Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On a Leash

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared.
Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good.
Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life!
(Psalm 119:33-40 ESV)

There is a revelation here for anyone who wants to hear it.  Most Christians read the words of this Psalm and think it says, “Teach me your statutes (read: law), and I will keep them to the end.  Give me your law and I’ll observe it with my whole heart.  Lead me in your commandments (read: law) and **sigh** I’ll delight in it. 

The second half of the passage becomes impossible if we read the first half that way.  We become nothing better than a dog on a very short leash.  Jama and I recently moved into a new house in a suburban setting after having lived for three years on a large piece of property in the country.   Our 90 pound yellow lab mix named Truman had a perimeter fence at the old house.  Even with all that freedom, he still managed to “find” three porcupines.  Now we take walks.  He doesn’t mind the leash, but I do have to pull at him sometimes to get him to come away from an interesting bush or light pole.  He also tries to pull away from me whenever there is another dog nearby.  I am the law, and he has no choice but to submit.  Even so, it is a struggle for both of us.

What the Psalmist is trying to tell us though, is that the law is like the perimeter fence, not like the leash.  He says, “Teach me the way of your statutes.”  The law is around me.  It is not constantly restraining me.  If I learn the way of the statutes of God, I’m learning the heart of God.  When I exercise understanding, I don’t really need to have the law pull me back at every point.  I begin to know the general outline of the law, and I don’t test the perimeter. 

Now the second half becomes something other than God pulling me away from my heart’s desire at every turn.  My dog Truman doesn’t have any understanding.  It is really better for him to be on a leash.  He’ll go after the first porcupine he can find, every time.  But if I exercise understanding the pornographies of life (what the Supreme Court once called “without redeeming social value”), the porcupines can still be out there.  I just know where the perimeter fence is, and I learn that it is delightful not to test the fence.

Only when I exercise understanding can God confirm his promises to me.  Only then will I understand that his rules – the perimeter – are good.  If I exercise understanding often enough, I’ll actually begin to long for it.  My exercise program since moving to Wethersfield has consisted of actually taking two walks a day with my pack leader.  But get this: I’ve been doing that for about three weeks now, and I’m starting to eye my bicycle again.  A little exercise can lead to a love of exercise. 

This month has been so hit-and-miss where my time in God’s Word is concerned.  You’ve noticed The Morning Watch has been infrequent, at best.  The move and my new ministry really made hash out of my schedule.   I’ve been really missing the exercise.  Now is the time to get back to it, so I can always say, “O how I love your law!  It is my meditation day and night.”


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Why We Proclaim

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,  5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to hisb faith.  7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach;  8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
(Romans 12:1-8 NIV)

From Ray C. Stedman

This scene didn't make sense. There he lay in the street, bleeding -- the hit-and-run driver gone. He needed medical help immediately! Yet he kept pleading, "Don't take me to the hospital, please!" Surprised, everyone asked why. Pleadingly he answered, "Because I'm on the staff at the hospital. It would be embarrassing for them to see me like this. They've never seen me bleeding and dirty. They always see me clean and healthy; now I'm a mess." "But the hospital is for people like you! Can't we call an ambulance?" "No, please don't. I took a Pedestrian Safety Course, and the instructor would criticize me for getting hit." "But who cares what the instructor thinks? You need attention." "But there are other reasons, too. The Admissions Clerk would be upset." "Well, why?" "Because she always gets upset if anyone for admittance doesn't have all the details she needs to fill out her records. I didn't see who hit me, and I don't even know the make of the car or the license number. She wouldn't understand. She's a real stickler for records. Worse than that, I haven't got my Blue Cross card." "What real difference would that make?" "Well, if they didn't recognize me in this mess, they wouldn't let me in. They won't admit anyone in my shape without a Blue Cross card. They must be sure it isn't going to cost the institution. They protect the institution. Just pull me over to the curb. I'll make it some way. It's my fault that I got hit." With this, he tried to crawl to the gutter while everyone left, leaving him alone. Maybe he made it, maybe he didn't. Maybe he's still trying to stop his own bleeding.

