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My friend Bob Smietana wrote this article in USA Today called Pastors Seek To End War On Drugs By Decriminalizing Use. Basically, Rev. Edwin Sanders pastor of Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville and other clergy are wanting to decriminalize drug use. The article ends with this comment from Pastor Sanders:

God does not care if you smoke weed…. God is not that petty.”

The comment raises an interesting question: Is God petty?

Well,,, if he’s not, then he’s not HOLY. I know what God says about obeying laws. I know he knows better than we do that there are more negatives for society than positives with pot. For sure what’s best for society comes before what’s best for any individual. We know what God would say about coming under the influence of anything but the Holy Spirit. I can’t imagine God saying it’s ok to get high. If that makes him petty, sorry.

My sense is that a glimpse at the holiness of God would reveal many things we presently think are no big deal. It’s a false grace message to say God only cares about the big sins and that you are ok with him as you are. The Cross was too severe and unnecessary if God isn’t petty. Is your wife being petty because she won’t let you whistle at other women?

Spring 2013 Message Series at Church at the Gate, Sioux Falls, SD

Spring 2013 Message Series at Church at the Gate, Sioux Falls, SD

There are some people you need to know.

We all need a Barnabas in our life to encourage us. We all need a prophetic friend like Nathan to speak the truth in love. We all need a mature Godly couple like Priscilla and Aquila to open their home and lives to us to “show us the way of God more adequately.” Each weekend this spring, Pastor Steve will be making these key introductions.

There are others we will focus on… including a mystery person (at least one who is unfortunately a mystery to many Christians). That person is the Holy Spirit, the one Jesus told his followers to wait for and not proceed without.

Here is another chart from me relating to the theme of persecution and martyrdom. These realities have been my focus this season of Lent in my Martyrs Guide to Life message series. Earlier charts included The Skyrocketing Cost of Discipleship and the Degrees of Persecution.

To be in the clutches of something is to be in the grip or hold of something; a strong clasp, tight and sudden. This word describes the last week in the earthly life of Jesus… “the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men” (Matthew 17:22).

Reading the last week of the earthly life of Jesus, an analogy occurred to me to help illustrate Jesus in the clutches of persecution. For three years he had slipped through various clutches but the last week he succumbed to them. Think of the chuck of a typical household power drill. The chuck is basically a clutching mechanism comprised of three hardened steel jaws held by a tightening sleeve or collar. When you turn and tighten the collar/sleeve, teeth turn a spiral scrolling gear which self center each jaw together equally and mercilessly around a drill bit.

Clutches of Persecution

The three jaws which gripped Jesus were; 1) the whims of people, 2) the religists or religious rulers of the day, and 3) the secular authorities. Knowing that ultimately our battle is not against flesh and blood, the surrounding sleeve or tightening collar relates to evil principalities in heavenly places which were orchestrating all these hostilities toward Jesus.

Here’s a key point: as intense as the clutches of persecution are, notice the entire tool is in the hands of the Lord and he is using it for his purposes. He is building something even when it seems the adversary is tearing it all down.

When I read the last week of the life of Jesus I don’t read any panic at what the devil is doing. I get a strong sense of resolve in what God is doing. The persecuted derive stamina from the perspective of sovereignty. It may feel like and appear that we have been snatched into the merciless hands of others. However, even in persecution, God does not let hold of us.

Bonhoeffer reminded us of the Cost of Discipleship. For a few weeks now in a series I’ve titled Martyrs Guide to Life, I’ve been talking about the Skyrocketing Cost of Discipleship. Basically I’m referring to the forecast Jesus gave us in Matthew 24:9-14.

In light of the fact that more have died for their faith in Christ in the last century than in the first twenty centuries combined, and in light of the fact that the Bible forecasts a greater age of martyrdom at the end of the age, it seems helpful to talk about the skyrocketing cost of discipleship in a latter age of (unprecedented) persecution. By unprecedented I mean to underscore how the latter age will be far more intense and global than the first two centuries which we typically consider the “Age of Persecution.”

