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IT IS TIME TO DENY OURSELVES

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“And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23)

Have you ever heard anyone in the Church give an altar call or invitation to church membership based on Luke 9:23?

“If you want to be forgiven of your sins and have everlasting life, put your trust in Jesus, who died on a cross for you, by denying yourself, taking up your cross daily, and following Him.”
“If you want to become a member of 1st Denominational Church, we would love to have you. Simply deny yourself like we have, take up your cross daily like we do, and join us in following Jesus.”

The answer to both questions is, of course, “No”. In fact, most Christians today have never even heard a sermon on Luke 9:23 because your pastors know it asks more from you than you seem willing to give.

The Bible sets forth the mission of the Church, not a congregational visioning committee, and that mission is to make disciples. (Matthew 28:19-20) We want altar calls and membership drives to be easy. Becoming a disciple of Jesus does not sound easy.

To be a disciple of the One who died on the cross for us, we must bear our own cross and come after Him. (Luke 14:27) If we do not take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are not worthy of Him. (Matthew 10:38) And Luke 9:23 teaches we will not be able to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus until we deny ourselves.

What is a disciple? Jesus said a disciple must be taught to obey all that He has commanded. (Matthew 28:20) This is much more than bible study. A disciple of Jesus must both have and keep His commandments because that is what “followers” do. (John 14:21)

Jesus also said a disciple is not above his or her Master but must be fully trained to become like their Master. (Luke 6:40) This is a reminder we are to serve Him as Lord, not the other way around. It is also exactly what Paul was talking about in Philippians 2 when he said our mindset should be like Jesus, who gave no regard to His status in heaven as the Son of God, but obediently humbled Himself and bore His cross to Golgotha.

So, how do we take up our own cross? We embrace and carry out the daily service to God and others the Lord assigns to us. These are good works our Eternal Father prepared for us as new creations in Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10) They are part of the blessed hope and future He has for us, and while our service will at times be sacrificial, the only part of you and me that will have to die is our selfishness. (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 12:1)

How do we follow Jesus? The Greek word Luke uses for “follow” is “akoloutheo”, which means “follow” or “accompany”. “Accompany” is really the better translation because while we seek to follow the teachings of Jesus set forth in scripture, we have far more than just a book. Jesus said He would be with us always. (Matthew 28:20) If we let Him, He will abide in us through the Holy Spirit and lead us through life from within. (John 15:4-7; Romans 8:14) When we are “yoked” to Him in this way, our burden is easy and light because He who is in us is greater than anything we face in this world. (Matthew 11:28-30; 1 John 4:4)

Finally, how do we deny ourselves? The Greek word Luke uses for “deny” is “arneomai”, which means to “deny”, “disregard” or “refuse to follow”. The first essential step in becoming a disciple of Jesus is my decision to stop leading my own life and let Him lead. Let Him decide what is best for me, not me. Let Him, and not me, set both the daily and long-term agendas for my life.

Can we be brutally honest? Christianity in America is dominated by “lovers of self” rather than lovers of God. (2 Timothy 3:1-4) It is being assured you “got saved”, finding the worship music and fellowship you enjoy and the tech-driven programs your kids like, or hearing an encouraging message about what God has done and can do for you. What service some of us do render is generally only a small portion of our day.

As a result, the Church in America has for generations demonstrated a shallow appearance of godliness but no real power to transform lives or communities. (2 Timothy 3:5)

Jesus wants disciples. America needs disciples. It is time to deny ourselves. How? Simply learn enough about the Lord and about yourself to realize you can trust Him to plan and lead your life much more than you can trust you. (Proverbs 3:5-8)

God bless you, and God bless our community.

THE CHURCH IN AMERICA MUST REPENT AND PRAY

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“[I]f my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

The Church in America needs to wake up and smell the coffee! Our nation desperately needs healing, and this healing cannot come from our bitterly divided political institutions, our equally divisive news media, or our science and technology. Only the Lord can heal our land.

A video-recorded act of racially motivated police brutality on May 25 has caused a tragic death and both peaceful protests and destructive rioting in many of our cities, large and small. Do you think this is the last incident of emotionally charged injustice we will see nationally broadcast over social media?

A deadly pestilence called COVID-19 struck us several months ago and is still here. Over 100,000 people have died so far, many of them elderly and in isolation from their families, and we do not yet have a vaccine. Most of us may recover from the severe economic downturn, but many will not, and we have added trillions of dollars to an already excessive national debt. Given the mutability of these viruses and the recklessness of biochemical research in some nations, do we think this is the last deadly pestilence we will see? And when we use all or most of our “water” to put out the first “fire”, where will we find the water to put out the next one?

