Friday, 23 September 2011

of Fornication and Street Evangelism

"But among you there must not be even a hint 
of sexual immorality, 
or any kind of impurity, or of greed, 
because these are improper for God's holy people."
Ephesians 5:3 (NIV)

Why is it that when the Spirit of God moves in a seemingly odd way we are surprised? I asked myself that question yesterday after an event on a downtown city street. I know I shouldn't have felt this way, but I was caught completely off guard with what transpired. All I can do now is say, "Praise God, and please Lord, continue to work in J's life."

I had gone to a downtown store to meet a couple dear friends from out of town who called and said they were there. This all came about because a while ago I had mentioned that I would like to learn to play the guitar again, not having touched one since my high school days. We were looking at acoustic guitars and enjoying each other's company. It was a really nice time. After we left the store, we just stood outside by their car and just fellowshipped for a while.

I'm not sure exactly the context, and it doesn't even matter, but as we fellowshipped, my friend used the word "Fornication" at the precise time that a young man walked past us. He suddenly stopped, turned to look at us, and stepped forward to where we were standing. What followed seemed to me a divine appointment. We talked together for about a half hour. His questions flowed as did the tears in his eyes, and when my brother asked if we could pray for him, he consented. Afterwards we hugged each other, and he was on his way.

I asked myself, "what just happened?" I mean, when I think of sharing the Gospel, and of street evangelism, I don't usually think of it as springing forth from the word "Fornication." The very word "Fornication" seems almost archaic in our sexually permissive society today. For those who may not be familiar with the word, my dictionary defines "Fornication" as, "voluntary sexual intercourse other than between a married couple, especially where either person or both persons are unmarried." While our society seems to have evolved to the point where it has no problem with this, God does have a problem with it, and He calls it "sin."

Was God using that precise moment and word to speak to J's heart? I think He was. I also think God was using that moment to speak to my heart and to remind me of what "being" the church is really all about. Oh, He has convinced me for years already that church is not about where you go but rather about what you are. Even the Great Commission points to that when Jesus said, "Therefore GO and make disciples..." (Matthew 28:19). How easy it is for us, though, to become lethargic about "being" the church and taking the church outside of the building.

I think the main thing I was reminded of from this is, as the Apostle Peter said, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). I was also reminded that though we often tend to pray with Isaiah, "Here am I. Send me" (Isaiah 6:8), we ironically forget that He has already sent us (again, see the Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20).

Lord, thank you for the lesson on those downtown streets yesterday. Thank you for that divine appointment. Thank you for "J" and I pray that you might continue to work in his heart. Lord, continue to make me a blessing to someone each day. Thank you, Jesus.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

of Songs in the Night

"Where is God my Maker, 
who gives songs in the night...?" 
Job 35:10

Of all the books in my personal library, some of the most treasured are a 10 volume collection of the sermons of Charles Spurgeon, or as he was known by many, "The Prince of Preachers." I have often used this collection as devotional reading. In my opinion there are few preachers today who even come close to the caliber of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Perhaps it's even a little ironic that as I type these words, our American friends to the south are commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York. For some time now I have also been wrestling with a few issues in my own life and that of the lives of some loved ones. Where is God in our pains and our sufferings? Where is God when our world begins to crumble around us?

Anyone who has known me for a while has no doubt heard me say, "I complained about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." I don't know where I got that from; it's not original to me. It is also not intended to belittle the problems of others, for our problems and concerns are very real to each of us. However, what I like about this saying is that it reminds me that things could always be worse and I need to be grateful that they aren't any worse. When all my world seems as dark as night, I need to remember that there is always a star in the sky to remind me that God is still there. When the floodwaters of adversity come, I need to remember that God has also given us a rainbow in the sky to remind us that He is still there, and though we may not understand why things are happening as they are, we can and must believe that God is still very much in control.

