Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Is that Really Necessary?

As a boy I was a smart aleck. I still have a rascally (thanks Elmer) sense of humor. More than once, upon injecting what I thought was just some good clean fun into the situation, I would hear the voice of authority pour water on my amusement with the ever useful, "Was that really necessary?" Sometimes, the temptation was to retort, "when someone says or does something that dumb, yes!" But, that would have just poured gasoline on the fire. I'll let you decide whether I learned that by applying wisdom or through the school of hard knocks. Regardless, it takes a while to learn grace.

I did not grow up in church, per se, even though I attended a few mainline church services along the way. I did do some hard time in Sunday School, but got released early, when I was 10, for bad behavior. ;-) Occasionally, I bumped into a televangelist while flicking the TV dial through its rotation. I've got to say, the unique techniques of communicating to church people struck me as weird and distracting. If folk talked that way anywhere else, they'd never be taken seriously, but laughed to scorn. Why the personal history? The background is needed to understand the point of view of what you're about to read.

What is it that I have to say? Well, to all those who "preach" the Gospel, (and maybe for all those who go to hear the gospel being preached), "Stop being a clown!" Church is not a carnival, preaching the Gospel isn't a performance, and the "anointing" doesn't have any biblical, behavioral signs! Enough with huffing and puffing, and eyes rolling back in their sockets, and sudden shudders, and profuse, self-inflicted sweating, and hanky waving, and on, and on, and on. I'm reminded of a car manufacturing anomaly from the 70's: the Chevette SS. Stripes and chrome, and a bigger engine package could never hide the reality-- it was still just a Chevette! Vroom! Vroom! Rather than the example of Christ, carnival barking preachers emulate the illusionist's art, i.e. they distract the audience away from the truth with the show.

WWJD. I think it's germane to the preaching "craft". If Jesus didn't do it, should we? Who better knows how to communicate eternal, life-giving truth than he? It's alright to be a fool for Christ, and it's OK to preach foolishness as the world sees it, but it's not acceptable to diminish the majesty and importance of the message of Christ through affected tomfoolery. So, the next time you're preaching (or even the next time you're going to see a preacher), do everyone a favor, especially the Lord of glory: ask yourself, "Is that really necessary?"

Friday, October 19, 2007

What Has Been and Never Was

An object at rest will remain at rest, and an object in motion will remain in motion unless...

That, more or less, was the practical expression of Newton's law of inertia as we learned it way back in high school. It speaks of the tendency of an object to keep doing what it has been doing, or not doing. Life has taught me this law applies to human (willful) actions as well. Our patterns of thinking and acting amass their own momentum, which is often difficult to overcome, and which continues at times at great cost to ourselves and others. Does the word stubbornness ring a bell?

Some church growth guru once said, "If we keep doing what we've always done, we'll keep on getting what we've always gotten." Church speakers are notorious for stealing other folks' lines, so I doubt he was the originator of the expression, although I don't know who may have been. Regardless, it's a great line, and it speaks to the need to embrace change.

When we know we are not moving in God's direction for our life, there's no time like the present to make a change. For how ever long we delay bringing an altering force to our momentum, we we risk wasting our most valuable commodity and doing harm to ourselves or to others. Do we really want to look back on the few days we are allotted and rue what has been and what never was?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Walk With Me

Certainly, some might say, God demands we do more than breathe! Perhaps so, but try to do anything without breathing! To do anything physically, the body must breathe, and to do anything spiritual, the believer must be inspired by the Spirit of God. Does that mean lightning bolts and voices from heaven must precede any action the believer takes "for God?" No, that attitude produces nothing but church slugs-- you know, folk that just sit there doing nothing, excusing their lethargy by the ever ready, "I don't feel led." Whereas magnificent phenomena have been known to accompany the communications of God, they are not what I mean by inspiration (inspiring as they might be).

