HOW TO AVOID THE PATH THAT LEADS TO “DEADNESS INSIDE”.

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Apr 252021
 

PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: HOW TO AVOID THE PATH THAT LEADS TO “DEADNESS INSIDE”.

         Chuck Colson, in his book Born Again, tells how he came to the conclusion that you can suceed, by all the standards of the world, even in pursuing all the right goals, and still end up empty and “totally dead inside”.  Months of struggling, of strategizing, of sacrifice had paid off in a landslide victory for Richard Nixon in 1972.  He won 49 states, and carried 61% of the vote-a record victory at that time.  President Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, and Chuck Colson were together in the Oval Office celebrating.  Haldeman was arrogant and sullen; Nixon was gulping scotch; and Colson was feeling let down and defeated for some reason.  In his own words he writes, “there was an unexplainable deadness inside of me!”  Three men at the power pinnacle of the world and not a single note of joy discernable in the room.  He explained, “If someone had peered in through some imaginary peephole in the ceiling of the President’s office, what a curious site it would have been: a victorious president grumbling over the words he needed to say to his fallen foe; his chief of staff angry, surly, and snarling; and the architect of his political strategy sitting in a numbed stupor”.  Colson explained his emptiness as best he could-“We worked hard for something, got it, and realized we didn’t really want it!  Being part of electing this president was the fondest ambition of my life; For three long years I committed everything, every ounce of energy to Richard Nixon-all I had now in return was a total emptiness and deadness inside of me!”

     How can you explain that?  C.S. Lewis said it best.  He said, “If you aim at heaven, you will get earth thrown in.  If you aim at earth-you will get neither!”  That is exactly what Colson had done.  He found it  in the end to be hollow-empty-a chasing after the wind!  Peggy Noonan, a speech-writer for Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush explains how we have lost our perspective on living in our generation.  In an article in Forbes magazine she wrote, “I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated.  We have lost somehow a sense of mystery about us-our purpose-our meaning-our role.  Our ancestors believed in two worlds and saw this one as the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short one.  We are the first generation of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused us such unhappiness!  The reason?  If you do not believe in another higher world-if you believe in only this flat, material world around you-if you believe this is your one and only chance for happiness-if this is what you believe, you are not disappointed when the world does not give you good measure-YOU ARE DESPAIRING!”  That is what Colson had discovered!  You and I will too if we do not find something “bigger than ourselves to give our life’s energies to.”  That is why Dostevesky wrote, in his book The Grand Inquisitor, these haunting but true words-“without clear perceptions of his reason for living, man will never consent to live, and will rather destroy himself, than tarry on earth”.  How often have we seen that? 

     Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote about how important it was to take advantage of oportunities that come our way to make our lives count for more than just the temporary passing things of this world.  He wrote, “Not seldom in life, whenever on the right side, fortune’s favorites sail close by us, We though all adroop before, catch somewhat of the rushing breeze, and joyfully our bagging sails fill out!”.  That is what happened when Jesus Christ crossed paths with lives that were looking for fulfillment and meaning.  The power of His presence and Spirit filled their sagging sails and took them in a direction they never dreamed of going.  But they had to agree to raise their sails by making that first step to follow Him.  If we miss that by not following his call-we will find ourselves identifying with Chuck Colson-“overwhelmed by the total deadness inside”.  Eternity will then be a regret for us.  The great English poet of the 1900’s-William H. Auden wrote of this regret.  He wrote:

     “God my reduce you

      on judgment day

      to tears of shame

      by reciting by heart

      the poems you would have written

      had your life been good”

Hearing His call to follow him, putting your hand to the plow and never looking back is the only way to make your life good, and make it count for the most in eternity. That is the road less traveled, but most worthy of traveling.  Years ago, Barry McGuire, who wrote and made famous the song Eve of Destruction, came to embrace Christ as his Saviour.  He surrendered his all and to this day is a faithful follower of Christ, and a relentless witness.  A reporter quizzed him about his conversion.  He asked, “is it true that you too have jumped on the Jesus bandwagon?”   McGuire replied, “Absolutely!  And it is the only bandwagon going anywhere!  Come on along!”  Great idea!  Come on along!

“Our Permanent Halfway Spiritual Condition-lives of silent mediocrity!”