Our preoccupation with these two terrible problems can cause us to forget all of the other serious issues we were facing when these two arose, including immigration, drugs, pornography, unaffordable healthcare, sexism, pollution, radical political ideologies, radical gender definitions, and the fate of unborn children.

American Christianity has, like the Laodicean church, let the Internet, cell phones, sports, television, computer games, and our tickets to heaven lull most of us into thinking we are “still the greatest nation on earth” when in fact, we are riddled with sin and social sickness. (Revelation 3:14-19) But there is hope!

God can heal our land. If we pray, He can answer our prayers. But 2 Chronicles 7:14, much like the Lord’s Prayer, makes it clear our prayers will not be effective until certain conditions are met.

Condition #1 – The prayers to God must come from “His people”, the people called by His name. God wants to hear from Christians – His children who call Him “Father”. We are His chosen race and holy nation, assigned to witness and minister to this nation as His house of prayer and royal priesthood. (1 Peter 2:9; Isaiah 56:7) Yet our black churches and white evangelical churches, both bible-believing, are viewed today more as voting blocs than as servants of their King. We must remember who we are!

Condition #2 – We must shed our self-centeredness and humble ourselves before the Lord. We must remember who He is! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the fear of public opinion. (Proverbs 9:10) He is the Creator and Judge of the universe: all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful, all-present, all-loving, all-good and all-faithful. He has said He will heal our land if we do what He asks.

Condition #3 – We must repent of our wicked and compromising ways! Just as one example among many, racism is a deep, dark sin that violates both God’s revelation that all people are created in His image and God’s command that we love everyone He loves. Yet for centuries, the Church was part of the racism problem. Now we must be proactively part of the solution.
Our lack of agape love as the Church is a sin with more examples than I can list here, but I will ask how many times we have bypassed an inner-city area to avoid seeing, let along helping, the people who are hopelessly bound there in abject poverty. (Luke 10:25-37) Those people are many of our rioters today.

Condition #4 – We must seek God’s face, which means more than just seeking His blessing. (Psalm 24, 27) We seek what He wants, not what we want, so we can pray in His name and pray His will. (John 14:13-14; 1 John 5:14-15)

God hates racism. God hates injustice. He commands us to respect and pray for those in authority, including those in law enforcement: a hard and important job. But I believe God holds those who enforce and oversee the law to an even higher standard in obeying the laws they are called to uphold. (James 3:1)

God hates lawlessness, which includes riots and, ironically, sanctuary cities. (2 Corinthians 6:14)

In all we pray and do, we must hate what God hates just as we must love everyone God loves. (Amos 5:15)

Church, it is time to repent and pray!

God bless you, and God bless our community.

THE LORD WILL WALK WITH YOU AND TALK WITH YOU

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“Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” (Genesis 5:24)

I am so grateful for the daily spiritual messages being provided by the Kingsport Times-News in these difficult Covid-19 days. We need God’s hope and direction.

It is very encouraging to know that our need for social distancing does not apply to our relationship with the Lord. In that spirit, I offer this article I wrote about a decade ago.

We are told at Colossians 3:16 the word of God can dwell in us richly as we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Unfortunately, we often sing the truth better than we live it.

Consider these lines from “He Lives”, the great Easter hymn: “Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.”

Then consider this verse from “In the Garden”: “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own.”

Now ask yourself – how frequently during this last week was I consciously aware of my Lord’s presence with me? How many times did I hear Him speak to me? How often was my heart touched with the wondrous truth I am His beloved?

More and more Christians are awakening to the fact Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. But for almost all of us, the day-to-day experience of that relationship remains elusive.

We have our moments of prayer when we talk to God. We have those times when good things happen and we thank Him for His blessings. Some experience His presence in congregational praise and worship, and most are stirred at least occasionally by a sunrise or a baby’s smile.

At the other end of life’s spectrum, walking through the dark valleys, we reach out to God because we need strength, comfort or hope. Those of us who never turned to God before will do so when we have nowhere else to turn. And He is always faithful to respond even if it is not in the way we might choose.

But what I am talking about, and what those hymns are talking about, is so much more than just an awareness of God at the high and low points of life. Walking with God is about a life in constant companionship and partnership with God. It is a life continually aware of God’s incredible love for you, profound purpose for you and powerful presence with you.

