Friday, August 26, 2016

Exercises in Community - Philippians 2: 12-15

Once for a children’s sermon, I sprayed a bottle of perfume, explaining to the kids how the tiny particles of perfume covered the room. Christians are like those perfume drops, taking the fragrance of God out into the world. I then asked them what Christians are supposed to do.
They all answered “Smell!”
They were right. The most important thing Christians do is to smell like Jesus.
The New Testament uses different metaphors, but makes this point over and over. We are the salt of the earth--tasting like Jesus. We are the light of the world--shining like Jesus. We are the leaven in the dough—tiny things that cause a whole dough to rise. We are the stars shining in the dark sky. We are very small bits of righteousness, out among the sinner, changing everything.
A tiny speck of light can be seen light-years away across the heavens. The light of a single Christian can be seen in the darkest, most evil places. It isn’t our quantity that matters—it is our quality. It isn’t what we do that matters, it’s who we are that matters. 
Ever since the church was founded, this has been God’s plan for it, not to develop programs or to put out social propaganda, or to gain worldly power and force the world into obedience to God, but to be a community of influencers. Keeping a low profile in the media, but by our likeness to Jesus we go out and make the world better one person at a time. We aren’t an isolated society, we’re part of the community, but wherever we go in the world—in our homes, work, and businesses we are to witness for Jesus by acting, thinking, feeling, and being like Him.
Bill Hybels in Becoming a Contagious Christian offers this formula sharing the Gospel: 
High Potency + Close Proximity + Clear Communication = Maximum Impact on the world.
High Potency means Christians who really shine. They are connected to Jesus on a daily basis through studying the word, passionate worship with others, and daily devotional habits. If there’s no difference between the Christians and non-Christians, then it makes little difference whether we are present or not. 
Close Proximity means that we are out in the world, among the unbelievers and little-believers. If a Christian is not around non-Christians, then they will have little impact. Much of the way Christians behave in the church restricts their witness by focusing on the institutional church and Christian fellowship, rather than touching lives outside the church. We need the church, but if we stay in it too much, then we become a guarded subculture that is easily ignored by everyone on the outside.
If we are high potency Christians, then we don’t need to be afraid of worldly influence. We are constantly strengthened by the exercises of the Christian life and in touch with the Spirit of God, we are the influencers in the world, and we are not under the world’s influence. We are in the world, but not of the world. The church doesn’t need a lot of programs and propaganda to witness. We only need be Christian in the world, to merely be true to our true Christian nature.
Clear communication means making Christ clear in word and deed. We let everyone know how we are Christians, that we have been changed by the Gospel, and that they can be Christian, too.
I teach a course on evangelism in the seminary.  One question I always ask my students at the beginning of the class is to tell me in twenty-five words or less what a Christian is, and how a person can become a Christian. About half the time, my students cannot do it in twenty-five words or less. 
Bill Hybels did it in two words. While on vacation he and his wife made friends with a wealthy non-believer. The man invited them to go boating with them. Hybels prayed for an opportunity to bring up the Gospel to him, but the whole day he did not seem to be interested. Finally, as they were off the boat to go home, the man asked, “By the way, how does a person become a Christian, anyway?”
Hybels answered, “Let me put it this way—religion is spelled DO. Christianity is spelled DONE. It means that Jesus has already done all you need for you.”
I am a shy person. I do not find it easy to reach out to strangers, nor do I feel comfortable casually expressing my opinion. Sharing with strangers on the street is outside of my comfort zone. But then, so are all the other spiritual exercises. Prayer isn’t easy; neither is Bible study. Witnessing is the same. But it gets easier the more you do it. 
One thing that helps is to remember what witnessing is. Witnessing is not persuading people to be Christians. It is being a witness—telling people what we personally have seen and heard about Jesus. What they do with it is up to them. Evangelists are people who are gifted at persuasion and argumentation. Witnessing is just sharing from the heart. It is letting people know your story. A witness isn’t like Billy Graham standing in front of large crowds. It is more like the man mentioned in John 9 who was cured of blindness. When people asked him how it happened, he just said, “Once I was blind, now I see.”  He did not hide the miracle, nor did he hide that he met Jesus. He just told the truth. Witnessing whenever possible is telling the truth. It is pushing the “share” button on your story and letting people know who you really are. 
Witnessing is a spiritual exercise. It is intentionally choosing to communicate Jesus to the people around you. It is being publicly a Christian.
Most of what we know about Jesus are not his speeches, but his actions. His compassion is mostly how we know Him. His voluntary death on the cross for our sins is the ultimate act of love. His miracles, acts of healing, condemnation of hypocrisy, and expressions of compassion to others stand out most in the Gospel narratives. If it weren’t for the personal acts of Jesus, then no one would remember the words of Jesus.
The world Jesus lived in was far more unjust than ours. The gap between rich and poor was wider. There were far more homeless people. The life expectancy was around thirty-five. Infant mortality was above fifty percent. Any serious illness could lead to you being cast out of society. Women were treated as property. Most public buildings were built by slaves. Cities were wretched, dirty places. Even so Jesus did not speak out on these social injustices. Instead he reacted by being individually compassionate to the victims of injustice.
I grew up in mainline churches where we were taught that Christianity and socialism were basically the same thing. Our denominational leaders thought they had the answers for every social problem. I have since learned that the answers for the social problems are never simple. When we try to fix poverty, we are just as likely to make it worse. People and society are complicated, and require individual attention. 
So instead of starting a social movement to fix society, Jesus makes people who would shine like stars of compassion and concern. This army of compassionate people would care about people as individuals, not just social classes. They would not force their will on others, even in a good cause, but would be servants to the lowest people. 
These people would go everywhere—into politics, into entertainment, into social work, and into business. They will not all agree about how to fix problems—they would be found in all political parties. But they would try their best to live as Christians with all people.
Paul says that we should “work out our own salvation.” He’s not talking about salvation from hell, or eternal life. That was done for us by Jesus. He is talking about the living of that salvation in this world. It is salvation from a fruitless, pointless life. Neither Paul, nor anyone else can tell Christians exactly how to do that. It’s individual and personal to each person to shine in their own particular way.
As a pastor, I won’t tell you how to live out your faith in the world. I will only tell you to live it. I have no universal solutions for poverty, homelessness, or prejudice. I will tell you, though that God can help you be influential for His sake in the world around you. I won’t tell you who you should marry, or what you should do for a living, but I will tell you to be a Christian as you are doing your job. Your work is important to God and therefore it has value. Pray that you do it as Christ would have you do it.
As a pastor I won’t tell you how to vote, but I will tell you to vote. Voting and speaking out on social issues is part of what it means to be a Christian in public. Speak out on issues that matter to you, even if you think you might be wrong. Most Christians are too shy. Say what’s on your mind, and say it the way Jesus would say it.
As a pastor I won’t tell you where to volunteer in the community, but I do tell you to volunteer. Put feet to your compassion by helping poor, sick and homeless. God has given you only a little time in this world, so use it to make a difference. Make an example for your children. Do you want your children to learn that they and their immediate families are the only things that matter in life? Or do you want to demonstrate to them the importance of being salt and light for Christ’s sake. Get active. Get involved. It’s how we shine like stars in the world around us.
Don’t worry about whether you are good or bad at it, just do it. A recent movie Florence Foster Jenkins told the true story of a wealthy, eccentric woman who wanted to be an opera star. She made a record and rented Carnegie Hall to perform. She was of course hilariously bad. Critics savaged her. But as she was dying she told one of her friends, “People say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.” 