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Apr 182021
 

PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “Our Permanent Halfway Spiritual Condition-lives of silent mediocrity!”

     One of the greatest Christians I have ever met was Howard G. Hendricks, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.  I was introduced to his ministry by my college room mate Dennis Suhling.  Some of my most treasured moments were the times I got to sit under his ministry.  The one thing that Dr. Hendricks, (known to his students as “prof” and his colleagues and friends as “Howie”), was to always strive for excellence and never settle for mediocrity.  He saw mediocrity as the greatest blight on the contemporary Evangelical Church.  He said, “I have never met a Christian who admitted that they intended to live a mediocre Christian life…but I have met a myriad of mediocre Christians!”  One of the most influential prophets of my day, A.W. Tozer spoke to this issue in a very convicting way.  He admitted, “Personally I have carried a heavy burden of sorrow for Evangelical Christians of our day who have somewhere in their past compromised with their heart’s longings and settled down to a lukewarm and mediocre kind of Christianity that is utterly unworthy of themselves and the Lord they claim to serve!” (That Incredible Christian).  John Mason put Christian mediocrity in context when he said, “Mediocrity is a region bound on the North by compromise, on the South by indecision, on the East by past thinking, and on the West by lack of vision”.  Eugene Petersen, (Author of the paraphrase The Message), sought to identify why Christians settle for such a low level of discipleship and maturity, he defines as mediocrity instead of excellence, when he writes “One aspect of the world that is harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything  worthwhile can be acquired at once…our attention span has been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by the thirty-page abridgement.  It is not difficult in out world to get a person interested in the message of the Gospel-but it is terrifically difficult to sustain that interest!  Millions make a decision for Christ but there is a dreadful attrition rate…evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim…when it loses its novelty it goes on the garbage heap!”  He feels that is why so many Christians find themselves in what A.W. Tozer called “Our permanent half-way spiritual condition”.  Jen Sincero, making a play on Thoreau’s “‘lives of quiet desperation”, says “so many people live lives of silent mediocrity!”  That is so true of the greater number of rank and file Christians in our churches today.  Mediocrity is an attitude of the world that has permeated the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ!  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “most of the world’s wisdom is accepted by mediocre people to discourage them from ambitious attempts and console them in their mediocrity”.  Eric Hoffer is even more confrontational.  He warns “The real Antichrist is he who turns the wine of excellence into the water of mediocrity!”  Andrew Carnegie agrees.  “People who are unable to motivate themselves MUST be content with mediocrity”.  Anne Rice warns us “the world doesn’t need anymore mediocrity”.  We must affirm “neither does the Church!”.  My favorite quote on this subject is Isaac D’Israel when he says, “It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity…I am never content sitting comfortable in a mediocrity chair!”  Robert Baldwin sums up what our attitude should be...”I have a horror of not rising above mediocrity!”

     How do we define mediocrity?  Webster defines it as “the quality of being not very good”.  The idea is inferred that we “settle for less than the best, or the good”.  The etymology of the word says it all.  It comes to English from the French and Latin.  The root word is Latin and comes from “medius”-meaning “halfway” and “ocris”-meaning “mountain”.  The idea is we settle for climbing halfway up the mountain instead expending all energies to scale the mountain to its summit and reach the top.  That is the tragedy of mediocrity in the Christian ranks.  Our Lord desires so much more for us, and we stop before we reach the top.  We settle for so little when He wants us to experience the best. A.W. Tozer again hits the nail on the head!  He writes “God is not honored by our arrested spiritual development-our permanent halfway spiritual condition.  We all know that we honor God by going on to full maturity…but instead of following toward the heights, we bargained with the Lord like a street huckster…we bicker and bargain with God about his expectations for spiritual attainments”.  Of course, we settle for far less.  Worship-we only go halfway.  Bible study-that is too much time and effort to “study to show ourselves approved rightly dividing the word of truth”.  Praying?  We never give Him the best time of the day-only leftovers-even if that!  When it comes to witnessing and fishing for men…we fail to win one soul to Christ in a year…many of us in our entire Christian life.  That is less that mediocrity.  That is a crime!

     James Russell Lowell, the great American poet spoke so eloquently on this subject.  He wrote:

“Life is a leaf of paper white

Whereupon each one of us may write

His word or two, and then comes night.