Just imagine what such a life would be like! Attitudes, thought patterns and behaviors would improve dramatically. God’s wisdom and assurance would always be right there for you. Depression, loneliness and fear would have no place to latch on. And your ongoing awareness of His love would make it much easier for you to love God back, and to love everyone He loves.

Well, friends, the “Good News” is this life of loving companionship and partnership with God is exactly what He wants for each of us. Most churches are not teaching it, but Jesus Christ prayed we would walk in “oneness” with Him just like He walked the earth in oneness with the Father. (John 17) He promised to be with us always (Matthew 28:20). Through the Holy Spirit, He is faithful to that promise. (John 16:12-15) He lives in us and we live in Him. (John 15)

Even the Old Testament reveals God’s desire that we walk with Him. (Micah 6:8) And a guy named Enoch, six generations out from Adam, did just that. Enoch’s trusting companionship with God pleased God so much He didn’t let death touch Enoch. (Hebrews 11:5)

If Enoch can walk with God, how much more empowered are we to walk with God, having received Christ as Lord and God’s Holy Spirit within us?

Frankly, there is only one obstacle that stands between me and such a wondrous God-filled life – “me”. If I don’t believe I can receive it, I won’t. If I believe, but don’t seek it with my whole heart, I won’t find it. (Jeremiah 29:13)

King David, a man after God’s own heart, provides the key focus: “I have set the LORD always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” (Psalm 16:8) God is constantly aware of us. David resolved to be constantly aware of Him.

Let’s resolve together to discipline our daily lives against the distractions the world throws at us. Like Brother Lawrence’s great devotional book written centuries ago, we should be “Practicing the Presence of God” all the time.

As you and I learn to set the Lord constantly before us, He will walk with us and talk with us. We will bask in His love. Spiritually awakened, we will be empowered to awaken others. More than our lives will change. The church will change, and this world will change.

God bless you, and God bless our community.

WE ARE WEAK BUT GOD IS STRONG

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[As we press through this COVID-19 pandemic, our first order of business must be to urge continued prayers for those in our nation and throughout the world who are sick; for those who have lost loved ones; for the courageous & compassionate medical and support personnel “on the front lines”; for the scientists seeking to discover vaccines and therapies; and for the government leaders tasked with leading us in the right direction.
Having said that, there are lessons to be learned in this valley.]

“But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

“Just A Closer Walk With Thee” is one of the great hymns of faith, combining a wonderful tune with life-empowering biblical truth.

Under normal circumstances, I would focus on my favorite topic – the refrain’s invitation that we live out our faith daily in an ever-more-intimate relationship with the Lord. But we are not living in normal circumstances. This is Easter weekend, and we are living under the cloud of COVID-19. My focus today is on the opening verse: “I am weak, but Thou are strong”.

Mankind is weak. This pandemic is a revelation of the fragility of man and our institutions and plans. A new variant of an already familiar coronavirus has temporarily overwhelmed the abilities of our 21st Century medical and scientific organizations. Millions of people have or will be infected. It is tragically probable that hundreds of thousands will die. Economies worldwide have come to a standstill, and all our nation’s job and stock market growth over the last three years disappeared in a matter of days.

Now is the time to recognize there are other new diseases with higher infection and mortality rates than COVID-19 that can plague us in the future. Our neighbors in Nashville were recently struck by a powerful tornado, reminding us there are also devastating natural disasters that can occur anywhere at any time and turn our lives upside down: tornado outbreaks, solar flares. hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunami’s greater than anything we have experienced before.

Isaiah describes us as grass in the field. (Isaiah 40:6-8) James calls us a mist that appears for a short time and disappears. (James 4:13-15) On an individual basis, we never know when cancer might show up in a loved one, or when a red-light-running SUV might broadside our family sedan. Jesus spoke of the rich man who planned to solve all his problems by building bigger barns to hold his harvests, only to die before he could enjoy the first bite. (Luke 12:16-31)

Just as blades of grass remain frail when they become a lawn, so too mankind remains weak as a nation or group of nations. Scripture declares it and human history confirms it. (Genesis 3:17-19; Psalm 2; Job 40-41; 1 Corinthians 1:25-31; Hebrews 12:26-29) No empire of man has stood the test of time, and none ever will. Apart from God, we can do nothing of value. (John 15:5)

This leads to the second part of our verse: God is strong.

