Thursday, December 30, 2010

"How Did You Stop Smoking Pot?"

Guy and Brad are cellmates and they love the Lord and minister to younger believers all the time. They had read my testimony (which can be found if you click on "March 2010") entitled "How Did You Meet Jesus?" Seeing as I met Jesus at a pot party, and rightly assuming that sometime since then I have stopped, they want to know how I managed to quit? Apparently some of the new believers there struggle with this temptation. I wouldn't recommend what I'm about to share as advice to those wanting to quit. But there is something to be said about asking God into our every situation in life. Just remember that He accepts our invitations; and He doesn't mess around, even when we are:

When God got me to stop smoking pot, it was either the very end of June, or the very beginning of July. That much I know! And here is how it came about:

About 11 months prior, I had come to faith in Christ, at that Christian Pot Party, that I wrote about prior. Since then, whenever I heard Christians railing against pot smoking as if it were a big sin, I was not one to nod eagerly. I checked and I couldn’t find pot smoking in the Bible at all. And when I thought of how I came to know Jesus while looking for pot, well, you can imagine that I was not going to give up my habit or my bong very easily.

Looking back, pot smoking for me was a kind of desperate means for me to make my life more interesting. Easily bored and really hating that feeling, life simply hurt without pot, and it was at least entertaining with pot (even if these induced adventures were fabricated). Like the time friend Kevin and I found ancient Indian pottery in a stream bed, only to find out when we came down from our high, that they were, well, granite. Or all those poems I wrote that would change the world and bring me literary acclaim; only to read the next day, something like:

“The sky is so red!
at least I’m not freakin dead.”

It wasn’t reality, but it wasn’t boring. But after I met Jesus I started noticing that life was so much more interesting straight now, than when I was high. My reality was now so much better than my pot induced adventures. I was finding it to be true too, that when I got high I couldn’t hear God talking to me, but when I was not high I could hear Him so much better. It was just like that girl had said at that Christian Pot Party the year before. She was right! Jesus is way better than pot! And I too saw that soon I’d be done with pot altogether. I thought that was cool!

I was coming up to my college graduation and since I had way too many contacts for pot at college and none really in my hometown, I figured that graduation would be a natural departure from pot-smoking. Most of my friends still partied at school, and I was saying goodbye to them all the time. Soon I’d be 1200 or so miles away from my contacts. I figured I'd just stop then.

Well, that was fine for a while. Cause I left Carbondale and was now back in Lexington, away from anyone I knew who provided weed. But a few weeks into summer, a friend of mine was getting married and he wanted me to be one of his ushers. Ben had one of those uncles that every parent gets angry at. He was about 10 years younger than Ben’s dad, and was a real partier. After the wedding, as he went through the receiving line, he shook hands with each of us ushers and when he got to me, he winked, shook my hand, thus slipping me a joint. I don’t know how many joints he passed out in that receiving line, but I didn’t make a scene or say, “Thanks, but I am quitting,” etc. I just slipped it into my pocket and couldn’t stop thinking about it all through the reception.

I got home and had 100 opportunities to flush the thing, but instead declared, “I will put this in my sock drawer and never smoke it, to prove that I’m really over the stuff.” Yeah, that was not a good idea! That joint was on my mind constantly it seemed for the next two weeks. I sometimes would open my drawer just to look at it, sigh, and would shut my drawer. And I would tell myself each time, saying, “Another day without pot. I’m doing great!” I was actually doing just fine before I had that joint. I needed to just flush it. But I didn’t.

Well, here it was two weeks after the wedding, the end of June/beginning of July, with summer before me, and I was up in my room, and my parents went out, and my sister was not home, and I looked over at my drawer, and prayed, “Lord, one last time. How about if we get high together?!?”

Right Tom, as if God needs pot. He CREATED the stuff! So all excited, (and not waiting for an answer), I ran downstairs and made some sandwiches, and got a bowl of potato chips, and “oh, hey, dad got a case of beer. Surely he won’t miss two cans. La-la-la La-la. “

I knew I’d have "the munchies" and didn’t want to risk raiding the fridge with bloodshot eyes and uncontrolled laughter over the way some bug was on its back, right in front of everyone, in case they came home; and so instead, I brought the tray of food and beer up to my room. Once in my room, I laid the towel under the door and opened my bedroom window, to watch the sunset, (cause that would be deep), and so that I could get baked with God.

By the time “WE’D” finished the joint, I was staring out the window thinking this was pretty good.** Now mind you I have never hallucinated on pot, and yet what I'm about to write, I actually saw: Suddenly, a green light shone in the sky! It was a bright hanging looming green light. I thought of what this could be. Immediately I knew! I had been in the middle of reading, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” by Hal Lindsay. Jesus was returning!

**Note: "Pretty good," is not the best term but I couldn't find in either English or Greek, a word that means, "disappointed that I caved, but at least I can stop looking over at my sock drawer."

Based mostly on the biblical books of Revelation and Daniel, Hal Lindsay had been describing the plagues and vials and bowls of suffering that were to be poured out upon the earth, just after what many believers call “the rapture,” and I was now sure, that this was indeed the end of days, and the rapture was happening! This light in the sky for all to see was surely a vial being poured out on mankind, and the rapture must have just taken place, and God was not here with me getting high at all, but I missed the trumpet blast. And I never heard it, because I was HIGH and in SIN!!!!!

I cannot describe fully how upset I was. It was not just mental anguish, but I was also emotionally and physically shaking! I was stoned and crying and terrified. And as the tears started to flow, and I stood by my window, I looked up, and right where that green light had hung up in the sky, there was now an orange light. The second vial was being poured out upon mankind! And I still heard nothing; no trumpets! I was going to go through the tribulation period, not receive the devil’s mark, and get beheaded. (Says so right on page whatever that was.) I was "left behind" because I wanted to get high, and I'd let the pot take me beyond revelation; that is, beyond hearing God’s voice.

Then I thought, “Jesus is coming! Maybe I can still come down before the final plagues, and respond to the trumpet that I can’t yet hear?!?!?!?!?” It was worth a try!

Munchies! I didn’t have them yet, but eating when high usually brought me down; and so I began to stuff the tuna fish sandwiches into my mouth. Potato chips too! And then I looked out the window and now where the orange light had been in the sky, hung a bright red one, bright and with a faint trail of smoke. With crying blurry eyes I could only make out the color and smoke trail, but it was kind of a familiar sight by now and I ate more frantically. My mouth was dry from the pot smoke and the tuna and chips, and yet I had to get the food down! I was still so upset. I wasn’t coming down from the high! And so I began to wash down the food, so as to get some more food into me.

After a few gulps I realized that I was washing it all down with BEER! Alcohol 4%!!!! "Jesus is coming and He’ll find me with bloodshot eyes, a runny nose, and now beer breath!" This stunk!!! I was so upset! Mouth all dry, and full of sandwich and chips, I looked up and through my tears, I could see another green light. I thought, “Why green again?” And now it faded. Was that the last one? Was I lost? Was it over? NO! Here comes another orange light. Wait! Oh!

Maybe I was actually starting to come down from the high. I had a logical thought, and quickly I looked up at the calendar in my room, and then out at the now rising red light and realized what it was. Someone was out in the clearing just past the woods, lighting off a roman candle! "Happy 4th of July!!!" Sure enough, soon a bottle rocket went up. And I just sat there, cheeks fuller than a squirrel in November.

Numb, and still crying, I just stared out and rubbed my eyes to make sure it was roman candles and not actually yet "the end of the age." I had to literally reach into my overstuffed mouth, and pull out dry chips and tuna sandwich. Still crying and all exhausted, I fell on the bed and just wept. I was so upset and yet so relieved! Jesus wasn’t coming back yet. And I just cried. I had never been so terrified!

And as I started to calm down and to stop shaking, I knew His voice again. He said to me very seriously and yet His voice so full of love too; “What DO you want to be doing when I return?” And I just cried and laughed and said, “Not this Lord. Not this!”

And so boys and girls, moms and dads, that is how God got me to stop smoking pot. If you are going to get high, don’t kid yourself, thinking you can just invite the Lord in on your sin. He doesn’t do drugs and He will totally mess with you!

Still, I wouldn’t just throw away that bong if I were you!
With a bit of red paint and a good cleaning,
they make awfully nice hummingbird feeders!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"How Can I Live a Quiet And Peaceful Life?"

A brother wrote me the other day, upset and listing the difficulties and drama in his life. Soon to be released from prison, he wants to know how he can manage to find a nice wife, have a family, and find just the right career. He mentions my wife, and my life, and wow, I hope I haven’t been bragging, but he asks, “How do I get me what you have?” Should I just tell him the truth? “You can’t?”

