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Monday, October 31, 2016

Werewolves, Vampires, & Zombies

Galatians 2:19-20
19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. 20 My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

You might be surprised to find out my favorite holiday.  You might think Christmas and Easter are my favorite holidays because I am a preacher.  Those are the most important holidays for Christians and I do like them, but they are also the busiest holidays for a preacher.  My favorite holiday is Halloween.  It doesn’t really require the preacher to work that hard, so I get to have lots of fun with my family.  We get to dress up together and we get candy!
This past Wednesday, we had our Halloween Trunk or Treat at Pleasant Grove.  Between 300-400 people visited our church.  We saw people dressed up as all kinds of characters.  There were werewolves, vampires, zombies and many other characters.  It was all pretend so it was a lot of fun.
            We know that werewolves, vampires, and zombies, are all fictional, but these monsters personify some very real characteristics that hide on the dark side of the human heart.

            Take the legend of the werewolf.  By day, it’s an ordinary person—perhaps even a well-respected member of society.  But when the full moon comes out, a grotesque transformation takes place.  The person changes into a wolf-like beast that roams the streets hunting for victims.  Even if the person doesn’t want to become a beast, they can’t stop it.  Once the full moon comes out, the beast is going to take over—like it or not.
Well it’s just a legend, but the werewolf personifies a real trait in many a human heart.  Because of sin, people—who otherwise are ordinary, good people—have moments when they turn into the most vicious of beasts.  We all have something that brings out the beast in us, though it’s probably not a full moon.  Maybe it’s someone who cuts us off in traffic.  Maybe it’s a competitiveness that drives us to treat people badly.  Maybe it’s someone we know that brings out the worst in us.  Maybe it’s the pursuit of a career that drives us to neglect our family.  It could also be drugs or alcohol.  All of these things have been known to turn ordinary people into terrible beasts who terrorize and destroy lives. 

            And then there is the vampire, the legendary creature of the night.  It hides from the light and pounces on its victims, drinking their blood.  Vampires, in contrast to werewolves, are usually portrayed as intelligent and calculating in their crimes.  They lust after their victims and plot how they will get what they want.  Once they strike, they suck the life out of their unfortunate victims.
            Vampires are just legends, but I’ve known a few people who acted like vampires.  They didn’t drink blood, but—because of sin—they only cared about themselves.  They used people for their own selfish gain.  People like that will suck you dry just so they can have a little more.  They hide in the shadows and lust after what’s not theirs and they will do anything to get what they want.  Their thirst is never sated.  Their exploits never bring lasting joy.  Their hunger drives them mad and there is never any relief.

            And then there are zombies.  Originally, zombies were the imagination of Haitian folklore.  A voodoo master would steal a person’s soul by black magic and force them to work as a mindless, uncomplaining slave.  In recent decades, a new kind of zombie is portrayed in movies and TV shows like—“The Walking Dead”.  In these scenarios, the zombie is the result of a virus.  The virus kills the infected person and then reanimates their corpse—using the corpse to bite or eat the living and transmit the virus to more and more people.
The fictional zombie is a very fitting description for many people I see in our world.  They are only living in the sense that they are breathing and moving around.  They are like “The Walking Dead”.  Sin has destroyed their soul.  Their lives are meaningless.  They spend their time stumbling after things of no eternal value trying to gratify their hunger.  In their rabid, mindless pursuit, they infect others until hoards are wandering aimlessly through the world wreaking havoc and destruction.  All the while, they miss out on the true life that God wants them to have.  And of course, in this apocalyptic nightmare, there are but a few living peopleChristians—who have come alive in Christ and are aware of true life.  Do you want to be truly alive or just the walking dead?

            According to legend, you kill a werewolf with a silver bullet.  You destroy a vampire with a stake through its heart.  You finish off a zombie by shooting it in the head.  However, in real life, there is only one cure if you are a werewolf, a vampire, or a zombie—it is to be crucified with Christ, so you may be raised to a new life with Christ. 
You must become followers of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said in Luke 9:23-24, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life.” 
            So which one are you?  Are you a werewolf, a vampire, or a zombie?  The cure for you is here today.  The blood of Jesus Christ shed for your sins can wash you clean.  Repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ to save you and make you new.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Allie McClain's Testimony

Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.   Matthew 11:28

I love to hear people tell how Jesus changed their life.  Jesus takes our troubles and turns them into blessings.  Allie McClain struggled with depression as she hurt others with her selfish choices. Then, a crisis pregnancy turned Allie back to God. Jesus welcomed Allie home through her family and the people of Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church.  Allie shared her story with the world on Youtube with a video testimony (view her video here).  Allie went the extra mile and wrote out her story, which I would like to share with you in this blog:

I'd say a few years back, I was very, very far from where I should've been.  I was living in Nashville trying to finish school.  I was in and out of therapy.  Taylor (who is now my husband) and I were on and off.  I barely graduated...

I was far away from my family, my church, my God.  And I didn't have a lot of friends.

I became depressed, continually hurt others just because I was hurting so badly, and I didn't know how to get through it any other way.

