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, January 25, 2012

Mimeograph Copies

            Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
(Hebrews 9:23-28 ESV)

Back in the 1980s, as I began building a small non-profit youth ministry, I inherited a mimeograph machine.  They were already becoming obsolete, though many churches still produced their weekly bulletin and newsletters on them.  The principle of mimeography was that ink was contained in a rotating drum and fed through an absorbent pad that delivered the ink to a “screen” which the author of a document had created by typing on a special sheet that would be the basis for  making multiple copies of whatever you were trying to reproduce. 

Mimeography was messy; there were a lot of lost sheets of paper on any run, but if you knew how to speak kindly to the machine, you could do alright.  All mimeographs knew their “owner” and responded to his or her touch.  They were nearly living beings.  The problem with mimeos was that if the ink ran low, you’d get dimmer and dimmer copies over time until you ended up reproducing nearly blank pages.   On the other hand, get too much ink flowing, and you’d get so much “bleed” as to make the type almost illegible.

Here in Hebrews 9 we’re being told that the Temple sacrifices – in fact the whole temple itself – was nothing but a poor mimeo of something very real.  The priests went over and over and over to the altar through the curtain, into the Most Holy Place.  They were going through the screen and trying to use watered-down ink to make an impression on God.  The more they tried to atone for the sin of the people with the blood of bulls and lambs, the dimmer the impression got.  That is, until the blood of one priest made a perfect impression on the altar.  Jesus, in offering his own blood for the sin of the World, forever stamped “Saved” on the altar of God for anyone who believes him. 

I can try to make an impression on God or I can let someone else do it.  I can keep squeezing my ink through the screen until I am dry to the bone, and all I’ll be doing is making an ever-fading image on the Mercy Seat.  I can also let Jesus do what he does best: make one perfect image that will never fade from the very heart of God. 

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:16 ESV)


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In the Most Holy Place

            But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.           
(Hebrews 9:11-14 ESV)

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered,
was all for sinners' gain:

Mine, mine was the transgression,
but Thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Saviour:
'tis I deserve Thy place;

Look on me with Thy favour,
vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
n  attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (12th C.)

The Writer to the Hebrews has just finished reviewing how the Temple Sacrifices were done, as prescribed in the Law.  His conclusion is that the annual visit by the High Priest into the Most Holy Place with a blood sacrifice couldn’t possibly address our sin as fallen people, separated from a holy God.    The thinking is that, if God needs to be placated because we have sinned, it is irrational to imagine that the imposition of the ashes of the burned carcass of a cow would in any way pay the debt we owe.  He uses the words “defiled persons” to describe us. 

Okay, so I’ve been out in the world and during the day I did some work in the garden and then fed some farm animals.  I worked on my house and barn for a while later in the day.  When I come inside that evening, I’m going to be stinky and dirty.  The best way to clean all that muck off me is: A good sprinkling of cow ash.  Right?  So if that’s not sufficient for cleaning my dirty body, how could it ever clean my soiled soul?

In another place in Hebrews, the Writer tells us, “           For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”  (Hebrews 7:18-19 ESV) 

Then what value was the Law?  Simply to demonstrate to us that we were separated from God?  To prefigure Christ’s Sacrifice?  The Law may well have been perfect in itself, but in the hands of sinners the Law becomes ineffective.  And so one perfect priest satisfied the Law with his own blood (something none of us would have been willing to do), not simply substituting for a humankind that would be unwilling to come and do what he did, but in order to bring us to God.  He doesn’t merely go into the Most Holy Place alone and then return to where we are to soil himself again.  Jesus takes us into the Most Holy Place with him, spills his own blood on the altar there, and then invites us to stay!

The Most Holy Place is now ours, because one died for all.

As I review what I have written I know the explanation is inadequate.  I’m struggling to explain here the most profound thing: dirty as I am, at great cost to himself (whatever that means – I don’t understand it), Jesus has found a way to welcome me where he and his father are. 

Glory to God in the highest!


Monday, January 23, 2012

What an idiot

Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”  And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.
(Isaiah 62:11-12 ESV)

I worry sometimes that, as “disciples” go, I’m not a very good example.  It isn’t that I don’t love God.  It is that, well… life happens.  And I know there are attitudes and fears and sins in me that just don’t reflect a life of dependency on God.  This passage brings me up short in that kind of thinking.