Maybe you say you can’t witness. Maybe you say your little contribution isn’t much. But let no one say they didn’t contribute. Which is better, shine weekly or go dark? Don’t be afraid to try, but make it a habit to always shine for Jesus. 

Exercising the Will - Ephesians 5: 1-2

In our study of spiritual exercises, we have discussed the mind and the heart—two dimensions of our lives that we need to develop to serve Christ with our whole heart.  Today we are going to look at third dimension—the will, or the actions. We can’t just think or feel like Jesus-we must act like Him, too.
Our actions are determined by our will. Willpower is the ability to do what we do not want to do. It is self-control for God’s sake.  If we present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, we must resist our own desires and to do it consistently.
Psychologists who study willpower have discovered that it works a lot like muscle power. The more we exert our wills, the more tired they get.  If we are already using our willpower for one thing, the less willpower we have to do something else. It’s hard to lose weight, quit smoking, or start daily devotions at the same time.  If a difficult situation requires us to keep our emotions under control, self-discipline is harder to exert.
But like our muscles, if we exercise our will it gets stronger.  If we begin somethings and stick with it, our will gets stronger, so we may use our wills to make other changes.
Even so, doing the right thing consistently takes effort. Fortunately, God has put a mechanism inside the human mind that makes it easier. That mechanism is called habit.
Habits are what we do without thinking or feeling it. Let’s say you have a smoking habit.  You know it’s bad and you feel terrible about it, but it’s hard to stop smoking.  You have a subroutine in your brain that is programmed to smoke in spite of what your mind and heart saying “no”.
There are also good habits. Good habits lead us to do good things without thinking. God wants us to have good habits, not bad habits.  
When Paul talks about “walking in the Spirit”, I believe he is talking about having Spiritual habits.  Following Christ means habitually spending time with God, obeying His commandments, and loving others. We don’t choose to do these things any more, we have already chosen to do them. They have become habits.
Paul understood the connection between public obedience and private habits. If our personal, private habits are bad, it is unlikely that we will long maintain good public behavior.
      Gordon McDonald wrote about a great old oak that stood in his parent’s front yard when he was a boy. From all outer appearances it was healthy. One day, a wind blew it over. Only then did they discover it was hollow inside.  Termites had completely eaten away the interior of the tree. 
Bad habits eat away our insides. To everyone else we seem strong, but if our habits are weak, our faith will fall. Before we try and change the world, we must conquer our personal lives.
People are like icebergs. Seven-eighths of who we are is hidden from view. Only God and ourselves know who we are when no one is looking. This inner life is the life of our inner habits.
Please understand, God does not judge our habits.  He loves us in spite of bad habits, which are already forgiven on the Cross.  God doesn’t give up on us.  If He did, none of us would be in heaven! Eternal life is based on what Christ has done, not on what we do. 
But when we allow our bad habits to run our lives, we are not imitating Christ. Walking like Christ is following a lifestyle of obedience.
Jesus had habits, just as we do. But unlike us, His habits were always goo. It was His habit to pray daily, love others, and help people in need.  The habits Jesus had are the habits we need to develop. 
What habits did Jesus have?  Here are a few of them.
Jesus had a submission habit
In John 14:31, Jesus said I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”  Jesus’ did His Father’s will. 
Submission means building submissive habits. In the army, soldiers express their submission by saluting officers. In court, people express their submission to the judge by saying “your honor.”  Children are taught to say “sir” and “ma’am.” These habits are not just empty rituals, but reinforce submission.
The church also has habits of submission to God. Tithing is one of those habits --a percentage given to God’s work off the top of our income.  The amount of our gifts to God is not as important as the attitude that God comes first in our income.  Sabbath-keeping is another act of submission. Giving one day of the week to worship reminds us that Good is first in our time.  Church attendance is another act of submission.  Daily devotions are another. Respecting God’s name is another. Other actions such as prayer before meals or evening prayers are voluntary acts of submission.  Not everyone keeps every habit, but all of them reinforce our need to bow our hearts before them. These habits continually remind us to keep God first.
We are not required to do any of this. We do it because we want to honor God and keep habits of submission. If we are to be like Christ we must stay in submission to Him.
Jesus had a working/resting habit.
Keeping a Sabbath is an act of practical benefit. If I just keep the Sabbath because someone tells me was supposed to, then I’m submitting to a person, not God. But if I keep the Sabbath out of choice, because I want to keep close to God and honor Him, then it becomes a blessing.
Peter Scazzaro in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality has an interesting take on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, he says, is like a “snow day.” When we were kids, whenever it snowed, people had an excuse for taking off work.  They got to go home, sip hot chocolate and go out and play in the snow. On snow days we were given permission to play hooky from work and enjoy ourselves.