Yesterday I posted a new chart I’ve titled Degrees of Religious Persecution to illustrate how there is a discernible continuum with persecution from mild to moderate to severe. (Actually mild is normal as persecution is an indicator all systems are normal.) Here I offer a chart to illustrate the skyrocketing cost of discipleship.

skyrocketing cost of discipleship chart

Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the Left Behind bestselling notion that we will be rescued via a Pre-Trib Rapture. Extensively in other places I’ve shown that to be a recent, extra-Biblical and dangerous error as it leaves us ill-prepared for what is coming. My chart is based on a Classical or Historic Pre-millennialism understanding that the Rapture and the Second Coming are different stages of the same event.

I like charts and when I can’t find one that fits what I’m talking about then I typically make one myself. This is for my teaching series: Martyrs Guide to Life.

Degrees of Religious PersecutionNote there isn’t a “mild persecution” category but rather a “normal persecution” category as those who live the first seven Beatitudes find themselves at odds with the world around them and the eighth Beatitude naturally becomes them.

Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hung by his neck on April 9, 1945 in Hitler’s concentration camp at Flossenbürg. In his now classic Cost of Discipleship he wrote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The world is increasingly a dangerous place for Christians. Globally, in unprecedented numbers, Christians are being beaten, imprisoned and killed. Yet here in America, pastors preach “dying to ourselves” to people sitting in comfortable chairs and then they serve them jelly donuts and Starbucks after the service.

Though there is this uniquely American deception among Christians that Jesus suffered so we don’t have to, or that we will escape it—the Bible actually says the opposite: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12) It’s time to revisit the central Christian message of suffering for Christ. Even in free nations religious liberties are being taken away.

This season of Lent through Easter as Christians worldwide remember Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, Pastor Steve will underscore how the LIFE of Jesus is revealed in ridicule and mistreatment, mockery and martyrdom. You won’t leave forlorn, fearful or depressed.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” 2 Corinthians 4:8-10

Messages are free for downloading or streaming here.

Here are some of the highlights of the first three messages in the series:

- This aversion to Christian suffering and persecution is extra-Biblical and uniquely American.

- There is a grace for suffering and persecution; martyrdom is a spiritual grace/gift. How could it be a gift? Certainly that would be a gift no one would want?! Spiritual gifts aren’t toys to play with they are graces for spiritual breakthrough. There is a grace to give up your life for Christ. Martyrdom is the one spiritual gift you aren’t sure you have until you need it and it’s the only spiritual gift that you can only use once.

- The propellant behind the grace of martyrdom is love. Martyrs are sustained by grace and propelled by love. (1 Cor 13:3, John 15:13)

- Martyrdom is simultaneously a holy detachment and a holy attachment as we love Jesus not so much our lives. (Revelation 12:11)

- You can’t even be a disciple without taking up your cross and following him. (Mt. 16:24)

- Martyrdom was the expectation of the early Christian Church, not the exception.

- The cost of following Jesus is about to skyrocket. There have been 45,400,000 twentieth century Christian martyrs – more in the last century than in the previous twenty centuries combined. We typically refer to the first century as the Age of Persecution or martyrdom. However, the Bible teaches the latter age of martyrdom will be far worse and we are in that latter age of martyrdom. (Matthew 24: 9-14)

- Lots of wasted human life these days. Yet there is no such thing as a martyr dying in vain.

- If grace is what sustains a martyr and love is what propels him, loyalty is what describes him. The epitome of love and loyalty is martyrdom.

- If grace sustains martyrdom and love propels it, loyalty is what describes it and willingness is what allow it. Martyrdom isn’t accidental or unavoidable, it’s a choice. It’s choosing to follow Jesus down the path he took. Hebrews 11:25 says “Moses chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.”

- Fear of death is not a Christian concern. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “do not worry about your life…  who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” He was saying don’t worry about preserving or prolonging your life.

- When the martyr dies, who wins and who really loses? Tertullian said: the death of the martyr is the seed of the church. Something greater comes forth. But we think of death as a horrible defeat. That’s not how God sees it. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. (Ps 116:15).

- This confidence in facing death comes from good theology. This fear of death among Christians is evidence of a shallow theology. Many have ungodly beliefs about death and dying.We have this ‘fraidy cat view of death, that it is this travesty. We see it as final, as the worst thing that could happen. God views it very differently. Jesus took the sting out of death for the believer and the believer doesn’t have to face the dreaded second death (Rev. 2:11).