Isaiah has spent much of his great prophecy warning Israel about their idolatry, their unfaithfulness, and their marrying outsiders.  And yet, here, almost at the end his writing, the major thing God is proclaiming – publishing – in the 7th C. BC version of The New York Times, “I have a love-note for Zion.” 

Every once in a while some ardent lover takes out a full-page ad in The Times as a way of proposing to his beloved.  Imagine opening the newspaper and seeing “I LOVE you!  Marry Me, Darling” in huge, bold print.  Did you ever wonder what a full-page ad in a major daily costs?  Believe me, it isn’t cheap.  Every time someone does that, I laugh my head off.  What an idiot: spending that kind of money on a proposal.  They could have gone on a honeymoon for what it cost him to buy that ad.

Here’s the message God has for “the daughter of Zion” (read: Israel):  “Your salvation comes!”  God sent his only son at great cost to himself to accomplish salvation for you and me.   Buying himself the ability to publish salvation was, to God, as costly as taking out a full-page ad in The Times would be for you or me.   Honestly, if saving you had cost me my life, I don’t think I’d be talking about you as “my reward.”

What Jesus “got” in exchange for going to the cross was… ME?  And the worst of it is that he didn’t get some idealized, perfected ME.  He got a messy disciple who can’t seem to get “discipleship” right; who prefers, as C.S. Lewis says, “everything else to Him.”   Somehow, remarkably, God looks at me (warts and all), and calls ME “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”  I especially love the last two: Sought out, and Not Forsaken. 

God is seeking you out too.  He has not forsaken you.  To reverse the Lewis quote, he really does prefer you to everything else.  And God will be mocked and become a laughingstock for love of you.  He has published my salvation and yours at the highest cost in the most obvious way.  What an idiot!  What love!


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Lord's Day Message: The Beginning of Evangelism

The Beginning of Evangelism (Simon, Andrew, John & James)

Mark 1:14-20 
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

If you were with us the last couple of weeks you heard two very specific challenges in our series on beginnings.  The first was the challenge that the Beginning of Vision comes when a church engages in specific, on the ground mission, and the second is that the Beginning of Discipleship comes when the individual goes beyond simply recognizing who Jesus is and begins to yearn to go deeper with Christ.  Both of those fall under the overall Master Plan of Jesus: Go out and find twelve people, train them to be disciples, and then unleash them on the world.

We need to double back on those challenges for a moment to make sure that we understand that while those things are true and are not merely idealistic – the first really is how God transforms churches and the second really is how God transforms individual lives, and Jesus really did have one simple plan that he executed – we looked at these things at the beginning in order to know what we’re aiming at long-term.  There are some things this church can begin to do now that will develop vision and will aim us toward the goal of becoming a church on mission.  There are some things each of us can do that will begin to produce a church made up of disciples of Jesus. 

But I do not want you to become discouraged because you’ve been part of this church for years and have wondered how a church like this can engage in significant mission beyond our doors.  We need to seriously engage with the issues before we’ll be able to become that church.  And we need to slowly begin to engage with the world around us before we can become a church on mission. 

A few of you stopped me at the door last week and said that you believed God had tapped you on the shoulder and was calling you to really begin to get under way in your walk with him.  But a few of you also stopped me at the door and told me you didn’t think you were ready for the kind of discipleship we looked at.  God never calls the “ready.”  God calls the willing.  We’re not talking about a huge step forward.  We’re talking about taking a simple, single step with Jesus.  When you look at how he called his original twelve, you immediately see that Jesus placed no grand vision before them and he never asked if they were prepared.  Remember who some of his disciples were.  One was a tax collector – an outcast in Judaism.  Four were relatively un-sophisticated fishermen, and at least four had been involved in what we would probably today call a cult. 

For the next few minutes, let’s look at how Jesus typically called his disciples and what kind of challenges he put before them.  We’re in Mark, chapter 1, beginning at verse 14. 

Effective Evangelism
There are five things that work together almost any time a person begins to respond to the gospel.  And so the question before us is, Where Does Effective Evangelism Begin?  I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I have “shared Christ” many times; gotten to the end of my presentation of “the gospel” and said, “So, would you like to know Jesus today?”  And had the person I was speaking with shrug their shoulders and say, “No.  I don’t think that’s for me.”