One day, I was watching the light fountains that were synchronized with the nativity story at the Opry Land Hotel when my dad called and said, "I think God is tired of you putting all your faith in a man instead of Him."  I decided he was right, but I didn't listen.

I finished school and came home.  I hadn't changed much.  I still only thought of myself.  Then, Taylor came home too.  We were so troublesome together.  We had so many problems.  Finally, I really started praying and a few months later, I was pregnant.

Taylor was scared, so he decided it wasn't for him.  For 2 weeks before I told my parents, I was scared too.  I contemplated adoption, because I didn't think I was worthy.  I had plenty of excuses too.  I was mean, selfish, I always hurt others, and I wasn't married.

I asked God to change mine and Taylor's life no matter what the outcome.  I expected punishment, but I received grace.  I received a miracle.

The whole week after I told Mom and Dad, Taylor still wasn't in the picture and I remembered what my dad told me about my faith in God.  No matter the pain I felt, I decided to really trust God.  When I did, I found peace.

I began doing things expecting moms would do--looking for names, researching, not thinking of myself for once.

I think throughout a small amount of time Taylor saw the changes I had made in my life and I think he wanted that too.  Taylor told me the other day that he fell in love with me all over again.

Before I came back to church, I was so nervous.  Before all of PGUMC knew, I was hoping they'd just think I was putting on weight.  But when word got out, they hugged me, congratulated me, and acted as if I'd done nothing wrong.  To me, I believed God was changing my life with this special child, and I had several people from this church tell me they also thought it was true.

My son is now almost 2 years old and Taylor and I have been married for almost 2 years.

My favorite saying now is, "Don't tell God you have a big problem.  Tell your problem you have a big God."

Why be part of PGUMC?  No church is perfect, nor can you put all your faith in one.  But this church will accept you, your mistakes, and will extend the grace and love that many of us experience here.  And PGUMC will continue to support you in your growth.  They will hear your honesty and let you know how proud of you they are.  I'm still being told that.  The members here speak so highly of me to my mom and dad.  And not only does it touch me, but being a parent myself, I can only imagine how good it makes my parents feel.  Thanks PGUMC for showing me a little bit of what that feels like.

-Allie McClain

Allie, Taylor, and their son, Boone
boon (noun) - a blessing; a thing that is helpful or beneficial.

Watch Allie's testimony here

Monday, October 24, 2016

Christian Extremism (AKA Zeal)

             This blog was inspired by John Wesley’s 1781 sermon titled “On Zeal”. John Wesley founded the Methodist movement to restore passion and zeal to the Anglican Church, which had become dull and lazy. Wesley was passionate about God’s Kingdom and urged Christians to serve with passion and zeal. God’s Kingdom was to be their first priority in life and they were to serve with their whole hearts.
             It is impossible to experience any real spiritual progress in your life without considerable commitment and zeal. Furthermore, it is impossible to make a lasting difference in our community without passionate commitment. Yet, religious zeal scares many people—perhaps for good reason. We have seen the evil acts “religious nuts” have perpetrated in the name of God.
            Critics of the early Methodist movement in England considered Wesley’s teachings and religious devotion too radical and extreme. To the apathetic church leaders of the day, Wesley and his followers were dangerous fanatics.
            Perhaps you have known someone you considered a religious fanatic—someone who was too radical in their religion, a real "Jesus freak". My Grandma loved Jesus and she loved the church.  As a kid, me and my siblings used to joke that you didn't want to bring up the subject of religion around Grandma.  You didn't want to get her started on that subject because she wouldn't stop talking about it.  We thought she was a fanatic.  We were fine with religion, just in moderation.  We thought Grandma should be more like us and tone it down a bit.  Funny thing is, now that I am more mature, I embody much of the same passion for Jesus I once scorned in my Grandma.  I'm sure there are many people who think I should "tone it down a bit."  (Someone once told me a good definition of a fanatic. “A fanatic is someone who is more committed than you are.”)  We always think we've got religion in just the right dose.  Maybe we need to consider if we need to have a little more religious zeal.
            There are different kinds of religious fanaticism—some are healthy and some very dangerous. Religious extremism of the wrong sort can lead to horrific violence and terrorism. Is there a still a place for religious zeal in our age? Is there such a thing as healthy Christian extremism? What is the difference between a good and evil religious fanatic?
            Perhaps the Apostle Paul is the best example of the wrong and right ways to be a extremely devoted to God. Before he became a Christian, Paul was an extremely zealous Pharisee. His misguided passion led him on a crusade to destroy Christianity. Graciously, Jesus appeared to Paul and set him on the right path. Paul became as zealous for Jesus as he had once been against him. Paul’s passionate work as a Christian missionary eventually got him in trouble with the religious authorities. He was arrested and put on trial and ultimately gave his life for Christ. In Acts 22, Paul is on trial as a Christian extremist.  

Acts 22:3-4
Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison.

