Out of Control

This is the way that a recent AP article begins:
Is everything spinning out of control? Midwestern levees are bursting. Polar bears are adrift. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Home values are abysmal. Air fares, college tuition and health care border on unaffordable. Wars without end rage in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorism.
My life this past year has felt so out of control. Ann's wheelchair is a constant reminder of an out of control season that has made me feel that my emotional levee has been breached.. the floodwaters of sorrow seem to overwhelm me so often. It is at times like this I think that it is good to remember these words from the 40th chapter of Isaiah:
Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.

Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, Not one of them is missing.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, And to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.
In times such as these it is good to remember that God is not surprised by the price at the pump.. or at the sorrow of our heart-pump. The admonition to wait on Him is an invitation to hope.. especially when things seem so out of control.

Prayer that Hurts

Charisma Magazine editor Lee Grady writes an online column called Fire In My Bones. He has recently been doing a series on the healing oriented revival in Lakeland Florida. His recent offering is titled Bam! Pow! When Prayer Ministry Gets Violent and offers these three cautions about excesses in charismatic oriented prayer ministry:
  1. The Holy Spirit is gentle. Jesus boldly drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip. But when He prayed for sick people, there is no record of Him head-banging or leg-dropping anyone. He rebuked evil spirits authoritatively, but He never hit, slapped, choked, mounted or kicked a person. He was meek, which means He knew how to control His strength, and He never threw His weight around.

    When He commissioned His followers to heal the sick, Jesus told them to “lay” hands on them (Mark 16:18). Since gentleness is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (along with kindness—see Gal. 5:22-23), any ministry we do should be tempered with mercy and concern.

  2. If we minister in the flesh, we will reap flesh. Several years ago I was standing near the stage in a large meeting when a visiting evangelist said he wanted to pray for all the ministers in the room. Immediately some ushers yanked me up to the platform and the man of God raced over to “pray” for me. Before I knew it, I was assaulted in the name of the Lord.

    Whack! The guy hit me so hard that I fell down and held my face in my hands to hide my grimace. The skin on my neck was stinging. When I finally went back to my seat, a friend ran over to congratulate me, saying, “Wow, I saw you go down under the power!” I had to grit my teeth and ask the Lord to help me forgive the preacher who inflicted pain instead of a holy impartation.

    Why do we think that more bodies on the floor equals “more anointing” —especially when the evangelist shoves people to the ground or slaps them silly? To build a ministry on such foolish theatrics is to trust in the arm of the flesh.

  3. Somebody’s going to get hurt. We reported last week that a Tennessee man sued his charismatic church because its pastoral staff did not provide the proper “catchers” when he fell down during a prayer meeting last year. Matthew Lincoln of Knoxville said he struck the hard floor of the sanctuary with his head and aggravated a disc problem in his back, resulting in the need for surgery.

    I don’t know the specifics of the situation in Knoxville, Tenn., and it may be that this church has done everything possible to provide a caring atmosphere in their meetings. Plus, the man suing the church does not say anyone hit him or knocked him over. But serious accidents are bound to happen if we don’t stress the importance of ministering with gentleness and wisdom.
What do you all think of this kind of stuff? I have been around this kind of "ministry" for 30+ years and am still amazed by what well-meaning folks do in the name of the Lord. I love it when the Holy Spirit moves in miraculous ways.. I am certainly not against Holy Spirit manifestations. Yet I resonate with Grady's concerns.. and about that need for prayer-catchers.. I have always maintained that if the Holy Spirit knocks you down then you certainly don't need someone to catch you.. if He can knock you over then He can catch you.

Spiritual Disciplines

I once asked someone who was espousing the benefits of spiritual disciplines if they were experiencing spiritual fruit as a result. I think that my question just confused them.

Best selling Christian author Dallas Willard defines a discipline as, "any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort." Did you catch the word "activity"? I think that Willard's definition is reminiscent of someone who believes that hard fleshly work will produce a spiritual harvest. It reminds me of the thinkings of many humanists.

Sadly many who read, study, fast, pray, tithe, and perform all kinds of religious things do it as a work and consequently really don't develop a character steeped in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (ala Galations 5:22-23). Many of them come across as people devoid of these qualities. It is like they believe that grace is initially unearned and unmerited favor but is needed to be earned and merited (by doing religious stuff) after you have received it.