Sabbaths are weekly vacations that give us permission to spend time in recreation an refreshment.  God encourages the habit of rest as well as the habit of work.  It keeps us human and make us realize that life isn’t about what we do, but what we are. It is a spiritual discipline that is also a personal time of refreshment. 
Jesus not only took he regular Sabbath, but He also took time away from the ministry regularly for prayer and refreshment. It was a habit He developed that kept Him sharp before God.
Jesus had a fasting habit
Little is written about Jesus’ habit of fasting, except that we know He began His ministry with a complete forty-day fast. We also know that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not say “if you fast” but “when you fast.” This implies that He expected that His disciples would fast.   The early church fasted regularly two days a week. Hippolytus, one of the earliest Christian writers outside the Bible wrote that the heretics were fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the regular church fasted on Wednesdays and Friday.  Evidently, they believed fasting was a valuable spiritual habit to have. 
But what does fasting look like today?  Traditionally fasting is not just going without food entirely. It was usually simply restricting our intake of food for a set time. We have another term for that today—dieting!  The purpose of fasting was not to lose weight, which is why we usually diet today, but to master our appetites. If our physical appetites possess us, then God does not.  The purpose of regular fasting was to put our bodies in their proper place, as being under the authority of God. 
There are other activities that are similar to fasting in this, and all of them were traditionally part of what it meant to possess our bodies for Christ. Chastity was one of them—refraining from sexual activity until God says the time is right, and with whom God says is right.  If the world practiced chastity today, I believe the majority of poverty would be solved.  Another one is simplicity, not spending more than we need to spend, or owning more than we need to own. Everything we own also owns a piece of us.  We either master our possessions, or our possessions master us.  Today, we should think about electronic fasting as well—disconnecting regularly from the internet and from the electronic media.  We must always be sure that God comes first, above our appetites.
Jesus had a praying habit
We read that Jesus prayed every morning and every evening, that He prayed before every great decision in his life, and that he prayed regularly in the temple and with the Jews, as he celebrated Jewish holy days. Jesus’ life was a regimen of prayer.
Those who have been greatly used by God have all discovered that prayer is the key.  Martin Luther once wrote that his responsibilities were so great that he had to spend four hours a day in prayer.  Paul Yong He Cho, the pastor of the largest church in the world in Soule Korea once said that he had to spend between four and five hours in prayer daily.  Prayer is a habit that we all require, both as a church and as individuals. When we neglect it, we lose our spiritual power.
  All of this talk of personal spirituality may seem to some like legalism and judgment, but it really isn’t.  God doesn’t think ill of us because we don’t do everything right.  What God does in our life is not so much to condemn our failures but affirm our success, and reward that success by building up our bodies, souls and spirits to help us reach our full potential.  We all aren’t Olympic athletes, just as we all are not spiritual giants  (I certainly am not!)  But developing the right habits and breaking the wrong ones will certainly  make us better people. 
Each victory we have helps build our willpower, and helps us to go further in Him.  Not only that, but with each victory, we learn to rely more upon the Spirit of God, which can enable us to reach our goals of becoming more like Him.
As we gain victory in our inner habits, we become blessings to the world around us.  It helps us to develop the habits that will transform us into stars, enlightening the world. Around us. 

More about that, though in the next message.

Habits of the Heart - Psalm 57

We are discussing Spiritual exercises—the things we do to keep healthy and growing into the image of Christ. These exercises fall into three kinds—head, heart, and hands. Last week, we discussed the head; this week we discuss the heart. 

Head and heart belong together. One is not complete without the other. The head involves study, reason, and critical thinking. The heart involves passion, emotion, and intuition. With the head, we study God’s Word. With the heart, we connect with the Spirit. The head guides us, the heart motivates us. The head comprehends, the heart loves. The head critiques; the heart enjoys.  Jonathan Edwards describes the head as the rudder and the heart the sail. We need both. The head and the heart are two separate aspects. One should not be mistaken for the other. 

The relationship between the head and the heart is like a man walking his dog. The man believes he is the dog’s master, since he is smarter than the dog and provides direction and restraint. But the dog knows that she is in control. The dog begged the man for the walk. The man stays on the sidewalk and decides the route, but the dog enjoys sounds and smells the man cannot even perceive. He doesn’t know that three deer crossed their path an hour ago, but the dog does. He cannot smell the grass or see the squirrel behind a tree, but the dog’s keen nose and eyes experiences what reason cannot see.

 In this illustration the man is the head, and the dog is the heart. Reason guides us, but without our emotions, we go nowhere. If we forget our passion, then all the reasoning in the world will not motivate us to change. Passion drives us to make the decisions we do. 

Our emotions are like a pack of dogs. Reason decides when to keep them penned up and when to let them off the leash. Unleashing our anger in the right way protects us. Unleashing our passion in love shows affection. Listening to our feelings can lead us to insights the mind cannot fully comprehend.