Paul Was a Religious Extremist
            Here we see Paul testifying how his religious zeal before he became a Christian led him to persecute Christians. Yet after Paul became a Christian, his religious zeal swung completely the opposite way.  He didn't lose his zeal or become lazy; he became an extremist for God's love in Christ.
            Before he was a Christian, Paul sought to destroy anyone he felt insulted, disobeyed, dishonored, or lied about God or threatened the Jewish religion. Paul was a religious extremist, but his misguided zeal motivated him to do evil and not good. He thought loving God meant destroying people who disagreed with him about God. One must be very careful with extreme devotion to religion. It can lead to the most horrible acts—as Paul showed in his early life.
            Thankfully, God changed Paul’s life and he learned the right way to serve God. In 2 Corinthians 12:15, Paul reveals his new attitude towards people for the sake of Christ. He said, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for you.” As a Christian, Paul was even more extreme in his devotion to God, but his new core value was love. Paul was willing to sacrifice his own comfort, reputation, even his life for the sake of saving as many souls as possible.
            We, also, must learn the right way to serve God—with our whole hearts as Christian fanatics of love, committed to the Kingdom, willing to put our lives on the line for the sake of love.
But is it possible to tell the difference between good and evil Christian extremism? It is and John Wesley’s instructions on the matter may be the best advice on the subject.

Christian Zeal
            John Wesley said, “...Christian zeal is all love. It is nothing else. The love of God and man fills up its whole nature.” This is what the great Christian hymn tells us, based on the Gospel of John: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love! Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Christians are by definition, Love Extremist. For it was extreme love that led Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. It was the extreme love of the martyrs that led them to risk their lives for the sake of a lost world who needed to hear the Gospel of Christ. And it is extreme love that leads Christians to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

What is the nature of the extreme love we show?
            The Christian extremist is full of humility. We count others as better than ourselves. We willing surrender our rights for the sake of others.
            The Christian extremist is full of gentleness. We are careful with other's feelings. We gently woo them to Christ.
            The Christian extremist is full of patience. We are long suffering, drawing our patience from the eternal well of God’s love.
            Moreover, the Christian extremist doesn’t just have flashes of all these traits. The true Christian extremist is steadfast, showing these traits in all seasons.

Strengthening Christian Virtues
            Do not fret if you lack these characteristics in you in the measure you want. You can strengthen them within you.
            Strengthen them with Christian practices. The more you pray, the more you read your Bible, the more you worship Jesus in church, the more you receive Holy Communion, and meet with other Christians for fellowship and accountability, the more God will strengthen the characteristics of love within you.
            Strengthen them with Christian service. The more serve God and the people around you, the more you offer charity in our community in the name of Jesus, the more you seek to love your fellow man, the more you will exercise and strengthen your humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
These are the ways to strengthen God’s love within you and become the kind of Christian fanatic that Jesus wants you to be. 

The Priorities of the Christian Extremist
             Let’s look at some of the ways Christian zeal is expressed and consider which ways are most important.
            First of all, a Christian extremist will be zealous for the church. I hope one of your top priorities in life is to come to church. Come for worship. Come for study. Come for fellowship. Come for opportunities to serve. Commit to miss no more than 5 Sundays a year. Support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. If you are truly a Christian, you should have a deep, abiding love for the church. You will want to be here more than anywhere else. Your desire to be present for church should be near the very top of your commitments in life—above sports, above travel, above recreation, above friendships, above politics. A Christian fanatic, a true Jesus freak, loves the church.
            However, the Christian extremist has an even higher priority than attending church. A Christian fanatic is even more passionate about the teachings of Christ than the church in general. For Christ gave us the church, Holy Communion, baptism, the songs of our faith, and the traditions of the church. Since it is Christ we worship when we gather here, the Christian extremist is more devoted to what Jesus said and did than to the church itself.
            But there is more! A Christian extremist who is a fanatic follower of Christ, should be even more zealous to serve in Jesus name—for the Jesus said, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.” (Matthew 9:13). Whenever one interferes with the other, acts of mercy are to be preferred above coming to church and even Bible study.
            However, as zealous as Christian extremists are for good works, we should be even more passionate about Christian virtues—humility, gentleness, patience, contentment, submission to God—for these are the attitudes that lead us to serve God and humanity, and serve in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.
            The greatest zeal of all is reserved for the most important Christian virtue—love. This is something the Apostle Paul finally discovered when he became a Christian extremist. He said in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 – “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” 
Taking Back the Word Extremist
            Perhaps you are still afraid of the idea of a Christian extremist.  Isn't it too dangerous?  No it isn't and I think Christians should take back the word from evil people who have kidnapped extremism.  True Christian extremism, rooted in love, rejects all forms of evil.
            If true Christian extremism is extreme love, then it rejects every kind and degree of hatred and bitterness. A Christian fanatic refuses to retaliate, but rather loves his enemies and prays for those who curse him.
            If Christian extremism be nothing more than sacrificial, wholehearted love of God and humanity, then it will never have anything to do with prejudice or jealousy or any form of bigotry, racism or xenophobia. Persecuting or mistreating others in any way—even in the name of God—is totally inconsistent with Christian zeal. It is not Christianity at all, let alone Christian extremism.
            If humility is a chief trait of Christian zeal, pride is utterly incompatible with it. The Christian extremist will gladly have their pride hurt for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom.
            Moreover, the Christian extremist cannot be both gentle and angry. And we must be careful of any so-called “Christian” whose chief characteristic is anger. Yes, anger is part of the human experience and sometimes serves a useful purpose to energize us, but the truly zealous Christian will be one who is known for love and not anger. Love is the motivating factor that energizes and excites us. Even anger about a world that has turned its back on God will only be a minor footnote in the life of a Christian extremist. The Christian extremist will devote themselves to gentleness, patience, and love and any anger they feel will be fleeting, dissolving quickly in the far superior attitude of grace.
            Brothers and sisters, it is time for us to take back the term extremist from those misguided people who try to use it but do not know God or His Kingdom.  Let us become so in love with Christ that we show the world what a Christian extremist is really like.  It is the only way to know God and change the world with His love.

