A Melancholy Christmas

Due to the COVID crisis, this Christmas will be unlike any Christmas I have ever experienced. With each passing day I hear about another Christmas party or Christmas program that has been officially taken off the books. To me, If there is a word that best reflects the 2020 holiday season, it’s the word canceled.

At a time of year when we usually are running from event to event, in reality we are finding more and more empty spaces appear on our calendars. How disconcerting it is to feel separated from others at a time of year when social interaction is at its peak!

As I talk with people, I hear a lot of disappointment about what might become known as “the lost Christmas of 2020.” And why are people feeling so dispirited? I’d say its the challenge of having to cope with a Christmas where opportunities for laughter, mirth, joy and human connection keep being thrown on the scrap pile. For every gathering or event that is canceled, we absorb one more loss. When it comes to enjoying our traditional, beloved Christmas activities, instead of being a season of delight, Christmas 2020 is turning out to be a bit of drag.

Yet, if I think about it for a moment, Christmas 2020 has a lot in common with everything that was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth.

Prior to the arrival of Christ, there was among a desperate longing for the arrival of a Savior. Israel had been promised a Messiah, but many were wondering why it was taking so long for the Messiah to appear. (Perhaps some secretly worried if the Savior would ever show up.) One of the reasons for such forlorn emotions was because it had been about 400 years since God had given Israel any sort of special revelation. For those who were waiting, their wait took place in dark silence.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is the mournful O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Through both its melody and lyrics, this carol attempts to convey the feelings among the people prior to the time of Jesus’ advent. Emotions of longing. Sentiments of sadness.

Perhaps for some, hope was waning.

A simple reading of the lyrics of this song reveals a struggle between the weariness of waiting and the anticipation of better days:

O come, o come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of god appear
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, thou key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

O come, o come, thou lord of might,
Who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, o Israel.

For us, we hope that Christmas 2021 will be better than this year’s pitiful version. But for the people who lived in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, the hope was that God would make everything better! Through the Savior, God would finally restore the shalom that was so desperately needed.

Perhaps we also need to be reminded that when it comes to the Biblical Christmas story, things weren’t void of pain and struggle. Remember, Jesus was born in poverty and obscurity. And his family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

As we go through a Christmas season that may be emotionally painful, perhaps we can connect some of those emotions to what was going on in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth. Maybe God can use our loss to remind us of our state of lostness before we trusted Christ. Remember, the joy and hope we love to celebrate at Christmastime cost God an incredible price: the death of His son.

Maybe a melancholy Christmas isn’t so bad.

Moving Toward Prayer that is Deeper and More Focused

“I have concluded that the more we seek the Lord, with a passion for His worthiness, the more we are gripped with our neediness. Adoration cultivates desperation.” – Daniel Henderson

In the middle section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered a template for prayer. Known to most as the Lord’s Prayer, this sample petition is found in Matthew 6:9-14:

Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.

Jesus’ point wasn’t to say this was the only way to pray (although The Lord’s Prayer is an awesome way to communicate with God). There is nothing wrong with saying these God-inspired words back to Him. In fact, praying scripture is one of the best ways to pray to God, because scripture-infused prayer helps us stay grounded in truth.

But, I believe Jesus primary goal in teaching about prayer was to provide His hearers with a general outline for nurturing a well-rounded prayer life. In the flow of Jesus’ prayer He covers six main topics: worship, submission, needs, confession, holiness and forgiveness.

Recently, in preparing materials for some discipleship training, I came up with a handout for guided prayer. Essentially, the goal is to provide some handles for the person who says, “I’m not sure what to pray about,” or “I don’t know how to pray.” Though not nearly as not as majestic or concise as the prayer Jesus offered in Matthew 6, it is an attempt to move prayer to a space that is more varied and more focused.

