Thursday, December 20, 2012

Year End Letter of Gratitude

December 20, 2012

Dear Church Family,
As we near the end of this year, I invite you to reflect with me for just few moments on what the Lord has done in our midst during these last months.  I’ve been thinking about our beginning days of ministry together in the last week or so and just wanted to share my reflections with you.  Diane and I are very grateful that you have opened your hearts to us and made us feel very welcome as new members of the church family.  There is no question in our minds that God has led us here and that we are doing what we have been called and prepared to do. 

Every week I ask the staff what they see God doing and if they sense God leading in any particular direction.  Here are some of the things that I have seen in the last several months:

·         I hear folks talking about “Living the Father’s Grand Story” and I am grateful for open hearts responding to God’s word through the book of Ephesians.

·         Our attendance continues to grow.  Through the fall our worship service attendance has averaged around 230 with some guests visiting virtually every week.  Last week, over 260 worshippers joined us.  I’m grateful, too, for a visitation team that faithfully follows up and the positive reactions they have been receiving.

·         The Karen congregation continues to grow and we are enriched by our interaction with them.  I look forward to a growing relationship with them.  I’m especially grateful for Knute Reierson’s ministry in helping them and serving as a catalyst for ministry with the Karen.

·         I’m grateful for faithful musicians and tech personnel who serve and cheerfully grow and adapt to a changing music and worship landscape.

·         The children’s Christmas program highlighted the faithfulness of our teachers and the substance of what the children are receiving in our programs.  I’m thankful for such godly servants.

·         Our volunteer youth staff continues to pour their lives into our young people and the ministry is doing well.  They have multiple special events they’ve attended together and have a number planned for the beginning of 2013.  Their weekly ministry continues to thrive and grow as well.  I believe God is certainly working in this ministry.  I’m grateful for a faith-oriented congregation that approved the funds to hire a full-time youth pastor in 2013. 

·         My mission trip to Kenya, though unfortunately timed, was enthusiastically supported.  Many folks have asked me what more can we do to help them in their ministry. 

·         An increasingly positive and productive dialogue with Aberdeen Christian School has encouraged me. 

·         The fall women’s Bible Study with Beth Moore’s series on James was powerful and life-changing.  I’m grateful to Colleen Jark for her vision and gifts in leading this dynamic ministry.

·         I launched a men’s leadership study meeting at two different times during the week.  I am very encouraged by the level of transparent and deep dialogue that we have experienced in this ministry.   I believe God is cultivating men who will be genuinely spiritual leaders for the work He has called us to do.

There are, of course, many other things that God is doing among us.  I observe God working in individuals’ lives, transforming them and encouraging them in their daily walk.  That is what being the church is all about.  Being a disciple and making disciples of Christ.  I am humbled to be a part of God’s work here at First Baptist. 

As we look into 2013, I am looking forward to what God will do in us.   In January, I will begin a new preaching series on the Lord’s Prayer.  In the last several weeks, I’ve become increasingly convinced that we can and need to develop our prayer life together.  If we are God’s enterprise – and we are (Ephesians 2:10) – prayer should be at the center of our life together.  I am also excited about the search for a full-time youth pastor.  Shortly after the beginning of the year, we will form a search committee and begin this important process together.  Pray with me that we will discern God’s right person for the ministry. 

            I know that God has a very exciting year for us in 2013.  Diane and I look forward to finally getting settled into a house and into the community.  As we move forward in the new year, let us continue to “walk worthy of the calling with which we have been called” as people who have been invited into “the Father’s Grand Story.”  In Spiritual Leadership, the book we have been exploring in the men’s study, godly leadership is defined as “moving people onto God’s agenda.”  That is my desire for us in 2013.  Each person, each voice, and every life is important in the Body of Christ.  Praying, listening, and working together, I am confident that the seeds that have been planted in these last months of 2012 will germinate and grow into ministry that will change lives for the glory of the Lord.  May God grant us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a willing heart to obey where He will lead us in the year to come.