            Search your heart and discover your own attitude. Are you like the Anglican church John Wesley sought to revive? Is your faith dull and lifeless, lazy and uninspiring? Are you just going through the motions and not really growing spiritually or making any real difference in your family, your community, or your world? Perhaps today, Jesus is challenging you to get serious about your faith.
            Are you like Paul before he became a Christian? Is your religion full of the wrong kind of passion? Is your religious zeal motivated by anger when it should be motivated by love of God and your fellow man? Is your zeal all about following the rules or trying to impress God when it should be about God’s grace and forgiveness? The greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Perhaps today, Jesus is challenging you to be born again—like Paul—so that you turn your passion to the right things.
            Are you a Christian who needs to go deeper, become more committed, be filled with passion for Jesus Christ? Perhaps today, Jesus is challenging you to look deep in your heart and reprioritize the elements of your faith so that love is the motivating factor for everything you do.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Wrestling with God, Part 3

            Jesus Christ changed Sara's life at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church. Sara was deeply depressed, addicted to heroine, and on the verge of suicide. Jesus welcomed her with open arms through the people of our church and led her down the road to recovery. (Watch a video of Sara's testimony here.)
            I think about Sara’s story and how she wrestled—wrestled with depression, wrestled with addiction. It was a life or death struggle, but Sara did not wrestle alone. There were so many people who helped her wrestle or who wrestled on her behalf.  For the sake of time, I had to cut the footage of her testimony down to just over 4 minutes. There’s no way we could tell all the people who helped Sara—family members who stepped in and took care of Sara, rehab programs that intervened with professional help, people from other churches who were the hands of Christ to Sara, and so many others. All of these wrestled with God on her behalf. Who knows how many prayers were lifted up for Sara?
            Prayer is essential to the Christian life. It is not just part of the Christian life. It is the Christian life. Martin Luther said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Prayer is powerful. It changes situations. It changes us. Most importantly, it draws us into God’s embrace.
            Today, we will finish our study of the fascinating Bible story of Jacob wrestling with God. We will consider how we wrestle with God in prayer and the effect it has. 
            As a young man, Jacob was incredibly deceitful and cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of his claim to the family blessing and inheritance. Esau was furious with Jacob and vowed to kill him. Jacob fled into exile where he lived for about 20 years. During that time, God blessed Jacob with wives and children and servants and wealth. And as Jacob matured, he realized he must face his brother Esau. He decided to return home—not knowing if Esau would offer mercy or retribution.

Genesis 32:22-32
22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. 23 After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions.
24 This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. 25 When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 “What is your name?” the man asked.
He replied, “Jacob.”
28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”
29 “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.
“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip. 32 (Even today the people of Israel don’t eat the tendon near the hip socket because of what happened that night when the man strained the tendon of Jacob’s hip.)

            Jacob wrestled with God all night long. He was battered and bruised; his hip was torn out of socket and yet Jacob managed to hold onto God until God gave Jacob a blessing. The story reminds me of how we wrestle with God in prayer and the way it changes us, our circumstances, and—most importantly—how it draws us into God’s embrace.

