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2.14.2017

Solitude is the furnace of transformation

Greetings All,

     Today's "thought" is about the need for times of solitude in our lives. In our busy society, where our schedules tend to dictate nearly every moment, it becomes difficult to carve out times for solitude. Yet (and I do know I speak as an introvert) they are necessary for our spiritual formation.
     I once worked in a wilderness program up in Northern Canada dealing with inner city Chicago teens. It was rugged. One of the exercises was to drop the teens off on a small deserted Island in the middle of a huge lake, for three days, with very minimal supplies. They would need to build their own shelter, find their own food, etc.  I would check in on the boys daily (morning and evening). After they had gone the entire three days, I returned by canoe to pick up each teen. Most did well, but one boy in particular simply could not bear the three days of silence, alone time, and the complete lack of the things he normally used to distract himself from himself and the thoughts that would run through his head. What the author calls, the "confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations that jump about in one's mind like monkeys in banana tree," when we enter into solitude.  Normally he was able to block them out with music, activities, conversations, and such, but not this time.












     This thought comes to you from a book I have looked back to often since purchasing it in seminary way back in 1982.  It's called, "The Way of the Heart" by Henri Nouwen.  In a society that places very little value on the traditions of Christian contemplation, Christ-focused meditation, or purposefully prolonged times of prayerful solitude, his words act as a good counter-balance.  He shares some of the benefits of such disciplines, so I won't.  Yet I must say that when I have set aside such times, I have benefited greatly from them.  One seven day long stint in the Dominican Republic (combined with fasting) helped guide me into my future calling, and another seven day stint (with the support of my very gracious wife Nancy who realized my need to get away and be with God) saved me from leaving the pastorate back in 1992.  Enjoy.
The Furnace of Transformation

     "Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace in the wilderness. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (” I will give you all these kingdoms”). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone”). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.
     This might sound rather forbidding. It might even evoke images of medieval ascetical pursuits from which Luther and Calvin have happily saved us. But once we have given these fantasies their due and let them wander off, we will see that we are dealing here with that holy place where ministry and spirituality embrace each other. It is the place called solitude... We say to each other that we need some solitude in our lives. What we really are thinking of, however, is a time and a place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be. For us, solitude most often means privacy… In short, we think of solitude as a place where we gather new strength to continue the ongoing competition in life… [Yet] solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs…
     In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding. I have no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions, so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long and hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive – or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus, I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory.
     [Yet] the task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone… The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness. Yet Jesus “did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). That is the struggle. It is the struggle to die to the false self. But this struggle is far, far beyond our own strength. Anyone who wants to fight his demons with his own weapons is a fool. The wisdom of the desert fathers is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ. Alone, we cannot face “the mystery of iniquity” with impunity. Only Christ can overcome the powers of evil. Only in and through him can we survive the trials of our solitude… Only in the context of the great encounter with Jesus Christ himself can a real authentic struggle take place…
     We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with him and him alone. Our primary task in solitude, therefore, is not to pay undue attention to the many faces which assail us, but to keep the eyes of our mind and heart on him who is our divine Savior. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God."
     As with all things we read, merely being brought to think of the things spoken of is not enough. One benefits most by putting such suggestions into practice. As with the Word of God, it is the doers who receive the greatest benefit. I can believe with all my heart that exercise is good for the body, but if I don't get out and actually do it, it benefits me little.  Will you do a half day?  A day?  A few days? No phone, no Facebook, not Twitter, no texts, no movies, no magazines... just you and God alone in a forced time of solitude. There are few I've spoken with who have done it, who have not testified to the benefit of the time spent having to confront their compulsions, needs, insecurities, brokenness, and nothingness. For in confronting their own insignificance, they (like myself) have found it reinforces their dependence upon God and can bring us face to face with Jesus.

     With prayers that you will seriously consider this lost Christian discipline and schedule forced times of solitude,  Pastor Jeff

2.08.2017

Not A Fan Testimony

Greetings All,







Today's 'thought' comes to you once again from Kyle Idleman's book, "Not a Fan."  Interspersed throughout the book are testimonies of people who were "fans" of Jesus at one point or another in their lives, but are no longer.  They had attended church, said their prayers, put some money in the offering plate, claimed a vague belief in Jesus, and generally went through the religious motions. But then at some point in their lives realized that it had all been superficial and not real.
     In most cases -- usually as a result of going through sickness, or trauma, or addiction, or coming close to death -- that which had been superficial in their lives became real. They stopped being a "fan" of Jesus, and became a true disciple and follower of Jesus.  This is Gary Polsgrove's testimony.  He's a man Jesus brought to his knees before He put him back on his feet. Enjoy.



