What’s Going Before You?

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You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.

Psalm 139:13-16 (New Living Translation)

“Well, what are your plans for the New Year?”  It’s a question often passed around every late December and early January.  It makes for good conversation around the break room at work, or in the foyer at church before or after worship, or while we’re waiting around between Sunday School and “church”.  We all like to make plans.  Whether it’s about that vacation we will take this year, or that perfect vacation we would like to have; plans for that “perfect” house we would like to build someday; plans about our careers or seeking a new career; plans for retirement.  It is good to make plans, to dream for something better.  But what about God’s plans?  Did you notice some very important phrases from our Scripture this morning?  “You made….You watched……You saw…..(clearly implied) YOU recorded….”  Sounds to me that our God is a very busy God.

 

          Now, don’t misinterpret that last statement to mean that God is too busy for you.  The spiritual reality is that God’s “busyness” has to do with us and our daily lives.  God desires to be involved with our lives; every day and every moment of that day.  So, this week’s word is PREVENIENT GRACE.  Now, there’s a word that sounds really big and important—prevenient.  Let me tell you a story about this word.

 

It was in late March of 2004 when I received a call from another pastor, Lyle Holland.  Now, Lyle and I did not travel in the same circles; in fact, our only connection was that many years ago we were both in the former Florence District.  Other that time, I can’t remember that we served in the same district.  Now, we would see each other at Conference events and speak to each other, but that was the extent of our friendship, until March of 2004.  Lyle was the Spiritual Director for Alabama Walk 269 that would be held May 13-16.  He had been praying and seeking for one more Assistant Spiritual Director and he thought about me.  Allow me to give you a backdrop to that phone call.

          I had just been informed that I would be moving to another appointment in June against my wishes and most of the congregation I was serving.  To say the least, it was a time of great anxiety.  The second fact that stands out in my memory was that it was less than a year since I had been on my walk.  As we conversed on the phone, I told Kyle that the date really didn’t look good to me since I would be in the middle of packing up for the move that would happen less than a month after the Walk.  I was concerned about my inexperience and the fact I was in the middle of a tough season in my life.  And just about the time I was going to tell Kyle no, in the middle of my sentence, I lost all common sense and told him I would be glad and honored to serve. (What in the world have I just done????)  Then Kyle told me all the clergy talks had been assigned but one, Prevenient Grace; and that would be my talk.

Prevenient Grace?  I remember something about that from my studies, it was a Wesleyan term, so I should know something about it, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to remember about prevenient grace.  So, I did what most people do when they find themselves in over their head—-I prayed!  I prayed about what to say and how to say it, and for God to help me remember where I heard that word before—prevenient.

I was so relieved to find I had a basic outline to go by.  So I sat down at my computer and began my research and started to write.  The first word I typed was, of course, Prevenient!  My word processor immediately flagged that word as being incorrectly spelled and offered many suggestions, none of which was the word “prevenient”.  I looked at my outline again—this is the way the Upper Room folks said it was spelled, so it must be right.  But the computer failed to recognize it as a correctly spelled word.  And then it hit me (actually the Holy Spirit hit me, real hard); many times we fail to recognize the activity of God’s grace we call prevenient grace.

I pulled out my notebook from my own walk (Alabama 253) and there it was—the perfect definition of prevenient grace:  Prevenient Grace is the grace that goes before us, calling us and leading us into a relationship of love with our Heavenly Father.  And more than that, it is the nature of God’s grace that is always going before—calling to us by name, leading us, guiding us and helping us through the tough times of life and faith.  I have come to understand that as God’s grace goes before me, He is leading me and preparing me for whatever may lie ahead.  Grace doesn’t stop being prevenient just because we have finally said our own “Yes!” to Christ.

He is still going before us.  But, I wonder, like my computer’s word processor would not recognize the word “prevenient”, how many times are we guilty of not recognizing God’s grace that is always before us?  I found a way to stop my computer from telling me that the word “prevenient” was a misspelled word—I added the word to the dictionary.  From that point forward, it always recognizes the word prevenient as a real word, not a misspelled word.

