Monday, January 29, 2018

Pastor Lisa’s Prayer

While on vacation recently, Beth and visited a church in another state. Mutual had friends had arranged for us to meet the pastor. Pastor Lisa brought a powerful word from the Lord that spoke to me. The message focused on God’s words to Moses: “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Pastor Lisa illustrated God’s faithfulness to the patriarchs, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the midst of Moses’ call to set the Hebrews free from Egyptian captivity, the challenges were overwhelming. Moses needed the God’s assurance that He would be with him. She pointed out that the God of Abraham is a God of Promise who promised good things for Abraham. 


Pastor Lisa emphasized that the God of Isaac is a God of the ordinary. Isaac grew up in the shadows of a man of distinction and note, yet Isaac was quite ordinary, by comparison. But God was also the God of Jacob—a deceiver, schemer, and coward. Jacob put the “fun” in the family dysfunction. But God had purpose and beauty to transform Jacob’s character and give him a new name, Israel. Yet when God made the promise to Moses, He refused to use Jacob’s new name, Israel—a prince with God. God used the old name, Jacob.

Pastor Lisa emphasized that God is with us in the good, ordinary, and struggling seasons of our lives. After church, Pastor Lisa entertained Beth and me for lunch at a coastal seafood restaurant. The fellowship was rich. We connected as we shared stories of many mutual friends.

As we were about to part company, Pastor Lisa said, “I want to pray for you.” She made a point of telling God that Beth and I were in a hard spot of ministry and service. Neither ease or coasting was a part of our job description at this point in our lives. She told God that He has us right where He wants us, in the midst of difficulties that drive us to complete dependence upon Him. She laid hands on Beth and me and prayed. As she prayed, we sensed God’s presence and courage.

I feel a lot like Jacob today. I am across the brook Jabbok, wrestling alone with God. I am insisting upon His blessing. I feel His touch in my thigh. I sense His transforming power in my character. I hear Him pronounce my new name. I walk with a testimonial limp of God’s mark.

The struggle is ever present, but my God is omnipresent.

The struggle is powerful, but my God is all powerful.

The struggle makes me afraid, but my God says, “Fear not.”

The struggle makes me say, “I cannot,” but my God says, “My grace is enough for you, right now.”

Are you in a good place, an ordinary place, or a place of struggle today? In good places, it is easy for me to forget the Source, and neglect pursuing intimacy with my Heavenly Father. In ordinary places, I have found myself coasting. In the struggle, I insist upon knowing God. I am desperate for an encounter with my Creator. He has me there right now.

Struggling forward in faith.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Evening the Odds

Psalm 3

I love the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s musical version of Psalm 3. I have sung, wept, and shouted praises many miles alone in my car to their musical version of this psalm.

“But thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head” (Psalm 3:3 KJV).

Bible scholars believe that David composed this Psalm as he was fleeing Jerusalem to escape Absalom’s insurrection. David left the city gates with his royal entourage, crossed the Kidron Brook, and climbed the mount of Olives. As he walked, King David wept and tore his royal robes, heaping dust upon his head (II Samuel 15).

The odds seemed against King David. Consider the events surrounding the composition of the Psalm. Absalom had murdered Amnon for raping Tamar and had just been reconciled to King David. Once reconciled to King David, Absalom went through the kingdom with 50 horsemen in a campaign to sow doubt against his father’s leadership and to promote himself as David’s deposer and successor, exalting his own leadership potential. Absalom declared himself king in Hebron and turned his sights toward Jerusalem and the throne.

David was warned of Absalom’s treachery, and fled Jerusalem as Absalom mounted an invasion of the capital city. Mephiboseth, Jonathon’s crippled son, blessed the fleeing David. Shimei cursed the fleeing King.

Absalom set up his kingdom in David’s palace, pitched a tent for his father’s concubines on the palace roof, and had sexual relations with them. He was now king.

“So David went up by the Ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went up; and he had his head covered and went barefoot. And all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went up” (II Samuel 15:30 NKJV).

