Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wanting God Isn't Enough

I'm in the middle of reading "I became a Christian and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" by Vince Antonucci.  That is a really long title.  I heard the author speak at a conference I attended last summer, and really enjoyed him.  His past is more than a little colored, and he isn't your normal pastor.  Yet this book and the message I heard that day tell me this; Vince Antonucci is passionate about his relationship with God, and spreading that passion to others.

One of the chapters in the book is called "Hungry", in which Antonucci discusses the need to hunger for God, and what that hunger feels like.  He describes it in different ways, which I won't get into.  A lot of what you find in this chapter you can find in other books as well, though maybe not with the flow and humor in this book.

What really struck me started about half-way through the chapter.  In it, he says this:

"We assume that wanting it is enough, that being hungry for God will automatically lead to being filled with God.  But the more I think about that, the more I realize how strange an idea this really is.  I mean, we can't just want to be in good shape physically and it automatically happens.  We can't just want to get good grades in school and it automatically happens.  We can't just want to have a great relationship with our spouse and it automatically happens.  Everything important in life takes some work, some discipline, so why should it be any different with God?  Yes, we need to want it, we need to be hungry.  But being hungry is not enough."  

Now, this may seem pretty obvious, and I guess it is.  But as I've led, pastored and grown myself through the years, I can testify to this; wanting something is different than pursuing it.  God doesn't say He will bless those who want Him.  He says he will bless those who pursue Him.  In Jeremiah's prophecy, God states "You will seek Me and find me.  When you seek me with all your heart."  This is not a hunger alone, but a hunger which leads to pursuing.

The Apostle Paul also recognizes this, telling us he is "pressing on" toward the goal of Jesus Christ.  He doesn't simply hunger.  While hunger is important, we have to remember that this is only the first step toward getting more of God.  We are going to actually have to do something about that hunger.

Antonucci ends this section by saying this:

"I'm hungry for God, but going from being hungry to being full would take blocking out some time and really spending it with him reading my Bible, or maybe it would take getting into a small group at church, or reading a book about prayer.  And I'm not willing, or I'm lazy, or it's just that I have a lot of other things to do, and so I'm starving spiritually.  I'm disappointed with my Christian life, and I'm blaming it on God."

So are you hungry?  What are you going to do about it?  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Time to talk about homosexuality

I know, I know.  Some people are pretty tired of talking about homosexuality, so even the title of this blog is off-putting.  Oh well.  I don't say it is time to talk about it because it hasn't been discussed, but because in conservative circles, we have tended to shy away from actually talking about it.  We say things like "homosexuality is a sin", and consider that the end of the discussion.

But is it fair to end the discussion that way?  I don't think so.

I'm not going to give a lot of my thoughts here, but I've had several things come across my desk these last couple of weeks which I thought were great conversations.  Some of the people I disagree with, others I agree with.

The first is a video with Rob Bell debating with Andrew Wilson.  This is only a portion of the debate, but it is worth watching.  Bell bothers me a lot in this video.  He suggests, when asked about the truth of Scripture, that truth isn't the most important question, but instead "what works."  That is a dangerous place to take a debate when discussing what God thinks about an issue.

The second is a series of questions and answers given at Woodland Hills Church.  The questions are answered by Gregory Boyd, one of my favorite authors, and Paul Eddy.  There is a lot here, and some other good questions and answers.  What is interesting is that there are three different services in which spend time answering questions, and in each of them there is some type of question dealing with homosexuality and the church.  I tend to really like and appreciate their approach to this question.

Finally, this is an interview given on a Moody radio station to Dale and Jonalyn Fincher.  This is less about our approach to the theology, and more about our approach to the person.  What's interesting about this is that Moody ended up taking the interview down from their website.  You'll notice the link isn't to their website, but to another.

I would encourage you, if you have time, to watch/listen to these.  They present different sides, but all are willing to have the conversation.  This, to me, is the important thing.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Preaching Jesus

I've had some interesting discussions of late about how we preach Jesus, particularly from the Old Testament.  There are two general sides to the debate.  