When we add the word “prevenient” to our vocabulary—when we make the intentional and conscious decision to recognize the many ways God’s grace is at work in us and around us—it changes everything in us and for us.  The Psalm for this week reminds us that God is busy—busy showing us that He cares about us, and best of all, He takes care of us.  After working Walk 269, to be completely honest, I still didn’t want to move, I still didn’t like my Superintendent, and there were still of couple of folks at church I didn’t like.  But I didn’t blame them any more and I was able to accept these changes because I KNEW that God’s grace was going before me and that with His grace, I could and would face any challenge.

When we live with sense that God’s grace is always going before us, then we will be able to say:  “Good! Lord, It’s Monday!  What shall we do together this week?”

Let us pray:  Lord, I have to confess, many times I’m like that computer—I simply cannot recognize that your grace is going before me.  But Lord, I know I need that grace.  I need that grace to help me to continue to live in this wonderful relationship based on love, not rules.  Remind me that you are very busy showing me your love and offering me your power.  Help me to add to my mental vocabulary and to my spiritual vocabulary this strange word, Prevenient!  Then, may I remember that you really are going before me, and like those disciples on the way back to the village of Emmaus, open my eyes to the ways your grace is working in my life!  Amen and Amen!

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THE ECLIPSE OF THE SON!

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Today, in the good old U.S. of A. there is much ado about this thing called a solar eclipse.  That got me to thinking, and thus the title of this morning’s musings.  My title is NOT a misprint or misspelling; it is intentional.  I try to assume nothing, but there is a high degree of probability that some of you reading this identify yourself as “Christian”.  And I earnestly hope that some of my readers are not what is identified as “Christian”, are reading this blog because someone recommended it to you, or you simply came upon it by “accident” or as a result of a search here on WordPress.  (As a Wesleyan, I call that “prevenient grace”.)

Today there is an eclipse of the sun, a rare occasion, but the Eclipse of the Son is unfortunately a daily occurrence.  And I want to speak to those who identify themselves as Christian.  Are you aware that the Greek word for Christian (Christianos) is used only 3 times in the New Testament manuscripts.  The word Greek word for “disciple” (mathētēs) occurs 269 times.  My heart and mind is being pulled into this passage from Psalm 139:23-24 (N.L.T.)

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

What prompted David to ask such a thing of God?  Be honest now, who among us loves having our flaws and faults clearly pointed out?  Read the whole Psalm and you see David having another AHA! moment.  His AHA moment is that God knows everything, I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING about him.  And it is important for David to know the truth about himself, so he goes straight to the One who knows the truth.  Not his neighbor, not one of his wives, and not to someone who goes to church with him.  He turns to God for this all important evaluation.  And so should we!

As a disciple of Jesus, we are to show the Light of The Son, through our good actions.  Jesus said that to be a DISCIPLE means that the world sees the Light of what is Good.  Jesus said it this way in Matthew 5:14-16

14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

Many are creating a Spiritual Eclipse that is hiding the Son from others.  What causes us to Eclipse the Son in our lives?  The reasons are many and unfortunately there are many times when we cannot see them ourselves.  So we must identify it and meet it head on.  But we cannot identify the causes without HIS help.  That word for deeds in the Greek means occupation.  And that occupation is to do good things.  It’s never good when we criticize and condemn others.  It’s never good when we think we are better than anyone.  It is never good when we promote division and anger.  What is it that is NOT good in your daily life?  An attitude?  An act?  A hidden desire?  Self-righteousness?

But the Light of the Son cannot be totally hidden.  Even with the eclipse of the Sun, light gets out.  It’s so bright that if you look directly at it, it will cause retinal damage.  To see the eclipse of the Sun you need special glasses.  FYI, welder’s glasses work very well.  And when we look at the Eclipse of the Son in our lives, we need special lenses.  It’s called God’s Grace, and his companion, mercy.  As it grows dark because of the Eclipse of the Sun today, think about the darkness over this nation because of the Eclipse of The Son.  Choose to do good–to have an occupation that let’s the Light be seen without special glasses.