Absalom was a product of David’s marriage to Bathsheba. But every time something went wrong with one of David’s children, his past sin with Bathsheba continued to haunt him. David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite haunted him. He recalled the long, bony index finger of the prophet Nathan pointing accusingly at him, “Thou are the man,” identifying the sin David had sought to hide. The consequences of sin plagued the repentant King David. The rise of David’s enemies seemed a direct consequence of David’s sin 30 or more years earlier, and his sin haunted him.

David hears the taunts of those who say he has outlived God’s grace, blessing and protection. Some of his enemies wanted to pronounce his situation hopeless.

Some want to pronounce your situation today as hopeless. On your worst days, like David, you may find yourself asking God where He is and why He refuses His help. On your worst nights, the agony of God’s apparent absence deepens.

But in the face of Absalom’s treachery and David’s flight for his life, he shifted his focus from fear to faith. “But you, O Lord,” David proclaimed. In the face of the chaos, David directed his faith toward God. He confessed Him as “Lord,” and worshiped.

The warrior David confessed that the Lord was “A shield for me.” Warrior David knew about shields. He carried many. He fought with shield in hand many times. He killed many enemies with a shield in one hand and a sword in the other.

But in this moment, he cycled between faith and despair. Even his declaration of faith declares God to be the One who lifts up his head.

Do you hang your head when you are discouraged? I have bowed my head in reverence. I have bowed my head in embarrassment or shame. I have seen many discouraged people hang their heads, eyes downcast to the ground, as they shuffle through the motions of living. David’s head had been brought low.

David bowed his head in defeat as he ascended the Mount of Olives. But in faith, David prophesied that his head, now bowed low in defeat as he flees Absalom’s coup d'├ętat, will be lifted up by God. He confesses the Lord to be the “one who lifts his head.”

David’s characteristic cry to God is one of passion, urgency, and desperation. In the face of his desperation, David calls on God. Throughout the Psalms, David allows God to hear his unedited cry. I have spent much of my life trying to sort out my feelings before presenting them to God. I somehow try to have everything untangled and presented in a neat and appropriate format. But it does not work. David had given up trying to organize, arrange, and define his chaos of emotions in a presentable way to God. I don’t have to either. I find comfort in the reality that God can deal with my raw and unfiltered emotions. God heard David. God hears your cry, too.

In the midst of crisis, David describes falling asleep and finding rest. How does this fit right here? What are you doing sleeping, David? You are on the run for your life.

Think about the violence surrounding David. Longtime private enemies had become public foes. His own son had turned against him. Others joined the insurrection. David was on the run. Yet, he found sleep. The Lord sustained him. I sense his surprise that he did not get killed in his sleep. “I awoke.” He found himself rested and refreshed for the flight.

Many nights have been interrupted with fear. Stress and anxiety seem to poke their unwelcome heads into my dreams. Then I awake. I have often sensed Satan’s attacks of fear in the night. On those nights when sweet sleep and rest come, I rejoice. I am refreshed. God’s rest prepares me for the new day that awaits.

David said that his enemies numbered in the tens of thousands. Numbers may scare us. Especially when the odds are against us. The odds against David were grossly uneven. Faced with uneven odds, David boldly asserts his purpose that he will refuse fear even when the odds are impossible.

I often bemoan the uneven odds that seem to face me. But compared to David, I have to remind myself how good I have it.

  • I am not on the run for my life. 
  • I am not the victim of a coup d'├ętat, that includes the murderous, vengeful betrayal of my son.
  • My wife has not been seized by my son and taken to the rooftops as his sex toy. 
  • I am not facing violent attacks.
  • I am not the victim of people hurling profanities and rocks at me.
David was facing all of this. In the face of impossible odds, numbering in the tens of thousands, David asserts faith in God.

What are the numbers that scare you and me? Are they the numbers of soldiers on the other side? The numbers of dollars needed? The numbers of students needed to enroll in order to keep the university solvent and sustainable? There are some numbers that scare me as I seek to lead the team at Wesley Biblical Seminary. 

  • A $500,000 annual fund of a $1.1 million budget, which means $42,000 in unrestricted gifts each month.
  • A $2,000,000 relocation campaign to purchase a facility and relocate the seminary in the Jackson, Mississippi metro. 
  • A need for a 6-figure emergency fund.
  • Enrollment numbers, headcount, and academic hours sold to support the tuition component of our seminary budget. 

