Why can’t we just get along?

I’m sure you have said such a thing in exasperation when you have witnessed some of the picky things over which we Christians disagree. My pastoral ministry in the local church as well as in an academic community has given me a front row seat to the struggle.

I will spare you a laundry list of the issues; an exercise which of itself could bring disagreement.  Suffice it to say, these issues range from the theological to the political; from worship style to life-style. While we no longer go to war to settle our differences (it was to our shame that we once did), it is my observation that we often solve our disagreements the good old fashioned American way; separate and go to another church- or start our own.

I think the tragedy in all of this is that in our attempt to love the Lord Jesus and to be faithful to His Word, we end up not loving each other and being unfaithful to His Word. If we really desire to be biblical in our approach to dealing with disagreements on non-essentials (things not having to do with the centrality of the gospel), then we need to pay attention to Romans 14:1. “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One person’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”

This entire chapter goes on to deal with disagreements between Christians in the church at Rome who were going after each other because of “disputable matters.” Luther called them “pebble in the shoe” issues; annoying disputes which cannot be settled because each person is convinced in their own conscience that they hold the correct position.

There were those whose consciences were “strong” and were convinced that they had the freedom to eat the meat sold at the temple meat-market (the only place in town to get good meat), even though all of the animals were first sacrificed to a pagan deity.

There were others in the church, however, who became vegetarians because they had a “weak” conscience— they believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols would make them participants in the pagan worship from which they had been converted. Although Paul identified more with the carnivores, he believed they were both right as long as they were acting according to their conscience (v. 5, 23).

Where they were wrong, however, was in their attitude toward each other. “The one who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him… Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (v. 5, 10, 13).

Thus, according to the Scripture, being”right” on a theological/political/worship/life-style issue takes a back seat to the love and unity which should be displayed by those who are in disagreement over that issue.

If someone is fully convinced in his own mind on a disputable matter, even if we do not share that conviction, then God forbid that we should demand them to go against their conscience. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (v. 7). I may have a strong opinion or viewpoint, but it should never trump my love for someone who has a different perspective.

And let’s remember what Jesus said in John 13:34, 35 “A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” As Francis Shaeffer used to say something like; if we Christians do not love each other, we give the world the right to conclude that we are not Christians.

So, the unbelieving world is watching and I wonder if it moves any closer to the gospel when we argue over who’s right or whether we love each other???

Just a thought…

Openly Celibate Gay Christians?

There is a growing movement within the Church of Christians who openly identify as gay, but who are also openly committed to celibacy. Some of you have never met anyone like this and maybe never will, but I guarantee that the Church will have to make a place for them. In fact, they may the key to help us establish a more robust theology of singleness that the evangelical arm (in particular) of the Church sadly lacks. I believe that this will not only enhance our understanding of spiritual intimacy and fellowship within the Church, but in turn will strengthen our understanding of biblical marriage (man and woman).

My blog is called Just a Thought for a reason. I want to have you think deeply with me about the Bible and Theology as it relates to life. And thinking through the issues of celibacy and singleness, especially as it relates to our brothers and sisters who are same-sex attracted will require some pretty hard work. Let me begin by giving you the link to an article that was written last year in the Washington Post. It deals with the celibacy issue but pay special attention to whether you believe the Bible teaches that sexual attraction is in itself sinful or whether the sin is found in the lust and behavior that follows.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/gay-christian-and–celibate-the-changing-face-of-the-homosexuality-debate/2014/08/04/65a73d6c-1c1a-11e4-9b6c-12e30cbe86a3_story.html

Revival (4)…

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

The final major characteristic that has attended revival has been the growth of the Church and its mission in the world. The Great Awakening of the 1740s produced 50,000 new church members. The Prayer Revival of 1857-8 produced half-a-million new church members and an additional 50,000 in Wales. In 1806 Samuel Mills, a freshman at Williams College, helped to lead a group of five students to pray for revival of the campus. One of those meetings took place beneath a haystack because of a thunderstorm. The subsequent revival was the impetus for what would become an unprecedented thrust in foreign missions. Out of it came the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, and the American Colonization Society. There is a plaque at the site of the Haystack Prayer Meeting that says; “The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” Richard Lovelace claims that “every major advance of the kingdom of God on earth is signaled and brought about by the general outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival.”

