REFORMATION

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. [Hebrews 13:8-9a (NLT)]

Trapp family chapelTwo weeks ago, in recognition of Reformation Day (commemorating Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517), the minister at our liturgical church spoke about needed reforms in today’s church. By definition, reformation is changing or improving something by correcting its faults, removing inconsistencies and abuses, and imposing modern methods and values. While I firmly believe in correcting errors, removing contradictions and misuses, and even using modern methods, I would suggest caution about adopting modern values.

If a pilot is off course by even one degree, he will miss his landing area by 92 feet for every mile flown or one mile for every sixty miles. Just one degree off course when flying from JFK to LAX would land us in the Pacific Ocean rather than on a runway! It’s as important for the church to stay on course as it is for a pilot. If we think of God and His Word as true north, we want to set our spiritual course in His direction. Church reform is necessary whenever we find ourselves veering off course, and reforms in the church are always justified when they bring us back to true north and Christ.

Since few people in Martin Luther’s day had read the Bible, they depended on the church to tell them what it said and meant. Luther, however, believed that Scripture, not papal decree or tradition, had the final word. When using the Bible’s words as the sole reliable source of instruction, he found that many church practices didn’t match Christ’s teachings. He felt the church had gotten off course by selling indulgences to reduce a sinner’s (or his loved one’s) time in Purgatory (a sort of way station before getting to heaven). His reading of Romans led him to understand that salvation was by grace through faith alone (in opposition to the church’s view that good works had a part in salvation). When posting those theses, Martin Luther wasn’t trying to start a new religion; he was trying to reform the old one. Rather than taking a new route, he was trying to get the church back on the correct one. When the church didn’t change direction, Luther did, leading to the Protestant Reformation.

I certainly support modern reforms that make the church more effective such as contemporary music and services, online giving, apps, streaming, e-blasts and newsletters, video studies, and strategic partnerships in giving, service projects, and missions. I’m far more cautious about reforms that modernize the church to bring it into the 21st century’s mindset! While course correction is necessary when the church veers off track, we must be wary of changing course just to head where everyone else is going. We must never dumb down the Gospel, disregard the parts we find troubling, jettison teachings that seem old-fashioned, or preach what people want to hear as opposed to what God wants said!

While researching Jesus’s feeding of the multitude, I came upon a sermon given by a pastor at a mainline Protestant church. Reframing this miracle to make it more believable, he claimed that everyone shared the little food they had that day. While getting 5,000 men and another 10,000 women and children to share their food probably qualifies as a miracle, that’s not what the gospels say happened. All four accounts are specific about the amount of food available: five loaves and two fish! Nevertheless, this pastor made a true but unbelievable story more palatable for those who had difficulty swallowing it. That’s the sort of church reform of which we must be cautious! After all, if we can’t believe Jesus could feed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, how can we believe He brought Lazarus back to life, rose from the dead, or ascended into heaven?

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church,” and defined it as, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession…. grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, A.W. Tozer called the difference between “the old cross and the new.” The way of Christ does not parallel the world but intersects it, wrote Tozer. The gospel message does not change with the times; right and wrong, righteousness and sin, are not determined by what society finds acceptable but by God and His Word.

Christians are not supposed to look and act like everyone else; we’re supposed to march to a different drummer: Jesus Christ. While we are called to live at peace with everybody, we are not supposed to behave like them or compromise our beliefs and morals. We have been called to bring Christ into the world as His disciples, not as his press agents. Our job is to make Jesus known rather than make Him more acceptable to the 21st century. We aren’t supposed to reform the church to look like the world; our task is to reform the world to look more like Christ!

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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CIRCLING THE AIRPORT

airplaneYour word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … Give discernment to me, your servant; then I will understand your laws. [Psalm 119:105,125 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

I’d been struggling over a devotion for days. The Bible verses were selected, several paragraphs written, and it even had a title. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t finish it. It was like taking off in an airplane, heading toward Chicago, circling O’Hare airport, but never landing. Every few days, I’d return to my partially finished work only to circle some more; I couldn’t tie up the loose ends and come to my conclusion. Eventually, I prayed about it; having felt God’s guidance when I started out, why couldn’t I land the plane? I was doing his work, why wouldn’t he help me finish the job?

