Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You're In Our Prayers.. REALLY?

Dear Friends,

“You’re in our prayers.” Really? Do we mean that? Or has this become just a nice thing for us to say when someone is struggling over something? Have you noticed that the official politically-correct, government-approved platitude following a tragedy is that those who have suffered a loss “..are in our thoughts and prayers”? For corporations and public entities, these words have become standard language on press releases and are uttered with seeming sincerity at press conferences. 

Okay. Call me cynical and maybe I am because for twenty five years I was a State and then a City employee. So I’ve worked in the government sausage factory and I know what gets ground into the product that’s fed to the public. It goes without saying that the mayor and heads of the police and fire departments don’t adjourn the press conference and go to the government chapel to pray. The insincere press release cliche that those suffering are in their collective “thoughts and prayers” is to convey their human side and impart the message that they truly care about people while their underlying intent is to exploit every tragedy for self-serving reasons; typically to increase a department budget. (I know that sounds harsh but it's unfortunately true. Many government employees do sincerely care. But government has an ingrained culture that is constantly striving to spin information for political purposes.)

As Christians, when we tell someone that they are “in our prayers,” has that now become a meaning-less religiously-correct, church-approved response in order to make someone feel better? Have the words “I’ll pray for you,” become just a cliche that we automatically say to someone who is struggling or suffering? Do we “spin” our response to a person in a self-serving way and just tell them that we’re praying for them so that we will look more spiritual?  And, be honest here.. stop for a moment and look at the cartoon. Raise your hand if you’ve ever done that...

Some of us struggle with prayer. I recently read that the greatest difficulty in most believer’s Christian walk is their prayer life. Why is that? Is it because we have the wrong kind of faith? 

Everyone lives by faith. Christian, Atheist, Jew, Buddhist – all live by faith. The word faith comes from a Greek word meaning to have belief or confidence in something. We all believe in some thing. But are we believing in the wrong thing? We can believe that our prayer is meaningless. We have faith that prayer doesn’t work. We have a confidence that other people have “Godpower” in their prayers and our own prayers are spiritually hollow and ineffective.

Or do we have faith that prayer is the medium through which our spirit is intended to affect and by affected by the will and purpose of the divine Creator? Do we have faith that when we are obedient to God’s will, and pray accordingly, God will grant that prayer request? “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.” 1 John 5:14-15 

If the Word of God really is true and the “whole-hearted prayers of righteous men and women accomplish much good,” (James 5:16 - my paraphrase) then why in Heaven’s name wouldn’t we pray for those who have been given to us by God? When we say, “I’ll pray for you” let’s make sure that’s always a promise and never a platitude. Amen? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why Should I Go To Church?

Dear Friends,

Four years ago, it was out of the ashes of a denomination’s decision to dissolve and scatter our church that New Hope Family Church was born. Praise the Lord for that! This Sunday, February 24th, we come together in a time of joyous celebration for His grace at the time of our need. When we packed up our “tabernacle” and moved, the cloud of the glory of the Lord – the Shekinah – moved right along with us. This Sunday will be a special service of praise and thanksgiving and I hope you all will be there to celebrate with us.

So, why is church still important in our fast-paced, energized, digitalized world? I can turn on the television or any web-connected device and live-stream services of Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Charles Stanley and other church superstars. So why do I need to sit through a sermon at a church? I can download music from the top worship bands in America’s mega-churches, so why do I need to listen to amateur worship singers in church? I can interact with other Christians online, so why do I need to spend time with a bunch of people at church? In this day and age, isn’t church just a quaintly old-fashioned tradition that’s on its way out?

I read a message from a person who wrote, “Frankly I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and the listening?”

The writer of that letter is a “spectator” in a main-line church and I understand the point she is making and why she feels that way. She attends her church as she attends any class, lecture, movie or concert – as a spectator who expects to be taught something that will be of value to her or to be entertained. At church, she passively sits, looks, listens and then wonders why she’s there. 

I’ll be the first one to admit that it really is pointless to attend church if you’re only a spectator. But God calls us into His Kingdom not to be a spectator but to be a participator. The Christian faith is both God’s offer of His love to us through Jesus Christ and our active response to that love. We respond to Him with our worship and praise. We respond to God’s love by simply doing the things that we do for Him because He is God. We are called to worship and glorify God and love Him forever.

What is the purpose in getting up on a Sunday and setting aside all other things in order to go to church? Why do we dress up and look nice? Why do we sing and clap and raise our hands and pray and stand and kneel and shed tears and confess and take His Body and Blood? Because we love Him. 

Why do we intercede in prayer for each other and carry their burdens? Why do we mark our calendars to remind us that a brother or sister has something that day that needs our prayer covering? Why do we send each other thoughtful notes and get well cards? Why do we volunteer to do the “hospitality” and spend a good portion of our weekly food budget to prepare a meal for each other? Because we love our neighbor as an expression of our love for Christ.

Why do we go to church? To participate! The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” Whether our liturgy is high church, low church, Catholic or Pentecostal, what takes place in our service that brings glory to God is not just the work of the pastor, it’s the work of the people. 

It is through your active participation in our quaintly old-fashioned church service that we glorify God. So, if you’d like to drop by next Sunday, I’ll see if I can find something for you to do... Amen?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Too Many Sinners

Dear Friend,

I want you to know that this week’s AMEN Corner is very different from the ones that you may have read before. I’ve seen something in our church that I want to talk with you about and I need to keep this just between you and me. I’ve been feeling like I needed to talk with someone about this and you are the only one I know that I can trust to keep this confidential. Okay, I know what you’re thinking! But I wrote two AMEN Corners this week. Everyone else got some sappy sentimental thing I wrote about loving each other on Valentine’s Day (that’s the AMEN corner with the cute heart graphic). You are the only one getting this special AMEN Corner because it’s all those other people in our church that I wanted to talk with you about.