It starts with the heart and mind.  I need to allow God to search my heart and take out what is harmful to me, and so do we all.  I am keenly aware of this for many reasons, and one in particular.  On Wednesday of this week (and if you think about me, throw up a prayer), my heart, the physical one, is going to be examined carefully, from the inside by a cardiac electrophysiologist.  It seems my heart needs some work.  He will find the place or places that is creating the problem and then burn those places (places creating a loop that causes my heart to beat abnormally) and my heart rhythm should return to normal all the time.  I trust this doctor because I know people who have been to him for the same thing I am facing.  They are doing great, and I know I will, too.  It helps knowing people who have experienced the skill of Dr. Tabereaux.  And you can trust The Great Physician with your heart because there are many who have experienced the skill and kindness of Him who knows your heart.  David knew Him and knew he could trust Him.  How long has it been since you asked God to know and test your heart?  Could it be there is an Eclipse of The Son that is preventing others from seeing The Light?  Could it be that your self-righteousness is actually blinding others to The True Light of The True Son?

When we allow God to show us the truth about our own heart and give Him permission to correct all that is wrong in our heart, then we can say, “Good!  Lord it’s Monday!  What shall we do together?”  Let’s pray:

I can’t think of a better way at this moment to say it.  So I will use the same words of David.  I don’t think he will mind.  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.”  Amen and Amen!

More Resolutions? How About A Revolution?

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OK, test time readers!  There are only two questions:

  1. Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions?
  2. How many of those Resolutions have you already broken?

I did a Google Search about the top 10 Resolutions people made dating back to 2007.  The search results confirms my suspicions.  The list of Top 10 Resolutions each year were almost identical.  The only thing that seemed to change was where they were on that list.  Maybe last year’s #10 became this year’s #4.  They all shared one single characteristic that was consistent each year:  They were, for the most part, about self-improvement.  They focused on our ability (actually because they are repeated each year, our “inability”) to help ourselves become better.

I went to Amazon and entered another search for “Self-Help” in books only.  The categories were “Personal Transformation Self-Help, Happiness Self-Help,  Motivational Self-Help, Success Self-Help,  Self-Help,  Religion & Spirituality,  Psychology & Counseling,  Self-Esteem,  Spiritual Self-Help,  New Age & Spirituality”.  The result was an amazing 1,069,262 books listed.  I couldn’t help but notice one of the titles on the first page of those search results.  It was The Motivation Switch: 77 Ways to Get Motivated, Avoid Procrastination, and Achieve Success and the price was $0.00.  That’s right, free!  If that book actually provided the tools it promises it should be worth at least $19.99 plus processing and handling.  Maybe “if you order in the next 15 minutes, because you know we can’t do this forever, get a free second copy for someone who desperately needs it.  Pay only separate processing and handling.”

fwa63I am left wondering why so many people make resolutions on New Year’s and why they are broken so quickly and easily.  One recent study reports that only 45% of Americans made New Year’s resolutions in 2015, which seems to be less than 40 years ago.  And here’s an interesting statistic:  only 8% achieve all of their resolutions.

So, do resolutions made any difference in our life?  Forget these statistics for a moment, in fact, just forget them period!  I believe one of the great dishonors that people give to characters in the Bible is to make them out to be some sort of super hero; to elevate them on a pedestal that says, “Oh, I could never be like them.”  Take Paul for example; some see him as this super disciple that never struggled with very much.  Well, look at what he writes in Romans 7:8-24 from The Message:

8-12 Don’t you remember how it was? I do, perfectly well. The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me. Without all the paraphernalia of the law code, sin looked pretty dull and lifeless, and I went along without paying much attention to it. But once sin got its hands on the law code and decked itself out in all that finery, I was fooled, and fell for it. The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. So sin was plenty alive, and I was stone dead. But the law code itself is God’s good and common sense, each command sane and holy counsel.

