So You Think You Can Dance?
The Essence of Covenant Community
Living within a culture where divorce is commonplace and single-parent homes are more the norm, it is difficult for those of us in the Twenty-first century to grasp the importance of a covenant relationship as it relates to Christian growth and discipleship. So, what defines a Christian community? It is possible that in taking a look at the Biblical concept of marriage we may shed some light upon the concept of covenant discipleship?
Marriage, a Spiritual Template
The heart of God is all about relationships. For that reason He placed humans in families. Therefore, the Christian concept of marriage is a marvelous template for covenant relationship, as well as growth and training in Christian discipleship. The divine plan for marriage is for one man and one woman to continue in their intimate relationship for life. However, since the invention of television and the influx of the digital revolution, human senses are brainwashed, and placed on overload, when it comes to what one might expect from a marriage relationship. Hollywood promises emotional fireworks and explosions of passion at every turn. Not surprisingly, it delivers poorly. Tinseltown’s answer to our disappointment with its failed promises is merely to find another partner. According to divorcerate.org, “The divorce rate in America for first marriage, vs. second or third marriage is 50% of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce.” Apparently, the entertainment industry’s predictions do not get better with multiplicity of partners.
Marriage in a truly Christian environment cannot be improved upon as a template for teaching people how to live in community. Mankind was not made to live in isolation. We function better in a setting where we have the opportunity to make one another better. The author of proverbs says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, ESV). How disappointing it is when companions bail out on one another at the least provocation. Doing this defrauds the couple and the family unit of the ability to observe how to live and behave in the midst of adversity. Therefore, society misses the opportunity to have crack troops, who have weathered the storms of life, and who can pass down to all observers their secrets to victorious living. Of course, this does not take into account the relationships that are abusive, or hopeless for one reason or another. In those situations, the choices are often limited, and making informed decisions is difficult at best. Under normal circumstances, however, it seems that the experience of marriage can be a catalyst not only for the home, but also for the community at large, and for the Church in particular. The dissolution of a marriage, on the other hand, affects both the couple and those attached to them either through birth, or through other significant relationships. Scars cover the lives of countless numbers of people because of failed marriages. The branches of this poisonous vine weave their way through generations and leave traces of their irritation on the souls of friend, foe, and fellow without discrimination. Perhaps the most tragic realization that the Church must recognize is that the failure of marriage today is virtually equal to that of the world. It appears that most people enter into a marriage relationship with the idea that the person they marry will make them happy.
Contrarily, if a couple considers its marriage vows as something more than a simple ceremony with some colorful words, their declaration may be one in which they recognize they have entered into a covenant, not only with one another, but also with God. If they have entered into this covenant soberly, and determine that the promises they make to one another before God are binding, then the chances of their marriage ending diminish greatly.
Similarly, the new birth is a marriage ceremony of sorts. The decision a candidate for discipleship makes to cease living independently, and to begin living in a covenant relationship is as serious as the choice of a life partner. If divorce adversely affects scores of people, what is the effect upon the Church and the culture of people entering into a covenant relationship with God and his people unadvisedly, or lightly? Furthermore, if divorce stifles the emotional maturity of growing children, what does the severing of bonds among God’s people do to young Christian disciples? The spiritual aptitude of any local expression of Christ will not rise above the devout intellect and practice of the least mature member of that Body.
Remember the words spoken by the Lord Jesus, “If any two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19-20, ESV). The root word for ‘agree’ is sumphoneo (symphony), and signifies a harmonious blending of musical instruments. Is there a better place to observe the symphony of true Christianity than in the relationship of two believing, married partners, warts and all, who passionately love their Lord and one another? There is a marked difference between the love of a middle school couple and that of a more mature couple after several years of marriage. The Bible says, “If any two of you agree . . .?” That statement, alone, implies negotiation, submission, and self-denial. For many, it assumes someone got his way, and someone else did not get her way. Truly, this would be the result, were it not for the fact of the dance, or the symphony. In a vital covenant relationship, either marriage or church, the issue is not whether person “A” or “B” gets what he wants, but rather, to what extent does each surrender to the dance (will of God)? Is fulfillment in life accomplished by one’s ability to accumulate the most toys before he dies? Is one’s relationship in marriage successful because her partner makes her happy, or because she finds mutual fulfillment with her partner as they lay down their lives in service for one another, for others and for the glory of God?
C. S. Lewis wrote,
“The idea that ‘being in love’ is the only reason for remaining married really leaves no room for marriage as a contract or promise at all. If love is the whole thing, then the promise can add nothing; and if it adds nothing, then it should not be made.”
The method people use in choosing a church today is typical of a society influenced by Post-modern thought. One chooses churches, marital partners, jobs, etc. according to how much pleasure one receives from the choice. Parents often choose a church according to the types and numbers of programs offered to them and their children. Of course, it is good for churches to offer options; however, if one’s experience in church is little more than a propositional one, the intimate connection with Christ and his community lessens. The Biblical ideal in marriage is for one to take his time in choosing his life’s companion. He must understand that his decision is for life, and that his commitment involves a covenant agreement. It should not be broken simply because he is not as happy as he had hoped. The bliss of marriage comes as two very different personalities share a common goal of allowing their marriage to be the dance of life that brings glory to God. They discover their mutual fulfillment as they ride the waves of frustration and experience the hills and valleys of joy and disappointment. Their individual experiences in the journey they share not only shape them into mature persons in Christ, but also mold their corporate existence as a family into a model for effective community living.
