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A Godward Life

Greetings All,

     This week's "thought" comes to you from John Piper and is found in his book, "A Godward Life."  This selection speaks of the extraordinary gifts of a man named Charles Haddon Spurgeon -- a man who has been called by many, "The Prince of Preachers," or "the best preacher that ever lived."

     After reading of his life accomplishments, it's nearly impossible for any pastor not to envy -- even though the 10th Commandment forbids that!  Yet, even though what Piper shares about Spurgeon's amazing life relate to his work in the pastorate, the things we can learn from our reaction to his accomplishments can apply to anyone we admire who is extraordinarily gifted. Thus I offer it to you for your consideration. Enjoy.

"Mountains Are Not Meant to Be Envied"
 Awed Thoughts on Charles Spurgeon
     "... If you try to make a Minnesota hill imitate a mountain, you will make a fool of your hill.  Hills have their place too. So do the Nebraska plains. If the whole world were mountains, where would we grow wheat for bread? Every time you eat bread say, "Thank God for Nebraska!"
     I'm talking about Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I am warning my wavering self he is not to be imitated.  Spurgeon preached as a Baptist pastor in London from 1854 until 1891 -- thirty-eight years of ministry in one place. He died January 31, 1892, at the age of fifty-seven. His collected sermons fill sixty-three volumes equivalent to the twenty-seven volume edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and stand as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity.  He read six books a week and could remember what was in them and where [on one occasion quoting both the page and paragraph where a quote was found]. He read Pilgrim's Progress more than 100 times.
     He added 14,460 people to his church membership and did almost all the membership interviews himself. He could look out on a congregation of 5,000 and name the members. He founded a pastor's college and trained almost 900 men during his pastorate. Spurgeon once said he had counted as many as eight sets of thoughts that passed through his mind at the same time while he was preaching. He often prayed for his people during the very sermon he was preaching to them.  He would preach for 40 minutes at 140 words per minute from a small sheet of notes that he had worked up the night before. The result? More than twenty-five thousand copies of his sermons were sold each week in twenty-seven languages, and someone was converted each week through the written sermons.

     Spurgeon was married and had two sons (twins) who both became pastors. His wife Susannah (who died the same year as Charles, though three years older) was an invalid most of her life and rarely heard him preach. He founded an orphanage (funded mainly through the sales of his sermons), started a home for poor widows, edited a magazine, and produced more than 140 other books (three of which sold over 1,000,000 copies and one of which is still a best-seller). He responded to 500 letters a week and often preached ten times a week in various churches as well as his own. He suffered from gout, rheumatism and Bright's disease, and in the last twenty years of his ministry, he was so sick that he missed a third of the Sunday's at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. He was a politically liberal and conservative Calvinistic Baptist who smoked cigars, spoke his mind, believed in hell, and wept over the perishing, ten's of thousands of whom were saved through his soul-winning passion....
     What shall we make of such a man?  Neither a god nor a goal. He should not be worshiped or envied. He is too small for one and too big for the other. If we worship such men we are idolaters. If we envy them we are fools. Mountains are not meant to be envied. They are meant to be marveled at for the sake of their Maker. They are the mountains of God. More than that, without envy, we are meant to climb into their minds and hearts and revel in what they saw so clearly and what they felt so deeply. We are to benefit from them without craving to be them. When we learn this, we can relax and enjoy them. Until we learn it, they may make us miserable, because they highlight our weaknesses. Well, we are weak, and to be reminded of it is good. But we also need to be reminded that, compared with our inferiority to God, the distance between us and Spurgeon is nothing. We are all utterly dependent on our Father's grace.
     Spurgeon had his sins. That may comfort us in our weak moments. But let us rather be comforted that his greatness was a free gift of God -- to us as well as to him. Let us be, by the grace of God, all that we can be for the glory of God (I Corinthians 15:10). In our smallness, let us not become smaller by envy, but rather, larger by humble admiration and gratitude for the gifts of others. Do not envy the mountain, glory in its Creator.  You'll find the air up there cool, fresh and invigorating and the view stunning beyond description. So don't envy. Enjoy!" 