Anyway, this was not supposed to be about my thoughts; it was supposed to be about Charles Spurgeon. As I sat in the quiet of my early Sunday morning, something I read in Spurgeon's Sermons spoke to me and blessed me. It came from a sermon he had entitled "Songs in the Night" and was based on Job 35:10. Here is an excerpt from it. May it bless you as it did me.

But I think, beloved, there is never so dark a night, but there is something to sing about, even concerning that night; for there is one thing I am sure we can sing about, let the night be ever so dark, and that is, "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, and because his compassions fail not." If we cannot sing very loud, yet we can sing a little low tune, something like this - "He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities."- "O!" says one, "I do not know where to get my dinner from to-morrow. I am a poor wretch." So you may be, my dear friend; but you are not so poor as you deserve to be. Do not be mightily offended about that; if you are, you are no child of God; for the child of God acknowledges that he has no right to the least of God's mercies, but that they come through the channel of grace alone. As long as I am out of hell, I have no right to grumble; and if I were in hell I should have no right to complain, for I feel, when convinced of sin, that never creature deserved to go there more than I do. We have no cause to murmur; we can lift up our hands, and say, "Night! thou art dark, but thou mightst have been darker. I am poor, but if I could not have been poorer, I might have been sick. I am poor and sick - well, I have some friend left; my lot cannot be so bad, but it might have been worse." And therefore, Christian, you will always have one thing to sing about - "Lord, I thank thee, it is not all darkness!" Besides, Christian, however dark the night is, there is always a star or moon. There is scarce ever a night that we have, but there are just one or two little lamps burning up there. However dark it may be, I think you may find some little comfort, some little joy, some little mercy left, and some little promise to cheer thy spirit. The stars are not put out, are they? Nay, if thou canst not see them, they are there; but methinks one or two must be shining on thee; therefore give God a song in the night. If thou hast only one star, bless God for that one, perhaps he will make it two; and if thou hast only two stars, bless God twice for the two stars, and perhaps he will make them four. Try, then, if thou canst not find a song in the night.

The preceding was taken from "Spurgeon's Sermons," Volume 2, Chapter 11, "Songs in the Night," page 177.

"Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8: 17-18; NIV).

Thank you, Jesus.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Controversial? Who, Me?

Photo Credit: Thomas Quine
"No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval"
(1 Corinthians 11:19; NIV)

Now if that isn't "controversial"...

Love that picture! "This is the church, this is the steeple. Turn it upside down, and see all the people." OK, the old children's rhyme didn't go quite like that, but maybe one day it will. Turn it upside down and free all the people out of their pews and back into the world where they belong. Hmm, controversial? Maybe.

Recently I was once again called "controversial" because of some of my theological views pertaining to the church and to Christianity in general. Controversial? Who, me? In a way, I expect no less. The accusation happens quite frequently. Unfortunately, the way the word "controversy" is often used is with a negative implication, and not as the dictionary defines the word. Is there a distinction between the dictionary definition and the negative connotation that the word "controversy" often seems to receive? Exactly what does the word "controversy" mean?

When in doubt, I always go back to the dictionary. My dictionary defines the word "controversy" as, "1. the act of arguing a question about which differences of opinion exist; debate; dispute: The controversy between the company and the union ended in a strike, 2. a quarrel; wrangle."

If we hold to the dictionary definition, then it is true that I am controversial. It is also then true, however, that just about every conversation that ever existed is also potentially controversial. Every time any pastor begins his sermon, it is awash in controversy. Why? Because "differences of opinion exist" among many Christian groups. Every time two or more believers get together, their fellowship is potentially controversial. The only way this cannot be true is if you and I are exact carbon copies of each other. Mindless robots are not controversial, but two or more thinking people in the same place at the same time are likely controversial.