Before you jump to any conclusions I need to say that I am all for discipline and I think that many would do well to discipline themselves unto godliness (per 1Timothy 4:7). The key, in my opinion, is to follow the Holy Spirit's lead in these activities.. let Him (not angry brainy preachers) tailor the discipline to your personality and life.. and when He does you will begin to experience spiritual fruit.. you will love more.. be more patient.. be at peace.. and you will have the self control to discipline yourself in a way that is pleasing to God.

Rationalizing Pain

This morning I sat listening to a popular TV preacher who was speaking about how we need to count our blessings. The central theme of his message was the idea that we should deal with pain by countering negative pain with positive blessings. It occurred to me that this is an unhelpful paradigm because it is a form of rationalization. I liken it to the idea of someone telling a person who smashed their thumb with a hammer that things will be better if they will just focus on their other nine pain-free fingers. This kind of pseudo-rationalization only heaps more pain on the pain.. it is a form of backdoor blame that causes us to feel responsible for pain that we have had no part in. In a sense Job's friends entered into this kind of rationalization when one of them said:
You have taught many people and given strength to feeble hands. When someone stumbled, weak and tired, your words encouraged him to stand. Now it's your turn to be in trouble, and you are too stunned to face it. (Job 4:3-5)
The real problem with this kind of rationalization is that it purports that pain is something that you can think your way out of. It seems to embrace the idea that all you need to have is a positive mental attitude. Consider the idea that Job and his wife lost 10 children in an instant. How do you positively think your way out of that? It is impossible!

I believe that this kind of thinking keeps a hurting person in denial of their plight. It hinders them from processing their pain and getting through it.. it is hurtful and not helpful. Pain is something that must be processed with the heart. The following saying is reflective of what I am trying to say:
“A friend is one to whom you can pour out the contents of your heart, chaff and grain alike. Knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
Pouring our heart out to a true listening friend is a good way to process pain. Often my conversations with God resemble this kind of pouring out of my heart. When we come to God with our pain we are responding to Jesus when He said:
"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)
It is so encouraging that Jesus acknowledged our pain in this way and casted an invitation to involve Him in our pain. It reminds me of this passage:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
I close by encouraging you to find a friend today if you are hurting.. someone who will listen to you.. someone who will help you take your pain to Jesus.. someone who will help you find that place of rest in Christ.

When God Laughed

My blogging friend Patchouli asks the question Have you ever heard Jesus laugh?? It got me to thinking about a time in my life when I was grieving the loss of my first wife. Ellen passed away in May of 1994 and her death left me a crushed man. In an effort to protect myself I began erecting a legalistic structure around myself. One of the beams in this structure was an inner vow to wear my wedding ring until the end of the year.. it seemed a reasonable thing to do.. this way I could put that part of my life on hold and not have to deal with this part of my future.

In late June of that year.. just a month after Ellen's passing.. I ran into Ann in midtown Kansas City. We had known each other through work since 1977 but had never once had a convseration longer than a few sentences. This day was different.. we stood there talking for about ten minutes when something leaped inside of me.. it was like my emotions were being raised from the dead - and it scared the living daylights out of me.. and I quickly ended our conversation.

In July I continued to process through my grief.. I hurt like I had never hurt before in my life.. my soul was being ripped in two and I felt like I was dying. In the midst of this agony I hurt the ring finger on my left hand and it began to swell up. In an effort to remove my ring I soaped it up and struggled with it for about 10 minutes until I looked down and saw it lying in the palm of my hand.. it was then that I sensed God laughing.. and I began to laugh along with him.

It was as if God was lovingly telling me to not hide myself behind my rules. Looking back I think that it was an invitation to come out of my legalistic closet.. it was also a message of hope for a future marriage.. which came much quicker than I ever dreamed of when I remarried a year later. After that experience with my ring I began processing those feelings deep in my heart and worked on getting emotionally healthy.. and I began the active process of grieving.

I have said it many times that most of our lives we seem to live out of our heads.. that safe and conservative place of control where we risk little.. but life seems to be wired to drive us to live life from our scary heart. We sometimes find God laughing.. in a loving sense.. when we begin to understand how our rules and principles are impotent to deal with the real issues of pain and suffering. He seems to have designed life to drive us to a place where we can experience life to its fullest when we live it from our hearts.

That is my prayer for us.. to trust more with our heart.. to learn to live from that deep place.. and maybe, when we do, we will be able to laugh our way through life with Him.