WORSHIP: Begin with a time of offering God praise for who He is and what He does. Reading a worshipful Psalm before you pray is a great way to engage your heart in worship toward God. (Hebrews 13:15)

THANKFULNESS: Reflect upon the ways you see God providing for you. Not just providing for your material needs, but your spiritual, emotional and physical needs as well. Be sure to include some words of thanks to God for taking care of you! (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

QUIETNESS: Ask God to tell you what is on His heart for you, then spend some time in silence so you can hear His response. Follow this up with obedience. (Psalm 46:10, Exodus 14:14)

INTERCESSION: Think of some people you know who could use some prayer today? Maybe someone is ill, or they are facing a difficult challenge, or they have a big decision to make. (1 Timothy 2:1)

CONFESSION: Is there anything that you’ve thought or done that is something the Bible calls sin? The command of scripture is to confess our sins to Jesus, and He will be faithful to forgive and cleanse us of all our offenses and wrongdoing. This is an important way we keep our relationship with God flowing. (1 John 4:9)

FORGIVENESS: People sin against us and we sin against them. How do we get our relationships back in line? Through forgiveness, which is sometimes one of the hardest things for us to accomplish. Is there someone you need to forgive today? Purposely making the topic of forgiveness a part of your prayer life may move your heart in that direction. (Ephesians 4:32)

PERSONAL REQUESTS: What are your needs? In what ways do you need God to provide for you today? Think about asking God for things such as wisdom, courage, discernment, strength, endurance, compassion, or boldness. Maybe you need God to meet a financial or physical need. God wants to provide for your needs! (Philippians 4:6)

LOVE: Love is of supreme value to God. In response to this high value, who can you show God’s love to today? It may be a friend, family member or a neighbor. Perhaps it is a fellow believer. It could a stranger you’ve never met before. Ask God to put you “on duty” to practically love the people who cross your path. (John 13:34-35)

KINGDOM BUILDING: Ask God for readiness to share the good news of Jesus with someone today. It may just be planting a seed, or it may be fully explaining God’s plan for spiritual rescue, restoration and regeneration. People need God’s people to tell them about God’s gracious gift of life through Christ! (Mark 16:15)

The Power of Encouragement

“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” – Proverbs 16:24 (English Standard Version)

I recently caught part of a podcast that featured a conversation between some seasoned comedians.

For the most part, the discussion centered on the long, painful, arduous journey to success in the field of comedy.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and in the world of trying to make people laugh, getting off the ground is particularly difficult, if not near impossible.

Each of the podcast’s humorists told stories of times when they completely bombed a show. Now, with their mess-ups so far in the past, these comics can safely laugh about such monumental failures. But back then, while crashing and burning on stage and in real time, each of them described feelings of despair. They wondered if their inability to get anyone to laugh (and in some cases, pushing people to annoyance or even anger) signaled the demise of their career.

This is an experience of which most of us will never know. Most people won’t dare put themselves in such a precarious position, fraught with such wide margins for failure and embarrassment.

One thing I did find interesting from the conversation was this: in every single instance of utter comedic implosion, a fellow comedian would quickly connect with the despondent comic, seeking to share words of encouragement and hope.

Comedians know how hard the road to success can be. They’ve all had an off-night when the jokes didn’t connect and the crowd left unsatisfied. Sometimes they’ve bombed so badly, they can only think of quitting…or worse. So when a fellow comic sees one of his own stumbling and struggling, he know exactly how it feels. Out of such empathy comes the desire to keep a sinking comedian from drowning.

The bottom line takeaway I got was this: none of these comedians ever wanted to see another comedian give up and call it a career. So, they made sure to swiftly connect with a shell-shocked partner after a dreadful performance.

I wonder: how many comedic careers have been saved because a fellow comedian stepped in to bolster the flagging emotions of a tail-spinning colleague?

In light of all this, I couldn’t help think of an expression I’ve heard many times through the years: “Christians are the only army known to shoot their wounded.” The connotation is that, rather than encouraging a brother or sister who is floundering, our unhelpful attitudes of pride or indifference cause us to attack, abuse or ignore our faltering comrade.

Rather than bless, we burden.

Rather than help, we hurt.

Rather than lift, we let fall.

Yet, the New Testament letters of the Bible are filled with expressions known as the “the one another’s,” pithy little directives that instruct us on how to look out for each other in times of difficulty or distress.