That was a story that comes from the late Ray C. Stedman, who for many years was pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California.  He said that a businessman friend of his wrote back in the 1960s sometime.  Stedman goes on to say,
“Does that strike you as a strange, ridiculous story? It could happen any Sunday in a typical church membership. I know it could happen, because last night I asked some active Christians what they would do if on Saturday night they got hit and run over by some unacceptable sin. Without exception they said, "I sure wouldn't want to go to church the next morning, where everybody would see me." Now, be honest -- would you? Or would you reason, "The members would ostracize me. They would look at me like I was strange, and didn't belong there any more. Some of the self-righteous would accuse me of being a hypocrite. The Sunday School teacher would be mad at me for not learning what had been taught. Those sitting next to me would be embarrassed, not knowing how to react, because they didn't know how everybody else felt. They really wouldn't know how to react to a known dirty saint."
In the good-natured spirit of the conversation we decided, if caught -- hit and run over -- by some unacceptable sin, we would be better off to go to the pool hall instead of to the church. At the pool hall we would find sympathy, real understanding. Immediately someone would say, "This isn't the end of the world. It happened to me, and I lived through it." Another would say, "I see you slipped and got caught. Well, don't let it get you down. I know a good lawyer who will help you." Another would add, "You really seem more like one of us than you did before. Now we know you're just like us."

Now, the question that bothered us is, Where should real love and understanding live -- in the pool hall, or in the church of Jesus Christ, who died for sinners? Is the church really going to be the church until every Christian, hit and run over by some sin, starts pleading, "Take me to the church. My brothers and sisters are there. They care for me. I can get well there. I'm a weak member of the Body, but when I hurt, the strong members favor me. And I don't need a paid-up Blue Cross card. And I know they won't talk about me when it's over." Yet, to the last single person at the party, there was not one who said he would feel welcome in his church if the night before he had been caught in some sin which had become known.”

But it isn’t just the people who have been in hit and run accidents who aren’t coming for care and healing in the Body these days.  A young woman doesn’t come because there isn’t a good Sunday School program, and her experience of church has been that because she is mother of three of the five children in this particular church, she spends every Sunday morning down in the nursery.  She may as well be at home.  An older man doesn’t come because he put in many years of dedicated service at his church, but now that he can’t lead in the church because of his balance problems, and his wife who is sick at home with diabetes, he rotates between several churches, when he can.  He doesn’t come because his role has changed and he doesn’t know who he is any more at the church he helped build for over thirty years.  A wife suffering from bi-polar disorder only comes occasionally to the church because everyone there says she is “difficult to work with,” and she doesn’t want to mess things up for her husband.  She has a lot to offer, but people have trouble looking past her illness to see her gifts.  A couple in a difficult marriage have no place to turn to for help in their church because they are both involved in leadership, and even though everyone knows they don’t like each other, it is never spoken of.  The atmosphere for them is painful and oppressive.  A man who once had an affair has been told he will never again be allowed to use his gifts as a disciple-maker and teacher because he is damaged goods. 

If the first story I read to you sounded strange, then it may surprise you to learn that each of the people I just talked about are real.  Moreover, they are all stories that come from pastors and their spouses. 

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Did you ever stop to ask yourself what the church is all about?  Why is the church here?  Why doesn’t God just deal with us personally on a one-to-one basis and then send us out into the world as instruments of healing?  In many, many ways, it would have been more efficient of him if he had. 

But Romans 12 gives us two reasons – two words, actually – that explain why the church is here and what we are to be about.  They need to be the bedrock core commitments of any Body of Christ, and they alone will prevent the strange stories like the ones I just told from being the pattern of our life together.

The first is in verse 1.  Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy…” Mercy.  Did you know that, in order to offer a person mercy, you first have to be in a position over them from which you can execute judgment?  We talk in the church about “mercy ministry,” but that’s just compassion.  Anyone can be compassionate toward a fellow human being in need.  But to offer mercy to someone, you must first be in the unique relationship with them where you have the ability to not only judge, but also exact a penalty from them. 

And God, exercising his mercy, created the church for those of us who believe.  Any of you who, like me, have been hurt by the church or felt the indifference of the church, the pain of sitting alone at church week after week wishing someone would be your friend, must wonder how that is an expression of mercy.  It so often feels like an execution of God’s judgment.  Be honest, haven’t you ever felt like, since God couldn’t send you to Hell, he sent you to the church instead, and that’s your punishment for having received Christ?

But the passage frames mercy in terms of worship.  In the first century, every culture in what is now called the Middle East utilized a sacrificial system in their worship practice.  The Jews had a sacrificial system.  All of the pagan religions of the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Samaritans, the Greek and Roman pantheons, all of their religions were based on the idea of placating the god or goddess by either animal or in some cases human sacrifice on an altar. 