Even as Jesus found a ‘door of hope’ in the dark, gloom of a borrowed tomb, perhaps we, too, can find a window of opportunity in the difficult work of learning how to dance. Remember when you were twixt twelve and twenty and you went to that first dance? Remember how insecure you felt about the dance. As you and the object of your affection approached one another, then casually embraced one another, the awful thought struck you that you weren’t sure what to do next. ”Who should lead?” ”Who should follow?” What if both wanted to lead . . . or follow? Many people in all types of relationships make it no further in their communion than the approach. Others ‘take the bull by the horns’ so to speak and take on a part of the dance that does not belong to them. Sadly, all the observers see is two or more insecure people concerned more about how they look as participants than about the greater glory of the dance. This, I fear, is a picture of our culture: People who don’t know how to dance in their relationships. The Bible offers us the best instructions for proper relationships but we’ll have to sacrifice to discover it.
This is a section of a soon to be published book, entitled, You Have Been Called: Revolutionary Discipleship Through the Covenant Family. All rights reserved 2010.
NINE MILE: A MICROSOM OF CHURCH
I am a part of a clan of Scottish decent known as Lewis. We are a proud lot, perhaps too proud sometimes. However, even though I am nearing retirement, memories of my mother’s family flood my mind with a sense of well-being and gratitude for the good things that I inherited from being part Lewis.
Recently, I have been made aware that the Land upon which my mother’s parents forged a life for themselves and their children has been sold. Many of my cousins are hurt and saddened by the loss of the land. So am I. Some feel the loss that their own children will never be able to run, work and play in the creek and hillsides, smell the fragrances of the spring flowers and freshly cut hay, even as we did as children. Many emotions flood my own soul, even as I pen these words. In my musings of days gone by, I have a lingering memory of one annual event that left a lasting impression upon me. Furthermore, God has used that memory to give hope to me about something that has been lost in much of the church for 1700 years . . . Fellowship!
When considering the fellowship of the Church of Jesus Christ one must be careful to not be mistakenly looking for a utopian society; one which is devoid of problems. This is not the Church, at least not this side heaven. Rather, the Church is to be a society lived “in the world and yet not a part of it.” While I would be careful to press an unrealistic concept of Christianity too far, I can definitely relate with those who find a societal image that so captures their attention that everything else pales in comparison, and to which one’s life can be given, unashamedly, and uncompromisingly. Such is my quest for true fellowship in the Church.
As I look back over my life I am made aware that I was placed in varied atmospheres from time to time, which gave hints to the meaning of fellowship. One such realm was at the annual Christmas Eve celebration held by my mother’s family. Both my parents came from rather large families by today’s standards, and, due to the rural nature and economic conditions of the times my mother and her siblings formed a rather close bond with one another. Couple this with a basic Christian world view and the fact that all these siblings raised their families near one another and it is not difficult to see how a virtually spiritual relationship was forged within a biological unit. This was never more evident than when all these families came together for the annual Christmas Eve celebration. This was a rather informal gathering in an old shanty-like house up the old Nine Mile Creek Road in the hills of West Virginia not far from a little town called Point Pleasant. My! What a time we had! The cousins played, making up games as we went. Some looked at pictures of far away places through the “view-finder”. Others shared war stories, or played Chinese checkers, while still others told the latest funny story. My grandparents little house was literally dancing with activity. The aroma of roasted turkey and country ham was married to the titillating smells of fresh baked pies and cakes. The women and older girls were in the kitchen and dinning room getting everything ready for one of the finest meals anyone ever had. Yes Sir! The old house was alive with all the sounds and smells that evoked a warmth and security that only enhanced the smell of wood and coal burning in the fireplace and the old pot-bellied stove.
Sometime during the evening Grandpa, who was a very educated but simple man, would pick up his tuning fork and a hymnbook and begin to sing a Christmas carol. We all joined in. Then the evening seemed to flow like an orchestra with the Conductor being that unseen Guest. No sooner had one song ended than another began. Interspersed between them, we children stood and said the “Christmas pieces” we had learned for our church programs, as well as poems by noted authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, and James Whitcomb Riley. Then, right on cue, the Divine Conductor seemed to stir Grandpa to pick up his Bible and give it to his oldest Son, Milton, who read Luke’s account of the birth of Christ. Maybe it was my age, or maybe it was because it was Christmas, I’m not sure. All I know is that when he read from the Bible on Christmas Eve the words seemed to dance within my head with life. Afterward, we gave the gifts we had gotten for the one in the family whose name we had drawn some weeks earlier. All too soon the evening was over, but I was left with precious, lingering, memories, and a longing to repeat that evening, or something akin to it, as soon as possible. Now, years later, and with over forty years in the ministry, when I think about what true fellowship in the Church should be, it is the memory of those Christmas Eves that floods my mind. You see, Christmas Eve with my mother’s family became for me a microcosm of the way things ought to be. It may even have been a hint from the Lord Himself as to the only effective way to live the Christian life and to do Church. Yes, this family Christmas gathering so many years ago became the seed of a search that was to fuel the fires of my ministry.
I join my cousins and our friends in the little community of Beech Hill, West Virginia in grieving the loss of something special, but from now and throughout all eternity each time I see their names, their faces, or hear their voices, I will smell the aroma of what God might call FELLOWSHIP.
