Friday, November 30, 2018

My Christmas Card to You

You may have heard this story, but it is worth repeating at this time of year. I came across it as I was looking through some old stuff.

What do you want to be?

Once upon a mountaintop, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. 

The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: "I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I'll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!" 

The second little tree looked out at the small stream trickling by on its way to the ocean. "I want to be traveling mighty waters and carrying powerful kings. I'll be the strongest ship in the world!"

The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and women worked in a busy town. "I don't want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me, they'll raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world."

Years passed. The rain came, the sun shone, and the little trees grew tall. One day three woodcutters climbed the mountain. 

The first woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, "This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me." With swoops of his shining axe, the first tree fell. 

"Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest, I shall hold wonderful treasure!" The first tree said.

The second woodcutter looked at the second tree and said, "This tree is strong. It is perfect for me." With swoops of his shining axe, the second tree fell. 

"Now I shall sail mighty waters!" thought the second tree. "I shall be a strong ship for mighty kings!"

The third tree felt her heart sink when the last woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the woodcutter never even looked up. 

"Any kind of tree will do for me." He muttered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the third tree fell. 

The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought her to a carpenter's shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a feedbox for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, with treasure. She was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry farm animals.

The second tree smiled when the woodcutter took her to a shipyard, but no mighty sailing ship was made that day. Instead, the once strong tree was hammered and sawed into a simple fishing boat. She was too small and too weak to sail to an ocean or even a river; instead, she was taken to a little lake.

The third tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard. "What happened?" The once tall tree wondered. "All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God..."

Many many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams.

But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feedbox.

"I wish I could make a cradle for him." her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and the sturdy wood. "This manger is beautiful," she said.

And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world. 

One evening a tired traveler and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveler fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake. Soon a thundering and thrashing storm arose. The little tree shuddered. She knew she did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely through with the wind and the rain. The tired man awakened. He stood up, stretched out his hand, and said, "Peace." The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. 

And suddenly the second tree knew he was carrying the king of heaven and earth.

One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man's hands to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God's love had changed everything. It had made the third tree strong.

And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God.

That was better than being the tallest tree in the world. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Where is God When You Need Him?

Two weeks ago, our furnace went out while we were under a severe winter weather warning. After a couple of days suffering while a technician tried a number of fixes, they pronounced the furnace dead. The cost of the new furnace busted our budget.

This discouraging incident was very tough financially, but there are so many others around us who suffer so much worse things such as being homeless in freezing weather and the loss of a loved one. In difficult times we can often become discouraged and wonder why God seems so far away.

“Where is God when we need Him?

St. John of the Cross, went through a time of feeling totally separated from God, coining the phrase "Dark Night of the Soul." If you are seriously trying to follow God, you will go through your own "Dark Night of the Soul" at some time. What can you do in difficult times?

Adverse circumstances discouraged God’s chosen people.

Seventy years after the Jewish nation was taken into Babylonian captivity, a remnant returned to their homeland. These were not bad people, they were a holy remnant. Hundreds of thousands had been taken to Babylon, but only fifty thousand returned to Israel. These were the ones most committed to the Lord and to the restoration of Israel. 

Their work was hard to rebuild and restore after 70 years of neglect.  They didn’t have a lot of money or manpower. They suffered crop failures, hostile enemies resisted their work, and they remembered easier times in Babylon. Each of these circumstances made them feel that God was far away.

Eighteen years after they returned they had made little progress due to any number of difficulties and setbacks. They were completely discouraged and wondered, "Where is this God we are serving? 

"Why was He so far away? Where is God?”

We have to remember that God has not moved! He may be waiting for you to do something.

Return to Me

The Lord responded to their questions through the prophet Zechariah.

"Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Return to Me," says the Lord of hosts, "and I will return to you," says the Lord of hosts." [Zechariah 1:3 (NKJV]

God assures them that He is not distant. If they would return to Him, He would return to them. In all of Scripture, this is the one prerequisite to receiving God's blessings and is stated in various ways; "Seek the Lord while He may be found," "Call upon Him," "Turn to Me with all of your heart," "Return to Me and I will return to you."

Turning back to the Lord is repentance. Personal repentance is always a prerequisite for fellowship with the Living Lord. Once they returned to Him, they would receive the spiritual blessings promised to Israel in Zechariah’s the eight visions that follow these words of God.