You can give too much freedom to your feelings. Anger can lead us to lash out in rage. Love, can turn to lust or obsession, and that hurts the people we love. Depression can lead to despair. Fear turns to panic. We must practice good judgment and strengthen our minds to control our feelings.

You can also control your feelings too tightly. If we don’t let our feelings go sometimes, they grow harder to manage. We can’t pretend our feelings don’t exist. We can feel miserable even when we won’t admit it to ourselves, because we deny it. We lack energy to accomplish much, or the power to persuade, because our emotions are too tame. The power of passion is lost to us, along with the intuition of the Spirit. We become dull, ineffectual and just plain boring.

We aren’t all the same. Different people (and different churches) lean more towards reason, while others lean more toward passion, and we can all still be healthy. The strength of the Reformed faith for example, lies in its emphasis on knowledge and reason. That is a strong advantage to we who belong to in this tradition. Even so, this emphasis on reason can also be our greatest weakness. We often fail to appreciate the importance of passion. We hold our feelings in; when they come out, they explode. We hold grudges forever because we fail to admit we have them, that they are just feelings. We can be stubborn and insensitive.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.”  There’s nothing wrong with being angry, as long as we get over it.  But if we hold it in, even a little anger can grow into something huge.

Be afraid, but don’t let fear rule you. Be passionate, but don’t be carried away by your lust.  Be joyful, but know when to hold it in. It isn’t the expression of emotions that is the problem, it’s our denial of them instead of mastering them. What we fail to face becomes our master. If we run from our feelings, our feelings will control us.

The secret to managing our passion is to exercise our passion in the right direction so it will drive us closer to becoming like Jesus. Encourage the passions we have that are Christ-like. When the emotional wind seems to be pushing us backward, then we have to learn to tack our sails and use our feelings to go forward. 

Psalm 57 is an example of what can be accomplished when we learn to exercise our emotions. In verses 1-6 Psalmist is clearly upset. He has serious problems!  Verse 4 says,

 My soul is among lions; I must lie among those who breathe forth fire, Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows; And their tongue a sharp sword.

He is “among lions,” surrounded by enemies.  People are after him. He’s being put down, oppressed and lied about. Emotionally, his emotions are straining at the leash. His “depression dog” wants to get loose. So does his “fear dog”.  They are running wild in his life. If they do, they will head straight for rage, anger, and panic. He might have a nervous breakdown, run away or abandon God.  

Whose job is it to master our feelings?  It isn’t God’s--It’s ours!  Luke 21:19 says, “In your patience, possess ye your soul.” It’s your emotions that you must master. God gives us the tools we need, but he gives us the responsibility for putting our feelings in order.

The psalmist reacts to his fear, not by denying his feelings, but by expressing them. He acknowledges his fear--even his frustration with God, but he lets his other emotions—his positive emotions loose by enthusiastically praising the Lord. He celebrates God’s goodness instead of cursing his enemies. 

Don’t be afraid to admit to say how you feel to God. Tell Him when you’re scared, angry, or afraid. Let God know everything. By praying about your feelings, you are learning to trust in Him. But while you are being honest, not only to admit your negative emotions but to encourage his positive feelings. Let the “good dogs” of his heart loose. 

Listen to what he says next.  “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises! Awake, my glory! Awake, harp and lyre!”

“My heart is steadfast O God, my heart is steadfast” in other words “I’m making a decision, and I am sticking to it!” In spite of his desire to be afraid or angry, He makes a choice to focus on what is good, wholesome and lovely. His praise is an act of the will, not of the feelings. He restrains his depression and chooses to release his joy rather than despair. He expresses his feelings, but with an emphasis on the positive ones.  “Awake my glory!”  He awakens glorious sense of happiness in worship like a lazy dog on the porch, and tells it to get pulling in the right direction!

Christians have joy in them, but sometimes it is covered by thick clouds of sorrow and depression.  We still love, but our negative emotions drain us of energy to love. We must energize our positive feelings towards God in order to restrain the power of our negative ones. Worship and praise exercise our positive feelings, so they have a chance to compete with our negative ones. 

Worship cannot help us grow towards Christ if we approach it critically. The critical functions have to do with restraint, not passion. When worshipping alone or in a crowd, we stop to critique the job we or our church is doing, and we have ceased worship from the heart. The musicians may not be in tune, the singers may be off, the lyrics may be unbiblical, and the crowd may be small. But if we are thinking about these things, then we are not worshipping God. When we worship in such a critical manner with our mind, then it is not coming from the heart.  When judgment kicks in, our passion subsides.

Dr. Haddon Robinson is the author of several books on preaching, and was selected by Time magazine as one of the best communicators in the Western world. Famous preachers pay him thousands of dollars just to critique their sermons. I asked him once how he could sit in church on Sundays under vastly inferior preachers, and get anything out of it. He told me that to learn from God we must turn off our critical faculties, and realize that God speaks through preachers who are not good technically or precise theologically. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, then he can speak through donkeys today! If God can be praised through trees, rocks and stones, then intelligence is not required.

We should strive for excellence, and we have a right to critique. But during worship, the more critical we are, the less worship we do. Worship isn’t about human excellence but heart participation.  Children who play with crayons don’t have to be good artists. They just have fun. God enjoys our efforts even if we have no musical talent, and He wants us to praise him unselfconsciously even if we are not technically superior.  

“Awake, harp and lyre.”  The psalmist isn’t listening to perform—he is making music! Worship is performing before the audience of God. Sitting in church listening to others talk and sing is not how to stimulate our passion towards God. We must open our mouths to express our own passion.