Do you remember the moment of your New Birth? Most followers of Christ have an account of their salvation from sin that is as unique as they. None, perhaps, is quite as distinctive as the one related to me, and a few close relatives in the living room of my brother’s home immediately following the wedding of his older son. What made the story so pregnant with meaning is that it was the account of my father’s salvation told from his own lips.
Now, that might not seem like such an exceptional thing to you, but my father was one of those guys who rarely gave you a peek inside his life. For most all our lives and for whatever reason, the man we called “Daddy” proudly wore a facade both at home and in the community that never allowed others to get too close to him. So, as the family and some friends relaxed and shared a meal together, imagine our surprise as this emotionally distant man pulled the cord of the curtain of his life open and let us see into one of the most intimate experiences of his life. Following is the story as I remember it and that day will forever change how I view my father.
“It was in early Autumn in the hills of West Virginia. The leaves were beginning to gain color and some of them had begun their inevitable trek from tree to sod, forming a soft cushion for the winter snows to rest upon. In those days there was not much in the way of entertainment except at the local church. It was common to have ice cream socials and all-day meetings with dinner on the grounds. On such occasions, the church would procure the services of a circuit-riding preacher to come and hold a revival meeting. Since, entertainment was at such a shortage, both saints and sinners often found themselves at these meetings. Such was the case when I was a young man. I lived a rather loose life in those days and had a number of friends with whom I ran around. Our habit was to go to the different churches and cause such a stir that the preacher could not preach and the people could not worship. We laughed, threw spit wads and generally made such a nuisance of ourselves that we had gained quite the reputation for stopping revivals.
Added to our mischievousness was the fact that I had learned the art of making moonshine whiskey and had a still over the creek bank near our parents’ home. Now, all this took place during the days of prohibition. The possession or sale of alcohol was against the law, but for me and my friends that was only a problem, if you were caught. Unfortunately, it was our habit to test some of our ‘home-brew’ before attending these revival meetings. Otherwise we might not have the courage to cause the trouble we wanted. We thought it was all great fun. Others in the community did not have the same attitude as we.
One memorable Sunday afternoon we heard there was to be a revival starting at the local church. My friends and I decided to arrive early enough to make our plans as to how we were going to disturb the service. Shortly after we arrived the evangelist arrived driving and old horse-drawn wagon. He was wearing a black coat, black hat, black trousers and white shirt. He slowly got down off his wagon and started towards the church. My friends and I lined either side of the steps walking up into the church. We figured that we’d give him a good scare before the service so that our antics inside would not take long in bringing a halt to the meeting.
About half way up the steps the old fella’ stopped and looked us right in the eye as he turned his head first to the right and then to the left. Suddenly he surprised us by speaking to us in such a deep voice that I was sure God was speaking through him. He said, ‘Boys, them’s apples in the back of that wagon’ (He was paid two bushels of apples for his previous revival). ‘And’, he continued, ‘When I come out of here tonight, if there is even one of them missing, I’ll kill ya’. Daddy said that he and his friends didn’t know what to make of it but there plans did not change.
The service began and Daddy and his friends were the last to file into the church and onto the back row. They put their plan into action. It was so disturbing that the people could hardly sing or testify. Finally, it was time for the old Circuit Rider to preach. He stepped up to the pulpit. He was an awesome specimen in his black clothes coupled with the long shadows created by the kerosene lanterns that lighted the building. Then he did something that I’ve never seen any preacher do. He laid his Bible down on the pulpit.
Then he reached under the left side of his big black coat and pulled out a pistol and laid it on one side of his Bible. He reached under the right side of his coat and retrieved a second pistol and laid it on the other side of the Bible. Then, in a voice that seemed to almost shake the rafters, he thundered, ‘I hear tell that some of you folks don’t like preachers and you don’t like revivals. Well, this Bible and these two pistols say that we’re gonna’ have revival.”
Daddy said that the man preached a powerful message and at the end of the service he and all his friends walked down the aisle and bowed at the altar and surrendered their hearts to Jesus.
Surely, this method of evangelism would not be taught in any seminary or Bible college. Nor would I expect Campus Crusade For Christ or the Navigators to put this method in their training manuals. The old Circuit Riding Preachers who roamed the hills and valleys of this great nation of ours for the first 300 years or so Adapted the Gospel the best way they knew and called to the Kingdom some rough old mountain boys that maybe never would have come to Christ any other way. Above all else, Christianity must be real. I will forever cherish this experience my Daddy shared with us that day. Even if only for a moment, my brother and I got to see the man behind the facade. Makes me long for heaven.
Oh, by the way! When Dad arrived home that night, his parents had already gone to bed. His mother, like most “Moms”, was lying awake waiting on him to get home. As my Dad put his foot on the first step of the front porch, Grandma said she knew that he was a changed man. His experience that night had changed how he walked. Yes, I’m aware of the irony of that last statement.
January 12, 2010 may be recorded as one of the most catastrophic days in modern history. Of course, along with events such as this come those with opinions as to why the catastrophe occurred. Pat Robertson, President and Founder of CBN(Christian Broadcasting Network) has taken quite a bit of heat because of the following statement:
“And you know Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. The island of Hispaniola is two nations on one island. It’s cut down the middle. On one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc.. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. Uh, they need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God and out of this tragedy. I’m optimistic something good may come.”
It is important to contrast WHAT Robertson said with WHEN he chose to say it. Both Conservatives and Liberals, Christian and Non-Christian seemed to be offended by his words. A closer reading of his words, however, does not seem to specify that the earthquake occurred because of the pact made with the Devil. Rather, his hope seems to be that the culture of Haiti can be redeemed by a collective, national repentance, and return to God, a nation seemingly devastated by many wrong choices in the last two hundred years.
