Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Signs of Prayer Idolatry (part 1)

When is prayer dangerous to our spiritual health? When prayer itself becomes our idol. There are several signs that evidence prayer idolatry. 

Sign #1-Prayer becomes a substitute word for God.
My attention was drawn to this several years ago in preparing for the National Day of Prayer. The theme was "Prayer, America's Hope." That is not theologically correct. Highlighting this wrong focus was the Scripture quoted in support of the theme, Psalm 33:22 "May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you." Clearly our hope is in The Lord alone, not in prayer. 

Prayer is not America's hope, God is. It says so right in that text. The difference is subtle, but critical. It is not semantics, it's idolatry. 

Sign #2-Prayer becomes the end rather than the means to an end. 
I regularly meet Christians with a zealous fervor for prayer. At face value, it is commendable. Sadly I fear that sometimes their passion puts prayer on the throne, pushing Jesus to the side.

Emphasizing prayer this way is like putting all the focus on communication in relating to your spouse. What if your husband asked, "Do you love me?" and you answered, "I talk to you every day for at least an hour." That would not be satisfactory. What if your wife asked, "Are you faithful to me?" and you said, "I call you during lunch when I'm at work." That would not be an answer. What if your spouse asked, "Do you value me above all others?" A response of, "You are the first one I call when I need help," would be inadequate.

When well-intentioned Christians call the church to engage in prayer, we must beware of creating a tragically wrong emphasis. Jesus called us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind." Prayer is one way we interact with the One we love. He is the end, prayer is the means. 

Sign #3-Prayer becomes "The Work" of the church. 
The slogan that "Prayer is the Work" can be misused. Recognizing it is vital to depend on God in prayer is one thing. Identifying prayer as the sum total of the work of the church is another. Prayer is not a replacement for mission. 

As Matthew records Jesus' final instructions to the disciples 28:18-20, prayer is not mentioned. Going, discipling, baptizing, and teaching are. Saying "Prayer is the work" is an overstatement. Prayer is part of the work. It must play an integral role in the Christian life, as an expression of worship, dependence, and relationship. But to say prayer is the work implies that prayer is all that needs to be done.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

George Beverly Shea's Pulpit

For 10 years, I pastored The Village Church, in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs. It was the church where Billy Graham pastored long before. In 1944, George Beverly Shea was connected there too as the featured soloist of the radio program “Songs in the Night,” which was broadcast live from the church basement. 

Fifty years later, when I arrived as pastor, I noticed the pulpit was falling apart. This pulpit, with matching chairs and communion table, had seen better days. Since the pulpit Billy Graham had used was already on display at the Billy Graham museum, I didn’t expect this to be a prized piece of furniture. I gently inquired about the possibility of getting a new one, and was denied. “George Beverley Shea and his family donated that pulpit,” they said. “It’s not going anywhere.”

It wasn’t the Shea family who insisted on making the donation a permanent fixture, just a few long-time members. My backup plan was to get the pulpit fixed and refinished. That proved impossible. As one professional restorer put it, “If we dipped that thing into the stripper, it would disintegrate.”

Scandal erupted a month later when the pulpit was missing from the platform. Someone said it was broken. An ugly rumor briefly circulated that I had intentionally busted it to force the purchase of a new one. My reputation was eventually spared when the custodian confessed to dropping the pulpit while trying to move it.

Abandoned and misshapen, the pulpit lingered in a back room until it was carted off to destinations unknown, never to be seen again.

After 104 years, Bev Shea is with the Lord. He will be seen again.

Could his voice sound even better in heaven? 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Of Hippos, Babies, and Answered Prayer

Bill Cosby used to do a comedy routine about Noah. He imagined Noah following God’s instructions to build an ark and then loading the animals two by two. Cosby describes God telling Noah to “Take one of those hippos off the ark and get another one.” When Noah asks why, God replies, “Because you’ve got two males. You need a female.” According to Cosby, Noah tells God, “I’m too tired. You change one of them.”

Of course that’s not the way it happened. But Cosby’s imaginative rendition does picture how we want God to work in our lives. We look for immediate answers, quick solutions, and dramatic interventions. We ask God to do a miracle, to provide instantaneous resolutions to our problems.  

And yet, if we look at Scripture, God frequently chooses a more subtle response. God tends to take his time. In Biblical history, it is not unusual for his answer to arrive in the form of a baby. Think Isaac, or Moses, or Samson, or Jesus. Babies are so fragile. They take awhile to grow up. A baby is not an instant solution. God is not in a hurry.

As you cry out to God for help, realize his solution might not be immediately apparent. But whatever God chooses to do, his answer will be right on time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

It's too Early to Tell

In his recent book “I Am a Follower” Leonard Sweet tells this story:
The old man was the poorest man in the village, but he owned the most beautiful white stallion. And the king had offered him a small fortune for it. After a terribly harsh winter, during which the old man and his family nearly starved, the townspeople came to visit.

