Don’t Worry be Happy

Madonna and Child“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

A few years ago singer-songwriter Bobby McFerrin composed a great little song titled “Don’t worry be happy.” His lyrics advise us:

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy!

Sounds like some sound advice doesn’t it? However, McFerrin might have better named his tune “Don’t worry be joyful.” Joy and happiness are often used interchangeably, but there is quite a difference in their meanings—especially for Christians.

Happiness is an emotion that arises from external factors, either objects, circumstances or other people. Many people chase after happiness, often taking incredible risks to capture this elusive prey.  From the beginning of time man has sought happiness through a variety of means—romance, travel, adventure, possessions, work, wealth, fame, power, good looks, drugs, sex and countless others—but all fall short.  As King Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes, all these are “vanity.”

Chasing after happiness is like chasing a wave at the beach. You might get your hands around it for a moment, but it eventually slips through your fingers because happiness is fleeting.  Attaining lasting happiness is impossible in a fallen world, where decay, sickness and death visit everyone. Even Jesus is, as Isaiah tells us, a “man of sorrows.” Upon his shoulders God placed the burden of the sins of all mankind.

Joy, on the other hand, comes from within. One characteristic of Christian joy is a growing feeling of confidence in God’s promise that He will never forsake us. For mature Christians, finding joy is possible even during the unhappiest times because as our faith grows we come to understand that God will carry us through every time of tribulation. This is illustrated clearly by Paul and Silas, who we see praying and singing hymns to God in Acts 16, only a short time after they have been beaten and unjustly thrown in prison.

Along with Christian joy comes a sense of contentment. St. Paul describes this in Philippians 4:11-13:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (ESV)

As Christians mature and learn to be content in the various situations they find themselves, their worries will begin to dissipate when they place them in God’s hands. The American poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell said, “Let us be of good cheer, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which will never happen.”

Worry is a waste of time that would be more wisely spent devoted to prayer. The next time you find yourself worrying about something, get on your knees and lift those worries up in prayer. Don’t worry, be joyful!

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. —Romans 15-13 (ESV)

Click-to-Listen: “Don’t Worry be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

Following Directions

Directions

In 2005, the USA Today described how a group of bewildered shepherds near Istanbul, Turkey stood helplessly by as one of their sheep jumped to its death over a cliff.  Then, to their dismay, some 1,500 additional animals followed the first one.  In the end, about 450 sheep lay dead in a heap at the bottom of the cliff. The losses would have been far greater had not the fall of the later jumpers been cushioned by the pile of carcasses at the bottom of the heap.

Sometimes people behave like these unfortunate sheep, failing to look before they leap.  This is a particularly difficult problem for many Christians in the west today. First, compared to most generations who came before us, we live in relative splendor with adequate shelter, clothing and food.

Secondly, we live in a post-Christian era, where most of society neither agrees with nor respects our fundamental beliefs. In such an environment, it is easy to simply shrug one’s shoulders and go with the flow…go along to get along!

Such was the case for the early church in Laodicea, as Revelation 3:15-17 tells us:  “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (ESV)

The late Steven Covey, renowned businessman, author and keynote speaker, cautioned against such behavior, saying, “If you decide to just go with the flow, you’ll end up where the flow goes, which is usually downhill, often leading to a big pile of sludge and a life of unhappiness. You’ll end up doing what everyone else is doing.” 

Put simply, if you follow the group instead of the path you know to be right, your risk ending up at the bottom of the heap like those unfortunate sheep in Turkey.

 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.

                                                                                                                     —Isaiah 53:6

If you have ever assembled a piece of furniture purchased at Ikea or built a prefabricated entertainment center like those sold in big box store you understand there is a right way and a wrong way to assemble such pieces. I can’t count the number of times my wife has seen me struggling with a project and asked me, “Did you read the directions?”

Maybe it’s a man thing, but more often than not my answer is, “not yet.”  After receiving such a gentle nudge, I usually pick up the directions manual and finish assembling the piece fairly easily. In the end, I find myself wishing I’d followed the directions from the start.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 

                                                                                                                                             —2 Timothy 3:16-17

Through Scripture, God has provided us a directions manual for putting our lives together.  Unfortunately, most people, Christians included, never take advantage of learning what the directions say.

