Wednesday, December 30, 2009

While the majority of my thoughts have been focused on the new year before us, I was thinking of what has become customary in the week between Christmas and New Years: a time to discuss “The Year In Review”. There have been all kinds of articles on the top stories, people and events that shaped the year 2009. If I was an editor of some sort and was asked to give my opinion, I would have to say this year has been dominated, defined and overshadowed more by the economy than anything else. While not everyone is impacted in the same way, it certainly has been one of the most prominent realities affecting people’s lives and our nation.

As I look back over my own “preaching menu” over the last eighteen months or so, I find titles like, “How To Survive A Recession”“Kingdom Economics” — and “Preaching When Time$ Are Tight.” My purpose in preaching these was to help people have a Biblical mind set since Biblical theology and a living faith are what anchor our lives in times of testing. I feel that this has been necessary in a time when people and businesses across the board are feeling the economic pinch, when unemployment is at a record high, and people are having to cut back or operate on smaller margins.

In this context I was drawn to the widow woman of Zarephath in 1Kings 17 as a “model” for our times. In (Lk.4:25,26) Jesus himself singled out this woman and the lessons that her life teaches us. The first that jumps out at you is she was definitely at “rock bottom.” When Elijah asked for some hospitality he learned of her situation and the dire straits she was facing. All she had left was a little handful of flour and a tiny bit of oil. She was gathering sticks to build a fire to make some tortillas as their last meal, then she and her son were going to die. If this is not rock bottom then it’s as close to it as you can possibly get! Have you ever wondered and asked yourself why the Bible has so many “extreme” illustrations like this. Is it simply for the purpose of sensationalism or is God trying to tell us something? I think the reason comes from the legal realm and what is called an a fortiori argument: it is arguing from the greater to the lesser. It comes from the Latin term for “with even stronger reason” meaning that if a thing is true in one situation, call it the “greater,” then it is even more certainly true in the “lesser” situation. This is why you find the reality of hard times (recession; inflammation; famines; economic setbacks) woven into the tapestry of God’s Word and serving as a backdrop for some important workings of God’s grace and power.

This story helps to expose the whole “myth” of financial security. In (Matt.6:19) Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” It is a reminder that the ambition of financial security is at best a short-sighted pursuit because it fails to recognize that life is fraught with uncertainty. Moth and rust can corrode and destroy and thieves can always break in and steal. This is not a call to a life of asceticism. No, we’re called to enjoy life and God’s blessings fully, but He’s reminding us not to hold on too tightly to things that will not last. That’s why I appreciate the Apostle Paul’s honesty when he said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil.4:12) Recover has to recognize the legitimacy of these realities. This is not unbelief or being negative, it is simply giving an accurate and a balanced posture from which to face life and move forward. The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes said (Eccl.7:14) “Enjoy prosperity whenever you can, and when hard times strike, realize that God gives one as well as the other-so that everyone will realize that nothing is certain in this life.”

The widow woman also teaches us about having to confront the real enemy. Elijah’s simple yet powerful words to her were, “do not be afraid.” The spiritual forces of faith and fear certainly contend on the battlefield of our minds and spirit. The list of human fears is an exceptionally long one, but in the financial realm I think the fear of not having enough would rank right near the top. It is one of the things that contribute to the disturbing statistics of giving among American Christians. Study after study show that American Christians are not coming anywhere close to honoring God with their resources and their tithes and offerings. The point behind most of these studies is the astounding impact that could be made if Christians managed their money in a way that gave priority to giving and investing in the Gospel. In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount he pointed to the twin maladies of materialism and worry as the chief culprits behind this sub-normal condition. His charge not to give in to anxiety and worry was based on the Father’s care and character, “Your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” If we are to travel the road to recovery it will begin in our psyche and not giving in to the enemy of fear and worry that we are so prone to doing.

The final thing that this widow woman teaches us involves the “Best Investment.” We all have this one life to invest, and whether we know it or not, we are all investors! I think the question for us is not “Do you believe in Jesus?” but, “Do you believe in Jesus sufficiently to invest your life in His will for you?” God took this widow woman from Zarephath in Sidon to teach us four necessary lessons about bring good investors.