Gratefully with you, in Christ,

Pastor Bob


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Spiritual Infrastructure

This is the second Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of peace.  We can get pretty cynical about peace in a world that is full of turmoil.  Beauty contestants seem to always wish for “world peace” and we kind of snicker at their naiveté.  Holiday gatherings should be a wonderful time of celebration, but as many families know all too well, they can also cultivate even more conflict in dysfunctional relationships.  And personal peace?  It can be hard to come by, especially in a season known for its hurry/scurry pace.
Peace, frankly, sometimes seems like a pipe-dream.
My battle with disillusionment
There have been times in my life when peace seemed to be at hand and other times when unsettledness kept me awake or drove me to despair.  I’ve always been a goal-driven kind of guy.  I like to look into the future and dream about what could be.  As a young man, I had lots of dreams.  Some of them, I know now, were “delusions of grandeur.”  Still, I need to have some positive vision for the future or I am lost.  And that’s where I found myself a year and a half after graduation from college and in my first few months of marriage. 
I loved music and found that I had a gift for conducting even before I entered high school.  In my senior year of high school, we went to a church that had a minister of music.  Observing him in action and having a deep sense of calling since an early age, I knew what career path I wanted to pursue.  After I finished high school, I determined I would be a music major at a Christian college.  As I neared college graduation, I watched one of my friends from the department land a sweet job as a full-time minister of music right out of school.  In the spring of my senior year I sent out resumes expecting the same result.
It didn’t come.  Instead, I ended up moving boxes around in a warehouse for eight hours a day, five days a week.  That was the beginning of my disillusionment, but I figured I would work even harder, press on, and finally land my job.  Turned out, I couldn’t take the boredom of the warehouse job and took a part-time position at a Christian school in September as a music specialist.  I was paid about one-third of what I made in the warehouse, but at least I was using my skills and learning as I went.  I kept my resume fresh and sent it out to any positions that would come open – which in those days was very rare and hard to find without an internet.  I was also engaged to be married in nine months, so there was real pressure to find my dream job. 
Looking back, I really wasn’t that good.  I was an exceptional conductor, but definitely a sub-par singer and my piano gifts were only beginning to emerge.  Today, I don’t think I would have hired someone like me back then.  But I had lots drive and ambition with a little bit of talent.  
Nine months of searching and nothing came up.  We were in a recession and I needed a real job to support a wife.  I even began applying for jobs in the business sector, including collection agencies and home loan offices.  I didn’t know it then, but I had crossed over into the world of depression through my discouragement.  I remember sitting down in an interviewer’s office and having him ask me why he should hire me to be a loan officer.  I opened my mouth but nothing would come out but blubbering and sobbing.  Not one of my better moments. 
In a miraculous turn of events just prior to our wedding, God providentially provided some cobbled-together employment, including the music teaching job at the Christian school, that gave us a means of support.  I was married, but my dream of being a minister of music was quickly fading.  In a season of life that should have brought me great joy and fulfillment, I was sinking deep into despair.  My plan was dying and I was, too.
But God had another plan.  I don’t know how long it took me to see it.  I can’t explain how I came to envision what he had for me.  I think it was the creative and still small voice of the Holy Spirit that prompted me to look at things in a different way.  Frankly, I did not appreciate my job teaching music in the Christian school.  I resented having to teach children.  I was better than that, I thought.  How foolish and arrogant I was!
But then God opened my eyes to see his agenda.  The Christian school was only five miles away from the State University, which at the time, had one of the premier master’s programs in choral conducting.  Moreover, back then, California higher education was an incredible deal and even affordable for two young adults teaching in Christian schools.  Hard to believe that tuition was only $50 a semester!  God led me to that program which was my heart’s desire and opened my eyes to the great privilege and opportunity I had in teaching music to children.  Looking back, I realize that my job in the Christian school was perfect for my development and one of the best jobs I ever had.  The chance to study choral conducting on the graduate level was an incredible gift to this marginally talented musician.  All along, it was God’s agenda for me.  I was a wreck until I perceived his plan.  When I stopped fighting and submitted to his agenda, I discovered the wholeness and peace in my life that had been displaced by disillusionment and despair for nearly a year. 
I stopped fighting and gave in.  I changed my mind and my direction.  Have you ever experienced something like that?
Example of repentance in marriage
I get my sermon material from lots of different places.  I’m not above asking people for their ideas and borrowing freely.  I asked Diane this week if she could think of any situations in life that required a change of heart and mind.  She didn’t hesitate.  She said marriage.  (Am I really that tough to live with?)
If you’re married, you probably know what she meant.  Just because opening presents on Christmas Eve is what your family did doesn’t mean that is the only way to celebrate the Savior’s birth.  You might have enjoyed camping when you were growing up.  Doesn’t mean your spouse is going to love the great outdoors with all the dirt and bugs enhancing your vacation experience.  Oh…and the food issues?  I’ve gotten my hand slapped more than once for spicing up Diane’s concoctions on the stove.  The list can go on.  It helps to have a good sense of humor.  The fact is, if you are getting married, you better be prepared to change your mind and your ways. 