Prayer Changes Us.
            Most people think of prayer as a way for us to ask God to change something. We ask Him to heal people who are sick. We ask Him to comfort those who’ve lost loved ones.  We ask Him to help us through difficult circumstance or for wisdom for tough decisions. This is called intercessory prayer and it is an important part of prayer, but it is not the whole of prayer or even the most important part of prayer.
            Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, once said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” 
            If we think of prayer in a spiritual sense as wrestling with God the way Jacob wrestled with God, what do we find? We find we are changed through prayer.  In the Bible story, Jacob was forever changed. His hip was torn out of socket. The Bible tells us he limped away from the scene. The encounter with God changed Jacob’s body.
            We also see that Jacob got a new name. He was no longer the “heel grabber” (which is what the name Jacob means); now he is Israel (the man who fights with God and men and overcomes). The encounter with God changed the core of who Jacob was.
            We also see Jacob received a blessing. We don’t know what the blessing was, but perhaps it was the encounter itself. From this day forward, Jacob need fear no man. He has wrestled with God, face to face, and won. Furthermore, the very holiness of God had rubbed off on Jacob.
            Prayer changes us. It changes our attitudes. It changes our thinking. It changes our spirit. It changes our mind. Sometimes, it even changes us physically. (Your knees might get a lot stronger if you are constantly kneeling in prayer!)
            William Law, a noted Anglican priest, once said, “There is nothing that makes us love a man so much as praying for him.”  You see, when you pray for someone, they may not change at all, but how you see them will definitely change. You will change and sometimes that is all that is needed.
Prayer Changes Our Circumstance
            Prayer definitely can change us, but sometimes God change our situation when we pray.  Sometimes, God heals people who are sick because we pray.  Sometimes, God provides wisdom to make a tough decision because we pray.  Sometimes, God makes a problem go away because we pray.
            Back at the beginning of August, I realized I needed to delegate some important ministry responsibilities at the church to other capable people. I had been doing these tasks out of necessity, but now it was time to give the responsibilities to others.  Two responsibilities in particular were taking up time that I needed to devote in other areas—leading the praise band and coordinating the sack lunch program. I began to pray that God would provide the right people to lead these ministries; and I prayed they would say yes as soon as I asked them. Within two weeks God answered my prayers for both and changed my situation.
            One day, God nudged me and said, “You know, Susan Cooksey would be the perfect person to coordinate that sack lunch program. She loves kids, loves teachers, and has been really committed to packing sack lunches over the last year. And she’s smart! She knows how to do this and could do a much better job than you’ve been able to do.” So I asked Susan and she didn’t even hesitate. She said, “Yes,” and jumped right in. It’s been going so well. She’s even figured out a few ways we can encourage the teachers with special gifts throughout the year.
            The other answered prayer, was that David Crawford agreed to lead the praise band and he’s been doing a great job! You might not realize how much work goes into the praise band. We rehearse about 5 hours for every one-hour service we lead. But David probably puts in several more hours than that picking out music, coordinating rehearsals, and handling technical stuff. He does a fine job and he was an answer to my prayers in August!
            John Wesley said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” A shocking statistic was shared at the OneCry Revival in September. It was said that the average American Christian spends less than two minutes per day in prayer. Two minutes. Does that sound off?  How much do you pray?
            I do know this: in just about any given church, the prayer meeting is the least attended service. You may find 150 people in worship, but only 4 or 5 will come to prayer meeting.  (By the way, we have a prayer meeting at at Pleasant Grove UMC at 9:00 AM every Sunday. I would like you to join us. And I have a special introductory offer for you. Try it for one month, free!)  I wonder how many blessings we miss out on, how much trouble we have to face, how much more difficult life is simply because we do not pray for God to change our circumstances?  So pray!

Prayer Draws Us Into God’s Embrace
            Wrestling is an intimate sport. It’s very real, very humbling, very personal.  It’s honest. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, what rank you are, what championship titles you’ve won. When you are grappling with another person, all that stuff goes out the window. All that matters is what works, what doesn’t, and who submits their opponent.  And it is very humbling when someone with less experience or who is smaller or weaker beats you—as sometimes will happen.
            Wrestling is very humbling. It’s hard to be dignified when you are straining with all your might to grapple another human being. Your legs and arms are all tangled up; your bodies are pressed together; you sweat all over each other. You know how that person smells, whether they took a bath or washed their clothes—and they know it all about you too.
            And I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Pastors get gas just like everybody else. And sometimes, when your wife cooked tacos for dinner, and then you go to jiu-jitsu and start fighting for your life with another person who is grabbing you and pressing down on top of you with all their weight. And you are straining with all your might not to get choked or arm-barred or crushed to death… Let’s just say, things slip out… And you can’t always control when it happens or the volume at which it happens… So you just have to let go of your dignity.
            Now, when we come to church, we try real hard to maintain our dignity. We dress up nice; we watch what we say, how we act, what kind of “image” we present. Maybe we should be less concerned about all those things. Maybe we should take off our masks and just be who we are.
            In prayer, it’s much like Jacob wrestling with God. It’s not about being dignified. It’s about letting it all hang out in a no holds barred grappling match with God. Pour your heart out to God in prayer. Don’t worry about “keeping up appearances;” God already knows everything about you anyway. Just concentrate on going after God with all you’ve got!
            Do you realize the privilege of prayer? Of wrestling with God in an embrace so intimate you can smell Him, taste Him, feel Him embracing you?  Do you realize how that encounter can change you? To have the sacredness of our Holy God rubbing off on you as your arms and legs and body entangle with the Divine and God struggles to wrestle sinful behaviors, attitudes, and ideas from your soul? When we pray to God, really pray, it draws us into His most intimate embrace.
Prayer is your way to wrestle with God like Jacob wrestled with God.  Through prayer, God changes us, changes our circumstances, and draws closer to Him.  I hope you will make prayer a top priority of your life.  What do you need to pray about?  Who do you need pray for?
I would like to invite you to write a prayer to God now.  Would you share a prayer in the comment section below?  Simply write a prayer about whatever is on your heart.  Pray for your family, your community, your church, your pastor, your children, whatever.  God will hear you and change you, maybe even change your situation, but He will definitely draw you into a closer relationship with Him when you pray.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Wrestling with God, Part 2

