Wednesday, February 13, 2019

An Extended Fast

Last month, churches across the United States in a 10-day fast for spiritual renewal.  The Christian Union generated this initiative to encourage believers across the country to seek the Lord and place the church in a position to experience the Lord’s power in ministering to a culture that is in desperate need of God’s truth and grace.

While the Christian Union emphasized a focus on refraining from eating food, many pastors broadened the fasting concept to include any activity that might interfere with a focus on the Lord.  I very much appreciate this concept, and as I’ve considered how the Lord would call me to participate, it has occurred to me that many of my indulgent non-edible habits that would be good candidates for fasting are in fact not good for me. Ever.

There are good reasons to fast from food.  Our Lord did so before He started His public ministry.  It is a good way to be reminded that we do not live on bread alone but by the power, Spirit, and Word of God.  It is also a way to “reset” our priorities and affections to reflect our faith. And fasting from food encourages us to confront any ways that we express our sin nature by abusing food.  But God made us to need food and He created food to sustain us.  We cannot refrain from food indefinitely.  Food is a good blessing from our heavenly Father.  

God gives us other blessings, non-food blessings, that we also distort and pervert to please our sin nature.  Whenever we use some thing or some activity to feel good about ourselves apart from God, whenever we depend on this thing or activity to earn or prove our value, that thing or activity becomes an idol.  It separates us from God and limits what He can do in us and through us. A fast that encompasses such things and activities is appropriate.  Some of these things and activities are like food: they are necessary and good.  For example, we need to shop in order to acquire what we need.  But shopping can also be perverted: we can develop a habit of shopping that is more about feeling good than it is about satisfying genuine needs.  Exercising can fall into this category, as can ministry that becomes more and more about us and less and less about our Lord.  The possibilities are, tragically, limitless. Other things and activities—also limitless—are in a different category: neither necessary nor good.  Gambling and gossiping leap to mind as good examples. 

A call to prayer and fasting is a powerful invitation to come before the Lord to be known and sanctified, to become equipped and empowered to serve the Lord and advance His kingdom’s purposes.  We can join King David and come before the Lord, to ask Him to search us and know us, and to reveal our lifestyle patterns that reflect our sin nature rather than our faith relationship with Him.  Prayer is a crucial component: our hearts are deceitful, and we are not capable of identifying our “pet” sins.  But as our sin is revealed, we must confess and repent.  Fasting from ingrained sin patterns may be a good start toward spiritual growth and maturity.  Some of our favorite sin patterns may in fact be food-centered, but others may involve behaviors other than eating.  A fast from those things and activities that the Lord reveals as problematic is an excellent Biblical prescription for spiritual renewal.

In a typical fast, we eliminate meals or all food for a short period of time.  But we appropriately return to eating when the fast ends.  However, as prayer and fasting reveal unnecessary things and activities that pull us away from the Lord, we have an opportunity to extend the benefits of a fast, to pursue an extended—indefinite—fast from those activities in order to put aside every encumbrance to a life of faith.  We would do well to consider carefully what a time of prayer and fasting reveals to us.  It may be that when our time of prayer and fasting has been concluded, extending a fast from idols and sinful habits will enable us to experience a richer relationship with the Lord and exercise a more powerful witness in the world. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Thought For The Day

"Problems are opportunities in their work clothes"

                                            Whiting Bible Church
                                            Manchester Twp.,  NJ

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Lesson From History

Two years ago this month marks the two-year anniversary of our granddaughter’s emergency surgery when she was just nine days old.  Although she appeared healthy at birth, our granddaughter was born with a congenital condition known as malrotation.  Her intestines did not develop properly, leaving them predisposed to twisting. Such twisting makes it impossible to digest food and cuts the blood supply to the intestines.

No one in our family had ever heard of malrotation that morning two years ago.  My husband and I were on a plane en route to northern Iowa to meet the newest addition to the family.  When our plane landed, we learned that our new granddaughter had been vomiting “highlighter yellow” fluid and had been sent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, by their local doctor.