What numbers scare you? Numbers are often our enemies. We fight the numbers to defeat some foes and even the odds. David did not fear to bring his impossible numbers to God. David models assertive faith against impossible numerical odds, and asserts relentless courage even when the odds are tilted radically against him.

Why could David demonstrate so much faith when the odds were so against him?

David believed in a God who could even the odds. In faith, he imagined his foes as already defeated by God. He imagined them as disfigured by a conquering foe, God Himself. He metaphorically described God using and abusing his enemies like one might abuse a stray dog. The metaphor is somewhat hideous in the gory image it conjures. Nevertheless, David’s example challenges me to see my enemies as defeated, disfigured, and held up to contempt.

David grappled with the reality that he was too weak and defenseless to conquer his enemies. He was not used to that position. He was used to being in a position of power, strength and might. He was accustomed to the odds being in his favor. Now, aged and weakened, God would have to fight for him. God must even impossible odds. David could no longer save himself. He needed a miracle.

Are the odds stacked against you? Is the enemy overwhelming in its numbers? Do you feel like you are fighting for your life?

Let’s even the odds by holding on in faith God. You serve a God who specializes in evening impossible odds.





Thursday, January 18, 2018

Are You a Republican Fundamentalist, or are you a Christian?

I recently visited a retired friend in another state. He served as a seminary professor, theologian, and pastor. As we talked, he shared about the last church he had served in the southwest. Church conflict tore at the soul of the pastor. Opinion, agendas, and politics sought to shred the fabric of the Body of Christ. My friend told me that his greatest burden for his church was that they had ceased being Christ-followers and had become a sect of Republican Fundamentalists.

I knew immediately what my friend meant by “Republican Fundamentalists.” Politics and religion. He meant that folks embraced a conservative leaning political platform aligned with more conservative elements within the Republican party in the United States of America. "Republican Fundamentalists" embrace the social conservatism, the fiscal conservatism, and the concepts of smaller government. Today, this loosely affiliated group has become a special interest group broadly mislabeled as “Evangelicals.”

Let me seek to define the term. I think that a "Republican Fundamentalist" is a person who aligns himself or herself with fundamental or foundational Protestant Christian teachings; then, aligns oneself with conservative leaning political principles that appear to fit their Christian teachings. In and of itself, this first step is harmless.

But it does not stop there. Before long, the "Republican Fundamentalist" finds one's faith placed in political influence, processes, systems, and people, rather than in their living Lord. Faith becomes so politically co-opted and compromised by a syncretism of religion and culture, that one loses the ability to speak with integrity into a corrupt system of which he or she is a part and holds a deeply vested interest. Biblical values of being "in the world but not of the world" become sacrificed. Serving Christ as His disciple becomes compromised with secular values, albeit conservative ones. Church becomes a sideshow to advocate for political causes. Church becomes a special interest group whose rights must be protected. Living faith is neutered into harmlessness.

Politics has become religious, and religion has become political. Political pollsters and pundits made a heyday out of analyzing the “Evangelical” vote in the 2016 US presidential election, reducing the church to pawns in a world system.

My pastor friend went on to describe a church that had lost true evangelistic fervor. Believers cared little about genuine conversions. They were disinterested in outreach that cost them anything. Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick, or caring for the imprisoned: none of these acts of compassion described by Jesus in Matthew 25 were high on their agenda. And when the outreach became really controversial with things like showing mercy to street people, hosting after school programs for illegal immigrant children, and promoting life in front of an abortion clinic, the volunteers disappear.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the same trends in 1930s Germany. He wrote: “The church can only defend its own space by fighting, not for space, but for the salvation of the world. Otherwise the church becomes a ‘religious society’ that fights in its own interest and thus has ceased to be the church of God to the world. So the first task to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world” (Ethics, p. 64).

“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NKJV).

The question for us is this, will we be the church or will we simply be a special interest group? Will we be the Body of Christ or a pious club? The church is who it is, an agent of grace and salvation in the world, for Jesus’ sake. Special interest groups exist for themselves.