In 2013 the American Bible Society conducted a survey on Bible reading in America.  Of the 2,083 respondents,  88 percent said they own a Bible, 80 percent think the Bible is sacred, 61 percent wish they read the Bible more, and the average household has 4.4   Sadly, only 26 percent of the respondents said they read the Bible on a regular basis (four or more times a week).

God offers us true intimacy with Him through the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives. In Hosea 6:6, God says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  God’s desire for each of us is that we come to know Him better with each passing day.  God wants us to know him better.  One needn’t be a Bible scholar to study and learn from the scriptures.  Through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, the scriptures are revealed to those who ask.

The beginning of a New Year is a great time to begin a Bible reading program.  I recommend the Bible Gateway website, where you will find a variety of offerings to help guide your daily study (https://www.biblegateway.com/reading-plans). Many printed versions of the Bible contain a suggested daily reading schedule.  You don’t even have to read the Bible from start to finish.  It’s OK to begin with reading a variety of selections daily.  Read the directions daily.  They’ll help you stay on the right path.

The Bible does not thrill; the Bible nourishes. Give time to the reading of the Bible and the recreating effect is as real as that of fresh air physically.   —Oswald Chambers

Stretch Yourself

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“It is perilously possible to make our conceptions of God like molten lead poured into a specially designed mould, and when it is cold and hard we fling it at the heads of the religious people who don’t agree with us.”  —Oswald Chambers

Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg are the co-principal investigators and co-directors of Project Information Literacy at the University of Washington Information School in Seattle. One of the areas they study is information overload and multi-tasking.

Since 2008 the pair has surveyed over 10,000 college students. One of their most significant findings is that, “Information is now as infinite as the universe, but finding the answers needed is harder than ever.”

In today’s complex, often confusing wilderness of digital information, it’s important that people periodically take time to slow down and think!  Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said, “Always keep in contact with those books and those people that enlarge your horizon and make it possible for you to stretch yourself mentally.”

I have to agree with his advice. I’ve found that a good way to slow down is to turn off the laptop or smartphone.  Instead, try engaging in meaningful conversations and reading.

My most meaningful conversations usually occur with my wife Linda.  She is one of the smartest people I know. Her logic and ability to find clarity in the midst of confusion have always amazed me. If she were the only person I ever talked with, my life would never lack for interesting, meaningful dialogue.

As for books, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’d like to suggest a few good ones for Christians hoping to stretch their minds a little.  My top five, in no particular order are:

My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers

Oswald Chambers, who died in 1917 at age 43, is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He wrote only three books in his lifetime, but there are many bearing his name.  They are the products of his devoted wife Gertrude, a professional stenographer who recorded all of Chambers’ sermons verbatim in shorthand.

My Utmost for His Highest is a book of daily devotions written by Mrs. Chambers. It draws from dozens of her husband’s sermons. First published in 1924, it is the most popular Christian devotional ever written.  The idea of total abandonment, i.e. completely surrendering one’s life to God, is at the center of its message. As the book’s title suggests, we must strive daily to do our utmost for God.

Chambers said, “We have the idea that we can dedicate our gifts to God. However, you cannot dedicate what is not yours. There is actually only one thing you can dedicate to God, and that is your right to yourself (see Romans 12:1). If you will give God your right to yourself, He will make a holy experiment out of you— and His experiments always succeed.”

The language of the original text is somewhat challenging for modern day readers due to its use of Scottish vernacular. Fortunately, there are versions available in modern English.  Personally, I find that working through the original version simply adds to the exercise of stretching my mind. When read as intended—one short devotion per day—this book will help you stretch yourself for an entire year.

Your God is too Small, by J.B. Phillips

J.B. Phillips was a canon of the Anglican Church.  He died in 1982.  His seminal work, Your God is Too Small, was published in 1952. According to Phillips, from childhood we are taught to package God in a tiny box conforming to our personal beliefs and preferences.  Look for all of the answers and you’ll find them by turning God into something simple and understandable. Phillips calls this “God in a box,” which is also the title of the book’s seventh chapter.

Oswald Chambers cautioned us against such shaping God in our own image, saying, “Our danger is to water down God’s word to suit ourselves. God never fits His word to suit me; He fits me to suit His word.” (Not Knowing Whither, 901 R).

