Mash-up: Famous Last Words, Lent, Prayer & Fasting

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , | Posted On Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 12:28 PM

Last Sunday I began a new series, "Famous Last Words" (listen to it by clicking here), looking at Jesus' last words or statements from the cross. A person's last words often carry great significance, and this was certainly true in Jesus' case. His seven statements tell us so much about Jesus, but they also tell us a great deal about those of us who choose to follow him.

As I ended the message on Sunday, I issued a challenge to all of us to spend time each week leading up to Easter praying and fasting. I suggested that we each pray and fast about three things:

  1. My own spiritual journey and spiritual growth
  2. My church, Gateway Community Church, and the mission God has given us, and, particularly, the mission He has given me as a part of this church
  3. The last words/statements of Christ from the cross, focusing each week on the statement preached on the preceding Sunday and the ways it impacts my life

Here are the statements, in the order we will be addressing them (with the first one discussed this past Sunday):

  •  “‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:34)
  • “‘I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23:43)
  •  “‘Dear woman, here is your son.’” “‘Here is your mother.’” (John 19:26, 27)
  • “‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)
  • “‘I am thirsty.’” (John 19:28)
  • “‘Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!’” (Luke 23:46)
  •  “‘It is finished!’” (John 19:30)

These statements impact us not only as Jesus speaks them to us, but also as we, his followers, live them out in our lives for the sake of others. A follower or disciple doesn't just observe their leader/follower, they follow or imitate or put into practice what he or she teaches. We're not much of a follower if we don't follow!

I mentioned a set time frame for this period of fasting and prayer - the weeks leading up to Easter. Historically, in the Christian Church, this period has been called Lent. Some of us may be very familiar with the season of Lent, but it may be new for others, and still others may have only bits and pieces of understanding about Lent. 

As one writer defined it, "Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God." (Upper Room). Those who practice Lent typically use it as a time to reflect on their own lives and seek God's help to draw closer to Him. It is a period of 40 days leading up to the Saturday before Easter. Interestingly, it does not include the Sundays during this period - it only counts Monday through Saturday as the days. This is because Sunday is considered a mini-Easter, a day to celebrate Christ's resurrection, and so is not a day to deny one's self.

The period of 40 days typically refers to the period of time in which Jesus, after his baptism by John the Baptist, headed out into the wilderness. It was for him a period of praying and fasting, and during this time he was tempted by Satan. (Matthew 4:1-11In the early church, in those first centuries after Christ's life and death, it became a time to prepare new converts to be baptized.

The word Lent, like the word Bible, is not actually found in the Bible. Originally, the word Lent (Anglo-Saxon - lencten) was the English name for spring, the season between winter and summer. It was awkward to talk about the church observance of Lent and the season of lent with the same word, so eventually the English began using the word spring for that season, and kept the word Lent to denote the period of preparation leading up to Easter.

The day that begins Lent always falls on a Wednesday (as you count back the forty days, less the Sundays, from the Saturday before Easter), and is called Ash Wednesday. Some churches and traditions anoint one's head with ashes on this day. Ashes in Jewish and Christian history were typically a sign of mortality (when our bodies die they decompose to dust/ash/etc.) and repentance (in biblical times, a sign of remorse was to put ashes on one's head and wear "sackcloth," scratchy clothing that reminds one that sin is uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of one's spirit). It was a way of confessing sin and seeking God's forgiveness. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, occurs the day before Ash Wednesday. It was a day of food and parties as people who were about to enter Lent did not want to be tempted by sweets and meat in their home - so, they cleaned out their cabinets and had a party. It has evolved into something more in more recent times.

Gateway has a brochure on our website on Prayer and Fasting, that gives you more insight into these spiritual disciplines, and the practice of them together. It explains that there are many different kinds of fasts - not just food - so it's worth reading to see where God is leading you in your part for Lent.

As always, the reason we do any of this is to lead us to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke his last words from the cross, and they are significant for every Christ follower. I hope you join me during this season leading to Easter - Lent - in prayer and fasting to more fully "put on Christ."