I suppose that I could give him the same advice that I have given many young men who are ‘trying to make it happen,’ for themselves:

“In order to lead a happy life; find a very godly young woman who suffers from momentary lapses in judgment. And then time your proposal perfectly.”

Okay, seriously: Society trains young men to be masters of their destiny, to set goals, and to go after them. But for the Christian, that is settling. God has way better for us, than we can even “hope or imagine.” And for us, “the good life” is not achieved; it is received.

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
1 Corinthians 4:7

Learn to receive from God. Since God is able to do ”immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,” our achieving our own plan is settling for less. We are trained by society, to balk at waiting. “You snooze, you loose,” we grow up hearing. Words like “rest,” and “quiet and peaceful life,” sound like enemies to “achieving.”

Recently, I heard Pastor Dave Swaim preaching on Psalm 23. I tend to look at sheep endearingly. Pastor Swaim described how helpless and dumb and unimpressive sheep are. And he’s right!

My children have books about amazing animal rescues. None of these stories involve heroic sheep. Is there any episode of “Man vs. Wild,” where host Bear Grylls comes across sheep that weren’t already dead? Usually having wandered off into some boggy moor. Scripture often likens us to sheep. And we think that’s sweet.

According to Pastor Swaim, sheep not only need to be led to green pastures, but they often have to be “made” to lie down! These sheep, the shepherd needs to bonk on the head with his rod, to make them lay down in green pastures; forced to receive what they actually want. Feeling the ‘bonk’ these days? Lay down already!

I remember skimming over verses like:

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you,”
(1 Thessalonians 4:11)

Other versions say, "strive to live," or "make it your goal," to live. . .

What about those champions of faith in scriptures and throughout history? Who wanted to lead a “quiet” life? Jesus saved me and I was excited about it! Pleasing God to me meant living the adventures of men like Paul. To my thinking, “quiet” was the antonym of “adventurous.” Sit back and live quietly? I thought not!

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
1 Timothy 2:1-4

Skimming such verses, I’d miss what was being said. This life of peace and quiet “pleases God our Savior.” And look! Because God, “…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Is this verse saying that our living a quiet and peaceful life, may help more people come to know Him? The very thing God wants? It’s taken a few bonks perhaps, but I have actually experienced this happening. Lately I’m even starting to enjoy these pastures.

We need to “strive” to live this quiet and peace filled life, because trouble is coming at us, (especially if we don't leave out the "in all godliness and holiness" part):

Jesus said:

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
John 16:33


“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:34

When we follow Christ, we are going against this world’s grain. We rub the world and the world responds with splinters. The peace filled life is not man’s natural response to trouble. That’s why we don’t do the planning.

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:9, 10

When Ann and I moved out to Central Asia, we were loaded with strategic plans on how to “reach” Muslim people for Jesus. Good plans, which had apparently “worked” in other Muslim areas of the world. But copying what God did elsewhere is just religion. What did He want for these folk? We should have asked Him that first.

There were all kinds of obstacles too! Ann and I were still a young couple, and brand new parents. Communication at home was murky; and then we didn’t yet speak either of the two local languages. Bodies adjusting to the new home, we were losing weight fast, and on the toilet much. Evangelism was borderline illegal. Our mail was read, our telephone tapped, and spies were even sent into our classes to watch what we said and did. Not peaceful!

One pre-written plan for reaching Muslim folk, included finding men who would, after believing, be trained to lead those who would soon believe. I remember meeting a man named Ahmetjan. He seemed open to discuss spiritual things. He was patient with my language limitations. And he seemed to be a natural leader. So off I went to track down Ahmetjan, with the only scripture as yet in his language, a Gospel of Mark.

I went to his dorm. He wasn’t there. His roommates invited me in for tea. But I was on a mission. So I went to the reading room. He wasn’t there either. Some, who thought they’d seen him leaving, invited me to come to their room for tea. Nope! Off I went to find Ahmetjan. Not there? “He’s gone back to his dorm?” Me? Sit and chat? No time for that! I ran to his room. Nobody was home at all! Sigh!

Exhausted, I’d passed up 4 invitations to meet people with whom I might have shared Christ. I felt so stupid! Upset, I stopped at my usual place by the river, to read and pray so as not to bring this heaviness home. Blah! “God, you're not helping!”

Watching water flowing on by my bench was peaceful! Relaxing now, I soon opened the scriptures. Jesus was telling the fishermen to let down their nets. Peter was saying to Him, “. . . but because You say so…”

Then, hearing voices, I looked up to find myself surrounded by smiling students. Guess they knew they surprised me. Between classes, these young men and women wanted to know, “What are you reading?”

I explained that I was reading the gospels, “The Injil.” They asked me to read some. Reading from the English, I slowly translated where Jesus was talking to fishermen; instructing them to cast their nets again, though they had labored all night with no results. The students were patient as I managed to get through the story. We then talked about how if the disciples had said “No,” because Jesus was not a fisherman, that they would have missed that miracle catch. As they left for class, I closed my eyes to pray for them; then I saw this funny picture in my head:

On the one side was this boat, with smiling ancient fishermen casting nets into the water. On the other side stood a stressed and tired looking version of me, holding a spear poised and ready. I was spear fishing!

I had been striving all afternoon, to spear one fish that may or may never be caught. And when finally made to sit, God filled up the bench around me, where a dozen students just heard more truth about Jesus than they’d ever heard before.

I guess it was either repent of my ways, and trust God, or go get another “How to” book, probably end up more stressed, get another “bonk,” and seeing the next picture of myself fishing with cormorants. I repented.

A quiet and peaceful life in Christ is not boring! There was way more adventure on that peaceful bench, than in my running all over campus. I went home excited!

Over and over, scripture teaches that “selfish ambition” is what wars against our living the quiet and peaceful life that God wants for us. We must strive to live a peaceful life, because it isn’t natural to our flesh. Kingdom adventure is in receiving, not achieving. Look! Who gets the credit when someone spears a fish? The fisherman! Who gets praised when the net gets filled? God!

Scripture promises that we’ll have trouble. The world will hate us, because it hates Jesus. (John 15:18) Just following Him will bring us into hostile territory. But believers are promised a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and all that the Holy Spirit has to give us. God will work these qualities in us. But we won’t achieve them. We must receive them?

God is good! He will complete the work in us that He has begun. (Philippians 1:6) We can either lie down peacefully, or wait for the next “bonk!” You won’t be bored following Jesus. And after 30 years of following Christ, Steve will also look back and see that he has indeed received from God, what no man gets on his own.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"God's Going to What ?!?!?!"

Ministry begins with a call. But we often don’t see it for some time. I was called to evangelize among Turks in Central Asia. But I often talk about the start of my ministry there, in a very seeing-is-believing way. Sure people often tried to tell me I was already ministering when I was in Bible college, and then for a year of Missions training, and then a month of Islamic training, and then came two years of language study in an American University. Yes, well meaning Christians were always telling me what servant of God I was being.

But that never satisfied the longing in my heart to live among the Turks of Central Asia, and to tell them about God’s love for them, expressed in the coming of Jesus the Christ. In those days, there was no telling me that I was already doing something, when I was not seeing myself doing it. I was not in Central Asia, and it would take greater faith than I had to think that all this training was then helping Turkic people to know about the love of Jesus, while I was still on American soil, without an Uzbek person in sight. There are many more Turkic peoples of Central Asia: the Tatars, the Kharakhalpaks, the Tuvans, the Khirghiz and Khazakhs, Azeris and Turkmen to name some. Ann and I were studying Uzbek though, and I was eager to just get on with it. And when we finally moved out to where these folk were, I finally started hoping to feel the satisfaction that would come from telling them about Jesus and His love for them.

I had more language study to do there, as the dialect I had spent two years studying in America only remotely related to the one I now had to study. Most linguists would disagree with that last sentence. But to a linguist there are always relationships in languages. To a complainer there are only differences. I saw no similarities. So I had to study hard.

At the University in the city where we were, there were thousands of Turkic men and women who needed to know the love of Christ. In my language study, I spent time mainly in syntax, wanting the meaning of the message to be heard. I didn’t work much on pronunciation. Being from the Boston area, I had grown used to challenging people with my accent. I don’t mind being teased for something like my funny accent, so long as people understood the message. I’ve never been big on packaging; as for me it has always been the gift that counts. Finally in Central Asia, I was not going to be wasting any precious time.