Here’s a sampling of some of the exhortations that spiritually-minded people are to employ:

Don’t bite, devour, and consume one another (Galatians 5:15)
Be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
Seek good for one another, and don’t repay evil for evil (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
Be devoted to one another in love (Romans 12:10)
Encourage and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Stimulate one another to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)

Without encouragement, hardship can feel meaningless, and the will to press forward can wane.

Without encouragement, life can soon feel hollow and burdensome.

Without encouragement, we can be overwhelmed by the challenges that lie in front of us.

Thus, the Bible strongly encourages us to encourage one another. We are to remind each other of the truth that God loves us, that God equips us, that we are treasured, that our struggles are worth it.

Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (ESV).” Ah, to have healing words mend our spirits and soothe our souls!

Who is it in your sphere of influence that could use a word of encouragement today? You may not realize it, but your words may redirect their life back into a positive direction.

What Matters Most: Completing the Journey

Pastor Nat’s message out of Hebrews 3 today was a great unpacking of the second warning found in the letter to the Hebrews.

In the message, Nat reminded us that the goal of the writer of Hebrews is to exhort us to complete the race of faith. Yes, the beginning of our journey is crucial. But so is the ending. And for that matter, everything in-between!

The Hebrews challenge is to not only embrace our salvation (which comes through faith), but also to take serious our sanctification (which is powered by the same faith).

As Nat shared his thoughts about the warning/exhortation of Hebrews 3, my mind went to a personal story from about 8 years ago:

In July of 2012, at the urging of my son-in-law, I entered a local sprint triathlon (http://www.haydentri.com/) that took place just minutes from our house in the Hayden Lake neighborhood. The course covered a half-mile swim, 12 mile bike ride and a 5k run.

For about 4 months prior to the event. I spent a lot of time preparing by running, swimming and biking. Then, early on an overcast July morning, I rode my bike down to Hayden Lake in order to have someone scrawl a race number on my arm and learn my starting position for the swim.

Finally, at 7:30 a.m. my swim group dove into the water. And I began swimming furiously, just like all the other swimmers around me. Which kind of freaked me out. Okay, it really freaked me out. For months I had been training in a pool without other swimmers thrashing and bumping and kicking me.

Amazingly, after all the hours of preparation, I was within the first 3 minutes of the race seriously contemplating turning around and paddling back to shore. In fact, I stopped swimming for moment and looked back at the beach from which I had just departed. I spent about 15 seconds treading water while others swam by. The overwhelming thought was to swim back to the beach and call it a day.

(A side note: My daughter Lauren, who was serving as a lifeguard for the race, happened to be on a kayak at the moment of my indecision. She saw me stop and look back at the shore, but she interpreted it as me taking a few moments to soak in the glory of the day. Little did she know that I was seriously contemplating surrender.)

As I stared back at the beach, one thought flashed into my mind. I had reminded my son Aaron that I would see him at the finish line. Not only had I reminded him, I had promised him I would be there so he could give me a celebratory high-five.

This memory of conversing with Aaron caused me to turn around and point myself back in the direction of the lake. I would not give up! This wasn’t easy because I had already used up a lot of energy on my stress and fear. Even though I had made my decision, the swim didn’t get easier. I had to continually challenge myself physically and emotionally to keep pressing forward.

Finally, after what seemed eons, I paddled up to the lake shore to complete the swim portion of the race. Although I felt utterly spent, I still had two more race sections to complete. I couldn’t imagine hopping on the bike, let alonte running for just over 3 miles.

But I had a goal: I had to complete the race. Aaron was waiting for me at the finish line. And finish I did, although it was some 20 minutes slower than what I planned. As I turned the corner for the finish line, I got the high-five that had motivated me to keep going, even when I felt like giving up.

Starting a race is very important. But races are meant to be finished.

The Gospel message is not only about justification (what we might call the starting point), but also reconciliation and regeneration. It’s about an ongoing relationship with our Creator.

Out of our salvation, we embrace discipleship to Jesus, learning to live like He lived and love like he loved. It’s a call to embrace humility, service and mission.