You gotta stop fighting and give in.  You better change your mind and your ways if you want peace in your home.  You need to get with the new program.  You have to repent.
…which brings us to our text today:
Matthew 3:1-6
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
The nature of repentance
When we hear the word, “repent,” all kinds of images might come to mind.  We might imagine the hell-fire and brimstone revivalist prancing back and forth on the platform and playing on our emotions to get us to walk the “sawdust trail.”  Or we might envision the crazy guy on the street corner with the bullhorn blaring out, “turn or burn!”
The fact is, “repent” is a serious biblical word that demands our serious attention.  It is used seventy-eight times in the Bible, fifty-four times in the New Testament.  But what does it mean?  Most folks who’ve been around church for a while have probably heard that the Greek term from which we get our word “repentance” is metanioa which means a change of mind.  But there is another closely related word that is also translated as “repentance” and that is metameleia, which means a change of soul.  Both – a change of mind and a change of heart (or soul) – are essential for repentance to be complete.  Our thinking must change – as it did in my experience regarding my teaching job and our attitude must change – as yours surely did regarding how you’ll take your vacations after you got married!
The voice calling in the wilderness
John’s call to repentance certainly involved a change in thinking and attitude.  But it was also a very specific call in a very unique time.  We need to understand what John was doing and how the people were responding if we are to hear God’s call to us today.  The world in which John the Baptist issued his call and in which the Messiah would eventually launch his ministry was one of poverty and oppression.  A visit to most third world countries today would give you a good picture of what it was probably like when John and Jesus traveled the roads of Palestine.  Most people were subsistence farmers or ran a small business, eking out a modest living from day to day.  All Jews were cruelly taxed beyond their means by the Romans and their willing accomplices, the tax collectors.  There was a small portion of the population, the religious elite or royalty, who lived in luxury and condescension of the poor.  But far and away, most of the Jewish population was poor and they were eager for release from oppression by anyone who would offer it.
By the time John came on the scene, Israel had already had a few messiahs emerge from the people offering restoration of the Jewish kingdom, only to be cut down by the Roman sword.  Besides that, the Old Testament prophets had promised a messiah and Daniel had even hinted at a schedule that seemed to suggest that the time was ripe for their savior to come. Like a can of pop, shaken under the duress of oppression, Israel was ready to burst with expectation for a deliverer. 
But John was different.  Boy, was he!  He had a camelhair suit and a leather belt.  He ate locusts and honey.  John is a forerunner of the Kingdom of God that Jesus, himself, would initiate.  He doesn’t come with swords and armor, like previous revolutionary messiahs.  His only weapons are his words.  He doesn’t preach in the cities; he’s a loner in the desert.  He purposely eschews the trappings of earthy power when he heralds the news, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 
And yet the people come out to hear him…in droves.  He makes clear that he, himself, is not the Messiah, but he is preparing the people for Messiah’s arrival.  John is announcing a new program – a new way of thinking and living.  And the people respond with confession of their sin and submit to baptism by immersion, symbolizing cleansing and embracing a new order of life.
Regarding John’s ministry, the Apostle Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”  (Acts 19:4)  Catch the meaning here.  Though people were confessing their sins at their baptism, John’s call was not just for moral renewal, but rather to grasp a new way of looking at life: to embrace God’s program and agenda through the coming Messiah rather than their old systems and understandings.  The unveiling of the kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God – they are synonymous) through Jesus’ teachings and actions which led to his crucifixion were to prove too radical for many who lived during that time.
As the story continues, the radical nature of John’s message becomes clear:
Matthew 3:7-12
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 
Repentance is more than moral reformation
Sometimes, we think in our ignorance and arrogance, “Yeah…give it to them, John!  Those Pharisees and Sadducees were really bad guys.”  Think again.  These were the guys, especially the Pharisees, that had the strictest moral code of the day.  They didn’t smoke, chew, or go with girls who do.  They never went to a dance or darkened the door of a movie theater.  Never even saw a deck of cards.  They all worked at Chick Fil’a or Hobby Lobby and never on Sundays.  Their moral standards would put the Amish to shame. 
So why does John call them a “brood of vipers?” 
Because John’s call is much deeper than a moral code.  He is calling them to a new, radical way of living.  He is saying a new day is dawning.  God is coming and you’re going to have to give up your way of thinking, your allegiances, and your power.  You can’t fight it; you have submit.  You have to change your thinking and your attitude.  You have to repent.
Job was a man with whom there was no unrighteousness.  And yet, when God allowed terrible suffering into his life, he descended into a pit of bitterness and began to accuse God of injustice.  Though righteous, he did not have peace…that is, until he repented, gave in and embraced God’s ways. 
Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

