Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent, Day 1: Threads of Hope

Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace.For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected.Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!”

There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:25-37)
I never cease to be amazed at God's way of weaving together the different threads of my Bible studies, ministry preparation, Bible reading, devotionals, and even my pastor's sermons. It's as though He has a kingdom calendar and determines that these different threads will coalesce into something logical on a day that makes perfect sense. Today was one of those amazing days.

It's the first Sunday of Advent. I've been eager for this season of focus and anticipation. I've grown to love the practice of being intentional about keeping Jesus at the forefront through a daily Advent calendar Scripture reading and the symbolic candles. This year God led me to add a reading plan from our local Christian radio station and a devotional/reading plan from YouVersion. In what I thought was an unrelated note, I started a Bible study 3 days ago on the fruit of the Spirit. Today, as I worked through the devotional, these threads all came together for me around the focus of today's symbolic candle, hope.

The first week of Advent emphasizes Waiting. Advent remembers the waiting on the Messiah's first coming and reminds us to be ready and waiting for His second coming. In the years leading up to the first coming, two precious individuals waited on the Messiah. Simeon and Anna remind me of two dear saints in the Lord from my own family, my Pawpaw and my mother-in-law Jeanne. Both are with the Lord now, but if I can think of two people who reflect the intimacy with God we see in Simeon and Anna, it would be those two.

Think about it. What intimacy with God must have preceded Simeon's proclamation that Jesus was God's salvation, a light for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel? Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit was upon him and actually directed him to go into the temple at the moment that he did. I don't know what Simeon was like, but I am so overly analytical that I often talk myself out of times the Holy Spirit might redirect my steps. "Is this a distraction or a divine appointment?" is a question I often ask myself. I think it's a legitimate question, and I don't want to overspiritualize Simeon by assuming he was so saintly that he never wondered such things. What I do see is a man who had walked with the Lord long enough to go in the direction of the Spirit - and as He always does, the Spirit led Him right to Jesus' feet.

And what about Anna? What depth of relationship must this widow have had to become one of the earliest witnesses to the first coming? I see in Anna a woman who poured every bit of her loneliness into worship - and was rewarded beyond measure when the Messiah was born.

The first step to experiencing Jesus more is being in His presence. I must pursue Him intently, giving up what needs to be laid down and taking up only what is permeated with His presence. I may not always feel incredibly spiritual. Sometimes, the waiting on fruitfulness might seem endless. But it will never be pointless. Like Simeon and Anna, one day all the threads of hope will come together.

This first day of Advent, may you find your hope in Him, even when you don't know how long the waiting will last. The Holy Spirit will reveal Him to you. That's His job - to point to Jesus.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Where [there is] no vision, the people perish (Prov. 29:18a, KJV)

I've just visited a website of a church with a vision to be intentionally multi-ethnic. Just before that, I browsed a new site for a ministry designed to guide believers into connecting globally through  groups focusing on a specific social justice issue. On my Facebook feed, I keep up with the number of rescues daily for a trafficking rescue group. At one point I was on no fewer than 7 daily prayer point lists -- all with unique visions and emphases. I truly value vision.

But over the course of my time as a Christian I've probably fallen off the horse on every possible side on this issue. I look back and see times I've been:
  • The apathetic Christian - focusing on myself and my own relationship with God without seeing the spiritual or physical needs of the world in which He placed me.
  • The overly-distracted Christian - attempting to give equal attention to every vision and feeling condemned for not feeling more passionate about things.  
  • The irritatingly-focused Christian - thinking my vision was seemingly ultimate and trying to convince everyone else it should be their vision too.

What I'm learning is that as with anything else, there is a Biblical balance to be found when talking about vision. What God has increasingly convicted me of is that what I perceive as "my" vision (or calling, or whatever word you use) - or even His vision for me - must always remain secondary to His big-picture purpose, and His "vision" as revealed in His word. Other translations of the well-known Proverb use the word "revelation" instead of "vision" and that helps me keep my own "vision" in perspective -- it's always secondary to His revelation as given in His Word.

Please don't think I'm diminishing the importance of vision. I love the visionaries in my life and a single-minded focus on a God-given task is critical in the work of the kingdom - without it we would have no completed Bible translations, to give just one example. The challenge comes when the single-minded focus turns myopic and we begin to view the focus as ultimate, rather than seeing it as one of many links in a chain far too complex for us to understand this side of heaven. That's why one of my all-time favorite missions quotes is this one from John Piper, which reminds me that even though the Bible exudes missions on every page, even that God-ordained vision is secondary to a greater purpose:

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Mission exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. (From Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions)

My paraphrase of that - my vision is not the ultimate goal of my life. Worship is. If I ever find myself pushing my cause of the month or minimizing certain ministries in my own mind, I need to stop and get on my face before God. Because He is doing something bigger than I could ever imagine, and it requires children's teachers and church kitchen ministries and water bottle distributions and food pantries and rescue missions and Bible translators and frontier missionaries and ... you get the picture. If it's based in truth and focused on His glory, it doesn't matter whose name is on it or whether it fits "my" vision. The disciples learned this one directly from the mouth of our Lord:
Mark 9:38-41 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me.For whoever is not against us is for us. For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name will never lose his reward.