13 I can already hear your next question: “Does that mean I can’t even trust what is good [that is, the law]? Is good just as dangerous as evil?” No again! Sin simply did what sin is so famous for doing: using the good as a cover to tempt me to do what would finally destroy me. By hiding within God’s good commandment, sin did far more mischief than it could ever have accomplished on its own.

14-16 I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

17-20 But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

21-23 It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

24 I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

Does this describe you?  I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.”  We make resolutions because we know life needs to change for us.  But then we break them.  As The Message frames Paul’s words, “I need something more!”  We want to do and be better and as Paul put it, “Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.”  I mean, with words like this, how can people say the Bible is outdated and irrelevant?  Yet the question still haunts us:  “How can we stop this endless cycle of failure in trying to be better people?”

Allow me to make this suggestion:  We do not need Resolutions but a Revolution!  We need to have the old self beaten down and defeated.  Oh, I just heard someone think, “Well, duh!  Tell me something I don’t know.”  The only way to break the cycle of defeat is to stop doing it ourselves and allow God to bring a Revolution into our minds and hearts.  You see, God isn’t interesting in making us better people.  That’s right, God isn’t looking for a better people.  He is looking to make a “New People”!

This is why He offers us (some call it “transformation” and that’s a good word), what I am calling “Revolution”.  The definition of a Revolution is “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.”  We can’t overthrow the rule and government of Satan, but Jesus did on the Cross, in the Grave and He will in your mind and heart when you turn all of your life over to Him.  This is a battle only HE can win, but He will not overthrown the government of the Enemy in your mind and heart until you surrender to Him.  Trust His power to make the difference in your life.

It’s not insane to alberteinstein133991keep doing the same things over and over and over.  They are called “habits”, “learned behavior”.  Another way to describe this process of doing the same things over and over is “being in a rut”.  And isn’t that what New Year’s Resolutions are, being the same ones year after year after year?  Insanity occurs when those same failed attempts are repeated over and over with the expectation they are going to produce different results.  Without a Revolution in our mind and heart, we are doomed to the same failures every time. Listen again to Paul in verse 24

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

Have you been noticing this pairing of words “mind and heart”?  I chose this pairing because a lot of people give Jesus their heart but not their mind.  The inevitable result of not giving Jesus your mind is Einstein’s definition of insanity.  How do you break this cycle of broken resolutions?  What is the answer to Paul’s question, “Is there no one who can do anything for me?”  Thankfully Paul answers his own question in verse 25

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

Every Revolution needs a Commander In Chief, someone who makes all the decisions and leads the fight.  For us, it needs to be Jesus!  For this to become a reality in us we must immediately surrender everything in us to Him and allow Him to take charge of this battle that we always lose.

When we allow Jesus to bring Revolution in our mind and heart, and give Him authority in and over us, then we can say, “Good!  Lord it’s Monday!  What shall we do together?”  Let us pray:

Lord, I need the insanity to stop inside me.  I raise my white flag in surrender to you.  Take control not only of my heart, but my mind as well.  I surrender with the confidence that because You defeated the Enemy on the Cross and in the grave, you will defeat the Enemy in me.  I deliberately choose to follow You and live life the way You are showing me.  Amen and Amen!

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A Kinda-Sorta-Thanksgiving

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Southern Living Or National Lampoon?

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts He has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through Him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:4-9

Well, it’s that time of year, Thanksgiving!  We gear up to show how grateful we are.  We try so very hard to look like an image right out of Southern Living or Better Homes and Gardens.  Everyone has a smile and the tables are set and we try to be people who look like a Normal Rockwell painting.  We think and believe that if we can somehow put together that perfect image of Thanksgiving, that for at  least one day we will have actually achieved the real meaning of gratitude.  And in the end we look more like National Lampoon than Southern Living.