In the Old Testament story of God testing Abraham, he tells Abraham to take his only son Isaac and go to a high mountain and sacrifice him there.  Because God is God he is very definitely in a position to judge, and to require punishment for sin.  The problem is that it wasn’t because of some sin on the part of Abraham that God asks him to do this.  And it wasn’t because Isaac had sinned that God asks him.  It is to demonstrate to Abraham how different Jehovah God is from all the other Canaanite gods.  And when Abraham has the fire ready and the knife poised over his son’s chest, God calls out to him and says, “Abraham, do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  This is God’s profound mercy.

Paul goes on to say in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world.”  As I said before, the pattern of the world in worship is to placate God through sacrifice.  What’s the nature of a sacrifice?  Well, first and foremost, a sacrifice is dead.  Once you sacrifice something it is no longer of any value.  That’s why sacrifices, typically, were burned.  It was to reduce them to a condition where they were no longer of any value to the person who offered them.  A burned offering can’t be used again.  You can’t even eat the remains.  Because they are so completely useless, there is nothing to be done with them but to throw them out.

The pattern of the world is to kill off.  When Christians imagine that Galatians 2:20 is talking about a death, they’ve got it wrong.  We read, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”  (Galatians 2:20 ESV) as if the point of it was that we who believe have to do violence to our flesh in order to know Christ; as if the whole responsibility rested on us to somehow put self to death in order that Christ might occupy the space left in the corpse.  But that’s not what it says.  It doesn’t say, “I have to crucify myself in order to be with Christ,” does it?  It says, “I have been crucified with Christ.” 

Remember what I said a couple of weeks ago?  Good theology always begins with what God has already done.  It never begins with what man must do to placate God.  The work has already been done, long before I even know to ask it of him.  When Jesus hung on the cross he said, “It is finished.”  And there is nothing you or I can add to God’s mercy than what Jesus already did. 

But a living sacrifice is a renewable resource.  The “Sacrifice of Isaac” did not end with a death; it ended with a transformation.  Not only did God know that Abraham feared God, from that moment onward, Abraham knew without a doubt that he feared God and loved him with his whole heart.    The pattern of this world is to kill off through competition and sacrifice.  The pattern of Christ is to transform through mercy and love.

There’s one more thing that God’s mercy does for us.  In the sacrificial system, the will of God (or of the gods) was prescribed.  Either it was a list of dos and don’ts that placated the god, or it was a blood sacrifice.  Either way, you had to do what the law commanded.  When we present our bodies as living sacrifices, and are renewed, we gain the ability to test and approve what the will of God is, rather than simply being told what the will of God is. 
            1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
            1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The process is always two-fold.  Test, then Approve.  There is nothing a church in transition needs to do more than this.  We all need to start asking ourselves – especially our leaders need to ask – “Why are we doing the things we are doing here?”  Churches execute judgment on good ideas because the law of those churches is what a boss I once had called “The Seven Last Words.”  The Seven Last Words of any dying institution as it hangs on sacrificial cross of its own making are, “We never did it that way before.”

Dear Church, let mercy triumph over judgment!  God has already supplied you with everything you need to accomplish his will and be the church of his own choosing.  Do not imagine that because you have always done something in the church that it is necessarily God’s will for the church today.  That is how a program becomes an institution.  That is how an innovation becomes a law. 

Paul puts it this way in verse 3: For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.

There’s the second word the church needs in order to be the church God wants us to be.  Grace.  It is God’s mercy that makes the transformative moment possible when we realize that the Cross of Christ is not about death, it is about life.  And then we realize that how we present our bodies as living sacrifices is by accepting that God has already done everything he needed to do to bring us to him and there’s nothing more we can add.  That mercy will prevent us from judging others in the church.  That mercy will prevent us from institutionalizing our worship and programming.  That mercy will make it possible for us to see new possibilities. 

And if mercy triumphs over judgment, then grace triumphs over pride.  The greater the measure of faith God gives me, the more soberly I think about myself.  When I first came to Christ I thought I was a real hot-shot and always made sure I had a verse ready to share on any occasion and then regaled my audience with the depth of my profound understanding of Scripture.  What a shame.   Christian maturity is not your ability to lead in the church.  Christian maturity is not your ability to demonstrate to everyone around you how much you know about God.  What does Micah 6 say?

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”

The reason so many people leave the church fed up, never to return, is because of the unmitigated arrogance we who profess to believe have demonstrated time and again.  We think we’ve got it right, or we think we have claimed some territory in this little fiefdom and we’ll be darned if someone else is going to come in and mess up how we do things.  Church: let mercy triumph over judgment HERE.  Church: let grace triumph over pride HERE.  