…My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

                                         Job 42:1-3, 5-6
Repentance, giving in to God is the only pathway to peace.  That’s why we light the peace candle of Advent when we read the text about John the Baptist.
Johnny Cash
Most folks know a little something about Johnny Cash – the country singer who always dressed in black.  Cash lived a hard life.  He was born into a poor but religious family and worked the cotton fields even as a child.  Throughout his life he carried the burden and heartache of losing his older brother in a terrible sawmill accident. 
To escape the pain at home, Johnny left to pursue a career in music.  He quickly found success in the recording studio which led to an extensive touring schedule.  But music and a blossoming career in popular music wasn’t enough to cover the pain in Cash’s life.  He immersed himself in a fog of pills and booze for over ten years to try and find a temporary peace.  Along the way he became a wrecking machine, leaving a trail of destruction in his young family, property, and his career.  He was arrested multiple times for drug possession and was the only person ever sued by the US government for starting a forest fire. 
Johnny had religious roots.  He loved and sang gospel music.  He knew who Jesus was and he knew he was running from God.  In his misery, Johnny tried to take his own life by wandering alone into a dangerous cave in which many people had died.  But it was there, in the quietness and darkness that he reached a moment of clarity and was confronted with the same message of repentance that John the Baptist delivered to the first century Jews.  In the deepest pit, Johnny finally surrendered to God’s agenda rather than his.  He was born again.  He found peace.
Cash’s battle with drug addiction was no miraculous cure.  He remained true to his commitment to Christ as a testimony of God’s grace, but he would also still struggle with prescription drugs and did enter treatment a few other times later in his life.  But since his experience of repentance in the cave, Johnny Cash was a man who no longer walked in inner desperation and conflict.  He stopped fighting and gave in to God.  He changed his mind and his ways.  He aligned himself with God’s life agenda.  He repented. 
Your call to repentance
The only path to peace is repentance – aligning your life with God’s plan.  We think of repentance as a one-time experience.  You know, repentance is for those people who need to receive Christ.  I’m a Christian.  I’ve already done that.  I don’t need to consider repentance.  But the Scripture remains true – we are all like sheep, we tend to go our own way.  And when we do, we have conflict in our life.  We don’t have peace.  Oh, we’re pretty good at hiding it.  But there are an awful lot of folks walking around here who don’t have peace in their hearts.  Can you imagine what it would be like if we – as a church – became a repentant people?  What would that look like?  I think we would begin to see lives powerfully transformed.  I think we would see people eager to share what God is doing in their lives and the peace that they have found in surrender to God. 
This second Sunday of Advent offers us the opportunity to hear the Baptist’s call to realign our lives with God’s agenda for our lives and for the world.  Our lives are so busy – especially in December.  We need to slow down, quiet our souls and consider if our lives are in alignment with God’s.  This is what it means to “prepare the way for the Lord” as the prophet did.  Repentance will clear a highway for God to inhabit your heart.
“The Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says, “Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved.  In quietness and confidence is your strength.”  Isa. 30:15
This is God’s call to you this morning.  This is your moment. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

View the Present Through the Promise

View the present through the promise, Christ will come again.
Trust despite the deepening darkness, Christ will come again.
Lift the world above its grieving through your watching and believing
in the hope past hope's conceiving: Christ will come again.

Probe the present with the promise, Christ will come again.
Let your daily actions witness, Christ will come again.
Let your loving and your giving and your justice and forgiving
be a sign to all the living: Christ will come again.

Match the present to the promise, Christ will come again.
Make this hope your guiding premise, Christ will come again.
Pattern all your calculating and the world you are creating
to the advent you are waiting: Christ will come again.

By Thomas H. Troeger,  © 1994 Oxford University Press, Inc.

This coming Sunday is the first in the Advent season.  In the midst of all the holiday hub-bub there remains a persistent sense of pessimism in many of the folks I know.  Admittedly, most of my friends and acquaintances are Republicans and they are probably still recovering from the results of the election.  But still, there is an undeniable sense of un-wellness in the air.  It’s not just the flu.