So the first words I wanted to learn in this new language, were the words I would need to be able to say, “God loves you!” “Huda” means “God.” “Sizni” means “you.” And “soyeedu” means “love,” right? No problem. And so off I went to the men’s dormitories, to proclaim the beginning of the good news. Each dorm room held 8 men, who slept in four sets of bunk beds. And I would knock on the door, and local hospitality would demand that they invite me in. And when they opened the door to me, I would say, with my Boston accent, “Huda, sizni soyeedu!” “God is going to butcher you!”

That’s right. Apparently that first vowel in the verb “to love” needs to really be said with the proper pronunciation. It has this funny French sounding “eu” sound, that I had not bothered to practice, and so instead of saying the verb “to love,” I was using the verb that a butcher uses to kill an animal; “to slaughter.”

Of course to make it worse, I was saying it with a big evangelical smile that was probably even a bit sappy, as I was still charmed with the notion that I was out there doing God this big favor; telling a people not yet reached, about Him. And add to that, that being considerably older than these young men, their culture would have thought it quite rude for them to correct me; their elder. And so for three weeks, I went from room to room, smiling and drinking their tea and eating their sunflower seeds as I brought to them my prophetic message of doom.

Fortunately for me, I made the same “O” mistake in all my sentences. For example, instead of saying, “I saw my friend Mahmut, yesterday,” I would say, “I stir-fried my friend Mahmut, yesterday.” People knew what I was trying to say, and so the joke got around campus fast, and all behind my back. People would see me coming and nudge each other, and I thought they were coming to hear my pearls of wisdom and “the good news.” But what accompanied those nudges was something more like, “Look out, here comes that foreigner. He says God’s gonna slaughter us.” And I didn’t know any of this was going on. So folks had a good laugh.

Something else that I didn’t know was that there was a young Turkic man at our school who had had an experience with God already. He was a very energetic boy who to this day, jumps into life with both feet, in all that he does. And when he was only 16, he climbed a steep face of a cliff, just outside of his hometown. Once high up, he looked down and realized he hadn’t the nerve to get down. He had no idea how he was going to get down, and he was alone.

So high up on that ledge, he confessed all his sins, and gave his life to God. He declared that he didn’t know the way to God, but that if God would get him down alive and show him the way to Himself, then he would surely follow in that way. And God got him down. At one point he actually fell, and to this day he says, looking up at that cliff, that he should have died. Amazed, he landed unhurt, but for one scratch; just big enough to remind him of the vow he had made to God.

Somehow he knew God must really care about him. And this truth about God, was not something he had learned at the Mosque. So three years later, when he heard that there was a foreigner running around campus, incorrectly trying to say that God was loving, he felt he needed to correct my speech, and to find out more about this loving God. So, seeing me studying in the campus reading room, he came up and offered to teach me his language. When he told me not to say “soy-yee-doo” but to say “seu-yee-doo,” I asked him why. He just ran his finger across his throat with a grimace and made the sound of a butcher’s knife, and repeated “soy-yee-doo.” I cannot tell what my face looked like at that moment. I was mortified of course! All the rooms I had visited, with eight men per room over the past three weeks came into my mind all at once. The smiles that had responded to my sappy smile, and the polite pouring of tea: Whatever my face looked like, my new friend was lost in debilitating laughter. And I was soon joining him. We were then told we’d have to leave the reading room. Instant friendship!

Hey, you either have to laugh or just go home! If two years of language study, a year of missionary training, a year of Bible College, and a month of Islamic training had taught me anything, it was that you either have to laugh, or you have to go home. That night I just thanked God that I hadn’t yet memorized verses from the Bible. Imagine if I had memorized John 3:16, or First Corinthians 13!!!

That young man came to our home every night and we read the gospel of Mark, and then we got into the book of Acts. He was constantly receiving truth and teaching me his language. And if I ever got lazy on pronunciation, he was right there ready for a good laugh. And I was learning that how Central Asian Turks received truth was quite different than the way this North American does. I'll not now describe what I saw over those months, but the boy was in the Kingdom of God, long before I heard him say a “sinner’s prayer.” It was evident on his face and the way God protected him and the way Satan attacked him. He was on his way. And when he did pray to dedicate the road of his life to following Jesus, he suddenly and with great joy, remembered his words to God on that cliff-side, that day three years before: “God, if you just show me the way, I will follow it to You.”

Later my friend and brother brought other people to our home. He went on to another city that the government sent him to for further study. And he has grown strong by God’s grace. Others have come to faith too. And I marvel at how God does it. I have made many, many mistakes since telling everyone that God was going to slaughter them. I trust they all know that I meant better for them. And more importantly, that God means the best for them. But we had been in that city for 6 months before friends started coming over. That was when I had thought that our ministry would begin.

But our ministry had actually begun three years before we got there; on the side of a cliff. It continued on for ten more years in similar fashion. Ann and I would tell people in a very imperfect way, how much God loves them. And God would get through somehow to those who would believe. But the testimonies usually had much more to do with what God had been doing in their lives before they ever heard us speak. And the words of the gospel of Mark or John were usually the words that sounded most like the God who had been leading them along to Himself. Instead of feeling like agents of change and conversions; Ann and I much more felt the joy and privilege that God grants all His children to:

"...shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life--"

About a month before it was time for us to leave Central Asia, and to return home, I was walking in the bazaar, and feeling rather good about all that God had been doing these past ten years; probably trying to assess how He might have used us. I must have been thinking myself rather important, as presently a tall man came up to me in the market, and he called my name. He was walking with his daughter who looked to be about 8 years old. He reminded me who he was. He had been a student at the same school where Ann and I had been, and he was on his way to the school to show it to his daughter. It was so very nice to see him, and my pride swelled even more when he said, “Aygul, this is the foreign man who I told you about.” But then he added with a broad smile, “You know, the one that was telling everyone that his God was going to slaughter us?”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"What is 'Spiritual Warfare?"

David recently transferred to a prison facility where chapel services have been different from what he’s known. After hearing a message about “spiritual warfare,” David wants to know if he needs to be more aggressive spiritually. He asks, “What is spiritual warfare? Should I be doing this?”

Though I don’t see the exact term “spiritual warfare,” mentioned in scripture, Paul, Peter and James do discuss spiritual battle and battle readiness. Paul writes:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
Ephesians 6:10-18

In describing soldiers, Paul describes more a Roman Centurion, than our modern guerilla type soldiers. Paul’s describing here rather stately soldiers: confident enough with power to win any battle while steadfastly standing in full view of the enemy.

During the American Civil war, the southern army had a famous battle cry known as, “The Rebel Yell.” Northern and Southern accounts attest to its powers to terrify even seasoned Northern Generals. To this day we don’t know what The Rebel Yell, sounded like. By the time tape recorders were ready, the only confederate veterans around were very old men. One, when asked if they could record him doing the yell, declined. Apparently, he said, one could only do the Rebel Yell at a full run, and certainly not with dentures.

For those wanting to know how to cast out demons, please bear with me. As effective as The Rebel Yell was against the North, it was not a spiritual weapon. I can raise my voice, and emote all I choose, and it is not going to intimidate demons. Still, God has equipped us for spiritual battle. Paul writes:

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
2 Corinthians 10:3-5

For spiritual battle then, we are to:

Take our stand.
Put on God’s armor.
Stand our ground.
Stand firm in truth.
Stand firm for righteousness.
Stand firm with readiness that comes from the good news of peace.
Hold up our faith to quench fiery darts.
And to have our mind on God’s word.

Not on the run, these stately soldiers are unconquerable because they are steadfast in God. These soldiers obey God, going where He sends them. And when it comes to the “readiness that comes from the good news of peace,” we’re told to, “ be ready in season and out of season to share the hope that is within,” us. Are we ready?

Yell if you want. But the soldiers we are called to be, do battle with resolve and steadfastness. We don’t chase or run! We stand. And we follow Jesus into areas where light is needed. That’s when kingdoms collide.

We entered the battle when we became children of God. The most effective way to injure a good father is to wound his children. There is not a shred of decency in the devil. God wants you prepared because He loves you so much.

Effective armies have clear lines of authority. Take careful note whenever scripture talks about a “Centurion.” Whether Gaius, Julius, Cornelius, or an unnamed one, Centurions in scripture have a perfect track record for understanding authority and are often blessed as a result. Sometimes believers find themselves in trouble when they don’t follow the lines of authority that God has set in place. Peter writes:

“Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
1 Peter 5:5-11

Years ago I worked with emotionally disturbed teenagers. I loved the job and the kids! But one month, I did run into a slump. The kids ignoring me, were out of control; some even showing aggression. “Lord!” I asked, “What is going on?” Then that week in church, the teaching concerned that Centurion whose faith amazed even Jesus. Not knowing my struggles, the preacher said, “If those you are in authority over are not honoring you; check to see if you are honoring those in authority over you. The one out of line may be you.” I was under instant conviction. Something I’d brazenly said to God came to mind, concerning a particular sin that didn't want to go. Tired of confessing it and repenting and not having instant victory over it, I told God a few weeks prior that He was just going to have to take it away Himself. Who did I think I was talking to?!? I repented that morning in church, thus repositioning myself under the authority of my Lord and His word.

