Friday, March 30, 2012

Feeling Discouraged? Read This.

When I was a child, I used to wake up, come down the stairs, go to the kitchen and usually find the lap of one of my parents to curl up in until I woke up.  The desire of a child is always to find that place of security, warmth and love in the arms of their parents.
   When our children were very young and having fussy times or were sleepy, I used to walk with them in my arms and sing softly to them.  Not sure who was more happy to be having this happen, them or me?  I found great joy in it.
   That is why when we are discouraged or feel beat up, and we all do at times, it is important that we hear this picture about our Heavenly Father from Zephaniah 3:

17 The LORD your God is with you,
   he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
   he will quiet you with his love,
   he will rejoice over you with singing.” 

He is mighty, so I can feel secure.  He delights in me, so I can be quiet and feel at peace.  And He rejoices over me with singing, so I can bask in the warmth of His love and find rest.

No matter what is happening around me, how can I be afraid or discouraged when the One who holds the universe in His hands, and is directing my life, is caring for me like this?

Be at peace today because He cares that much for you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Fatal Flaw

   We were blessed last night to have Pastor Jim Cymbala of The Brooklyn Tabernacle at our church.  He spoke to pastors and church leaders at a luncheon that day.  Marvelous word.  He then taught in preparation of a time of prayer for Buffalo and the upcoming Franklin Graham Festival called Rock the Lakes.  What a wonderful time we had as the church in Western New York.
Pastor Cymbala pointed out that the time when men first "called on the Name of the Lord" pre-dated the Scriptures, or the Jews, or the covenant.  The primal cry was first felt by people who were prompted by the Spirit of God alone.  And as the revelation of God expanded, He has used diverse ways to speak to us, including the prophets, the Scriptures and ultimately His Son.   No one can say that God has not spoken clearly and demonstrated His love for us through Jesus Christ.
   But the fatal flaw in our faith is that with all the teaching that is done (and obviously I believe in teaching) we fail to understand that the flaw for most of us has to do with that primal practice that God used in the beginning.  When Jesus called His disciples, the primary task He gave them was not preaching, although He sent them out.  It was not to do miracles, even though they were given authority to do so and did it.  The primary thing He wanted from them was to be with Him.  Know Him, listen to Him, spend time with Him.  And then He would work through them in some way or work on their behalf. 
   I hear all the time that people say they need more teaching.  But if we would be honest, we don't live up to the teaching we have already received.  The fatal flaw is that we will not take the time to allow THE teacher, the Holy Spirit of God to teach us.  We don't take that primal time to be quiet with God, our Bible, personal worship, and just plain listening, to just be with Him and hear what He has to say.  We run around doing so much, feeling good about all our accomplishments.  But Him we do not know.  We know about Him but we don't know Him.  We are like the Israelites when they told Moses to speak to God on their behalf and then tell them what He says, but don't let Him speak to us directly or we may die.  What are we afraid of?  Why do we avoid taking time to be with Him?
   We as a church and I personally am on a journey of knowing Him better.  We are setting more times and ways to be primal in our experience.  Teaching, yes, we will always be seeking to teach well.  But we need to seek the face of God corporately.  If we don't meet with God and point people to Him more teaching will simply deceive us into self-righteousness when what we need is the power of God.  That desperate need was demonstrated by Pastor Cymbala last night.  After telling the story of his daughter's waywardness, the altar was filled with parents whose hearts told them that more teaching and talk will not bring their kids home.  Only the power of God will accomplish that.
   Join me in the journey.  He wants us to KNOW Him.  And in the process He will guide us into all truth.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not Like Them

There is a tremendous level of spirituality in our world today.  There are few who have no "religion", even if their religion is the worship of themselves and their own moral judgments.  There are rituals, forms of spiritual offerings, the sense that if we try and do right things it will outweigh our failures, and a sense that we by reason can determine what is right.  It all comes back to us and our assessment.  Religion is man oriented.  Christianity is God-oriented.