  1. Good investing requires establishing right priorities: vs.13, gives us the operative word of this story, “but first make me a little cake of it...” God will meet my needs if I am willing to put Christ and His kingdom first in my life. (Mt.6:33) has always been one of my life verses, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

  2. Good investing is based on God’s promises and the perspective they generate: vs.14, “for thus says the Lord...this jar of flour shall not be spent.” Kingdom investors maintain a God-view that allows them to see beyond the current crisis.

  3. Good investing calls for our faithful performance and obedience: vs.15, “she went and did according to the saying of Elijah.” God will meet my needs if I obey and practice his financial principles as a faithful steward.

  4. Good investing results in God’s provision: vs.17, “the jar of flour was not spent neither did the jug of oil become empty.” God will meet my needs if I practice the law of harvest. While I don’t give solely to get, there is still real blessing related to and released by my giving. (Lk. 6:38) “If you give, you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use in giving — large or small — it will be used to measure what is given back to you."

Since all investing is the exchange of current resources for a future hope and return, this is why the Kingdom of God can be called the “best investment.” It is the only investment that promises us eternal rewards and return. Paul’s instruction to Timothy for the church contained this (1Tim.6:17-19) “Tell those who are rich not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which will soon be gone, but their pride and trust should be in the living God who always richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and should give happily to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given them. By doing this they will be storing up real treasure for themselves in heaven-it is the only safe investment for eternity! And they will be living a fruitful Christian life down here as well.” Individually and as a church let us position ourselves firmly on this “road to recovery” in the new year that is before us. You won’t be sorry you did!

Friday, November 27, 2009

OK, as I start to write this I've officially got less than 12 hours to be exact, 11 hours and 15 minutes until the big 6-0, my 60th birthday. Also, I'm at my mom's house and watching the Boston Bruins hockey game. That's important and significant because that's what she was doing at this time almost 60 years ago: at Boston's North Station watching a Bruins hockey game. When they drove home that night she ended up going into labor, going to the hospital and voila, I was born on November 28, 1949. Usually for me, birthdays are just another day, but when I told my younger sister, Julie, about number 60 (the first in the family to reach that milestone), she being the consummate party-planner, it became a family reunion. That's nice!

A few years ago I received a letter from a guy in prison who wrote me about the testimony of what God had done in his life, how he had re-dedicated his life to Christ and was serving God in prison. The grieving thing in that letter was he asked me about a certain couple in our church who had been instrumental in winning him to Christ. He wanted me to convey his testimony and his appreciation to them. The problem was that couple was no longer coming to church. They had made decisions that removed them from the will of God, wreaking havoc in their lives as they spun out of control and were no longer serving God. Why is that important to me as I reach my 60th birthday? Well, because for the last 36 years I have tried to stay on track with what God had called me to do, and to help others do the same. This is not a job but it is the passionate desire of my heart. In politics, in advertising, and in judicial settings one of the things they stress is to STAY ON MESSAGE, to stay on point they call it. I am far from perfect and I know that I have a long way to go, but I am grateful to God that after all these years, I AM STILL ON MESSAGE. I have not lost the plot!

This was the golden testimony and authenticating dimension we find in Paul's life in (Acts 26:10-23) "Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision: but showed first to those of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works fitting for repentance. For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and tried to kill me. Having therefore obtained help from God, I continue to this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses said should come: that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first to rise from the dead, and show light to the people, and to the Gentiles." Paul is not glorying in his 15 minutes of fame, but he's saying that after all these years I'm still at it. I call this a "golden" testimony because so much of American culture, and sadly even the church, are influenced by fads: the latest trends, what's hot and what's not. Nothing can take the place of endurance and perseverance in our walk with God, in effective ministry, and in quality relationships. Chrysostom called it "the queen of virtues...the root of all the goods." Jesus made this one of the hinge pins of discipleship, "If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31,32) This is what people want and deserve to see! I remember in 2005, when Wesley Pinnick was serving in Iraq. He had gotten saved, and had been home on leave, and now returning back to his post in a war zone. The very first question guys asked him was not how his leave went, how his family were, but, "are you still doing that Jesus/God thing?" They wanted to know if he was still on message!