It should also be mentioned that along with the missionary outreach of the Church, revival has also had clear social implications. Timothy Smith claims that genuine revival fuses the personal and the social aspects of the gospel. This can be seen especially in the revivals of the mid-nineteenth century which gave birth to the organization of trade unions, the abolition of child labor, women’s suffrage, the YMCA, the founding of colleges and other benevolent and missionary organizations, and the abolitionist movement. In fact, Smith quotes Count Agenor de Gasparin who concluded that the Prayer Revival of 1857-8 had actually paved the way for the election of Lincoln: “The great moral force which is struggling with American slavery is the Gospel.”

The social implications of revival are best summed up by Gilbert Haven, a Boston abolitionist who became a Methodist Bishop after the Civil War. “The Gospel…is not confined to a repentance and faith that has no connection with social or civil duties. The evangel of Christ is an all-embracing theme. It is the vital force in earth and heaven…. The cross is the centre of the spiritual, and therefore the material universe.”

Timothy Smith points out that the first stanza of the old Methodist revival hymn, “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify; a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky”; was followed by the second stanza, “To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.”

One final consideration is of the signs and wonders which sometimes attend revivals. At Pentecost there were signs that accompanied the coming of the Holy Spirit—the sound of a rushing wind, tongues of fire, a perception that the disciples might even be drunk. Yet, these exact signs did not attend all of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts. Similarly, revivals throughout history differ as to the manifestations. A revival in Indonesia in 1965 was attended by the sound of a tornado and of a fire so loud that the fire company was called to the church, but there was a revival going on and not a fire. A 1973 revival in Cambodia was accompanied by miracles and healings. The 1994 “Toronto Blessing” saw an emphasis on the phenomena of laughing, rolling, crying, and some being carried out of the auditorium.

On the other hand, the campus revivals which started in 1995 with Howard Payne University and spread to Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth; then to Beeson School of Divinity in Birmingham, and on to several other colleges such as Olivet Nazarene and Wheaton College, were relatively free of manifestations. The records show deep repentance, continual confession, weeping over sin, deliverance from sexual sin and other life dominating issues, racial and familial reconciliation, but not attending phenomena.

Jonathan Edwards had to deal with the varying opinions on the phenomena that often accompany revival in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, written against the backdrop of the First Great Awakening. He tried to walk the middle road between those who discounted revival because of the “hysteria” which often occurred, and those who believed that “anything goes” whenever revival comes. I would refer the reader to a very readable and brief summation of Edwards’ Treatise entitled The Experience that Counts, prepared by Dr. N.R. Needham and published by Grace Publications Trust, London. This little book is a wonderful primer on the nature of conversion.

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me:
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
(Daniel Iverson, 1926)

(My message on Revival was given at Wheaton College Chapel on March 18, 2015. Click this link if you would like to view it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3yw4jPqY5k&index=7&list=PL9GwT4_YRZdDOUAG_4JspC2LgcE7mo4gZ)

Revival (3)…

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

The fourth characteristic accompanying revival down through history has been the confession of sin with the accompanying knowledge and certainty of forgiveness. The confession of sin is before God, but it is also before the church. In revival, there is an embodiment of the truth of James 5; “confess your sin one to another that you might be healed.” This is why we see recorded in the documents of most revivals the deep conviction of sin and the need to repent, but also the experience of joy and freedom which accompanies such repentance. Edwards describes the awakening in Northampton as such: “… the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It never was so full of love nor so full of joy and yet so full of distress as it was then.”