“I will awaken the dawn.” The psalmist is worshipping every morning. Let the dogs of praise off their leashes daily. Sing to God, praise Him, and curl up in your Father’s arms every morning. Use your imaginations to come up with new ways of praising and thanking the Lord. 

“I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to You among the nations.”
The psalmist does not restrain his emotions to God in public, but praises God in the church and out in public. It is not Biblical that we should keep our passion for God to ourselves. Let them run loose in the yard! We tend to think of emotional displays as an expression of weakness, but the opposite is true.  A dog owner only takes his dog out in public if he can control the dog. A poor master is unable trust his dog enough to let her around other people. A strong Christian is willing to let feelings to God be shown.

Passion stimulates passion in others. The more we express our praise to God in the sanctuary of God, the easier it is for others to do the same.

We don’t master our feelings merely by restraining them, but by using them in positive ways.  If you want to develop a greater passion for God, then exercise your passion through praise and thanksgiving. You will find that God can use this in your live to lead you to a greater joy in Him. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Habits of the Mind - Romans 12: 1-2

As we have said before, the goal of our life on earth is to seek sanctification--the state of thinking, feeling, and acting like Jesus in all things. While it is never completed in this life, it is what we were created to seek. Our lives are a search to be as close as we can to Jesus. 
Paul says to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. That means sacrificing ourselves daily in the pursuit of Christian wholeness. It isn’t something we do for a time and then give up, neither is it something that we must complete before God loves us. He loves us and accepts us now, but He wants better for us. Doing, thinking, feeling and betting more like Him is what it means to live a better life.
The Holy Spirit makes us better day by day. But the Holy Spirit cannot accomplish this in us without effort on our part. You can buy someone a membership to a gym and free lessons from a life coach, but they won’t get in shape unless they use them. In the same way God can provide us with the means of becoming like Him, but unless we exercise our Spirits, the Holy Spirit can do nothing to help. He will not override our will by making us conform. We have to be willing to have hearts renewed before any renewal will take place. 
The means of pursuing God’s perfection is through the practice of Spiritual exercises. Now we all know what exercises are—we may not do them but at least we know the term. If we want to get stronger and healthier physically, we must take walks, go to the gym, use the treadmill, and so on. If we want to get stronger and healthier in our relationship with God, then we must do our exercises. It is the only way.
There are many kinds of spiritual exercises, just like there are many kinds of physical exercises.  Physical exercises are divided into different categories—cardio-vascular exercises such as walking for endurance, strength-building exercises such as weight lifting for strength, and flexibility exercises such as yoga for balance and flexibility.  Spiritual exercises can be divided into three categories, too—exercises for the head (mind), heart (emotions), and hands (actions). 
Head, heart and hands must be balanced. We may be strong in certain areas, but we need them all, just as we should not use this as an excuse for being lazy in developing any area. Spiritual health and overall improvement in our spiritual life requires that we develop all three. 
The first place we start is with the mind. We need to develop our minds for Christ. Paul states in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That means we should build strong brains and fill them with God’s Word. We must do this because the mind of the World is trying to squeeze us into its mold, to make us conform to the world’s way of thinking and acting. To push back, we must have something strong inside, and we must develop our minds to hold fiercely to God’s truth.
Unfortunately, many Christians have no interest in the thinking. Modern Evangelical Christianity has a history of anti-intellectualism. Mark Noll writes.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless churches and parachurch communities.  Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not known to be exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations”
When Christians distrust their minds, they try to substitute enthusiasm and mindless activity for careful thought and reason. They become lazy and flabby in the brain. Even so they are convinced there is nothing wrong with them, and go on in blissful ignorance of what they are missing by not renewing their minds.
Compare this to physical exercise. Suppose someone says, “Let’s all go on a hike.”  Those who like physical activity would be raring to go! But the rest would just make excuses or lay around the house. Some would be too distracted by familiar forms of entertainment, such as television, books, or video games. Some would find walking too boring. Others would refuse because they didn’t think they could walk very far. But any walk is better than no walk, if you want to have a healthy body.
