Categories
Religious

The Plain and Simple Gospel

“‘Come, follow me,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you how to fish for people.'”

Matthew 4:19 (Common English Bible)

We are all living a deeply entangled, complex life. As complexity increases, so does our exhaustion. We run faster, master complex planning calendars that were designed to make life less cumbersome, and come to the end of many days feeling that we have been defeated. Present is a growing nostalgia for a simpler world—a desire for a plainer, clearer path forward. This general desire includes the spiritual realm. The hope is that the church would provide a rediscovery of God, reclaiming God’s strength for daily living, and direction for a larger purpose to which we may attach our lives. Unfortunately, what many find are cumbersome requirements for membership and multiple invitations to serve on committees that multiple our exhaustion. With church participation, we discover that there are now more oars in the water that requires our attention.

How can we return to a simpler time? Jesus is instructive. Notice that Jesus does not invite people to register for a six-week member class. Jesus does not make committee assignments. Jesus does not examine doctrinal purity or demand conformity to creedal statements. Jesus quite simply asks that we follow him. To follow Jesus is to share life with Jesus in the fullest sense: to go where he goes, to listen to what he taught, and to participate in practices and disciplines that were important to him. An invitation to follow is the suggestion that there is something of value to be found. Naturally, to accept such an invitation begins with an acknowledgment that the present life isn’t working anymore. Unless we really believe that another approach to life is required, we will continue trying to make the present one work.

The one other thing that Jesus asks for is a posture of humility, a desire to learn, and a willingness to participate in Jesus’ work: “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” All the work of Jesus is about one thing—looking for those who have wandered far from God and bringing them back home to the Father. As with any great work, there are multiple functions that must be accomplished. None of us are asked—or equipped—to do them all. Some of us are to be teachers, some will show hospitality, and others will be administrators, caregivers, and evangelists. Others will provide care and comfort to the broken. The various jobs to be done are many. But one goal remains: “to fish for people” so that they may return to God. Jesus will show us the way.

None of this suggests that boards and committees are without value to Jesus. Leadership boards must be populated with those who have demonstrated the capacity to respond to the promptings of God, to show people where Jesus is moving, and to call them to follow. Committees provide a responsible means for organizing a great workforce for accomplishing all that Jesus seeks to do in a particular community. But, in this over-complicated world, the church must not add unnecessary complexity to the simple call of Jesus to follow him and to participate with him in his grand redemptive purposes: a cup of cold water to the thirsty, a helping hand on the roadside, an encouraging word softly spoken. There are all within our reach. Nor are we called to carry the whole world on our backs. Our chief function is to point to the one who does, Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel, plain and simple.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

Where to Begin

“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Acts 1:8 (Common English Bible)

When the king in Alice in Wonderland was asked where to begin, he said gravely, “Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Begin at the beginning. Naturally, that guidance seems reasonable. That is, until you have to actually open your mouth, and speak. With thoughts racing from one place to another, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many fine places to begin. Jesus tells his disciples, here in Acts, “you will be my witnesses.” Where do the disciples begin? Where are we to begin? Sharing our faith in Jesus seems reasonable until we actually confront that moment – that moment when we are asked, “Who is Jesus?”

That moment came to me one Easter morning. I was enjoying breakfast in a Doylestown, PA diner, looking over the message I would preach in just a few hours. Mary, the waitress assigned to the table where I was seated, approached with coffee and said, “I guess this is your big day, pastor!” “I guess so,” I remarked. Then Mary asked, “What is Easter all about anyway?” Initially, I dismissed her question, not thinking she was serious. But I was mistaken; Mary was very serious. It was then I took the time to really notice her, to look into her eyes and really see her. I will not forget those eyes – eyes that betrayed her silence; silence of considerable pain. “Where do I begin?” I thought. I began with her pain. “Easter means that you can stop beating yourself up. Whatever guilt you may have now, whatever mistakes you have made in life, Easter means that you are to stop immediately from beating yourself up. God has removed it all.”

“But there is more,” I said to Mary. “Easter is an invitation to pay attention to Jesus.” I shared with Mary that as she paid attention to Jesus, by reading of him in the Bible, she will discover that she will want to be more than she is now. “Pay attention long enough to Jesus and you will experience a compulsion to be something more; you will begin to live differently.”  Mary needed to hear that Jesus doesn’t leave a life unchanged. Any significant time spent with Jesus always results in a desire to be made new. “Your whole world will appear different. You will want to be different.”