Frankly, my friends, everyone who believes in a god believes God is strong. The real issue is whether we can tap into His strength and be helped in the ways we need. And the irony captured in our hymn is that to experience the second part of our verse, we must first learn the first part of the verse. To fully access the power of God, we must first fully embrace the reality that we are weak!

No one states this more plainly than Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. No one demonstrated it more gloriously than Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself to the ultimate state of human weakness in the crucifixion and was then raised up by the power of God to the most exalted place in heaven and earth. (Philippians 2:1-11)

The secularists of America and the world put all their trust in human ability: science, technology, money and “princes”. (Psalm 118:5-9). Excepting the issue of life after death and situations where there is nowhere else to turn, many who profess Christian faith do likewise. (2 Timothy 3:1-9) This is ill-placed trust that leads to destruction. (Matthew 7:13-14)

On the other hand, those who know they are powerless receive the Kingdom. (Luke 6:20; Matthew 18:3) Those who humble themselves before the Lord are lifted up. (James 4:4-10) The surpassing power of God, able to do more that we can ask or imagine, is for those who know they are jars of clay. (2 Corinthians 4:6-7; Ephesians 3:20-21)

Christ is Risen! God bless us all.

CHRISTIANS ARE RESPONSIBLE TO GOD, CHURCH & NEIGHBOR

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“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15)

My column last month was about love – the most important and most discussed topic in Christianity. This month we address a related topic that, while almost as important, is rarely mentioned. This column is about responsibility.

Like you, I am a huge fan of God’s unconditional love. (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8) We are all included, don’t have to earn it and can’t lose it, praise the Lord!

And like you, I am an eager recipient of God’s gift of salvation by grace and not works. (Ephesians 2:8-9) How could I ever do enough good to offset the many bad things I have done? Even if that was possible, how could I ever earn something as glorious as everlasting life? (Revelation 21)

The tragic truth, however, is that the Church’s imbalanced over-emphasis on what we cannot do has led to both de-emphasis and disinterest in what Christians are supposed to do. Like the children of indulgent parents, we take God’s love and grace for granted, believing we are entitled to reward without responsibility. But that is not what the Bible says!

First, as to the foundational issue of salvation, we are saved not by grace alone, but by grace through faith. (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is tied to repentance – a change of mind, heart and life direction. (Matthew 3: 2, 8; Acts 2:37-42) While not saved by good works, we are saved “for” good works. (Ephesians 2:10) And those good works are the evidence you have saving faith and not just an “inactive and ineffective and worthless” mental acknowledgment that God and Jesus exist. (James 2:14-26 AMP; Romans 2:1-8)

Simply put, we cannot have the Lamb without the Lord. If we want to be with the Lord in heaven, we must let Him be Lord of our life here as well. (Matthew 7:21, 25:14-30, 28:18)
This leads to the second and core issue – our responsibilities to this Lord. Jesus has clearly declared that we are responsible to serve God, Church and neighbor. (John 13:1-17; Philippians 2:1-13; Ephesians 5:25-27)

We are responsible to serve God. (Psalm 100:2) Loving God is the Great Commandment, not the great option, and we love God by our trusting obedience. (Mark 12:28-30; John 14:211-24) Jesus often taught through parables about “Master” and “servant”. In today’s self-centered culture, we would all particularly benefit from reading the parable at Luke 17:7-10 on who is supposed to be serving whom.

We are responsible to serve our neighbor. Love of neighbor is the second part of the Great Commandment, and again, not an option. (Mark 12:31) It applies to both friend and foe, and is to be expressed at home, work, and elsewhere with actions, not just lip service. (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 10:25-37; 1 John 3:18) How well we meet this responsibility will play a significant role in determining whether we are classified as a “sheep” or a “goat”. (Matthew 25:31-46)

We are responsible to serve the Church, or more specifically, serve God and others through the Church.

For centuries, our problem was church attendance without ministry participation, leaving that to the so-called clergy. Now many consider even church connection and attendance entirely optional, with most churches either slowly dying or scrambling to say, sing and offer whatever programs will keep people in their pews. This is not how Christ builds His Church. (Matthew 16:18)

Despite her many past and present dysfunctions, the Church is the one Body of Christ. (Ephesians 2:22-23, 4:1-6) Every Christian is a member of His Body, with diverse spiritual gifts and ministry responsibilities that are to be honored, equipped and expressed, each of us doing our part and all of us doing it together. (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12)
We are to help fix the Church, not desert her. When we all start embracing our responsibilities to the Church, we will finally see what God’s royal priesthood and household of prayer can accomplish. (1 Peter 2:9; Mark 11:17)

Responsibility is about what we can do, not what we cannot do. It is also about accountability. The apostle Paul says we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive what is due for what we have done on this earth, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

I cannot say for sure whether Paul is referring here to entrance into heaven, or treasures in heaven, or a simple (but not easy) time of review, reprimand and praise. (Matthew 6:20; Romans 14:12) I can only tell you what I want to hear when I stand before the throne.