     There are few preaching pastors who did not study Spurgeon, and of those that did, probably most have coveted some of the many gifts he had or the things he was able to do.
     He had preached 600 times before he was 20 and had such a booming voice he once preached to a crowd of 23,654 people with no microphone or amplification.  He had a photographic memory, pastored the largest independent congregation in the world in his day, and was not tempted by money, giving most of it away to charity or missions. He worked 18 hours a day, had an uncanny ability to paint pictures with words, came up with phenomenal illustrations from everyday life on a regular basis (many of which I have used), and would frequently ask his members NOT to come to church the next Sunday so that the lines of visitors who waited outside each week might be able to get in to have a seat.
     Yes, it's easy to envy or want to be like Spurgeon (I have often)!  But that would be to question God's sovereignty. That would be to forget that God makes each person just as he desires, not that we may wish we were someone other than who we are, but that we might praise His wisdom and be content to simply be who he's made us to be -- weaknesses and all. The giants of the faith are there to inspire us, and we can thank God for their example. But they can actually be a distraction and cause us harm if we end up idolizing them and lamenting us.  God gives us mountains to admire, not imitate, for as Piper points out, the rolling hills and the flat plains have their particular purposes too! 

In the Bonds of Christian Charity, Pastor Jeff


Prayer, Finding the Heart's True Home

Greetings All!

     This week's "thought" is about prayer - simple, awkward, unrehearsed, and often bumbling prayer.  The stage of prayer we must all go through. The stage of prayer we can even feel guilty or embarrassed about (simple and self-centered as we realize our prayers sound after the words have come out of our mouths)!  Yet, as Richard Foster will assure us in this selection, taken from his book, "Prayer, Finding the Heart's True Home," it is a stage that cannot be avoided. And to our surprise, one we may need to return to.  So, whether you are one who has rarely rayed and would like to learn how to pray, or consider yourself to be a seasoned "prayer warrior," this book is helpful, instructive and practical.  This thought comes to you from the very first chapter on, "Simple Prayer" or "Beginning Prayer."  Enjoy.

"Pray as you can, not as you can't."
Dom Chapman

     "We yearn for prayer and hide from prayer... We believe prayer is something we should do, even something we want to do, but it seems like a chasm stands between us and actually praying... We are not quite sure what holds us back. Of course, we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love. No, there is something deeper and more profound keeping us in check... It is the notion -- almost universal among us modern high-level achievers -- that we have to do everything "just right" in order to pray. That is, before we can really pray, our lives need some fine tuning, or we need to know more about how to pray, or we need to study the philosophical questions surrounding pray, or we need to have a better grasp of the great traditions of prayer. And on and on it goes.  It isn't that these are wrong concerns, or there is never a time to deal with them. But our problem is that we assume prayer is something to master the way we master algebra or auto mechanics. Something that puts us in the "on-top" position, where we are competent and in control...
     I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray. I would examine what I had just prayed and think to myself, "How utterly foolish and self-centered; I can't pray this way!" And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure... But the practical effect of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray. The truth of the matter is we all come to prayer with a tangled mess of motives -- altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live in it as well. And we pray by it (Ephesians 2:1-10, Romans 5:2, Romans 8:26-27).
     Jesus [in the Lord's Prayer] reminds us that prayer is a little like children coming to their parents. Our children come to us with the craziest requests at times!  Often we are grieved by the meanness and selfishness in their requests, but we would be all the more grieved if they never came to us at all.  We are simply glad they do come -- mixed motives and all. This is precisely how it is with prayer. We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly.  We must simply set all these concerns aside and begin praying. In fact, it is in the very act of prayer itself -- the intimate, ongoing interaction with God -- that these matters are cared for in due time. 
     What I am trying to say is that God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are. In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.  So we are brought to the most basic, the most primary form of prayer -- Simple Prayer -- where we bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all. Like children before a loving father, we open our hearts and make our requests. We do not try to sort things out, the good from the bad. We simply and unpretentiously share our concerns and make our petitions. We tell God, for example, how frustrated we are with the co-worker at the office or the neighbor down the street. We ask for food, favorable weather, and good health. In a very real sense, WE are the focus of simple prayer. Our needs, our wants, and our concerns dominate our prayer experience. Our prayers are shot through with plenty of pride, conceit, vanity, pretentiousness, haughtiness, and general all-around egocentricity.  No doubt there is also magnanimity, generosity, unselfishness, concern for others and universal goodwill. 
     We make mistakes -- lots of them. We sin; we fall down, often -- but each time we get up and begin again. We pray again. We seek to follow God again. And again our insolence and self-indulgence defeat us. Never mind.  We confess and begin again... and again... and again... In "Simple Prayer" the good, the bad and the ugly are all mixed together... Abraham prayed this way, as did Joseph, Joshua, Hannah, David, Gideon, Ruth, Peter, James, John and a host of other biblical luminaries. Simple Prayer involves ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father. We do not pretend to be more holy than we are, more pure, or more saintly than we actually are. We do not try to conceal our conflicting and contradictory motives from God -- or ourselves. And in this posture, we pour out our heart to the God who is greater than our heart and knows all things (I John 3:20).
     Jesus calls us to Simple Prayer when he urges us to ask for our daily bread. As John Dalrymple rightly observes, "We never outgrow this kind of prayer, because we never outgrow the needs that give rise to it." There is a temptation, especially by the "sophisticated," to despise this most elementary way of praying. They seek to skip over Simple Prayer in the hopes of advancing to more "mature" expressions of prayer. They smile at the egotistical asking, asking, asking, of so many. Grandly they speak of avoiding "self-centered prayer" in favor of "others-centered prayer."  But what these people fail to see, however, is that Simple Prayer is necessary, even essential, in the spiritual life. The only way we move beyond "self-centered prayer" (if indeed we ever do) is by going through it, not by making a detour around it... When we pray, genuinely pray, the real condition of our heart is revealed. This is as it should be. This is when God truly begins to work with us. The adventure is just beginning."
     I love to hear new believers pray. They often pause searching for the right word, don't use flowery language, and say exactly what comes to their mind (that is, if they are thankfully freed from feeling the need to try to impress others). To me, there are few things more beautiful than getting to listen in on a new-born Christian's first attempt to speak with their Savior. It's like listening to my grandchildren (when they were two and three) praying at the table before dinner!  Who could not love it despite the odd nature of many of their requests!?  So with the adult who has recently come to Christ, Simple Prayer is a phase one must go through, not seek to avoid. They can do no other because they know no other.  And to encourage them to pretend to be what they're not, kills true prayer in its beginnings. We learn more about ourselves (and thus grow) by hearing what comes out of our mouths and hearts when we pray, than being told by others what should be coming out of them. 
     When I was first asked (as a new Christian) to pray with others, I refused.  I didn't know what to pray, or how to pray, or what to pray for. I didn't know what was selfish or non-selfish, the right things to pray for or the wrong things to pray for -- so I didn't pray at all.  Yet I thank God they were persistent, for I did finally consent, and have come to cherish praying with others. (Though I must confess they did have to first assure me they would not judge me if I said something "wrong," or said it the "wrong way," or stumbled over my words, or used no "thee's" or "Thous" or other fancy religious words or phrases -- and they didn't -- or if they did, it never came out of their mouths!)