There is, of course, the so-called “fiscal cliff” our nation is facing if the Congress and President can’t come up with a plan before New Year’s Day.  I don’t lay odds, but even if they do find a way to avoid the “cliff” I don’t think we’ll solve our financial problems.  I think we are going to continue piling more and more debt on our grandkids’ backs.  We’re still in the Afghanistan quagmire.  I wonder how many more brave soldiers will be sacrificed in an unwinnable war.  Global warming (if you choose to subscribe) is still a factor in our world.  I heard a report yesterday that our Arctic ice was melting even faster than previously supposed.

Pornographers and pedophiles are still operating.  People are dehumanized through sexual slavery around the world today.  Murder still rocks the headlines in most major cities.  Hurricanes, tornados and earthqukes still happen.  Companies still treat their employees like tools and property to be leveraged and used.  Innocent children are still starving.  Justice still bows to power.  Still.

The world is broken, people, and it cries out to be “put to rights” (in NT Wright’s words):  “Up to the present, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth.” Romans 8:22 (NEB)

View the present through the promise:  Christ will come again.  Righteousness will prevail.  Justice will be served.  A new heaven and earth will be born.

Feeling yucky this season?  There is HOPE. 


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Hope of the World

I confess:  I’m a conservative Republican.  This morning I am disturbed by yesterday’s results that have Barak Obama reelected for a second term.  I am deeply dismayed that the majority of people in our nation have embraced a party and candidate that militantly defend a woman’s right to murder her baby and the abominable idea of homosexual marriage.  Though I do not buy the entire Republican rhetoric and platform, I believe that bigger government will not solve our problems but only make them worse.  I think our current fiscal policies will bankrupt us.  The Obama administration’s foreign policy, I believe, makes our nation less secure. 

All of this, except for the pro-life and marriage issues, is debatable among Christians along party lines.  I’m willing to grant that and understand there will be differences of opinion between God’s people.  I don’t see, however, how any Bible-believing Christian can support the so-called “pro-choice” and homosexual agenda that the Democratic Party aggressively promotes. 

How did we get here?  Read Robert Bork’s brilliant Slouching Towards Gomorrah for starters.  The mainstream media created Obama’s presidency and is primarily responsible for re-electing him.  It is not a level playing field.  Bork explains the reality of social engineering in his book as he documents liberalism’s progressive takeover of higher education, entertainment, and the media since the middle of the twentieth century.

These are critical days in which we live.  As difficult as they may be, we are privileged to live during this time.  We should learn that the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God are not the same; they are not even complementary.  The Church has always compromised its divine mission when it allied itself with the world’s systems – whether it was the Holy Roman Empire that ruled Europe for over seven hundred years or the American evangelical alliance with the Republican Party that has marginalized our message for the last thirty years. Jesus told Pilate, the puppet ruler of perhaps the greatest superpower the world has ever known, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  He then defeated the evil powers that crucified him by his resurrection three days later.  As people who have been graciously invited into Christ’s kingdom, we must remember, “He made known the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10). 

I believe that we have the privilege and the obligation to be politically engaged as Christian citizens.  But being overcome by dismay is not living by faith.  Romney certainly isn’t Lord of all and neither is Obama.  America, regardless of what Reagan said, is not the hope of the world.  Only Jesus is Lord and his enterprise, the Church, offers the Hope this world needs. 

There are two kingdoms.  Only one of them is eternal.  Let our loyalty and our confidence rest there. 