It seems to me that people who tend to use the word "controversial" as a negative do so because they don't like controversy. That is, they don't like to debate ideas and doctrines. They are quick to say, "why can't we all just get along?" They don't like to upset the status quo. "We've always done it that way,"they say. "It's tradition," says another opponent to controversy. I've heard others say, "why do you insist on upsetting so-and-so?" Fact is, though, I don't go out of my way to upset anyone. If someone gets upset, isn't it because the discussion forces them to evaluate their own views? Isn't it because, if they see merit in the other person's opinion, then that becomes like receiving the proverbial "slap in the face" on the their own cheek? I would suggest that we are looking at "controversy" the wrong way. I would like to suggest that "controversial" ideas are a good thing, that is, if done the right way.

Photo Credit: Harbor88
If a controversial idea is presented in the right fashion, that is, with peace, gentleness and love, then it becomes grounds for simply a healthy discussion. If, on the other hand, the controversial ideas are hammered in an unloving and militant way, then we have problems. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas comes to mind. In such a case, "controversy" is truly a big negative. I would like to suggest that the word "controversial" really isn't even adequate to describe this group, since the word "controversy" is in and of itself NOT a negative word. Perhaps in such situations where negativism is implied, we would be better finding another word. "Hate-mongers" comes to mind as does "lunacy," and maybe even "sacrilegious," but NOT controversy.  As a matter of fact, this "pseudo-Christian" group has already been labelled by many as a "hate" group for their attacks on everything from Jews to the American military presence overseas to homosexuals. Their practice of carrying signs saying, among other things, "God Hates Fags" is not a positive controversy. Apparently they didn't get the memo that says that, while God maybe does hate homosexuality, He does not hate the homosexual. It is the proverbial "love the sinner, hate the sin" scenario. Jesus died for their sins just as much as He died for your sins and for my sins. I don't want to view such groups as controversial, for that would give them too much credit. Again, "controversy" is NOT a negative word in and of itself.

Photo Credit: Time Archive, April 8, 1966
Time magazine was also "controversial" with its cover entitled "Is God Dead?" But, if they were simply promoting discussion, then that is not to be taken as a negative. Of course God is not dead, but can we not in gentleness and love discuss this with the atheist and the agnostic who maybe thinks differently on this matter? Would such a discussion be a negative? I do not believe so. Who knows, but that "controversial" discussion could potentially lead to that person's conversion thus making them our brother or sister. That would then be good news, wouldn't it? Of course it would.  I remember one pastor friend who had this particular cover of Time framed and hanging in his church office. While "controversial," it made a great conversation starter.

Jesus was "controversial." The prophets were "controversial." The apostles were "controversial." They were constantly being challenged by the religious status quo of their day for being controversial. Yes, and I can proudly say that I too am "controversial" in my own way. I make no apologies for often challenging the religious status quo of the modern institutional church. If some of my "controversial" statements make people to sit up in their pew and think for a minute, then I count that as a positive outcome to my controversy and not a negative one.

Source unknown
I've said it before, one of the problems with the institutional church system is that it creates lethargic Christians who no longer know how to think for themselves. Why? Because so much emphasis is placed upon the pastor to do everything. This includes telling the people what to believe. Long before leaving the pastoral ministry (as defined by the institutional church) I had already become known for telling people, "Don't take my word for it; look it up for yourself." I would give people the references, but I believed it was important that they got used to searching the Scriptures for themselves. This seemed to be a novel concept for many. I could almost read some of their minds, "What, me read it for myself?" I love the Scripture that says, "Now the Bereans were of a more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11; NIV - emphasis mine). The point is, they didn't just take Paul's word for it; they examined the Scripture for themselves. What a novel and controversial idea! Listening to God for ourselves? (OK, that was a little sarcastic. Please forgive me).

"I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as His anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit - just as it has taught you, remain in Him" (1 John 2:26-27; NIV). Is that "controversial" too? If so, then I guess God's Word is also "controversial." He said that one; I didn't.