In His Service, Pastor Jeff


12 Quotes that Touches the Heart

Greetings All,

Today's "thoughts" are a little different than most weeks.  Today, as I was glancing through my Bible, my eye focused on some of the quotes I had written into the side columns and empty page spaces over the last 30 years or so. They are thoughts that obviously touched my heart in some way or I would not have taken the time to pen them into those spaces. Thus I offer you 12 of the many I have written there. I do not know what books some of these came from, but in the cases where I do, I give the reference.  I trust one or two may touch your heart as well.  In fact, if one happens to do so, just out of curiosity, let me know!  Enjoy.
     "God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me. If I ask anything less, I know I shall continue to want. Only in you, I have everything." 
Lady Julian of Norwich

     "Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all." 
Isaac Watts, Celebration Hymnal

     "A loud cry in the ears of God is that burning love of the soul that cries out: "My God and my love, You are all mine, and I am all Yours." Deepen your love in me, O Lord. Let your love possess me and raise me above myself with a fervor and wonder beyond imagination.  Let me sing the song of love. Let my soul spend itself in your praise, rejoicing in your love."
Thomas A'Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

"Oh, Lord!  If I worship you from fear of hell, burn me in hell; 
and if I worship you form hope of paradise, exclude me from it.
But if I worship you for your own sake -- 
then withhold not from me your eternal beauty." 

     "There was once in man [before the Fall] a true happiness, of which there now remains to him only an empty trace which he vainly tries to fill with things from his environment. Yet all these efforts are inadequate, for the infinite abyss can only be filled with an infinite and immutable object, that is, by God Himself."
Blaise Pascal, Pensees

     "The saint has spiritual joy and pleasure by a kind of effusion of God upon the soul. In these things the redeemed have communion with God; that is, they partake with Him and of Him." 
Jonathan Edwards,  On Knowing God

     "We must return to New Testament Christianity, not in creed only, but in complete manner of life as well.  Holiness, obedience, humility, simplicity, earnestness, self-control, modesty and cross-bearing must again be made a living part of the total Christian concept and be carried out in everyday conduct. We must cleanse the temple of hucksters and moneychangers and come fully under the authority of our risen Lord once again."
A. W. Tozer

     "Prayer for revival will prevail when it is accompanied by a radical amendment of life and not before. All night prayer meetings that are not preceded by practical repentance may actually be displeasing to God -- to obey is better than sacrifice [I Samuel 15:22]...  God is not interested in increased church attendance unless those who attend amend their ways and begin to live a holy life [Isaiah 1:10-20]."
A. W. Tozer

     "As grace is at first from God, so it is continually from Him and is maintained by Him... Men are dependent on the power of God for every exercise of grace, for carrying on that work in the heart, for subduing sin and corruption, for increasing holy principles, and enabling us to bring forth fruit in every good work."
Jonathan Edwards, from the sermon, "God Glorified in Man's Dependence." 

