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Greetings All!

While visiting a conference in Pittsburgh, PA, two weekends ago, I picked up a new book entitled: "Grace" by Randy Alcorn.  It consists of 203 short thoughts (some just a couple of sentences long) describing the grace of God. It would make a great daily devotional, or could act as a supplement to another devotional.
     Alcorn offers many of his own insights on grace, while supporting most of them with great quotes from other contemporary and antiquated authors. I offer you seven selections (a week's worth, one for each of the next seven days) to give you a taste for what the book has to offer!  Enjoy.

"I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness 
could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing." 
                     Galatians 2:21

     "Grace never ignores the reality of sin. In fact, it emphasizes it. Paul said if men were good enough, then "Christ died for nothing." Benjamin Warfield said: "Grace is free sovereign favor for the ill-deserving."  If we don't see the reality of how ill-deserving we are, God's grace won't seem amazing. If we minimize our unworthiness, we minimize God's grace." "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..." (John Newton).
"Yet he gave a command to the skies above, 
and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained 
down manna for people to eat; he gave them the 
grain of heaven."         Psalm 78:23-24

     "Louis Cassels wrote, "If God wants you to do something, he'll make it possible for you to do it, but the grace he provides comes only with the task and cannot be stockpiled beforehand. We are dependent on him from hour to hour.  As God didn't allow the Israelites to store up manna, he doesn't let us store up grace. He always gives us enough, but we can't deposit it for the future. We have to get it fresh every day. "He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength when the labors increase; To added affliction he addeth His mercy, To multiplied trials His multiplied grace" (Annie Johnson Flint)."
"In him we have redemption through his blood, 
the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the 
riches of God's grace that he lavished on us." 
                Ephesians 1:7

     "Benjamin Jowett said, "Grace is the energy of the divine affection rolling in plenteousness toward the shores of human need."  No matter what you've done, there is no sin beyond the reach of God's grace once you have accepted Christ's offer of forgiveness. Max Lucado says, "God answers the mess of life with one word: GRACE!"  God knows everything, so no sin surprises him. He knows all our worst secrets (Psalm 69:5). No skeletons will ever fall out of our closets. Jesus will never say, "Had I known you'd done that, I'd never have let you into heaven." He's seen us at our worst and still loves us. "Are you too bad to receive grace? How could you be too bad to receive what is for the bad?"" 
"All of us have become like one who is unclean, 
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all 
shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins 
sweep us away."     Isaiah 64:6

     "For some, "human depravity" (total inability to earn our way to God) may be an insulting doctrine, but grasping it is liberating. When I realize the best I can do without God is like "filthy rags" in his sight, it finally sinks in that I have nothing to offer. Salvation, therefore, hinges on his work, not mine. What a relief!   "We could not take one step in the pursuit of holiness if God in his grace had not first delivered us from the dominion of sin and brought us into union with his risen Son. Salvation is by grace and sanctification is by grace" (Jerry Bridges)."
"Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, 
he gave it to them saying, "This is the blood of the covenant,
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." 
                     Matthew 26:27-28

     "No one deserves forgiveness. That's the whole point of grace. On the cross, Jesus experienced the Hell we deserve, so for all eternity we can experience the Heaven we don't deserve. The grace that is free for us was costly to God. But he offers it to us with a heart of infinite love. "I have come to know a God who has a soft spot for rebels, who recruits people like the adulterer David, the whiner Jeremiah, the traitor Peter, and the human-rights abuser Saul of Tarsus. I have come to know a God whose Son made prodigals... the trophies of his ministry" (Philip Yancey)." 
"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions 
and sins, in which you used to live when you followed 
the ways of this world."   Ephesians 2:1

     "You and I weren't merely sick in our sins; we were dead in our sins. That means I'm not just unworthy of salvation; I'm utterly incapable of earning it.  Corpses can't raise themselves from the grave!  What a relief to realize that my salvation is completely the result of God's grace. It cannot be earned by good works -- and therefore it can't be lost by bad ones.  Thomas Watson wrote, "[Divine] Acts of grace cannot be reversed. God blots out his people's sins, but not their names."  "If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet reconciled" (J. C. Ryle)."
"Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; 
do not worry about it... But seek his kingdom, and 
these things will be given to you as well."  Luke 12:29, 31