The gospel is an invitation to come out of death and spiritual slavery and embrace life. Life in Christ.

The Christian life is designed to have a start, a middle and a finish.

Paul challenged the Corinthians in this way: “Don’t run aimlessly. Run in such a way as to win.”

Thank You, Veterans

Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.
Abraham Lincoln

Today our country remembers and honors those who have protected our nation by serving in one of the five branches of the military: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. By serving in such a sacrificial manner, these individuals willingly put themselves in the line of danger – even peril – to ensure our personal liberty and our nation’s sovereignty.

When a person signs up to serve in the military, they put themselves under the authority of their commanding officers. And in doing so, they give up many personal freedoms. The soldier can’t just come and go as they please. Why? Because when a person enlists for military service, they must fully submit to their superiors. Simply put, the soldier is expected to put his/her full focus and attention on the task at hand.

I find it interesting that the Apostle Paul employed the example of a soldier to describe how a follower of Jesus must be careful of not being too caught up in the things of the world in order to best serve Him:

No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. (2 Timothy 2:4 ESV)

What does this verse mean? Simply put, in the same way soldiers are expected to firmly focus their eyes on a commanding officer, the Christian is called to resolutely look to Jesus in search of direction about all that is thought, said or done. If a soldier is double-minded or compromised, it will be very difficult for orders to be successfully carried out. In the same way, the Christian must maintain unswerving singleness of mind when it comes to serving Jesus.

On this Veterans Day 2020, we thank our veterans for their service and their sacrifice. The willingness of America’s veterans to sacrifice for our country has earned them our lasting gratitude. And scripturally, our veterans remind us of what it looks like to purposefully follow Jesus.

Navigating the Post-Election Season

As we enter into a time of “post-election,” I’m finding people are still doing a lot of talking (mainly through social media) about the election and politics. Which seems understandable. There’s been a lot of emotional investment put into the 2020 vote.

Constructive political discourse is vital for the well-being of our country. Trading ideas and insights can make us better. As iron sharpens iron, we too can grow through productive dialogue. To do this well, we must be willing to listen to various viewpoints unique from our own. If we are a good listener, we improve the odds of someone listening to us.

It’s also important that, as citizens who share the same national identity, we seek to offer others a measure of respect – even toward those with whom we strongly disagree.

Yet for some, the idea of communicating constructively or respectfully can seem too challenging to achieve. Instead of engaging others in a mature, measured manner, some of us can’t resist the urge to mock, flame or slander someone we view as an opponent. Simply put, political passion ends up circumventing common courtesy.

As Jesus’ followers, I believe that in this season of heightened tensions, it’s important to try to think before we decide to speak (or type).

Why? Two reasons:

  1. The danger of wounding others

The Bible often talks about the destructive potential that lurks within the tongue. James put it this way:

So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. (James 1:5-9)

It’s one thing to exchange ideas. It’s another thing to use our words in order to insult or injure a fellow human being. If we can’t make our point without maligning or reviling our listener, we probably need to work on our conversational skills.

2. The peril of losing our witness

Politics has an important place in our society, but pales in comparison to the vital, timeless message of the Gospel. More than hearing our thoughts about the current political climate, our friends, families and neighbors need to both hear and see the Gospel on display in our lives.

This doesn’t mean we ought never discuss politics. It just means we should be extremely thoughtful about how we go about it.

The Bible is brimming with advice about how to best use our words. For example:

Ephesians 4:29
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Colossians 4:6
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Proverbs 15:1-2
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.

The Bible says we are Jesus’ ambassadors. In other words, we are his Gospel representatives to the world. Our job is to do all we can to help people see Jesus clearly. But if we are caustic or injurious in our political discourse, we run the risk of offending people rather than drawing them closer to Christ.

Perhaps the best measuring tool to help us gauge the healthiness of our political interactions is found in Galatians 5:22-23, which offers us a description of the fruit of the Spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things.

If we run our words through the grid of this verse, we won’t have to worry about inflicting wounds or obscuring our witness.

