Tuesday, July 25, 2017

out of the ghetto

I loved the Word of God as a teenager. After graduating from high school, I went to the Moody Bible Institute, achieving a BA in Biblical Studies.  I went on to graduate school – spending 3 more years earning an MDiv. I have now pastored in four states over the last 33 years. I have lived in the expectations of ‘Pastor as CEO’. I have gone to many conferences on and labored over the latest methods of growing one’s church. I have tried to get into the mind of unchurched Harry and Mary. I have experienced the frustration of being unable to please many who came in the door of the church. I was unable to produce the kind of child care that makes their child want to go to church! Don’t get me wrong. We’re a good church. We honor the Word of God and worship in spirit and in truth. But I’m not the ‘best’ preacher in town and our worship isn’t cutting edge, just genuine. Many are opting for the mega-full-service church or simply adopting the ‘I-church’.  ‘I-church’ is simply, ‘I go to church when and where I want when I feel like it.’ As Aspen Ridge Church has downsized I find myself a bi-vocational pastor for the first time.   

But something amazing happened! I got out of the ghetto. I escaped my cage. I climbed out of the box. I spread my wings and discovered a different world. Don’t get me wrong I love to preach the Word. I still preach each week. I love God’s people – it is my greatest pleasure to see believers in Jesus Christ act on their faith and worship their King. It’s probably me, but living in the crucible of congregational expectations and community indifference can downright squeeze the life out of a person. Now that I’m free I’m engaged in two different community men’s groups. I pray each week with a group of folks who simply want to see revival in our community. I’m actively engaged in assisting a foster family. I respond to great Bible questions on ‘gotquestions.org’ several times a week.  I’m in a reading club at the library. Last winter I got to teach the book of Ephesians to 15 Peruvians and 35 Columbians.  They had lots of really good questions. Best of all I Uber.  I can’t explain it. I’ll never get rich doing it. But when someone gets into my car I become a cross between a counselor and a bartender.  Recently I gave a ride to an 84-year-old woman. As we traveled she told me that she was mad at God for taking her husband of 60 years, even after so many years of faithfully going to church.  She said she continued to go to church because she had grandchildren she wanted God to treat well.  As we visited back and forth, I asked God for words to share with her.  Finally I said, ‘I hope you won’t be upset with me but I have a personal question to ask you.’ She said, ‘Go ahead.’  I asked, ‘Have you ever just spoken directly with God? I’m hearing that you value church and that you’ve been a faithful daughter of the church but I’m not hearing much about a relationship with God.’ She encouraged me to continue. ‘Have you ever just prayed directly to Jesus Christ and asked him to come into your life?’  She responded, ‘No I don’t believe I have.’  Then we stopped to pick up her granddaughter.  20 minutes later as we arrived back at her home, she leaned forward and looked me right in the eye.  She said, ‘I’m going to think about what you said.’  She will never come to my church. She doesn’t even know my name. But I am out of the box of church expectations and into every nook and cranny in the city - and I love it! I’d like to teach apologetics and church history at a Christian High School. I love history. I’m an avid reader. I’ve raised three 20 somethings. I’m concerned about young people today growing up in the church and not being prepared to defend their faith in an antagonistic culture. Who knows what God has for me!

I still love to preach.  I love to see believers live out their faith. I’m engaged with licensing and ordaining young pastors. I go to my denominational pastor’s meetings.  But I don’t dream of growing a full-service church.  I’d love to build a chapel one day.  Just a place to worship and encourage one another. A place to be challenged with the Word before we go out and be the church 24-7.  Now there’s a thought: the whole church escaping.  All of us out of the box!

Monday, April 17, 2017

A word about Resurrection Day

Remember three ‘Words’ about the fact, purpose and reasonableness of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

  1. Guilty. (Mark 15:1-32) Everyone from Pilate to the passerby convicted Jesus of being ‘the King of the Jews’.  That is they mocked him for who he really was the King, the Messiah, the Son of God and convicted of that crime.  When you think about it – that makes the human race guilty, not Jesus the King!  Jesus was unwilling to ‘save himself’ because to do so would have damned the whole human race to perdition.  He chose to stay on the cross. Thank God!
  2. Redemption. (Mark 15:33-41) Silence and darkness enveloped the cross as the Father turned away from His only beloved Son.  Only one thing could have made him do that. The Father and Son had agreed on the price for ‘all you like sheep have gone astray; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him’ (Isaiah 53:6). When Jesus died the 60 foot high, 4 inch wide curtain was torn top to bottom.  The Holy of Holies where God dwelled was now available to all.  So, let us draw near, (Hebrews 10:21) ‘having our hearts sprinkled clean’.  The cost of our sin is most clearly seen in the price God paid to redeem us.
  3. Faith. (Mark 15:42-16:8)  There are some surprises here.  The Centurion who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion stands out.  He was a hardened man, used to looking death in the face. He knew what it meant to send his men into battle. He knew what courage and sacrifice looked like.  As he watched Jesus throughout the day, something told him that this man’s death was different.  “When the centurion, who was standing right in front of him, saw the way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’” (v39).   This man played two parts in the passion play.  (1) He declares Jesus dead to Pilate.  Let there be no mistake. There was no breath left in his body. It was finished. (2) He declares that Jesus is the Son of God. Then there were those faithful women who were always in the background, even in Galilee. They stayed with him to the end. They watched Jesus’ crucifixion and would be back to anoint his body on Resurrection morning.  Joseph of Arimathea also. ‘A well-respected member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus’ (15:43).  People of faith hadn’t given up hope!