Inspiration is the living presence of God (i.e. breath or Spirit), quickening to our thoughts his thoughts, arousing the passion of his heart in our heart. Every born again believer has such inspiration available to him or her, it is what it means to be born of the Spirit. It is the very nature of being saved. To breathe is to assume that inspiration (by faith), to become sensitive to it, and then to act in agreement with it. Such breathing underlies all godly action. It is what makes that action possible. "What action in particular?" you might ask. How about walking? We are not under a command to march, that sends us off alone on a survival trek into the wilderness to prove ourselves or to accomplish great feats; instead, we answer an invitation to walk hand in hand with God where God is going.

You see, there is an opportunity cost to action. To do one thing in a space of time means that other things cannot be done in that same space of time. If one breathes as sketched out above, that one will have robbed the flesh of its opportunity to do evil. Most Christians would acknowledge the benefit of that, and yet so many rely on human effort and legal constraint to accomplish that goal. Law does nothing but exasperate the flesh. The secret to holy living is not legalism, but inspiration. So many, in the imperfection of human perception, hear from the heavens the command, "walk before me," when what Christ is actually saying is "walk with me."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Just Breathe

If we don't live by code or law, if there is nothing we can earn or merit, if our records do not effect our salvation, how do we then live? The simple and straight forward answer is that we live out of the Spirit that God gave us when we were born again. We live inspired, not perspired, lives. Our existence is a promenade with God--we walk hand and hand with him where he's walking. If he goes right, we go right, if he goes left we go left. What he does we do, what he says we say. It's not about passing some proficiency exam, it's about grace that allows us to live in partnership with the awesome God.

Folk that want to live by a code are not generally folk that experience God. When they keep trying to jam their good deeds down God's throat, is it any wonder he seems to gag at their company? At best, they're like little kids insistently crying, "Look at me, look at me!" That gets old fast, even for grandma! What can it do for God, who sees all their works (all the failure, all the sin, all the self-serving, self-centered acts of willfulness) not just the ones they want him to notice? Our good deeds can never erase the bad ones, so it's a dead end street trying to earn or maintain favor from God by our works.

In an emergency, the desperate cry that's often heard is "Somebody, do something!" In our desperation to be at peace with God, our panicked souls often invoke that same cry reflexively, but the something that needs doing has already been done by someone else. So perfectly, in fact, that nothing else could be or needs to be done in addition. Our rescuer stands by us, alive and well, the victor over hell and death, with an oxygen mask in hand. Life has been offered to us, all we need to do is accept it and breathe in.

The devil says, "Look what you've done!" The flesh says, "Look what I've done!" Faith says, "Look what Christ has done!" And the Word says, "Just breathe."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To Hell With It

I said in my last post that we do not have anything to prove to God, nor can we measure up to his (or anyone else's) standard. All that we can prove by such vain efforts is that in our own Adamic natures, we are sinners. Does that mean we should live willy nilly, that anything goes? No, sin will always be sin, and God will always hate it. Ultimately, he must completely disable it!

Philosophically, sin is an impossibility. How can that which is against the will of God (sin) exist in objective reality, when God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent? Sin can only exist in this illusionary framework of temporal space, which is constricted, subject to termination and scheduled for rectification.

The grace of God allows this illusion for merely a second, because of the possibilities of redemption and the potential therein. A time is coming, and shortly, when reality will come back a-knocking, and nothing that stands in opposition to the will of God will stand any longer. That ultimate reality check, we call hell.

Some folk wonder how a loving God could put living human beings into a fiery lake forever. I don't know what other possibility could exist. They usually think that, even if the lake is real, it cannot possibly be so forever. Sometime, the flame has to go out, and the worm metamorphose and fly away to bigger and better things. All of us who are parents, or who had parents, realize that punishment ends sometime, right? No, such thoughts arise from a misunderstanding of human and angelic nature, sin and independent wills.

Ultimately, how can any will exist but that which is omnipotent? For any other will to exist contemporaneously and/or permanently would undermine the nature of the supposedly omnipotent one. It would in fact, then, not be omnipotent, but impotent-- capable of conceiving but not delivering.