One would not have to study Haitian history long before realizing the social, moral, and spiritual decline in the nation after the tragic day they made the demonic pact. The evidence that they actually made the pact can be seen everyday. Multiplied millions of dollars have been given by nations such as the US, but the corruption in the government has become a channel to line the pockets of the already rich, while the poor seem to get more poor. Once, considered the ‘Queen of the Caribbean’, because of her rich supplies of Mahogany, the land is now barren, a virtual dust bowl, with the air around Port-Au-Prince estimated to be 40% feces.
So…why Haiti? Why them and not us? Was the earthquake God’s judgment on a nation steeped in superstition and the occult? Whether or not this cataclysm is the judgment of God may have to be reserved for an historical perspective rather than a prophetic one. While both Biblical history and prophecy are replete with instances of God using cataclysmic events to gain the attention of his people, I am reminded of a passage found Luke 13:1-5. The context of this passage has to do with the coming judgment of God upon his people. Jesus chastised his listeners for being able to predict inclement weather, while they failed to ‘read the signs of the times’. The disciples offered a question for the Master concerning two tragic situations. One, the fate of the Galileans, whom Governor Pilate killed and mixed their blood with the daily sacrifice. Two, Jesus referred to the eighteen persons on whom the tower in Siloam fell and they perished. With reference to the judgment he posed a question that I will offer as a possible answer as to whether or not God is mad a Haiti. Jesus said, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?”
I’m not sure the quake in Haiti was judgment for the nation of Haiti, but I’m fairly sure it was meant as judgment for me. From my perspective, the United States is far more deserving of judgment than a nation already reaping the results of her casual choices. Sometimes God sent judgment in Biblical times to cause a people to repent. If so, I want to be the first in this country to repent…I repent of my arrogance, lack of compassion, and shallowness. I repent for presuming to think that God would somehow judge a nation like Haiti, and exempt my nation, and me, specifically for my continued hardness of heart toward him and his will for my life.
The golden text of the Bible is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The entire world and all who dwell therein deserve the most severe judgment. To say otherwise is to deny the holiness of God and to make him other than he is. However, the Cross divides history because our holy God, also is a God of love and mercy. He has offered man a way of escape from a judgment to come. Is God mad at Haiti? No, I don’t think so.
In fact, I believe God loves Haiti and all this world. Was there judgment in the earthquake of January 12, 2010? Yup! It judged me. I reviewed my life, and noticed I have fallen far short of what I say I believe. I thank God for his judgment upon me that day. I only hope I can respond as well as a Haitian lady I saw on the news with her hands in the air and tears running down her cheeks, saying, “God be merciful to us! We are sinners!”
If that is judgment, then may each of us respond in humility as she did. Pat Robertson may have been insensitive, but others, like me, could do with some repenting.
FORTY YEARS AND…
Today, June 7th, Kathi and I celebrate 40 years of marriage. I can honestly say, as I look back upon those years that I have at least two views. One, it seems but a short while. Two, it seems like a lifetime. Now before you ladies out there start calling me names associated with the animal which produces ham and pork chops, please give me a chance to explain. Whew!!
Life really does go by fast. In fact, sometimes it nearly seems to fly. Perhaps an experience that convinced me of that occurred about three years ago when we joined our daughter, Stacye and family in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to watch our son, Nathan perform in a summer stock presentation of “Seussical the Musical”. Nathan played the part of the Mayor of Whoville. Upon arrival, Kathi and I soon discovered that we were in the same area where we honeymooned more than 3 ½ decades previously. We anxiously took everyone to see the beautiful Resort where we had spent those first precious days of our new life together. However, when we arrived…it had all been torn down. All that was left of the beginning of our life there were the memories in the hearts of two people, who were left standing and wondering where the time had gone.
Let me get to the second observation I mentioned: ‘it seems like a lifetime’. Now, by the grace of God, Kathi and I have reached 40 years together, and folks it has been a ‘Lifetime’. Don’t get me wrong. I really wouldn’t trade those years. There are some experiences I would like to have back and, as we say in golf, “have a do-over”. However, the years we have been married have been a Journey. That’s what 40 years are anyway, right? The Bible has numerous instances of the number 40: Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus was tested by the devil for 40 days, and it rained on Noah for 40 days and nights. Those who study ‘numerology’ talk about the meaning of that number as a sign of testing, trial, or judgment. I concur, but I see within the testing and trial a deeper meaning. Could it be that 40 also represents a ‘Journey’?
A Journey is supposed to teach one something. I think it would be terribly sad to spend a lifetime’ on this orb and not to have learned a few things about one’s self while here. I’ll be the first to say that I’m, perhaps, not the sharpest pencil in the drawer’, but after 40 years I think I’m starting to ‘get it’. Jesus is teaching me that life is not about me…It’s not about you either. Life is about Christ. My presence here is as one of those very special portions of Him. I have been placed in the arena called ‘Life’ in order to help draw the focus of the Universe unto the only One worthy to receive all praise and honor. Another thing I’m learning is life is about relationships. Incidentally, marriage is about that too. Now, Kathi already knew that, but guys like me take a little longer to realize the importance of the human connection. We’re all about individual’ and ‘independent’. Success in life can never be realized outside of relationships. God knew that so he made the family, and the Church. An attack upon the family is an attack upon the very core of human existence, and society in her essence. Still another important issue is the possibility of change. Although Kathi and I have journeyed together 40 years, neither of us is the same person as we were those many years ago. I wish I would have changed more in our journey together. I’ve made some pretty good choices in life, but I’ve also made some that nearly curl my eyebrows.