The same thing is true of the mind. Any thinking is better than none. When it comes to minds, we either use them or lose them. If we are going to grow more like Jesus, then we’d better be willing to use our brains.
One of the great myths about thinking is that it’s boring. It’s a lie of the Devil! There is nothing more exciting than the challenges of the mind. James Sire gave this definition of an intellectual. 
“An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to developing them, criticizing them, clarifying them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ones pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning them with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball, but also suiting them for service in workaday life—A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.”
Let me let you in on a secret--thinking is fun!  It is playing with ideas. Many people don’t want you to think, because they are afraid of what you might discover. They are the ones who suggest that thinking is boring or hard, and that you shouldn’t do it. They want to tell you what to think, so they do everything in their power to keep you from thinking for yourself. C. S. Lewis once said that the Devil doesn’t do so much by putting ideas in our heads as by keeping them out. But thinking for God’s glory is one of the great blessings of life. It’s not boring at all.
But what do we think about?  That’s easy--think about the Word of God. Psalm 119:  11 says, “Your Word I have hid in my heart that I might not sin against You.” The Word of God, when ingested into our lives, provides the foundation for all Spiritual life and thought. 
How do we ingest the Word of God? First, we should read it. Make a commitment to read the whole Bible all the way through. Most of us don’t know the Bible as well as we think we do. Even if we knew it once, we’ve probably forgotten more than we know. Make a part of your life to read the Bible through as often as you can, and to read it with comprehension. 
Second, Study it. Don’t just read the Words, study the words. Take the time to know what they mean. That means learning the background of the Bible—the names, dates, places, and especially the stories of the Bible. It does no good to know the words, if you don’t know the books and chapters. The mental exercise of Bible study will sharpen your minds and transform your hearts. I am convinced that you cannot do a thorough job of reading and knowing the Bible alone. You need a small group of people with whom you can share, learn and even disagree. Hiding God’s word in your heart requires that you struggle with the ideas and meaning, and not just take it for granted.
If we are to use our minds to glorify the Lord, then we should also develop a heathy skepticism.  When someone says an idea is in the Bible, then we should learn to seek evidence. Don’t think you or anyone else is right unless you can produce evidence that supports it. Accepting everything that others say about the Bible without seeking out the truth is not using our brains. It is not faith—it is laziness.
Third, study about it. Theology is not just studying the Bible but studying what we learn about the Bible. It is taking the concepts of the Bible and arranging them in an understandable way. It’s not just the words or concepts of the Bible that is important, but it is also how those words and concepts come together, and how they apply to our lives. An intellectual Christian will not just read the Bible, but will read what people say about the Bible. He will study theology and the application of theology to life. He will not just read one view, but will also read people who disagree.
A friend once told me that he believed in the “fried chicken” method of reading theology. When we eat fried chicken, we throw out the bones and feast on the meat. When we read a Christian book or commentary, we don’t have to swallow everything to learn. Learn to question according to God’s word.
Fourth, memorize it.  Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the man who does not stand in the way of sinners or sits in the seat of the scornful, or dwell in the place of the scornful, but his delight is in the Law of the Lord and on that law he meditates day and night.” The word for “meditate” in Hebrew can also be translated as “memorize.” When we memorize something it stays in our brain. It becomes part of us, and can interact with every other idea. Try to memorize at least one or two verses a week. That may sound impossible, but in time you will find that it becomes easier with practice. When you have the Word of God in your minds, it can influence every thought, feeling, and behavior in ways you might never suspect. One day it could just save your life.
A woman was in church when I was preaching on Romans 8: 28, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” That afternoon she was riding dirt bikes with her husband. Halfway through the track, she lost control and went over an embankment. She was lying in a ditch, paralyzed from the waist down for what seemed like hours.
Later when I visited her in the hospital, she told me that the only thing she could think about as she lay there was Romans 8: 28, “All things work together for good for those who love God.” She held on to that verse, believing God was going to let good come from this. That verse kept her alive, she said.