By the time we arrived at Mayo, testing was completed.  We had a brief opportunity to meet our new granddaughter before the pediatric surgeon rushed her into surgery.  Not more than an hour later he returned, joking about the bad coffee and reassuring us that she was just fine.  He also commented that the surgery had been just in time to save her intestines.  Our granddaughter recovered quickly and without complications.  It is fair to say that her parents and grandparents took longer to recover from the event.

Several months later, this same granddaughter experienced another bout of vomiting.  Again, “highlighter yellow” fluid.  Her parents quickly returned with her to Mayo, where testing reassured them that she was “just” vomiting.  During their follow-up visit with the doctor a couple of weeks later, he reassured them that once he “fixed” the malrotation problem, it remained fixed.  

There are a few aspects to this part of our family’s history that make the history quite relevant to the spiritual considerations that often accompany a new year.  Although I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, a new year is a good time to deal anew with our sin problem in the context of our faith. 

Often, our sins are hidden from us, much the same as our newborn granddaughter’s medical condition.  We seem like nice people.  We don’t lie, cheat, or steal.  Nevertheless, we are fallen people in a fallen world.  We are sinners.  We need to come before the Lord and ask Him to reveal what we cannot see, the subtle and not so subtle ways we have failed to love.  This is not something we can do ourselves.  We need professional help, so to speak, to save us from our sin before it kills us.  King David certainly appreciated the Lord’s revelatory work in his life: “You have searched me and known me.”

And just as our granddaughter’s condition needed immediate treatment, corrective measures must be taken once our sin has been revealed.  Confession and repentance: a change in heart, thought life, lifestyle.  Sometimes the corrective measures are dramatic, and spiritual surgery is necessary to remove the root of sin: “If your righteyemakes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  Sin is serious and life-threatening and must be treated as such.

Finally, we must depend on the Lord’s forgiveness and His sanctifying work in us.  Lingering guilt is one of the most potent weapons of our enemy, the accuser. But just as the pediatric surgeon fixed our granddaughter’s problem, our Redeemer has provided an ongoing and permanent fix to our sin problem: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  We need not and must not rehearse our forgiven sins: when we do so, we presumptuously play God and focus on ourselves rather than on Him.  Although we will undoubtedly continue to sin, we can continue to confess and repent and depend on the Lord’s forgiveness and redemptive work.

Living in a sinful world is tough, and our own sin makes it even tougher.  But praise the Lord!  He has not left us to die in our sins.  Jesus died to cover our sins so that we can enjoy a restored relationship with Him. He has given us His Word and His indwelling Spirit to reveal our sins and lead us to confession and repentance. So while we do need to seek His professional spiritual help to correct what threatens our spiritual well-being, we no longer need to live in guilt and fear.  Instead, we have the incredible privilege of living in faith before our Lord who became God Incarnate to die for our sins, who guides and guards us and is preparing us for our place in His kingdom.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

To Think About

"Human progress isn't measured by industry.  It's measured by the value you place on a life.  An unimportant life.  A life without privilege."

                                                                                                 Dr. Who

In The Bleak Mid-Winter

We don’t know when the original Christmas Day was.  Scholars have worked hard to determine Christ’s real birthday, but there is no general agreement.  Most scholars come no closer than an estimate of the year: 6-4 BC.  We don’t know the day of the week or time of year.  Given the weather in Israel, it is highly unlikely that snow lay on the ground.

It is widely believed that Christians have appropriated a pagan holiday that celebrated the winter solstice and designated it as the time to celebrate Jesus’s incarnation.  Even though this might not represent actual history, it works very well as a metaphor.  Celebrating Christmas in winter is not merely a strategy to break up the dreary winter months.  It provides an excellent illustration of the need for a Messiah.  Just as the winter is associated with cold and darkness, so this world is cold and dark in sin.  We don’t merely need a break from the dreary weather; we need hope and redemption from sin.  C.S. Lewis describes our current world as “enemy-occupied territory,” a world under the influence of Satan and enslaved to sin.  Christ’s coming is an invasion to reclaim His creation and His creatures, not unlike the Allies’ invasion of France that began the defeat of Germany in World War II.  Celebrating Christmas in the winter is an excellent reminder that as Christmas comes in the dark and cold winter, Jesus has come to our dark and cold sin-sick world, and to us.  And although the Christmas season is full of twinkling lights, Christmas carols, and decking our halls, the darkness and emptiness that sometimes threaten our hearts and souls need not be ignored.  In fact, it makes Jesus’s invasion, as our rescue, all the sweeter and makes our Christmas celebration all the richer.  Celebrating Christmas even in the midst of pain and struggle is truly the most genuine way to celebrate Christmas.  It is a recognition that we need Christ, and He has come!