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21) “Well done.”

God bless you, and God bless our community.

THEY’LL KNOW WE ARE CHRISTIANS BY OUR LOVE

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“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

The apostle Peter dictated his “First Letter” from Rome near the end of his thirty-plus years of ministry, reaching out to fellow Christians of diverse backgrounds and cultures throughout the nations of Asia Minor. His primary purpose was to encourage and instruct them on how to stand together in difficult times.

The First Letter of Peter is, therefore, a perfect letter of encouragement and instruction for Christians of diverse backgrounds and cultures in America today. I urge you to read and reflect on the whole letter. There is only room here to make some key points.

First, Peter tells us to focus not on our worldly identity but on our new, born-again identity as children of God destined to everlasting life. (1 Peter 1:3-5, 13, 23-25, 4:13, 5:10; Philippians 3:7-11). We are “temporary residents” of this broken world (2:11). Our perspective, which determines what we deem important, must be based on our permanent home. (Matthew 6:19-34)

This eternal perspective helps us endure and redeem temporary times of struggle and suffering. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18) It also impresses upon us the everlasting importance of leading others to Christ by the witness of our lives. (Acts 1:8)

Peter’s second instruction is that we live out our new identity by being “holy” in all our conduct. (1:13-16) Our daily behavior matters. (James 1:22-25)

“Holy” is in both Hebrew (qadash) and Greek (hagios) a word of consecration: separation from the world and its evil, and dedication to God and His goodness. Peter calls us to refrain from the easily identified sins of lust, malice, deceit, envy and the like (2:1, 11). He then adds affirmative obligations to be courteous and tenderhearted to everyone, blessing those who hurt or insult us and showing honor to those who disagree with our beliefs. (2:12, 17, 3:8-9; Matthew 5:38-48) Our lives become the witness Christ deserves.

Peter’s third instruction explains what happens when “holy” is applied to us collectively. We become “a holy nation”, “a chosen race”, and “a people for God’s own possession”. (2:9)

In our worldly identities, Christians are not a people. (2:10) We are divided by our races, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, generation gaps and gender, just like the people in Peter’s day – Bithynian or Cappadocian, “Jew or Greek”, “slave or free”, “male and female”. (1:1; Galatians 3:28) Even within the community of faith, we seek to divide ourselves by denomination or doctrine. (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

But Peter explains that we are God’s “living stones” – not bricks that all look alike, but stones wonderfully diverse in size, color and shape. (2:4) And God wants to fit us together, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, so we can be God’s spiritual home on earth. (2:5-7) As one spiritual house, one royal priesthood, and one brother-and-sisterhood, we give the rest of the world an opportunity to clearly see God’s goodness and glory. (2:9, 12, 15, 17)

Peter’s fourth and most important instruction describes the mortar that holds the living stones together. Christians are commanded by God to continually and earnestly love one another. (4:8)
God is love, so that is what His children must do. (1 John 4:7-21). The essence of holy conduct is love. (Matthew 22:35-40)

No one said it better than Jesus: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

We all fall short, both by sinning and being victims of the sins of others. (Romans 3:23) We all have character flaws, daily life struggles, and broken theology. But God’s love for us and our love for each other are more important and powerful than those shortcomings and will “cover” them so unbelievers who look at us can see God’s love, including His love for all of them. (John 17:22-23; Acts 2:42-47)

Please note this, fellow church leaders – Peter directs us to model what he has instructed, and never the opposite. (5:1-4) He also reminds us that our real enemy is the devil who seeks to devour us all, not the Nero of Peter’s time or any political figures of today. (2:13-17, 5:8-9; Ephesians 6:10-20)

A familiar song rose up in my heart as I prayerfully studied this First Letter of Peter. Imagine with me a 2020 parade of African American Christians, white evangelical Christians, Hispanic Catholic Christians, and diverse other bible-believing Christians, marching together arm in arm down Mainstreet USA while singing loudly from their depths of their hearts:

“We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord”. “We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand.” “We will work with each other; we will work side by side.” “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

God bless you, and God bless our community

I AM LEARNING THE SECRET OF GOD’S PEACE

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“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5b-7)

Since July 2006, I have written over 225 columns for the Kingsport Times-News. Although my efforts are far from perfect, I have always tried to be Spirit-led, biblically grounded, relevant and comprehensive. So, I was surprised when I discovered a few days ago that I had never written an article on the peace of God.