            This is part 2 of a study of the fascinating Bible story about Jacob wrestling with God.  This is one of the most epic stories of the Bible.  It is where the name Israel comes from—the name of God’s chosen people and the name of the country we know today as a key ally in the Middle East.  For us, the story is an image of the violent struggle to build a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
          Jacob was born as a twin brother to Esau, with whom Jacob had a great rivalry.  Jacob's name literally means "heel grabber" because Jacob was grasping his brother's heal as Esau emerged from his mother's womb. The sibling rivalry between Jacob and his older brother Esau was fueled by their parents' favoritism.  Their father, Isaac, favored Esau, but their mother, Rebekah, preferred Jacob.  Jacob was a cunning man and he found a way to trick Esau out of the family blessing and inheritance.  It infuriated Esau so much he vowed to kill Jacob.  Jacob had to run for his life to a foreign land.  Well, years went by and Jacob grew up and grew wealthy with wives, servants, children, and possessions. He decided it was time to finally come home and face his brother Esau. Jacob is on the way home when we come to the strange story in Genesis chapter 32.  

Genesis 32:22-32
22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. 23 After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions.
24 This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. 25 When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 “What is your name?” the man asked.
He replied, “Jacob.”
28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”
29 “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.
“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip. 32 (Even today the people of Israel don’t eat the tendon near the hip socket because of what happened that night when the man strained the tendon of Jacob’s hip.)

The Spiritual Struggle
Building a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not a casual pursuit.  It is spiritually violent process, like Jacob wrestling with God, where God wrestles with our sinful attitudes and behavior and we strivethrough the power of the Holy Spirit—to become more like Christ.  It takes passion, determination, and a deep hunger and thirst for the Kingdom of God. 
Imagine a wrestling match where the athletes are throwing one another to the ground, grappling, twisting, pressing their full weight and strength against one another.  Elbows and knees sometimes smash into bodies or faces as the opponents struggle for dominant positions, reach for holds, and fight for submission.  Jacob’s hip was torn from its socket during his match with God.  I can’t imagine the pain!  
Grappling during Jiu-Jitsu is one of the most strenuous exercises I have ever done in my life—even more physically challenging than the high school football I played back in the day.  Does this describe the way we pursue our relationships with Christ?  Should it?
In the New Testament, in Matthew 11:12, Jesus described His Kingdom this way:  he said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been advancing violently, and the violent take it by force.”  What did Jesus mean?  Well, we know Jesus did not use physical violence to force his Kingdom upon the earth.  He did not raise an army wielding swords and spears.  Jesus never physically tried to overthrow the establishment by military force.  So what did Jesus mean?

“The Kingdom of God is advancing violently…”
Jesus taught forgiveness, peace, and love.  These words don’t make us think of violence.  However, forgiveness, peace, and love are radically different from the ways of the world—both in Jesus time and in our own.  When forgiveness challenges malice, a violent struggle ensues for the soul of humanity.  When peace confronts war, there is violent opposition.  When love opposes hatred, it either converts or destroys the one who hates.
Many people today, just as in Jesus’ day, are fine with religion so long as it is just a thing kept on the side—a casual interest.  They are fine with it just so long as it is not taken too seriously.  They want to keep God packed away safely in a box and take Him out only on special occasions—when a baby is born or as a pretty decoration for a wedding or maybe when some problem overwhelms them and they want divine help.  However, God cannot be put in a box, let alone kept there.  He is the one who comes in the night and violently wrestles Jacob to the ground, dislocating his hip, and forcing him to fight for his life until he received a blessing.  
The Kingdom of God came through Jesus according to God’s timing.  No one said, “Ok God, give us some of that religion now.”  No sir!  God said, “It’s time.”  And He sent an angelic host to announce his Son’s birth.  They shouted, “The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!”  And with Jesus, the Kingdom of God came crashing into our world like a violent, unstoppable hurricane.  Everyone was confronted with the choice to accept or reject Jesus as Lord. 
The same choice confronts you today.  You cannot just say Jesus is Lord and continue do whatever you like.  For choosing your own way over the Lord’s is a rejection of Jesus as Lord.  It doesn’t matter how many times you say you are a Christian; if you do not follow Jesus, you are not his disciple.  For Jesus said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.”
The Kingdom of Heaven is advancing forcefully today.  It’s here to grab you, wrestle you to the ground, and demand a response.  Who is Jesus to you?  How will you respond him?  Will you commit to follow him with your whole heart or be left behind? 