Celebrating Christmas at the winter solstice also provides a helpful illustration of the work of Christ. John proclaims Jesus as the Light of the world.  And just as daylight begins to increase after the winter solstice, Jesus, once arrived, brings more and more light to the world and to our lives.  This brings with it a challenge.  As the light of Christ becomes brighter in our lives, more of our sin is exposed, and we encounter more opportunities to confess and repent. This may seem contrary to the spirit of the holiday, but in fact it is at its core: we celebrate because Jesus came to save us from our sin.  If we had no sin, we would have no reason to celebrate.  As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  As we submit to Christ’s Lordship, He becomes our ever-brightening light.  And in this way, we can pledge with Ebenezer Scrooge “to honor Christmas in our hearts, and try to keep it all the year.”

Christians are often reminded to “keep Christ in Christmas.” I do not believe that this means, as some would have it, that we need to be more solemn about this holiday.  In fact, the more we understand the significance of Christ coming to overcome the darkness and cold in our souls and in our world, the more we have to celebrate.  Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Thankful People

November.  Giving Thanks.  November seems to require a focus on thankfulness, on gratitude.  We celebrate Thanksgiving soon, which gives us an excellent opportunity to gratefully count our blessings before we head into the Christmas rush.  

There is a lot to be said in favor of giving thanks.  Many of the Psalms reveal that King David, the man after God’s own heart, was a man of praise.  In I Chronicles 15 and 16, we read about David bringing the ark of the covenant of the LORD into Jerusalem amid great celebration: David leapt as the ark was brought into the city, and he appointed some of the Levites to specifically thank and praise the LORD God of Israel as the ark was established in its new location. A few chapters later, in I Chronicles 23, we read that of the 38,000 male Levites, David appointed 4,000 to praise the LORD with instruments that David had made specifically for giving praise.

The giving of thanks and praise continues in the New Testament.  The Gospels record Jesus giving thanks to the Father as a matter of practice.  Those who are touched by Jesus in some way almost always respond with thanks and praise. The Apostle Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to dwell on those things worthy of praise, and he encourages those in Thessalonica to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks.  Thanksgiving is more than a holiday for God’s people.  It is a way of life.

In the 1940 Book of Common Prayer used by the Episcopal Church, a responsive acknowledgement of thanks is part of the weekly communion service.  The priest says: “Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.”  The congregants respond: “It is meet and right so to do.”  The priest continues: “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God.”  These words ring as true today as when they were written generations ago.  But it seems to me that it would be very dangerous to our spiritual health if we stop there.  If giving thanks was nothing more than duty, a fulfillment of an obligation, a practice of a tradition, we miss the point, badly.

Giving thanks is not about meeting an expectation or fulfilling a duty.  It is the fruit of a genuine relationship with our Lord and our Redeemer.  It isn’t something we haveto do.  It is something we get to do.  Giving thanks is not just about what we do, but about who we are, and who we are becoming. To be sure, it isn’t always easy. We are fallen people in a fallen world. Jesus said that we would have tribulation in the world.  The writers of the New Testament did not shy away from the reality of suffering.  But we can give thanks that Christ has overcome the world and that He will redeem our suffering and transform it into glory.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving and enter the holiday season, may we, like King David and the Apostle Paul, give thanks as thankful people.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

A Tale of Two Wheels

Once upon a time there lived a hamster.  Harriet Hamster was a petite, cheerful rodent with shiny, white whiskers, soft, brown fur, and a cute pink knob of a tail.  She was well known in Hamstown for her dedication to her wheel.