On one side of the debate, some suggest that every sermon we preach needs to be about Jesus.  So even when we are preaching Old Testament passages which make no reference to Him, we should still make sure the sermon is, in the end, about Jesus.

On the other hand, I recently attended some classes on Old Testament preaching, and the man giving the talks approached it from the opposite angle, saying that we should preach the text, and not feel like we needed to force Jesus into the message.

This left me thinking about my own preaching, and how I preach from the Old Testament.  I tend to lean toward the second view, but to be honest it sure sounds more spiritual to preach Jesus from every text.  Because I have been thinking about it, an ongoing series on Ed Stetzer's blog are helping me gain some perspective.  Let me give you some of the highlights, and I would encourage you, whether you are a preacher or not, to give these a look.  They aren't only about how we preach the Bible, but also about how we should read and study it on a personal level.

From the first post, there were a couple of things which really stuck out.  A little over half-way down the post, the author of this particular post says this:

"While it is hermeneutically irresponsible to say that all Old Testament texts have a Christocentric meaning or point to Christ, it is true that all play a significant role in God's great redemptive plan that leads to and climaxes in Christ."

This seems to provide some balance.  Instead of saying that all passages are about Jesus, he is suggesting that all the Old Testament is part of the plan which culminates in Jesus.  That is much different, and I think a wiser way to look at the text.

Then a little later, he says this:

"Christ-centered preaching may obscure the intent of the original author and in so doing may actually reflect a low view of Scripture." 

This, to me, is the danger.  I always want to be true to the text which I'm preaching, not fit something into it that I really want to say!  That is always a temptation for any preacher anyway, so avoiding the temptation is helpful.

The danger here is that not only are we not being faithful to the text, but by obscuring the original intent of the author, we are in danger of suggesting that our understanding of the text is greater than that of the author.  And by the way, if the Bible was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and He was okay with not making Christ the center of every passage in the Bible, it is certainly disingenuous for me to suggest that I should do it.

Anyway, the second post is also up, so let me show you a couple more quotes.

"Authoritative interpretation will focus first on the message of any given text, and once this is established reflect on its place and significance in the broader revelatory scheme that climaxes in Jesus. Not all First Testament texts point to Christ, but all texts reveal something about God or humanity or the universe that is necessary ultimately to understand the work of Christ."

Again, this is about being true to the text.  We can preach things which aren't specifically about Jesus which still speak of the need for Him, or show us His divine character as we find Him in the New Testament.  But how is that presented?  Well, first we go with what the text is actually saying.  That is a must.  

One more.  This author also addresses how we talk about people whom we consider to be "types" of Jesus. I have not always done well here.  I felt a little corrected!

"If we preach Joshua as a type of Christ, we minimize the role and work of Jesus and obscure the message of the book of Joshua. Jesus is not a second Joshua; Joshua was his agent! Jesus is YHWH who commissioned Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land and hand the land into their hands."

There is danger here, and I hope we see what it is.  God help us to read, study and preach Scripture as it is intended to be read!

There was another really interesting point in this second article about the idea that we tend to think of Jesus as the Messiah or Christ, but forget that Scripture also tells us something very important about Him.  He is not only the deliverer, but is God Himself in the flesh.  So while we can see in the Old Testament pictures of Jesus, we also need to remember that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament, so we see God on the move.  That is the wonderful story of Scripture; it is the ongoing plan of redemption.  

Someone said this: "The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed and the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed."  I don't buy it.  

There is much more in those articles, and as these are out of context, you'll certainly get more from going and reading them in whole.  Also, the series will be continuing, so I hope we read it together!  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Friend in Need...

I'm reading through the book of Job right now in my personal quiet times.  I'm not sure if you've ever read it, so let me give you a quick synopsis.

Job is a righteous man, who honors God in his life and through his sacrifices.  God has blessed him with a large family and many other things.  He is financially secure, to say that least.  One day Satan finds himself in the presence of God, and God starts bragging about Job.  True story.