 But perhaps the most surprising witness was the empty tomb.  The stone was rolled away. The body wasn’t there. The angel said that Jesus was alive.  I’ve got a thought here.  What do you do when the eyewitnesses don’t seem to agree on the details? If you compare the gospel accounts you might ask yourself. Were there two angels at the tomb or just one?  Were they inside the tomb or outside the tomb? Did they glow with a glorious appearance or did they just look like young men dressed in white?  J. Warner Wallace, retired homicide detective, explains in ‘Cold-Case Christianity’ that the state of California instructs her criminal juries that, ‘two people may witness the same event yet see or hear it differently’ and hence their testimony must not be discounted.  In fact detective Wallace says, ‘I would rather have three messy, apparently contradictory versions of the same event than one harmonized version that has eliminated some important detail. I know in the end I’ll be able to determine the truth of the matter by examining all three stories.’  I’m not saying that the gospel accounts are contradictory. I’m saying that some details appear contradictory. If we had more information we could answer all the questions.  But what we do have is a front row seat, from four different angles of the greatest event in world history, beyond reasonable doubt!

One final thought. I love the way Mark ends his gospel. “They (the women) went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).  Mark is a master historian-story-teller.  He wants the reader to feel the same astonishment these ladies did. He wants the reader to understand that the reality of Jesus risen from the dead is enough to blow one’s mind. He wants the reader to be overcome with the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb!  We could do worse! J

Monday, March 27, 2017

On the road with Jesus

Being a disciple of Jesus is for everyone. It’s as real as normal living. It’s not about cover up or image building. This is especially relevant in our increasingly electronic age where we can present ourselves as we like – with pictures and observations in little snap chats. We can be the ‘adventurous one’; we can be the ‘happy’ one; while we’re dying on the inside. Jesus repeatedly warns his disciples – ‘Don’t be like that. Be real.’ I know who I am. I am a sinner in need of grace. You are a sinner in need of grace. That’s who we are. We will always need grace. This is a good thing because the road to discipleship is fraught with failure. It is not for those who wish to keep their image up or live a life of covering up their failures! In Mark 7-9 the disciples fail time and time again. They miss the point. They argue like school kids. They even sometimes think like Satan. But Jesus never gives up on them. He also never compromises. He doesn’t go soft on Peter. He says, ‘Get behind me Satan!’. When they argue about bread he sighs and says, ‘How long must I put up with you’. Constantly in the Gospel of Mark the disciples and the crowds are ‘utterly astonished’ at what they see in Jesus. Jesus exhibits the sternness of a holy God and the mercy of a loving God. People flock to him. Many adore him. Many hate him. You just can’t stand in the middle!

Bottom line: You and I are disciples also.

a. It is a slow and arduous learning curve. We make lots of mistakes. Sometimes we get sidetracked. Sometimes we lack faith. Sometimes we fail. It seems like 2 steps forward followed by one step backwards. Mark is showing us the reality of the battle, not the touched up picture. The Pharisees constantly worried about image – what other’s thought. The Pharisees constantly covered up their mistakes – but their hearts were far from God. Not so the disciple. God gave us the Gospel of Mark to show us that disciples are real, struggling people. They’re sinners in need of grace, all the time, and they know it. But deep in their heart they just want to be close to Jesus.

b. It is all about the cross. Jesus is not just going around making people feel better. True, he is God and he can’t help being awesome, but he’s on a mission. Man has soiled himself with sin and only the cross can clean his soul up. For the believer, life continues as I claim all I am in Christ. I embrace Christ’s righteousness as my own and fight the battle. I have a wilderness to tame inside me. I must mortify the old self and feed my new self. Thank God for his gift of the Holy Spirit.

c. Never forget Who Jesus is. Only one time in the Bible does Jesus call himself a ‘friend’ of the disciple. He says, ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14). He is an unusual friend. One we must obey and respect. So in Mark 7-9 Jesus is stern but gracious. He always expects greater effort. He always is at work in unexpected ways. We catch glimpses of his glory. But we are always playing catch up. We live with our inadequacies. But grace is always deeper than our failures. He is always nearby in time of need. He deserves our worship.