Proper Prioritizing Yields Personal Peace

For anyone who thought we would have the presidential situation sorted out on election day, well, don’t forget…its 2020. Remember, this the year of “if it can go sideways, it will go sideways.” As if our nerves were not frayed enough from navigating a pandemic and dealing with social unrest, we now have to wait to find out who won the election.

At some point, the question about who will be declared the winner will be resolved. One way or another, a decision will be made and we’ll know who will be sitting in the White House in 2021. And, looking at how the votes have been divided up, approximately half the country will be pleased with the results; the other half disappointed. Such is the way of elections.

As Americans, I’m glad we get to participate in the voting process. What a privilege to be able cast a ballot for the candidate we deem most worthy for the job.

Yet, as a pastor and a Christian, I sometimes feel concern of how much stock that some put into a political system that, depending on the whims of the electorate, can feel a lot like riding a roller coaster. In one election cycle we may feel ecstatic, while in the next we may feel great disillusionment. Simply put, we can exhaust a lot of emotional capital on something we actually have little control over. Yes, our vote is highly important and should never be taken for granted. Because we get to vote, we should vote. But, at the same time. I’m realistic about the fact that my vote is tossed into a pool with around 150 million other ballots.

Because the United States is a republic. the governance of our nation will always be a moving target. Things will change all the time. Rarely will our nation maintain a particular course for very long. No wonder those who are deeply engaged in politics can count on a steady stream of highs and lows.

When it comes to placing our faith in systems of men , we better realize how easily the world can become unstable. One day things can be going our way; the next day the world feels like its falling apart at the seams. Realizing that the world around us is extremely wobbly, we should be driven to some very important questions: If the world we live in is so unpredictable, where should we place our hope? What foundation can we employ to build our life upon that will not shake, or crumble?

In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul’s wrote about how, from a human perspective, everything seemed to be working against his ministry. As he and his team traveled about sharing the Gospel message, they we’re regularly confronted with resistance, harassment and persecution. Thinking about what Paul described, it would hard to blame him for wanting to throw in the towel. He and his associates were prime candidates for deep disappointment.

Yet three times in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul repeats this phrase: “We do not lose heart.” Which begs the question: “Why not?” What was it that kept Paul going full throttle in his ministry? Rather than sinking like a stone, what kept Paul so buoyant, always popping up to the surface like a cork? The answer is revealed in last few verses of the chapter:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)

So what was it that kept Paul in the game? Why didn’t he call it a day when things got difficult?

For one, Paul mentioned was something he described as inner renewal. This speaks to the idea that Paul’s relationship with God was something that was alive and growing. Even when the world around him was falling apart, Paul could draw inner strength, wisdom, courage and comfort from God. To me, this speaks to the quality of one’s devotional life. What resources can be drawn from time spent in God’s presence!

The second thing Paul writes about was the primary object of his focus. Paul rightly discerned that the things that are seen are temporal. They simply don’t last, thus they are not something to give too much of our time, energy and attention. How challenging it can be to not want to “hitch our wagons” to the things of the world!

Regarding a proper focus, a challenge to keep our eyes on the eternal is found in Hebrews 12:1-2:

1 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

This doesn’t mean that we avoid engagement with the world around us. As long as we have earthly breath, we should be involved in the pursuit of justice, compassion and mercy (Micah 6:8). As Jesus said in Matthew 5, we are to act as salt and light to a dark, decaying world.

The scriptural challenge is to keep the things happening in the world in proper perspective in light of the things that are eternal.

That’s how Paul kept from losing heart. His proper perspective allowed him to experience personal peace.

Election Reflections

Next Tuesday is the day people finally get to go to the polls and cast their ballots (although many people have already ready voted through early voting and absentee ballots). For many, election day can’t come any sooner. All the political banter and wrangling can take a toll on a person’s emotions. Simply put, the political season can be a bit…grueling.

I am deeply grateful that, by God’s grace and providence, we get to live in a country where citizens are allowed to participate in the political process. The ability to vote is an amazing honor. As Americans, we enjoy the freedom to express our opinions on how our nation is governed. Many nations of the world do not afford their citizenry the ability to engage in any debate or dissent.