“Finally, Mary, begin to follow Jesus as you learn about him.” I shared with her that what that means is to “do what he asks in his teaching.” Imagine Jesus as a mentor in life and do everything that is asked of you. Something inexplicable happens when someone commits to doing all that Jesus’ asks: they receive an uncommon power to do so. People who obey all that they understand of Jesus’ teachings receive a power from outside of themselves; a power that actually makes them something so much more than what they were. Mary began to cry and asked how to begin. That is when I knew I had come to the end. And there, in a diner in Doylestown, PA, Mary gave her life to Jesus.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

A Christian’s Strength

“I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:13 (Common English Bible)

What is so remarkable about these words is that they are spoken by a man in chains. Paul is a prisoner in Rome. In a life dedicated to serving Christ, Paul has endured much – shipwreck, ridicule, hunger, and excruciating poverty. Now he sits in a Roman prison and writes that whatever the circumstances, Paul has learned the secret of inner strength and contentment. Perhaps even more remarkable, Paul lays aside his own needs and concerns to write a deeply personal letter to the Philippians to encourage them in their faith. Despite his imprisonment and impending trial, Paul’s one desire is to share with the church in Philippi that joy and strength does not come from outward circumstances but from an intimate relationship with Jesus. That power is so tremendous and so available that Paul feels he can face anything knowing that nothing can diminish his spirit. His spirit was invulnerable. Paul wants the Philippians to utilize that same power.

The interesting thing about the New Testament is that we find that same power animating most of the early Christians. A profession of faith in Jesus usually pushed people to the margins of their communities. Families were torn apart – mothers and daughters, fathers and sons no longer in relationship with one another because one or the other decided to become a follower of Jesus. Worship services were conducted in secret and often disrupted by Jewish leaders eager to destroy the Jesus movement. The worst tortures that could be imagined were invented and performed to discourage participation in the new Christian faith. There was every reason for ignoring the swelling growth of the Christian Church, keeping your head down and simply avoiding trouble. Yet, for all the compelling reasons to remain separate from those following Jesus, men and women who risked believing in Jesus made one dominating impression wherever they went, the impression of uncommon power.

That power has not been withdrawn. It is not a closely guarded secret. Where men and women continue to take Christ’s attitude of loving others and serving others that same power is unmistakable. What is troubling is that few would say that the Church today impresses the world with the same power as it once did. Somehow those who claim discipleship to Jesus Christ show little evidence of a changed life, a life of uncommon power. Absent in many Christians today is a sense of adequacy for meeting challenge and adversity. Membership and attendance decline of the Christian Church has been tracked and documented for many years now. This has resulted is the publication of resources to perfect the church’s hospitality, increase the vitality of its worship, and harness the power of technology. However valuable these may be, the most urgent need is for followers of Jesus Christ to get back to that power which is possessed by the daily nurture of a personal fellowship with Jesus.

Return for a moment to the first two words above, “I can.” Some years ago I was working with a personal trainer, Michael Bishop. One particular day he had me on my back, bench pressing what seemed to be an incredible weight for me. After pushing the bar above my head several times I did a controlled drop of the bar to my chest. I was depleted. I delivered an eye message to him to remove the bar from my chest. I will never forget his response, “That’s not my bar. You place it back on the upright supports.” Then he did what his training taught him to do. He placed his hands around the bar with my own. That was simply to ensure that I didn’t hurt myself. But the lifting belonged to me. I pushed with everything in me; I summoned all the power I could to lift the bar back onto the supports. As my strength began to fail, he matched the loss of my strength with his own until the bar had returned to rest on the support. Paul writes, “I can, through the power who gives me strength.” If you are depressed or in trouble say, “I can in Him” and you will find God’s strength come alongside your own. If you struggle with passions or addictions that frighten you, or if you feel that you are losing your grip on life, say, “I can in Him” and you will discover an unseen hand on the bar with your own, matching your strength. The Christian’s strength begins with, “I can.”

Joy,

The above meditation was taken from Dr. Doug Hood’s new book, Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, volume 2, coming to your favorite online book seller in early September.
Categories
Religious

A Call to Prayer

“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”

Mark 1:35 (Common English Bible)

My grandmother kept a large, white, faux leather cover Bible prominently in her home – usually on a coffee table, though she would occasionally move it about her home as though it was a traveling exhibit. Embossed into the cover was a full color picture of Jesus kneeling by a great rock in the wilderness. Each time my eyes fell upon that Bible I felt as though it was a call to prayer. The face of Jesus was not anxious, not desperate as my own on those occasions I did pray. His face portrayed a confidence, a radiance one has in the company of loved ones who care deeply about us.  Absent was worry, or doubt, or any trace of anxiety that threaten to consume. Yes, a call to prayer was evident in this picture of Jesus. However, that call made me uncomfortable – uncomfortable because I would experience a lack of spiritual power. With the disciples, I heard my own heart say, “Lord, teach us to pray like that.”