The next week at work the kids were great! Back where I belonged, restored peace opened the door to bringing Christ into every situation for the kids. And personally, I like not having my life in chaos.

Peter here tells us how to battle and to win. We are to:

Respect and submit to those in authority over us.
Respect our elders.
Humble our selves before God’s mighty hand.
Cast all our anxiety upon God.
Know that He cares for us.
Be self-controlled.
Be alert.
And to Resist the Devil.

James writes:

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
James 4: 7-10

Followers of Jesus don’t need to go after demons. As children of the light, we are going to be resisted by darkness. When confronted by demons, the casting out come as result of us being battle ready; lined up under His authority. As soldiers lined rightly, and prepared as the apostles teach, darkness doesn’t really stand a chance. Casting out demons is not the battle. The battle is bringing ourselves into proper position and in preparedness despite what our flesh and the enemy would rather.

Peter reminds us to:

Stand firm in faith.
Remember we are not alone in suffering.
Let God restore us, while recognizing that the power is His. (Give Him the credit!).

The power is God’s. Obeying Him results in victory. Whether Gideon’s fighting a great army with only 300 lapping men, or Jericho’s walls fall with a post-march shout, or Moses' hands are lifted for a battle’s win, we’re always to follow God’s instructions. Obedience sees victory. Victory then credits God alone; telling the world that He is awesome!

When loneliness, bitterness, or discouragement hits, your victory comes by heeding what the apostles teach. Set your heart on pilgrimage. March whenever and wherever God leads. Be prepared always, to share the truth of your hope. Standing firm, keep your faith shield up. When demons challenge, vigilant you, will be ready; and God through you, will bring His truth into each situation, where before was once deception and bondage.

I suggest that spiritual attack is designed to distract us, not from doing impressive things; but from living the adventure of faith in Christ? Life in Christ is an adventure!

“Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs--he wants to please his commanding officer. . . ."
2 Timothy 2:3, 4

". . . Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.”
2 Timothy 2:7

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Who's Your Daddy?"

When it comes to understanding the love of God the Father, we often hear of people who struggled to “get” Him, because of their earthly fathers’ shortcomings. But this can also work the other way. Even imperfect dads can, in part, help their children to better see attributes of God, helping pave the way for us to recognize our Heavenly Father. Not that I would compare my dad to God, but there are definitely some ways that Norman Harvey rightly reflected the Father’s heart to his kids. So maybe it would be good to reflect today, on a few of these attributes that dad so shined.

First of all, he was faithful. Our dad kept his promises, honored his vows, and you could count on him. Secondly, he was committed. Whether to his marriages, to his children, to his family and friends or to his work, he was an example of what it is to be responsible. And thirdly, Norman Harvey reflected the nature of God in the joy that he so obviously had in being creative. He was an extremely creative mind and talent; and he brought great joy into our lives when he was creating. There are other ways I’m sure Danny and Sandy would add to this list, but for time’s sake, we’ll focus on these three attributes: his faithfulness, his committed way, and his joy in creativity.

How was this expressed in the way dad lived his life? How did him being who he was, reflect the Father’s heart? For one thing, he would come into your life, gently and gladly, whenever he was invited. He loved a sincere invitation, and he was faithful to come when invited. The Lord said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20). Again, not that I am comparing dad with the Lord; but that dad, in being the way he was, made it perhaps easier for me to see God’s gentleness and gladness to come when invited; when it was my time to come to faith. Dad always came when invited; never barging in; but always with gladness.

And when dad did join you, he enjoyed you. In this way too, he reflected God’s heart for his people. “For the Lord takes delight in his people; He crowns the humble with salvation.” (Psalm 149:4). If you are here today in this congregation of the family and friends of Norman Harvey, you know what I am talking about. When he came to you invited, he enjoyed you. You were a “delight” to him. And he let you know it. We gather here today to recall his ways, and in that sense are “Norman’s people.” And so when it came time to consider how God enjoys those who come to him sincerely, my dad embodied that attribute. Dad delighted in you.

And while I can’t think of a Bible verse that spells out this characteristic of God (and you all know I would throw that verse your way if I could find it), it is clear from scripture, that whenever anyone ever invites God in, that they not only find themselves enjoyed by Him, but that He leaves them better off than He finds them. Dad was like that too. He would come to you if you asked, enjoy you while together, and leave you in a wake that would find you better off than before his visit.

For example, I think of the visits that he and June would make to Ann and I, over these past several years. I did not inherit his genius for building, and designing things; and so whenever dad and June would come to visit, a typical visit would look like this: After driving or flying down to Charlotte (no small trip), they would come in and enjoy us. We’d have a meal together, catch up some, laugh and hug of course, and it was just a joy to be with them. Day two, I’d come home from the office, when Ann would call and let me know they were on their way over, and I’d walk in on them, in great activity. During the first visit, unbeknownst to us, Dad and June would have taken some kind of mental inventory of ways to bless us, and with tools, paints, and accessories and gadgets they have found helpful to themselves, they would visit on day two, armed to bless. A visit may last one or two weeks. There would be lots of meals, hugs, laughs, and after we’d all waved goodbye in the driveway, Ann and I would walk back into our house, and look around and say, “Wow! Look at our house!” He always left us better off than he found us. And that is definitely a God thing!

During their last visit to our home, Ann’s dad next door, passed away. It was for sure a hard time for the family, Ann and her mom certainly grieving most I got to see a side of dad that I’d only really heard about. Over the years, as different friends and family members have had health problems or were grieving, I have been hearing how dad and June would come into that situation, and minister comfort, and really help. As sad as it was to be saying so long to Ann’s dad, getting to see my own dad, with June, spring to life and action, helping Ann and her mom, and helping me by their example was kind of a last minute gift to me too, as it turns out. I was getting to see dad in action, in a way I’d never seen before. Still learning about him, after knowing him for 51 years; I can tell you that's really something special!

Not long ago I was leaving a visit to a prison, where I’d listened to a man who was hurting. He was talking about a recent visit that he’d had from his two teenage children. Due to his own actions, he had been in prison for most of their lives, and ached to be with them. As he spoke with tears, of how he’d let his children down, I thought of something my social worker friend once told me about the kids in the city of Charlotte. Apparently 70% of the children in Charlotte, have no father in the picture at all. They either do not know whom, or else do not know where their father is. 70%! And here was this man in prison, who was rooting for his kids in life, praying for them daily, longing to be with them, and visiting with them for 4 hours every other week. Those kids know who and where their dad is. They know he loves them. They know he prays for them. They know that he wants to be with them, and that he is rooting for them to do well in life. I quickly sat and wrote this man a note, to let him know that his children were in the top 30% of the most blessed kids in Charlotte. While fully 70% of their peers had no dad at all to speak of; this brother's children had his love; for as much as he could express it.

Now I stand here and I have to say, that if this brother’s children are in the top 30% of those kids most blessed; then surely Danny, and Sandy, and I must be in the top 1% of those most blessed. Because our dad was always for us, always ready to visit and have input, always enjoying us, and always leaving us better off than he found us.

Not many kids can say, “My dad designed and built our house!” Not just the house we grew up in, but dad seemed to be able to make anything better than store bought. He made furniture for our rooms; and the very dining booth that we had our meals in all growing up. He built into our home special features that were cool; like the laundry chute that you could send just about anything down (and we did). After building a fence out back, he took the left over lumber and made a tree fort for Danny and I. Right up in the tree, with a rope ladder that we could climb up. Well, that Danny could climb up. I more had to be boosted and hauled in. But once in, we could pull up the ladder, where we’d be safe from all cooties and the Indians (or cowboys, depending upon the day). When we outgrew the tree fort, dad brought it down for Sandy to use as a clubhouse, under the tree’s shade.

What dad would build in the back yard each year, with lengths of lumber and rolls of plastic, and lots of water, a skating rink for his kids to skate on with their friends? Our dad did this every year. And when our neighborhood, full of steep roads, found kids buying soap box derby type “go carts,” I asked dad to get me one too. I had in mind one from the store; but the next thing you know, he’d taken the seat off of Sandy’s old high chair, and with wood, iron rods, ball bearings, wheels, and sharp blue paint, he in one afternoon, made me the fastest go cart in the neighborhood. All the kids would bring our carts up to Culter Farm rd. or to the top of Woodcliff, or when our parents didn’t know it, the top of Marlboro rd. itself, and race down. By the end of the first summer, it wasn’t whether or not my go cart would win; but how much of a head start could I give the other kids, and still have dad’s go cart win.