David wrote in Psalm 8, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Your God it too Small leads its readers through a series of intellectual exercises designed to expand their concept of the God who created the universe. If you find yourself marveling at God’s creation, unable to wrap your mind around it all, this book will help you see God in a totally different way.

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is one of the most popular and prolific Christian authors and apologists who ever lived. He penned over 30 books.  Today he is best known for his classic series The Chronicles of Narnia, which have been transformed into an extremely successful series of films.

Originally published in 1942, The Screwtape Letters is arguably the Lewis’s most unusual book.  It is written in the format of a series of letters from an uncle attempting to mentor his young nephew through an important task. This would be nothing unusual, were it not for the fact that Screwtape is a senior demon and servant of Satan.  The letters are written to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter.  Wormwood has been given the task of ensuring the damnation of a British businessman who is referred to only as “the patient.”  Screwtape provides his nephew a clear strategy on how to undermine the patient’s faith and lead him into sin.

Lewis’s book is a dissertation on the human condition—a deep analysis of man’s inner makeup, with all of its strengths, frailties, temptations and struggles. Screwtape, through his keen understanding of human behavior, explains to Wormwood the best methods for ensuring the patient’s ultimate demise. The book paints an in-depth picture of spiritual warfare and the ultimate triumph of God.  It is guaranteed to make you think about your own inner self.

Luther:  Man between God and the Devil, by Heiko A. Oberman 

Originally published in German in 1982, this book is considered by many German scholars to be the most comprehensive biography every written on Martin Luther (1483-1546).  Luther was the central figure of the Protestant Reformation and remains one of the most influential theologians in history.

Even without the discussion of Luther, Oberman’s book would be worth reading just for its political, cultural and religious discussion of the Reformation.  However, it offers much, much more. Unlike many Luther biographers before him, Oberman attempts to describe Luther’s thoughts and deeds as something much more than just a medieval German monk who rebelled against the authority of the Catholic Church.

Oberman contends that Luther was convinced of the reality of the devil and viewed his own life as a continuous struggle against evil. (Not unlike The Screwtape Letters).  Luther viewed the world as an enormous battleground where God clashes with Satan. Approaching him from this angle lends a whole new perspective to Luther’s theology. This book is guaranteed to stretch your mind!

Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland

If you’re a middle-aged Christian like me you might recall hearing about a popular movement in the 80’s and 90’s centered on “the quest for the historical Jesus.” The movement, which still has some momentum today, was epitomized by the Jesus Seminar.  The Jesus Seminar was organized by the Weststar Institute in 1985.

According to the institute’s website, its purpose was to, “to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to the general public, rather than just to a handful of gospel specialists. Initially, the goal of the Seminar was to review each of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels and determine which of them could be considered authentic.

The seminar began with a group of 30 Bible scholars, but eventually grew to around 200. Put simply, this movement was an attempt by Bible scholars, not necessarily Christian scholars, to refute the divinity of Jesus Christ by framing him in history as nothing more than a typical, popular Jewish teacher of his day.

Jesus Under Fire is a compilation of essays by eight prominent Christian apologists written to challenge the methodology and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.  The book’s introduction describes the furor surrounding Jesus:

“Today some people say that Jesus never said most of what is recorded of him in the Bible.  Some pronounce further that Jesus never did most of what the Bible records he did.  They claim that Jesus of Nazareth was a far different figure than church history and the creeds have believed him to be.  Therefore, if we are to be intelligent people, even intelligent religious people, we must not simply accept what the Bible records Jesus claimed for himself and what the early church claimed him to be.  If we are to be truly modern in our religious quest, we must not simplistically hope that Jesus’ actions as they are recorded in the Bible are factual, or that they have any relevance for us today.  Jesus must be stripped of ancient myths that surround him as to what he said and did, so that the modern person can hear his true message.  Jesus must be brought down to earth from the status to which the early church elevated him, so that we can understand who he was as he walked under Palestinian skies and comprehend what, if any, religious relevance he has for us today.”

The chapter titles of Jesus Under Fire describe the authors’ response to the Jesus Seminar:

  • Where do we start studying Jesus?
  • Who is Jesus? An introduction to Jesus studies.
  • The words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive or Memorex?
  • What did Jesus do?
  • Did Jesus perform miracles?
  • Did Jesus rise from the dead?
  • Is Jesus the only way?
  • Jesus outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?