There are no disciples sitting on the bench. We are all in the game.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Only the mature are happy

Fellow Pilgrim,                                               January 16, 2017

Are you a happy person? If you really want to know ask your spouse or a close friend, ‘Do you think I’m a happy person?’  Don’t ask it like this: ‘You do think I’m a happy person don’t you?’  This is an unfair way to ask it!  Here’s a self-test to help you determine whether you’re a happy person or not:

       1.    Do I frequently blame others when I’m unhappy? (be honest!)

2.    Do I have difficulty forgiving someone who has wronged me?

3.    Do I even like my spouse (or family)?   (this one requires a little attitude)

4.    Do I criticize others when they don’t live up to my expectations?

5.    Have I spent time in conversation with God or listened to His Word this week – one on one?

6.    Am I happy just to pursue my own passions and desires?

In the first half of Philippians 3 Paul clarifies what a mature believer is.  He or she is someone who finds knowing Christ more exciting than anything else.  This person delves into the power of the resurrection (redemption), and the fellowship of His sufferings (letting go of small ambitions), in order to gain the hope of eternal life.  A mature believer is the only one who can begin a journey to true happiness. This is a simple lesson few people ever learn. We grasp for happiness and it slips through our fingers. People let us down. Things don’t go our way. One more crisis to mop up.   A mature believer isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes. He has to say ‘I’m sorry’ sometimes. But he always hungers for more of God. He presses on like an athlete intent on winning. (Philippians 3:8,12)  Here are four marks of a mature person:

1.    Do you keep on with what you’ve already learned – even if it doesn’t seem to be helping? This is called ‘perseverance’. (v16)

2.    Do you forget what lies behind? (v13) You don’t replay your victories. You don’t replay your defeats. This will either give you a big head or make you feel like a failure.  I don’t have to try very hard to remember certain bad memories. It takes discipline to say to yourself – I am not going there. But I can do it! Nothing squashes joy like living in the past with her glories and regrets.

3.    Do you live fully in the present? The late Dr. Clyde Kilby, a teacher of English literature at Wheaton College, resolved: “I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, ‘fulfill the moment as the moment’. I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.”  John Piper remembers him as one who had an ‘extraordinarily awake, God-oriented palate for wonder in poetry and nature.’ Is today something to get through or something to wring every ounce of life out of?

4.    Do you look to the future with optimism? Paul says that the mature person of faith is ‘reaching for what lies ahead’.  It pictures a runner straining for the finish line.  Tomorrow is not a threat to my tidy little world but an opportunity to adventure further into the wonderful mystery of God and faith!

Funny thing is…this is the recipe for joy. It is a mixture of faith, struggle, purpose and trust that we live in a God-drenched world, if we would only reach out and discover him.

Monday, November 21, 2016

More alive than ever!

‘More alive than ever’: (Philippians 2:5-18) Joy and ‘more alive than ever’ are synonyms. As Paul sat in prison he longed for the Philippian believers to ‘shine like stars in the universe’ (v15).  But at the same time he was a realist.  He despairs that Timothy is his only surrogate who sincerely is interested in their welfare (2:20).  He pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to just get along (4:2) G.K. Chesterton once responded to a newspaper ad inviting response to the question; ‘What is wrong with the world?’, with ‘Sirs, I am.’ So it is that we are own worst enemy when it comes to happiness.  So Paul admonishes in this passage:

                        1. Think like Jesus.

                           2. Revel in your salvation.

                           3. Live grumble free.  

Think like Jesus? Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.  To misquote a Snickers commercial – ‘You’re not you when you’re not like Jesus.’ (I’m thinking of Danny Trejo playing Marcia BradyJ.  Jesus emptied himself (denied himself), took on the form of a human slave (took up his cross), and was obedient to death on a cross (followed his Father).  We are exalted with him.

Revel in your salvation? ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work his good pleasure.’ (vv12,13) Why not revel? He’s already at work. You’re aware that he’s at work.  And he’s happy with what he’s doing!

Live grumble free? God has to tell us ‘don’t grumble’ because we do grumble. It’s human nature. That’s why the second word our kids learn is ‘no’. (The first is ‘daddy’:) This is why ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I forgive you’ are so important.  It’s soooo hard!

(1) So never forget that this is a process of trial and error full of grace.

(2) But it takes purpose. We must recognize & reject complaining in all its forms. (perhaps I should do a 10 part sermon series on this:) We must choose to fill our lives with God’s Word and good thoughts. As I reminded you yesterday, ‘TV eats brain cells’.  If you don’t believe me take this little test: Watch TV for two hours and then see how you respond when your wife asks you to rub her feet. Grumpy!