I remembered the Apostle Paul. He was doing God’s work and yet his plans didn’t always work out. In spite of his desire to visit Rome, God prevented him from doing that for several years because He wanted Paul to preach elsewhere. That wasn’t the first time God had thwarted Paul’s plans. In Acts 16, we learn that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia (probably to Ephesus) so they went to Phrygia and Galatia. Then, when they headed north to Bithynia, the Spirit intervened again and sent them through Mysia to Troas. While in Troas, Paul had a clear vision of a man calling him to Macedonia and so Paul went. Although Paul’s destination had been Asia, his plan hadn’t been God’s; Europe before Asia was God’s itinerary. In God’s time, Paul eventually visited Ephesus, Bithynia, and Rome but he only got there because that was God’s destination.

Like Paul, sometimes we decide our destination and, unless it also is God’s destination, we won’t get there. I thought back to that unfinished devotion. Since I’d drawn my conclusion before completing the work, I was trying to make the Scripture fit the conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the Scripture. Having taken off without looking at the flight plan, I was circling O’Hare when I belonged at Newark! Once I revisited the Bible story about which I’d been writing, I asked God what He was saying in it and finished my work quickly.

Sometimes, instead of drawing conclusions, we jump to them. Instead of looking at all of the evidence, we cherry pick to reach the conclusion we want. When we do that in Bible study, we are guilty of what is called eisegesis (which is reading meaning into the text) as opposed to exegesis  (which is reading the meaning out of the text). In eisegesis, we inject our own ideas into the verses, allowing us to make them mean whatever we want them to mean. In exegesis, careful objective analysis leads to the explanation of the text. One (exegesis) does justice to the text while the other (eisegesis) mishandles it.

I’d had an idea and wanted Scripture to support it instead of looking at the Scripture and discovering what it said, meant, how it related to the rest of the Bible, and how it applied to our lives. Whether it’s drawing conclusions or planning a trip, where we want to go often is not where God wants us to be. When that happens, we’ll probably encounter difficulty getting there.  Before taking off, it’s wise to consult Him about the flight plan!

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. [Williams Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15  (NLT)]

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OUR GATEKEEPER

Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life. [Proverbs 4:23 NCV]

Corkscrew SwampActing as gatekeepers for the temple in Jerusalem, the Levites opened and closed its doors and guarded it during the night. Among their many duties, they prohibited entry to anyone considered “unclean,” protected the temple from theft or desecration, watched the offering and tithe money, and maintained proper decorum within the temple. They also were the ones who imposed the death penalty on any who dared enter the temple illegally.

Although many churches have implemented security measures, we no longer have Levites at our church doors. Most of us, however, could use a similar gatekeeper to protect our minds (and mouths) from anything that could defile us. Like crashers at a party, negative thoughts can sneak into our heads. Once in, they tend to prop open the door so more negativity can follow. Anger often brings his pals animosity and resentment. Once fear steals in, worry slips in right behind him; doubt, regret and suspicion are sure to follow. Before we know it, bitterness and hatred have joined the party, along with envy, lust, and their old friend guilt. When our minds are filled with undesirable and unwelcome callers, there’s little room left for any positive thinking. Once those bad thoughts have gotten into our heads, they want to continue their damage by spilling out through our mouths.

The mind’s gatekeeper must be diligent, on duty 24/7, and refuse entry to any thoughts and feelings considered “unclean” or inappropriate. He’d maintain order in house and keep our thinking in line. On the lookout for hazards, he’d steer us away from situations that could bring trouble or temptation. Rather than kill temple trespassers who stepped beyond the warning stone, the gatekeeper would squash any negative words before they could escape!