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Worship Music of Kenya

The Worship Music of Kenya

            Kenyan worship music is nothing if not joyous.  It is always accompanied by movement and sometimes the dancing is quite vigorous.  Generally, the women are better dancers, but some of the men are quite nimble and fluid.
            The singing is full-throated and frequently “call and response” where the leader will sing a phrase (sometimes quite lengthy) and the congregation will respond.  This is not unlike many African-American spirituals.  Here is a short video clip of some of the worship I participated in a small country church.  You will notice the “call and response” between the female worship leader and the congregation.  Also notice that the keyboard and sound system are powered by a car battery!  This church was quite poor.  But notice the joy.  I was able to participate in similar worship almost every day. 
            I will never forget the intensity of one woman who was a worship leader at Christ Favour Ministries in Webuye, Kenya, near the Ugandan border.  She was a young widow (probably under 30) and mother of two whose business had just failed.  The intensity of her singing and dancing seemed to be a real reflection of her yearning faith.  Though she was not a small woman, her movements were very fluid and energetic.  I noticed also that she was very intent on hearing the Word when I was teaching.  Knowing this woman’s story and observing her faith expressed in her intense worship was quite moving for me.
            Almost everything that Kenyans sing is a “spiritual song.”  There is not depth of text as in a hymn.  And they can linger in a song for nearly ten minutes.  I do believe there’s a deep value to this expression and I wish our cognitively-oriented American congregations would learn to fully enter into the experience of a spiritual song and engage with God.
            Paul wrote to the Colossians that they should “let the word of Christ richly dwell in them, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16).  While the Kenyans seem to have a mastery of spiritual songs, they are lacking in the theological density of psalms and hymns.  They sang some gospel hymns for my benefit but they struggled to recall the words.  Their limited knowledge of gospel hymns is an echo of the East African Revival that spurred spiritual growth in this region for over fifty years in the early through mid-twentieth century.  It is good that they know some gospel hymns, but I sensed that their knowledge of the meatier classic hymns (like Holy, Holy, Holy and Be Thou My Vision, for example) is very small, if they know any at all.  I suspect that one of the reasons they do not sing hymns and psalms is that the density of the texts requires printed or projected words which the churches generally do not have.  (Of course, the New Testament church did not have those luxuries either and they sang hymns and psalms.)  Lacking those resources, I suggested that they incorporate a reading of a psalm in their services. 
            I have also discovered something quite curious about Kenyan and African worship music.  All the churches use keyboards with pre-set rhythm patches.  The musicians are very adept at finding the right rhythmic groove and key to match a song that the worship leader starts.  I was disappointed to not see any traditional African drums like the djembe.  I was told that they are “old-school” and are rejected by the young people as too traditional.  I found that ironic because the djembe is quite popular in American acoustic praise and worship.  Too bad.  It seems there is a “worship war” of sorts in Africa, though my observation was that the new has completely replaced the traditional in the congregations I encountered.  I found the pre-set rhythms to be “dated” and “cheesy” to my ears.  But, of course, I’m from a different culture.
            In the end, the Kenyans fully give themselves to the music when they are worshipping.  With the contagious joy of the dance and the full-throated voice of singing there is no holding back.  A far cry from the worship we experience in most American churches.  Too many of us are content to listen and be entertained or refuse to engage because it is not our preferred musical style.  The difference?  Certainly dance is central to this contagious and engaging worship style in Kenya.  But if Americans cannot learn to dance, I pray that we could learn to “give ourselves to the song” when we worship God through music.  In the end, I suspect fully engaging in worship song will be a large part of our eternal vocation around the Father’s throne.
Below is a youtube clip from a Kenyan Christian artist.  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Our Deepest Need

I’ve been a teacher all of my adult life.  I love to learn; I love to teach.  One of the questions that good teachers always ask themselves is whether or not the student has really learned.  “If no one has learned, have you really taught anything?”

There are some really smart people who never spent a day in a college classroom.  And, believe it or not, there are plenty of folks with graduate degrees who can’t do some of the simplest things. 

One of my most challenging assignments as a college professor was to teach a class on worship technology.  Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not a techie.  Don’t let the PowerPoint presentations fool you.  I know just enough to be dangerous.  Ask me to teach piano improvisation from chord sheets and I’m your guy.  Teaching students to conceptualize and craft a worship service?  It’s one of the joys of my life.  But when it came to teaching sound systems and, worse yet, lighting systems, I was more than just a little uncomfortable.  The thing that saved me was having students that I trusted to assist me.  I set the classroom objectives and boundaries while my trusted and mature students helped those with less experience in technical operations.

Why was that so hard for me?  Certainly, there are people who are more wired, so to speak, for electronic expertise.  I’m not one of them.  But the other critical piece of knowledge that I was missing was hands-on experience.  I’ve done some sound, but generally, I was on the other side of the microphone.  I read the books on sound and lighting systems, but until I spent real time operating the equipment, I wasn’t really going to know it.  It was the same with Spanish.  Growing up in the Southwest, I had eight years of Spanish from the third through tenth grades.  I can read and understand quite a bit but I can’t hold a conversation in the language.  I was never immersed in a place where I had to actually speak Spanish.  I haven’t really experienced it.  I know about Spanish, but I don’t really know it.

I’m sure you’ve had that experience as well.  Perhaps it was a skill you needed to learn for your job.  Until you actually do it, you really don’t know it.  What about marriage?  We have wonderful romantic notions about another person, but until we actually live a while with them, we don’t really know them.  We read about climbing Mt. Everest, sailing around the world, or exploring some exotic region..  But until we actually experience what we’ve read about it, our knowledge is incomplete.