What I’ve been noticing lately is that our little church is filled with sinners. A few months back, a visitor brought the youngest sinner we’ve had. I know it looked innocent enough in its mother’s arms. They are all cute and cuddly at that age but they are the most selfish and self-centered people in our congregation. That little sinner woke up and cried out for attention without any concern for the rest of us who were engaging in an important religious activity. For awhile we had some sinners who were a few years older. Do you remember the children who had the impudence to be running around the fellowship hall, having fun and laughing while us adults were trying to enjoy our lunch?

I’ve noticed some sinners come into our church looking penitent and reflective on Sunday morning. Who knows what they’ve been doing during the past week. What movies or television shows they watched. What they said that hurt a loved one. What their thoughts were that they would be ashamed to admit to anyone else. They know they have sinned in thought, word and deed – and that was just in the car on the way to church!

You’re pretty observant like me so you probably noticed like I do that some of the sinners who attend our church come in happy and lighthearted without a care in the world as if sin was the furthest thing from their minds. They look very respectable and proper – even a bit saintly. Yeah. Sure! They don’t fool you or me for a moment! Some of the sinners at NHFC come in early so that they can get the good pews in the back and some come in late and have to sit up front. Some are older and some are younger. Some women and some men. Some who have money and some who scrape by on pennies. Short, tall, heavy and thin. What unites them is that they are all sinners.

And the most amazing thing of all – and I know you’re going to agree with me about this – is that the guy in our church that they call “pastor”?  He’s really the “chief sinner” of them all! That’s what the Apostle Paul called himself, but let me tell you that Paul was an angel compared with our pastor!

But I guess one thing I’m glad about is that our church is not like some others I’ve attended. I went to one church where everyone had to be a saint. The pastor was the chief saint and he expected us to be like him. I remember talking to a man who had to leave the church because he smoked. Then there was the guy who was asked to leave after he told the pastor he was gay. There was the family who was kicked out after their unmarried daughter became pregnant. Sinners were not allowed in that church and since I was in ministry leadership I had to pretend to be a saint like everyone else did.

If the truth be told, I really fit best in a church with other sinners who are seeking God’s forgiveness. No matter what I’ve done or have failed to do, when the prayer of confession is said before receiving Communion, and I can say “amen,” I feel the burden lift and I know that God has forgiven me. I know that Jesus came into the world to save sinners like me. (1 Tim 1:15) I know that Jesus called disciples like Peter, Matthew, John and the others who were sinners just like me. Jesus even got Himself into trouble for eating and drinking with sinners just like me. (Matthew 9:11-13). And then Jesus gave His own life for sinners like me...

Thank you for letting me ramble on and please remember to keep this all confidential. This has been very helpful for me. I like our church better now that I’ve been able to talk with you about this today. It helps when I realize that I can go to our church and I don’t have to pretend to be a saint when God knows that I’m a sinner saved by grace.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The People vs God ~ Part Two

Dear Friends,

Last week we looked at the growing influence that the secular Humanist movement has had on the liberal church movement in America. Humanism says that there is no external standard to live by. A person lives according to what they believe is the right thing to do. Seeing this relativistic influence in the liberal church movement, we can better understand why it embraces modern culture and reacts negatively to the conservative Evangelical church.

We looked at Theism – that God and His Word is the external standard by which we live. Because orthodox theist beliefs are in the foundation of the conservative Evangelical church, we can under-stand more clearly why it embraces historical orthodox doctrine and reacts so negatively to the liberal church and to our Nation’s increasing move toward a culture of humanism.

Between the liberal and conservative churches therein lies the tension between “action and deed” versus “belief and creed.” The conservative Evangelical church can certainly err in the direction of their “orthodoxy” which means correct doctrine. We can get swept up in the nuances of theology and engage in intellectual discussions that are worthy of the ancient Greek philosophers. But, when we become too focused on the doctrine and ignore the doing, we may forget that at the very core of our faith, we are first and foremost to love God and love our neighbors. Jesus said  “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26) and James said, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only... Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 1:22; 2:22.)

The error of the liberal church movement can be in their emphasis of “orthopraxy” which means correct practice or activity. That can look like a focus on the correct ritual in liturgy with de-emphasis on sound doctrine. In fact, we see that their focus on affirming current cultural practices has resulted in a dismantling of historical doctrine. They are taking the unchanging Word of God and changing it to be more pleasing to a secular world. To make mainline churches more “user-friendly,” liberal denominations are denying the atonement and embracing universalism – all are saved no matter what you believe. They are denying or significantly diminishing the virgin birth of Jesus, the deity of Jesus and His resurrection.

It should come as no surprise that membership in the liberal mainline churches has been rapidly declining. Paul warned that bad doctrine will lead to disaster. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4.)

What is “doctrine”? Acts 2:42 tells us that the first Christian church, “..continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine.” The Greek word translated into “doctrine” is didaskalia and means teaching, precept, proposition. And we need to get that right! If we don’t, we are being led by human fables instead of by God’s Word.

I am unapologetically a Theist. I am a conservative Evangelical Christian. Correct doctrine is important to me. I need to look past my own filters, assumptions and church traditions and be constantly asking myself: is this doctrine Reformational? Is it Evangelical? Is it Historic? And is it Classic Christianity? Good theology will always echo the divine Word of God as faithfully and as truthfully as it can.

Sound theology (orthodoxy) leads us to the right combination of doxology and devotion – meaning the praise of God and the practice of godliness. We need to be grounded in solid doctrine, but then  we need  to get out of our head and into our heart. We were created to not just have an under-standing of God, but to have a robust, constant, devoted, joyful, loving, dedicated, awestruck and passionate relationship with God.   Amen?