I think there is much to be learned from losing ourselves in someone else's ministry. In recent weeks I've read of a missionary wife who left a country she loved so her husband could take a position for which he was uniquely gifted. After struggling to find "her ministry" she sensed God calling her to help others with their visions - just make herself useful in a variety of ways. Another couple is praying for a young woman who is in the process of giving up to a year to come to their remote tribal village and just be helpful with the children so the missionary wife can learn the language. In fact, if you read the New Testament there are a lot more Priscillas and Aquilas and Epaphratases and Onesimuses (helpers) than there are Pauls and Timothys (front line missionaries). Some missions strategists say that for every missionary on the field there should be a dozen "helpers" - not all on the field, some at home doing practical things like keeping up mission houses and cars that can be used on furloughs, managing financial accounts, sending mailings, posting new updates at church, and a thousand other tasks.

Have you been trying to find where you fit in this whole missions thing?  Giving is a great place to start, prayer is essential, not optional -- but when it comes to action, maybe God has a servant's role for you. Maybe He wants you to be on someone's team or to serve the larger cause of missions in some way. Examine your gifts and those things that stir your heart. Talk to your pastor or missions leader at church. Pray for open doors. And sit back and watch what happens when you commit to being a part of God's vision as revealed in His word - taking the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, nation, and people group.
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev. 7:9, NIV)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Paralyzed Body

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it.
-1 Corinthians 12:21-26 (NET)

Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.
- Hebrews 13:3 (NASB)

Part of the body of Christ is suffering tonight. Throughout the world, there are Christians facing different types of persecution. From limitations on freedoms to imprisonment to outright murder, there are plenty of areas of the world where the body is suffering and ill-treated.

The challenge for us in the West is how to respond to persecution. Do we ignore it, as so many do, hiding the reality under appealing layers of "winners-circle" theology - implying that those who suffer must not measure up in some way? Or, having become aware of the reality and condemned by our own relative ease, do we instead glorify the persecuted church - thinking that persecution must bring nothing but good?

Most evangelical churches today have at least some awareness of the persecuted church. As I've surveyed reactions in discussions about persecution, I've found at least 5 myths that are important to debunk in order to truly find a balanced Biblical approach to the persecuted church. If you see your mindset reflected in these myths don't feel bad - I've thought every one of these true at one point or another.

Myth 1: "Real" persecution is always because of evangelism and involves physical harm. The reality is that political, cultural, national, economic, moral, and personal motives merge to create a confusing blend of reasons for persecution. Persecution is best viewed on a continuum from dislike, social pressure, political policy, to arrest, torture, and possible martyrdom. It can be broadly defined as any suffering that would not occur apart from a radical commitment to Christ - a radical commitment that attracts an intentional pursuit of the Christian in a spiritual war.

Myth 2: Persecution is always good for the church. While persecution does have a purifying effect, it has also wiped out entire Christian populations, leaving no Gospel witness (such as in Japan in the 15th century). Intense, prolonged persecution can cause a church to turn inward in a fight for survival rather than outward to reach the world. Persecution can bring questions of apostasy and disunity as well. From the earliest days of the church, persecution brought opportunities for both spiritual growth and spiritual warfare. Churches in the Roman Empire were bitterly divided over whether to accept back into the fold those who had betrayed the Lord Jesus at the point of a sword - a battle that still rages in some parts of the world today.

The early church experienced long periods of peace punctuated by intense regional persecution. This allowed the church to gain strength and recover its missionary zeal, rather than merely focusing on survival. Additionally, not every area was under intense persecution at the same time, allowing some parts of the body to support, provide for, and encourage those parts being persecuted. THIS is the persecution that purified and drew the worldwide body of believers closer together.

Turning inward is also happening in the Middle East, where it can be hard in some countries for a new Muslim-Background Believer to find a pastor who will baptize him. Typically, Christians practice their faith with other Christians whose families have historically been believers. This is usually allowed - but the conversions are what "stir the pot". It doesn't help hat pastors have been burned by "false converts". Hence, increasing numbers of MBB's meet with each other raher than in unity with families who are historically Christian (for more, read Brother Andrew's books Light Force and Secret Believers). Open Doors fears the church in the Middle East is in danger of disappearing, as increasing numbers of Muslim Background Believers are fleeing to the West. It is not always wrong to flee - Paul's example includes both times of fleeing and times of staying. What is concerning is the rate at which many MBB's are fleeing.