On having a proper attitude toward voting, founding father Samuel Adams said:

Let each citizen remember at the moment he is
offering his vote…that he is executing one of the
most solemn trusts in human society for which
he is accountable to God and his country.”

If Adams is correct with this viewpoint, then it rests on the shoulders of every voting American to take to proper time to learn about the issues and the candidates. And even more important, it is vital that Americans pray about how to wisely cast their ballot.

For all my gratefulness to live in a country that allows its citizens to vote, I’m also keenly aware that having the privilege of voting doesn’t always guarantee people will make wise, thoughtful decisions. If a culture is marked by attitudes such as selfishness, pride. envy laziness or greed, those attitudes will likely be reflected in the people we elect to be in charge of our country. If we are ungodly, we probably won’t be anxious to have godly leadership ruling over us.

As you have likely noticed, our political seasons have a way of negatively charging people up as well as emotionally wearing them down. As we get closer to election day 2020, some of us perhaps have entertained the temptation to, morally speaking, let our guard down. Maybe some of us gave in. The result of such inattentiveness is that we likely found ourselves losing connection with what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit; those supernaturally-empowered, life-giving, God-honoring attitudes such as love, patience, kindness and self-control. Sadly, the political season seems much better at stirring up some very non-Christian attitudes, including slander, hate, fear, strife and rage.

Why does this happen? Well, just like anything else, our politics can become an idol. Make no mistake, idolatry is not limited to people who place a metal or wooden statue on an altar and light incense to it. An idol is anything we give the type of hope, trust and adoration that is reserved only for God. Political idolatry happens when we begin fixating on what a human leader or political party can do for us more than we focus our eyes on our Heavenly Father, our true provider who calls us to trust him and not worry (Matt. 6:25-34). Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton once opined:

“Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.”

Bottom line, we tread on thin ice when our engagement in politics motivates us to take our eyes of the providence and sovereignty of God To be able to participate in the political process is a wonderful privilege.

Thankfully, here in America we get to prolifically talk about our politics and freely cast our ballots. But, as followers of Jesus, we must also be careful to stay elevated above anything that might replace our trust in God or hinder our witness to the world.

Love it or loathe it, human governance will always be a part of life. (Chesterton mused, “Government is an ugly necessity.”) What we learn from the Bible is this: all government is instituted by God (Romans 13:1). Because of this reality, we as Christians are called upon by scripture to act as good, faithful, law-abiding citizens.

But the only government that deserves our complete, unwavering, undying devotion is the Kingdom of God, ruled by the King of Kings, Jesus. The apostle Paul held a proper perspective when he declared:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we
await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20)

No one rules better than Jesus. He is totally trustworthy in all his statutes and decrees. Isaiah 9:6 is usually viewed as a Christmas verse, but it really is a timeless pronouncement regarding Jesus incomparable ability to serve as the final authority in our lives:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name
shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Human governments will always be flawed because human beings are flawed. But, thankfully, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Which leads me to conclude with one more scripture:

To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord,
be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all
time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:25)

Spiritual Disciplines Prepare God’s People

But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness,  for the training of the body has a limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:7-8 CSB)

I recently finished reading Kent Nerbern’s voluminous book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.

If there’s anything the Nez Perce tribe is remembered for, its how over the course of almost 5 months they evaded being captured by U.S. soldiers. From mid June until October 5, 1877, this indomitable band of 700 men, women and children covered over 1000 miles while being hotly pursued by U.S. troops, settlers and Indian scouts.

While there were surely instances where luck played a part in the Nez Perce ability to elude capture, a lot of of what allowed them to dodge capture was their intelligence, skill, fitness and endurance. For example:

-Early in the book, the author wrote about how warriors would swim in icy waters every single day of the year. This practice was meant to build mental toughness and physical endurance.

-Nez Perce warriors also constantly worked on their skills as horsemaen, seeking to reach the point where horse and rider acted as one unit. They trained themselves to be able to shoot with accuracy while hanging under the neck of their mount.

