon abandoned my kingdom and goals for His.

Those who heed the call understand that their sin and guilt have been graciously taken away by the work of Jesus on the cross. They cannot keep this secret like some absurd personal faith, but are compelled to make it known.

They hear the call like it is a personal call, but it is most interesting that God did not say, “Isaiah, will you go?” He asked, “Whom shall I send?” The call is open to all who have ears to hear and understand.

I for one am a strong advocate for understanding that we are all missionaries where we are, and after a bumpy beginning of “Ready, Shoot, Aim” I can attest that practical equipping is essential. However, the lack of interest that I see in foreign missions and the lack of a spark in the eyes of Christians when I talk about this need greatly trouble me.

As leaders we must drive people to the presence of God, and once they have met Jesus and continue to walk with Him they will be able to hear the call. Then sending people will be more like pulling a plow behind 50 race horses and less like coaxing mules with carrots.

Listen, hear & volunteer!

Friday, September 5, 2008

No More Poop?

We have a new dog. For those of you who are parents with pets that first sentence should be enough to evoke sympathy. My family wanted a dog, and after having parakeets, fish, a real parrot and a large rodent (guinea pig) we have graduated to a real pet who can actually return affection. The parrot was actually a puppy in disguise, but have you ever tried petting a fish?

The dog’s unofficial name is poo-er which is a contraction meaning “one who poops”. Pastor Igor’s mother in law, Nadia, gave us the dog. Pooer's mom, snoopy, belongs to Igor’s family, but it conveniently lives with Nadia. I asked Igor if he wanted the dog back, and he said that he would accept ownership as long as the dog continues to live in Kiev. Igor is infinitely wise.

After two months of cleaning up small reservoirs and landmines from our living room floor every morning today is the first morning that pooer neither pooped nor sprung a leak during the night. Hurrah!

However, the victory was short-lived; we now have kittens! Apparently they were living under the front porch, and they emerged for food when their mom did not show up to make dinner. Well, we will not have pet cats for several reasons. First of all, I don’t like them. Second, my family is allergic to cats. If you would like a cat then pay me a visit, stick around for coffee, tea or to help us plant this church.

This whole episode reminds me of discipleship, and if you get upset that I am going to compare Christians to pets then you will just have to get over it. God calls us sheep, and I for one could be compared to a dog chasing cars and turning over trashcans before I was saved - spiritually speaking of course.

Many of us have also pooped on the floor a few times – spiritually speaking again – as new believers. Our friends and leaders just put a clothes pin on their noses and patiently cleaned up after us hoping that we would eventually get a breakthrough. Once we think we have made progress with new believers along come kittens – more new people - to complicate things. More work!

However…Even though life can be messy where would life be without lives? My family loves these pets. We are having a lot of fun. Also, where would God’s kingdom be without new life, new people, messy people who need discipleship, lost people – stray souls - who need a home? The church would be a clean house, but it would also be an empty house.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost. Matt 18:12-14

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox. Pr 14:4

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Opposite of Community: Being Alone

There I stood before the church trying to figure out the best way to describe the need for small group ministry. What complicated this was that I wanted to use the word “community”, but this church did not understand that English word because they were Ukrainian. I also had to use a translator that day, Pastor Igor, because I cannot preach in Ukrainian.

As I discussed my message with Igor before the meeting the only word that we could come up with to describe community in a Ukrainian context was family. Still, this word did not convey exactly what I wanted because families here are often fragmented. As I began my message I could not resist playing with Igor a little. As I preached I used the word “community” anyway. Igor paused while not expecting my change, and two leaders on the front row immediately offered what they thought to be the best word to use.

I stood for a minute to let the lesson of this distracting example sink in. “You see”, I continued, “we cannot even agree on what word to use for this foreign concept.” In fact, it really is a foreign concept because every culture on this planet has a slightly different understanding of community. However, I still believed the concept was both biblical and universal. There must be a simple key to unlock this truth, and there was.

In the very beginning: The Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone…” Gen 2:18

And there we have it. The best way to understand community in any cultural or spiritual context is to understand its purpose and even it’s opposite. It is not good for us to be alone.

About once a year I read the tragic story of some poor soul who was found dead in their home or apartment after a period of many years. This usually happens in Europe or the US, and one person was found to have died 10 years before. No one noticed the mail piling up because there was no mail. Shocked neighbors would later say, “They kept to themselves”, or “I thought that they had moved.”

While some would blame the relatives and neighbors for not being “neighbors” – and this is oftentimes the case - we cannot overlook the fact that some people have simply decided to drop off the map. This can include Christians who see no need for the local church, but when things go wrong in their lives they often become critical of the church for not responding.

Even people who go to church are sometimes just visiting a crowd that has no expression of community throughout the week. Hundreds of people can be standing around you, and you are still alone. I must add here that when I used this example in church that day there were two reactions on the faces of those listening. Younger people had a look of disbelief, but older people had a look of terror. They felt more vulnerable and had the greatest fear of loneliness and abandonment.

  • Community, family or whatever you want to call it in your language provides for things that are essential for the human soul: Love, nurturing, protection, encouragement, values, joy, fun and vision.
  • Spiritual community provides for the exact same things with the added elements of eternal purpose and equipping for life and service. To live without these is to at best simply exist.
  • Spiritual community is also important to the secular community. People would wander in darkness if it were not for the family of God, and they will remain without hope and vision without you.
  • Secular community is also important to spiritual community. You will not grow either individually or as a spiritual community if you do not reach and serve those who do not have the hope of eternal life.

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Prov 27:17

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. Eccl 4:9-12