The first question I asked myself was, “Why?” The Lord is identified in scripture as the Prince of Peace, the Lord of peace and the God of peace. (Isaiah 9:6; Romans 15:33; 2 Thessalonians 3:16) God’s peace has never been a small or secondary issue, and it is a particularly important topic for these extraordinarily unpeaceful times in which we now live.

This led to my next questions: self-examination.

I am by nature a doer, a problem-solver, and an extroverted optimist. My perspective is that as Christians, we can individually and corporately become much more than we presently are – more intimate with God, more loving with others, more knowledgeable of God’s scriptural revelations, more mature, more prayerful, more fruitful, more like Jesus. “Press on toward the prize” is my motto. (Philippians 3:12-14) An abiding spiritual awakening is my goal. And no one frustrates me more than the Laodicean, “couch potato” Christians who think it is all up to God or that they have already arrived. (Revelation 3:14-18)

As a result, my perspective on the peace of God has been based on two biblical truths.

First, despite being a very flawed man, I have peace with God, forgiveness of sins and the free gift of eternal life through my faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1, 6:23; Colossians 1:20).

Second, I have the peace that comes from knowing all things are possible for God, and for those who believe. (Matthew 19:26; Mark 9:23) “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) Therefore, I have confidence not just that we ultimately win, but that we can win in our “here and now” circumstances if we will just tap into all that He has granted to us. (2 Peter 1:3-4; 1 John 4:4)

This type of peace has been fairly effective over the years in keeping me free from fear, worry and despair. It encourages me to out-persevere the devil both as to my own situations and the needs of others. But unfortunately, it is hardly ever content with the status quo, which means it often feels more restless than restful.

Biblical peace, called “shalom” in Hebrew, includes the concepts of peace, completeness, welfare, safety, health and wholeness. That sounds restful, not restless. Yet Jesus doesn’t just promise us this shalom peace at the end of our journey. He gives it to us now while we walk in this broken world and all its troubles. (John 16:33) He offers us peace on the battlefield and restfulness as we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. (Luke 9:23; Ephesians 6:10-20)

My conclusion: I had not been led to write about the peace of God during these last thirteen years because I didn’t know enough.

For the last three months, I have been disengaged from outside ministry and focused on walking with my beloved Christie and the Lord through the valley of pancreatic cancer. Doug the doer has been limited in what Doug can do. Doug the optimistic problem solver has watched the problems of Christie’s symptoms persist. And I am learning the secret of God’s peace. (Philippians 4:11-13)

I am learning that the peace Jesus Christ gives us is His peace, called the peace “of” Christ and the peace “of” God. (John 14:27; Colossians 3:15). This is a supernaturally imparted peace that truly surpasses my understanding of my circumstances, my understanding of world circumstances, and even my understanding of biblical truth.

This peace is not based on what I know but on what He knows, and on my trust in Him even when I don’t understand at all.

Because I find this peace “in Him”, I can disconnect from it when I forget to set my mind on Christ, His Spirit, His Word, His love and goodness. (John 15:4, 9-11, 16:33; Romans 8:6: Philippians 4:8-9) That still happens from time to time.

But every time I come back to Him, Jesus releases anew His shalom peace in me.

I will never be a Laodicean. I will always seek to take up my cross. I am learning that my cross and His yoke are the same thing, and that the peace of God makes it both easy and light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

God bless you, and God bless our community.

APPROACH THIS CHRISTMAS WITH A CHILDLIKE HEART

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“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”(John 1:10-13)

“Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16b-17)

Today I bring you “good tidings of great joy”. (Luke 2:10) You do not have to approach this Christmas season cynically preoccupied with the stark contrast between the spirit of Christmas and the present spirit of our nation.

You do not have to approach this Christmas with the debilitating stress of “too much to do” and “too much to buy”.

You do not have to approach this Christmas with an attitude jaded by incessant commercialism, the intrusiveness of semi-pagan rituals and myths like Santa Claus, or even the awareness we don’t really know the day of the year when Jesus Christ was born.

You can, if you choose, approach this Christmas with a childlike heart.