-Lastly, Nez Perce warriors practiced fasting, teaching their bodies to go days without food without losing much vigor. It was revealed that one of the reasons the Nez Perce could outrun the soldiers was because the soldiers were conditioned to eat three meals a day. All those stops for food meant the Nez Perce could put a lot of mileage between them and their pursuers.

The bottom line is this: the Nez Perce practiced rugged self-discipline in order to be better prepared for a variety of challenges they might face. Rather than reacting weakly in the moment, they sought to be of strong mind and body before difficulties came their way.

The wise and growing Christian understands that the same holds true for how we approach the Christian life. An undisciplined spiritual life is a life that will often not show itself ready for the challenges life dishes out.

Legendary Dallas Cowboy’s coach said:

“The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.”

In much the same way, Christians are called to make themselves, by the Spirit’s power, do what they would not naturally do—practice spiritual disciplines—in order to experience what the Spirit gives them a desire to be, that is, to be with Christ and like Christ.

Sometimes the disciplines call us to dive into kinetic activities such as reading and studying our Bible, praying and serving. Joining in corporate worship is another way we tend to our spiritual development.

Other times we learn discipline by slowing down and/or doing without. Things like fasting, being quiet or practicing sabbath are what help us develop endurance and grow closer to God.

Spiritual disciplines aren’t a means of earning God’s favor. We aren’t redeemed by God by what we do. Ephesians 2:8-9 says clearly, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.” Dallas Willard affirmed this sentiment when he said, “Spiritual disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness.”

No, spiritual disciplines are God’s ways to help us grow in faith and fruitfulness. D.A. Carson offered this reflection:

“People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”

It is an undeniable fact that we will never get anywhere in life without discipline – especially in spiritual matters.

There may be some who have innate athletic or musical advantages. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage.

None of us are inherently righteous, none of us naturally seek God or are reflexively good. Therefore, as saved children by grace, our grace-empowered spiritual disciplines are vital toward our being well-prepared as believers.

Discipline is all about being ready. It’s about awakening and strengthening the soul, spirit, eyes, ears and heart so we can see what’s always happening right in front of us.

Ministry Should (Often) Be Uncomfortable

As a pastor of almost four decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of people don’t really understand the concept of ministry.

My hunch, based on hundreds of conversations and years of observation, is that many people are in search of being involved in ministry that is fun, entertaining and self-gratifying.

Several years ago I was talking with a missionary who hosted a lot of short term mission groups. I asked him about some of the biggest challenges he faced. This veteran missionary shared, “It is very rare when groups ask how they can help us. Instead, they often show up with their own agenda in mind; an agenda that is really more about what they want to do rather than what we need done.”

Ouch!

Bringing it closer to home, its not uncommon for people to ask the pastor of a church how they can get involved in service. Yet, even after learning the various ways to plug in, some people remain uninvolved.

Why does this happen? My take is that some people are simply looking for a place to serve that really doesn’t cost them much. Put another way, they’re looking for they type of ministry activity that puts their felt needs ahead of seeking to meet the true needs of others.

But here’s the deal: true ministry is all about pouring ourselves out in order to help and serve others.

This approach to ministry often requires us to grow and stretch. Ministry isn’t really about us feeling good, as much as it is about helping take care of real issues. In fact, it is quite common to feel a level of discomfort when we begin serving in an area of life-changing ministry. That’s because real ministry can be hard work!

Several years ago I took on the task of teaching a class at our local Union Gospel Mission Center for Women and Children. Because the students were all women, I felt very intimidated! I felt like a fish out of water. But I knew UGM needed a teacher for this class, and so I went forward. Over the years I’ve become much more acclimated to this type of ministry, and count it a huge blessing to part of the recovery process for these women. And I’m glad to have been stretched in an area of ministry I wouldn’t naturally leaned into.

So here’s my pastoral advice: don’t necessarily look for a ministry that is custom-fit to you; look for a ministry where the needs are real. Dare to care more about the needs of others ahead of your own interests (Philippians 2:4). Ask God to help you overcome any feelings of fear or insecurity so you can lovingly serve those who need your wisdom, experience and grace.

Playing at ministry is tragic. Doing real ministry changes the life of both the on who is serving and the one being served.