Thursday, December 28, 2006

From Swagger To Stagger

The Pittsburg Steelers bulldozed their way through opponents into a National Football League SuperBowl championship last year.

This year, they didn't even make the playoffs.

The Indianapolis Colts team won 13 straight NFL regular-season games last year, seemingly with ease, then collapsed against the mediocre San Diego Chargers. The Colts started off the 2006 season with 9 straight wins, exhibiting more flashes of greatness.

Yet now, their hopes for a bye before the playoffs start depend on at least one other team.

After winning two Masters Tournaments and a PGA Championship, Phil Mickelson made such an egregious error on the final hole of the 2006 U.S. Open that he groaned "I can't believe I did that. I am such an idiot!"

Not exactly the sort of statement one would want to hang his legacy on.

From the defeat of the NBA's Lakers at the hands of the Detroit Pistons to the knockout of Mike Tyson by a then-unknown Buster Douglas, the sports world is replete with such tales of catastrophic cave-ins.

What is it that causes such devastating crash-and-burn by some of the greatest men and women in their respective fields?

The same thing that causes preachers to stumble: we forget how we got here.

After winning the 1999 PGA Championship, Tiger Woods then won six of the next ten PGA majors, establishing himself as one of the greatest in the sport. He fired his swing coach, Butch Harmon, and promptly went into a downward spiral, not winning a major for almost a three-year drought. It wasn’t Harmon that was playing the game, true...but it was Harmon who coached Tiger to the #1 spot in the game.

Many preachers fail not because they are tempted to sin, but because they forget their beginnings. We are cautious enough---and well-rehearsed enough---to quickly state "I give God all the glory" when someone makes a kind remark about our ministry. Yet the harsh reality is that we all tend to dip our hand in the till from time to time.

God bestows upon His servants honor from time to time; scripture even states "Give honor to whom it is due". There is quite a difference, however, in allowing God to honor us (however He chooses) and attempting to share in His Glory. God flatly states, "My glory will I not give to another."

Notice that scripture states in Rom. 12:3 that "...every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly..." This does not mean we are to grovel as abject failures. It does point out, however, that we are to keep things in proper perspective. We should be proud to be called to serve God, but always mindful that, except for His grace, we would be as hopelessly lost as the wretch clutching a wine bottle in the gutter.

The short walk from swaggering to staggering begins when we forget how we got to where we are, regardless of where that may be in our personal life or ministry. Some have been allowed to reach lofty heights of recognition, yet they still maintain an humble spirit. Others, strangely enough, may find themselves wallowing in obscurity, unknown to anyone but their own community, yet God is unable to promote them to greater ministry, because they feel they've reached these accomplishments (however small they may be) all on their own merit.

Certainly there are few (if any!) that would negate the necessity of prayer and study, of keeping in touch with God. However, there seems to be a trend to lean on the feeble crutch of technology, a reliance on reading extracurricular materials, rather than a total dependence upon God and His Word. Let us never forget that time spent with God is how we began this journey into ministry!

I was once moved in the Spirit to scribble in the margin of my bible these words: "No man is so strong as the one who is helplessly dependent on God." The apostle Paul was a man who had everything to brag about, yet his attitude was "I count all things but dung, that I may win Christ." In spite of all he had to proffer his hearers---a rich Hebrew heritage, Pharisee credentials, and even "third-heaven" spiritual revelations---Paul never forget his Damascus experience.

Have I forgotten mine?

Oh to be so consumed with "winning Christ" that nothing else matters! Yet I fear that failure will not be the enemy to destroy our preachers nearly so much as success will.

It is but a short journey from confidence to collapse. If we ever forget that it is God who brought us to this point, we will discover that our swagger dissolves with lightning speed into the pathetic stagger of a helpless cripple with nothing to offer.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sometimes You Serve; Sometimes You Just Sit

Sometimes you serve God; other times you just sit.

It would seem that the "sitting" part is easy; after all, we all need a little break from the tedium of serving sometimes. Even the work of the Lord can become monotonous and draining at times. This applies to both pastors and evangelists; neither office is a prelude to glamor or a life of ease.

Someone once wrote a song that states "Serving God is beautiful" and it's true that being a servant of God is a wonderful privilege. But let's face it: sometimes serving becomes less than glamorous, and we long for a respite. We're human, and as humans, there's a part of us that is still self-serving, that still wants to do our own thing. Sometimes, we just want a break!

So why is sitting so difficult?

In Luke 10:38-42, we read where Martha served while Mary sat. And Jesus, when pressed by Martha to send Mary into the kitchen to help, replied that "one thing is needful..." indicating that sitting is more important than serving.

So why is sitting so difficult?

I believe it's because we are people of action, and inactivity makes us nervous. There are those who have mastered the art of waiting patiently. (Indeed, some have taken it to extreme levels of "do-nothing" disguised as "waiting on God".) Yet for some, sitting can be more distressing than the drain of servitude.