I am not advocating for less involvement in social and political action. In fact, I am actually advocating for more engagement. However, our engagement must not be "business as usual." I am advocating for bold and credible voices whose allegiance to Christ protects them from being compromised by a world that would seek to press us into its mold. Christ followers must be defined by the life, death, resurrection, and hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, not with partisan labels. We must speak boldly and courageously, even to the point of suffering, if Jesus calls us to that cross. But we must not be compromised by any of our world's systems. We must be true to the Christ of the cross.

It is not the political or moral views of conservative Republicans to which I object. I share many, if not most, of those views. I object to Republican Fundamentalism’s idolatry that has co-opted Christ’s Church away from being a place that seeks to save souls, show mercy and compassion, and stand against broad cultural sin. Too many "Evangelicals" have misconstrued their role in the world as political, rather than transformational. The world system has reduced too many of us into pawns in its game of power and control. I object. I object to Christ’s Church becoming a special interest group, a demographic category for pollsters and pundits. A religious special interest group is just a pious club. It is not the church of Jesus Christ.

John Wesley wrote twelve rules for Methodist preachers. Rule #11 gets to the point.

“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.”

Let's be Christ's Church, the Body of Christ, in a broken, hurting, lost, and needy world.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

It’s Not a Victimless Sin

Part 2 of 2 
Ezekiel 3:20-21

The sin of pornography is doubly damning for a professing believer. What about the sex worker’s soul? What about the image of God imprinted upon each human in Creation? Rather than warning and caring for the exploited sex workers, far too many professing Christians use them, like consumable and disposable waste, to feed their own sinful fantasies and pleasure. No Christian love or care is extended. The image of God upon the created is ignored by the lustful leer of the one who consumes another.

I was praying with a friend who had struggled with many issues throughout his life. One of the issues was pornography. I remember telling him very directly that his compulsive sinful flights to pornography, lust, and masturbation to manage his sexual urges imprisoned sex workers and advanced a twenty-first century slavery. He looked at me with shock.

“I never thought of it that way,” he responded.

“It’s about time you did,” was my response.

In an internet age where private consumption of pornography is hidden between a phone, a wifi router, and a soft glow, honest repentance and departure from lustful participation in pornography is scarce. Jesus’ words span twenty centuries with a bold relevance for today.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30 NKJV).

Job surely had grappled with temptations of lust. The ancient saint boldly proclaimed his testimony and personal commitment.

“I have made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look upon a young woman? For what is the allotment of God from above, and the inheritance of the Almighty from on high? Is it not destruction for the wicked, and disaster for the workers of iniquity? Does He not see my ways, and count all my steps? If I have walked with falsehood, or if my foot has hastened to deceit, let me be weighed on honest scales, that God may know my integrity” (Job 31:1-6 NKJV).

I first met Melissa when she was sixteen. She was serving a banquet at the Christian high school from which Beth and I graduated. Two years later, she enrolled in Bible college. She served as my student secretary, sang in college singing groups, earned A’s in class, and attended small group in our home. We rejoiced with Melissa’s successes and included her as a part of our family.

But Melissa had unresolved issues. A family history of sexual abuse, and manipulation complicated her romantic life, leading to sexual sin and dismissal from Bible college. She eventually “hooked up” with Tim and bore two children to him. Tim was an ex-Marine. When money was tight, he demanded that Melissa work as an erotic dancer in local clubs. Her income, he insisted, was needed to make ends meet. In order to work up the nerve to perform such an indignity, she got drunk. The alcohol numbed her emotions enough for her to cope with the shame of it all.

I warned Melissa. I tried to help her find a path of hope.

When Melissa and Tim broke it off, he took the kids. He had money. She had nothing, except fading beauty and growing shame. In 2011, a small article in a Michigan newspaper featured her death from drug overdose.

And you say that your pornography habit hurts no one.

Right.

Lexi “Olivia” Nova. Shyla Stylez. August Ames. Porn actresses. Consumable. Victims of a culture gone mad with watching sex on the internet.