In this scripture, Jesus had just finished a hard, demanding day. Another day of similar demands stretched before him. How could Jesus be ready for it? Mark’s Gospel gives us the answer and with it an important insight to Jesus’ power, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” Jesus was intentional with prayer. Jesus wove into the fabric of each day a time to be alone with God. Jesus regarded this time a vital part of the human experience, however one may attempt to define or understand prayer. Prayer was an opportunity to link his life with the purposes of God and cultivate a friendship with God. This friendship produced the confidence that Jesus would not face any of life’s demands alone. That would be the source of Jesus’ spiritual power.

My lack of spiritual power as a child was from an inadequate view of prayer. I had reduced prayer to those occasions when I would ask God for a favor or for help with a difficulty. Consequently, days without prayer would pass – I simply did not have any request to make of God. Yet, as I matured, I continued to pay attention to that picture on my grandmother’s Bible, that picture of Jesus at prayer. It grew upon my consciousness that prayer is the same as time spent with a friend or loved one. I may not have anything to ask of my friend but I did enjoy their company. I felt valued by them, loved by them, strengthen because of their friendship. The same happens with prayer. A strong hand upon the shoulder, a confidence to face each day swelling within. Power comes as we find ourselves surrounded by God’s love, and guidance, and strength.   

With this refreshing surge of power that flows from regular time in prayer it is very strange then that we should be content with so little prayer. The weakest, most fearful individual can experience greater strength by the regular rhythm of prayer each day. As this passage of scripture demonstrates, prayer each day for Jesus was as ordinary as enjoying a meal. Jesus prayed often. Jesus prayed for himself and for others. Jesus prayed when he faced a crisis and Jesus prayed simply to be alone with God. Jesus urged his disciples to pray and Jesus taught prayer by example. What the disciples discovered is that regular prayer did not only sustain Jesus’ ministry, it gave direction. Immediately after Jesus rose from prayer this particular morning, Jesus knew what he must do that day. He was not to return to the previous day’s work. Jesus was to head in the other direction. God had new work for him there.         

Joy,

Categories
Religious

Not Waiting for Happiness

The following meditation is from Doug Hood’s upcoming book, Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, vol. 2

“I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:11-13 (Common English Bible)

Have you noticed how many people have delayed their happiness? They seem to believe that if they can achieve a little more success, acquire a little more wealth, or marry the right person then they will possess happiness. Happiness, they believe, is what follows effort, and time, and, perhaps, a little luck. It is as though happiness is somewhere out in front of everyone who is industrious enough to pursue it. Happiness is something to grasp, they believe, and their minds remain fixed upon it until they have taken ownership of it. Striving day upon day toward the possession of happiness, what they miss is that the secret of happiness is already present in the lives of those who long for it.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church provides the secret of happiness – as God’s people, we are to live in humility, looking out for others more than for ourselves. That is a great reversal of the commonly accepted formula for happiness. Essentially, Paul teaches that if we are always chasing after happiness, happiness always remains beyond our grasp. On the other hand, if we occupy ourselves with looking out for others, adding value to other people and promoting their welfare, happiness quietly joins God’s people and takes-up residence in them. Paul is urging God’s people to break free of the tiny little world of themselves and join the great enterprise of God’s work in the world.

Here, in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church, Paul further develops the secret to happiness. Having shared the secret of happiness, disclosed in the activity of Jesus who accepted humility to become like us, for the purposes of restoring us to God, Paul points to a mysterious strength that converges in our service to one another. That strength comes not from any person – or from the community of God’s people – but from the outside. It is God’s strength. There is far more going on when God’s people join with one another for the promotion of the welfare of others. The same Christ who became human to serve now empowers and enables God’s people in their service to one another.

Shortly following the death of his wife, J. R. Carmichael entered a nursing home. Yet, if you inquired about him, you learned that he is never in his room. It seems that each morning Mr. Carmichael would shower, dress, eat breakfast, and then move from one residential room to another. In each room, Mr. Carmichael spoke with the resident about their family, read the Bible to them, prayed with them, and told them that he loved them. Then it was off to the next room to do the same thing. Mr. Carmichael missed his wife every day but he never waited for happiness. Happiness found him, as he loved others deeply.

 Joy,