When Halloween time came around, dad’s genius would be tapped into. Harvey grown-ups annually held their amazing costume parties, and dad always came up with some really fun costumes. And he made costumes for us kids too. While most of my friends went out as boring ghosts and goblins, I got to go out as whatever I wanted. All I had to do was tell dad what I wanted for a costume. And I mean anything! My favorite costume ever was this very specific pirate costume he made for me. All I had to do was to show him the picture from some book. He made the hat out of material and cardboard and it looked authentic. Eye patch of course, but when he came up from the basement with a hard wood saber that he’d just fashioned out with his tools and spray painted the blade silver, I had me a great outfit. Ha! I remember another pirate that Halloween, coming up to try and swash-buckle me. I wielded my saber and that kid’s lame curtain rod was a bent into a disappointed droop with a single pare from my sabre.

Hey, I even got to be “Cousin It” from the Adam’s family once! Whose dad can do that? Trick or Treating in one of Norman Harvey’s originals meant never having to hear, “And just what are you supposed to be?”

One year I decided to carve my own pumpkin for Halloween. Whatever it was I was trying to do wasn’t coming out, and I was so upset; I was about to put my foot through the face of it. Dad heard me and came to my rescue. In frustration, I asked him to help me. Once again invited in, he took my pumpkin, considered it, and told me to go and get two black checkers. I ran to my toy box, and, thinking to myself, “Black checkers? What is he going to do with black checkers?” came back to find a funny mouth and nose, carved into the pumpkin. Then, he took my two black checkers and finished the amazing piece, by inserting them in ready cut slots, so that when lit, the eyes looked crossed, and while not scary, but more looking like Red Skelton or Mortimer Snerd, the pumpkin was a masterpiece, much marveled at by those visiting that night. Dad was cool for sure!

Danny and Sandy could tell you lots more! And much of dad was not appreciated until we left home. It wasn’t till I went to college and classmates and new friends would say things like, “You’ve never been to a barber?” Dad cut our hair. Or, “Where’d you learn to walk on stilts?”

Dad made Danny and I each a pair of stilts. One day when we were racing around the block, a guy drove up beside us, as we were making our way up Woodcliff road, and asked, “Hey, where’d you kids get the stilts?” We answered, “Our dad made them for us!” as we ambled along. The man said nothing. Just rolled up his window and drove off, apparently needing to come up with another idea for his kids.

When Sandy was a baby, we had a very white winter. Unable to stroll her around, dad made a really beautiful baby sleigh of wood and runners, so that she could be bundled up and placed inside. Then mom or he could pull her around the snow-covered streets. When you grow up with a dad who is both creative and humble, you just think these things are normal; at least until you start comparing notes with other young adults; or when you have children of your own, and you try doing half for them, of what had been done for you.

Dad passed on to his children, an amazing work ethic. Growing up with him for a dad, you naturally felt lazy by comparison. I only remember him missing work twice, and only for having a thrown out back. If he could get up, he was at work. If he ever thought to call in sick, he sure didn’t. I remember him saying to me, “Tom, you are spending more energy trying to get out of work than you would expend if you just did the job you were asked to do.” And he was right. It wasn’t till later when I started getting my first jobs that I realized that some people didn’t have a dad like mine, to point out the obvious to them. You have a job; you do it. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. But I’d hear some co-worker at McDonalds complaining to the manager, something like, “You mean I’m supposed to come in every time my name is on the schedule?” As if that were too much! That kid didn’t have my dad.

My dad had me pegged! Seeing my character or lack thereof, he once told me, “Tommy, you love to play tennis and you come alive when you are doing what you love to do. You’d better train to do a job that you love to do, cause you’ll be doing it many hours a week. Do something that brings you energy, so you won’t be so spent at the end of your days.” Those words are still true of me. I’m sure Sandy and Danny had their own times of being advised according to what dad wanted for them. He wanted only and always what was best for us.

Dad leaves us impressed. He also leaves us an example of what it is to “finish well” in life. Over the years, we’ve gotten to see dad gain in personal freedom, in joy, and in peace. As we’ve been mourning, I’ve invited God my Father to come in, to sit with me; in expectation of Him making me better off than He finds me today, this verse came to mind as I was thinking of my father. Again; not that I’m comparing dad to Jesus; but he sure had some qualities that made it easy for me to recognize God when I finally did meet him! Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Then as I found this verse, the very next one jumped out at me, as I felt the Lord’s blessing. It reads: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28,29) It was to me as if the Lord was saying, that if I would follow Jesus, that the Lord will work these attributes which I’ve mentioned about my dad, somehow into me. And I find myself wanting to let Him try and do just that.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"How Did You Meet Jesus?"

How did I meet Jesus? I have asked myself that a lot. Theologians ask that all the time. How much was my seeking Him? How much was His calling to me? Honestly, I only can answer that I met Him, and getting to know Him has filled my life and thoughts these past 30 years since. I sure didn’t call my friend Mike that night, to get religion! And Jesus did say, “No one may come to Me, unless the Father draws them.” So I guess God was drawing me, though I didn’t know it at the time. I actually had gone to this particular party, to buy me some pot.

I was sport’s counselor and athletic director for a boy’s camp, on Cape Cod, MA, for three summers, during my college years. The boys and staff at the camp were predominantly Jewish, and without knowing it, they most definitely impacted my idea of God, as being Someone close and not distant; Someone to be recognized, and not taken for granted. I was drawn enough by this amazing community, that even though most there may not have considered themselves at all devout, their lives let me know, that without a reverence for God, I was missing something in life.

I played soccer in high school and then in college, and I played a lot of tennis, and had been a competitive swimmer. I just loved to compete! My motto jokingly was: "It isn't all about winning! I get just as much pleasure in seeing other people lose!" I really enjoyed coaching kids, and seeing them enjoy sports as well. During my final summer at camp, one of my best friends was a post-hippie guy named Michael, about 5 years older than me, and he seemed to be going nowhere. He was camp’s music director and wanted his music to sell. He sang, and played guitar, and wrote his own songs. He was excellent too; but so far he kept making the kinds of decisions in life, that were postponing or derailing his dreams. We used to get high on pot together, which is something I had just started doing in college.

After camp that summer I went back out to Southern Illinois University, for my Junior year. Mike got odd jobs in the Worcester area of Massachusetts, and one of these jobs was roofing. One day Mike fell off of a roof and broke his back. While he was in the hospital, he cried out to God, and was shocked to find that Jesus was the answer God was giving him. He wrote me a couple letters and I told him I was “Happy for him,” with no intention of getting Jesus-like myself.

Summer came and I wasn’t going back to camp. I had to make more money for school and so my brother got me a job soldering cables for computers in Boston at his company. Well, leaving school for home, I thought I had brought enough pot to last the summer, but you know how that goes. I had two weeks left and ran out. So I called Mike, cause he was my only connection. I was staying with my parents and since I didn’t smoke pot in high school, I had no connections there. I called Mike, not realizing that pot was something that a Jesus person might repent of. Mike listened and said, “Well Tom, I actually don’t get high anymore. I’m high on Jesus (whatever THAT meant), but I’m going to a party tonight where I think you can get some.” So, desperate for pot, I went to the party.

All the way there, I was really eager to finally see Mike too. I remember saying to my co-workers that day, “I’m going to a Christian pot party.” Well, when Mike and I arrived to the small farm house where the party was, there were about 20 people sitting and chatting by candlelight. They all seemed really nice, but the only one I knew was Mike. I had parked my car at Mike's place and we drove over together in his car. I didn’t know it but everyone at this party attended the same church, which was called "Calvary." I remember wondering what Jesus had to do with horses. I don't remember a cavalry sung about in "Jesus Christ Superstar." One group sat around Mike’s guitar while he led them in singing. I saw another group over by a table. There was wine and a few joints on the table and so that was the place for me. Mike began to play and I settled as close to the joints as I could. Mike began playing tunes that I recognized from the previous summer; songs he had written. But he'd since changed the words to them; now singing about God and Jesus and the “Trinity." (Whatever that was!)

Okay, I had to admit too, that Mike was different. He had a good job; was paying his wife child support, and he really was not getting high, which if you knew Mike and I, that was big. And he was the happiest really, that I ever knew him to be. In just about 45 minutes of visiting him, and catching up before the party, I could see he was really excited about life now. He was always fun to be around. But now he was happy.