Why does that make hell necessary? Well, human and angelic will cannot be disposed of nor dissolved. If everything in nature reveals something about the invisible attributes of God, think about what the conservation of mass and energy tell us about the Spirit of God-- He cannot be created nor destroyed. Furthermore, what he lends breath, or personal spirit to, though it can be established in independence (created), once granted such, cannot be destroyed either. Humans and angels (although I don't have a scripture reference for angels, it does make sense to me) fall into that category.

They cannot be destroyed, once established, but they can be disabled. How? Overwhelm their will with incessant fire and they will never entertain a thought, nor devise a scheme, nor hatch a plot in opposition to God's will again. Don Piper's experience of a painful recovery after a traffic accident is helpful here:
In the first few weeks of my recovery, I was in such constant physical pain I couldn't hold any thoughts in my mind for more than a second or two (from 90 Minutes in Heaven, p. 102)
One long "arrrrgh!" will be their lot, cosmic pink noise. Coherent thought will be impossible, no conceptions nor communications. Their eternal will is silenced in perpetual flames: God's will continues unabated. It has to be.

God created us with divine-like capacities in order to fellowship with him. Christ reveals in flesh and bone, in spirit and in thought what that looks like. It’s not oppressive nor coercive, but food and life, joy and peace. Our wills are meant to be experienced as the replication and expression of his. Exertion of our will (works) is not the means to achieve that, inspiration is [my next post]. As for sin, to hell with it!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Stop In the Name of the Law

What we do has no impact on our acceptance by God. Our record cannot add to, nor detract from, what has already been done by Christ; in other words, our actions cannot rewrite history. It is on the basis of what Christ has finished, and only on that basis, that our standing with God rests. God quenched the flames of his wrath with the blood of Christ, so there is none left for us who believe! Everyone who puts their faith in Christ's finished work on the cross has become, and remains the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.

What we do does reflect upon the reality of our faith. If I say I have faith but have no works, I'm a liar plain and simple. Such "faith" does not bamboozle God because it is dead, and therefore leaves me in my sin under the wrath of God. It cannot save. Faith works, specifically through love.

Our works, however, are not our own fault. These "things" have been seeded by the hand of our loving God into the pathway of our lives. We will stumble into them, without having to climb Everest or swimming the Channel to seek them. To miss such "things," and thereby have no works, would translate into not having faith or (and this is an impossibility) not being within the purview of his foreknowledge.

We live out of what Christ has freely given to us through faith: righteousness and the Spirit. We have nothing to prove by living up to some code: if we attempted to prove something to God that way, we could only prove that, in ourselves, we are sinners. It is a joy to be alive, accepted, and actuated by God. Burdening ourselves, and others, with a need to earn status or to measure up before God is embracing the law instead of the gospel. That is a curse! If that's what you're doing, please, stop doing so in the name of the Law.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Props to the Preachers

I want to take some time to publicly acknowledge those who have most impacted my life as a disciple of Christ and a minister of the gospel. There is no question these fine gentlemen have much better fruit to their credit than me, but from this, maybe the fruitiest, a very sincere thanks to these men of God for a job well done.

Rex Bornman
Rex was my first pastor after coming to Christ. My first visit to the State College Assembly of God, where he pastored, came a week after I marched the aisle and was subsequently baptized at a Southern Baptist Church in Harrisburg, PA (my home town). I totally freaked out--the place was positively spooky, but even though it scared the bejeebers out of me, I felt a strange compulsion to go back to that place, where the people responded to God in a way that made sense (if one truly believed in hell and salvation, that is).

As I devoured the Word and talked with God, the Lord would instruct and illumine me. Sunday after Sunday, Rex would preach (in his own flamboyant style), and repeat almost verbatim what God had been speaking to me in my “prayer closet.” Talk about being pumped! I learned what God sounded like through that ongoing experience and developed sensitivity to and trust in the voice of the Holy Spirit. You’ll not likely ever read this Rex, but thanks. You’re the best in my book, and still the most effective preacher I have ever had the pleasure to see or hear. I trust the work at Christlife in Charlotte will go well.