  • Do you see controversy in a negative or positive fashion?
  • Is there a better word to use when speaking of negative controversy?
  • What should our response be to groups like Westboro Baptist Church?
  • Are you controversial? How so?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

of Funerals & "All My Tears"

Recently I was exposed to the music of Selah. I fell in love with their Greatest Hymns album and promptly purchased it on iTunes. It wasn't long before I explored some of their other music on iTunes and found two more albums to buy and add to my collection. They were Bless the Broken Road and You Deliver Me.

The "Greatest Hymns" is still my favourite, but one song on "Bless the Broken Road" really caught my attention and is rapidly becoming one of my favourites as well. It is a duet with Kim Hill called "All My Tears." Some might think the song a little morbid, as it does deal with death and dying. As a Christian, though, I'm really quite OK with that, because it also deals with the glory beyond the grave. This video with Selah and Kim Hill really blesses me. Hope you enjoy it too.

What should our approach to death and dying be? Is death something to be feared? Is death something to be looked forward to? Perhaps the way you answer that depends on your walk (or lack there of) with the Lord. In God's good and perfect timing, we will all face it one day. The only question that remains is, "how will you face it when your turn comes?" We will all have an eternity. Where will yours be? Do you know that for sure?

Like a lot of other people, I'm sure, I have already requested that "All My Tears" be one of the song selections at my funeral one day. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints" (Psalm 116:15). "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).

Defined in the Amplified Bible as: "Pause, and Think of That"  

Thursday, 1 September 2011

of A 50 Year Old Prophecy on the Institutional Exodus

I've been getting a lot of flack from some people about my views on the church today. Some have taken exception to the way I often call the traditional church the "institutional" church. It seems they don't like the word "institution" when referring to the church. These same people can't seem to get their heads around the possibility of Born-Again, God-Fearing, Spirit-Filled Christians being out there who have nothing to do with the same institutional church that many of them hold so dear. Not long ago a brother, who doesn't go to the institutional church, told me of how a pastor said that he was an "anathema!"

For those not familiar with that word, here is how my dictionary defines anathema: "1. a solemn curse by church authorities excommunicating a person. 2.  the act of denouncing or condemning a person or thing as evil; curse. 3. a person or thing accursed. 4. a person or thing that is detested and condemned." That's a pretty harsh word, isn't it? There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of room for grace there. You might almost think that people using that word were describing the devil himself, or at very least, some of his demons. But to call a brother or sister in the Lord an "anathema?" Wow! So much for Matthew 7:1.

But am I just another religious quack? Am I deceived? I'm sure that there are many out there who think that I am. However, if it were just me, then maybe such an assessment might be valid. But there are now multitudes of Christians, like me, who are saying the same thing. Are we all quacks? Are we all equally deceived? Or is there something else going on here?

Recently I saw the following quote on Facebook supposedly attributed to Billy Graham in 1964. It said,
"Multitudes of Christians within the church are moving toward the point where they may reject the institution that we call the church. They are hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming personal faith. Unless the church quickly recovers its authoritative Biblical message, we may witness the spectacle of millions of Christians going outside the institutional church to find spiritual food" (Billy Graham, World Aflame, 1964).

Now, I'm not always a "Doubting Thomas," but I thought that if I was going to pursue this topic further, I had better first see if the quote is accurate. The internet sure is an amazing thing. It wasn't very long before I found it. It wasn't word-for-word exactly the same, but it was close enough for me. The difference I chalked up to the possibility of either a revised edition somewhere or the unauthorized editing of someone along the way. This is the way the actual quote looks as I found it here in Billy Graham's book, "World Aflame," Chapter 8, page 86, which says:
"Because the church, in turning to naturalistic religion, increasingly proclaims a humanistic gospel, thousands of laymen and clergymen alike are asking penetrating questions about the purpose and mission of the church. Thousands of loyal church members, particularly in America, are beginning to meet in prayer groups and Bible study classes. Multitudes of Christians within the church are moving toward the point where they may reject the institution that we call the church. They are beginning to turn to more simplified forms of worship. They are hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming, personal faith. Unless the church quickly recovers its authoritative Biblical message, we may witness the spectacle of millions of Christians going outside the institutional church to find spiritual food."
It looks as if this book is still available on for those who are interested in a paper copy of Billy Graham's book.