- Self-preservation is not a Christian virtue. It certainly is a human instinct but it is not a Christian virtue. A Christian virtue is… greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for others…

- Letting go comes natural for the martyr as they lived a life of faithful giving in the little things.

-If you can’t give your stuff, you won’t give your life. If you can’t give your money, what makes you thing you’d be willing to pay the skyrocketing cost of discipleship?

- Giving your life to Christ means giving your life up for Christ.

John Stott’s repeated exhortation when preaching was “Don’t look at me, look at Christ.” Every preacher, song leader and musician needs to write that phrase in the margin of their message notes and chord sheets every weekend. People ought to walk away with His name on their lips, not yours.

In his new little book “It’s not business, it’s personal” Bob Sorge writes about how ministers and musicians get in between Jesus and his Bride the Church. In a chapter called “Scoring with the Bride” he addresses ministers and musicians who feed off her praise and seek out her affections. Imagine if you were asked to serve my bride and you were teasing her affections off of ME and on to YOU. No doubt, Jesus our Bridegroom God has an issue with those who steal away the affections of his Bride.

Bob Sorge says many times he walks away from speaking and prays: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, and deliver me from this tendency to present myself in such a way that the Bride takes notice of me and my service to her. After I’ve spent an evening with your Bride, I don’t want my name to be on her lips. I want her talking about You.”

Can we get away from these platform-driven performances and smoke shows where the clamor in the hallways is “wow, that guy always hits a homerun.” Same with music ministry as people leave going… “wow, what a voice, I hope she puts that on CD.”

Those living here in the upper midwest can identify with extended seasons— today is April 20 and it snowed a couple days ago. Many here want it to warm up because it has been cold long enough. I’m a four season guy with fall being my favorite season. Living where it’s hot year round sounds horrible to me. People visit us here in South Dakota and comment on the nasty weather and I tell them it’ll change tomorrow because it always does. I like short seasons and get discouraged in extended seasons.

An extended season is a period of time that extends beyond the point in which you thought it should end. Surely you can relate to things taking longer than anticipated. Surely you can relate to thinking you’d be further along than you are right now.

Psalm 40:17 says “O my God, do not delay.” This is one of the great cries of the Bible… How long O Lord? How long?  On occasion I joke how God is never late but that he sure misses a million opportunities to be early.  Frankly I wonder sometimes if God isn’t waiting on us more often than we are waiting on him. When we look back, as the saying goes, time seems to fly. However when we are in the moment, the dog days seem to drag on. This post is about doing the dog days well.

The phrase “dog days” actually goes back to the Graeco-Roman period. Plato used the Latin term diēs caniculārēs or dog days. The ancients noticed the hot weather and associated it with the star Sirius (prominent in July and August). The Sirius star, dog star, is the basis for the Canis Major Constellation (Large Dog). The Romans sacrificed a dog to appease the rage of Sirius. Wikipedia tells us the dog daies were “believed to be a time when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and all creatures became languid, causing man burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies.”

Today we know that when winter drags on, or summer seems forever, there aren’t gods to appease. However there is much that God is developing in us during these extended seasons which are common both to the spiritual life of an individual and church community.

Extended seasons can be brutal on us as we wrestle through 1) discontentment, 2) unmet expectations, 3) impatience, 4) a sick heart from deferred hope, 5) doubts about ourselves, doubts about God and his Promises, 6) apathy and 7) faith that wanes. Extended seasons are times when 8 ) negativity and criticism creep in and we more easily turn on one another.

James 1:3-4 says “Perseverance must finish it’s work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything.” As much as we might wish an extended season would end, it is important that what God is doing in us is completed. Galatians 6:9 says “Don’t weary in well doing for we will reap a harvest in due season if we do not give up.” We can forfeit all God has for us when we don’t stay the course. In Matthew 25:5, the Bridegroom was a long time coming and those waiting became drowsy and fell asleep. Extended seasons are times when all can be lost.