This is one of the strongest and most intense spiritual calls to repentance to be found in the Old Testament. God would not bestow comfort on unrepentant hearts. God's covenants with Abraham and David rendered certain the fulfillment of His purposes for Israel. But these covenants did not nullify the need for each generation of Israelites to be obedient to God in order to experience His promised blessings.

In today's church, there are some who would say, “We are New Testament Christians, that is Old Testament law and is no longer applicable.” But Zechariah’s words remind us of the words in the New Testament book of James;

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. [James 4:8 (NKJV)]

4 Steps to Back to God

James 4:7-8 (NKJV) Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 

1.     SUBMIT  to God

There are too many that believe submission is letting people walk all over them. Submission is not being a “Doormat.” Submission is being an “Elevator."

 Jesus submitted to the Father out of His Strength. [Phil 2:5-8] In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus submitted to die for the church.

We submit to the Lord by elevating Him above ourselves - Putting His agenda above our own, His will above our will, and His desires above our desires.

2.   Draw Near  to God

For many of us, it is extremely scary to come near to God, the creator of the universe, the all-knowing, all-powerful, and always present. We come near with trepidation, fearing He will strike us dead. Jesus provided us a way into the holy of holies, through His cross. We do not need to fear His wrath. Our fear is of losing contact with the one who loves us more than any human can love us and wants to help us.

Prayer, fasting, scripture reading, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines are all ways in which we come near to God.

3.    Wash your hands

We rebel because we want control over our situations.  There may be areas of sin that we do not want to give up. Or there may be areas of our strength where we do not think we need God. Sinfulness keeps us from fully repenting. How do we deal with our sin? Confession and repentance from sin! After healing many Jesus told them, "Go and sin no more."

1 John 1:9 (NKJV)  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

James 4:4  Every list of sin in the New Testament begins with sexual sin.

4.    Purify Your Hearts

We touch two separate kingdoms - the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world. You do not become purified by ceasing to sin. We have a problem obeying the "Ten Commandments" let alone following Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount." We purify our hearts by being So filled with God that there is no room for anything else. Worldliness is being so full of the world there is no room for God. Check your calendar, where do you spend your time? Check your checkbook. where do you spend your money? Check your heart and mind, where are your thoughts?

Return to Him

Sometimes we might wish that God would force us to return to Him, instead of wooing us to return out of our own choice. Nevertheless, God wants our freely given love, so He prompts us to choose Him and return to Him.

Are people today any more heavenly inclined than those of Zechariah's day? No, we - like the people in Zechariah’s day - must be responsive to the lessons of history if we do not wish to be destroyed:  

God is genuinely and deeply concerned about the state of His people. God solemnly promised to restore Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. This was an especially comforting promise considering the lowly condition of the cities of the "Promised Land" in Zechariah’s day. About four years from the time of this prophecy the temple was rebuilt. The Jewish people took the prophecy seriously.

As we prepare for the birth of that child in Bethlehem, let us prepare ourselves by returning to the Lord! 

Do not get caught up in the worldly activities surrounding Christmas, but become caught up of the anticipation of God coming.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


St Paul was probably the most successful church planter of all time.  Converted on the Damascus road about 33 AD, his ministry lasted for approximately 30 years.  Theologian, F. F. Bruce[1] attributes this phenomenon principally to, "the energy with which Paul, a Jew by birth and upbringing, spread the Gospel of Christ in the Gentile world....".

Roland Allen writes;
"In a little more than ten years St. Paul established the Church in four provinces of the Empire, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia.  Before AD 47 there were no churches in these provinces; in ad 57 Paul could speak as if his work there was done, and could plan extensive tours into the far west without anxiety lest the churches which he had founded might perish in his absence for want of his guidance and support.”[2]
Certainly, Paul's methods of quickly planting and building lasting churches were effective in his context, but are they of use today in our context?  Certainly, today there is a need for evangelism and strengthening of the church.  As Evangelicals lament the growing secularization of society and the diminishing influence of Christianity, we should look to the ministry of Paul for his vision of the church of Jesus Christ and attempt to apply his methods to the church today.

The book of Acts provides an excellent history and insight into Paul's church planting and evangelistic techniques.  It was at Antioch in Pisidia that Paul's plan for evangelization and church planting took form.  This plan was continued, with some variation and a few exceptions, throughout his journeys.  As a traveling Rabbi, Paul would be asked to speak in the synagogue.  Many heard the message of Jesus and believed.  Others would become irate and a split in the synagogue occurred.  The Apostles would then flee to the next town leaving behind a group of believers, often with one of the missionary band stayed to nurture the new church[3].