I have found myself in a time of "sitting" more times than I would like. I'm in such a season even now, and the frustration of doing what appears to be nothing has been difficult to deal with. I am a person of action. If I were a football player, I'd play offense; defensive strategies---just try and keep the other guy from scoring---aren't my style. I want to be a part of what's happening! And now, to think that I am merely letting the world go by, watching the Church experience the greatest time of apostolic revival and growth without being a part of it, is almost maddening.

Isaiah tells us, in the oft-quoted verse, that "...they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength..." The secret, however, is not merely in the waiting. I believe the whole purpose of these times of sitting, instead of serving, is found in the previously mentioned story of Mary & Martha:

Luke 10:39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. (KJV)

The Message words it like this: [Martha] had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said.
Mary was not seated at Jesus' feet simply because she didn't want to help Martha; she was not attempting to escape the call of the kitchen by finding a place in the circle gathered around the Master. Instead, she was captivated by His voice, listening to what He taught His disciples and those around Him.

Perhaps in this time of "waiting on the Lord", this period of sitting, I should listen to what He's saying. Instead of chafing at my own inactivity, I should use this opportunity as a chance to hear His voice.

There are times that we voluntarily disengage from the burden of ministry, and those times are needed. (Jesus Himself taught the value of withdrawing from the multitudes for a season of personal refreshing and reviving.) There are other times when God, for reasons known only to Him, may call us from servitude into sitting.

I don't believe, however, that God ever calls us to sit as a form of punishment, a spiritual "time-out", if you please.

Rather, it is in these times that the greatest opportunity for personal growth and maturity in the Spirit can occur, because it is during these seasons of sitting that, if we allow ourselves, we can find a place at His feet, and hear what He's trying to teach us.

Monday, December 18, 2006

When The Majestic Becomes Mundane

There's an old saying that refers to "making a mountain out of a molehill"; that is, turning something trivial or insignificant into something massive, even insurmountable.

How long does it take to make a molehill out of a mountain?

Several years ago, my wife and I visited Grand Junction, Colorado on a ministry-related trip. While we were there, the host pastor took us up into the Colorado National Monument, which was practically in his back yard. A mere five-minute drive and we were in some of the most impressive, awe-inspiring terrain that one can experience in North America.

We ascended the road up the side of the mountain, until at last we sat at the pinnacle of the Monument, overlooking the valley below us. The rugged terrain, the canyon walls, the whispering of the cool breeze was almost more than my mind could take in; I sat in awe and watched as a golden eagle glided past at eye level. The overall presence, the sense of majesty was incredible...judging by these feeble words I write, it was truly beyond description.

The pastor sat humming quietly, looking over his calendar, taking care of some routine paperwork. He commented once or twice but his overall demeanor was one of detached boredom.

How long does it take for the majestic to become mundane?

This is not a potshot at one particular person; this is an observation of human nature. Undoubtedly the breath-taking autumn colors of New England become commonplace, the lofty grandeur of the Rockies becomes a snow-covered nuisance, the stark beauty of Arches National Park is reduced to just "a bunch of rocks", to those who have spent their lives surrounded by these breathtaking wonders.

The sights and wonders that I see on my calendars, and long to partake of in reality, are ordinary fixtures to others who live in such environments on a daily basis.

When did the majestic become mundane?

This thought came to me one morning in prayer. I was having what I considered "good prayer"...the kind that makes you feel good about yourself, about what you're doing; makes you feel like you've spent time with the Lord. It was obviously more than just a morning ritual to let God know that I had shown up for roll call. Things were happening in my spirit, I felt the Holy Ghost...the power, the adrenaline rush, the ecstasy that comes with knowing that you're involved in "one-on-one" with God Himself.

God Himself.

And that's when it hit me.

I sit here trying to describe the shock and terror of such a realization, but words fail me.

I was in the presence of the Almighty. The very One who spoke all things into existence, the King of Kings was there in my closet of prayer...and I was patting myself on the back, feeling good about spending time with Him.

How had I come to such a familiarity with the Eternal God? Undoubtedly it happened the same way the splendor of the Colorado National Monument became just another overlook to my pastor friend. He had access to it anytime; it was but a short drive from his home, and he had been there for many years.

I've no doubt that, when he and his family first arrived, they spent many evenings up on the peak of that landscape, sitting in similar awe at the beauty of God's creation, watching the eagles glide effortlessly past. Likewise, I can imagine that those who relocate from the 100-degree summers of Texas to the frigid winters of Wyoming probably revel in the glorious pristine beauty of the first few snows.

I was born and raised in Texas, where "autumn" falls on a weekend between miserable humid summers and gray slushy winters. The few years my family and I spent in Missouri, the brilliance of the autumn colors was breathtaking, and many spring evenings were spent just driving the back roads of the countryside, enjoying the fresh scents of the season of new life. It was all new and amazing to me.

Have I become so familiar with God that He is no longer amazing to me? Has His majesty become dulled to me because I am considered His son? Have I, in my daily talks with Him, forgotten that this is the very God of all Creation to whom I am speaking?