Lastly,the Lord has taught me much from my sweetheart. She is the one who has shown me the way of love towards neighbors, friends, and parishoners. Her timely words of encouragement, and sincereity in getting to know each one and what makes them ‘tick’ has been a key to her own heart, and the heart of God towards his children. Hours she’s spent through the years preparing gifts, meals, etc for family, the lonely, brokenhearted and servants of the community both inspire and convict me. The smile which comes across the face of some American Armed Forces person when she determinedly seeks them out to say, ‘Thank You’ reminds me of the determination which God has in seeking each of us out. But most of all her consistent hunger for Christ through these years has taught me the importance of perserverance, as she has stood by my side and often led the challenge and charge to and for the Church.
My deepest regrets are that I wasn’t a better husband and father. My grandest hope is that there is more change yet to come. Through this 40 years’ journey Kathi and I have had a lot of stuff to learn and a lot left to finish. One thing, however, I don’t regret in this journey, by God’s grace, is the one I chose to walk with me in it. HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, SWEETIE! It’s been a lifetime, but, oh how very short.
What is my value to God? How does He view me with all my warts…failures…and…well…sins? Jesus opens a window into the value he places upon me and every Spirit-born believer. In Matthew 13 our Lord shares a number of parables all wrapped around the theme of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Interpreting parables can be a fussy kind of thing. One must keep in mind that with the parables there is one interpretation. There may be multiple applications within the context of truth declared but the interpretation is single in its scope. Ok, enough with theology! Let’s get to the heart of the issue.
I don’t have time to argue this point, but believe me when I say that Jesus uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven” to define that period of time between his first coming and his second coming. Also, please undestand that to the ancient Hebrew the pearl had no value whatsoever. In fact, you will not find it used in the Old Testament at all, except for some mistranslations. Furthermore, Jesus own interpretation of the parable of the weeds sets the prameters for the interpretation of the Eight parables, when it comes to identifying the characters in the parables. For instance, the ‘man’, the ‘sower’, the ‘merchant’ must always refer to God, because Jesus defined him as such in the parable of the weeds. The ‘field’, Jesus said, is the ‘world’. Get the picture? In the parable of the Pearl of Great Price Jesus says, ‘…the kingdom of heaven is like a ‘Merchant’ who went in search of fine pearls…” When Jesus said this, the disciples were in great confusion. It would be like me saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a ‘cow-pile’. Yeah! You heard rightly…cow-pile. I guess that’s not quite right either, because you can use manure for fertilizer, but you get the picture, don’t you. NO VALUE WHATSOEVER IN THE PEARL!
Apparently, Jesus saw value where no one else did. From before the foundation of the world our Lord made a decision that he was going to shed the garments of diety and go on a quest for something of such unique value that all except he would not even recognize its value. You and I are that pearl. He saw value where there was none. He saw us not as we are but as what he would make us to be.
Perhaps I can tell this better by offering a cultural illustration. In the South Pacific it used to be the custom of men to trade cows for a wife. A father might receive two cows for an average daughter. An above average girl would often bring her father three cows. Only a rare beauty would bring the unheard of price of four cows. Once there was a father with a daughter so homely that he was hoping he could get just one cow for her. There was another man on the island, who was considered to be a very astute trader. One day he came to the father with the homely daughter and offered eight cows for her. Everyone thought the man to have lost his mind. However, it was not long before this homely girl was transformed into the most beautiful and gracious woman in the land. She had started to think of heself as ‘an eight cow woman’, and she became one.
Did you notice
in the parable of the pearl how much Jesus paid for us? The Bible says, “…he went and sold all that he had…” The blood of God’s Son was the price paid for us. Hey! Can you get what this means? I am an Eight Cow Christian. You are too! There was no value in us as far as the world was concerned, but the King of the Universe saw us wallowing in the mire and muck of this world. We were dressed in the most homely, unattrative manner. Our hair was unkempt, and a beauty king or queen we weren’t . But O Look at us now! One final thought. What would it be like if we would start treating one another like Eight Cow Christians instead of a one or two-cow deal?
Living the Christian Life is not hard…it’s impossible. Now before the theology police try to have me burned at the stake,
let me explain why I would risk expressing such a thought. This statement is a product of about 40 years of ministry and dealing with many people who have become frustrated with themselves and their inability to live up to the ideals of what some say constitutes the life of a good Christian.
I mean really, if each of us believers in Jesus was to make a list of everything every preacher told us to do to be a good Christian, we would need an extra sheet of paper, maybe two (Timmmmmberrrrr!). Here’s a partial list of some of those things I have heard and tried (unsuccessfully) to keep perfectly. Read your Bible
…Do it every day…and be sure and get up at 5:00 in the morning to begin. You slouch! You’re already behind John Wesley. He got up at 4:00 a.m. and had preached Three times before noon. Second, Pray
! Do it on your knees and at least 1-2 hours per day. Third, Witness for Jesus.