This book is for serious mind stretchers only.  It is probably the most difficult book I have ever read…and reread.  I found each of the essays intellectually stimulating—the sort of stuff that makes me go back and reread each paragraph, underlining sentences as I go.  I spent about six months working my way through it the first time…and it was time well spent. I hope you will find it equally as enjoyable.

Give yourself a special gift this Christmas and start reading one of these wonderful books.  You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

Simply Good News

Jesus on Cross

                                                            For I decided to know nothing among you,                                                                                                                  except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”                                                                                                                                        1 Corinthians 2:2 (ESV)

Life is becoming more and more complicated these days.  Wherever one turns he or she is met with new challenges.  Today’s new cars have more gadgets than did many airplanes just a few years ago. Simply watching television can require using several very different remote controls that must be used in a specific sequence to view the media one desires.  So-called smartphones often prove smarter than their users, leaving befuddled owners struggling to figure out how to use all of their phone’s capabilities.

Politics has also grown more complex. Many private interest groups today sponsor advertising in favor of one politician or another. It’s difficult to sort out the source and motivation behind each message and even harder to discern fact from fiction. Attack ads grow more vicious each year.

Even eating has become more challenging for those  concerned about health and fitness. Should you use butter or margarine?  Is coffee good for you or bad?  Is a little red wine really beneficial to your health? How much exercise does one really need?  Is it better to walk or jog? It’s hard to sort through it all.

Unfortunately, complexity has increased in religion as well.  Mainline Christian denominations are being divided by new doctrines and beliefs. Recently the National Cathedral, arguably the foremost Episcopal churches in the United States, hosted a Muslim prayer service.  And don’t even try to sort out what’s going on between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Middle East! It’s enough to drive one mad.

Fortunately for Christians, St. Paul maintains a simple view of the Gospel. Listening to his words can help us cut through much of the confusion that exists today. In his first letter to the saints in Corinth he writes, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  (1 Corinthians 2:1-2, ESV)

Christ’s crucifixion for our sins and His resurrection from the dead are at the center of the Christian faith.  A highly educated and intelligent man, St. Paul professed a belief in Christ built on faith, not reason. He understood that reason could never lead to a full knowledge of God, because God is too big and too awesome for a simple human mind to fully comprehend. As the psalmist tells us:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.  You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, beholding, O Lord, you know it altogether.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.   —Psalm 39:1-6 (ESV)

Popular Christian pastor and author Ray Stedman wrote, “The main thing about being a Christian is to see that “the main thing remains the main thing.’ That is what Paul is saying (in 2 Corinthians 11:2). The ‘main thing’ is that at the heart and center of your life is the ‘simplicity that is in Christ,’ a simple thing. I have noticed over many years of observation that when religion becomes complicated, it is always a sign that it is drifting away from the realities and centralities of faith.”

The good news about Jesus that was preached by His apostles is quite simple: (all  citations taken from the ESV)

Jesus came to save all mankind.  1 Timothy 1:15 – The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… —St. Paul

Jesus is mankind’s only pathway to God .  Acts 4: 11-12 – This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven or given among men by which we must be saved.” —St. Peter

All people are born in a condition of sin, separated from God.  Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” —St. Paul

There is nothing anyone can do on his own to earn God’s salvation.  Romans 3:10-12 – “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  —St. Paul

Christ came so save mankind from sin and death—separation from God. 1 Timothy 1:15 – “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  —St. Paul

Salvation is a gift freely given to those who put their faith in Christ.  Romans 10:9-10 – “…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. —St. Paul

One needn’t be a Bible scholar to understand the Gospel.  The message is quite simple.  The gift of God’s salvation is free to those who, with faith and repentance, ask to receive it.

“Only through repentance and faith in Christ can anyone be saved. No religious activity will be sufficient, only true faith in Jesus Christ alone.  —Ravi Zacharias                                                                               

 

 

 

Living Without a Compass

Compass

Today we are engaged in a deadly global struggle for those who would intimidate, torture, and murder people for exercising the most basic freedoms. If we are to win this struggle and spread those freedoms, we must keep our own moral compass pointed in a true direction.      –Barack Obama

A few days ago I was on the phone with my good friend Joe, who lives in California. Joe and I have each spent a lot of time in the Middle East, so our conversations often drift into the current events there.  Naturally, we couldn’t have such a discussion without mentioning the Islamic State (ISIS), the radical group currently wrecking havoc in Syria and Iraq.