Read the scriptures that begin this column. We were given a child from God so we can become children of God, but we won’t truly receive the blessings of the child God gave to us until we begin to think, feel and behave like the children of God we have become. (Say what?)

It is not enough for me to simply say I am a child of God. To think, feel and behave like a child of God requires that I have a childlike attitude about my new and everlasting identity. I become, like every healthy child, someone who delights in my new life, eager to learn and do all the things I was previously unable to learn and do, and trustingly dependent on the ones who watch over me and love me beyond measure: my heavenly Father God; my eldest brother, Jesus Christ, the Savior King; and the Holy Spirit of the Lord, who conceived Jesus within Mary and now lives within me.

When I approach Christmas with a childlike heart, Christmas becomes my personal celebration of my Savior King’s birthday. I take joy in my salvation! (Psalm 51:12)
When I approach Christmas with a childlike heart, I take joy in the fact Jesus’ birthday is so special it is celebrated by both people who believe in Jesus Christ and people who don’t. I take joy in seeing the preparations for His birthday stretch through and beyond the whole month of December. I take joy in hearing over and over again that God loves the world and that His desire is peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

I take joy in the fact so many families come together for Christmas, despite being scattered the rest of the year, and in seeing how much love can flow as they share traditions, memories and the new things happening in their lives.

I take joy in watching how much happiness can come from the thoughtful giving and receiving of gifts. I take joy in singing and listening to beautiful songs. I take joy in the lights and greenery that brighten up an otherwise cold and barren winter. I particularly take joy in watching children laugh and play because it reminds me how much my heavenly Father desires for me to laugh and play.

When I approach Christmas with a childlike heart, the blinders come off and I no longer tune out or take for granted the things I have “become used to”. I look at the Christ child in the manger, surrounded by the poor and rich and angelic, and I see the billions of children in there with Him. We will follow the Christ child from those most humble surroundings into victory over the challenges of this broken world and a spectacular place of eternal glory.

My dear friends, “set your minds” to approach this Christmas with a childlike heart. (Colossians 3:2) Then you will truly have the “Merry Christmas” that Christie and I wish for you and our community.

GOD IS WITH US IN THE VALLEY

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“The Lord is my shepherd…. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (Psalm 23:1, 3b-5)

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

On the heels of the great news in Psalm 23 about green pastures, still waters and restored souls, God reveals that His paths of righteousness will on occasion take us through valleys of darkness and the shadow of death.

The Lord first showed me this truth at the onset of my ministry, but with rare exception, the valleys in which I have walked over the last twenty-five years have been valleys in the lives of others. Through prayer, counseling, prison ministry, volunteer chaplaincy, mediation, and healing & deliverance ministry, God has given me (and often my wife Christie and me as a team) the opportunity to help others in their dark times.

Sometimes God worked wonders in these situations, and sometimes our efforts did not seem to accomplish very much. But it has always been an honor to serve the Lord by trying to serve people so willing to share their vulnerabilities with us. And through it all, Christie and I were also blessed with experiences of God’s manifest Presence, loving family and friends, a beautiful home, adequate finances, and good health.

On October 15, doctors diagnosed my beloved Christie with pancreatic cancer. The tumor had already spread to her small colon and surrounded some blood vessels, making surgery a non-option, as least for now. From a strictly medical standpoint, this is not good news. Christie and I are now walking through our own valley of the shadow of death.

We are only thirty days into this valley, with much yet to discover, but we have already learned a few important things I can share here.

First, we have learned not only that we must walk by faith and not fear, but that we can walk by faith and not fear. (2 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Timothy 1:7)

The Greek word translated as “suffering” in Romans 5:3-4 is most frequently translated as “tribulation”: something Jesus said we would all face in this broken world. (John 16:33) The Greek word translated as “character” literally means “testing” or “proof”. Paul is explaining here something Jesus taught in the parable of the sower. We find out how deep and genuine our faith is – our true character – when it is tested by tribulation. (Matthew 13:21)

The faith Christie and I have in the love, goodness, power and trustworthiness of God is unshaken. We do not rejoice that Christie suffers symptoms from this cancer and the chemotherapy she has started, but we continue to rejoice in the Lord of our salvation. (Habakkuk 3:18) He did not cause the cancer, but He will work it for good because we love the Lord who first loved us, and we are called, chosen and anointed according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28; Colossians 3:12; 1 John 2:20, 4:19)

The second thing Christie and I have learned, not for the first time but with a significantly increased depth of understanding, is the most important thing we must all know when we walk through the valley. We are not walking alone. The Lord is here with us every step of the way!