Unfortunately, the books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that the Temple’s gatekeepers fell down on the job. They allowed the dwelling place of God to be defiled by idolatry and fall into disrepair. When King Hezekiah ordered the Temple’s purification, it took more than two weeks simply to clean it!

At the moment of Jesus’s death, the Temple was no longer the place of God’s presence. Because of Christ, God dwells within each one of us. Having provided each of us with a far better Gatekeeper in the Holy Spirit, Levites are no longer needed at our doors. We, however, must cede control to the Spirit so that He can do His job!

You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God. So you do not belong to yourselves. [1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV)]

Those who live following their sinful selves think only about things that their sinful selves want. But those who live following the Spirit are thinking about the things the Spirit wants them to do. If people’s thinking is controlled by the sinful self, there is death. But if their thinking is controlled by the Spirit, there is life and peace.  …The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:5-6,14 (NLT)]

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FINDING SOMETHING NEW

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Jeremiah 31:33 (NLT)]

pikaSpencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? is an uncomplicated parable about two mice and two “little people” (Hem and Haw) who are looking for the “cheese” that will bring them happiness. When the cheese disappears, the mice quickly scurry off in search of more. Hem and Haw, however, have built their life around that cheese. Arrogantly thinking their brains are superior to those of their four-legged friends, they are unwilling to change and search for different cheese. Eventually, hunger drives Haw to leave his comfort zone and go in search of new cheese. When he finds it, he also finds those simple creatures, the mice, who’d been there for quite a while and enjoying the delicious new cheese.

The cheese is a metaphor for what we desire in life, whether a relationship, job, money, or peace of mind, and the book is about dealing with change, keeping things simple, and not confusing ourselves with fearful beliefs. Hem and Haw always thought that change would lead only to something worse. It is not until Haw understands that change also can lead to something better that he starts looking for new cheese. Sadly, left behind in the maze is Hem. Paralyzed with fear, in spite of his hunger, he stays in his comfort zone where the old cheese had been.

Throughout the story, Haw writes messages on the wall. When he writes, “The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it,” I couldn’t help but think of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. The law was their cheese; they held tight to it and then over-complicated it. The simple law of keeping the Sabbath day became burdensome with its thirty-nine categories (and hundreds of subcategories) of prohibited work and exceptions to the rules. While tying knots was prohibited, if the knot could be untied with just one hand, it was allowed! People couldn’t carry their clothes out of a burning house on the Sabbath but they could put on several layers of clothing and wear them out! As happened with Hem, the Pharisees became over-confident and arrogant; for them, their complicated set of rules was the only cheese, even when it ceased making sense!

Jesus, however, introduced a new kind of cheese: a new covenant of salvation through faith, not works. Rather than the law being written with ink on paper it was written with the blood of Jesus upon men’s hearts. Although God’s promise of a new covenant came true in Jesus, the Pharisees refused to change and stayed hungry in their corner of the maze.

A great many of us in the 21st century are little different from those who resisted Jesus in the 1st. We may not cling to a long list of prohibitions and rules as did the Pharisees but, out of fear of change, we cling to a way of life that isn’t working. We’re like the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do for eternal life. When told that he must give up the old cheese (his riches), he walked away rather than accept Jesus’s offer of salvation. Like Hem, could we be going hungry when all we need to do is step out of our comfort zone and seek the Bread of Life? Or, like, Haw, will we seek and find?

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. [Acts 17:27-28a (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

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LOT’S CHOICE

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. [Genesis 12:1-2 (NLT)]

Apple River, IL

When God told Abram (later called Abraham) to leave his native country, his nephew Lot joined him. The two men prospered and, by the time they left Egypt, both families had become wealthy. While we often think that our problems come from not having enough of something, Abram’s and Lot’s problems arose from having too much in the way of livestock. When camped between Bethel and Ai, disputes arose between their herdsmen, probably about water, grazing area and which animals belonged to whose flock. Without enough pasture for both herds, Abram realized that they needed to part to avoid any more disputes. Although God had promised Canaan to him, Abram pointed out there was plenty of land for both families and gave Lot the opportunity to pick whatever territory he desired.