  That is why God warned the Israelites numerous times to "remember" that the Lord brought them up out of Egypt, out of slavery.  In fact, He said that He was carrying out judgment on the peoples they would displace while fulfilling the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: 

4 After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  (Deut. 9:4,5)

So it was not because Israel was so special, but that Almighty God was the One.  The peoples around them have their ways to worship, their altars, their practices, but He says:  4 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.  (Deut. 12:4) 

They were to remove the practices of those nations, break and destroy their patterns, and worship the Lord as the Lord directed.  In other words, they were not to offer to God what they thought best but offer to God what He says belongs to Him.

I find it ironic today that we can adopt the practices of those around us.  Speaking of sin and challenging people to leave their sinful practices is considered judging.  Yet God says that repentance means leaving our lives of sin. And failure to do so means that our prayers will not be answered and His judgment will fall on us.  And if we work at practicing disciplines such as waiting on the Lord in silence or confessing our sins and praying for one another, things which God directs us to do, there is criticism that we are making people feel uncomfortable.  It is an affront to our sense of pride.  And that goes against our worship practices.

I pray that we may be a people who humble ourselves before Almighty God, forsaking the practices of our culture, and growing up in the things of God.  He waits there for us.  He longs to show us so much more of Himself.  He knows our joy and peace and experiencing of His unfathomable love are all found there.  So let's not worship the Lord our God in their way.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Profound Truth

I had breakfast with a dear brother this morning.  He has been a great inspiration to us since we have been here in Buffalo.  His journey is one filled with tremendous challenges being constantly met by a more tremendous, loving Heavenly Father.  It is always a joy being with him.

I asked him what the Lord has been teaching him recently.  He said he has spent the past year in his devotions reading the Psalms and Proverbs.  What the Lord has been overwhelming him with is the love of God.  Not as an attribute of God but as Who God is.  He was taught once again that the most important pursuit for us as believers is to know God intimately. Not His gifts or blessings.  But God Himself.

Then he made this profound observation.  There are many people who are seeking or chasing after miracles.  They go from church to church, teacher to teacher, place to place, chasing after miracles.  But the Scriptures teach that we are to pursue knowing the Lord and the miracles will follow us in that journey.  We are not to pursue the miraculous but the miraculous will follow us.  And even though he has seen and experienced many miraculous things in his life, he is still convinced the greatest miracle is a transformed life.  I agree.

My friend is a wise, godly man.  May we all pursue knowing the Lord this way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Is It Safe?

I get asked every time we go to Israel if it is safe.  My standard answer is that I feel safer in Israel than I do walking in downtown Buffalo.  I've been reflecting on why we have fears.  We suburbanites know there are parts of Buffalo we will not go to at night because it is not safe.  There are murders, gang activity and drug deals going on there.  Yet we remain living here nearby those areas. Why?  Because we know how to function here.  We are familiar with things here.  We know the language here.  We have history here.  So even though there are unsafe things near us here, we are confident living and traveling here.

As you see in the picture above, Israel knows their neighborhood.  There are tensions there just as their are in Buffalo.  Therefore they have trained security and systems in place to create a secure environment.  The picture is a checkpoint between Israel proper and the Palestinian Authority controlled area near Jericho in the West Bank.  It is there for protection and control if someone tries to cause any conflict.  These sights don't bring me fear but rather peace. 

I realized there is a deeper parallel here.  I know some folks who are hesitant to commit to Christ.  Or they want to believe and trust but when you discuss terms like "dying to self" or turning "control of your life" over to Jesus they balk.  Why?  They know how to function where they have control.  They know the language.  They feel safe in that environment.  And to think of launching out into a new way of life that is unfamiliar to them feels "unsafe."  The unknown creates an automatic resistance in us. Those of us who have taken the step of faith find it hard to understand.  If they only would come and see they would know the depths of the love of God, the power of God and the security of knowing and following the Lord.  But fear holds them back.  It is a matter of trust in the promises of God and the testimony of others.