Greatly begin! Though Thou have time

But for a line, be that sublime-

NOT FAILURE, BUT LOW AIM, IS THE CRIME!

     Mediocrity in the Christian life is a crime!  It is turning the Wine of Excellence into the Water of low aim and mediocrity.  It is only going halfway up the mountain.  It is quitting too soon.  It is sitting down in the comfy chair of little effort.  The crime of living the silent life of mediocrity.  Our Lord deserves so much more.  The world deserves to see so much more of us.  We deserve so much more for ourselves!  Paul said, “this one thing I do, forgetting those things behind, I keep on reaching for the things that are before, I keep on pressing toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-16).  Paul’s goal was anything but mediocrity.  He aimed to “reach the top”.  At the end of his life he could say-“I have fought the good fight…I have finished the course!”  Anything but mediocrity.  I recently heard Anne Graham Lott, daughter of Billy Graham, in her message on devotion and commitment refer to an African Christian who was martyred for his faith.  He had written in his journal his determination to reach the top for Christ, by giving everything in his commitment to Jesus.  This is what he wrote, “I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed.  I have the Holy Spirit’s power.  The die has been cast.  I have stepped over the line.  The decision has been made-I am a Disciple of His.  I won’t look back, let up, or slow down, back away or be still.  My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, my future is secure.  I am finished and done with low-living, sight-walking, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals.  I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity.  I don’t have to be first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded.  I now live by faith, lean in His Presence, walk by patience, and am uplifted by prayer.  My face is set.  My gait is fast. My goal is heaven.  My road is narrow.  My way is rough.  My companions are few, My Guide is reliable.  My mission is clear.  I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, hired away, turned back, diluted, or delayed.  I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the enemy, pander at the pool of popularity, OR MEANDER IN THE MAZE OF MEDIOCRITY!  I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preach till all know, and work until He stops me.  And when He comes my banner will be clear!”  THAT KIND OF CHRISTIANITY is the heights the Lord intends for us to aim for.  We may not reach it.  But aiming for anything less, and stopping half-way home is mediocrity!  A common Christian crime!  Don’t aim so low!

“AFTER-CHRISTS…IN TEN THOUSAND PLACES!”

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Apr 042021
 

PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE“AFTER-CHRISTS…IN TEN THOUSAND PLACES!”

     When Jesus breathed His last breath, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nikodemus claimed His body and buried it in that borrowed tomb everyone-followers and enemies thought that was the tragic end. The Jewish leaders thought they had squashed the crisis that was the greatest threat to Judaism, as they knew and loved it.  The Romans were glad that they had quelled what might have been the greatest of all rebellions against Imperial Rome.  The disciples were devastated.  They expected Jesus’ ministry to conclude in an overthrow of the Romans, Him ascending the throne of His father David, and two of the twelve, still undecided, would sit at His right and left hands in this new invincible Kingdom.  But those expectations had been crushed on a Black Friday afternoon, that later would be designated Good Friday.  It wasn’t very “Good” in their eyes at that time. You can read of their devastation and disillusionment in the narrative of the two disciples who encountered the risen Christ, on the road to Emmaus. When the unknown Stranger quizzed them on their sad demeanor, they honestly responded, that they were sad because Jesus of Nazareth had been delivered by the rulers, and had been crucified.  Then they said, “We had hoped that He would have been the one to redeem Israel. i.e., The Messiah” (Luke 24:21).  Philip Yancey, in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, wrote about what might have happened if Jesus had never been raised from the dead.  He wrote, “Sometimes I think about how different the world would be had Jesus not been resurrected from the dead.  Although the disciples would not risk their lives trumpeting a new faith in the streets of Jerusalem, neither would they forget Him! They had given three years to Jesus.  He may not have been the Messiah, (if He had not risen), but He had impressed them as the wisest teacher ever and had demonstrated powers that no one would explain.  After time, emotional wounds began to heal, and the disciples would seek some way to memorialize Jesus.  Perhaps writing His sayings down in written form, akin to one of our Gospels…or build a monument to Jesus’ life.  Then we who live in modern times could visit that monument and learn about the carpenter/philosopher from Nazareth.  We could sift through His sayings, taking and leaving what we liked.  World-wide Jesus would be esteemed in the same way Confucius or Socrates is esteemed”.