The reason they respond that way is because one or more of these five things hasn’t come together.  Before evangelism will be effective you need
1.     The Right Voice (sharing)
2.     The Right Message (at)
3.     The Right Time (in)
4.     The Right Place (with)
5.     The Right Response.

Where Does Effective Evangelism Begin? Look at verse 14:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee.   John the Baptist had been preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  But when we looked at what he was doing last week we said that the force of John’s ministry was both backward, toward the Law and forward, toward Christ.  That means that John’s was not the voice we needed to listen to.  His ministry was to proclaim that the right voice was on its way.   And so, After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee.  What did God say when Jesus was baptized by John?  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)  And at the Transfiguration, God spoke the same words but also underlined how we are to receive Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  (Matthew 17:5 ESV)  The voice of Jesus is the right voice.  Effective Evangelism always begins with us getting out of the way so people can hear the right voice.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  Effective Evangelism always begins with the right message.   In the 20th century alone there have been so many agendas in the western church that have purported to be the good news.  When I was a young believer in my 20s, the good news was “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  That morphed in the 1980s into the good news that “If you have enough faith you can ask of God and he will give you whatever your heart desires.”  One whole wing of the Christian church bought solidly into that thought and the companion idea that verges on Christian Science when it says that all disease is from the enemy and that Jesus healed every person who came to him for healing and so the good news is that God wants you well.  It goes on to say that the only reason you’re not well or happy or healthy is that you haven’t got enough faith.

In the 1960s one line of thinking was that the good news is the God of Possibilities.  In this one, prayer is cast as possibility thinking, and the power of positive thinking will yield you a more happy, more fulfilled self.  Fully grown, that line has been taken up by many voices: YOU are the most important person to God.  The good news is that if you just have a positive attitude all will be well. 

We don’t have the time here to review this fully, but there have been wars fought over nuances of doctrine as minute as whether baptism is for adult believers or for the covenant children of the church.  In the name of the good news people have been burned at the stake, shunned by family and friends, told who they could marry, sent on mission to destroy whole cultures under the guise of the good news. 

So what is “The Gospel?”  At the beginning of his letter to the church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul writes,   I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9 ESV)

I think the simplest presentation we have in Scripture is 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”  (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV)

In Jesus, in his birth, life, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign in glory, God’s purpose was to reconcile, through tragic, costly forgiveness, rebellious humankind to himself.  If you are not reconciled to God today you can be sure that his offer of grace – his gift in Christ – is available to you at this very moment.  If you have never known the assurance that you are his very own possession, his beloved child, his bride, you can know that assurance in the next 30 seconds.  Trust him that Jesus came reconcile you to God.  It is not God who is holding you at arms length.  It is your own rebellion.  Beloved, when you ask Christ he will give you in that moment salvation and his own spirit as a guarantee of all that will follow.   And what will follow won’t necessarily be health or happiness or riches or personal fulfillment.  What will follow will be a life lived in the knowledge of his presence with you. 

I just returned from a conference in Los Angeles this week.  I was privileged to be in the presence of a group of about 30 young church planters from across the country.  They are planting churches in places as diverse as Calumet, Michigan; North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Salem, Massachusetts and Hudson, Minnesota.  No two of those church plants look the same.  No two of the planting pastors were alike.  But they all held one unshakable conviction: the irreducible core of the gospel is “Love God, Love People, and Make Disciples as you go.”  That’s what new creations in Christ look like. 

The Right Voice with the Right Message can still be ineffective if the Spirit of God hasn’t prepared the way.  Paul tells us to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
(2 Timothy 4:2 ESV)  He tells us to be patient because he knows we don’t preach the word in order to get results.  We preach the word simply because our lives have been transformed by Christ.  We preach the word because we have been reconciled to God and we love people and just like Philip who called Nathaniel or Andrew who found his brother Simon, we want everyone we meet to have the same joy of knowing Christ. 