Psalm 27

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , | Posted On Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 11:25 AM

This may seem like an usual blog post, but as I read this Psalm today, I just felt drawn to it and it's encouragement and promises. Yet, the more I read it, trying to think about what I would write about it, the more I sensed that I shouldn't write anything - just let God's Word speak for itself. So here it is - Psalm 27, from the New Living Translation. See what God wants to say to you today!

Psalm 27 - A psalm of David

1The LORD is my light and my salvation— 
so why should I be afraid? 
The LORD is my fortress, protecting me from danger, 
so why should I tremble? 
2When evil people come to devour me, 
when my enemies and foes attack me, 
they will stumble and fall. 
3Though a mighty army surrounds me, 
my heart will not be afraid. 
Even if I am attacked, 
I will remain confident.

4The one thing I ask of the LORD 
  the thing I seek most— 
is to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, 
delighting in the LORD’s perfections 
and meditating in his Temple. 
5For he will conceal me there when troubles come; 
he will hide me in his sanctuary. 
He will place me out of reach on a high rock. 
6Then I will hold my head high 
above my enemies who surround me. 
At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy, 
singing and praising the LORD with music.

7Hear me as I pray, O LORD. 
Be merciful and answer me! 
8My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.” 
And my heart responds, “LORD, I am coming.” 
9Do not turn your back on me. 
Do not reject your servant in anger. 
You have always been my helper. 
Don’t leave me now; don’t abandon me, 
O God of my salvation! 
10Even if my father and mother abandon me, 
the LORD will hold me close. 

11Teach me how to live, O LORD. 
Lead me along the right path, 
for my enemies are waiting for me. 
12Do not let me fall into their hands. 
For they accuse me of things I’ve never done; 
with every breath they threaten me with violence. 
13Yet I am confident I will see the LORD’s goodness 
while I am here in the land of the living. 

14Wait patiently for the LORD. 
Be brave and courageous. 
Yes, wait patiently for the LORD. 

Membership at Gateway - Something Different

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Friday, February 10, 2012 at 11:49 AM

February is Membership Awareness Month at Gateway, when we invite our members to reaffirm their membership. We also offer Discovering Gateway the last two Sundays of this month as our membership class for those who want to explore what it means to be a member here.

We've been clear over the last few years that membership at Gateway is about more than joining an organization to get your name on a roll somewhere. Membership is the intentional decision to partner with Gateway on your journey of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.

I had those thoughts in the back of my mind as I have been reading passages from Leviticus the last several days as part of our Life Journal Bible reading plan. Honestly, Leviticus has not typically been my favorite book of the Bible to read, but this year God seems to be opening me to all kinds of new insights as I'm reading. He's been challenging me to go deeper and learn more about what He's saying here. And one passage stands out to me:
"'For I am the LORD your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy....'" (Leviticus 11:44 NLT)
The word "consecrate" is translated in some versions as "sanctify." Regardless of the word, the Hebrew word behind it means that we are set ourselves apart, with the idea being that we are setting ourselves apart for faithfulness and obedience to God. The word "holy" carries much the same meaning - to be "different" or "separate."

The Hebrews understood God to be holy, "wholly other," present and active in all of life but not the same as all that is around us. This was in contrast to many religions of that time that embraced what we would call Pantheism, that God is all that we see. In other words, God and creation are inseparable - God is in all things and a part of all things. They are inseparable. Much of New Age and Eastern thought has pantheistic elements to it.

Hebrew/Christian thought understands God to have created all things, to be active in every part of life and living, but God is still "wholly other," different, apart, from His creation, including you and me. Our "religious" goal is not to affirm the god within us (for we do not believe there is a spark of God in all people), or reunite with the cosmos or universe. We are created in God's image, and when we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, his Spirit comes to live within us, but we are not God or a god.

This is a deeper topic than I can unpack in a few paragraphs, but it's implications for the Christ follower and for the Member of Gateway are profound. God calls you and me, who have committed our lives to following Jesus, to be holy. He invites all to be holy, but holiness is not the product of our hard work or effort. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, to help us become more and more like Jesus and, likewise, to become more and more like the human beings God created us to be in the beginning (Genesis 1-2) where we experienced open, unhindered relationship with God all the time. Yet, being holy really is very different from the way the world around us lives. And it does require our cooperation.