“...And the Violent Take it by Force.”
            I watched a documentary on the fall of Saigon in Vietnam in 1975.  After years of fighting, the capital of South Vietnam was about to fall to the communist North.  The capture of the Saigon was imminent and preceded by the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military.  More problematic were the tens of thousands of South Vietnamese associated with the southern regime who had fought against North Vietnam.  What was to become of them?  There just wasn’t room to evacuate all the South Vietnamese from Saigon and many feared that once communists took control of the city, a bloodbath of reprisals would take place.  
Chaos ensued as American soldiers and officials agonized about who they could save and who would have to stay.  Refugees seeking asylum crowded against gates and in many cases scaled the walls of the American buildings and military bases.  It was most often those who in their determination violently pushed their way through barricades that escaped to safety.  Americans airlifted as many as they could.  Accurate numbers are hard to determine, but the number of South Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States totaled 138,869.  Sadly, it is alleged that some 30,000 South Vietnamese who did not make it out of Saigon were systematically killed by the North.
The evacuation of Saigon is similar to Jesus' description of how the violent take the Kingdom of God by force.  Do you think you will come into God’s Kingdom simply by sitting on your rump in a pew each Sunday?  Jesus said the violent take the Kingdom by force.  The image is that of an invading army scaling the walls of a castle, fighting their way through the defenders, breaking down the doors to the stronghold, and taking over the Kingdom.  Or if you like, imagine the frightened South Vietnamese of Saigon on April 30th, 1975 scaling the walls of the US Embassy, forcing their way onto the last crowded helicopters leaving for the safety of US ships anchored off shore.
Brothers and sisters, the Kingdom of God is at hand.  This is your last hope of salvation.  I want you to feel the sense of urgency those Vietnamese refugees felt.  Time is running out.  You need to come into the Kingdom.  You need to push your way in violently, if needs be.  Don’t let anything keep you out.  Abandon your possessions if you have to.  What good are worldly goods if you lose your own soul?  Forsake all your sin.  You cannot afford to carry all that extra baggage with you as a refugee in the Kingdom.  Put it down.  Leave it behind.  Come to Jesus with only the clothes on your back if you need to.  Force your way in and grab hold of Jesus and refuse to let go just like Jacob refused to let go of God until God blessed him.
Jacob wrestled with God.  He clung to him all night, battered and bruised, hip torn from its socket, he refused to let go until God blessed him.  Accordingly, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel because, according to verse 28, he “…fought with God and men and won.”  
What about you?  Are you determined to find Salvation through Jesus Christ?  Are you willing to do whatever it takes to come into His Kingdom?  Then come and kneel before Jesus here at the altar and proclaim Him your Lord and Savior.
And what about you, Christian?  You became a follower of Jesus years ago.  Jesus welcomed you in as a refugee.  You had nothing to offer and no other hope, but Jesus welcomed you anyway.  Will you now just be content to casually lounge around while so many are still outside the walls needing salvation?  Some don’t even know how urgently they need salvation.  They don’t even know their Enemy, Death, is fast approaching and their eternity is in danger.  Others are pressing at the gates trying to get—forced there by the struggles of life:  poverty, substance abuse, heartache, anxiety, depression, loneliness, sickness, loss…  So often, they find the gates of the church locked—locked by our fear of them, locked by our apathy, locked by our complacency.  Will you not join the fight to bring them all in—as many as we can, for as long as we can, by as many means as we can—before it is too late?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Wrestling With God, Part 1

            Have you ever wrestled?  When I was a young kid, my older brother used to like to wrestle with me.  Of course, he was 8 years older, so it wasn't much competition.  However, he always let me do well enough so it was still fun for me.  I used to wrestle with my kids when they were younger in much the same way.  We would wrestle on the bed and I would tickle them and it was fun for us all; I had to be careful, though, not to hurt them since I'm was so much bigger and stronger.
            One of the most fascinating stories in our Bible is the story of Jacob wrestling with God.  Can you imagine? A mortal man wrestling with the Creator of the universe?  It's almost unthinkable!  This is one of the pivotal stories of the Bible. It is where the name Israel comes from—the name of God's chosen people and the name of the country we know even today as a key player in our world’s geopolitical power struggles.
            As we study this intriguing passage over the next few weeks, we will consider the ways we wrestle with God and the effect it has on us, on our circumstances, and on the people around us.  I invite you to read the blog each week as we study this story together.

22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them. 23 After taking them to the other side, he sent over all his possessions.

24 This left Jacob all alone in the camp, and a man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break. 25 When the man saw that he would not win the match, he touched Jacob’s hip and wrenched it out of its socket. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 “What is your name?” the man asked.

He replied, “Jacob.”

28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”

29 “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.

“Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there.

30 Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun was rising as Jacob left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip. 32 (Even today the people of Israel don’t eat the tendon near the hip socket because of what happened that night when the man strained the tendon of Jacob’s hip.)