John Wesley once described the secret of revival as, "AT IT, ALWAYS AT IT, ALL THE PEOPLE ALWAYS AT IT." Yes! Still witnessing and evangelizing, still praising and worshiping God whole-heartedly, still giving sacrificially, still fired up, still standing for righteousness. I can't think of anything more horrible than a time when people would say, "Oh, yeah...I remember that church, The Door wasn't it? Didn't they used to preach everywhere? Didn't we used to see them on the streets all the time? Weren't they the ones that used to disciple me and plant churches?"

This reminds me of an earlier posting and the question that was presented to me by a sister in the church, "What makes The Door different?" I know that's a bit of a loaded question and can be a pitfall into pride, but I think that this text helps address that question a bit.

  1. A compelling & unifying vision, vs.19, "So then King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." I like The Message translation, "what could I do, King Agrippa, I couldn't just walk away from a vision like that!" To quote Pastor Fred Rubi, "Ironically, the mega-church vision is to unify large crowds of people under the banner of finding your gift and doing your thing. Our vision for discipleship and church planting is exactly the opposite. Although a church our size values lots of different kinds of ministry, we maintain a picture bigger than just individual expression. Conferences, summer outreaches, major dramas and the like are a call to 'all hands on deck.' Our unified vision gives God's people a basic context in which to serve."

  2. Confrontational preaching, vs.20, "Declared that they should repent and turn to God." We're not talking about lacking tact or running roughshod over people, but truth still carries an "in your face" quality to it.

  3. Simple discipleship, vs.20 "Performing deeds in keeping with their repentance." Jesus said to make disciples of all nations. Discipleship is defined as a life of obedience, "teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you." (Mt.28:20) People find themselves at different levels in their walk with God, but let's not be satisfied with anything less than fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ!

  4. The final distinctive is staying on message, vs.22,23, "So I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and by being the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light both to our people and the Gentiles." We are not free to make up our own message, but we're called to preach the "whole counsel of God" - the core values, beliefs, focus, and world view that the Gospel brings. "What I say is the very same thing which the prophets and Moses said was going to happen." Can you see his commitment and passion to stay on message?!

I've come to realize that these things can't be taken for granted. We can lose the plot, and there are plenty of temptations to knock us off message. The natural pull of life is not outward, towards vision, but we all tend to be drawn inward to a self-centered focus and lifestyle. When you factor in other things like the battles we have of becoming offended (lots of opportunities here) and the simple fact that we are prone to grow see how "staying on message" is no small feat. This is why (1Cor.10:12) TM warns us, "We are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don't be so naive and self-confident. You're not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else."

Well, how is it going to be possible and how can we stay on message? We've all seen too much quitting, falling and failing to take it for granted. That's why I hold on to vs.22, "therefore, having obtained help from God". That's our testimony! We've gotten a lot of help from God, and definitely need it! We need divine help because human will alone is not sufficient. It will fail us in time of crisis. I think of the hymn by Robert Robinson,

"O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O, take and seal it;
Seal it for thy courts above."

There's a whole lot of candor and truth in that song. He's asking for divine influence to move and capture our hearts because without this, it's hard for us to stay on message. The Psalmist prayed, "incline my heart to your testimonies" (Ps.119:36) What "sparked" this message whole idea was sitting on the platform the Sunday before Conference in June 2009. Lots of people had already arrived early for Conference and it is traditionally a great service. As I was watching and worshiping God, suddenly the "plot" of who we are and what God is doing became so wonderfully real once again. That's the help from God that we all need from time to time.

You and I must be "planted in the house of God for this to happen." (Ps.92:14) "Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish...they shall still bear fruit in old age." Rick Warren once wrote to the 100 biggest churches in the U.S. wanting to know the secret of their growth and impact. After culling through all the various responses, the one that stood out was “stay put". This means we need to stay on message!