..Remember, “…he that winneth souls is wise…” Fourth, Obey the Holy Spirit
. Don’t dare miss a leading of the Lord or you can’t go to heaven. Fifth, attend church faithfully
…and don’t miss a service. God doesn’t like it when people miss church. Follow those few with Tithing, being filled with the Spirit, and finding your gift area and walking in it. Whew!!! I’m tired already. Oh, wait a minute…I forgot Sanctification. We’ve got to be sanctified. “…Without holiness no one shall see the Lord.” Let’s see how I’m doing so far. Forget that! How did I do today? Let me get my list and check a few of these off. Hope I didn’t miss one.
Just writing that paragraph makes me nervous. Actually most of the things I listed and so much more are helpful and some are even
necessary for a successful walk with God but there is a problem. The problem is the approach. It is a “Do” oriented approach. Now “Doing” is important in the Christian Life also, but it can never come before ‘being’. The secret to living the Christian Life is hinted at in Genesis 2:9b. “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Look a little more closely at this verse. Do you see it? There it is? Both good and evil are in the same tree. What! Yeah! Good and evil are in the same tree. There is the problem with trying to live the Christian Life. Men have a tendancy to live in extremes. Once we are saved we want to please the Lord with our actions, but we do it out of the abundance of our souls rather than our spirits, and we do as many good things as we can. We make our lists of the good and right things we are supposed to do. Our list is not too long when we first start, but as we listen to sermons and read our Bibles and go to seminars our lists get longer and longer until we become wrapped up in our list. The end result of this is frustration. Frustrated people either give up or, worse, just settle into a ‘religious’ life.
A religious life usually consists of someone who has made a list just long enough that he can be relatively successful at keeping. Her ability to keep the list makes her very proud and…if you please…a member of a very exclusive club…LEGALISTS. There is also another side to religiosity, LICENTIOUSNESS. These folks think that God’s grace has little to no responsibility attached to it. As long as they feel comfortable for having prayed a prayer of repentance so they can go to heaven when they die, they are actually fairly satisfied with their life as is. All of this comes out of the same tree.
Therein lies the big problem. As long as we keep trying to live the Christian Life out of our human souls we will fail. The soul is where the Intellect, Emotions and Will reside. God is Spirit…not soul. Spirit is the highest life form. The Christian Life is…God. That is…whatever God does is the Christian Life. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves. Does God read his Bible? Does He tithe? How about Church? Does He go there on Sunday? Surely He speaks in tongues, right? Again, let me say these things are important (I hate burning at the stake). But the key is to become a participant in Eternal Life. Peter said in 2 Peter 1:3 “His divine power has granted us all things that pertain to life, and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence…so that…you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
I wonder if this conversation ever took place? Did Jesus speak to the disciples just before the Ascension and say, “…Now boys, I lived the Christian life by partaking of my Father’s life. I only did what I saw him doing and only spoke what I heard him saying. We communed together every day. We enjoyed one another’s Presence. But you peons can’t do it that way. You need to Read your Bibles and pray and tithe and…and…and do it all without complaining. I connected with my Father, but you will have to live the Christian Life by a secondary method.” That conversation never took place.
If Adam had partaken of the Tree of Life, the very Life of God would have flowed through him. His obedience would have been the result of his passionate relationship with his loving God. God would have been “at work in him both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2.13)
. A Christian cannot obey his way into fellowship with God, but he can fellowship his way into obedience to God.
Interestingly, when a person becomes a Christian he receives that Life, Eternal Life. God begins to commune with him through his spirit. He begins to produce in him the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22-23). What is fruit anyway? Fruit is the result of a tree that is drowning in life.
In Christ we have the privilege of choosing once again how we will live the sanctified Life. We can choose one tree out of which still flows good and evil or we can choose the other one…The tree of Life. There were two trees in the garden
. There still are. One leads to fellowship, the other to religion. Which will you choose?
IT WAS LIKE GRAND CENTRAL STATION!
How many times I have heard the statement, “It was like Grand Central Station”, I do not know, but on each of our four trips to NYC after 9-1-1 the Lord seemed to direct us there. It is a massive building near the United Nations’ building. During the busiest times of the day subway cars and trains carrying thousands of people arrive and depart to and from the Station. New York City is a melting pot of every tribe, tongue and nation on the earth. Grand Central Station seems to be the giant dispensary for those people. One might go there and enter into the giant room containing the rotunda and find very few people. However, within a matter of seconds as trains and subways arrive and depart the room could be so packed with people that one could virtually stir them with a stick.
On our first occasion we walked into the Station we had little knowledge of what we were going to do. We walked into the Rotunda, spread out into different sections with our sticks and just stood, trusting for the Lord to bring to us those whom He would. At that time the city was crawling with members of the military. The city and the nation were shaken to the core, fear clouded the faces of countless numbers. Once secure people, who gave little consideration about ‘tomorrow’, were now even concerned about ‘today’. Parents, husbands, wives, whose minds had previously been wrapped around the best way to make the next dollar seemed to be thinking of little except how grateful they were to be alive and have their family in tact.
