Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Exchanged Life

Recently, in a sermon, I shared this beautiful letter from the great missionary,  J. Hudson Taylor to his sister, Amelia, dated October 17, 1869.   It expresses the joy and depths of what it means to be one with Christ:

My own dear Sister—
So many thanks for your long, dear letter... I do not think you have written me such a letter since we have been in China. I know it is with you as with me—you cannot, not you will not. Mind and body will not bear more than a certain amount of strain, or do more than a certain amount of work. As to work, mine was never so plentiful, so responsible, or so difficult; but the weight and strain are all gone. The last month or more has been perhaps, the happiest of my life; and I long to tell you a little of what the Lord has done for my soul. I do not know how far I may be able to make myself intelligible about it, for there is nothing new or strange or wonderful—and yet, all is new! In a word, "Whereas once I was blind, now I see."
Perhaps I shall make myself more clear if I go back a little. Well, dearie, my mind has been greatly exercised for six or eight months past, feeling the need personally, and for our Mission, of more holiness, life, power in our souls. But personal need stood first and was the greatest. I felt the ingratitude, the danger, the sin of not living nearer to God. I prayed, agonised, fasted, strove, made resolutions, read the Word more diligently, sought more time for retirement and meditation—but all was without effect. Every day, almost every hour, the consciousness of sin oppressed me. I knew that if I could only abide in Christ all would be well, but I could not. I began the day with prayer, determined not to take my eye from Him for a moment; but pressure of duties, sometimes very trying, constant interruptions apt to be so wearing, often caused me to forget Him. Then one's nerves get so fretted in this climate that temptations to irritability, hard thoughts, and sometimes unkind words are all the more difficult to control. Each day brought its register of sin and failure, of lack of power. To will was indeed present with me, but how to perform I found not.
Then came the question, "Is there no rescue? Must it be thus to the end—constant conflict and, instead of victory, too often defeat?" How, too, could I preach with sincerity that to those who receive Jesus, "to them gave He power to become the sons of God" (i.e. God-like) when it was not so in my own experience? Instead of growing stronger, I seemed to be getting weaker and to have less power against sin; and no wonder, for faith and even hope were getting very low. I hated myself; I hated my sin; and yet I gained no strength against it. I felt I was a child of God: His Spirit in my heart would cry, in spite of all, "Abba, Father": but to rise to my privileges as a child, I was utterly powerless. I thought that holiness, practical holiness, was to be gradually attained by a diligent use of the means of grace. I felt that there was nothing I so much desired in this world, nothing I so much needed. But so far from in any measure attaining it, the more I pursued and strove after it, the more it eluded my grasp; till hope itself almost died out, and I began to think that, perhaps to make heaven the sweeter, God would not give it down here. I do not think I was striving to attain it in my own strength. I knew I was powerless. I told the Lord so, and asked Him to give me help and strength; and sometimes I almost believed He would keep and uphold me. But on looking back in the evening, alas! there was but sin and failure to confess and mourn before God.
I would not give you the impression that this was the daily experience of all those long, weary months. It was a too frequent state of soul; that toward which I was tending, and which almost ended in despair. And yet never did Christ seem more precious—a Saviour who could and would save such a sinner! ... And sometimes there were seasons not only of peace but of joy in the Lord. But they were transitory, and at best there was a sad lack of power. Oh, how good the Lord was in bringing this conflict to an end!
All the time I felt assured that there was in Christ all I needed, but the practical question was how to get it out. He was rich, truly, but I was poor; He strong, but I weak. I knew full well that there was in the root, the stem, abundant fatness; but how to get it into my puny little branch was the question. As gradually the light was dawning on me, I saw that faith was the only prerequisite, was the hand to lay hold on His fulness and make it my own. But I had not this faith. I strove for it, but it would not come; tried to exercise it, but in vain. Seeing more and more the wondrous supply of grace laid up in Jesus, the fulness of our precious Saviour—my helplessness and guilt seemed to increase. Sins committed appeared but as trifles compared with the sin of unbelief which was their cause, which could not or would not take God at His word, but rather made Him a liar! Unbelief was, I felt, the damning sin of the world—yet I indulged in it. I prayed for faith, but it came not. What was I to do?
When my agony of soul was at its height, a sentence in a letter from dear McCarthy [John McCarthy, in Hangchow] was used to remove the scales from my eyes, and the Spirit of God revealed the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before. McCarthy, who had been much exercised by the same sense of failure, but saw the light before I did, wrote (I quote from memory):