The Bible really offers no insight into how to fast forward through a season that drags on and on. However, there is much in the Word of God on how to persevere through extended seasons. Here are a few thoughts…

Seasons are pregnant, don’t abort them. When we study times and seasons in the Word of God we find ourselves sorting through chronos and kairos time. Chronos is time measured by a clock or calendar. Kairos times are those seasons when God breaks in. When I say “seasons are pregnant” I’m referring to how the Bible speaks of “the fullness of time.” An extended season is a gestation period for what God is producing in us. An extended season is actually a mercy as God gives us additional moments to come into maturity.

Romans 5:3-5 says “Perseverance produces character, character produces hope.” The point is that these times produce something– something is coming forth from these times making it worthwhile to persevere. There is character development needed before we move into the next season. It’s too late to lay a foundation after the building is built. There is no turning the clock back later making now the time to develop godly character.

Boycotting winter is an exercise in futility as it changes nothing. In an extended season, stay out of futility. Futility is something that is incapable of producing a result. The Bible talks about the “futility of their years” and “futile thinking” (Ephesians 4:17). Extended seasons can be productive seasons if our focus is right.

“…established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.” Psalm 89:37

Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on church services, programs and activities catered to every age group. And yet, what kind of “Christian” is the result? Are we producing hit and miss cultural Christians who are really functional atheists and spectators?  Or, are we producing “faithful witnesses” as they are called in the Book of Revelation.

Tomorrow I start a new three-part message series called Faithful Witness which is focused on the caliber of believer the Bible says will reflect God and prevail in the hard times to come. A faithful witness is one who shines bright in the darkness, as Psalm 89:37 says, like the moon. They will be unwavering, established and bold during a coming time when darkness rules.  They will testify to what they’ve seen first hand. As “night” falls over the nations of the earth, they will be faithful to embody and announce the entire Gospel of the Kingdom, not just the parts of it that are easy or that people want to hear.

Home Cures That WorkHere is the first article for a monthly Spiritual Dimensions of Wellness column I’ve been asked to start writing for a Natural Health monthly magazine called “Home Cures That Work.”

I’m very excited about this as the audience is not church folk. Pray for this opportunity. I’ve been given full liberty to talk about Jesus, quote the Bible, give people true hope and a link will be included back to the prayer request area of our church website.

This month the focus is discouragement and depression. Next month the focus is stress and anxiety.

Beyond just having a bad day, many of us experience seasons of discouragement and depression. There are known forms and causes recognized when depression reaches a clinical intensity. However, whatever the degree of melancholy, there are spiritual factors to consider. We are not just physical beings, we are spiritual beings. This article touches on known spiritual factors contributing to mental health and wellness.

Discouragement and depression are directly related to hope, or the lack thereof. Hope is a belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one’s life. Those who hope in nothing outside themselves have little to grab onto to pull them out of discouragement. Even putting our hope in other people is an inconsistent source of strength because people are just people. Those who put their faith in God find they aren’t tossed about when life turns sour. Jesus spoke of trusting in him to be like building a house on a rock and those who do, find themselves standing after the storm passes.

Isolation is an enemy. People are all the time wondering what their purpose in life is or what the will of God is for their life. One thing is for certain, God made us social beings and therefore it is not God’s will that we wander through life alone. Even introverts are wired for meaningful human interaction. Studies show that babies who are touched and loved have fewer health problems than babies who lie alone in orphanage cradles. The need for others is not something we out grow. It may seem like this point fits better in an article on the social dimensions of wellness, but this is ultimately a spiritual dimension because we are created to relate to God and others.

The solutions are to find a community (a small group at a church for example) of people who share your values and beliefs and be open with them. Find a place where you don’t have to fake it. It is important to surround yourself with positive people and seek out those who emit joy. But, transparency is more important than a superficial happy-clappy environment. The Bible says “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” In other words, whatever you are feeling at the moment is valid and we need others to be with us in those moments.

A frequent phrase in the Bible to the discouraged is “take heart.” There are encouraging things to embrace even when the chips are down. First, it is encouraging to know that even those we celebrate today as spiritual giants knew well “the dark night of the soul.” Though never fun, these are refining times intended by God to make us stronger and take us into deeper places of usefulness to him. Not one ounce of pain is wasted in God’s economy. We can take heart that what we can only see as bad, God will use for good. It’s when we reach the point of weakness that his strength is able to manifest in our lives. Really, we have to get out of the way and hitting these low points are indications we are in good position for his help.