Numbers of people walked up to us asking about the meaning of the sticks. Among those who asked about the sticks was a very distinguished young woman. She approached Steve Coder and me in a most unusual way. She came off a subway into the rotunda, and marched directly toward us. If you could have seen her, she was like one who was on a mission. Approaching us she said, “Where can I get one of those sticks?” Steve said, “Right here!” She asked how much they were and we explained to her that they were free. She exclaimed, “Oh wonderful! I want one!” Steve said, “Wait, I need to tell you the story of the sticks first.” She said, “Oh, I already heard it from someone at Ground Zero Yesterday!” We had been asking people to share the message that we are to be one nation united under one God. Apparently, someone with whom we had shared the gospel message had shared with her. She had thought about the responsibility of what it meant to receive and carry a stick and she was ready. If you could have seen her take that stick and walk away from us into the mass of people, I don’t know what you would have done. I looked at Steve and said, “Brother, there goes the gospel into NYC…”
Suddenly, the Lord stirred our hearts that we needed to sing. As I indicated we were not a choir, but a few of us could sing a little. On one occasion as the rotunda area was packed with hundreds of people rushing to their next destination. We stood in the middle and began to sing some patriotic numbers, including ‘God Bless America’, and ‘This Land Is your Land”. What happened next was amazing. All those hundreds of people, who were nearly stepping on top of one another came to a screeching halt. The anointing of the Holy Spirit was upon us as we sang. The people began to cry out, “Sing! Sing! These are our songs! We need you now! Sing! Sing!” Tears were streaming down their faces. Some were holding up their cell phones so that those to whom they were speaking could hear the singing. Everyone seemed to want a stick. We quickly challenged them to turn their hearts toward God and share the message with others. Several people thought we were a choir, but when they found out we were just Christian pilgrims from different parts of the U.S, who had come to bring a message of hope in Christ they could hardly believe it.
Over and over as we walked the streets of the city we saw people carrying their sticks. An entire floor of one building housed several nurses and medical personel. Each of them received a stick and they began to meet daily at lunch for a Bible study…each carrying a stick. Wall street lawyers and financial investors asked for them, as well as taxie drivers, police officers and firemen. We visited fire stations and police precints and prayed with men and women who had been devastated by the tragic events of 9-1-1. At one fire station we met a man who was the only one left out of 13 at his station. He looked at me and said, “That would be like losing everyone of you but one.” The sadness emanating from him was almost more than anyone could bare. How blessed we were to come with a message of hope in a time of terror and confusion.
There are times when the hearts of people are so hard that to attempt to share a gospel message is almost futile. However, God has ways of using experiences of life to make the heart receptive. It is important that we in the church are ready to take advantage of every open door as it comes. We must not miss the opportunities given to us. Just as quickly as a door opens it can also close. At any moment the quiet road of life you travel may be packed with men, women, youth and children, whose lives have been turned upside down. Who knows? It may even look like Grand Central Station. Will you let them walk on by into a hopeless sea of humanity or will you begin to sing the ‘song of the Lamb’ and bring hope and life into their barrenness? Historically the church has been spiritually AWOL at the most inopportune times. The prophet Isaiah said to his generation words that are applicable to ours. “Awake! Awake! Put on thy strength, O Zion. Put on thy beautiful garments…”
…WHY WAS I SPARED?
There are no words to express the sense of purpose and destiny I experienced as I walked with my brothers and sisters in Christ all the way from uptown New York City to downtown toward the place known then and now as…’Ground Zero’. It was as though we were making our way to a funeral. All along the way people stopped us asking the same question, “What do you mean about these sticks?” Police officers, Wall Street Lawyers, homeless, business men and women, each from varied tribes, tongues and nations, all stopping us wanting to know the story of the sticks. Each time we took a few moments to give witness to our Lord, and give the message that ‘God wants us to be one nation united under one God’. We asked those to whom we witnessed to take a stick and spread the message. How thrilling it was to watch hundreds of people walking away from us into the massive sea of people carrying the Gospel message.
During the four trips we made to NYC we gave away between 1300 and 1500 sticks, and each one taking a vital message for our nation to people who were desperately trying to find their way. It was a crisp October morning and had the sky not been obscured by the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero, I’m sure it would have been very blue. All around us were the unmistakable smells of smoldering death. The closer we got to the place where the Towers had fallen the more it felt as though we were going to a funeral. As we approached Ground Zero we came upon a Baptist group, who had set up a Prayer Station on the street corner. We paused to have prayer with them and to tell them why we were there. We joined our hands in a circle very near where the towers had fallen and began to pray for the suffering family members left behind, our wayward nation, and for those who were to find Christ through this horrible ordeal. When we opened our eyes, there was a great number of people who had joined us in prayer. One was a man from China, who was working in NYC, and who had been on the 40th floor of the South Tower. At the end of the prayer, he said, “Why was I spared? Why did I get out, when so many thousands lost their lives?” One of our brothers took him aside and shared the Good News with him that Jesus came to save sinners and that Christ had a wonderful purpose for his life.” This precious Chinese man bowed his head and in a very sacred moment he received the Eternal Life of the Father and the Son. He was transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light.
There are numerous stories such as this of people, whose lives have been transformed because a few Christians cared enough to go to a hurting city and nation and carry ‘sticks’ with a message. In fact, we became known on the streets as ‘THE STICK PEOPLE’. Sounds like something out of a Sci-fi movie, doesn’t it? We wore the name, however, as a badge of honor.