But I was there to get high and so there I sat at a table with a bunch of strangers. They were just lighting up a joint and one of them was reading aloud from a book about "the end times," and Bible prophecy. The book was called, “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay. There were even some at the table who were not getting high, which was really strange to me. After all, people getting high, don’t want to be around someone who is sober. A downer. And if you are sober, you sure don’t want to be around someone who is high. You try and tell them about your day, and they answer you by telling you that "the Universe is really bent," or simply, "man! Did you see that?" No fun! But here they all were, at this "Christian Pot Party," enjoying each other and eager to hear what the Bible has to say.

There were these two girls across the table from me. I actually forget their names, but let’s call them Susan and Ellen. Ellen took a hit of the joint and passed it to Susan, who did not take a hit, but passed it on to whoever was sitting next to her. Ellen says, “Aren’t you getting high tonight?” And Susan says, “No. I think I’m going to quit.” That got me thinking. Hearing about the end times and Armageddon, and having to take the mark in order not to be killed, etc., wasn’t doing much for my paranoia either!

I was thinking, as the joint went around, “Why is she quitting?” I really wanted to know, but didn’t know her to ask. I started thinking of how I couldn’t quit, even if I had wanted to. I didn’t want to. But then I had this picture of me one day at age 35, telling my kids, “Don’t do drugs!” and then when they’d go to bed, there I’d be, pulling out my secret stash and getting high while they all slept. I felt at 22, that I was destined to be a sneak with addictions at 35 and then for the rest of my life. I didn’t like me very much at that moment.

Well, the joint went around again and came to Ellen, and she took another hit, and passed it to Susan. I was sure Susan would cave and take a hit, but she passed it on. This girl was sticking to her words. I felt so weak and spineless. This was getting depressing. I bought some pot, from this guy who had gone out to get some for me, and then I heard Ellen ask Susan, “Why are you quitting?” And that was the million dollar question that changed my life.

Susan answered, “I’ve noticed lately that when I pray, if I’m high, I can’t hear God’s voice. But if I’m not high, I can hear Him just fine.

That was what I needed to hear! You see, for me at age 22, despite living the college life and getting ready to finish that and move on, life was boring, depressing, and I didn’t see the point of most of what I or anyone else was doing. Smoking pot and hash made life interesting, funny, and adventurous, if at least in my mind, and even if just temporarily so. Now here was someone I knew well, Mike, and someone who I didn’t know at all, Susan, saying the same thing; that though life with pot was better than life without it, life with Jesus was better than life with pot. I guess from that point on, I wanted to know more. They had found an answer that, if true, I not only wanted, but knew I had not the power or character to obtain.

At the end of the night, everyone stood in a circle and prayed. High or not, each prayed if they wanted to. I was clueless, and so when the girl next to me prayed and then squeezed my hand, I thought she was just being emotional or affectionate, and so I squeezed her hand back. Ha! Her squeezing my hand was to let me know she was done and apparently it was my turn to pray. I didn’t realize that till a year later when I was in another group that did that. God is so patient! He is so wonderful! After the party, Mike and I were driving home, and I asked Mike. “Mike, how can I hear God’s voice?” I think I also asked, having heard this from one of the party goers, "And what is "the sinner's prayer?" Mike hid his excitement, but he had been praying for me all that day. He knew my stand on religion and figured I would be a tough nut to crack. But here I was asking him basically, how I could be saved.

So Mike asks me, “Tom, do you know you are a sinner?” Well, I had to think about that one. I knew that there were three things in particular that I had done, and that if people knew about them, I’d be quite ashamed. I knew God must know of these things. And so I said, “Yes, I guess I do.”

Then Mike asked me, “Tom, do you know why Jesus died on the cross?” And to be honest, I didn’t know. I had listened to the record album “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a young teen, hundreds of times. But I didn’t know why Jesus died on the cross. The rock opera never answers that question. I never went to church growing up; and in my neighborhood, people just didn’t talk about stuff like this. So I just guessed, “To be a good example to us?” (Wrong answer.)

Mike explained that Jesus came in order specifically to die, because our sin made it impossible for us to ever enter back into a right relationship with God. (A relationship mankind lost in the Garden of Eden). God is holy, and man is now sinful. So there had to be a sacrifice of blood to pay for our sins. Jesus never sinned, and because He was born of God’s Spirit, and not man’s seed, He did not carry man's sinful nature. His Father being God Himself, He is both God and man. Having lived a sinless life, He chose to be the sacrifice for us, so that we can enter that relationship with Him now. He did this because God loves us so much! Trusting in Him will mean a new life in Christ, and when our bodies die, eternal life with God in Heaven. “Tom, do you believe that God loves you?

Well, I guess I did. I mean, if He hates sin so much, and didn’t kill me for those three “sins” that I was thinking about, then I guess He must love me. And I just did believe that He loved me. So I said, “yes.

Then Mike said, “Well, if God loves you, and wants to spend forever with you, then isn’t it okay for Him to do the one thing that He has to do, in order to make that possible? Jesus died on the cross, so that you could live with Him forever.

I actually understood what Mike was saying! Even as I write it now, it sounds fantastic. What a story! But in my heart, I believed it then, and of course 30 years later, I am today more sure of it than ever. Mike and I prayed in the car that night, and I thanked God for loving me; I admitted to Him that I was a sinner, and I needed someone to pay the penalty for my sin. I thanked Him for sending Jesus, and for Him dying on the cross for me. And knowing that Jesus rose from the dead, because He Himself was not a sinner; I thanked God that I would one day see Jesus, now my Lord. And I asked God to help me walk with Him always, listening to what He has to say, and to please help me to love Him back. And that was it. Apparently, that was "the sinner's prayer" that I had heard mentioned at the party. And then nothing happened? No lightening. Still kind of high. Still glad I had my new bag of pot. And I got ready for the drive home, while listening to the oldies station. Still just Tom.

Well, before parting, Mike also had given me a Bible that was easy to read, and a bookmark that had a picture of Jesus on it. Ha! I remember getting it and seeing the artist’s scribble, said, “Cool! You even got it autographed!” Like Jesus, Mike can be very patient.

Well, next morning, I did start reading my Bible on the subway to work. And within a week, God had done three things to convince me that I was in His life and He was in mine. I remember reading how His followers could call on his name at anytime and that He would answer. And one day I was walking this girl from work, to the subway station, after our shift. She was from Haiti, and was afraid of that area, because there was more crime there. I was thinking, “Girl, you are black and I’m white, and this is a black neighborhood. You really think you are safe with me?” But she was scared and from Haiti and probably didn’t realize the situation, and I was young, idealistic, and trying to be liberal minded. So I walked with her. Along the way, this man came up to us and started frisking us for money. I literally had no money on me, and told him to back off. I love Boston in some ways. But sometimes people just don't think ahead. Back in the 70s and early 80s in Boston, the YMCA did this wonderful thing. They took angry youth from the streets and neighborhoods and TAUGHT THEM KARATE!!!

So this angry action hero takes two steps back, and then leaps up to kick me in the head. I lifted my arm to protect my face, and yelled, “Jesus!” Actually, I don’t know if I was calling out to Him, or just cussing. But if it was a cuss, it was one of my very last ones. Because when I put my arm down, this man was on the ground, and bleeding. Apparently he barely hit my armpit, but the next thing he knew, he was on his back on the street. He got up to run away, and when he crossed the street yelled to me, “That is what you get for walking with that black bitch!” This to me was absurd, as the man himself was black, but I was more thinking that I was safe. Gabriel, my Haitian workmate, it turns out, was a follower of Jesus too. She didn’t know about my believing this week because I hadn’t told anyone about my praying to become a Christian. But she was saying how my calling out to Jesus was the right thing to do. I didn't expound, because I still didn't know if I had called Him. I more think He was just showing me that my new Lord takes His name very seriously.

Other, less dramatic things happened that week, but God started dealing with my heart. Within two months, I had hurt some close buddies, by things I said behind their backs, while drunk. God didn’t let me get away with it either! This is something that was common for me to do, but this time I was found out, and it caused lots of pain; not only to my friends, but to me, who actually really did love them very much.

That night in my trailer, back in Illinois, where I was starting my Senior year of college, the weight of my utter selfishness came over me. I felt so bad that my friends were so hurt! The funny thing is, is that I had done that my whole life, and never noticed who I hurt. Now God was showing me my whole life at a glance. I was crying in pain, and seeing in my head, things I had done, and words I had said publicly, that seemed good; but seeing too that even these things I'd done and said that were considered “good deeds,” I'd now obviously only done so that others would call me good, or think of me as a good person. I never really ever did anything for anyone else. All I'd ever done; I'd done for my personal benefit.