There is one concept that is vital to everyone in the human race to know, and to know by experience.  Our deepest need is to know and fully experience love.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be loved.  I’m richly blessed because I have always known that I was loved.  Sure, there have been times when I’ve felt isolated and lonely.  But I always knew that some other person loved me.  To not know that kind of love must be devastating.

I’m afraid there are a lot of devastated people in this world.  When people do not feel loved they cannot help but act out.  And those actions, which are generally negative behaviors, are a cry from the depths of their souls for love. 

In our text, we will explore our deepest need.

Ephesians 3:14-19

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Paul writes, For this reason I kneel before the Father,  from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

We have now reached the mid-point of the epistle to the Ephesians.  The Apostle, in glowing language has set forth God’s program for his people.  Paul has prayed that they might fully realize all that they have in Christ.  He reminded them that they were dead in their trespasses and sins, but that God, who is rich in mercy and because of his great love for us, raised us up with Christ Jesus.  Through Christ, God has made both Jews and Gentiles into one people.  Finally, Paul reflects on the incredible privilege of his calling to proclaim the Gospel to them. 

Overwhelmed by the greatness of all he has written, the Apostle drops to his knees in prayer for the Ephesian church.  And his prayer here is a pivotal point in the epistle.  Paul has laid out tremendous truths about the Church and the work of Christ.  It is doctrine to be tasted, chewed on, digested and fully embraced.  We could (but we won’t) spend fifty years of sermons plumbing the depths of what we’ve discussed in the last five weeks and never come near exhausting the riches of what Paul has written. 

But exploring the depths of doctrinal concepts is not enough. 

It has to be lived.  Or we don’t really know it.  My friend, Pastor Roger Fredrickson, says of the book of Ephesians:  “The indicative implies the imperative.”  Preachers love alliteration!   What he means is that the truths declared at the beginning of the book require that we live accordingly.  Next week, I’ve asked Pastor Salem to preach on the first six verses of chapter four.  At the beginning of that passage, the Apostle challenges the Ephesian believers, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  It’s on our banner in the narthex.  “Walking worthy of our calling.”  It’s not enough to know spiritual truth in our head.  It needs walking shoes.  We have to experience it to really know it.

Paul continues…

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

Here, in the beginning of his prayer, we hear echoes of earlier verses:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms…  (1:18-20)

[God] made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…  (2:5-6)

Christ’s resurrection power, the power by which he has raised us up is made available to us through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  We’ve rehearsed that together before:  we needn’t be bound by besetting sin, bitterness, or worry.  According to the Scriptures, they are dead to us.  We’ve been raised to newness of life with Christ.

Paul prays that we might be strengthened “with power through his Spirit in your inner being…”  I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s wonderful book of reflection on Ephesians called Practice Resurrection.  Citing another theologian, Peterson points out that the phrase “inner being” is better translated “inner man.”  In fact, a strong case can be made that Paul was actually referring to the indwelling person of Christ in us through the phrase, “inner man.”  I like that.  So often in our spiritual journey we get obsessed with ourselves.  But understanding that it is Christ within us keeps us centered on him rather than drifting off into some sort of subjective spirituality. 

And I don’t think Peterson is far off, if at all.  Paul says specifically, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”  But even more, the NIV doesn’t fully capture the sense that the Apostle was trying to communicate.  If you were to fully explore the meaning of the Greek text, it might read something like this, “…that the Christ might finally settle down and feel completely at home in your hearts through your faith.” (Wuest)

Is Christ settled in your heart?  Do you think he feels at home?  Great questions to ponder!  Only when we live by faith. 

Our Deepest Need

Paul then goes on to pray for the church:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

One would think preaching on the love of God would be one of the easier tasks of a minister.  Not so.  I can’t wrap my head around it.  God’s love is too vast.  It is too immense and overwhelming.  The nature of God’s love flows from his own attributes:

·         God’s love is pure and holy.  There is no unrighteousness or selfish motive in it.
·         Because God is eternal, his love is without beginning and without end.
·         Because he is infinite, his love has no limit.
·         Because he is transcendent, it is incomprehensible.
·         Because he is omnipresent, there is nowhere we can go where God’s love is not there for us.
·         Because he is omniscient, his love is merciful. 