God is the ultimate definition of holy because God is totally and completely different from anything else in all of creation. The Sabbath is called holy because it is to be a different day from the other six days of the week. The Temple was holy because it was different from all other buildings and used for special and unique purposes. And we are called to be holy, unlike anything and anyone else around us. The goal is not to fit in and be a part of the crowd. 

The early Christians understood that their lives were to be different and separate from the lives of others around them. In fact, they were so different that they were dismissed by others or even attacked and sometimes even martyred for their differentness, their holiness. We, on the other hand, afraid of being ostracized, of being left out, of not being a part of the crowd or even the "in-crowd," find it all too easy to try to be like the world around us. We adopt the standards and practices of those around us because we do not want to seem too radical or different

Kids battle it in school all the time, as they feel the pressure to fit in and conform or be left out. But adults battle it no less, though it doesn't seem as obvious when we are in the midst of trying to fit in. I know I battle it when I feel the desire to do things for which people will like me. We give in to office or neighborhood gossip; we prefer to get even when we have been wronged, versus offering forgiveness and seeking reconciliation; instead of loving God and people and using things, we love things and use God and people. In fact, we will even argue that if we are too different, no one will hear or see our message. But there's a difference between being in the world and being of the world, and our calling is to be in it but not of it. (See John 15:19, John 17:13-19, James 1:27, 1 John 2:15, James 4:4)

Membership at Gateway is the decision to partner with Gateway to become more and more like Jesus, and that means becoming more and more different from the world around us (holy). It's not that the world, God's creation, is inherently evil and to be avoided at all costs. It's not a call to retreat into Christian enclaves and hide out. It is to be who we are, where we are, and allow our differences to be seen. It's choosing to let God use us to influence our world, rather than letting our world influence us. Being different will sometimes bring ridicule, but more often it will bring curiosity. I remember looking at committed Christ followers before I had fully committed my life to Christ and wondering what it was that they had that I didn't. I was curious and eventually sought them out to learn more, and I eventually discovered I wanted that difference in my life, too, regardless of the cost.

Being different or holy doesn't mean adopting Amish practices or being weird for weird's sake. It's choosing to be salt and light in our world. It's choosing to adopt practices and life patterns that don't always fit the world's agenda, but we have come to understand their importance in helping us be in the world but not of the world. 

Leviticus says being holy is important for the people of God; so important, in fact, that they ordered their whole lives around practices and beliefs that distinguished them from every other people or nation. Membership at Gateway means to value the journey of becoming more and more like Jesus, and your partnership with Gateway is an intentional choice on your part to seek this. Quite frankly, it's the decision to be intentional about being holy with others, regardless of what the world around us thinks or expects. 

It doesn't mean Gateway is responsible for your journey - you are! But Gateway will partner with you, offer you opportunities to seek Christ and help you and me understand what that looks like. It offers you a community of faith to travel with in the pursuit of this goal. After all, God's teachings in Leviticus were spoken not to individuals but to the whole family of God. And the early church never saw itself as lone rangers but as people of faith walking together, living alongside each other, seeking to be holy even as God is holy, by the power of God's Holy Spirit.

Membership at Gateway isn't even about what's in it for me, but how can I join in what God is doing in through this church to help me on my journey to be salt and light, to be in the world but not of it, to be holy even as God is holy. It is to be different, for the sake of God and His Kingdom!

Worship Matters

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , | Posted On Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 10:33 AM

A man woke up one Sunday morning and just lay in bed. His wife encouraged him to get up. It was time to get ready to go to church, but he continued lying there. He complained, "I'm tired. I want to sleep in. Everybody else does - why can't I?" His wife looked at him and told him, "It's Sunday, and we're going to church. Being tired is no excuse. Staying away because others do is no excuse. And're the pastor and you have to be there!"

Yes, I've felt that way a time or two, and probably just about every pastor and even dedicated Christ follower has, too. In my early years in the ministry I met a retired pastor who was quite "colorful". There were so many stories about him. He was never afraid to speak his mind, and he did it quite bluntly at times. 