God proved His love for the world not just by the incredible gift of Jesus but by the equally incredible gift of His Holy Spirit, who lives inside Christie, right there with that trespassing cancer. We strongly believe the Lord is leading us on a path of healing, but whether it is a path of healing or a path to heaven, our hope of glory is the awesome and everlasting reality of “Christ in her”. (Colossians 1:27) This hope will never disappoint us.

The table our Lord prepares for us in this valley is already covered with precious prayers and expressions of love by countless family members, friends, and people we don’t even know. Our two wonderful daughters, Jen and Jes, have been amazing! Because God is with us in the valley, our cup is being filled with fresh wine, and it will overflow.

Christie Tweed “approves this message”. God bless you, and God bless our community.

LET GOD RAISE THE CEILING OF YOUR HOPE

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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

[I first wrote of our need to raise the ceiling of our hope in 2006 – the year I first began writing articles for this wonderful newspaper. Thirteen years later, the importance of that message has only increased, so please receive this revised version of that article]

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul describes the three greatest spiritual gifts: faith, hope and love. Christians talk often of love and faith. God is love. The Great Commandment is love of God, neighbor and self. We are saved by grace through faith, and should walk by faith rather than sight. But where does hope fit in?

We don’t teach often on hope. Maybe we think all Christians are “hope-full” by definition. We look forward to eternal life. We believe our God is all-loving and all-powerful, and that all things are possible with Him. (Matthew 19:26)

But for virtually all the church in America, the symptoms I see reflect not hopefulness but a deep need for more hope. We live in extraordinarily difficult and divisive times. Meeting this need for more hope is crucial because the ceiling of our hope defines the ceiling of our effort. We will not reach or pray beyond what we have at least some hope for.

Even more important, Hebrews 11:1 tells us faith is the “substance of things hoped for”. So the ceiling of our hope defines the ceiling for our faith. Let me explain.

Hope comes from putting together two ingredients: expectation (what we think can happen) and desire (what we want to happen). If either ingredient is absent, there is no hope.

When we “expect the worst”, it is not hope because we don’t desire the “worst”. It is pessimism.

And when we have desires but lose all expectation that we can obtain them, we have hopelessness – shattered dreams.

Hope requires both desire and expectation. And faith develops as our hope and expectation of receiving our desires increases. We move from wishful thinking toward a level of assurance and, ultimately, God’s goal of “faith without doubt” (Matthew 21:21).

But this movement from hope to faith, while increasing our expectation, is still limited to the desires we were hoping for in the first place. Our faith does not reach higher than the hope it springs from, and our hope does not reach higher than the desires we have.

Proverbs 13:12 tells us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick….” All people experience this at one time or another. We wanted to be a sports star, wealthy, happily married w/ children until death we part, etc., but something else happened. If that something else was still ok, some can redirect their hope, but when everything continues to go wrong, many will despair and give up dreams altogether.

Most of us, however, don’t totally give up. Instead, we experience a heart sickness more subtle and difficult to diagnose – half-hope, the condition where we lower our desires and hope for far less than God wants to provide.

To understand “half-hope”, ask yourself these questions. Do you hope to experience God’s Presence each day in prayer or worship? Do you hope for a marriage that grows closer to God and each other every day? Do you persist with optimism in daily prayers of salvation and healing for lost and hurting loved ones? Do you minister in our community as the royal priesthood of believers with an expectation that things will significantly change, despite all adversity, for the better? (1 Peter 2:9)

For too many Christians, the answer to these questions is, “Not really”, despite the fact God’s Word has promised all those things to His people.

My friends, let God raise the ceiling of your hope! Pray to the God of Hope that by His Spirit, you will overflow with hope. (Romans 15:13) Faithfully study the Bible, individually and with others, so that its truths will help you desire the right things: His plan for your life rather than worldly plans, and treasures of heaven rather than treasures of earth (Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 6:20).

Most of all, embrace the “Hope of Glory” that is already yours as a child of God – “Christ in you! (Colossians 1:27). Jesus said we would do “greater works than these” (John 14:12) because we can do all things through Him. (Philippians 4:13).

The Lord is able and ready to do far more than we can ask or imagine! (Ephesians 3:20). As the ceiling of our hope rises, so will our faith, our service, our prayers and God’s answers to them.

God bless you, and God bless our community.