Has God ever overwhelmed you with a revelation about himself?  I remember clearly – I could take you to the lounge chair by the pool in that old apartment complex on Rosecrans Avenue in La Mirada, California where the knowledge of God’s love poured over and overwhelmed me.  Have you ever considered that God knows everything about you – everything – your good qualities, but especially your most heinous sins – and yet he still loves you without reservation?  God’s love is like that.
A.W. Tozer wrote in 1961:
“His love is an incomprehensibly vast, bottomless, shoreless sea before which we kneel in joyful silence and from which the loftiest eloquence retreats confused and abashed.”  Knowledge of the Holy (98)

Three Things About God’s Love
While we kneel in awe and wonder of God’s love, it is knowable.  Love, even God’s love, requires an object.  You and I are the objects of his love.
God’s love manifests – shows – itself as his goodwill towards us.  One of the most profound scenes in the movie Martin Luther is when the monk is struggling with pleasing God.  He is at his wit’s end, in tears and near madness in his quest to please God through his own efforts.  Luther’s mentor asks him, “What is it that you seek, Martin?”  His words are memorable:  “I seek a friendly God.” 
Jesus said to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves…but I have called you friends”  (John 15:15).  Abraham was called the friend of God.  It’s amazing that the God of the universe would call us his friends, but that is the case.  And this friendship – this goodwill that God extends to us dispels any feelings of fear like what Luther felt.  “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18).
I recall another moment when God spoke to me concerning his love.  I was nearing the end of my college career and I burned with passion for God to use me in his Kingdom.  Because I so earnestly sought to be used by him and I understood that God tests and tries those he uses for his Kingdom, I embraced and perhaps even sought suffering.  I deluded myself into believing that God desired to inflict pain into my life.  It is true that God will test his servants.  But unknowingly, I had crossed a line in understanding the nature of God.  God does not willingly inflict pain on his people even though he sometimes allows it.  For he does not afflict willingly, or grieve the sons of men (Lamentations 3:33).  He is a God of goodwill.  I remember clearly his rebuke to me as if it were yesterday.  It was eight simple words and I could almost hear them audibly, “Bob, you don’t believe that I am good.”  God was right, of course, and I repented.  I’ve never since doubted the goodness of God.  God’s intentions towards us are always good.  Never question that.
God’s love is expressed as goodwill but it is also a covenant love.  By covenant, I mean that God has bound himself to us by his promise.  A covenant is only as good as the character of the one who makes it.  God is the initiator and the keeper of his covenant of love with us.  His love is eternal, without beginning and without end.  His love can never fail.  The Hebrews knew this very well as expressed in Psalm136.  In that psalm, the writer rehearses the mighty acts of God towards his people and the congregation responds 26 times:  “His love endures forever!”  Talk about repetition in worship! 
God has bound himself to us in covenant love.
Paul wrote to the church at Rome:

 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:35-39)
God’s love is expressed as his goodwill towards us and it will never fail because it is a covenant love.  But that’s still not enough.  God’s love must be experienced. 
Our text read,
and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.

The full sense of this passage might be better rendered,

“…and to know experientially the love of the Christ which surpasses experiential knowledge in order that you may be filled up to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Wuest)

It is human nature to feel unlovely to God.  Our conscious condemns us.  But our tyrannical conscience only magnifies the richness – the width, the length, the height and the depth of God’s love for us.  “But God, who is so rich in mercy and because of his great love for us, while we were dead in our trespasses and sins, raised us up with Christ Jesus.”

Christians of all stripes have been writing words trying to describe the fullness of God’s love in poetry and song. One of the best, in recent times, has written:

The  love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Fredrick Martin Lehman (1868-1953)
Tozer wrote:

“The love of God is one of the great realities of the universe, a pillar upon which the hope of the world rests.  But it is a personal, intimate thing, too.  God does not love populations, He loves people.  He loves not masses, but men.  He loves us all with a mighty love that has no beginning and can have no end.”  The Knowledge of the Holy (102)

Friends, our deepest need is to not only know, but to feel loved by God.  I don’t know how to tell you how to really experience it.  Scripture gives us some clues.  Paul told us that Christ makes his home in our hearts by the exercise of our faith.  The Scriptures tell us over and over about God’s love.  You have to release control of your life.  Even in human relationships, you have to be willing to be loved in order to fully experience it.  And unlike some human relationships, God has no self-serving or ulterior motives.  His love is holy and pure.  In the end, you will feel God’s love as you open yourself to him and His Spirit speaks to you even as he did to me as I’ve related in this message.  His love is free - without cost. 

Is anyone thirsty?
Come and drink—
even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
it’s all free!
Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food.

Come to me with your ears wide open.
Listen, and you will find life.

Isaiah 55:1-3 (NLT)

 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.