(3) The goal is to shine like stars in the universe. (v15) That is a tall order. But it is what sets apart the believer ‘in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation’. What!? The thing that sets me apart is that I shine, grumble free, in the midst of a grumbling, complaining world??  Lord help me!  But don’t put this expectation on fellow believers. Paul caps this lesson off with: ‘Even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you.’ (v17)  Paul say, I’m not going to wait to share my joy when I see you live up to my expectations. I’m going to spill all over you right now!

Pastor Dean

Monday, October 31, 2016

Doing Faith Together

Philippians 1:1-11 ‘Doing faith together; a study in Philippians.’

1.     Own sainthood.  You are forgiven by faith; called to serve Christ and be a grace giver. It is not your grace or mine – it comes from the expansive heart of our risen Savior.   We simply don’t obstruct it. God is able to complete the work he began in another. It is a powerful gift to give another undeserving sinner grace and the peace that comes with it. So stop holding back!

2.     Ooze thankfulness.  Maximize, don’t criticize.  There is a place for tough love but we only go there as a last resort.  We can thank God no matter what because we have confidence that ‘He who began a good work in you, is able to complete it.’ (Phil1:6)  We are not his ‘enforcer’.  Our primary job is to ooze the affection that Christ has for others onto them. (1:8) God’s grace is spilling from our hearts onto those around us. And we are on this mission together.

3.     Breathe prayer.  When Paul prays that ‘your love may abound still more and more’ (1:9-11) keep this in mind:  The end that he is praying for is ‘the praise and glory of God’.  That is the end of all true praying.  Secondly (and here is where I get messed up) he’s not praying that you will overflow emotionally with very strong feelings of love for one another. Love is to overflow in ‘real knowledge and all discernment’.  Paul is careful to direct us (by using ‘real’ and ‘all’) to wisdom.  Wisdom is what happens when I put God’s truth to work in my life. Love is a sacrificial attitude towards my neighbor. ‘Looking to their interests’ is how Philippians 2:4 puts it - the same attitude Jesus had. Paul’s prayer (and so should ours be) is a petition for real service, real concern, real fruit for the glory of God – especially in the lives of our fellow saints at AspenRidge Church.

Call me an idealist. This is my idea of the heart of a good church. This is how we do faith together.

Pastor Dean

Monday, October 17, 2016

When the going gets rough

 Acts 16:23-40

·       It is no accident that when the going gets tough, Christians turn to God honoring poetry that is sung. Paul and Silas get beaten and thrown into a prison cell and midnight finds them ‘praying, hymning to God’.  (Acts 16:25) They were ‘sing praying’ if you would.  Sometimes our struggles are too deep to formulate prayers so we sing. ‘Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen. Nobody knows but my sorrows. Nobody knows but Jesus. Glory Hallelujah!’ (negro spiritual sung during the days of slavery in the south) On a lighter note last week Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize for his song, ‘Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man’.  But it follows the same theme – poetry put to song lifts up the soul.  Recently country music legend Randy Travis, as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, spontaneously broke into song, singing ‘Amazing Grace’ to the amazement of the audience. He cannot speak a complete sentence since his stroke 3 years ago but he can sing glory to God! It moved the audience to tears. Arguably the first hymn to show up in the New Testament is fittingly found in the letter to the Philippians; 2:5-11. It honors the humility of Christ in becoming a man and dying on a cross for our sins. It exults in his glorious exaltation from the grave. Every knee shall bow to Jesus Christ for the glory of God the Father.   Kind of lifts us out of our old earthly doldrums doesn’t it?  Sometimes it takes a dungeon to bring the worship out of us.

·       When the jailor believed (Acts 16) in the Lord Jesus Christ it says that he ‘rejoiced greatly’ with his whole household.  The apostle Peter says that we ‘greatly rejoice’ because God in his great mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – and we have an inheritance that can never perish kept in heaven for us.  He rightly concludes, ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer all kinds of trials.’ Kind of nails it doesn’t he? In this old fallen world my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. Maybe it’s because ‘I can’t feel at home in this world any more’ that I can be really happy! J

·       Before we get too far from Paul’s jail experience at Philippi in Acts 16, I’d like to say that he walked proud out of the prison cell. “They have beaten us in public without a trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed? But let them come themselves and bring us out.” (v37) Paul stood up for truth proudly and was not afraid to call on, even demand, that the laws of the land be honored.  Social media would shame Christians by saying that we are ‘behind the times’ on certain issues or ‘on the wrong side of history’ with our sexual ethics.  These same people would scoff that a holy God holds sinful men responsible for their actions.  But we know that Jesus went to the cross to save the whole world from their sins. We speak the truth fearlessly, not fearfully.

So, stand firm when the going gets rough.

Doing my best to joyfully serve Jesus,

Pastor Dean