I was busy bloviating about the ISIS situation when Joe interrupted with a short but cogent comment summing up the entire problem. “This is typical of what eventually happens in every society that doesn’t have Christ.”

Wow!  I wish I’d thought of that.  Joe is right.  History is replete with examples of the same kind of godless butchery that is the ISIS trademark.  Not all of it was beheadings and ethnic cleansing, but it was ruthless and chaotic nonetheless. The cruelty of ISIS appears feeble when compared to the likes of the Roman Empire, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and dare I say the People’s Republic of China, the country upon which the economy of the United States so depends.

While life in the United States has yet to descend into chaos, there is little doubt that the country is in a state of moral decline.  Create a vacuum and something will fill it.  Take God out of our families and homes, and chaos will eventually replace the divine spirit. The evidence is all around us. American society is rapidly becoming more secular; we are entering a post-Christian era.

For Christians, this could ultimately prove to be a blessing in the final analysis. Christianity has historically endured its greatest tests and proven strongest and most effective when operating from a position of weakness within society as a whole. Jesus was the perfect example of this.  The son of God allowed himself to be crucified, and in so doing took all of the sins of mankind upon himself.

His Apostles all fled in fear after Jesus’ crucifixion and remained in hiding until the resurrected Savior appeared to them in the flesh.  The assurance they gained from this and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowered them to spread the Gospel around the known world.  Their faith remained unbroken, even though most suffered a martyr’s death.

Like the resurrected Christ appearing to his Apostles 2,000 thousand years ago, today Christ still manifests Himself to His followers during both the best and worst of times. A good friend of mine who is a priest and former Army chaplain was fortunate enough to visit Russia back in the 1990’s to help re-establish the chaplain’s corps in the Russian army.

Like early Christians of the Roman Empire who had to meet secretly in catacombs beneath the cities, during the Soviet Union era many Russian Christians gathered in secret places to worship God.  After the collapse of communism they were eager to bring the church back “above ground.”  Today, the Russian Orthodox Church flourishes where only a few years ago it was suppressed.

Remarkably, Russia’s current leader and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin is being hailed by some as a defender of the Christian faith.  In December 2013, Putin declared in a speech, “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”  The world truly is turned upside down today!

I once had a senior Army officer tell me he preferred to work with men who possessed spiritual values, regardless of their religion.  He explained that having faith in a power higher than one’s self is an indicator of how one will perform under pressure; in this instance, the pressure he was referring to was the stress of combat. However, the truth of his statement applies to every facet of life. People and nations need a moral compass—something to keep them going in the right direction.  The best source of such guidance is a profound belief in God.

Nations rise and nations fall. Every nation has followed this progression from bondage to bondage. The nations of this century will be no different… As Christians we must recognize that nations will rise and fall just as individuals will be born and die. Our civilization will not last indefinitely, but will eventually pass off the scene. Only God’s Word endures forever. We should not put our trust in the things of this world for they are destined for destruction. Instead, we should put our faith in God and His word.    

                                                                                                            —Kirby Anderson, The Decline of a Nation*

*The complete text of Kirby Anderson’s “The Decline of a Nation” is available at this link:

http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/decline.html

Exercise for the Soul

Exercise

I’m not a big fan of reality TV, but there is one show I really enjoy.  The Biggest Loser is about helping morbidly obese people lose weight and regain their health and vigor. The contestants, all of whom are obese and suffering from multiple weight-related ailments, live at an isolated health compound and work with world class trainers throughout their stay.  It’s fascinating to watch the amount of work Biggest Loser contestants need to correct years of behavior problems like overeating and under exercising.

One phenomenon that is readily evident to viewers of the show is how former athletes—those who at one time were accustomed to vigorous exercise and discipline—seem to progress much faster than those who have never routinely exercised or disciplined their bodies.

Besides weight loss, The Biggest Loser delves into the psychological struggles waged by each contestant. Some succeed, while others never quite make it.  Now in its 10th season, the show has generated a Biggest Loser fitness movement across the country.

Many Americans are dedicated to physical fitness routines. Yet a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that 80 percent of American age 18 and above do not exercise sufficiently to maintain good health.