"But how to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One."
As I read I saw it all! "If we believe not, He abideth faithful." I looked to Jesus and saw (and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed!) that He had said, "I will never leave you." "Ah,there is rest!" I thought. "I have striven in vain to rest in Him. I'll strive no more. For has He not promised to abide with me—never to leave me, never to fail me?" And, dearie, He never will!
But this was not all He showed me, nor one half. As I thought of the Vine and the branches, what light the blessed Spirit poured direct into my soul! How great seemed my mistake in having wished to get the sap, the fulness out of Him. I saw not only that Jesus would never leave me, but that I was a member of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. The vine now I see, is not the root merely, but all—root, stem, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit: and Jesus is not only that: He is soil and sunshine, air and showers, and ten thousand times more than we have ever dreamed, wished for, or needed. Oh, the joy of seeing this truth! I do pray that the eyes of your understanding may be enlightened, that you may know and enjoy the riches freely given us in Christ.
Oh, my dear sister, it is a wonderful thing to be really one with a risen and exalted Saviour; to be a member of Christ! Think what it involves. Can Christ be rich and I poor? Can your right hand be rich and the left poor? or your head be well fed while your body starves? Again, think of its bearing on prayer. Could a bank clerk say to a customer, "It was only your hand wrote that cheque, not you," or, "I cannot pay this sum to your hand, but only to yourself"? No more can your prayers, or mine, be discredited if offered in the Name of Jesus (i.e. not in our own name, or for the sake of Jesus merely, but on the ground that we are His, His members) so long as we keep within the extent of Christ's credit—a tolerably wide limit! If we ask anything unscriptural or not in accordance with the will of God, Christ Himself could not do that; but, "If we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us, and...we know that we have the petitions that we desire of Him."
The sweetest part, if one may speak of one part being sweeter than another, is therest which full identification with Christ brings. I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realise this; for He, I know, is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest positions He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient. It little matters to my servant whether I send him to buy a few cash worth of things, or the most expensive articles. In either case he looks to me for the money, and brings me his purchases. So, if God place me in great perplexity, must He not give me much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources will be unequal to the emergency! And His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me. All this springs from the believer's oneness with Christ. And since Christ has thus dwelt in my heart by faith, how happy I have been! I wish I could tell you, instead of writing about it.
I am no better than before (may I not say, in a sense, I do not wish to be, nor am I striving to be); but I am dead and buried with Christ—aye, and risen too and ascended; and now Christ lives in me, and "the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me, and gave Himself for me." I now believeI am dead to sin. God reckons me so, and tells me to reckon myself so. He knows best. All my past experience may have shown that it was not so; but I dare not say it is not now, when He says it is. I feel and know that old things have passed away. I am as capable of sinning as ever, but Christ is realised as present as never before. He cannot sin; and He can keep me from sinning. I cannot say (I am sorry to have to confess it) that since I have seen this light I have not sinned; but I do feel there was no need to have done so. And further—walking more in the light, my conscience has been more tender; sin has been instantly seen, confessed, pardoned; and peace and joy (with humility) instantly restored: with one exception, when for several hours peace and joy did not return—from want, as I had to learn, of full confession, and from some attempt to justify self.
Faith, I now see, is " the substance of things hoped for," and not mere shadow. It is not less than sight, but more. Sight only shows the outward forms of things; faith gives the substance. You can rest on substance, feed on substance. Christ dwelling in the heart by faith (i.e. His Word of Promise credited) is power indeed, is life indeed. And Christ and sin will not dwell together; nor can we have His presence with love of the world, or carefulness about many things."
And now I must close. I have not said half I would, nor as I would had I more time. May God give you to lay hold on these blessed truths. Do not let us continue to say, ineffect, "Who shall ascend into heaven, that is to bring Christ down from above." In other words, do not let us consider Him as afar off, when God has made us one with Him, members of His very body. Nor should we look upon this experience, these truths, as for the few. They are the birthright of every child of God, and no one can dispense with them without dishonour to our Lord. The only power for deliverance from sin or for true service is CHRIST.
Your own affectionate brother,
J. Hudson Taylor