OK, so you want one of my rich and famous stories. Last month I was flying to Namibia by way of South Africa. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones just happened to be sitting in the row in front of me. Before we landed I was able to briefly speak to him. I told him, "Mr. Jagger, you know you've always been a reference point to me (!?). I always wondered when we reached 60, who of us is going to look the best, you or me?!" He laughed and was very good natured about it. He's got a few years on me, but I'm feeling pretty good about that challenge! Right now I'd say we're both still on message. The question is WHO HAS THE BETTER MESSAGE?!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Two important events converge this week. The first is our Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, November 26th, and the other is my 60th birthday on Saturday, November 28th. Both of these overlap in a significant way not because of their proximity on a calendar, but their meaning on such a number of different levels. I’ve always considered November a very good month in the Warner household. Both Mona and I were born in November, she in 1954, and I was born in 1949. More importantly, we were both born-again in November of 1970, a month and an experience that forever changed the course of our lives!

The end of October signals the “big 3" of the end-of-the-year holidays. Halloween (which we could do without) with its familiar black and orange colors, which is closely followed by Thanksgiving (“turkey day”), and then the mother of all holidays, Christmas with all the festivities surrounding it. You’ve got to admit that they come pretty quickly, one right after the other. Of all of these, Thanksgiving Day is the one that for the Christian is more than just a holiday, it is to be our lifestyle! (Col.3:15,16)NIV “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. This is the spirit that sets a believer in Jesus Christ apart. Someone said, “A thankful spirit is one of the key distinguishing marks of a Christian. It sets us apart from the world, it makes us different.”

This past Sunday, at the end of the morning worship service, the Church got me! Even though I started to notice some unusual movement near the end of the service, they surprised me with a 60th birthday celebration and tribute. To hear such kind words from numbers of people was very moving and treasured time to me. It reinforced for me some simple but important truths. The first was the value of going the distance with God’s people. That means loving, serving and teaching them through all the seasons of life: the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been very privileged to be able to invest my youth and now my middle years in the service of the Gospel and God’s people at The Door. How do I feel about this? (Phil.2:17) answers it best, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” It also reminded me of the importance and power of little things. In the long run it is not just the big platform that matters, but the little acts of love, of encouragement, of service, and of Christian exampleship that make the difference. The other inspiration I took from this was a desire to get better. “Lord, I’ve still got a long way to go, and a lot to learn....make me more like You, and help me to be a more effective minister of the Gospel.”

Pastor Alvin Smith managed to really speak for me when he told the congregation that the best gift they could give me was their prayers. So true! I was so blessed to have Greg Foster, who used to be a motorcycle gang member come and tell me Sunday that he prays for me and my family every day! Incredible! In a recently-ended Sunday School series called, “Especially Your Prayers” I taught on Paul’s prayers in the New Testament for people and churches. What stood out so vividly was they were informed prayers, therefore they were thoughtful, rich and substantive (not just a vague, “Lord, bless them.”). The second reality throughout was that they were thankful prayers. (Phil.1:3-5) says, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” I can totally identify with those sentiments.

In my brief “Thanksgiving list” there are a few things that stand out about our beloved church fellowship.

  1. We have such a good “line up” in our Church Staff. In putting together a championship baseball team, you must have a good line-up of both pitchers and position players. I’m grateful for our church staff that really does have my back. This also includes the host of people who serve in our congregation with such excellence to meet the huge amount of needs in a growing church.

  2. The incredible workers, church-planters, pastors and their wives who serve in the United States and overseas. I am so grateful for their whole-hearted sacrifice and service to Christ.

  3. I am also thankful for the privilege each week of looking out at the people and the faces in our congregation, each one of them special because they are each a story and testimony to God’s grace and miracle workings! You have made the journey possible, easier, and certainly more enjoyable!

There’s an old hymn that goes, “Count your blessings. Name them one by one. Count your many blessings. See what God has done.” That’s a fine old song and the truth it is trying to convey is a valid one, but it is also an unrealistic song. There’s no way most of us can count all our blessings. There are just too many of them! The message here is that we need to remember that our blessings are so numerous and manifold that we cannot possibly count them all. May that be the backdrop of our relationship with God and with one another, and may we all cultivate thankful hearts. Tony Rascon really summed it up for me the best on Sunday. While we were having some cake and refreshments after the service he was talking to me. He said that God had showed him that what we had was something very special! I agree whole-heartedly. May God help us not to forget that, or take it for granted; and maybe also realize that is why the devil fights it so relentlessly, because it is special and something very powerful!

Happy Thanksgiving To All

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