Myth 3: God reserves persecution for spiritually elite believers. The reality is that the New Testament clearly teaches that persecution is associated with living a Christ-centered life. Rather than suffering being the exception, it is a part of normal Christian living; in fact, only 3 books in the New Testament do not deal with persecution. The idea that persecution is in some way a consequence for a lesser faith OR that it is reserved for those with superior faith is clearly unbiblical.

Myth 4: Persecution is the world's reaction to the church on a human level. Persecution is NOT of this world. It is part of spiritual warfare - the intentional pursuit against the unbeliever. This theme runs throughout the New Testament. Revelation particularly has been called a "martyrological document", with persecution setting the tone for the entire book. Brother Andrew, who ministers to the church in the Middle East, answered God's call from Rev. 3:2: "Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God." He has said, "World evangelism means spiritual warfare. When we enter into spiritual warfare, we begin to understand why whole areas of thew orld are closed off from the preaching of the Gospel, why whole nations seem to be in the grip of the evil one, why there is persecution."

Myth 5: We should not pray for persecution to end. While it's true that some persecuted believers don't ask us to pray for persecution to end but instead to pray for faithfulness and perseverance, others ARE asking us to pray for an end to the extreme persecution that is killing their witness by placing them in "survival mode". Praying for protection from evil is Biblical:
  • "Deliver us from evil" (or "the evil one") - Matthew 6:13
  • "Finally brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not all have faith." (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2)
We can and should pray for deliverance for those in chains for the Gospel, for those in severe persecution, for healing of those parts of the body of Christ that are suffering. I think of it this way: If I have a headache, or even a broken arm, I can probably work though my effectiveness might be hampered a bit. However, if I have open wounds that never heal, two untreated broken legs, and paralysis in my spine, I'm going to be completely focused on my suffering. That's what extreme persecution is like - and that's why we should pray for deliverance so the "word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored".

So - what should we in the West do in light of the persecution that is being faced by believers throughout the world. Scripture points us toward several responses:
  • Identify. First and foremost, the Scriptures above show us the importance of identifying. In different ways, both passages call us not to a spiritualized response but an intensely personal one. Until we begin to see the impact the persecution is having on the global body of Christ, we will not fully give ourselves to other efforts.
  • Pray. Throughout the New Testament - in the passages noted in point number 5, as well as many of Paul's letters - the Apostle noted the difference that prayer made in his ministry circumstances. Yes, God is sovereign - but He has ordained prayer as a means of making a difference in the earthly realm. And yes, the ultimate victory is spiritual - but He wants to make a significant impact in our circumstances as well.
  • Encourage. Hebrews is a book written to encourage believers in a persecuted situation to stay the course, keep the faith, and stay together. Those messages remain relevant today. If you have the opportunity to talk to someone from a country where Christianity is the minority religion, just assume they need words of encouragement. It doesn't matter if you don't know what to say; the author of Hebrews has given us some great words. Read the book and let the Holy Spirit remind your friend of these age-old truths.
  • Advocate. The entire Bible was written while Christianity was still a minority faith, but I believe the example and teachings of Paul demonstrates another way that Christians in non-persecuted areas can help persecuted believers - advocacy. Paul's team collected offerings in parts of the Empire to take back to the most-persecuted believers in Jerusalem. Paul advocated for himself based on his Roman citizenship and right to a trial. While we must clearly understand our weapons are not of this world and this is a spiritual battle, I believe we are remiss if we ignore the opportunity to advocate. "Honor the king" Paul said - and in a democracy, the people are in one sense the king, the final authority of the land (under God, of course). We can contact our elected officials to put pressure on other countries to honor the "freedom of religion" clauses in their constitutions. We can keep the names of those imprisoned before our leaders (Voice of the Martyrs will send you emails with specific names of prisoners and links to email your officials.) We can also be informed about global issues such as the current attempt to rally support against the "Defamation of Religion" resolution before the United Nations.
  • Remember - and love. Most of all, the persecuted church needs to be remembered (the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is Sunday, Nov. 14, but they need to be remembered all the time). They will be victorious - Scripture makes it clear - but the need to know that they are not cut off from the body of Christ. Ask God to give you an overwhelming love for His body, including the persecuted church. Then follow that love wherever it leads - to the ends of the earth.

"And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for their loved not their lives unto death." - Rev. 12:11