On another occasion We were standing with hundreds of others looking over a baracade towards the smoldering ruins. It was so quiet that one could almost here a mouse sneeze. Hundreds of people standing, looking and yet each one alone with his/her private thoughts. Suddenly, the Lord led for our group to begin to sing. We were not a choir, but God anointed our singing in such a way that people were weeping. All at once a young woman approached me with tears in her eyes. Her name is Alicia. She was in her apartment several floors above us and heard us singing. She ran down the stairs and onto the street. Breathlessly she asked who we were and why we were singing. I tried to tell her of our and God’s love for the nation and our participation in the grieving of the city and the nation over this tragedy. I also shared with her how we had come to bring a little hope in the midst of tragedy. She related the account of that awful day when her husband had gone to work in the North Tower. She continued her story between sobs to say that the explosions had been beyond something she could explain. The terror was still fresh upon her face and in her voice. She spoke of trying desperately to find her husband and fearing the worst. Thankfully, her husband made it out safely, but both had been left with questions, doubts and fears that would be impossible to explain to anyone. She said when she heard us singing that God put hope in her heart. and she thanked me over and over for coming to NYC to share the love of God. She said, “We need it now!” In the picture above I have just offered her the opportunity of being an ambassador of hope to her city by taking an Ezekiel Stick and the blessed message of hope it represented. She was amazed I was giving her an Ezekiel Stick, but she received it with gladness and went forth to share the love of God.
Watchman Nee, the humble Chines Evangelist, once said, “To be used of God once in a lifetime is worth a lifetime of living.” I am a very blessed man. My times of being used by him are too numerous to count. In the midst of tragedy it is human nature to ask, “Why?” Many of the people we talked with asked this question. Most wanted to know what such an even meant for them personally. Suffering without reason gives hopelessness, but, if man can find a reason for his suffering, then he usually becomes more the person he was meant to be. Thankfully, we had a message to give that offered hope beyond reason. As we walked those human-laden streets those days,we offered not an abstract hope, but rather a God of hope, who has suffered as we have and has become victorious through it all.
Why some made it out of the Towers alive and others didn’t, I do not know. I do know that after September 11, 2001 I have never been the same, not just because I have suffered, but because I have found hope and meaning for life beyond the typical, daily, ‘grind-it-out’ stuff for which most people live. For what are you living today? God forbid, if tragedy should strike our nation again, and threaten the very foundation of our lives, do you have a hope beyond what this world can offer? How deep does the reason for your living go? Does it go beyond the daily, ‘gind-it-out’ stuff? Selah! Think about it.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THESE STICKS?
On September 11, 2001 I was on vacation with Kathi in Pigeon Forge,TN. Our daughter, Stacye, called to tell us that the United States had been attacked and the towers of the World Trade Center had been the target. Later, of course, we found out about the Pentagon and the downed plane in Pennsylvania. Just as December 7, 1941 is a day that will live in infamy and June 6, 1944 stands as one of the most significant and bravest events of WWII, so does September 11th tower on the horizon of American history as a day, which marks a significant change in how Americans and the rest of the world live our lives.
The day was filled with sunshine and puffy clouds, the last throws of summer beamed from the heavens, but the atmosphere was one of gloom, fear, and confusion. People were fightened, angry, and some even thought the end might be near. As I watched the responses of people on the news and observed with keen interest the rescue workers desperately digging through rubble trying to find survivors, my emotions were vascillating. The predominant thought on my mind was: “Is there something I can do?”. I’m a Christian so I knew one of the most important things to do was to pray. America needed prayer then and needs prayer more now than any time in history. We are a nation who has lost her way. So I began to pray…But I wanted to do more. However, it seemed as though there might be something more I could do.
It wasn’t long before I received a call from Steve Coder, the President of Hand to the Plow Ministries. He said that he was going to go to New York City and invited me to go. Kathi and I prayed about it and determined I should go. I took one of the men in the Church with me and we joined a group of about 15 others…What was our mission? We were going to hand out sticks…Yes, you heard correctly…sticks.
In Ezekiel chapter 37, the prophet is told to take two sticks of wood (walking sticks). On one stick he was to write the name, Judah(meaning, ‘Now I will praise the Lord’). On the other he was to write the name, Ephraim (meaning, ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering’). God then told Ezekiel to bind the two sticks together into one and hold them before the people. Then God said, “When your Countrymen ask you, “What do you mean by these sticks? You should tell them that you are no longer two nations but you are one nation united under one God.”
We purchased some very fine walking sticks and proceeded to New York City a mere 3 weeks after 9/11. Upon arrival at our hotel we met together the evening before for a time of prayer, and worship. Quite frankly I was not all that excited about taking a bunch of sticks out onto the streets of New York, if you know what I mean. Really..come on…those people have a reputation for beating people up with sticks and other such things. So, I decided the next morning when we started walking the streets with sticks I would place myself at the back and let folks who were all fired up about this thing do what they wanted while I just watched. I think I mentioned before that I am very shy by nature. What I had failed to take into consideration was those in the front of our group served as the lure on a fishing line. They got the attention of the people on the street…The succeeding ‘stick carriers’ only enhanced their curosity and by the time I came along…well, I caught the fish, so to speak. We were walking along Broadway and 34th Street when the Bell Captain at the Holiday Inn looked at me and said, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN ABOUT THESE STICKS”. Yes, he used the very words the scripture talked about. I turned towards him and told him the story from Ezekiel. His name is William. I said, “William, if you will pass the message along that God wants us to be one nation united under one God, I’ll give you this stick.” He said, “Praise the Lord!”. I said, “Glory to God!” He took the stick and lifted it high over his head with both hands and brought it down hard upon the sidewalk and said, “I claim in the name of Jesus that He will bring people back to NYC and this hotel.” We went back to NYC about 3 weeks later and he told me God had answered the prayer and that the hotel was full.
This was only the beginning of a grand adventure that came out of a national tragedy. We gave away thousands of Ezekiel Sticks on four separate trips to New York City. I will share more in the next edition.