If we adopt those two caveats as our two principal core commitments as a church, God will be in a position to transform each of us and all of us.  And it won’t take long before people will start to notice that PCC is a place where mercy triumphs over judgment and grace triumphs over pride.  And listen to what a church like that looks like:

Romans 12:4  “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

Do you want to be a church that is noted for its sacrifices or for its mercy?  Do you want to be a church that crossed every T and dotted every I and was noted for its adherence to the Law or as a church noted for its grace?  There are people in this room today who are hurting because they or their ideas were judged by the very people who are supposed to be here to defend them.  There are people not in this room today for the same reasons.  Church: do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Alive to God

And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.”
            Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
(Mark 12:18-27 ESV)

“Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”  How truly Jesus spoke about we who consider ourselves religious!  This generation is nearly bankrupt in these two things.  As recently as 1980, 40% of people in The United States attended church on a regular basis.  Today that number has dropped to around 20% nationally, and much lower here in the Northeast.  We have been through a generation, since 1945, where a great emphasis was placed on Christian Education.  From Catholic churches offering CCD to independent churches hosting vast teaching conferences, we all believed that the answer to spiritual growth was education.  Teach people the right things, and they will know the Lord.

If that had been true, we should have seen a huge revival!  But the church in many places today has huge underutilized educational facilities with few people in attendance who really know either the Scriptures or the power of God.  The problem is that we weren’t taught the Way.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father except through me.”  (John 10:10)  The early church taught narrative.  They taught Jesus in his person and life.  Our churches today have largely been teaching doctrine and ignoring the stories.  That was what was wrong with the Sadducees.  That is what is wrong with many of us today.  We may know a lot of truth about God, but our knowledge of God himself is pretty shallow, if not non-existent. 

Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have life, and it is they that bear witness to me.”  (John 5:39)  To truly know the Scriptures is to know Jesus, first and foremost.  And in Luke 8:46 a woman with an affliction was healed just because she touched Jesus clothing.  When she did, the text says, “he knew that power had gone out from him.”  When he was on trial Jesus said he had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.  To truly know the power of God is to know Jesus, first and foremost. 

Jesus is not dead.  He is alive.  All who live to God live to God in him. 


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In the Vineyard

            And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture:
            “‘The stone that the builders rejected
            has become the cornerstone;
            this was the Lord's doing,
            and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
            And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.
(Mark 12:1-12 ESV)

Yesterday we saw how violent men try to take the kingdom of God by force.  Here again in Mark 12 we have another example.   “This is the heir,” said the violent men.  “Let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”  They didn’t want to be heirs themselves.  They simply wanted to own the vineyard, which belonged to the landowner and would presumably pass to his son upon his death.  They were not looking for fruit.  They were looking for ownership. 

And aren’t we so often guilty of the same thing?  We are blessed to be part of a church, and what do we do with it?  We jockey for position and power.  We want ownership.  That’s what fuels so many of the divisions among us.  Every church, it seems, has owners.  This is one of the great sins of the church.  We are merely tenant farmers.  We’ve been granted the profound blessing of being invited to tend the vineyard.  But so often the tenant farmers rise up in revolt against either fellow farmers or those who come among them to help tend the vineyard.

Making wine is no simple task.  You have to really know what you’re doing.  A master vintner is someone who has labored long to gain the skills to do more than just grow grapes.  He has to know when to pick the grapes.  He has to know how much water they need.  He has to have the right kind of barrels to put the grapes in.  He has to know when to turn the barrels.  He has to know what temperature the cellar must be.  The list is so long, we can’t even imagine it.  He is a master at what he does. 

A good pastor is like a master vintner.  Given the opportunity, he will come among the tenant farmers and will help them to grow the skills to grow and harvest the grapes. 
There are two errors to watch out for.  First, so often the people see the pastor as a hired hand they must teach “how we do things here.”  When that happens, the results can be disastrous.   When he tries to lead, they invariably resist.  The harder he tries to get his agenda accomplished, the more push-back he gets from them.  Finally, and usually at some public meeting, the tenants rise up and strike the vintner.   If you were choosing a wine and knew it had been made in that kind of atmosphere, would you buy it?

The second error is one we pastors make.  We who pastor in the church must hold the people we care for – the fruit of the kingdom of God – with the same loving care a master vintner would use.  We must not busy ourselves trying to discipline the leaders of our churches until they submit to our ways.  Rather, we must come among them and demonstrate how we love the grapes, not how to manufacture a product.  “More is caught than taught,” the old saying goes.  They need to see how it is done, not hear how we want it done.