We have, at times, praised Queen Vashti for refusing to come before the audience of King Ahasuerus, calling it a "cheapening experience". Whether the King desired some sort of vulgar strip-tease or whether he simply desired to show off her beauty we may not know. We do know one thing: the Queen's familiarity with the King ultimately caused her own demise. She became so comfortable in her role as Queen that she forgot that Ahasuerus was still His Majesty the King.

Esther, on the other hand, recognized her place. Although clearly loved by the king, Esther approached the throne as any other commoner: with fear and trepidation. She understood that, if the sceptre was not extended, granting her an audience with the king, even the life of the queen was expendable.

There is a danger of becoming too familiar with the Presence of God that we lose our awe and reverence of Him. Even sitting here writing this, I have wept and repented for losing what has been, in times past, a fear and trembling at His Glory and majesty.

He is God, and I---to use the words of the Psalmist---"am a worm, and no man." Even David, a man after God's own heart, said "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" David committed gross error on more than one occasion, but you would be hard-pressed to find where he ever lost his sense of awe and fear of the Almighty.

I understand that God does not expect me to wallow in fear and terror every time I come to talk with Him; however, I should beware, lest I risk becoming presumptuous and forget my place at His feet.

May we never lose our fear and reverence for the God who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. May we never make a molehill out a mountain.

God forbid that the Majesty of His Glory should ever become mundane.

Friday, December 15, 2006

There's no tree...

I bought a candle yesterday while out Christmas shopping. (For obvious reasons, I will refrain from using the actual name of the manufacturer, but it was obviously a well-known brand..from up north.) I was actually shopping for other family members, but they had these new fragrances, and my wife and I are partial to this particular brand anyway, so I picked up a candle for our home, as well.

"Sparkling Pine" the scent is called. It's absolutely wonderful, and even more so here during the Christmas season when the home is supposed to be filled with the fragrance of a Christmas tree. This is not the first time we've used a candle to fill the home with this sweet aroma; last year we used a different label---that fragrance was simply entitled "Christmas Tree"---but the result was the same: it filled our home with the aroma of a freshly cut tree.

I brought the candle home, and about a hour before my wife arrived home from work, I lit the wick, set it up on the mantle, and let it burn. When my wife walked in, the first thing she did was sniff deeply and comment about the fragrance.

It smells like Christmas in our house now.

We've never had a tree. But it smells like Christmas.

I woke at 5:15 this morning thinking about the candle. It wasn't burning. I couldn't smell it. I wasn't thinking the house might be on fire.

I was thinking instead about how some folks try to replace the genuine with something that looks, smells, sounds like the real thing. But there's no tree.

We can light this candle, turn on the Christmas music, even have the wreath over the mantle, the holly placed strategically throughout the house for decoration...we even have the gifts. But the one thing that's missing is the tree.

(There are those among us who frown on the pagan tradition of Christmas trees. I've never had a problem with them, and the closest I'll come to "bowing down before it" is rooting around looking for presents with my name on them. If that's a sin, pray for me.)

I'm much more concerned with folks who try to replace their Christian experience with something that might look similar, sound similar, feel similar...but there's no Tree involved. There's no Calvary. There's no cross. There's no sacrifice.

Christianity without the cross? It's very popular these days. It looks the same, sounds the same, feels pretty close (actually it doesn't, but you can't convince some folks of that) but it doesn't require the Tree.

It doesn't require the bloody mess of Jesus' broken, dying body, racked with pain, being literally slammed against the harsh splinters of his Roman cross with every breath He inhales and exhales. The crucifixion was beyond words in its horrific cruelty, yet some have tried to paint a beautiful glowing picture of a gentle soul, eyes rolled heavenward, a trickle of blood from his wrists and feet.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus was almost unrecognizable as a human being by the time He drew His last breath. I have heard preachers criticized because they went into graphic detail concerning the last moments of Jesus' life on the cross, but alas, my dear friend...there is no pretty way to describe the death throes of Calvary.

Likewise, there is no easy way to describe the cross that each of us are required to carry to be His disciple. As someone recently stated, "Salvation is free, but discipleship has a cost."

We cannot have Christianity without a tree involved. It doesn't matter what it may look like, sound like, feel like. We're not dealing with a fake Christmas scent here, designed to make the house smell like the holidays without the mess of pine needles strewn on the floor. Christianity can be messy, demanding, exacting a toll on each of its followers, and there is no substitution for the tree. Jesus Himself said, "If any man will be my disciple, let him come, take up his cross daily and follow me."

Is it any wonder that so many are trying to be Christians without the cross? It's a hard price to pay, and, just as in those days, so today many refuse to walk with Him when it becomes obvious that it cannot be done without the Tree.

In the fourteen years I've been married, my wife and I have never had a Christmas tree in our home. It's not that we don't want one; we've just never had a place to put one. So, we've found alternate methods of bringing the Christmas spirit into our home: the fragrance can be bottled up and marketed in a candle.

But there's no tree.

When it comes to Christianity, many have the fragrance, the decor, the lights, the sounds...even the Gifts.

But if there's no Tree, it's not the real thing.