The fifth characteristic of most revivals has been that they cannot be controlled. There is usually a sudden beginning and then a sudden ending. Martin Lloyd Jones writes: “While it is perfectly true to say that we can quench the Spirit and be a hindrance, it is never true to say that if we observe all the rules and the conditions that we can produce revival. No, God keeps it in his own hands, the beginning, during the course, and the end. In everything we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit and his power.”

This hallmarks for us an understanding that revival is a sovereign act of God. We may plan an evangelistic outreach or a service of worship, but we cannot plan a revival. It is an independent act of God accomplishing his sovereign purposes on behalf of his eternal plan for human history. This being said, we do not mean to minimize the importance of prayer in relationship to revival. If God’s sovereign will is the primary cause of revival, then prayer can be seen as a “second cause.” In other words, God chooses to accomplish his sovereign will for this world through the prayers of his people; just as God’s sovereign work of regeneration and conversion is accomplished through the “second cause” of evangelism. (For an excellent discussion of this, see J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.)

There is no better example of this relationship between prayer and revival than what we have already referred to as the Prayer Revival of 1857-8. Jeremiah Lanphier, a former businessman, started a noon-time prayer meeting at the Old Dutch Church in Lower NYC on September 23, 1857. For three months he had been knocking on the doors of boarding houses, shops, and offices inviting people to come and pray. On that day, he prayed alone at first and then others trickled in. The next week six people came; the next week twenty and the next week forty came. Then on October 14, the worst financial panic in history struck and banks around the city closed. People lost their jobs and children went hungry. No one could have anticipated this, but suddenly the Fulton Street prayer meeting exploded with crowds exceeding 3,000 and demanding more meeting sites around the city. Within six months, 10,000 people gathered weekly all around NYC.

This Prayer Revival spread to Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Albany, Washington, DC, and even Chicago. There was no hype or hysteria—just prayer. Finney said, “There is such a general confidence in the prevalence of prayer that the people very extensively seemed to prefer meeting for prayer to meeting for preaching. The general impression seemed to be, ‘We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray.’”

When the Prayer Revival was at its height, it was estimated that 50,000 people a week were converted with overall estimates ranging from 300,000 to one million. It is also estimated that the people who joined churches in 1858 amounted to almost 10% of the country’s total church membership. All of this is utterly amazing in and of itself, but this revival also had an impact in igniting awakenings that swept the British Isles in 1858-60.

More next week…

Lord, teach us how to pray aright
With reverence and with fear;
Though weak and sinful in your sight,
We may, we must draw near.
(James Montgomery, 1823)

Revival…

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

What do you think of when you hear the word revival? Do you think of loud preaching, people coming forward to get saved, and/or wild expressions of spiritual ecstasy? As Robert Coleman has said, the word revival comes from the word meaning “to live.” In Ezekiel 37:5 the Lord told the prophet to speak to the dry bones saying, “I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” Thus revival refers to a special and sovereign work of God where He visits His people to reanimate, to restore, and to release in them the fullness of the Holy Spirit for the furtherance of the gospel in the world.

Richard Lovelace defines revival “not as a special season of extra-ordinary religious excitement…. Rather it is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which restores the people of God to normal spiritual life after a period of corporate declension.”

There have been those who would dispute this definition. For example, Charles Finney, influenced by the Edwardesian New Divinity which claimed that everyone had a natural ability to repent, applied such a principle in his methodology of revival. He claimed that revival was not a miraculous work of God, but “the right use of the appropriate means.” His views certainly embroiled him in controversy even with the more moderate Calvinists of the day, such as Henry Ward Beecher. However, even though they disagreed about methodology there was a basic agreement as to the desire for and purpose of revival.

If one studies intermittent spiritual awakenings throughout history, s/he will notice several characteristics that attend and are the consequence of revival. Over the next several blogs I’d like to look at these, one at a time, so that we will have a better idea of what to look for and expect as we pray for revival to come in our day.