And the LORD said to Satan, 
“Have you considered my servant Job, 
that there is none like him on the earth, 
a blameless and upright man, 
who fears God and turns away from evil?”

This always surprises me a little.  Can you imagine God bragging about you?  Anyway, Satan isn't impressed, and assures God that if Job didn't have so much, he would turn his back on God.  Basically, he only loves God for what he's getting in return.

Long story short, Satan is given allowance by God to take all of Job's possessions away.  Satan does so, destroying Job's family, livelihood and health.  What is Job to do?  The only one left to comfort him is his wife, who tells him to curse God and die.  Okay, maybe not the greatest way to comfort someone.

The majority of this book is filled with Job and his friends having dialogue.  Their names are Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.  They come to Job and assure him that if all of these things are happening, it must be because there is some sin which Job is trying to hide from God, and all of this is a result of punishment.  Job assures them this isn't true, but they don't believe him.

The thing I wanted to point out is that his friends actually meant well.  They weren't performing very well, but in this story we are assured they meant the best for their friend.  In chapter two it says this: "And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him.  And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven.  And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was great."

I point this out because I think there are a couple of lessons we can learn, from both sides of this suffering.

First, if you are going to console a friend, you might want to spend some time asking questions before you offer solutions.  These friends didn't know the situation, and apparently didn't know God too well either.  So their assumptions were in fact dangerous and hurtful to Job.

Secondly, if you are going through a tough time in your life, and you have friends say things which are hurtful, remember that they may have your best in mind, even if it seems they spend most of the time putting their foot in their mouth.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mercy for a Killer

I was reading the story of Cain and Abel this morning, and was struck again by the way the story teaches us about the mercy of God.  Let me give you some of the high points.

Cain and Abel go to God with their sacrifices.  Cain is a farmer, and brings food "from the ground."  Abel is a shepherd, and brings God the "firstborn from his flock."  God accepts Abel's offering, but not Cain's.  We don't really know for sure why this is the case.  It probably had something to do with the offering itself, though in the end, it was the heart of Cain which was against God.  Remember that God commanded sacrifices from the ground years later, and many times we see this as acceptable.  The difference had to have been Cain's heart.

The proof is in Cain's reaction.  At this point he could have done two things.  First, he could have asked God why his sacrifice wasn't accepted.  The other thing he could have done is search his own heart to see if there was something within himself that needed work.  Instead, "Cain was very angry."

God, in His mercy, comes to Cain.  "If you do well, won't your sacrifice be accepted?"  This question from God is an important one.  It isn't that God has rejected Cain outright.  In fact, there is the opportunity in this for Cain to receive God's mercy.  God will accept what Cain offers if Cain will offer it in a proper way.

God then warns Cain.  Now, we all know what Cain is going to do, but Cain at this point had not killed his brother.  So God warns him.  "Sin is crouching at your door."  This is a stern warning from God to watch the temptation to act in his anger.

Cain kills his brother anyway.

Read that carefully.  Warned by God, Cain ignores the warning and takes his anger out on his brother.  He was in the wrong, but instead of bearing the weight of his guilt, he took it out on his brother.  Abel, though he had done nothing wrong, was murdered.  Cain, though warned by God, kills his brother.

Then comes the really merciful part of the story.  This is a part of the story that we sometimes forget, and when I was younger, I didn't really understand it.  God sends Cain away from where he was to be a wanderer.  That I get.  Cain, though, is worried.  Look at what he says to God.

"My punishment is greater than I can bear.  
Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, 
and from your face I shall be hidden. 
I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, 
and whoever finds me will kill me."

I remember reading this when I was younger and wondering what his complaint was.  Sure, he might get killed, but isn't that what he deserves?  I mean, he kills his brother, and then thinks God should protect him?  What's amazingly merciful, is that this is exactly what God does.  God protects Cain, even though Cain had rejected Him.

Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! 
If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” 
And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.

This is the mercy of God at work, and I have found it to be true in my life as well.  I try to remind myself and my congregation that God, in His grace and mercy, saved me from all the sin in my past.  It is even greater when you think that God, in His grace and mercy, saved me though He knew I would fail Him many more times after He saved me.  