     But that is not what happened.  John Masefield’s play “The Trial of Jesus” has Longinus, the Roman Centurion, come back to report to Pilate.  Pilate’s wife, Procula, asks, “Do you think He’s really dead?”  The centurion replies, “No, my lady, I do not!”  “Where do you think He is?” she asks.  He replies-“Let loose on the world, my lady, where no one will ever stop His truth”. We have no historical record of Longinus, or anyone saying that, nor even thinking that!  Not even His disciples!  But Masefield gave a good description of what actually did follow.  Jesus was still alive, and through the Holy Spirit, incarnated and invigorated His disciples to take His message and ministry throughout the entire Roman world in one generation!  Frederick Buechner says that is the real message of Easter- “we can never nail Him down, not even if the nails we use are real and the thing we nail Him to is a cross!” Walter Wink, in Naming the Powers, says, “Killing Jesus was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed by blowing on it!”  St. Augustine, in describing the Ascension, said, “You ascended from before our eyes, we turned back grieving, only to find you in our hearts!”.  What Augustine was describing was more than a metaphor.  It was a real incarnational transforming of those who would carry on the ministry of Christ in the world-as His body-the Church!  The great author and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his writings saw Christians as a seconding of the kenotic incarnation of the living Christ.  He coined the phrases “After-Christs”.  In his poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame, He wrote:

     “for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

      lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his,

      To the Father, through the features of men’s faces”

     Jesus had promised His disciples that after He left, that He would still be with them by the Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit.  He told them it would be even better for them because they would do “even greater things than He did!” (John 1412).  We know the early Church saw the fruition of that promise.  But overall, how has that worked out for the Church?  Frederick Buechner points out this has not always worked out for the best.  He writes, “The Church at Corinth were in fact Christ’s body, as Paul wrote to them one of his most enduring metaphors-Christ’s eyes, ears, and hands.  But the way they were carrying on, that could only leave Christ blood-shot, ass-eared, and all thumbs to carry on God’s work in a fallen world”. (The Magnificent Defeat).  Philip Yancey speaks to that failure of the Church to successfully function as the body of Christ, in the fallen world, when he writes quite eloquently, “I could fill several pages with colorful quotations, all of which underscore the risk involved in entrusting God’s own reputation to the likes of us.  Unlike Jesus, we do not perfectly express the Word.  We speak in garbled syntax, stuttering, mixing languages together, putting accent marks in the wrong places.  When the world looks for Christ it sees, like the cave-dwellers Plato wrote about in one of his allegories, only shadows created by the light, not the light itself!”

     Flannery O’Connor, in his book The Habit of Being, answered a critic of the Church by explaining that the critic did not understand the role that sin plays in the failure of the Church.  He wrote, “All your dissatisfaction with the Church comes from an incomplete understanding of sin.  What you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the Kingdom of Heaven on earth right now, that the Holy Ghost be translated into not all human flesh.  The Holy Spirit rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking man to return at once, to the state God originally created him in. You are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time…The Church is founded on Peter, who denied Christ three times, and couldn’t walk on water by himself.  You are expecting his successors to walk on water.  All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful…to have the Church be what you want it to be would require continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs!”  Before you and I use O’Connor’s words to excuse our failures, let me tell you the New Testament emphasizes that such miraculous meddling of God in human affairs is exactly what God has done by sending His Spirit to empower us to live as Christ’s body in the world.  Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, but not I Christ liveth in me!” (Gal. 2:20). 

Robert Frost wrote a poem describing this process…he wrote in Kitty Hawk:

“But God’s Own Descent

Into flesh was meant

As a demonstration…

Spirit enters flesh, and for all it’s worth,

Charges into earth, and in birth after birth,

Ever fresh, Ever Fresh”

     Malcomb Muggeridge wrote, in Jesus the Man Who Lives, “Future historians are likely to conclude that the more we knew about Jesus the less we knew Him, and the more precisely His words were translated the less we understood and heeded them”.  He may be right.  The goal is not to understand Jesus and imitate Him, (something we do not have the power to do).  The goal is to know Him experientially by the power, presence, and performance of the Holy Spirit and incarnate Him in our lives, as His body.  That is miraculous meddling in the affairs of men.  That is exactly what God wants to do through us-His Church!