What I found fascinating in all this was how prophetic Billy Graham's quote really seems to be. Here he was saying something, almost 50 years ago, that must have been totally incomprehensible to the people in that day. The church of 1964 knew nothing, or almost nothing, of simple and organic church fellowships like we're seeing today. As I already alluded to, many today also don't get it.

There is probably no Christian television personality today as highly revered as Billy Graham. You mention the word "evangelism" anywhere, and Billy Graham's name quickly comes up as synonymous with that word. There are a lot of pseudo-Christian leaders on TV today that I might be tempted to call "quacks," but in my books, that has never been the case with Billy Graham. The way I see it, if I cannot trust and believe Billy Graham, then I certainly cannot trust and believe anyone else who claims to be somebody in the world of Christian media today.

I'm not going to spend much time on this, but let's look again at what Billy Graham said almost 50 years ago, back in 1964.

1. He said the church was turning to a "naturalistic religion" and increasingly proclaims a "humanistic gospel." What does that mean? Natural religion is essentially a system of belief that comes about primarily by observing the physical world. This is not totally without some biblical support. Paul does speak about a certain knowledge of God that we get by looking at the created world around us (Romans 1: 19-20). Obviously, though, a proper understanding of God requires more than just that. God desires more than just a bunch of "tree huggers." A humanistic gospel, on the other hand, focusses on humanity. However, Paul also says that a different gospel is no Gospel at all (Galatians 1:7). Someone has said that, "humanism is in effect a form of atheism." While humanism may also recognize a higher Being (ie., God), it seems to emphasize the superiority of mankind over all others (including God). Has the church come to that? Does it have, under the guise of being a Christian church, atheistic "tree" worshippers in it? Certainly we cannot blanket them all as having gone down that slippery slope, but some more liberally minded no doubt already have. I've heard of some pastors who confessed to being atheists for many years of their "ministry," before eventually coming to know the Lord. But what does that say about what was going on in their pulpits before then?

2. He said that "laymen and clergymen alike" are asking the questions. Personally, I don't buy into the distinctions of "layman" versus "clergy." The Bible doesn't recognize either term and so neither do I. Regardless, though, for the purpose of this article, the point being made here is that the questions aren't just coming from a handful of disgruntled pew-sitters; they're coming from those behind the pulpits too. Preachers are starting to ask the same question that many in their congregations are asking. I too have asked those questions, as have many others that I know. I have met and fellowshipped with former institutional people from both pulpit and pew. One former pastor I know from outside the institution even has a Doctor of Ministry degree from a prestigious seminary.

3. He said that "thousands" of loyal members are beginning to meet in smaller groups. I suspect the actual number is more likely in the "tens of thousands." Either way, the fact is, small groups unaffiliated with any institutional church are growing in numbers, even by those still in some form of semi-regular Sunday attendance at an institutional church. I met for a time in one mid-week group that was roughly evenly split in terms of half who still went to Sunday institution and half who no longer did.

4. He said, "multitudes of Christians within the church are moving toward the point where they may reject the institution that we call the church." We are already seeing this. Multitudes and multitudes of Christians have already rejected the institutional church! It's like the Exodus all over again! These aren't just a bunch of "backsliders," for the term backslider refers primarily to someone who no longer has anything to do with the church. Yes, these multitudes are leaving the institutional church, but they are still "being" the church wherever the Spirit leads them. They have rejected the idea of "Going" to church; but in the process they've embraced the notion of "Being" the church. There is a world of difference between "going" and "being."