FIRST, there is usually a time of preparation that occurs before revival comes. Often the preparation has been accomplished through the faithful preaching of the Word of God over time, especially on the themes of substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, repentance and the pursuit of holiness. Many years before the Reformation took place, there were forerunners like John Wycliffe and the Lollards; before them, there was Jon Huss in Moravia, the Waldensians in Northern Italy, and John Tauler (1300-1361).

Pre-dating the First Great Awakening of 1740-2 were five or six periods of spiritual renewal called “Harvests” under Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, in his 58 year pastorate in Northampton, MA. There was also the revival in Northampton under Edwards himself in 1735. Also, before the prayer revival of 1857-58 that began in New York City, there were independent prayer revivals in Hamilton, Ontario as well as in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. J. Edwin Orr documents that there were also prayer revivals among the slaves south of the Mason Dixon line. Then these prayer revival in the US and Canada swept across the Atlantic into Ireland, Wales, and Scotland in 1858-60.

This should teach us that if we are in a place where God has already done a great work in the past, we should celebrate that work and ask him to do it again in the future. At Wheaton College we have a rich heritage of revival. Between 1878 and 1895 there were accounts of at least ten different times of revival on campus. More recently, there were the revivals of 1936, 1943, 1959, 1970, and 1995 (in fact, 20 years ago yesterday.) These should be looked upon not only as times when God worked in an unusual way, but also as preparations for the new work that God might do once again in the future. (Psalm 85:6)

Do it again, O Lord!

Just a Thought on Ferguson, Missouri

More than two months have passed since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—setting off confrontations between (mostly African-American) residents and (mostly white) police, and sparking a national conversation about race. But the precise circumstances of what happened on that August afternoon remain murky. The key issue is whether Wilson fired in self-defense, as he told investigators, or whether he fired without sufficient provocation. There are witnesses on both sides. On Wednesday, new evidence emerged, according to a Washington Post investigation and an autopsy report from the county medical examiner. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it lends more credence to Wilson’s version of events.

The cry for justice in Ferguson will not ultimately be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Pre-judgement on both sides of the aisle will prevent true justice from taking place. The grand jury is expected to reach a conclusion on whether to indict Officer Wilson next month. But the decision may not settle the question of what actually happened. Quite possibly nothing ever will. Yet, whether we talk about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo or Rodney King, I realize that for me—a white, middle-class, old guy, race is merely a conversation. If I were black, it would take on a whole new meaning for me and my children and grandchildren.

There will be changes in the way the police do business in Ferguson, just as there were changes in Los Angeles after the King riots and changes in New York City after Amadou Diallo. However, we will never get it right. America will never get past the issue of race. It has been a part of the fabric of our nation since the Founding Fathers. As Alfred Doblin mused, “Maybe we are a nation with too much historical baggage and too many carpetbaggers to get to a place where the influx of black families doesn’t signal an exodus of white ones, or where an angry black man looks identical to an angry white man.”

In no way am I suggesting that we should not work for justice—heaven forbid; our world would totally implode. Working for justice is part of the very fabric of our Christian faith. Certainly we have made strides; we have an African-American president. But we should not be naive enough to think there is a magic bullet in our democratic system of government that will eradicate racism; after all it took five years into Obama’s presidency just to stop asking for his US birth certificate. We can make racism illegal, but we cannot legislate against the racist thoughts and intents of a sinful heart.

When Los Angeles burned in 1992 after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, the mobs chanted “No justice, no peace.” In Ephesians 2:14, Paul said “For he himself (Christ Jesus) is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing walls of hostility–that he might create one new man in place of two, so making peace.” Jesus Christ has broken down the separation between hopeless humanity and its Creator God through the cross. He has also broken down the walls of hostility between people groups. On paper, the Church should be the one place in which Jew and Gentile, black and white should live in reconciliation and peace. Sadly, this is not usually the case. The Bible has been used to kick the Baptists out of Massachusetts, burn some “witches” at the stake, justify slavery, and defend the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the south.