That night, I did not like what I saw in me, and I really knew that I was a sinner, utterly. I was not a sinner simply because I had done those three shameful things. No! I was utterly and completely a sinner, and had been so all my life. Then I really cried out to God, asking, “God, can you really love me? Can you really forgive me?” And that was the very first night that I heard His voice. He told me that He had, and reminded me of the prayer that I had prayed a couple months earlier, with my friend Mike, after the Christian pot party. I just sat there amazed. I heard His voice. It was awesome. He was awesome!

This was just the start of my new life, and I’ve never been in doubt about His goodness and ability to get through to anyone, anytime, whenever He and they both want. And in 30 years now, I have found Jesus to be true. His adventure for me has been all about freedom and life. He creates new life, where before was only death. I've seen it these years, over and over again. And someday I'll even tell you the zany way Jesus got me to stop smoking pot.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Why Should We Read the Old Testament?

Knowing how much I love reading the Old Testament, my buddy Dean passed on a question posed to him, by someone at his church. They were having trouble with seeing a loving and consistent God, while trying to read the Old Testament. Is the Old Testament something that Christians need to read? Is it even relevant anymore?

Those who penned the New Testament, guided by the Holy Spirit, certainly exhort all believers to read “the scriptures.” At that time, the Old Testament writings were scriptures that the early church had. Paul writes:

All scripture is "Profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."
2 Timothy 3:16


"Whatsoever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope"

Romans 15:4

Followers of Christ, during the New Testament writing, were being tortured and killed and experiencing the confiscation of their lands and homes because of their confession of faith in Christ. Such persecution is still common in parts of the world today. When we in safer nations read the Old Testament, trying to relate to it from our little chunk of globe, the Old Testament’s presentation of the holiness of God and the wickedness of man, can seem extreme. But in fact, God is holy. And holiness is extreme, and can be terrifying.

Some think of holiness as meaning not sinning. But holiness is neither merely the absence of sin, nor an abundance of good deeds. Holiness is an attribute of God. People are not born holy. Holiness is an utter separation from all that is not God, and separated to be now of God. The closest thing I can think of in earthly terms is the word, “royal.” If I have a spoon that belongs to me; it is a spoon. But if I go to the royal palace and pick up a spoon that belongs to a King or Queen, then I am holding “a royal spoon.” It does not belong to me, but to the King and Queen. When God Himself comes and chooses and sets apart for Himself, someone or some things, they are declared holy; belonging to God.

Holiness is unapologetically uncompromising. The New Testament explains to those whom God has now made holy, through the shed blood of the Christ, to explain to us what has happened to us, by trusting in Jesus. To be in God’s presence has always required holiness. The Old Testament shows us how impossible it was to become holy. God’s requirements were not diminished because Jesus came. Jesus made the impossible possible, by making a way for sinful unholy people, to become a people holy and acceptable to God. We need to know this God in order to live as He expects us to live.

Nutshell: God is unapproachable to sinful mankind. Ignoring the Old Testament, some fail to realize that it is not "God's Love" that enables man to now approach God in prayer. It was the horrible and bloody death of Christ alone. God's love "gave" Jesus to us. (John 3:16)

We depend upon the Old Testament to demonstrate to us much of God’s character and attributes. The New Testament tells us we are now holy, while the Old Testament presents to us what holiness is. This is so with many attributes of God. In the times of the Old Testament, God spoke to us through “the prophets.”

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, . . .”
Hebrews 1: 1-2

And Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Matthew 5:17

Since we were powerless to fulfill the law and the prophecies spoken to mankind through the prophets, Jesus did this for us. We must know what the law was and what He has done for us. So the Old Testament tells me not only who my God is and what He likes and doesn’t; but it tells me what He promised and promises to do. And as I see Jesus fulfilling these promises, my faith is built up.

The New Testament presumes we’ll study God’s amazing attributes, as demonstrated in the Old Testament. Holiness yes, but also His: Omnipotence (Genesis 17:1 eg.), His Omniscience and Omnipresence (Psalm 139:7-11 eg), and His Lovingkindness (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). The Old Testament also reveals to us both His goodness and His severity: (Romans 11:22)

Not knowing God through the Old Testament waters down our Christianity. Selective reading can lead some to think God is soft on sin. He is not. “I’m Not Okay! You’re Not Okay!” despite what That Girl says. Except for Christ mankind remains in sin, without hope of ever being reunited with God.

My favorite Old Testament book is Leviticus. When I was convinced of my utter unclean state before God, only His loving voice could console me. That night the horror of my self brought terror. I was not “okay.” But upon crying out to Him in anguish, He reminded me of the cross. Holy God never overlooked sin in me. My sin had cost Him Jesus’ blood. That horrible death on the cross, paid for my holiness. It isn’t about goodness. It is about finally being God’s own.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 6:23

People sometimes describe the film, “The Passion of the Christ” as horrifying. Holiness to sin is horrifying! These will not occupy the same space! Reading Leviticus, I’m reminded of the night I knew I was “unclean!” But Jesus rescued me from the horror and shame. I didn’t need to go about lamenting “Unclean! Unclean!” lest others be contaminated by my filth. Next time you read Leviticus, look at all the bloody ritual holiness required. The Old Testament explains to us why Jesus went to the cross for us.

Considering our nations’ moral state, the church appears largely ineffective. We are neither sufficiently awestruck by God, nor repulsed by wickedness. What was not spoken in mixed company a couple generations ago is now amusing. The moral bar that my generation has set for the next generation has been set right on the floor.

The Old Testament shows sin’s consequence. Time and again, it reveals God’s mercy and promise of the coming Messiah. He alone will have the power to set things right for us! If we only read the New Testament, we get a baby in a manger, growing up into a really good man, who the Romans kill cause the Jews got political on them; and then there’s this unnatural word called “sin,” that we think just means doing bad things.

Since everyone sins, what is God so upset about? The Old Testament both defines to us and demonstrates how God deals with sin. Each prophet has a message that the early church felt strongly, was from God to us all. We were to study the scriptures. (2 Timothy 2:15).

New Testament readers read that “Jesus is Lord.” God’s nature as revealed in the Old Testament, shows us Lordship. Jesus is so much more than a good friend! Jesus doesn’t want my heart. He wants to remove my heart of stone, and to give me a new heart. (Ezekiel 26:36) The Old Testament builds in me the reality of my stony heart. God doesn’t want to just improve us. Transformation requires our death and, through Christ, an entirely new life!

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
2 Corinthians 5:17

The same is true of our fellowship, our relationships, whether family or friends or marriage. Some approach the New Testament as a kind of self help book for better relationships. It is not. The New Testament presumes we understand who God is. All powerful God doesn’t improve things. He destroys and creates according to His will and pleasure. He needs no advice. We need to die, trusting in Him who promises new life. Relationships will be transformed; never tweaked. You can trust Him!

If God has revealed something about Himself that you don’t yet grasp, wouldn’t you hunger to know it? A while back I got to go and hear an expert lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls. During the lecture he casually mentioned that through the scrolls Bible scholars had found a newly revealed Bible verse from Psalms, soon to be included in modern Bible translations. It’s a Psalm where each verse begins with following letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Translators always knew this verse was just missing. Until now!

Then the speaker just changed the subject. Aghast, I felt like shouting, “Well, are ya gonna tell us?!?!?!” But someone quicker than I pleaded, “Won’t you read it to us!?!” And some applauded. The speaker said “Oh, well, okay.” It was beautiful! It was a verse we’d never read or heard, but that God wanted us to know. I want to know all God wants to reveal to me. Wouldn’t you like to know what that verse says?

Monday, January 25, 2010

"When Did You Become a Follower?"

Recently I was given the opportunity to share my testimony, about how I became a Christian, at a nearby Correctional Facility. The Lord impressed upon my heart, that testifying "how I "became a believer," was not as important to share at this time, as "how I became a "follower." After all, I don't recall Jesus ever saying, "become," this or that. But He would say to people, as He continues to say through His Holy Spirit today, "Follow Me." So this is my testimony:

As a new believer in Christ, at age 22, I was like a raw nerve ending. Newly convinced of heaven and hell, and thinking it was up to me to convince those I loved of each, I headed back to Boston, armed with Bibles. I didn't ask God to lead me anywhere. I knew just what to do, where to go, and pretty much how to go about it. Boy, was I ever annoying! I think back at my poor family and friends, many of whom thought I'd joined a cult of some kind. It took me about a year and a half to shut up and listen to what the Spirit might have to say, concerning direction. This is the story of how I first started "following" Christ.