1.   The Team Approach

Paul used a team approach to church planting.  Rather than being an individual itinerant preacher, Paul would bring others along to assist.  Commissioned by the church at Antioch, Paul began his first missionary journey with Barnabus and John Mark.  On his second missionary journey he was accompanied from time to time by Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Aquila and Priscilla. 

From the first visit to Antioch - Pisidia, Paul was the senior spokesperson of the missionary band but he relied heavily on those with him.  When Paul was alone at Athens he was not successful in starting a church and he did not begin a church in Corinth until Silas and Timothy had joined him there.

2.   Finding People

The first step in planting a church is to find people.  It was Paul's custom to first try to reach people at the synagogue.  The synagogues consisted of both Jews and God fearing Gentiles.  As he was asked to speak he would share the Good News of the kingdom of God.  At other times, such as at Phillippi, where there was no synagogue and at Corinth where he was not allowed to teach in the synagogue, Paul would look elsewhere. It is this "elsewhere" that is most important to understanding Paul's success.  The father of the church growth movement, Donald MacGavran[4]  points out that at Pentecost three thousand people were saved from all over the empire and each of these people had family back home.  It is his opinion that Paul was able to network by getting names of family members throughout the area of his travels. 

Paul was a great writer and a leader of people, but these characteristics were not responsible for his success in finding people open to the Gospel.

"...neither his dedication nor his communion with God in Christ was the sole secret of his amazing success.  That lay in the combination of his deep understanding of, and fellowship with, the living Christ, with his intuitive and unerring cooperation with God in the extension of these vast stirrings of the people whom God purposed to disciple.[5]
Paul became a part of what God was already doing in peoples lives.  He was able to see what God was doing and participate in it for the conversion of thousands.

3.   Paul's Message

When in a synagogue, Paul would speak about Jesus Christ beginning with the actions of God in Jewish history, the message of the prophets who foretold the Messiah, declaring Jesus the Christ who was crucified and arose from the dead and who is the forgiveness of sin.  Everyone who believes is justified from everything that could not justify them under the law of Moses.   He was not ashamed of the Gospel because it was the power of God for salvation (Rom1:16).  He preached not human wisdom but the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1Cor 1:17-18), ... not wise and persuasive words but with the demonstration of the Spirit's power (1Cor. 2:4-5).

4.   Developing Leaders

The development of leaders is still a mystery for many churches today.  The modern approach is to find a person who is successful in his work and put him in charge of a church committee.  Paul's team approach led to the rapid development of leaders and was an imperative considering the Jew's attempts to kill Paul.  Paul was able to delegate tasks and responsibility as his associates grew.  Paul believed the church to be a group of people with spiritual gifts and graces, given by God. This allowed him to cooperate with God in leadership selection.  Paul merely confirmed what God was already doing in the people before he moved on to the next town.  In some churches, Paul's stay was brief as leadership developed quickly.  This happened in Phillippi where he left Luke after only a brief apprenticeship.  At Berea, Paul left Silas and Timothy for a while until the church could sustain itself.  In Corinth, he stayed for a long time before heading for Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila.  Then he left them in Ephesus to help lead that church.  From the Corinthian correspondence, he might have been better served by leaving Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth.


The pattern used by Paul for planting new churches in the first century is an effective means today for communicating the Gospel.  We must be careful however to maintain the vision and purpose to which God has called us.  If we seek church growth and church planting as a goal in itself, we run the risk of losing His perspective.  Our purpose is not to create or build a church, but to evangelize people, to bring them to a reconciliation with God and then equip them to do likewise. 

If we merely try to attract people to our church and assume that somehow, sometime Christianity will rub off and they will turn their hearts over to God, we are not following Paul's pattern.  Paul first led people to Christ, then brought them together into the body.  This is why he was able to move on to a new territory trusting the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the leaders of the new church even though they did not have years of theological training.  Those churches then continued the ministry of reconciling people to God. 

Paul's concern was not to build large churches but to convert large numbers of people to a faith in Jesus Christ.  He was very proficient at this because of his faith in God and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of converts.

