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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LOST AND FOUND

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. [Luke 15:4-6a (NIV)]

dahlia“The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures [mankind] to persevere. …this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.” So writes the demon Screwtape to his nephew, an apprentice devil trying to win a young man’s soul, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

A woman recently shared her story of Satan’s campaign of attrition. Since childhood, she dutifully attended church every Sunday and, once she had children, insisted that the family worship together. She’d taught Sunday school, volunteered for service projects, and attended churchwomen’s programs. Nevertheless, after her youngest left for college, she woke up one Sunday morning and, for no particular reason, decided to stay home. She skipped church the following week and the weeks after that. Before long, she returned the Bible on her bedside table to the bookcase and never picked it up again (not that she’d picked it up much before then). When she stopped praying, I’m sure Satan thought he’d won his campaign. None of this was because she was plagued with doubts or had experienced something that shook her faith. She just gradually stopped caring and, starved of fellowship, God’s word and prayer, her faith had withered away.

Fortunately, we have a loving Shepherd and, when one of his lambs goes missing, He will go in search of it, which is what the Holy Spirit did one Sunday several years later. The woman awoke that morning and, for no apparent reason, felt compelled to go to church. Once there, she learned of a church-wide challenge to read the Bible and committed to doing it. Realizing her need for a study group once she dug into her newly purchased large-print Bible, she joined one. Her faith again became active and alive; the good Shepherd had brought her home!

At one time or another, many of us have experienced similar experiences of having our faith grow dim and dusty; if you haven’t, chances are that you will. The enemy doesn’t quit when we accept Christ; he just changes his tactics. We must be alert to his methods and persevere in our faith as he tries to destroy our relationship with Jesus by making us complacent, neglectful, or simply bored. He nibbles away at things like church attendance, Christian fellowship, Bible study, and prayer so that, instead of growing spiritually, we begin to atrophy. When we take our eyes off the Shepherd, like the lost lamb, we wander into the wilderness.

Fortunately, we are never so lost that we can’t be found. Even when we think we’re finished with God, He’s never finished with us. God certainly wasn’t done with that woman. Shortly after her return to the church, she entered seminary at the age of 52! Now ordained, she is the pastor who teaches my Tuesday Bible study!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. …You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.  [Hebrews 10:23-25,36 (NIV)]

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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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A ROOT OF EVIL

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. [1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV)]

red clover“He’s the ultimate solipsist – the guy who’d burn the world down to light his cigarette. He’s not cruel, particularly – although he’s capable of cruelty – he’s just so focused on his own goals and his own needs that nobody else exists for him.” That’s how Mike Carey, author of the graphic novel series Lucifer, describes his main character. I admit having to look up “solipsism” to learn that it’s the extreme preoccupation with self and the indulgence of one’s feelings and desires. A self-professed atheist, Carey went on to say, “I think total self-absorption is probably the root of most evil that we meet in the world.” While he may not believe in God, I think Carey has a good handle on the root of much of the world’s evil: self! Satan just loves to make us think of ourselves as more valuable and worthy than anyone else.

“Hold it,” you say. “I thought money was the root of all evil!” A careful reading of Paul’s words in this often misquoted verse tell us that’s not so. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil but it is not the only root of all evil. After all, money hadn’t even been invented when Eve ate the forbidden fruit! Focusing solely on herself, however, she thought of her desire as more important than obedience to God and his one rule. Self-absorption, not money, caused the fall. While Eve didn’t destroy the world to light a cigarette, she brought evil into it simply to satisfy her own curiosity.

There seems to be a lot of self-absorption going around nowadays and we’re all guilty! How many times do we act as if our opinions are the only ones that count, our words are more important than the words of the person with whom we’re speaking, or our needs are more pressing than those of the people around us? We want the best table, the closest parking place, the fastest line, the biggest piece of pie, the order at all costs, and the largest commission. If someone goes without, too bad for them; they should have been better, faster, or tried harder. We don’t care what kind of day the teller at the bank had, bother to look at the face of the sales clerk, or acknowledge the special-needs bagger at the grocery. Our dog can poop wherever he wants, we can water our lawns on water-restricted days, and recycling takes too much effort. We can carry full bottles of water when we start our walk, but find them too cumbersome to carry once they’re empty. We don’t pause to open the door for the bag-laden woman and we impatiently push ahead of the elderly man with the walker. “Ten items or less” doesn’t apply to us nor do slow zones by schools. Our thoughts are so important that we can text while driving and use our cell phones at restaurants and theatres. Where we’re headed is far more important than where anyone else is going so we can cut off drivers and honk at anyone who dares to be slow starting when the light changes.

Father, forgive us for being selfish when we should be selfless.

The difference between a good person and a bad person (and each of us, naturally, is a little of both) is really very simple at bottom: The good person loves people and uses things, while the bad person loves things and uses people. [Sidney J. Harris]

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)]

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NIV)]

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CAN WE CHANGE?

leopardCan an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. [Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV)]

What words of despair from Jeremiah! Yet, why would God send him to the people of Judah with the call to repent if there was no hope of change? Surely, He didn’t send His prophet on a fool’s errand!

We all have issues with sin. While it may not be theft or adultery, chances are it’s something like anger, envy, impatience, bigotry, hostility, selfishness, pessimism, or pettiness. “It’s just the way I’m built,” we say in way of excuse. While we may justify ourselves by saying our faults are simply our nature, they aren’t! Having recently gone through genetic testing, I didn’t see any genes for things like lust, short-temper, worry, nitpicking, intolerance, arrogance, discontent, or stinginess. When we confuse our learned behavior with innate behavior, we excuse the inexcusable. While we can’t change our skin color or blood type, we can change our habits.

The gift of habit is God given; indeed, we’re blessed that we can go through life without having to deliberately think through the details of every action. If we had to consciously consider how to brush our teeth, get dressed, tie our shoes, make coffee, or start the car, we’d never get anywhere in the morning. The gift of habit, however, can also be a curse when our habitual responses are not godly—when they entail things like bigotry, anxiety, deceit, pride, anger, self-centeredness, or jealousy. 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon likened the force of habit to a cobweb: at first, it’s easily broken. When it grows into a thread, however, it restrains us a bit and, when the thread changes into a cord, we find ourselves in a net. As the net hardens into iron and the iron into steel, we’re shut up in a cage of our own making with no way of escape.

In discussing Jeremiah’s question, Spurgeon emphatically states that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin but, he adds as emphatically, an Ethiopian’s skin can be changed. He explains that the God who turned “primeval darkness into light” and “changed chaos into order” can do everything and, should He choose to do so, He could easily change skin color and leopard spots. Far more important than changing appearances, however, God can transform human nature! The God who designed our hearts can make them new again. After all, change or re-birth is what Jesus is all about!

Jeremiah called the people to repent; the call to put off our old sinful nature and replace it with the new continues today. Although we can’t do it by ourselves, God doesn’t ask anything of us that we are incapable of doing. When we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  [Galatians 5:22-23] We may have to dig deep to find it but God’s fruit is there! Granted, it’s difficult to put away ingrained habits; change is neither easy nor fast. Nevertheless, though the power of the Holy Spirit, change is possible; we can take off the old and put on the new!

The God who made us also can remake us. [Woodrow Kroll]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)]

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:22 (NIV)]

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