Just out of college, I was looking for a job in my field and not having much success. For the time being, I was working in a factory, midnight to eight, slipping tab A into slot B a few thousand times each night. I liked the job fine, because during work I was able to listen to good teaching tapes and to enjoy the spiritual lyrics in my new music tapes. It was a time of learning more about who God is. One of the tape series that I was really enjoying was on spiritual warfare, and I was learning how in Jesus' name, the demons would have to flee, and how God would do great things.

After a few months, all of my old friends and every relative I could think of, had been cornered at some party, and given what for. Those who didn't read the Bibles I gave them for Christmas, got a simpler translation for their birthdays. I'm sure I'd read several times, the verse where Jesus says, "No man may come to Me unless the Father draws them." But who has time for that? Well, finally after 4 months of assembly-line work, taking in tapes and running around telling what little I knew, I couldn't think of any more loved ones who I hadn't told about Jesus. I must have asked God, "What should I do now? What do You want for me to be doing?" Because for the first time, about a year and a half after I "became a believer," He was going to lead me somewhere. It was time for me to start "following."

God is on the move always. You can't "follow" someone who isn't moving after all. And you can't follow if you are sitting still. The scriptures tell us to keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus, who is the author and completer of our faith. Wheels spun out I suppose, I finally looked up, and was ready to listen.

Each Sunday I would get the Sunday paper, and cut out all the jobs that I “could” theoretically do; not necessarily ones that I wanted. Somehow doing this, helped me to see that there were all kinds of options out there. I suppose that helped encourage me in some way.

Each week that year too, I went to a Monday night charismatic prayer service, as back then, I was going to whatever church was open on that given night. One night this denomination, and the next night a different one; it didn’t matter to me so long as someone was teaching from the Bible. I was like a sponge and though I was going to a wonderful church, I wanted to do something every night. So come this one Monday night, the minister prophesied that “someone” in the room, was looking for a new job, and they were to come forward, cause God was going to “show you” what that job was. Well, I went forward, so sure that it was me he was talking about. Apparently so sure were about 50 other people! We all went forward, and I remember feeling kind of dismayed, not being the only one. I know, I know! Everyone wants to feel special.

Anyway, when the people praying got to me, suddenly one of the clippings that I had cut out of the newspaper the day before, flashed before my mind’s eye and I just KNEW that job was mine. The problem was that I didn’t want that particular job. The job was to be "resident counselor" in a group home, for emotionally disturbed teenagers, and well, I kind of had other plans for my Psych degree. I was thinking more leather couch and rich patients. Ah well. I went home, sent in a letter of application, and though they told me there were about a hundred applicants, I knew the job was already mine. I kept asking God for a different job; but told Him if this was the job He wants for me, then I would do it.

The directors of the group home called me for an interview and I actually tried little things so as not to get the job. For example, during the interview, when they asked if I would find it a bit scary to live in a home with 8 emotionally disturbed kids between the ages of 15 and 21, I said, “CERTAINLY!!!” I figured if God was going to have me take a job I didn't want, He was going to have to work for it. I later found out that that very answer was what got me the job. Apparently the other applicants were too confident.

Well, during that interview, one of the residents of the home flipped out, and it took 3 men holding mattresses to restrain her, and to hold her down. She was moaning in inhuman tones and yelling at herself in 2 different voices. They called it multiple personalities, but it more reminded me of something that involved the Seven Sons of Sceva, from Acts Chapter 19.

Later, while driving home and feeling rather freaked out about the interview and scene, I was asking God if He was sure about this, blah, blah, blah... (Knowing that He was not changing His mind.) All the while driving home, that poor girl and that experience kept playing through my mind. It took 3 men to hold her down with mattresses, and I was going to live in that house? Should I have stood up and rebuked a demon during my interview? I slapped my knee and thought I should have. The best would have been to get rid of the demon. And at worst, they would not have given me the job. Then I repented for thinking that, and for trying to find ways out of this job. I just needed to trust God somehow, that this was the right job for me. Following Jesus is pretty intense, I was finding out. Was learning spiritual warfare why He was giving me this job? Would I have to confront these demons? Yikes! The whole scene gave me the willies!

Well, I got to my parents house, and went to bed, cause I had to get up to work at midnight again. Everyone else in the house was at work or school. I laid down to sleep, but in about 10 minutes, my room and the bed especially started really shaking. Instantly, remembering the teaching tapes that I had been listening to, I shot up in bed, and shouted, “In Jesus’ name, get out of here!” Immediately the bed stopped shaking. I assumed I had brought that demon back with me from the freaky job interview. But the demon was no match for the name of Jesus. Come and gone in a second! I slept so well after that.

The next evening, was Thursday night and on Thursdays I attended a home fellowship group of folk from the church that I was attending. It was a time of worship, Bible study, and testimonies. I REALLY wanted to tell everyone about how I rebuked the demon that was shaking my bed, in Jesus’ name! But I wanted to do it in a way that was not boastful. It was difficult cause on the one hand, I thought it was so cool; but in this circle, I knew that I was kind of proud of this and that I'd just be boasting. And the meeting went on and on, and I was about to share this a few times, but the conversation didn’t really go that way. If I just shared it out of the blue, it would have been forced. I tried to convince myself that it would be “edifying” to others if I shared my personal experience with spiritual warfare, but then I’d stop myself and feel like, ‘no, if I shared it now, it would just be to impress people.” Should I, or shouldn’t I? Finally I set out a fleece. If someone else brought up spiritual warfare, I could casually share my experience. But then I thought, no, if I was too casual, that would not be good, cause really I was excited about it; and casual would be me trying to be cool. I finally just said, “God, I have missed this whole meeting over this. If it is okay with You, I will just NOT share this tonight, and wait till a later time, as You lead.” And it was settled in my head, and I decided not to share my testimony. Peace at last; and I could focus on what was being said by others at the meeting.

About 5 seconds later, it was real quiet, and then Patty, across the room says, “Did any of you feel the earthquake yesterday afternoon?” and Charlie says, “Yeah, I felt it! Imagine! Massachusetts having its first quake in like 69 years! That’s what I heard on the news.” Apparently everyone either had heard about it, or knew about the earthquake but me. With my third shift job, I rarely watched the news anymore.

I was sitting there sweating, as this wave of horror swept over me. What a moron I would have seemed!!! I quietly was rocking and thanking God profusely for not letting me share about how I delivered my room of the demon that was really just an earthquake. I felt like such a nincompoop! But as I sat there quietly, I could just picture God having such fun with all this. I actually sensed that He was enjoying this, and it really was funny. The pride of man really is just so laughable sometimes! I couldn’t suppress the smile and when I was asked what I was so happy about I of course HAD to confess what I had been going through during the meeting.

After that, the jokes flew, and I was thanked for sparing Boston of “The Great Disaster of 82.” News spread around the church that I could stop earthquakes. And for months, whenever one rocked Honduras, or Japan, I would get a call from someone, pretending to be concerned that my prayer life must be slipping.

Anyway, back to the job: I did get that job in the group home; the one that I had not wanted and was afraid of. And about two weeks after I moved into the group home, I knew that I was in the right place for me. I loved that job so much! The kids were just awesome! The staff were some really beautiful people, and taught me so much. My prayer life was soaring as I was always being stretched, and God was so good to me, as He always is! It was a job I would never have ever applied for; sure I would not like it. But God knew me better than I knew myself. He was determined to bless me.

I’ve never really doubted God’s goodness to me since taking that dreaded job, and finding my joy in it. In fact, in almost every move God has led me in since, if I have not wanted to go, it was easy to go ahead and go anyway; knowing His goodness was to follow. Later God told me to go to Haiti. I didn’t want to leave that job and go live in Haiti. Scary! But once there, I never wanted to leave Haiti: Same with Chicago and same with Central Asia. And it was the same with coming back to America. He is always good. He led me into becoming a husband to Ann. He led us to want not just to have babies; but to be parents. He continues to speak to us. And one day soon, He will lead me Heavenward, and then maybe I'll know what I've been talking about all these years.

Somewhere between Chicago and Central Asia, it hit me that He is just always going to be good to me. I know some people struggle with “Is God good?” or “Does He have my best interest in mind with this?” I’ve had doubts about some things, but not about His goodness towards His children. Whatever He says to do, if we’ll do it, we’ll then find out the fun and joy and blessings of His goodness towards His children. Believing in the love of Jesus for us, was a thrill I just couldn't shut up about. But the joy and adventure began when I finally started following Him.

"Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen!"