     "When we come to Christ, God graciously puts all his resources at our disposal. That's a dramatically uneven exchange since God has so much more than we do, and all we have comes from him in the first place.  "I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You... I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal." (John Wesley)."
     I would encourage you to take one of these entries each day for a week and give it much consideration.  Grace (of the biblical kind) may not line up with the persuasions of the world, but it is the essence of nearly all God says in His Word.  Therefore, as Spurgeon once said, "If the people do not like the doctrine of grace, give them all the more of it."
     Many blessings upon your week's contemplation of grace!
In the Service of the Gospel, Pastor Jeff


When Praying is Wrong

Greetings All,

As I was looking through the books on one of my shelves this week, a small pamphlet fell to the floor.  It was entitled, "Keys to the Deeper Life" by A. W. Tozer.  In picking it up I glanced through it and my eye came across the heading of one subsection. It was curiously called: "When Praying is Wrong."  Since most of us would be hard-pressed to think of a time when praying could possibly be wrong, I read what he had to say and decided to pass it along to you to ponder as this week's "thought."   (I have taken the liberty to update from the KJV the biblical texts he cites.) Enjoy.

When Praying is Wrong

     "Most evangelicals no longer initiate, they imitate -- and the world is their model. The holy faith of our fathers has in many places been made a form of entertainment, and the appalling thing is that all this has been fed down to the masses from the top...  The radical element in testimony and life that once made Christians hated by the world is missing from present-day evangelicalism. Christians were once revolutionaries -- moral, not political -- but we have lost our revolutionary character.  It is no longer either dangerous or costly to be a Christian. Grace has become not free, but cheap. We are busy these days proving to the world that they can have all the benefits of the gospel without any inconvenience to their customary way of life. It's "all this and heaven too." 
     This description of modern Christianity, while not universally applicable, is yet true of an overwhelming majority of present-day Christians. For this reason it is useless for large companies of believers to spend long hours begging God to send revival. Unless we intend to reform, we may as well not pray. Unless praying men have the insight and faith to amend their whole way of life to conform to the New Testament pattern, there can be no true revival.
     Sometimes praying is not only useless, it is wrong. Here is an example: Israel had been defeated at Ai, and "Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the ground on his face before the ark of the Lord until evening came; he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads."  According to our modern philosophy of revival this was the thing to do, and if it lasted long enough, should certainly have persuaded God and brought the blessing.  But, "the Lord said to Joshua, 'Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions... Go consecrate the people. Tell them, 'Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says, ' That which is devoted [to another god] is among you, O Israel.  You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove [the accursed thing] from among you."
     We must have a reformation within the Church. To beg for a flood of blessing to come upon a backslidden and disobedient Church is to waste time and effort. A new wave of religious interest will do no more than add numbers to churches that have no intention to own the Lordship of Jesus and come under obedience to His commands. God is not interested in increased church attendance unless those who attend amend their ways and begin to live holy lives. Isaiah spoke of this same thing in as well: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you, even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are full of blood. Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong and learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow..." (Isaiah 1:11-17).
     Prayer for revival will prevail when it is accompanied by radical amendment of life, 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).  We must return to New Testament Christianity, not in creed only, but in complete manner of life as well. Separation, obedience, humility, simplicity, earnestness, self-control, modesty, cross-bearing -- these all 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 the hucksters and the money changers and come fully under the authority of our risen Lord once more. And this applies to this writer, and to this magazine, as well as to everyone that names the name of Jesus. Then we can pray with confidence and expect true revival to follow."
     I needed to hear that.  The Church needs to hear that.  We all need to hear and consider it if we struggle with why God is not answering our prayers.  Grace does not mean God turns a blind eye to all sin. It means He loves His people enough to do whatever He knows is necessary to get them to consider their sins, repent for those sins, and turn from them -- even if what He must do is refuse to answer their prayers until they have turned away from them (Ezekiel 14:4-5). His will for our lives, is, after all, "our sanctification" ( I Thessalonians 4:3 / Ephesians 5:15-20 ).  And because that is His will for us, He will not relent from His work of purifying and conforming us to the likeness of Jesus -- the stated purpose for which He chose and predestined us (Ephesians 1:4-5 / Romans 8:28-30).
     Tozer's words made me do some soul-searching which led to repentance.  Maybe the Spirit has moved in you too, and you sense the need to do the same. If so, remember the words of Luke, that when we repent, "times of refreshing come from the Lord" (Acts 3:19).
In the Service of Jesus, Pastor Jeff


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


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