The Book of Psalms contains the whole gamut of human emotion and many who find themselves in the up and down swings connect with psalm writers like David. In Psalm 42:5 he laments “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?” He speaks of being in mourning and how “deep calls to deep at the sound of thy waterfalls; all thy breakers and thy waves have rolled over me.” But each of these honest moments lead to a reality beyond what we are feeling – that God is there and God is inclined to those who are discouraged. One man in our church regularly struggles with depression and he’s tried everything and his testimony is nothing worked until he started reading and praying the Psalms each day, out loud. One a day and this thing started to lift off of him.

In the fall of 2002, my father was tragically killed in an accident on a road near my home. This sent me into a season where I couldn’t even drive at night because I’d keep imagining people in the road. I didn’t feel like smiling for the better part of a year. Every email my father sent me the last few years of his life was signed off which these two words: “Chin Up!” One day I wrote those two words on a note card with this verse written underneath: “[God is] the lifter of my head” (Psalm 3:3). Everyday it was like the voice of two fathers encouraging me. The world started to take on color again for me. For sure we all have different views of God, but this is who I have discovered him to be – the lifter of my head. A good place to start is to pray – God, reveal yourself to me as the Lifter of my Head.

My friend of more than two decades Bob Smietana, religion reporter for the Nashville Tennesean and for Christianity Today, noted a new article and book the other day on the poverty of modern Christian funerals.  Bob made the comment that one of his favorite writers is also a funeral home director and wondered what that said about him.  He was talking about Dr. Thomas G. Long, Candler School of Theology professor, and his new book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, and this accompanying article in the Christian Century. I just ordered Long’s book but haven’t yet read it.

Aside from being one who laments the lack of theological and eschatological preciseness in the church today, my interest in this topic also comes as one who deals with death and funerals in some form every month either in the church I serve or as police chaplain in our city.  And, as many of you know, I’ve recently buried my beloved grandmother and both my parents.  Also, this summer I read N.T. Wright’s excellent (but not perfect) book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. I couldn’t agree more with what is being said by both Long and Wright.  Here are some important statements from the Christian Century article by Long:

These newer rituals, for all their virtues of freedom, simplicity and seeming festivity, are finally expressions of a corrupted understanding of the Christian view of death….

If Christian funerals today are impoverished, we must look primarily to the church’s own history… The fact is that many educated Christians in the late 19th century, the forebears of today’s white suburban Protestants, lost their eschatological nerve and their vibrant faith in the afterlife, and we are their theological and liturgical heirs….

In the meantime, the seeds planted in the 19th century continue to bear weeds.

Lots to factor in – the Civil War carnage resulting in a crisis of belief; Darwinism and the belief that making the best of earth IS “heaven”; cremation and ashes to the wind (a bit of a Buddhist notion that we are released to rejoin the earth); burials several states away…

So with heaven gone and with the cemetery miles away, neither the dead nor the living had anywhere to go, and the metaphor of the journey to God collapsed.

Great article in the Birmingham News this week about Church of the Highlands and my friend Pastor Chris Hodges. In talking about his church’s remarkable growth and success in reaching people he says, “We’re discovering it’s more who you are, not what you’re doing.” There is definitely a contagious life-giving DNA in ARC churches and Chris personifies it!

And, for altogether different reasons, there is a lengthy article today in the Colorado Springs Independant on my friend Pastor Ted Haggard.  Check it out — “The Resurrection of Pastor Ted.” It’s a lengthy interview where Ted talks about “the year and a half [of his life] when the sun didn’t come up… [when] no grass was green, the birds never sang, the sky was never blue.

The article quotes a recent Twitter update of Ted’s where he commented about a thought he had reading the Bible that morning… “Judas and Peter both sinned and repented. Judas’ suicide served the religious leaders well, Peter’s recovery exposed them.”

I really look forward to his wife Gayle’s new book which is coming out in December – Why I Stayed. Gayle embodies the faithfulness of God and mature love.

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