One Sunday evening, when Sunday evening services were still quite common, his wife walked into the living room to find him sitting in his recliner, in his pajamas, watching television. The front door was open, so that anyone could see in through the screen door and see him sitting there. Let me add that their home, a parsonage provided by the church for their pastor, was located right next door to the church. So, his wife was concerned that as church members walked by the parsonage to the church they would see their pastor lazily sitting there in front of the television in his pajamas. She encouraged him to get up and get ready to lead the evening's worship service, but he refused to get up. Finally, he said, loud enough for anyone outside to hear, "Only a handful of our folks come to the evening service, so I decided to stay home tonight and see what the attraction is!" I've heard this story enough times, including from him, to believe that not only did it happen, but he meant it!

Worship seems to have become a very personal activity, subject to our feelings and whims. It's easy to decide not to attend a weekly worship service because we don't feel like it. And everything about our culture encourages that consumer approach to worship. If it's not convenient, if it doesn't meet all my needs, if I have other things I need to do, if it goes a few minutes long, then I think I'll pass. But there's a danger to this understanding.

From Genesis to Revelation we see a pattern of God's people coming together to offer Him praise and thanksgiving (and I don't mean just the one day a year holiday). The word "worship" comes from an old English word that essentially means to assign worth to another - worthship! Jesus tells us to worship in spirit and truth. Nothing in all these understandings begins with what I am feeling or whether it's convenient or not. Worship is an act of offering up a sense of worth to my God. It is a choice to affirm He is worthy of worship, in spite of what the world around us says or how I'm feeling today. Worship is first and foremost about God rather than about me! True worship is not about what I get out of it but what I put into it!

So, we make the choice to come to worship not because we have to or even because it's our tradition. We make the choice to worship because God is worthy of our worship, and I choose to worship Him. We make the choice to worship because as human beings, we were created with the need to recognize Someone beyond ourselves - God Himself, as definitively revealed in Jesus Christ. 

Yet, the reality of sin in our lives corrupts this desire to worship God into worshipping not Someone but someone(s) or something(s) else. All too often this isn't God, or at least not God exclusively. That's why God proclaimed that we are to have no other gods but Him, and we are not to worship idols (First and Second Commandments, Exodus 20:3-6). 

We take on the characteristics of that which we worship. And since we were created in the image of God, it is His characteristics we were created to take on. But the enemy from the very beginning (Genesis 3) has attempted to corrupt us by encouraging us to put something other God first in our lives; by assigning value and worth to another thing or being or idea rather than the Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Of course, worship isn't limited to something we can or should do only once a week in a worship service with other followers of Christ. In fact, worship should become a part of our lifestyle, of living in the constant awareness and awe of God and often throughout our day in informal or quiet ways offering Him praise and gratitude. 

The practice of the early church was to gather together on the first day of the week - in remembrance of that first Easter when Jesus rose from the grave - to offer God thanks and praise for all He had done, is doing and will do. There is power when the body of Christ unites together with the purpose of worshipping God together. It's an outward and visible act of assigning worth to God, of reminding ourselves what and Who ultimately matters, and it's something we're called to do in spite of our feelings or even our convenience. 

In fact, worship can and should fly into the face of any consumer orientation that life and faith are all about me. Only life that begins in God, that loves God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loves our neighbors as ourselves is a life rightly ordered. Anything else harkens back to the serpent's first temptation and lie - to try to be like God or replace God with something or someone else.

Over the years I've heard the oft-repeated statement that we can worship just as well on the golf course or out on the boat as a justification for not attending corporate worship. And it's certainly true to a degree - we can worship on the golf course or out on the boat. The question, though, is - do we? And is this a replacement for corporate worship? A life of worship means we should worship in those places, but we should also choose to be a part of the body of Christ's regular corporate worship, too. 

"And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near." Heb. 10:25 NLT

I love the story about the elderly gentleman who showed up to church every week and sat on the front row. Over the years his hearing had almost completely failed. It required almost shouting into his ear for him to hear anything, and he certainly could not hear the message or the singing around him in worship. Finally, one day a young man asked him why he kept coming to church when he couldn't hear, and the wise old gentleman replied, "Because I want to show everyone Whose side I'm on!"