We put so much, actually too much, emphasis on the external to the point we forget the true source of gratitude.  Here in this morning’s passage is The Key to having more than a great thanksgiving.  It is The Key to a great Thanks Living.  For many this season of the year looks more like a replay of Halloween–everyone putting on a mask and wearing a costume to cover up what really lies beneath.  While for a moment in time our world may appear as it should be as we gather around the table and enjoy the feast.  Conversations are for the most part pleasant; at least until someone mentions one of the horrible threes:  politics, religion or college football.  Those of my readers who are from the south understand the last one and maybe it’s true in other regions.  But I can only speak out of my context.  But there has to be more than just an image from a magazine.

And Paul gives us that image here in the opening lines of his letter.  As I read these words I admit I was caught off guard.  Why?  Well, much of this letter it addressing the chaos and madness that seemed to mark this church as a dysfunctional church.  To those who sometimes say that we need to be like the churches in the New Testament, almost immediately I think of this Corinthian church and want to say, “Really?  You want to be like the Corinthians?  You’ve got to be joking!”  And, yes, they did have some serious problems.  But Paul opens this scathing letter with a reminder and a positive word that is made to build up, not tear down.  And it is the only way to express every day the message of this week.  The way to a great Thanksgiving, and the way to a great life is to remember first the work of God’s grace in your life.  It’s all about what God has done, is doing and will continue to do in your life.

Gratitude springs up when we understand two simple truths.  First, we are all broken somewhere and that nothing we do will ever fix it.  As a pastor, my greatest challenges have always been with reaching religious people with the message and truth of God’s grace.  (And I understand that Jesus had the same problem when He walked this earth.) Many people occupy pews every Sunday are living in bondage because they have never realized the need for confession.  By confession I do not mean listing every single sin.  Personally I would have a difficult time remembering every single sin I’ve committed.  Confession is much simpler; it means to admit the truth, that God is right.  And what God is right about is this:  That we are all, every single one of us, sinners.  And then after confessing to the truth, to repent; to truly regret breaking God’s heart by turning away from our old life and into the life He designed for us.

The second truth that allows gratitude to spring up is to know that though we are messed up, God still loves us and only HE can restore us.  My easiest work as a pastor has always been with those who know they are broken.  Only when we admit, “Hey, I’m messed up” can we understand all that God will do for us through all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and through the Resurrection.  Listen again to verse 4:  I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts He has given you.”  When you begin listing all the things you are grateful for, being with God’s grace.  When you go to the grocery store for all that food to put on the table, did that market give you all those groceries or did you pay for them?  The gift received is never purchased by us; rather it is accepted by us.  And just in case you did not connect the dots of my thoughts, here is what I mean:  You will never do enough and never be good enough to earn or deserve God’s love. Yet, God loves us completely regardless of how messed up we are, and never because of how good we are.  God love you unconditionally.

I just was hit with another one of my many random thoughts.  Maybe that growing group of people known as the “Nones” are closer to the Kingdom of God than many who occupy the pew every Sunday.  In case you have not heard that term (“the Nones”) allow me to give you a brief description of this group.  The Nones are those who when asked, “What is your religious preference?” always answer, you guessed it:  NONE!  Could it be that we need less religion in our culture?  I believe we could use a lot less religion, in fact, our culture would be better off without religion at all–IF we replaced religion with The Relationship that God offers us in Jesus Christ!

So, if you are feeling stressed out this week, could it be you have accepted the lie from the depths of hell itself, that God has given you a religion?  God never offers us a religion.  God offers us a relationship.  It is a relationship that happens only as we accept it as a pure gift; that the price was paid for by Another, and the price He paid was high, more than you could ever afford..  Begin your Thanksgiving week with saying, embracing and living out with deep conviction Verse 9:  God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  For gratitude to be expressed outwardly it must first begin by realizing the many gifts God has and continues to give you every day.

When we accept God’s many gifts, and live in and through them, then we can say:  “Good!  Lord, it’s Monday!  What shall we do together?”  Let’s pray:

Thank you so much for not giving me a religion, but giving me this gift of The Relationship!  Amen and Amen!