5. He said they are "beginning to turn to more simplified forms of worship." A common lingo today is "Simple Church" or "Organic Church." Many of those same multitudes are now meeting in smaller organically-minded house church, or simple church, fellowships. In recent years there has been a wave of new books on the market on the "Simple" and "Organic" church movements. Many social network sites like Simple Church have sprung up lately. There is something refreshing about sitting in a room around a table, looking at each other face to face, as opposed to fellowshipping with the back of the head in front of you. Suddenly the church has faces again. Suddenly everyone has the opportunity to participate.

6.  He said they are "hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming, personal faith." What does that say about the perception of the institutional church by those multitudes? Isn't it maybe just a little ironic that they feel they are not getting fed there? The institutional church seems to have become irrelevant for many when it comes to growing their faith in Jesus Christ. In all fairness, they seem OK with handling the new believer. They're OK with dishing out the pablum, but once the believer realizes that they need some meat and potatoes in their faith diet, they don't seem to be equipped to do that. The irony is that a deeper walk with Jesus almost has to go out of the building. Many are starting to see that a "vital experience with Jesus Christ" is actually hampered in the building and must leave into the world in order to really grow. Certainly there are many within the institution that will disagree with that, but there are now almost as many outside the institution that do agree with it.

7. He said that, "millions of Christians going outside the institutional church to find spiritual food." I saw one video recently where someone said that those leaving are often doing so, not because they no longer believe, but "to preserve their faith." The reason for this, I suspect, is because the traditional institutional church does not allow for people to put their faith into action. The professional team up front on the stage does the "ministry," whereas everyone else in the pews does the "spectating." Spiritual food doesn't come by watching "ministry" being done; it comes rather by doing the ministry. My grandfather used to say, "Sports isn't what you watch; it's what you do." To get physical benefit from sports, you have to go and actually play the game yourself. The couch quarterback doesn't benefit physically at all. Ministry is no different. If you want to find the spiritual food associated with ministry, you have to get off the pew just like the sports enthusiast has to get off the couch. Pew ministry has the same value as couch sports; none.

Years ago Billy Graham already started to see that. That discovery still amazes me. I believe that his cry to the (institutional) church was that they might wake up and see this before it was too late. Like many prophetic utterances before him, his cry was ignored and possibly even ridiculed. So here we are almost 50 years later. The church landscape has changed. Some love its new wardrobe, some hate it or are confused by it, and some still seem strangely oblivious to it all.

Like point number two above, many are still asking questions. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe questions in search of the truth simply means that the Spirit of God is still prompting them like he prompted many of us before. For others, the only question they're asking is whether or not we outside the institutional church are a bunch of heretics. In response to the questions of heresy, my friend Wayne Jacobsen said it best. He said:

"Every major heresy that has been inflicted on God's people for the last 2,000 years has come from organized groups with 'leaders' who thought they knew God's mind better than anyone around them. Conversely, virtually every move of God among people hungering for Him was rejected by the 'church' of that day and were excluded, excommunicated or executed for following God."

So what is going on? Why this mass exodus from the institutional church? Is God saying something through this? Is God shaking up the church in preparation for something? Is all of this somehow playing into His end time plans? Is it a case of heresy, and if so whose; the institution's or those leaving the institution? And what about prophets? Biblically speaking, a prophet was deemed a true and trustworthy prophet if his prophecy actually came to pass. Has this prophecy of Billy Graham's come to pass? If so, can we say that his prophecy was true and trustworthy?

I'm going to close with the words of Jesus. He said to a fellow by the name of Nicodemus, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). I do not mean to offend, and please forgive me if I do, but the more I walk this non-institutional walk, the less I understand how someone who claims to be born of the Spirit can be content with a pew. If life in the Spirit is akin to the wind that Jesus described, then it is also not a sedentary life. As a matter of fact, come Sunday morning, the person truly "born of the Spirit" likely won't even know until the last minute exactly where God will take him that day. Yes, He might take you to the institution, but He also just as likely might take you somewhere else. Are we open to such a scenario? Hmm, I wonder.