Although Lot should have deferred the first choice to the elder Abram, he looked east at the fertile grassy plains of the Jordan Valley and greedily chose for himself what appeared to be the lushest and best land. Abram, however, chose to live by faith rather than sight. Trusting the Lord who had promised him both land and so many offspring that they couldn’t be counted, he settled in Hebron and immediately built an altar to the Lord. Rather than trusting God, Lot simply trusted what he saw and chose to pitch his tents near Sodom. Then, instead of building an altar, he moved into Sodom. If you remember your Bible stories, you know this was just about the worst decision he could have made. The valley may have looked beautiful but it was rotten to the core. Because of its wickedness, Sodom later was totally destroyed, Lot narrowly escaped the destruction, his wealth was lost, and his wife became a pillar of salt.

Lot said, “I will take,” while Abram said, “I will give!” Selfishly trusting himself and what he saw, Lot ended up with nothing; trusting the Lord, Abram ended up with a whole nation! One looked at the possible while the other counted on God for the impossible. What do we learn? Looks can be deceiving, don’t take the best for ourselves, and trust in God’s promises!

For we live by believing and not by seeing. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

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ASK

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6:7-8 (RSV)]

Our Father, whose predominant residence pattern is widely perceived as being in an exo-atmospheric environment, your name shall be treated, as a matter of course, in a reverential demeanor appropriate to existing protocol guidelines. It is to be hoped that, as an optimal result of the ongoing situational development, your form of governmental institution may be, in accordance with the appropriate procedures, finalized within the foreseeable future, in forms applicable to both bilateral and multilateral fora. [Anonymous]

climbing asterThese are the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer as if they were written by a lawyer and, having recently met with our attorney to update some documents, I don’t think they’re much of an exaggeration. With all of their circumlocution, it’s difficult to know what lawyers actually mean. They use vague abstract nouns rather than concrete ones and seem to go around a subject rather than straight through it. Why can’t they use straightforward language and directly say what they mean?

While our prayers probably are not as convoluted as the above version of the Lord’s Prayer, they frequently are as indirect and vague. Of course, the lawyer uses all of that language out of caution. He’s writing so that his words can’t be misconstrued: so that anyone seeking another meaning to his words can’t find it. God, however, is not an adversary who is trying to trap us into saying something we don’t mean or attempting to find a loophole in our prayers. In fact, He already knows what we need before we say it. Nevertheless, He’s waiting to hear it from us.

When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind beggars called out to Him with a rather ambiguous request: “Have mercy on us!” Did they want forgiveness, food, clothing,  or money? Any of those would have been acts of mercy. Surely Jesus knew what they really wanted but He responded by asking them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Only then were they direct and asked for what they really wanted: to see! It was not until they clearly asked that Jesus acted and they received sight.

We have been told to ask before we receive. Could it be that God answers our prayers based on our requests? Jesus promised that, if we ask for bread, we won’t get a stone and, if we ask for a fish, we won’t get a serpent. Unsaid, but certainly implied, is that, if we fail to ask for that bread or fish, we won’t get either one! Could receiving depend upon asking? Could there be blessings He has for us that we haven’t received simply because we never asked?

Like lawyers, perhaps we err on the side of caution: the less specific our prayers, the less likely it is that we’ll be disappointed. Vague prayers, however, don’t exhibit faith. If someone listened to our prayers, would they know what we mean or are our prayers filled with cautious language and ambiguous requests? I think of a child’s prayers and the long list of “God blesses” usually found at their end. Are our prayers as vague? How do we want God to bless those on our prayer list? What are their specific needs? What are ours? We don’t need a lot of words to be direct and specific with God. If Jesus were passing by right now, what would we call out to Him? What would we ask?

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. [Matthew 21:22 (RSV)]

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:7-9 (RSV)]

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