     "Can one be spiritually content apart from the continual experience of the divine presence? Can one be a true Pilgrim without a passionate yearning for the Divine Reality?" 

     "Strength and struggle go together. The supreme reward of struggle is strength. Life is a battle and the greatest joy is to overcome. The pursuit of easy things makes men weak. It is in following the path of least resistance that makes both rivers and men crooked."
Ralphe Parlette 

     "A leader is a person who, on a large scale, is able to rise above their own fears and anxieties and so succeed in changing the world. They can work for years at their purposes, but they also have to have something absolutely mold their vision. What is not before their eyes must be more real to them than what is. When people have a vision of what they want to do and are willing to accept torture, danger, difficulty, anxiety, instability, insecurity and even death, then they are leaders. And if they are successful, then that certifies it." 
Norman Mailer, TV Interview  (Mailer originally used the word "hero" in place of "leader.")

In the Service of Jesus, Pastor Jeff


God in the Whirlwind

Greetings All,

     Today I would like to do something I have never done before -- re-post a "thought" I posted almost two years ago.  It is by David F. Wells, a gracious man I have both met and spoken with.  He was a professor at Gordon-Conwell, a prolific writer, a rigorous researcher, and a profound thinker committed to pursuing and understanding truth. His book, from which I have taken this excerpt, is entitled: "God in the Whirlwind."
     I share it because recently I have been looking at figures regarding the current state of the Church/Christianity in America, and I have sought to understand "why"?  Figures like, 4000-7000 churches are closing their doors every year.  Figures that tell us that 70.6 Americans identify themselves as Christian while less than 20% ever actually go to church.  Figures that show that at the turn of the last century (1900) there were approximately 27 churches for every 10,000 people, but at the turn of this century (2000), there were only 11 churches for every 10,000 people.  Or the recent Barna study which found that only two in every 10 Americans under the age of 30 believe attending church is either important or worthwhile.
     Some of this disillusionment is surely the fruit of scandals that have rocked the church - both evangelical and Catholic - which eroded people's confidence in organized religion. That must obviously be said. Yet in this thought, Dr. Wells hits on a few other significant issues that have led to such statistics. I found them helpful. I trust you may as well. Enjoy.