Scripture can only help us if we know it. Use your minds to study the Bible. It will pay off for you in the end.  

Walking in the Community of the Spirit - I Corinthians 12

In Reuben Welch’s book, We Really Do Need Each he suggests that most churches resemble a group of people exploring the ocean in old-fashioned diving suits. In this world we live in a hostile environment where we must maintain a link with God. God’s presence and Spirit is our “air.” We are attached to God through a personal connection to Jesus--our “air hose” to the spiritual world. Every so often, one of us gets a “kink” in that hose, and we start to struggle. Other Christians will sometimes notice that our connection is failing, and admonish us to straighten the hose—“start praying,” “Read your Bible,” “Stop sinning,” etc.  But more often than not, they never notice it until it is too late. We hide ourselves under our “spiritual” helmets, so they never see our struggles. Of course it’s sad when we see another believer fall away, but it doesn’t affect us much, because we have our own connection. Since we are individually connected to Jesus, we just go on as if nothing happened. The Church behaves as a group of individuals trying to walk individually. It’s our personal faith that matters. 
Welch says that’s a poor image of what God wants for the church to be. God’s intention for the church is to be more like a submarine. Within the church we are fully exposed to each other. If one of us runs out of air, then we all run out. We do connect individually to God, but we must also connect together. Our relationship to God is directly connected to the relationship with each other. When the Holy Spirit came, He came to all of us. We really do need each other to live, grow and reach out into the community. We are in this together.
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, he did not just come to them as individuals, but to the whole Body together. In Acts 1: 8 Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power.” He did not use the singular “you” but the plural “you”--“you will all receive power.”  When Jesus said in Luke 17:21 “The kingdom of God is within you.” He also used the plural “you,” meaning “in your midst”. When Paul spoke of New Testament prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:29 he said, “Let the prophets speak two or three, and then let the other judge.” The Holy Spirit was not the exclusive provenance of any one person, but there had to be agreement. Community is essential for Christian witness. Jesus says in John 13:33, “By this will all people know you are my disciples, by your love for one another.”  Without each other, the Holy Spirit will not be fully shown.
When the Holy Spirit comes into the church, He comes like white light shining into a prism. The Christian community divides the mission of Christ like a prism divides white light into a rainbow. Each person in the church manifests a different “color” of the Spirit—some showing His majesty through worship and teaching, others showing His love through compassion and service, others showing his purity through prophetic utterances. The gifts of the Spirit are like colors in a rainbow. Each is the person of Christ revealed through slightly different shadings. In Ephesians 4:7-13 we read,
 “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.... He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood”
The gift of the Holy Spirit works through all of us to show the image of Christ to the world. In Romans 12: 4-8 we read,
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Each church is a village, and the church a nation within the nation. Like a village needs farmers, mayors, police, salesmen and artists, the Body of Christ needs, preachers, teachers, pastors, evangelists, worship leaders and workers. Each contributing a unique part of what it means to be Christ in the world. This understanding of how the Holy Spirit works has a direct bearing on how we live together and teaches us three important lessons.
First, it teaches us that the power to do the work of God does not come from our strength, professionalism, or education, but from the Spirit of God. We can’t build the kingdom on our own strength and abilities, we must build on God’s abilities. There is nothing wrong with having dynamic or educated leaders, and experienced professionals—in fact all of that can be good. But the church doesn’t need them—it needs the Spirit. Our confidence in our own abilities or even in the abilities of our leaders just gets in the way of our confidence in God’s Spirit.  Many churches have great resources and abilities, but are deficient in the Spirit of God. They are humanly strong, but spiritually dead. They are monuments to what communities of people can do when they get together, but they are no demonstrations of what Christ can do through them.
Second, it teaches us that Christ can manifest Himself through a group of people of any size or ability. Jesus chose to multiply Himself in the world through a group of twelve ordinary people who had not natural abilities that we know. There were no educated men among them, no politicians, community organizers or leaders, just ordinary guys. Yet the Spirit used these men to change the world. 
Every part of the fullness of Christ may be manifested through every part of the church. If you take a prism and split it into four pieces, then pass light through the pieces, you still get the same colors.  When you take the body of Christ and split it into four churches, each church can still manifest the fullness of the Body of Christ. There may be variations in the shape and size, but Christ comes through them all. 
We sit around and wonder how we’re going to find youth leaders, whether or not we can attract big rich donors, or where we can find musical talents, as if these are the most important questions a church can ask. They are not. We should be asking ourselves, how the Holy Spirit will use our limited resources to provide for the teaching of children and for funding the necessary work of God on earth. Instead of asking how we can attract people with human abilities to improve our worship, we should be praying to ask God to open up the portals of heaven, so we can see the Spirit in our worship. Often the church is criticized for being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good, when it should be criticized for being so earthly minded it is no heavenly good. We don’t need the world in our midst. We do need Jesus in our midst.
This is good news! Christ can fully and completely manifest Himself in a small church as well as a big one. There is no need to feel inferior due to lack of money or professionalism. The power comes from Jesus, not from ourselves, and that is available in all fellowships, great and small.
Third, it teaches us that all Christian churches and denominations have value. If the Holy Spirit manifests Himself through individuals in different ways, is it such a leap to think He doesn’t do the same between churches and traditions? We don’t all have to be Presbyterians or Baptists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, or Catholics--the Holy Spirit shines through all. We can preserve our uniqueness without compromising our faith. The unique traditions and personalities of the faith are valuable to the whole. If we are the Body of Christ, then the denominations of Christians are like organs in that body. We are not all eyes, ears, hearts, or lungs, but together we serve God. The differences that tear us apart can be manifestations of His greater glory. Our disagreements are not manifestations of disobedience, but of the Spirit shining through unique personalities. We need to give each other space to be ourselves, and to manifest God’s creative Spirit in our own ways.
How do we keep our differences from tearing it apart? 
First, recognize that our unity does not come from agreement but from our love of Jesus. Unity isn’t a feeling but a commitment to love each other because Christ loved us. If we love God, then we must also love God’s children, even when we disagree.
Second, commit to staying together. I don’t care whether you like each other, but nevertheless children, love each other. Love is measured by actions: The first is our willingness to be together. Do couples divorce if they love each other? What kind of marriage would you have if you never spoke with each other, never saw each other, and had no interest in what the other was doing? Is that love? Then what kind of love does a church have if the sum total of our interaction is shaking hands on Sunday morning?  Love must go deeper than superficial nicety.
Third, be humble with each other. The Bible is very specific on this. Romans 15:2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” Philippians 2:4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Galatians 5:26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” Let each regard the other person as more important than his or her self. If all your conversations are about what you are thinking or doing, then you are not regarding other people very highly. In every conversation, respect each other.
Fourth, be honest with each other. Masks and defenses between each other are for unbelievers, not believers. If we can’t be honest in the church, then where can we be honest? Here is the place where people love you for just loving Jesus. Someone once said that secrets are to communication what plaque is to arteries. Defensiveness clogs up communication in the church, and makes it impossible for the Holy Spirit to move between us, blessing us and growing us into what God intends for us to be.

We need to pray for a new openness and unity in the Spirit. When there is no unity, the church falls into dust like a paper statue. But when the Holy Spirit is communally in the church, then the church is a living organism together, with each part interacting with the others growing as God intends them to be.  With each part filled with the Spirit, interacting in the Spirit. We become a critical mass of unbelievable power. That power transformed the ancient world--it can still do the same today. 