Liberal Theologians on Hell

Over at Karen's Say What?!? blog we have been having a discussion about Hell or, as my blogging friend Brian calls it, eternal conscious torment. So I thought it interesting when fellow Kansas Citian and blogger Bill Tammeus yesterday included the topic on his blog. Following is an excerpt from Bill's blog:

The June 3 issue of the Christian Century, generally considered a mainstream or liberal Christian voice, contains a collection of essays from various theological thinkers about hell. In some ways, it's a little surprising to see such a publication devote so much space and energy to a subject that, frankly, doesn't get a lot of attention these days in Mainline churches.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the almost unanimous insistence among the writers that the doctrine of hell has -- and must have -- an important place in Christian theology and that people who want to throw it out give away far too much.

The piece seems not to be available online, but I want to give you a few highlights and invite you to think about -- and tell us -- how important to you and your faith is the idea of hell.

* ". . .it is simply impossible to take seriously orthodox Christian doctrine and not have a lively, indeed passionate, interest in the issues of heaven and hell. . . . We have been shamed by Freud, Marx and Feuerbach into thinking that concern with afterlife is a childish fantasy that is not worthy of the attention of mature, responsible persons. And in buying into this shame, we have trivialized both the gospel and our own lifes." -- Jerry Walls, Asbury Theological Seminary.

* "Hell is a nonnegotiable item of Christian vocabulary. . . . To abandon this sort of talk, as some Christians recommend, is a strange and sad form of self-hatred. . ." --Paul Griffiths, Duke Divinity School.

* "Condemnation to hell is comparable to an exile from where the departed has no longer the resort to return, has not even recollection of what was home.. . .Yet, in a paradoxical way, for the Christian there is a hope against all hope. As it is confessed in the Apostles' Creed: God in Christ descended into hell. That nothing is out of God's reach, even the depths of hell, is what affords hope, the promise of life." -- Vitor Westhelle, Lutheran School of Theology of Chicago.

* "Christ has robbed death of its sting and deprived the devil of many a tasty meal, but hell persists, we are told, because freedom of the will requires it and justice demands it. . . . Abolish hell, and see how salvation dims down. . . . Abolish hell, and a host of smaller obsessions will fill the gap." -- Carol Zaleski, Smith College.

* ". . .eradicating references to hell is shortsighted and has troubling consequences for the shape of our witness to the gospel. To be sure, there is much about Christian teaching on hell that is subject to critical scrutiny. But in its most basic form, it serves as a warning concerning the judgment of God against evil, injustice and callousness in the face of human need and brokenness." -- John R. Franke, Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pa.

* "Hellfire and brimstone preachers can't digest their own message. Those who really want to save souls or spread divine love -- even those who use belief in hell as the orthodoxy test -- are the ones who teach us to love God for God's own sake." -- Martin E. Marty, Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

* "This is my only hope: to be moved by God into that Christ-formed participation that risks such pain, such confession, such rage that it risks coming so close to the devil that laughter may be impossible." -- Amy Laura Hall, Duke University.

I found these comments very interesting because so often we think of Hell as a concept that wacky fundamentalist fire and brimstone preachers have dreamed up. If you'd like to opine about Hell I direct you to Karen's or Bill's place.

A Manifesto for Church

Jeff tagged me asking for my perspectives on what a church should look like. I am not going to tag anyone else on this one but if you want to opine about it at your place then visit Jeff's blog and get the rules for the post.. and let me know if you do. Here are some of my thoughts (in brief) about what an ideal church might look like:

  • ekklesia: this is the Greek word that is most often (115 times) translated church in the New Testament. This word denotes a gathering of people called together for a common purpose.. it could be used for people called to a town hall meeting as well as to a church service. The idea here is that people are called to be together - the emphasis being on the word together. I think that it is sad that some feel that they do not need others in Christ's body. So, the first idea about an ideal church revolves around a sense of being called together. Believers all over the globe, in very diverse ways, are called together to walk out and work out the kingdom together.. it is a beautiful thing.

  • koinonia: this Greek word appears twenty times in the New Testament and is translated fellowship twelve of those times. This word takes those people who are called together and gives them a blueprint for walking together. When I think about fellowship I think about people and hearts being knit together in love. I think of how Jesus said that people would know that we are His if we have love for each other. Real fellowship, at it's heart, is living out community in a way that is genuine and unique to that calling to which Christ has called that ekklesia.