Not A Fan Testimony

     "Sitting in front of the judge's stand, I started to cry. I heard the judge say something about jail time, and I sobbed even harder. An officer handcuffed me and took me to jail. I spent a few days there, trying to figure out what had happened to my life. How did it come to this? I had reached the pinnacle of my career as a pilot for UPS. I had everything going for me. Having left my wife in 1993, I didn't have anyone weighing me down. I had money, girls, friends, a great job — everything a guy could want. My life was all about saying yes to myself.
     But then I got caught at work stealing airline tickets. I didn't know how much my job had meant to me until the night I was fired. When I went in that night, they didn't just take my badge - they took away my entire identity. All these years, I had let my job define me. Losing that job felt like I was dying. But just because I had lost my job didn't mean I was giving up my lifestyle. Hard-headed guys like me don't go down easily. Without a job, I started missing child support payments. They gave some warnings that I better pay up, but before being sentenced, I still thought I was untouchable. That day in court was a major wake-up call.
     After my jail time, I stayed in a halfway home. I lived out of a duffel bag. I was allowed to work, but I wasn't allowed to drive. I rode the bus all around. I ended up working at a bagel shop. Some days, I'd run into co-workers from UPS. I can't describe the shame I felt. I know what I'm about to say doesn't make any sense, but it was during this time when everything I had worked for was dead, and my old life had died, that I started to finally discover true life. With nowhere else to turn, I returned to the faith of my youth. I began praying honestly and searching for comfort in the Bible. For the first time Jesus became real to me. I started saying no to me and started saying yes to Jesus.
     Soon after leaving the halfway home, I got a great job and started climbing the corporate ladder. My success was back. But I was afraid the old me would come back, too. I wanted to make sure that the old me stayed dead. I got on my knees and asked God to guide me and I committed to living completely for him.
     These days that continues to be my prayer. Now I mentor young men at church who are looking for spiritual guidance. God managed to take my mistakes and turn them into a priceless tool for keeping the young men I mentor from making the mistakes I made. I am also working with incarcerated men. It has become my passion to bring God's hope and healing into the broken lives of these men. Only God could take that kind of mess and turn it into a message about grace and redemption. My name is Gary Polsgrove, and I am not a fan." 

     St. Augustine once said in his well-known classic "The Confessions": "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You."  I've often turned that into a prayer I pray for others who are walking aimlessly in sin, seemingly oblivious of their need for the Lord.  I've prayed for others (maybe even some of you!):  "Lord, give them no rest until they rest in you."
     To some it may at first sound "mean" to pray such a thing.  Yet if difficulty, hardships, trials and failure are what God uses to show us our desperate need for Him, and if we will never come to Him so long as we are comfortable where we are, it really is the most loving thing I could pray for any unbeliever or straying believer.  In fact, in love, I pray that for any to whom that may apply right now.

In the Bonds of Christian Affection,  Pastor Jeff 

1.31.2017

Lord, Fill Me With Your Spirit

Greetings Friends!













     Today's thought comes to you from a gentlemen named Jon Bloom, co-founder and staff-writer for desiringGod.org, a ministry most closely associated with John Piper (whose thoughts I have passed on to you before). This article was found on the desiringGod.org website.  I pass it on to you for your serious and prayerful consideration. To simply read it is one thing, but to read it and then pray in the manner he advises is another thing altogether -- and surely the author's hoped for response on any readers part.  Read. Pray.  Enjoy.