To all my friends who have thought of traveling to Israel but have hesitated because of fear, I give testimony that it is just as safe as living near a major city.  Could something happen to you here at home, a car jacking or worse?  Sure.  Could something happen there?  Sure.  Security is in place and standing ready to guard and protect you.  You will be just as safe or safer.  But the benefits of experiencing the land of promise are amazing.

To all my friends who are hesitant to take the step of faith to trust the promises of God, I give testimony that He is trustworthy and has a transformed life waiting for you, free from fear.  He only wants you to experience life the way He created it to be, full of good things for you and glory for Him.

Why not take that step of faith today??

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


This is a picture of Hala and her sister.  Along with their brother, they live in two caves.  Yes, two caves.  Historically, these two caves may have served as the barn area for one of King Herod's palaces.  They are located right outside the entrance to the Garden Tomb, beside a bus station, near the Damascus gate.  Both her sister (on the right) and her brother are mentally challenged, so Hala must care for them.  She has been a believer for over 40 years and has taught children's bible classes in various homes for most of that time.  Her life is hard but she carries the sweet spirit of one who walks with the Savior.  She has been a part of Pastor Steven Khoury's church in Jerusalem since it started.
As Hala shared her story with us, she told of how the love of God melts the hearts of people.  She would go into an area and start teaching the Bible.  She would have some Muslim children taunt, or interrupt or try to intimidate her to quit.  She would engage them, inviting them to join in, or have a snack with them.  Or she would take extra time to talk to them and just show love to them even though they were acting out against her.  She saw over and over again how the love of God broke down the walls and these young men would join her, even bringing their mothers at times. We were told how some of the young boys she has taught are older men now in higher positions in the Palestinian political organization.  It reminded me of the Scriptures:

1 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

The Lord touches people in high as well as low places.  Hala is not unrealistic.  Before she died, her mother told her that God had given them the responsibility to care for her brother and sister and so they are the burden they must bear gladly.  She told her mother, yes, but that does not mean that the burden does not get heavy at times.  And she smiled.  God has faithfully cared for her through the years, protecting her, providing for her.  And at her age (65) she is as full of life, faith and joy.

Many of us think life is "hard" for us.  But we don't live in a cave nor have little income while caring for two mentally challenged siblings.   We don't face the persecution she faces for being a Christian or teaching the Bible.  I was moved in my heart to realize that many also don't have the joy that Hala has.  The secret?  Daily she lives in absolute dependence on and personal interaction with Jesus Christ.  And that makes all the difference. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

When God Touches What's Dead

This is a picture of the sun rising over the Dead Sea.  With it containing over 33% salt, there is nothing that can live there.  It receives water but nothing flows out of it.  That is why it is, dead.  It is like our lives when we have everything flow toward us and nothing flows out into the lives of others.  We become addicted to receiving rather than giving.  And the more we receive the more we "feel" we need.  And life outside of ourselves does not exist.

Along side the Dead Sea is an oasis by the name of En Gedi.  It is one of the places David hid from Saul when he was chasing him.  There is an interesting prophecy about En Gedi.  While there is life in the midst of the oasis from a fresh water spring, there is nothing that gives life to En Gedi from the sea.  Yet the prophecy of Ezekiel 47 says:

Then he led me back to the bank of the river. 7 When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. 8 He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. 9 Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. 10 Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. 11 But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. 12 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” 

This river of water is flowing from the Temple of God in Jerusalem in the future.  And when life comes from God, it transforms things that are dead and makes them alive.   So En Gedi, in the future, will be a sea-side fishing village.  Its hard to envision right now, but God says it will be that way.  There will be salty bogs nearby but where the water flowing from God goes, there will be life.

God does the same today.  When dead things are touched by God, there is life.  We may find it hard to envision people or situations different than what they are right now, but "all things are possible with God."  A friend commented on Facebook when I posted the the above picture:  Beautiful and ironic.
It is a beautiful picture that shows the glory of God.  It is ironic because my friend knows that the sea is lifeless.  But picture the future when the glory is displayed over a life-supporting sea.  And healing will come to things and people around it because of the transforming power of the Lord.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Transformed Rather than Changed

While on our recent trip the Lord showed me a difference between what we think should happen as a Christian and what truly happens when someone becomes a Christian.  Practically, it seems the basis of faith for many people is that we are basically good people and our "faith" in Christ simply helps us deal with the part that is not good.  In other words, Christ changes us so that we are acceptable to God, yes, but we are most of the way there.  I bring my goodness to God, Christ makes up the difference, and all is well.  And I count on God to bless my life and make things go well for me.