Worship shows Whose side we're on. It's an act of the will to offer worth to God, even when we don't feel like it. Sometimes it penetrates our souls and raises us to heavenly heights, and sometimes we may feel little. But that's not ultimately the point! It's not about me - it's about God!

The Reality of Unintentional Sins

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 11:39 AM

I admit that reading in Leviticus isn't always at the top of my list. Leviticus and Numbers, the third and fourth books of the Bible, can seem long, repetitive and even irrelevant. But what I have discovered is that sometimes we have to pull back from the details of a particular passage to see the big picture and the accumulated weight of all that is being said.

That's what helped me this morning as I was reading my Life Journal readings of Leviticus 4-6. The sub-headings in my Bible title sections with things like, "Procedures for the Sin Offering" and "Sins Requiring a Sin Offering." Who wants to read about sins and the incredible amount of detail spelled out for these offerings, often repeated multiple times?

But then I back up and look at the bigger picture, and several things come into focus. First, these procedures for sin offerings all revolve around unintentional sins: "'If any of the common people sin by violating one of the LORD's commands, but they don't realize it, they are still guilty.'" (Leviticus 4:27) 

Think about that for a moment. We often think of a sin as intentionally doing something that goes against God's laws. But here God tells us we can sin unintentionally, but it is still a sin. It still hurts our relationship with Him, and it often hurts others and/or ourselves. Ignorance doesn't diminish the effects.

If we understand this and take it seriously, one of our prayers needs to be, "God, show me where I have sinned and did not even realize it." That's not necessarily a fun prayer, but if we're serious about our spiritual journey, this passage shows us this needs to be a part of our prayer life. We need to become aware of our unintentional sins, in order to be forgiven, but more importantly, so we can discern how to stop doing them.

The second thing I notice in this section is that the value of the offering for someone who sins unintentionally becomes higher the more prominent their leadership is in the community of faith. The high priests sacrifice for an unintentional sin is a young bull with no defects (4:4). The sacrifice for the a sin by the entire community of faith is also a young bull (4:13). The sacrifice for one of Israel's leaders is a male goat with no defects (4:23). The sacrifice for the "common people" is a female goat with no defects or a female sheep with no defects (4:28, 32).  However, if a person cannot afford a goat or sheep, two turtledoves or two young pigeons can be substituted (5:7), or if even that is too much, two quarts of choice flour (5:11) can be offered as sacrifices.

There is always a cost for redemption, and generally, it is the blood of a sacrifice. But the varying levels of sacrifice also recognize that because a high priest has so much greater visible leadership, his sin, though perhaps not seeming any worse than any others, affects more people and the witness of the faith. An Israelite leader's sin affects more people. 

In God's eyes, sin is sin, but the effects of sin vary depending not just on the sin itself, but also on the position of leadership or authority one holds in the community of faith. I remember hearing leadership guru John Maxwell say that the higher we go in leadership in the Christian community and the church, the fewer options we have. Our witness is more visible, and our failures affect more people, even when they are unintentional. So, we have to be more careful, for the sake of our witness to Jesus Christ. The Bible shows that leaders are held to a higher standard.

Finally, I see in this passage that not only must we seek to discover our sins and seek forgiveness for them, but we need to make restitution where possible, plus some more. Leviticus 5:16 (NLT): "'You must make restitution for the sacred property you have harmed by paying for the loss, plus an additional 20 percent.'" (also 6:4-5)

Where we have cost another something through our sins, even unintentionally, it's not enough to seek forgiveness. God calls us to offer restitution above and beyond the loss that another suffered because of our sin. Just covering the cost of what was lost doesn't recognize that our sin created other problems for that person, including just having to deal with all this in the first place.

When I zoom out to look at the big picture in this section, it becomes very clear to me that God wants us to often examine our lives for unintentional sins. Even when we didn't mean for it to happen, there is a cost, and we have to pay it. Perhaps the extra restitution is enough of a penalty to encourage us to be proactive in seeking to identify unintentional sins and avoiding them. God takes sin very seriously, because ultimately it brings death and destruction. Even unintentional sins.