However, I have more hope that the Church will be transformed than I do that my country will change. I see places where the gospel is reaching across the barriers of race and culture to produce this new humanity of which Paul spoke. For me, it begins by extending the grace of God to others on the basis of our common inclusion into the family of God. It also motivates me to move toward people who are different than I am—not only in race and culture, but also towards the marginalized, giving a voice to those who have none. The same way God moved toward me and my Gentile race while we afar off, still in our sins, to bring us near, even into his very own family in Christ. (Eph. 2:19)

I dream of the day when the Church can say to a place like Ferguson, “look at the gospel; look at what it has done for us.” It is happening in heaven right now and so I will continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Farewell!

farewellThis past Sunday, I officially stepped down as the pastor of Community Fellowship Church of West Chicago. It was in the context of an inspiring outdoor service where hundreds of us worshiped the Triune God led by an inspired worship team of musicians, singers, and techno-ministers. I brought a brief (by my standards) message, passed the baton of spiritual leadership and responsibility to our new pastor Will Pavone. We then celebrated the Lord’s Supper, sang “Christ Alone,” and then spent the rest of the afternoon partying.

Our Deacons had created a country-fair venue with separate kiosks for Muilli chicken, brats, roasted corn, snow cones, freshly made lemonade- to name just a few. Then there were games for the kids, pony rides, bingo for the prime-timers (just kidding), and even a watermelon-eating contest where the old pastor ate up the competition (the new pastor), and was immediately accused of cheating,

During the festivities, a ton of people gave Gloria and me lots of hugs and affirmations for our 9 years of ministry at CF, and wishing me the best in my new responsibility as the interim chaplain at Wheaton College. They also embraced and welcomed Will and Carrie Pavone, Liam, Olivia, and Quinn (8, 7, 5- I think). There were many new families present as well who were encouraged by the transition and excited about this new chapter (chapter 3) in the life and ministry of this wonderful congregation.

My farewell message was based upon Jonathan Edwards’ Farewell Sermon preached in 1750 to his Northampton congregation of 23 years after they had fired him. While the circumstances of my leaving are vastly different (thankfully), some of Edwards’ comments were pertinent. He acknowledged that ministers and the people under their care must often be parted in this world; sometimes by death, but more often by life. “We live in a world of change where nothing is certain or stable and where a little time, a few revolutions of the sun, brings to pass strange things…” Amen.

Edwards also told the congregation that he had labored fully for their eternal welfare. “You are my witnesses, that what strength I have had, I have not neglected in idleness, nor laid out in prosecuting worldly schemes for the advancement of my outward estate, and aggrandizing myself and my family; but have given myself to the work of the ministry laboring in it night and day, rising early, and applying myself to this great business to which Christ has appointed me.” You are also my witnesses.

After addressing the different segments of the congregation and challenging each one (believers, unbelievers, those “under some awakenings,” and the youth), he gave a general warning against two things: falling into doctrinal error, and having a contentious spirit. I think the latter is particularly important in most churches, even those with a solid preaching ministry. I mentioned the fact that “in any church there will be scabs to pick at and pimples to pop. We should do so with great care and gentleness lest they become infected and poison the system.”

Finally Edwards gave two characteristics of what to look for in a new minister: a man who knows God’s Word and can teach the sound principles of doctrine; a man who has an established character and a true “experimental” religion—an authentic, practical faith. Thus a church should find a man who not only preaches the Word, but lives it out. And I believe that Community Fellowship Church has found such a man in Will Pavone.

It was a wonderful day that will be woven into the fabric of our lives along with the memories of the other congregations we have served. Thanks be to God.

And now a final word to Community Fellowship, quoting what Billy Graham always used to say just before he signed off from his weekly radio program: “…and may the Lord bless you real good.”