"Old man," they said, "you can hardly afford to feed your family. Sell the stallion, and you will be rich. If you do not, you are a fool."
"It's too early to tell," replied the old man. A few months later, the old man woke up to find that the white stallion had run away.
Once again the townspeople came, and they said to the old man, "See. If you had sold the king your horse, you would be rich. Now you have nothing! You are a fool!"
"It's too early to tell," replied the old man.
Two weeks later, the white stallion returned, and along with it came three other white stallions.
"Old man," the townspeople said, "we are the fools! Now you can sell the stallion to the king, and you will still have three stallions left. You are smart."
"It's too early to tell," said the old man.
The following week, the old man's son, his only son, was breaking in one of the stallions and was thrown, crushing both his legs.
The townspeople paid a visit to the old man, and they said, "Old man, if you had just sold the stallion to the king, you'd be rich, and your son would not be crippled. You are a fool."
"It is too early to tell," said the old man.
Well, the next month, war broke out with the neighboring village. All of the young men in the village were sent into the battle, and all were killed.
The townspeople came, and they cried to the old man, "We have lost our sons. You are the only one who has not. If you had sold your stallion to the king, your son, too, would be dead. You are so smart!"
"It's too early to tell," said the old man.
Like Job’s comforters, sometimes well-meaning people try to offer explanations for why bad things happen to us. The truth is, we just don’t know. But even when we can’t make any sense of our sufferings and struggles, we can rest in the fact that God is sovereign. “In all things he works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” Romans 8:28.  God is at work in ways we cannot comprehend. Our most accurate response to some life circumstances is, “It’s too early to tell.” 

Lord of Macaroni

I was captured by the stories of Muslims who follow Christ as “insiders.” The January/February issue of Christianity Today told of Muslims who embrace Jesus yet stay within their Islamic community.

Those “insiders” number in the thousands, and Abu Jaz is one of them. Abu Jaz is not his real name, but his story has been verified. Here is how he describes his conversion to Christ.
One night the only food my wife and I had was a small portion of macaroni. My wife prepared it very nicely. Then one of her friends knocked on the door. I told myself, The macaroni is not sufficient for even the two of us, so how will it be enough for three of us? But because we have no other custom, we opened the door, and she came in to eat with us.

While we were eating, the macaroni started to multiply; it became full in the bowl. I suspected something was wrong with my eyes, so I started rubbing them. I thought maybe my wife hid some macaroni under the small table, so I checked, but there was nothing.

Afterward I lay down on the bed, and as I slept, Isa (Jesus) came to me and asked me, “Do you know who multiplied the macaroni?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “I am Isa al Masih. (Jesus the Messiah) If you follow me, not only the macaroni but your life will be multiplied.”

It was not because I was poor that Isa came to my home; there are many poor. It is not because he wanted to multiply my macaroni. Maybe there might be other people who can multiply macaroni, like magic. So what is the purpose? Isa al Masih came to my home with the kingdom of God.
Although at first Abu Jaz did not understand Jesus was God’s Son who died for his sin, eventually he came to believe. Today, Abu Jaz declares that when Jesus “died on the cross, he defeated death and the one who owned the power of death, Satan. And because God raised Jesus from the dead, he was appointed by God as a judge on the Day of Judgment, and the Savior from the Day of Judgment.”

That story and others like it are an encouragement to me. They testify of how God is at work, even in places we don’t expect. As Abu Jaz said, “We must remember that it is not we who are bringing God to the Muslim people. He was already here.”

Of Golf and Bibles

Is it painful for golfers to hear about golf during winter months? As an avowed non-golfer, I don’t know.  As a bitter former-golfer, I hope it hurts a little.

I was reading something Brian Larson wrote about yardage books. A yardage book is a map of each hole on a golf course that gives distances from various landmarks on the hole to the green. This helps golfers pick the right club for each shot. Along with the maps many pro golfers will keep a journal of details, such as how they have played each hole of the course, and what happened to their shots.
How important is that book?

Golfer Steve Marino says, "You see what you did in the past, you make sure you have the right number and then trust all of it, because the room for error is nil."

Scott Vail, caddie for Brandt Snedeker, says, "There are huge ramifications if you are just 1 yard off."

Zach Johnson, winner of the 2010 Colonial, says, "I feel naked without it out there. It's my golf bible."

I guess that’s what my old golf game was lacking; a yardage book, a caddy, and a professional golfer to hit for me.