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

God's Blanket

Awakening to a beautiful blanket of snow this morning, I was reminded of these words from Edwin M. Johnson, legendary Northwoods poet:

God laid a blanket on the hills last night,
A quilt all fluffy, downy and white,
He tucked the edges round flowers asleep,
Warned the litte one burrowed down deep,
Not to awaken until the Spring,
When thrush and robin and bluebird sing.

Yes, God unfurled a blanket last night,
And He looked on earth and loved the sight,
The spruce and the flowers fell asleep with a nod,
I think they were thankful for the goodness of God.
When I saw how He tenderly cared for a tree,
I just knew He would care for you and me.

(This beautiful picture of the trail in winter woods was taken by my friend, Sue Bartz.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Seven Ways to Cultivate a Thankful Heart

Do you have a tank-full of thankful?  Here are seven ways to cultivate gratitude in your heart:

1)  Be grateful for what you have, rather than ungrateful for what you don’t have.

2)  Declare war on petty negativism.  (Most of our pet peeves are just petty.)

3)  Keep Jesus at the center and refuse to focus on garbage.

4)  Look for the blessing  (You might have to dig, but you will find it somewhere.)

5)  Quit comparing yourself with others.  (The only person you should compare yourself with is the person you used to be.

6)  Change the channel.  (Life's situations are being interpreted by two broadcasts in your mind --
Channel P -- the Postive Channel and Channel N -- the Negative Channel.  You possess the remote control.)

7)  Go out and bless somebody.  (When you make others happy, you make yourself happy.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alphabet Soup for the Soul

A lthough things are not perfect 
B ecause of trial or pain 
C ontinue in thanksgiving 
D o not begin to blame 
E ven when the times are hard 
F ierce winds are bound to blow 
G od is forever able 
H old on to what you know 
I magine life without His love 
oy would cease to be 
K eep thanking Him for all the things 
L ove imparts to thee 
M ove out of "Camp Complaining" 
N o weapon that is known 
O n earth can yield the power 
P raise can do alone 
Q uit looking at the future 
R edeem the time at hand 
S tart every day with worship 
T o "thank" is a command 
U ntil we see Him coming 
V ictorious in the sky 
W e'll run the race with gratitude 
X alting God most high 
Y es, there'll be good times and yes some will be bad, but... 
Z ion waits in glory...where none are ever sad!

(author unkown -- sent to me by my sister-in-law, Sandy Wilson)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Discipleship is a Slow Cooking Process

A profound post from Dan White Jr.'s blog, The Holy Mess:  Missional-Marinating.

Sometimes, in our hurry to build a great, effective ministry, driven pastors end up making a bad stew.  We can't rush discipleship -- it requires patience.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

It Takes a Re-Visioning Pastor to Turn a Church Around

Just finished Re:Vision: The Key to Transforming Your Church, by Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon E. Penfield.   Re:Vision is a helpful resource for pastors and supervisors of congregations who desire to turn plateaued or declining congregations around.

Their primary point is that turnaround (growth) of a declining congregation is based primarily on two things:
1.  The capacity of the pastor to lead change
2.  The willingness of the congregation to embrace it.

Through extensive research, Penfield and Malphurs discovered significant differences between re-envisioning and non-re-envisioning pastors.    Using such instruments as Myers-Briggs and the DISC profile, they found a direct correlation between the personality of the pastor and potential for congregational transformation.

Re:Vision is primarily a tool for assessing whether or not the pastor has the capacity to lead such change.

This, of course, raises an important question:  the elephant in the room.  What if pastors do not have this capacity?  What should they do?  I had hoped the authors would provide a silver bullet answer. Alas, they do not.

Basically, they recommend non-reinvisioning pastors to either find another type of ministry (such as chaplain work, missions, teaching, or a staff situation) or do the very hard work of stretching their capacity.

The second option (growing capacity) is painful and difficult.  It will require significant personal and leadership growth and will feel somewhat unnatural.  It will also require a coach to guide them through this process.

All in all, a helpful book for those who are serious about congregational change -- and especially for denominational officials who assist congregations in the processs of seeking pastors.

Four Leadership Capabilities

Researchers from MIT broke down leadership into four capabilities:

1. Sensemaking (understanding the context in which an organization and its people operate)
2. Relating (building relationships within and across organizations)
3. Visioning (creating a compelling picture of the future)
4. Inventing (developing new ways to achieve the vision)

Few people excel in all four areas -- but effective leaders bring other members onto the team, who bring their complementing strengths to the bigger picture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Now That is a Long Winded Preacher

Pastor Zach Zehnder just broke the world record for the longest sermon:  53 hours and 18 minutes.  I've preached a few sermons that felt that long.

Feed the Goose!

A while back, I awoke in the middle of the night with an  inspiring thought racing through my mind.

"Honey, wake up!" I said, "I just had a marvelous thought!

""Hmmnn? Whuzzat? Marvelous thought?", Cathy mumbled.

"Do you want to hear it?" I asked eagerly.

"Sure, might as well, now that I'm awake." said Cathy.

"Feed the Goose! We've gotta Feed the Goose!"

"What?? You woke me up from good sleep for that? What do you mean -- feed the goose?"

"I don't know, but it's a wonderful thought!" I beamed.

"Go back to sleep," said Cathy.

But my mind kept racing. . .

Feed the goose. Feed the goose. What in the world does that mean?