Far fewer practice a discipline of exercise for the soul.  What a shame we can’t seem to find a way to generate a spiritual fitness movement across our country!  For Christians, exercise for the soul is more important than physical exercise, because the Holy Spirit dwells within our bodies, which St. Paul calls, “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Left neglected, either by sin, complacency or getting buried in the business of day-to-day life, the Holy Spirit cannot speak to us.  Our bodies require daily attention on both the physical and spiritual levels. Prayer must be at the center of attention. Personally, this is an area I’ve struggled with lately.

Popular evangelist and church pastor Rev. David Jeremiah has said, “Prayer is the hard-work business of Christianity, and it nets amazing results.”  German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very specific in promoting the benefits of prayer, saying,

The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer. The morning prayer determines the day.”

 Having practiced morning prayer for many years, I appreciate its importance to a Christian’s well being.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of Roman Catholicism, was a Spanish knight who lived from 1491 to 1556.  As a young man, Ignatius kept a journal of his quest to grow in unity with God and discern God’s will in his life.  As his experience grew, the journal evolved into a well-defined set of prayers, meditations, reflections, and directions that are known today as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

These exercises are grouped into four stages, described as weeks but not literally seven-day periods, which are designed to be led by a director, or guide.  The Spiritual Exercises are intended to serve as a sort of lesson plan for the individual leading the exercises, not as a guide for individuals.

However, even without a director many aspects of the Spiritual Exercises can be useful to individuals seeking spiritual growth and greater commitment to serving God. This is particularly so for the way the Spiritual Exercises approach prayer through meditation and contemplation.

Meditation involves praying about the good and bad words, images and ideas that guide our lives.  Contemplation is emotion-driven, rather than thought-driven.  It focuses on placing ourselves in scenes from the Gospel and trying to imagine how it might have been.  Contemplation is praying through scripture rather than studying scripture.

One of the key elements of the Spiritual Exercises is the discernment of spirits.  According to St. Ignatius, the human spirit is influenced by three forces: an inward focus on self and selfish desires; Satanic power and suggestions; and God-inspired power and suggestions. Ignatius called these the “spiritual motions.”  The purpose of discernment is to discover the source of each spiritual motion in our lives, so as to help us help make good decisions.

Many contestants on The Biggest Loser reach so-called plateaus—a weight they just can’t seem to get below.  To overcome this barrier, they change their daily exercise routines, doing something different to restart the weight loss trend.

The same approach can be applied to spiritual exercises.  I do a fair job of exercising my body, but lately I’ve felt like my prayer life has slumped—I’ve hit a plateau.  I have difficulty concentrating and find my mind wandering when I pray. In the remaining days before the beginning of Advent, I plan to try a new prayer regimen built around the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.  Have you hit a prayer plateau?  Perhaps it’s time to change your exercise routine for the soul.

 “Prayer is exhaling the spirit of man and inhaling the spirit of God.”

                                                                                       Edwin Keith

An English text of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola is available online at: http://www.jesuit.org/jesuits/wp-content/uploads/The-Spiritual-Exercises-.pdf.  The Website “Ignatian Spirituality,” a service of Loyola University Press, was the primary source for this blog entry (www.ignatianspirituality.com).

Rescue the Weak and Needy

Homeless

 Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.

                                                                                                                                   —Proverbs 28:27

After enduring over 10 years with a dismal economy, many Americans today find themselves in perilous positions far exceeding anything they could have imagined. The middle class is quickly shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have-nots.

The average American family has somewhere around $5,000 in savings, placing them in a position where losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  Paying big mortgages, which is common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of two working spouses. Only two or three missed paychecks can lead to foreclosure! To stay afloat they tap into savings and then into retirement accounts, darkening their prospects for the future while also paying the federal government large tax bills for early retirement withdrawals.

The global economy has given rise to large companies having loyalty neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers are increasingly becoming disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table.

Highly educated and experienced working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I’ve heard far too many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when the strugglers are members of the church. Too many churches have lost touch with early traditions.

The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tells us,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (ESV)

Even clearer guidance comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35:

 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop many outreach ministries. One way to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in your church’s local area.  These organizations are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.

Look closely and see that behind the face of every downtrodden man and woman is the face of Christ.

                                                                                                                                        –Oswald Chambers

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