     "Many therapists are now finding that although young people grew up in good homes, had all they wanted, went on to college, and (perhaps) entered the workplace, they are nevertheless baffled by the emptiness they feel. Their self-esteem is high but their self is empty. They grew up being told they could be anything they wanted to be, but they do not know what they want to be. They are more connected to more people through the internet, and yet they have never felt more lonely. They want to be accepted, and yet they often feel alienated. Never have we had so much; never have we had so little. That is our paradox...
     On the one hand, the experience of abundance, of seemingly unlimited options, of opportunity, of ever-rising levels of affluence, almost inevitably produces an attitude of entitlement. Each successive generation, until recently, has assumed it will do better than the previous generation... It is not difficult to see how this sense of entitlement naturally carries over into our attitude toward God and his dealings with us. It is what leads us to think of him as a cheerleader who only wants our success. He is a booster, an inspiring coach, a source of endless prosperity for us...  Purveyors of the health-and-wealth "gospel" that is being exported from the West to the underdeveloped parts of the world, seem quite oblivious to the fact that their take of Christian faith is rooted in this kind of experience. Had they not enjoyed Western medical expertise and Western affluence, it is rather doubtful that they would have thought that Christianity is all about being healthy and wealthy. At least in the church's long, winding journey through history, we have never heard anything exactly like this before...
     And while it is the case that we moderns have had this experience of plenty, it also the case -- and this is the other side of the paradox -- that our experience of plenty is accompanied by the experience of emptiness and loss. We carry within us many deficits -- a sense of life's harshness, frustrations at work, bruised and broken relationships, shattered families, inability to sustain enduring friendships, lack of a sense of belonging in this world and a sense that this world is vacant and hostile.  So we look to God for some internal balm, some relief from these wounds. We become inclined to think of God as our Therapist. It is comfort, healing, and inspiration that we want most deeply. That is what we seek from him. That, too, is what we want most from our church experience.  We want it to be comforting, uplifting, inspiring, and easy on the mind. We do not want Sunday (or perhaps Saturday evening) to be another workday, another burden, something that requires effort and concentration. We already have enough burdens and struggles, enough things to concentrate on in our workweek. On the weekend, we want relief.
     It is not difficult to see, then, how this two-sided experience, this paradox, has shaped our understanding of God... It is the end product of at least two closely related mega-changes that have been underway in our culture since at least the 1960's.  FIRST, in our minds, we have exited the older moral world in which God was transcendent and holy, and we have entered a new psychological world in which he is only immanent and only loving. This is the framework in which we now understand everything.   SECOND, we are now thinking of ourselves in terms, not of human nature, but of the self. And the self is simply an internal core of intuitions. It is the place where our own unique biography, gender, ethnicity, and life-experience all come together in a single center of self-consciousness. And every self is unique because no one has exactly the same set of personal factors.  It is no surprise that we are now inclined to see life, to understand what is true, to think of right and wrong, in uniquely individual ways. We each have our own perspective on life, and its meaning, and each perspective is as valid as any other. And none of it is framed by absolute moral norms.
     This is where the overwhelming majority of Americans live... And out of this has come what Philip Rieff has called "psychological man." This is the person who is stripped of all reference points outside of him or herself. There is no moral world, no ultimate rights and wrongs, and no one to whom he or she is accountable. This person's own interior reality is all that counts, and it is untouched by any obligation to community, or understanding from the past, or even by the intrusions of God from the outside. The basis on which lives are being built is that there is nothing outside the self on which they can be built. And this self wants only to be pleased. It sees no reason to be saved. This is therapeutic deism, where morals are self-focused and self-generated... 
     The institutional aspect of the Christian faith, the church, came to be viewed with skepticism. Credence was given instead to what is internal. Not to church doctrine, which others had formulated. Not to church authority.  Indeed, not to any external authority at all.  Rather, it is in private intuitions that God is found... Here were the seeds that by the end of the 1990's had produced throughout the West millions of people who were spiritual but not religious. In both America and Europe, around 80 percent said they were spiritual, but were decidedly hostile to all religions. They were opposed to doctrines they were expected to believe, rules they had to follow, and churches they were expected to attend. They resisted each of these... The impulses that began in the 1960's had by the 90's become dominant... Robert Nisbit in his book, "Twilight of Authority" says, "Across the board, given our self-preoccupation and our total self-focus, there is a retreat from what is important to the community to what is important only to the individual, from the weighty to the ephemeral, from others to ourselves"...
     There come those times in a nation's life, Os Guinness has written, when its people rise up against the founding principles of their own nation. This is one of those times in America. It is far more dangerous than any terrorist attack. It is, in fact, "a free people's suicide," as Guinness put it in the title of his book.  Why? Because what holds the republic together has never been simply the Constitution and our laws. The law is an exceedingly blunt instrument when it comes to controlling human behavior. There are many things that are unethical that are not illegal. Most lying, for example, is not illegal but it is always unethical. Our criminal and civil laws can control only so much of our behavior.  It is virtue that does the rest.  And that is precisely what is being eroded in this self-oriented, self-consumed culture.  Here is the acid that is eating away at the nation's foundations, degrading objective values, uprooting older customs, and leaving people with no clear sense of purpose and, indeed, no purpose at all other than their own self-interest.  Under the postmodern sun, everyone has a right to their own version of reality. When this comes about, any culture loses its ability to renew its own life." 
     I share this not to be pessimistic. God is not bound by our statistics or cultural trends.  I share it as a way of asking the one question that always confronts the Church in any such situation -- how will we respond?  What will we do?  Our society (even the world) seems to be at a turning point. You can feel it in the air. Yet it lacks a consensus (a "common sense" regarding the core truths of life). And thus we must ask what will hold it together as the tension of conflicting ideologies threaten to tear it apart?
     Obviously, I don't have all the answers.  But I have been praying.  Praying for wisdom.  Praying for compassion.  Praying for the Church and the world we all live in. Praying for the Spirit of Jesus to fill human hearts and replace all the hostile rhetoric.  Praying for a Church that often seems more captive to culture and political allegiances than to Christ to get back to her roots of trusting in the power of the Gospel to redeem and fill people's hearts with love -- even for those they disagree with. In fact, even for their enemies, as Jesus made so clear in Matthew 5:44, where He laid that out as one of the defining characteristics of someone who claimed to be a disciple that bore His name. Praying all the more earnestly for divine intervention every day - as one who believes the self must be built -- for it is deeply reliant, whether it admits it or not -- on things outside itself.

Just some food for thought!  Pastor Jeff