Wouldn't it be nice to have yardage books for life? An answer book for all those personal and tough questions, such as: Should I look for another job or keep this one? How should I invest my money? Who should I marry? Should I go to this or that school? Should we buy this house? According to what my friend Brian wrote, “God hasn't chosen to work with us in that way. He has given us an essential book of guidance that we can't do without, but we still have to use judgment in how to apply what it teaches. Most important, we need to be walking with God in prayer and trust.”

Exact answers to every question in advance would make life easier. But that information would also reduce our daily dependence. Proverbs 22:19 speaks of when God’s wisdom is revealed, and says: “So that your trust may be in the LORD, I have made them known to you today—yes, to you.” God’s wisdom is often not revealed far in advance. Instead, he makes it known today, the day you need it.

For those of us who like to know the exact yardage for every shot, that can be unsettling. But ambiguity should arouse dependence and stimulate prayer. The purpose? “So that your trust may be in the Lord.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

There Is No "Christian" Vote

I’m not afraid of prison.

Let me explain. I’m actually terrified of prison, but I would never let the threat of it keep me from taking a stand for the gospel.

I’m not afraid of the church losing tax exempt status, if it meant obeying God.

I’m not afraid of ridicule.

None of those are reasons why I don’t preach politics. None of those are reasons why I refuse to endorse a political party or a particular candidate. And every election cycle, I receive encouragement, challenges, and the occasional threat to speak for or against some candidate, issue, or political party. I am urged to guide my church so they do not vote for the “wrong” candidate. I am told it is cowardice for me not to do this; that I have failed to be a true pastor.

My perspective is different. I see my greater responsibility as understanding and applying what God has said. At the same time, I guard against the tendency to equate God’s will with a particular political party, adopt a political agenda for the church, or fail to be Christ-like toward those with whom I disagree. It might concern some of you when I say, “There is no Christian vote…no absolute choice for all Christians.”

It’s not that clear. It almost never is. No political party has God’s answers to every issue. Arguably, each party has ungodly aspects to their platforms. Every candidate comes with unbiblical baggage and flawed beliefs. Even Christian politicians with biblical views, are tied to ungodly stances by choosing to align with a major party. Whether abortion and homosexual marriage on one hand, or unrestrained greed and neglect of the poor on the other. To identify a political philosophy as the “Christian one” is dangerous. The Republican ideology of lower taxes, less government, and strong defense tends to be baptized as the biblical view. Or the Democratic ideology of individual freedoms, individual responsibility to society, and government working for the common good tends to be christened as Christian. 

The danger is that our faith can become distorted. We see one party as standing for all the right things, and the other party as completely wicked. We struggle to recognize that truth and error is thoroughly mixed into both sides. We start making “what’s best for America” our guiding principle, rather than the kingdom of God. We allow fear, distrust, and even hatred, to characterize our view of others. We fearfully cling to the kingdom of this world, rather than trusting Christ. We start thinking politically rather than biblically.

No candidate or party is the unquestioned right choice for all Christians, at least not until Jesus comes back. While some Christians might be able to tie their entire perspective to one issue, such as abortion, not all Christians can easily do the same. It would be much clearer if our choice in the voting booth was “Abortion: Yes or No.” Sadly, that’s not the way it works.

Even if we believed in an unquestioned right vote for all Christians, God might have other objectives in mind. God’s choices are sometimes the opposite of our understanding, for he is carrying out a greater purpose. The Bible has more than a few examples of “the wrong choice” being in power by God’s design. Cyrus was a pagan, foreign, enemy king whom God called his “anointed.” Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless, idol worshiping Babylonian. God chose to put him in power, remove him from power, and restore him to power again. Pharaoh worshiped the gods of Egypt, enslaved the Hebrews, and yet was chosen to carry out God’s purpose. 

Some organizations have declared it wrong for Christians not to vote for one of the major parties for President. They say, “You might not like your choices, but you must pick one.” And they imply which one. The reason they give is that no one else has a chance of winning. I vigorously refute that humanistic reasoning. Our obedience to God is never based upon our chances of “winning.” Providentially, we live in a country where we have the freedom to vote. By God’s Spirit we are able to choose between major party candidates, and candidates with zero chance of winning, or to make no selection at all. Each of us must decide what God asks of him or her.

The fallacy of choosing the “lesser of two evils” can be shown if taken to an extreme. What if your vote was between the Third Reich and the Khmer Rouge? Most would agree those political parties were exponentially more evil than our choices today. But if in some absurd nightmare, you were a citizen faced with those two options on the ballot, what would you do? To argue “I must vote for the Khmer Rouge because it more aligns with my values,” is spiritually unsound. If you did have that free choice and you reasoned in that way, the right to vote has become your highest value.

I encourage God’s people to stay on mission. That mission is not to preserve a political philosophy, nor to rescue America from itself. Our mission is to “make disciples of all nations” and “declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.”