Lord, Fill Me With Your Spirit

     “The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (I Corinthians 4:20).  If we are not disillusioned with how much we have allowed our talk to pass for our walk, discontented with the sparse amount of spiritual fruit we are truly bearing, and disappointed by the impotence of our own efforts, we will never be distressed enough to really plead with God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.  If we’re not disturbed by how little we can do in our own power, we’ll never be desperate enough to ask God for his.
What Is the Filling of the Holy Spirit?
       But when we pray for this, what are we asking God for? In the words of Wayne Grudem, we are asking God for “an event subsequent to conversion in which a believer experiences a fresh infilling with the Holy Spirit that may result in a variety of consequences, including greater love for God, greater victory over sin, greater power for ministry, and sometimes the receiving of new spiritual gifts.” (Grudem 1242)  Now, of course every Christian receives the Holy Spirit upon conversion. Being born again is the greatest miracle any human being can possibly experience, and it only happens by the omnipotent power of Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8, I Corinthians 12:13).
       But the reason we talk about the filling of the Holy Spirit as “an event subsequent to conversion” is because that’s how the New Testament usually talks about it. Paul was exhorting born-again Christians when he wrote, “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). And almost all of Luke’s description of Spirit-fillings occurred to people who were already born again (see Acts 2:4, 4:8, 4:31, 9:17, 13:9, 13:52). And we’re actually talking about events (plural) because, just like the same people received repeated fillings of the Spirit in the book of Acts, we also need to be filled repeatedly. According to the New Testament, we need to be repeatedly filled with the Holy Spirit for two primary purposes: empowered worship and witness.

Intoxicated with God
     When Paul told the Ephesians Christians to “be filled with the Spirit,” he was talking about Spirit-empowered worship: "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:18-20).  Be careful as you read these verses. Don’t let your familiarity with it or your experience-based preconceptions about worship styles or other things cause you to dodge the punch the Holy Spirit intends to land here.  Paul is saying, don’t be intoxicated with alcohol, but be intoxicated with God
      His words confront each of us with the penetrating question, “Are you intoxicated with God?” Does our heart so overflow with love for God that our heart, whether light or heavy, can’t help but sing, both to God and to one another? No matter what our circumstances, are we overflowing with thanks to God?  If not, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit because we are not worshipfully enjoying God according to the grace available to us. That means we are not glorifying God as we ought, and are we not experiencing satisfaction in God like we might.

Empowered by God
     When Luke described this experience of Spirit-filling among Christians, its purpose was for Spirit-empowered witness: "And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:29-31).  Those early Christians were feeling fear from the threats of the religious authorities, the same ones who had crucified Jesus. But their response was to ask God for boldness to preach the gospel and supernatural power to minister to people. And God answered their prayer.
     Don’t let yourself be immediately distracted by popular controversies, like whether all the miraculous gifts in the New Testament continue, or some have ceased. Those questions are important in their place. But there are more fundamental questions for us here. “Are you responding to your fears of real physical threats, disapproval, or scorn with desperate prayer for God to empower you to overcome?” Are we laying hold of God until he answers? If not, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit because we are allowing fear and unbelief to gag or mute our witness to the reality and gospel of Jesus Christ. And because we are silent, people who need the gospel aren’t hearing it.

Whatever It Takes, Lord
     Here’s wonderful news: our heavenly Father loves to give his Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13)! “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:10).  Do you feel dry? Are you weary? Are you tired of talking so much about glorious theology, but not experiencing the reality of it? Does your worship feel distracted and hollow? Are you lacking in gratitude to God? Do you long for more fruit, both the internal fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:28-29) and the external fruit of empowered ministry?  Then you are a good candidate for the filling of the Holy Spirit. Your dryness and discouragement may, in fact, be invitations from God to press in to him. The desperation that comes from living with low-ebbing affections and spiritual impotence can itself be a gift from the Holy Spirit, because it's when we become disillusioned enough with our mere talk, our anemic worship, and our weak selves that we really become prepared to pray:  Whatever it takes, Lord, fill me with the Holy Spirit and any gifting you would be pleased to give me."
     As one who has been preaching and sharing the Gospel for 37 years in various capacities now, I must confess his opening words rung true.  It is because I have frequently been, "disillusioned with how much [I] have allowed [my] talk to pass for [my] walk," and have indeed been,"discontented with the sparse amount of spiritual fruit [I am] truly bearing," and have been deeply, "disappointed by the impotence of [my] own efforts," that I habitually, "plead with God to fill [me] with the Holy Spirit."  I find it impossible to think there is even one person involved in Christian ministry of any sort who does not do this. For ministering in merely human strength, and nothing else (and I know when I am), cannot help but bring bring about fruit that will not last. That's what we must eventually ask ourselves: Do we yearn for fruit that bears the stamp of a power that is not from us?  For only if we do will we confess our inability to produce it in our own strength and plead for the power of the Spirit to do through us what only he can do.  Lord show us our weakness that we may plead for your strength.
In His Service, Pastor Jeff

1.24.2017

C. S. Lewis - Faith, Christianity and the Church

Greetings All!