And yet we don’t know when the season is right in a particular person’s life.  We don’t know when God has prepared a heart and the light bulb is about to come on in their life.  We are not called to convert.  We are called to speak the word of transformation that was spoken to us.  GOD was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”  (2 Corinthians 5:18 ESV)

And so Effective Evangelism always begins at The Right Time.  In our text in Mark 1 Jesus said, “The time has come.  The kingdom of God is near.”  The Letter to the Hebrews begins this way, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
(Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)  Romans 5:6 says, “At just the right time, when we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  Effective Evangelism is not about you getting results.  It is just a byproduct of your love for God and for people.  The timing of the Day of Salvation is entirely God’s.

Finally, Effective Evangelism always happens in The Right Place.  “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.”   Why didn’t Jesus go to Jerusalem to preach the good news?  That was the center of Jewish life.  That was where the Temple was.  The only clue we have about Jesus’ early years after his birth is a single paragraph in Luke 2 that tells how, when he was 12 years old, Jesus left the caravan his parents were part of after the family had taken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  They finally found him in the Temple teaching the Elders.  When they challenged him as to why he had left them Jesus said, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s House?”  But twenty years later, when Jesus began his public ministry, that’s not where he went.  The Temple wasn’t the right place.

Why didn’t Jesus go to Rome?  That was the place where he could have received world-wide attention.  If the gospel was not just for the Jews, and Jesus himself tells us that it isn’t, why not unveil the message of the gospel in Rome?  Rome wasn’t the right place.

The Right Place, it turns out, was way up in the North Country.  Galilee of the Gentiles was on the margins of Jewish life and culture.  Galilee was on the fringe.  The people Jesus would come in contact with there were mostly simple fishermen.  And the crowds that would follow Jesus in much of his public ministry came from not only all over Judea, they came from neighboring Samaria.  They came from Syria and Jordan.  Ultimately Jesus did take the message to Jerusalem, and he did teach in the Temple there many times.  But where Effective Evangelism began for Jesus and where it will likely begin for us is in the small places, the forgotten places.  Effective Evangelism most often begins with small, forgotten people. 

When The Right Voice comes with The Right Message at The Right Time in The Right Place, all that is left is for God to produce in people The Right Response.  Jesus said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” 

You always have two choices when confronted by Jesus’ own voice.  When Isaiah had a vision of being taken into the presence of God he tore his robe and said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  (Isaiah 6:5 ESV)  But strangely, that isn’t always a person’s response.  I have trouble understanding how anyone could stand in the presence of Jesus and not repent and believe.  It is as inconceivable as someone standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and saying, “Eh… That’s not so special.  I can take it or leave it.” 

But we don’t simply take or leave Jesus in that casual way.  He comes to us with an unequivocal message of salvation.  He offers us a completely reconciled relationship with God and a life lived in his very presence.  To walk away and say, “I’m not ready.” Or to say, “Maybe later on, but not now,” to Jesus is to make a huge decision.  And the remarkable thing about Jesus is that even when we turn away and tell him he’s not worthy of us giving our life to, he still pursues us. 

Beloved, Jesus will not force his love on you.  But if you have heard The Right Voice with The Right Message at The Right Time in The Right Place, and if this is the Day of Salvation for you, don’t delay another moment!  Not because something awful might happen to you or because you don’t know if you’ll ever have another chance.  I know Jesus, if he is anything, he is the God of second and third and fourth chances.  But if God is speaking to you today, respond today:  Jesus, I hear your voice.  I want to become a new creation in you, today.

The passage we’ve been looking at this morning has two more things to show us.  The first is verses 16-18.  We’ve just seen how Effective Evangelism works and what it is.  Now, quite immediately, Jesus demonstrates Effective Evangelism.  Look at it:

1.     The Voice (As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee…)
2.     The Message (Come, follow me…)
3.     The Time (casting a net into the lake [at work]… At once they left)
4.     The Place (into the lake…)
5.     The Response (they left their nets and followed him)

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Mark had gone on to chronicle in that detail all the myriad stories that must have taken place as one after another Jesus called his disciples?  He doesn’t though.  He sums it all up in Mark 3:13, “And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”
(Mark 3:13-15 ESV) 

But that pattern is being repeated everywhere Jesus goes.  It is begin repeated right here at PCC today.  And in the months and years ahead, if we as a people will adopt the pattern of the way of Jesus, The Right Voice with The Right Message at The Right Time in The Right Place letting God bring about the Right Response, we will become participants in the irreducible core of the Gospel, to Love God, Love Others, and make Disciples as we go.