Walking in the Power of the Spirit - Acts 1: 1-8

 Acts 1:1-8
Last week we talked about walking in the Spirit, which we defined as a daily and lifetime pursuit to imitate Christ in our thoughts, minds and actions. But that is not all. If walking in the Spirit is all up to us, then God does nothing. If it were all up to God, then we do nothing. Walking in the Spirit is a cooperation between us and God. Walking in the Spirit is also walking under his power and control.
We cannot see God. For that reason, we lean heavily on what we can see, not what we can’t see.  We can see our bank statements, our membership numbers, and our building facilities, so we assume that what we can see is all there is. We want physical evidence for what we can see and make our plans based on what is before us. But we leave out the power of the Holy Spirit. 
We divide God from ourselves, make Him an impersonal force, not a living friend. Our tradition emphasizes the transcendence—or otherness—of God. Our vision of God is like watching a parade roll by. We wave at God as He passes us, and He waves at us, but only impersonally. God is high above us; so all we can do is pursue Him. But we forget that we can also know Him, talk with Him, and walk with Him. We keep the Spirit at a distance, and instead embrace the methods and knowledge of the World.
But God is so much more than an impersonal goal. When we walk in the Spirit, the Spirit of God is within us. As we walk with Him, He lives in us. No one can come to Christ without the Holy Spirit. He convicts us of sin. He gives us faith. By Him we are born again.
But we can—and often do—live daily without any recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us. This is understandable, of course. Since the Holy Spirit is invisible, we often overlook Him. It’s like watching a play. We see the actors on the stage, but we don’t see the stagehands and the director working hard in the wings to make the play happen. In the same way, we see the human agents of the Spirit on earth, and attribute all that happens to human action, without recognizing that it is the Spirit working behind the scenes. 
Walking in the Spirit is not just than pursuing God. It is also walking with God, under His command and in His power. The more we submit to God, the more He is able to work through us. 
The first thing we must learn if we are going to walk in the power of the Spirit is to submit to His command.
In Acts 1, Jesus is sharing a few last words with His disciples before He ascends to heaven. His disciples think they already know everything. They know—or at least they think they know—that God is going to restore the Kingdom. Just a short while before, Jesus had given them their marching orders, in the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Now, the disciples are ready to go into action. 
They ask Him in verse 6, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7
 Jesus answered, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” In other words, Jesus says it is none of their business when the Father is going to restore the kingdom. 
We can’t stand to be told something is none of our business, especially from God. It makes us nervous. If we knew when God were to restore the kingdom, then we could prepare for it. We like deadlines, because we can work towards those deadlines. But Jesus refuses to give them this crucial bit of information that would allow them to plan for the future. Without plans, they don’t know how to proceed. When we have a plan, we know we have control.
But God doesn’t want us in control. In order for God to work in us, the Holy Spirit must have control. Submission to God is essential. A man cannot ride a horse that is not broken, neither can God use a man or woman who is not broken and submissive to His will. But when we learn to submit--what miracles, what power, hope, and love is present!  When the Holy Spirit is operating in our lives and in our church, there is so much more that we can do, than when we merely operate in our own strength. We receive God’s power, operating through us, leading us, shaping us, and empowering us.
Let me illustrate with three personal events which happened to me shortly after I became a Christian. The first time in my life I was aware of the power of the Holy Spirit working through me was when I was a counselor at a Billy Graham Crusade. I was only sixteen, and not capable of counseling anyone, and I was full of my own doubts and questions about God. A girl from my high school responded to the invitation, and some friends pulled me over to talk with her.  As I started talking with her, I soon recognized that the answers I gave weren’t coming from me. I was aware of God speaking through me. Whenever I wanted to go off and mention my own doubts or crackpot theories, the Spirit would prevent me. God would not let me get off course. I was quoting Scripture I was not aware that I even knew. I felt as if someone else had taken over my voice, speaking to her through me. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit had taken over and was using me. 
The second time came my freshman year in college. I was working with a group of Christians who were starting a church in a small town in Kentucky.  As we walked the streets I noticed sick people all around me.  My mind churched with a nagging question—why do Christians not regularly see people healed? The need for it is still there, but God’s power doesn’t seem to be there. Maybe (I thought) we don’t see because we don’t ask. I prayed to God--let me see if you still heal today.
That evening there was a prayer meeting in my dorm. I shared what I had prayed with my dorm mates. One student there had had a knee injury, and the others asked me to try it out by praying for him. As I prayed I felt the bones move back into place in his knee. Something happened I could not explain rationally, but that power was real.
The third time I felt the power came just a few months later. I had just broken up with two girls in a month—or rather, they broke up with me! I was feeling very, very low. But even so, I remember reading John 4, how Jesus said that the Spirit within us is like a spring of living water, coming from within. In spite of my emotional distress, I became aware that there was another emotion—a feeling of joy that was present within, in spite of my emotional hurt, springing up from a hidden well inside. I came to understand that when I needed it, it was still there. The hurts of the moment might obscure it, but they did not hide it. It still remained inside.
These three personal illustrations each describe a different aspect of the Holy Spirit power. 
He give us ability to lead, and power to speak.  In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells us that we receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and that we will be witnesses.   In Matthew 10: 19-20 Jesus says, When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
The Holy Spirit gives us power to do miracles. In John 14: 12-14, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
I do not have much agreement with so-called faith healers and miracle workers, who try to impress people on a stage with their Spiritual gifts. Healing and miracles are not a sideshow act. We don’t control the miracles of God—but it is the Spirit who controls us. The Holy Spirit is not a superpower.  We work in submission to Him, not the other way around. But the Holy Spirit still works miracles through us, and bringing works of healing and deliverance, and is even able to bend time and space if necessary to do the will of the Father is very real.  Miracles happen regularly when the Holy Spirit is allowed to be in control.
The Holy Spirit also brings inner joy and transforming our motivation emotional. Every time a Christian prays for boldness, he or she is praying for emotional change, because boldness is an emotion.
The Holy Spirit changes other emotions as well.  He gives us hope--that’s the greatest one. He brings us inner joy, which is independent of circumstances.  He grants us the gift of sorrow and remorse when we do wrong. We call that conviction of sin. He brings us emotional healing from the suffering of life. He grants us the gift of forgiveness of our enemies. He gives us love for people we would naturally hate. He gives us grace under fire, and the emotion of peace when things are not peaceful.
What happens when all this starts to happen inside us? Jesus tells us—we get power. 
There are two Greek words for power. One is exousia, or authority. It’s what a policeman has by virtue of his uniform.  It’s potential power, dependent on respect for authority. The other is dynamis, from which we get the word dynamite. It is real power to make things happen in spite of all resistance. This is the kind of power that the Holy Spirit grants to us, to be witnesses to Christ’s power everywhere.
When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, he called together a group of investors to witness what happens when fire ignites a stick. That explosion witnessed to the power of his invention. When we become submissive and filled with His power, we become God’s dynamite. Blowing up the cultural barriers between Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Think of the impact that the Spirit can have in our community! As we learn to be submissive to God in our walk, actions, and feelings, then the Spirit ignites us, not just in specific ministries but wherever we go. We can really make an impact. We don’t have to know what or how to do it, we only have to know that the Holy Spirit is working and shining through us.
Christ called us to walk in the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has not changed. God’s power has not changed. It is God’s people who have changed. God has not failed us, but we no longer submit to Him, so He cannot do miracles through us.  When we submit, we become witnesses of His power.