Then the light clicked on in my little brain -- aha! If you have a goose that lays golden eggs, your most important job is to feed the goose.

Don't get so busy gathering the eggs that you forget to take care of the one laying them!

What is your mission in life? What are you wired to do? That's your goose!

Consider the condition of your soul. That's your goose!

Think of a relationship you need to nurture more tenderly. That's your goose.

What brings out your very best and helps you become the person you were created to be? That's your goose!

What is your sweet spot -- the source of greatest delight? That's your goose.

In a business, family, church, or community, what is your main priority? What activity brings the greatest desired result? That's your goose.

Too often, we're so busy running the farm that we forget to feed the goose.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Not I, But Christ

"Not I, but Christ" be honored, loved, exalted;
"Not I, but Christ" be seen, be known, be heard;
"Not I, but Christ" in every look and action;
"Not I, but Christ" in every thought and word.

"Not I, but Christ" to gently soothe in sorrow;
"Not I, but Christ" to wipe the falling tear;
"Not I, but Christ" to lift the weary burden;
"Not I, but Christ" to hush away all fear.

 -- Herald of His Coming

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Unspoken Meaning of "Stupid Idiot" Notes

"Stupid idiot! Who taught you how to park?"

It was a pencil-scrawled, unsigned love letter, tucked beneath my windshield wiper.

Sheepishly, I looked around the parking lot for Mr. Anonymous, to no avail, feeling like a fool.

Yes my vehicle had crossed slightly into the next parking space, but that was because the guy beside me was double parked too.  He was long gone, leaving my awkwardly parked minivan as the target of nasty notes from poisened pencils.

"Stupid Idiot?" Me? It wasn't my fault! How dare he?" I fumed, "What kind of stupid idiot would write an anonymous letter calling me a stupid idiot?"

Then, something I heard long ago dawned on me.  Hurting people hurt people.  It must be a seething, boiling, cauldron of pain erupting into this nasty note.

A certain melancholy shadowed my heart, as I pondered what sort of difficulties and struggles my "stupid idiot" friend must be enduring. "He's just lashing out," I told myself, "He doesn't really mean this."  What he wanted to say just got lost in the translation.

Then, I pictured what I supposed the fellow really intended when he wrote that nasty letter to me.

Instead of "stupid idiot", he meant to write --

"Help! Help! I'm hurting so much on the inside.  My life is full of stress and emotional pain.   I can't deal with it. Please pray for me!  I don't know what to do."

I'm sure that's what he meant -- but it just came out in different words!

So -- I prayed for the guy, and drove away whistling a hymn.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Fear That Everything Has Already Been Done

Obligation or Opportunity?

"Aw, nuts!" I grumbled to no one in particular as I looked out the picture window upon fourteen inches of newfallen snow.   "Fourteen inches of obligation!"

My kids looked out the same window.

"Yippee!" they shouted, and rushed to put on their snow clothes.

For them it was fourteen inches of opportunity!

Same snow -- two completely different perspectives. I wish I could think more like my kids.

I wish, my first response to winter would be snow angels rather than shovels.

When severe adulthood squeezes out childish play, the snow becomes an unpleasant burden.  As the old Christmas carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter" laments, "Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow. . ."

I muttered something about "bleak midwinter" to my wife Cathy. She rebuked me gently. "It's not so bleak, honey. In fact, it's like a beautiful post card out there! Just look, the snow sparkles like diamonds!"

I suppose beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Bishop Desmond Tutu observed that each day is a gift, and that is why it is called the present. Whatever the day brings is part of the gift, and that includes snow.

As winter approaches, it would do us well to to focus on the opportunity, rather than the obligation. Otherwise, it will be a long winter of discontent.

Whether you look for the positive or the negative -- either way -- you'll find it.

Joy comes with gratitude. Misery accompanies grumbling and complaint. "In everything", the Bible says, "give thanks." That includes the bleak midwinter!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner.  I think I'll make a snow angel!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

George Had Problems

George had problems -- lots of problems.

George had problems with his wife.  She was too demanding.

George had problems with his daughter.  She was too whiney.

George had problems with his teenage son.  He was too irresponsible.

George had problems with his boss.  He was too controlling.

George had problems with his co-workers.  They were too opinionated.

George had problems with his next door neighbor.  He as too chatty.

George had problems with his mother-in-law.  She was too nosey.

George had problems with people at church.  They were too hypocritical.

George had problems with the grocery store cashier.  She was too slow.

George had problems with the barber.  He cut it too close.

George had problems with his children's teachers.  They were too strict.

Problems, problems problems.  Poor George wondered why he had so many.

Too bad he never did figure out what everybody else knew all along. .  .

George was the problem.