Each morning, Harriet would jump out of her cozy nest, wash her face, pop a nut in her mouth, and jump on her wheel.  The first rungs on her wheel carried family labels: she would feed her family and see them out the door of their tree root hole.  She would grasp the next series of rungs and change the straw in the nests and sweep out her home.  The next set of rungs included laundry and gathering nuts and berries.  As Harriet trotted along her wheel, she took root soup to her sick mother-in-law, placed a fresh flower arrangement in the neighborhood chapel, read stories to orphaned hamsters, helped a younger hamster line her nests with duck down gathered from around the local pond, and delivered a dandelion salad to a shelter for handicapped hamsters.  As her wheel continued to spin under her power, Harriet helped her children with their homework, fed her family dinner, tidied their home, bathed her children, read them a story, and then tucked them into bed. Hours later, she was still turning the wheel, sending a note of encouragement to a cousin who had broken her leg and knitting a sweater for a new nephew.  Eventually she would collapse into her nest before it was time to jump back on the wheel.

Harriet was so busy running on her wheel that she hardly noticed that it was expanding as more and more rungs slipped in.  She loved how fast she could make her wheel spin, and she loved the admiration and appreciation of those in her hamster family and community.  But eventually, her left front foot became sore, and her right back knee began to ache.  Harriet persevered like a good little hamster until one afternoon her foot slipped and her knee buckled.  Suddenly, she slipped off her wheel and started to fall….

Just as Harriet was thinking that she would never stop falling, she landed with a soft thump on what appeared to be a spinning plate.  And then the next thing she knew, she was scooped up into large, brown hands. “Harriet!” said the old man looking down at her.  “I am so glad that you have finally come to see me!  I have been waiting for you.”  The old Potter bandaged her foot and put a brace on her knee.  Then He put Harriet gently down on His wheel and started to turn it slowly.  The first thing Harriet learned within the Potter’s grasp was to sing the songs she learned as a young hamster in chapel school as she folded her laundry.  And when it was time to prepare dinner, she gathered her family to work together.  They complained at first, but they ended up laughing like they never had before.  The next day, the Potter continued to turn Harriet’s wheel slowly and surely.  She signed up for a language class that she had always wanted to take after the Potter assured her that He would find a way for her to use her new skill.  And to make time for this new endeavor, Harriet withdrew from a few of her volunteer positions.  She then reworked homework time with her children so that the older ones helped the younger.  Instead of endless rungs of wheel tasks to perform, there was a continual, slow flow of opportunities for Harriet.  She loved it.

As her days on the Potter’s wheel continued, Harriet noticed that she had more energy without even needing those coffee beans.  Her fur was thicker and softer, and her eyes were brighter.  But still, there were days when she missed the powerful way she felt about herself as she ran on her own wheel from task to task.  She missed the admiration from the citizens of Hamstown, and she cringed when she disappointed someone.  Occasionally, she would look up from the Potter’s wheel and catch glimpses of her old wheel, motionless.  She wondered what it would be like to return to it.  

The next few days made Harriet wonder even more about returning to her life on her own wheel. The Potter seemed to be quite sleepy and unengaged, and Harriet was restless.  No one paid her any attention as she went about the Potter’s tasks for her, and she felt less and less powerful, and less and less important.  

One night, Harriet had the most terrifying nightmare.  Her old wheel came to life and hovered over her.  Flames sprang from its rungs, and its expression was angry as it shouted at her. She tried to obey its commands, but it was never satisfied, never happy.  Harriet tried harder and harder and trotted faster and faster to please the wheel.  But the harder she tried and the faster she went, the more the wheel glared and screamed. 

Harriet awoke in a cold sweat, quivering in her nest.  Although it was still very dark, she could just make out the outline of the Potter’s quiet wheel in the middle of the room.  Her old hamster wheel was nowhere within sight or sound.  Harriet lay awake for a while, contemplating her dream and her life.  As she fell back asleep, she was very, very grateful that she had fallen from her hamster wheel onto the Potter’s wheel.

And she lived happily ever after.