How arrogant and totally unscriptural such an attitude is.  And that is the rub.  We are aware of and want to move away from "obvious" sin.  We overlook the little things that show our sin, they are understandable human flaws.  But we miss the thing that is staring us in the face:  the inherent pride that refuses to allow us to confess that there is absolutely nothing good in us to offer God.  When Peter was following Jesus prior to the Resurrection, he was brash, and boastful.  "I will never allow that to happen to you Lord."  "I am ready to die with you."  In short time Peter denied the Lord three times and was in hiding "for fear of the Jews."  He had changed some since following Jesus. But. . .

After the Resurrection and Pentecost, Peter was transformed.  He was in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:17 "a new creation, the old is gone and the new has come."  Now he would die.  Now he would stand for Jesus no matter what.  Now he would never turn away from truth.  He was not changed, he was transformed by the power of Christ and his life was not his own. 

Transformed people love the Word of God and need to pray.  Transformed people do not see their material goods, time or very life as their own, but God's.  Transformed people gladly help others and see their life goal as sharing the love of God wherever they go.  Transformed people love to be with the people of God.  They encourage other people.  They share their story of God's faithfulness regularly.  They talk about their humble amazement at what God does rather than boasting about how much they have done for God.  They are transformed from someone they once were to someone radically made new by the power of the Spirit of God.

So, the question is, am I changed or transformed?  The old hymn stated it well:  Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Does Your Faith Cost You?

We just returned from Israel and my heart is full of many things.  The Lord stirred my spirit about personal things, ministry things, relational things.  As with any trip overseas, we have to be careful to not make blanket statements that sound like everyone and everything is included in our observations.  But I do believe what I am about to share is a good generalization of the facts.

We had the privilege of visiting with several Arab Palestinian Christians from Pastor Steven Khoury's church in East Jerusalem.  I also had the privilege of preaching in Bethlehem at First Baptist Church.  Steven's father, Naim, is the pastor there.  We spoke with people who lost family members who were killed just because they became Christians.  70% are unemployed, many because they lost their jobs because they became Christians.  A number have been ostracized by their families for their faith.  They are suspect or disliked by the Jews because they are Palestinian.  They are objects of wrath and seen as traitors by the Muslims because they are Christian and are favorable at some level to the Jews.  They are hated by the mainline religious groups because they are Evangelicals.  They have no one to stand with them except other evangelicals around the world.  For them, being a Christian is easy.  You either are or you are not but there is no in between.  To become a Christian there means either in fact or potentially losing your family ties, job or your very life.  It means all.  Christ is your life.  And they live by faith every day.
Now I think about life in the West.  What does my Christian life cost me here?  I was humbled and heart-sick over how selfish, self-centered and entitled our "faith" is in the West.  Consider these statements:  "I'm leaving the church because you changed "my service."  "Your" service?  Who are we worshiping?  Let's see, we have worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship at that service and that is a reason to leave?  "I can't attend services or read my Bible or be in a small group or give any offering because I'm too busy or financially strapped."  Really?  Did you find time to watch TV, pay for a movie or Starbucks or lottery ticket?  "I can't be too vocal about my faith because I may offend someone."  Hum?  We are to be ready always to give a reason for the hope that we have.  Our brothers and sisters in the West Bank are taking their faith into the most dangerous areas and Christ is doing the miraculous.
I came home repentant and ashamed.  Again, I don't want to throw guilt around.  That is the Holy Spirit's job.  But I am ashamed of what we call being good Christians if what I have described is used as the test.  I am asking the Lord to break us of ourselves, every bit of us, until all that is left is an absolute dependence on and need for Christ.  Then we may find what it truly means to be a Christian.