Now, I warn you, professing Christian friend. The Bible teaches that fornicators go to Hell. If you are to be a follower of Jesus Christ, you must repent in faith, become His true and faithful disciple, and walk with Him in the victory He provides through the merits of His atoning blood on the cross of Calvary.

“Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man that the righteous should not sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; also you will have delivered your soul” (Ezekiel 3:20-21 NKJV).

Lexi, Olivia, August, Melissa.

It’s not a victimless sin.

In the words of Jesus, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11c NKJV).

Monday, January 15, 2018

Blood on Your Hands?

Part 1 of 2

Ezekiel 3:16-19

Their physical features are often beautiful. Their sexual appetites are legendary. Their audience is vast.

Their lives are filled with torment. They are sex workers, porn actors, exotic dancers, and prostitutes. Hollow eyes. Soulless gazes. Empty. Hard. Aged. Exploited. Addicted.

A recent news report tells the story. Lexi “Olivia” Nova (20) of Minnesota, a porn actress, recently sought help. She tried to get sober. Her boyfriend died of a heroin overdose last year. Now, she is dead, and no one knows the cause of death.

Lexi is one of many who have lost their souls, their lives, their families, their hopes, their minds, their bodies, and their dreams to the adult entertainment industry.

Do you care? Why should you? She is just a hopeless whore in a junkie hotel, you say. She ought to know better, you say.

But what are you doing to contribute to Lexi’s bondage, addiction, exploitation, endangerment, and death? Do you have blood on your hands?

The pornography industry and its related sex trades are a multi-billion dollar, criminal-infiltrated, underworld of twenty-first century slavery. If you consume these images, you are this industry’s customer. If you visit the websites, buy the content, lust after the fantasies, and gratify yourself to the entertainment, you are the problem. The pornography industry cannot exist without customers. If you are one, you are a twenty-first century slave owner. You are ensuring the bondage, exploitation, disease, addiction, and death of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

You say, “Dr. John, why are you so worked up about this?”

I am worked up about this because of the large number of ministers, Christian leaders, and church members who are consuming pornography. Each consumer participates in the enslavement of sex workers.

I am worked up about this because pornography is fornication. Both words share the same Greek root word, porneo. Fornication is the most broadly defined word for sexual immorality used in scripture. It refers to all forms of sexual sin ranging from gazes, to touches, to actions, and includes the entire range of relationships in which such sin might take place. The Bible strictly forbids all fornication.

“Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (Ephesians 5:1-7 NKJV).

Why is fornication such a big deal? Because it exploits people made in the image of God. It exploits people whom Jesus died to save. Fornication always has victims. In the Body of Christ, we are commanded to live in love, not exploitation, with one another and toward outsiders. Holy, self-giving love becomes the defining characteristic of Christ’s church.

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit” (I Thessalonians 4:3-8 NKJV).

Self-giving love does not defraud another. Defrauding means cheating. It means taking something for nothing in a way that exploits and disadvantages another. Defrauding leaves another as less than they were before the exchange. In the context of I Thessalonians 4, defrauding means to use someone sexually in an uncommitted way. One takes from another some part of their sexual self that can the taker never will restore or return. To defraud has the tone of cheating in a business deal. Sex is reduced to a transaction. Relationship is stripped away. Commitment is absent. Love is absent. Fornication is defrauding, whether the victim is a girlfriend, a child, a mistress, or a porn actress.

If a professing Christian is living in fornication, that one is living in deception and in danger of eternal judgment. John, the Revelator’s, closing words to the church include a warning against fornication that elevates it to the level of witchcraft, murder, idolatry, and lying.

“Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:14-15 NKJV).

Ezekiel was called to be a prophet of God to the Hebrews stuck in Babylonian captivity. God called him to be a watchman for their souls. Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman for his people echoes my own call as a follower of Jesus Christ. So, I have to warn you.

“Now it came to pass at the end of seven days that the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me: When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet, if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul’” (Ezekiel 3:16-19 NKJV).

If you are using pornography, you are in danger of Hell’s fires. The Bible is clear, fornicators go to Hell. Those words are not my words. They come directly from the Word of God.


Part 2 of 2 is It's Not a Victimless Sin