Stephen Michaels
The first time I heard Steve preach was on the street outside Schwab Auditorium on the campus of Penn State. Generally, I did not like street preachers: they were nothing but clanging cymbals playing for shock value to get an audience. Not Steve, he spoke with passion, but logically, sensibly, persuasively.

A couple of years later, Rex introduced him as the new campus pastor for the Chi Alpha chapter the State College A/G was sponsoring at Penn State. Steve cleaned up real well! In my first conversation with him, I slightly hinted (and I do mean just slightly!) that I was intrigued by the Holy Spirit. Steve told me he’d be at my room at 5pm, and gave me little chance to object.

With Bible in hand he began going through the scriptures concerning the Holy Ghost. I was getting excited, and after about ten minutes of his presentation, I knew God wanted to baptize me in the Holy Ghost and would. Steve went on for about another 20 minutes or so, while I was chomping at the bit. He laid hands on my head, I felt overwhelmed and overflowing, and started speaking in heavenly language I did not know.

From that time until I left college (I hung around for a short while after graduation) Steve was a friend and counselor, discipler and example. Thank you Steve, for the much good you did for me. Incidentally, he now leads an astounding XA chapter at UFla (rotten Gators!). If you ever wanted to support a campus ministry, support his!

Mike Smith
I started Bible college in January of 1984, 1100 miles away from home, in a town I’d never been at before, knowing no one but my poor wife, who got dragged along with me into the frozen tundra (sweet thing, she came along cheerfully). We began searching for a church family. In the process, one Sunday morning, we got on a schoolbus that had come to North Central and off we went to who knows where.

We ended up in White Bear Lake, MN at Calvary A/G. They worshipped there, it was refreshing. Then, Mike Smith got up to preach. He was a rugged looking fellow, with a kind voice, and light in his eyes. He was refreshing. A couple of years later, he gave me my first job in ministry. He was one of the nicest people I have ever met. To this day, I don’t think I have met a better example of kindness and grace. Thank you Mike, for the start and for the example, may God bless the work at Redeeming Love.

Paul Grabill
When I was a home missions pastor in Pittsburgh, one of the Sectional Committeemen was assigned by the presbyter to be my mentor and treasurer. He was a doctoral candidate at Fuller, attempting to lead an old A/G church stuck in the 50’s into the 80’s. He had flaming red hair! He was patient and smart, and knew more about the nuts and bolts of church life than anyone I ever met. He poured knowledge liberally upon my hardened head—some of it seeped in!

I learned more about human nature and how it effects ministry and church life, and how leaders need to work with it realistically in a few months with Paul than in years of Bible College. I thank God for the gift of time and the abundance of knowledge I received from Paul. In a strange twist of fate, Paul pastored that very same State College Assembly of God mentioned above (as well as serving as the Asst. Supt. of the Penn-Del District), and from which he went on to his eternal reward August 11, 2011.

Robert Owen
My wife grew up going to church. She was saved when only four years old! When she was 12, her family started attending South Hills A/G in Pittsburgh, pastored by Robert Owen. He’s a Welshman, which means he loves to sing and has a great accent! The first time I sat in his church, I was visiting my new fiancĂ©e’s family. In a sanctuary filled to capacity, he looked right at me from the pulpit, and told me to take the gum out of my mouth (evidently, he didn’t want to look out and see a bunch of cows chewing their cud). Talk about seeker sensitivity! I don’t remember when, exactly, I got over it. ;-)

For years his church was the largest congregation in the Penn-Del District, yet no matter how large it got, he and Miriam would stand at the back door greeting everyone by name when they left the service. Even in a room packed with hundreds and hundreds of people, the place still felt like a familiar place, like family. He’s taught me so many valuable lessons about call, ministry, commitment, integrity, and generosity, I wouldn’t know where to begin enumerating them. Thank you, Pastor Owen, you served the cause of Christ until the end of your days (November 19, 2012) and planted seeds in the hearts of men.

There you have it: the ministers that have meant so much to me. Their service was of benefit to thousands, I’m just grateful I was one of them. So, props to the preachers, may blessing continue to pour forth from you even long after you're gone.