[1] Bruce, F.F. Paul The Apostle of the Heart Set Free, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,  Grand Rapids, 1977, page 17
[2] Allen, Roland, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours,  Eerdman's Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1962, page 3
[3] Barklay, William, The Mind Of St. Paul, Harper, San Francisco, 1958, pages 231-233
[4] MacGavran, Donald Anderson, The Bridges of God, Friendship Press, New York, revised 1981, page 18
[5] ibid page 26-27

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Rules to live by

I am not a big fisherman but have been known to drown a few worms. One time a friend and I had exceptional luck and caught a number of white perch.

Me, "We should remember that spot, so we can return and catch more."

He, "I took care of it, I put an "X" on the side of the boat."

That is foolishness, the boat moves and cannot provide a reference point. However stupid this little joke is, it illustrates the point of this post. We live in an era when there is no stable reference point. Everyone decides for themselves what is right and wrong. This is dangerous for a number of reasons.

  1. Imagine driving a car in a nation with no speed limits. Great, you say? Okay, but there are also no stop signs, traffic lights or lane restrictions. You can drive in any lane you feel is right for you. Demolition Derby, here we come.
  2. Remember back in the third grade during recess - do they still have recess? The playground at Hollywood Elementary was overseen by Mrs. Cravitz. She kept all the kids in order using the eyes in the back of her head and the threat of detention.  When Mrs. Cravitz was out sick, the playground was a disaster. Everyone played by their own rules until the meanest and biggest kid in the yard took charge. He sets the rules and abuses everyone else. Lack of a reference point leads to violence, sexual abuse, and anarchy as those with power use it to their advantage.
  3. When we have no fixed point of reference we drift from truth to confusion. We develop points of tension. Newborn babies need to be held, they need the comfort of feeling secure. Our Shitz Zu, Rachel, will head for the security of her small cage whenever a storm approaches. There is nothing that makes us feel more secure than having boundaries. We may fight against them but we truly need them. Our son kept begging and pleading for his mother to let him go somewhere with a friend. Her answer was no! Later he came to her and thanked her for not letting him go. "No" is a boundary that provides an element of security.
  4. When "truth" is lost politics fills the gap. When people lose their grip on moral absolutes, then the rules are made by whoever can get the most votes, gain the most political power, or shout the loudest.

We once lived away from town, out in the country. Storms would come up and we would lose electricity. If you have ever been in a totally dark room you can understand the problem. The first thing that happens is we lose our bearings, we become confused and are not sure where we are. We begin to feel our way around until suddenly! we find the chair or another piece of furniture. Now I know where I am. That chair becomes my fixed point of reference. I know where I am. It's home base.  From that chair, I remember the door, the couch, and their relationship - unless my wife has moved the chair without telling me. I’m OK. I have a fixed point of reference. If you were placed in a large, empty room, with no furnishings, and no light, you would move slowly and cautiously around the room until you came to a wall, something solid that you could hold on to. then - if you were there a long time - you would probably sit on the floor and lean against the wall. The wall provided a point of reference.

God has provided us with reference points. Secular society tries to live apart from God. It is determined to work out all its problems without any reference whatsoever to God. We are pressured to conform. Even in the Christian community, we fight against absolutes. A.W. Tozer wrote: A whole new generation of Christians has come up believing that it is possible to accept Christ without forsaking the world.

Lately. I have come to love Psalm 119. Throughout this Psalm, King David extols the virtue of following the Lord's law, commandments, statutes, and precepts. David speaks clearly of his love for these valuable and "life-giving" rules of God. They provide David - and us - security, direction, and knowing the love of the Lord. Laws, statutes, commandments, and precepts often have a negative connotation, but I have learned about the freedom and joy that they provide to us.

So What are the rules

  1. Realize God loves us and wants what is best for us.
    John 3:16  "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

  2. Recognize that we are sinners and must repent
    Turn and go the other direction. Real repentance comes when we can trust God.
  3. Die to self - daily
    The real issue is “Who is in control.” We must remove ourselves from the center of the universe. The function of the Holy Spirit is to install Jesus, more and more on the throne of our heart.

     Hebrews 2:14 -15    Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

    We do not fear physical death, we fear death to our sense of control.  We have to learn to trust God. When we trust God we do not have to be in control.
  4. Spend lots of time in Prayer
    Love God with all your heart, mind soul, and strength. Spend time with Him. Commune with Him. Pray the prayer of abandonment,
    “Lord, I want to be all that you have created me to be, Whatever it takes, I give you permission to change me to become more like your Son Jesus.”

 1 John 2:15-17     Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.