  • poimen: this Greek word is the one most often translated (17 out of 18 times) shepherd or shepherds. I like this definition of the word:
    The tasks of a Near Eastern shepherd were: - to watch for enemies trying to attack the sheep - to defend the sheep from attackers - to heal the wounded and sick sheep - to find and save lost or trapped sheep - to love them, sharing their lives and so earning their trust.

    That to me captures the heart of what it means to be a leader in an ekklesia. It also captures the heart of what it means to be a member as well. To be a part of a local church is to be a part of a group of people that shepherd each other, protect each other, speak healing words to each other and simply walk out life together developing love, growing trust and maturing friendship.

  • mathetes: this is the Greek word that is translated disciple or pupil. I think that a healthy expression of church is one where everyone is discipled. Now this really sounds good to many until they understand that discipleship is not about a program. I think that a church that truly embraces discipleship understands that it is relational.. you disciple me and I disciple you.. it is not all about the pastor teaching me.. it is also about me teaching them as well.

I told you that this would be a brief manifesto.. if that is indeed the right verbiage for what I have written. To sum it up, any expression of church should involve: a deep sense of being called together; a sense of having hearts being knit together in love; a sense of security in the idea that we watch out for each other; and a place where we are each learning from each other.

I think that many might say that this kind of a church resembles a club or a clique because I didn't use words like outreach or evangelism. I suggest that these can be manipulative words that are used to squeeze people into preformed images and ideas of what the church should do. I counter by saying that church is not about what we do but who we are.. who we are called to be.. both individually corporately. I also submit to you that a healthy church attracts people who are hurt and wounded.. both passively and intentionally.

Intercessory Prayer

This weekend I corresponded with a friend about intercessory prayer. Here are a few thoughts that I shared with this very compassionate person:

The Lord’s prayer is a good prayer to pray at a macro level. I believe God wants us to invite Him into our world and praying the Lord’s prayer is a good way to do it. The question of God’s will can be summed up with this question: Are our prayers factored in to God’s will? I think that the answer is yes because another part of His prayer is asking His kingdom to come. When we invite His kingdom to come we pray on a macro level for the miraculous and supernatural.. we ask Him to invade our dark world and our dark lives with His light. Of course much of the Lord’s prayer deals with our relationship with Him.. inviting Him in to change us from the inside out.

On a less than macro level I believe that prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit.. being moved by His goodness.. moved by His compassion.. being His vessel here on earth. In the same way that Jesus partnered with the Father saying that He only did what He saw the Father doing it is our part to partner with the Spirit in intercession for ourselves and those He calls us to pray for. This can be so difficult because it involves heart faith.. connecting with our heart is something we need to walk out every day.. it is difficult because faith means that we keep praying as we are moved by compassion even when we don’t see the results of our prayers.

I guess that this is the rub.. unanswered prayers.. it is gut-wrenching and heart-breaking to suffer a long time and pray so much and not see His kingdom come. To me this is the heart of faith and the essence of trusting God.. it is also what I believe it means to wait on the Lord. What comes shining through your note is the message of one whose heart breaks for their friends – is there anything more reflective of the beauty of Christ than this? I believe that Jesus walked the earth with a broken heart for hurting people.. when we cry for others in prayer we partner with Him and His divine plan.. when we persevere in faith, praying as He leads us, we reflect His magnificent presence in our lives.

Longing for Cool Water

I listened to this video and prayed Psalm 42 this morning. It is a great psalm to pray when you are confused, heartbroken and in need of the comfort of God's spirit. Pray it today.. right where you are.

As a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I long for you, O God.

I thirst for you, the living God.

When can I go and worship in your presence? Day and night I cry, and tears are my only food; all the time my enemies ask me, "Where is your God?" My heart breaks when I remember the past, when I went with the crowds to the house of God and led them as they walked along, a happy crowd, singing and shouting praise to God.

Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God, and once again I will praise him, my savior and my God. Here in exile my heart is breaking, and so I turn my thoughts to him. He has sent waves of sorrow over my soul; chaos roars at me like a flood, like waterfalls thundering down to the Jordan from Mount Hermon and Mount Mizar.

May the LORD show his constant love during the day, so that I may have a song at night, a prayer to the God of my life. To God, my defender, I say, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go on suffering from the cruelty of my enemies?" I am crushed by their insults, as they keep on asking me, "Where is your God?"

Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God, and once again I will praise him, my savior and my God.