A post by a friend on Facebook yesterday reminded me of the wisdom of C. S. Lewis and how I have not delved into one of his books for quite some time. So, to correct such an inexcusable oversight, I decided to share this excerpt from his books, "Selected Literary Essay, De Descriptione Temporum" (#1)  and  "Letters: C.S. Lewis/Don Giovanni Calabria" (#2). Though both written in 1953, Lewis simply points out a biblical truth spoken of by both Jesus and the apostle John (Matthew 12:43-45 / I John 2:18-19). I hope one might see how it applies to our present day situation. Enjoy.

"Whereas all of history was for our [European] ancestors, divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and Christian, for us it falls into three -- the pre-Christian, Christian and what may reasonably be called the "post-Christian." This surely must make a momentous difference... [for] it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common than either has with post-Christian.  The gap between those who worship different gods is not as wide as that between those who worship and those who do not... That Europe [and I will add America] can come out of Christianity "by the same door as she went in" and find herself back where she was, is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan.  You might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce.  The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past, and therefore cut off doubly from the Pagan past..."
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     "What you (Don Giovanni) say about the present state of mankind is true; indeed, it is even worse than you say. For [present day people] not only neglect the law of Christ, but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery, perjury, theft, and other crimes which not only Christians, but the pagans and the barbarous, have themselves denounced.  They err who say "the world is turning pagan again." I wish that it were!  The truth is that we are falling into a much worse state.  "Post-Christian man" is not the same as "pre-Christian man."  He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow...
    Regarding the moral condition of our times (since you bid me prattle on) I think this: Older people, as we both are, are always "praisers of times past." They always think the world is worse than it was in their younger days. Therefore we ought to take care lest we go wrong.  But with that proviso, certainly I feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the apostasy of the great part of Europe [and America, I might add] from the Christian faith.
     Hence we are in a worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state they were in before Christianity, but a worse state; the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulterous. For faith perfects nature, but faith lost corrupts nature. Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light, but also the natural light which pagans possessed.
     But God, who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. In younger people, although we may see much cruelty and lust, yet at the same time do we not see very many sparks of virtues which perhaps our own generation lacked? How much courage, how much concern for the poor do we see!  We must not despair. And (among us) a not inconsiderable number are now returning to the Faith." 
     I have seen what Lewis (and Jesus) are speaking about. The "pagan," be that person polytheistic or monotheistic, has some semblance of a code of virtues based on that belief in a divine being.  It's a pre-Christian similarity to the Christian faith which makes the true pagan open to the teachings of Jesus.  In fact, the pagan who is attracted to Christianity is generally drawn to it because he is moved by the hope he sees for redemptive change.
     But the disillusioned post-Christian is not in that category. The post-Christian has turned against the Christian faith and frequently becomes hostile to it. This is a group which has as some of it's most avid adherents, those raised in the church (or those who simply tasted of the cultural aspects of Christianity, without ever truly embracing Christ) and found mere Christian moralism lacking or unloving.  Such a person often refuses to even entertain the thought that Christianity can bring about positive change. Their nominal associations with the faith, as the old saying goes, gives them "an ax to grind."   Some of the most anti-Christian people I've ever met are not unbelieving pagans, but those who "went out from us" (I John 2:19). They were people who were somehow connected to the Church and found it lacking.  Yet as John goes on to point out:  "They did not really belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. Their going out showed that none of them belonged to us"  (I John 2:19b).
     Unlike the pagan who still has the hope of change, they have turned against any hope in redemptive change, and in losing it, feel the grace of Jesus is ineffective.  And when one gives up on redemptive change, they resort to other methods to bring about change -- including the use of power -- which is often aimed at the church to demean or suppress it.  (And yes, I am well-aware that earnest Christian people impatient for change, have also fallen prey to the use of power instead of grace). Which brings us to another insight of Lewis: "The descent to hell is easy, and those who begin by worshipping power soon worship evil."  May that never be true of us!
     Just some food for thought.

In the Service of Jesus, Pastor Jeff