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 
In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope 
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 
and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade— kept in heaven for you, 
who through faith are shielded by God’s power 
until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
 - I Peter 1:3-5.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sermon Prep

This is an excerpt from the book "Killing Cockroaches" by Tony Morgan. This particular portion was written by David Foster, and is important reminder to me about the amount of time I down preparing my sermons. At times I can feel a little guilty for how much time I dedicate to sermon prep. This helped me. I thought I would give it to you in full, and provide some commentary through it of my own thoughts.  My comments will all be in orange.  Enjoy!

My "killing cockroaches" story has to do with the issue of preparation. (If you want to know about the "killing cockroaches" comments are about, you'll have to read the book!) My life's calling as a writer and a speaker means I live in a world of words and ideas. This requires lots and lots of time in research and preparation in how to communicate your idea effectively.

I operate on one key principle-great speaking comes from the overflow of preparation. Before you can move others, you must first be moved. And that requires many hours of concentrated time, being still in one place thinking great thoughts! (Okay, maybe not all great.  But thoughts anyway!)

Sounds simple-except when you realize that year after year the number one fear people have is speaking before a crowd. For me, the fear of speaking in front of a crowd isn't so great as it is speaking before a crowd unprepared. (Believe it or not, this is one of my most frequent "nightmares" - standing before a congregation unprepared.  I know that sounds crazy, but I literally have bad dreams about not being ready to preach when it comes time to do so.) Therefore, I must spend hours and hours alone in my office in front of a computer, reading, studying, cross-referencing, researching, looking for illustrations, adding, deleting--all pointing toward one particular moment in which I will speak or write. I was taught that you need one hour of preparation for every minute you speak. That means if you speak for forty minutes, you prepare forty hours. (I actually prepare half of that.  I average one hour of preparation time for every two minutes hours I preach.  I preach around 35-40 minutes, and spend 14-15 hours preparing) 

Now here's my problem. I'm a guy of action and I live in a world of buzzers, bells, chimes, and alarms. They exist for one real reason-to get me moving! I like them because I love doing things. I live to be involved in conversations. When things are going on, I want to know about them. I want to do things that have an immediate payoff. But here's my dilemma: I get more immediate gratification "chasing the cockroaches" of my everyday interest or distraction. Hurry makes it easier to justify not preparing. (I know a lot of preachers who are so "busy" they don't spend the time they need to on the essentials, yet this was exactly the danger which caused the apostles in Acts to avoid doing work others could do.)

The truth is, preparation is hard, lonely work. It takes terrible inner discipline. It requires as much discipline to sit down, study and prepare as it does to be actively attending meetings or dashing off to lunch, all of which feed the need for immediate gratification. So a lot of guys like me who speak for God week after week, year in and year out, face the urge to procrastinate on preparation because we want to be the guys who do a lot of really important stuff with our time. Then we cheat on our preparation time and justify it by tending to all the small emergencies around us that make us feel significant.

If I'm going to be great at what I alone can do for my movement, I must guard my prayer and preparation time like money in the bank. Too many are in the habit of "winging it," thinking other people won't notice. But they do. (Yes, they do) We diminish our effectiveness by chasing a thousand little distractions. And who pays the price? The people craving an inspiring, insightful, and transformational message. So rather than preaching with power and conviction, we end up just recounting our "cockroach killing" stories, hoping our lame excuses will make up for our chronic neglect of doing the one thing only we could have done the past six days - prepare! (This is the challenge for myself an other pastors.  By not spending enough time preparing, I'm actually shortchanging the people I'm supposed to be serving.)

Who among us hasn't been on the receiving end of a boring speaker who was too busy chasing the urgent to invest the time to be interesting. (I hope none of you are thinking about me right now...though I've delivered my share of boring sermons.) Talent can only take you so far. Preparation is what separates a good speaker from the truly great ones. Let other people out all the little fires and chase the little foxes. If you are going to slay giants on Sunday, you must resist against the forces that distract, dissipate, and disappoint.