Key Points
            Let's begin by pointing out a few key elements in this story.  First of all, you need to understand the larger narrative of Jacob's life and relationship with his twin brother Esau.  There was a great sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau and it was fueled by their parents favoritism.  Their father, Isaac, favored Esau, but their mother, Rebekah, preferred Jacob.  Jacob was a cunning man and he found a way to trick Esau out of the family blessing and inheritance.  It infuriated Esau so much he vowed to kill Jacob.  Jacob had to run for his life to a foreign land.
            Well, years went by and Jacob grew up and grew wealthy with wives, servants, children, and possessions.  He decided it was time to finally face his brother Esau.  He began the journey home, not knowing if Esau still wanted to kill him.  And that's where we come to the strange story in Genesis chapter 32.  Jacob has sent all his possessions across the Jabbok River and he is all alone on the other side of the stream.
            There is a great element of fear in the story.  There is the fear of what Esau might do.  There is the fear of the darkness of nigh and it is terrifying that a strange “man” attacks Jacob.  A deadly struggle ensues that seriously injures Jacob.  And thenperhaps the most terrifying element of allwe find out the "man" is actually God.
            We know the “man” in this episode is God for several reasons.  First of all, the “man” himself claims Jacob has "fought with God".  Second, Jacob renamed the place “Peniel” at the end of the story (Peniel means “face of God”).  Third, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”” (Verse 30)  As strange as it is, the story clearly indicates God—in human formis the man who wrestled with Jacob.
            But it gets even more strange because Jacob wins!  Jacob must have been an incredible wrestler, because the passage plainly says the “man” (who was God) realized He would not win.  That's incredible!  How can a man win a wrestling match with God?
            Well, in a sense, Jacob was a wrestler all his life—the Bible says he came out of his mother’s womb grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau.  His name, Jacob, literally means “heel grabber”.  Still, how can any mortal wrestle with God and win?
            Jacob didn’t actually "win".  He just sort of fought God to a stalemate.  Jacob managed to hold on to the point that God couldn’t get away.  Even when God dislocated Jacob’s hip, Jacob would not let go.  It may be that God realized the only way he could win the match was to kill Jacob or hurt him so grievously he might as well be dead (and God didn’t want to do that).  God also knew the sun was going to rise soon and Jacob would be able to see God’s face in full light.  It has been said that no one can see God’s face a live.  God’s face is so glorious a sinful human being cannot endure the pure, sinless, glorious face of God in its fullness.  Such a sight would overwhelm and consume anyone without the protection of Christ’s atonement.  (Since Christ had not yet atoned for our sin on the cross, Jacob was without protection and unable to look upon God's face in the full light of day.)
            Yet Jacob was determined hang on to God until God blessed him.  He was even willing to risk death to receive God’s blessing.  Time was running out.  Every minute that passed brought the rising sun closer to the horizon; God’s face became more and more visible in the growing light.  There was no more time for God to wrestle.  For Jacob’s own safety, God needed Jacob to let Him go and so God gave Jacob the blessing he wanted.  That’s pretty amazing!

A Lesson for Us
            There is a lesson in this for us.  How badly do you want God's blessing in your life?  How far are you willing to go?  Jacob was willing to risk death for the blessing. How about you?
            We say we want God to bless us. We say we want Jesus to save us and be our Lord. But how far are we willing to go?  Are you willing to pray regularly?  Are you willing to read your Bible everyday?  Are you willing to attend a church with other believers and learn how to live as a Christian?  Are you willing to be held accountable by others on the same spiritual journey (and hold them accountable as well)?  Are you willing to love others and serve as Jesus did?  Are you willing to make sacrifices for your goals as a Christian (sacrificing your time, your pride, your energy, your resources...)?  How far are you willing to go for God's blessings in your life?
            I don’t mean that we must do something to earn God’s blessing or to win salvation. We cannot do anything to earn it. It is given freely by God’s grace.  However, blessings come to those who are determined, not those who could care less.  And the Truth is, becoming a Christian—a follower of Christ—will change you permanently.  Jesus said it is like being “born again.”  Just like Jacob limped for the rest of his life due to his encounter with God, you will be permanently changed if you become a follower of Christ.
            There is another lesson here.  God’s wants to be directly involved in your life. He doesn't stand off at a distance; He get's up close and personal.  I have been learning Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu for over 2 years.  People like to joke that their pastor does Karate, but BJJ is not punching and kicking.  It is more like wrestling than Karate.  I have invited my wife to come try it out she won't do it.  She says it's gross.  I guess she may be right.  Jiu-jitsu is very strenuous and you're soon drenched in sweat, but not just your own sweat; it's everyone else's sweat too.  You see we are rolling around on the mats dripping sweat all over each other.  It's up close and personal work.
            Now think about that.  God wrestled with Jacob all night.  They were rolling around in the dirt together sweating and bleeding all over each other.  God was willing to get Jacob's sweat and blood and maybe even tears all over Him.  You see, God doesn't stand off at a distance.  God wants to be directly and intimately involved in Your life.  Are you willing to wrestle with God?
            As God wrestles with you, He may push you to your limits and test your determination.  All of this helps you grow.  It might hurt and it may even leaving you limping, but God will always keep you safe. Remember, He was willing to let Jacob win in order to save Jacob’s life.  We see an even greater example of God's protective nature in the New Testament.  Jesus shows just how far God will go for our benefit. Jesus (who was God incarnate) sacrificed his own life on the cross for our sake. God was willing to die so we can live.
            There is one last lesson I want to point out today.  No matter what you are wrestling with there is hope.  You don't have to win; you just have to hold on to Jesus long enough for the blessing to come.  So take courage today.  Whatever you are facing, don't give up.  Cling to Jesus.  Don't let go. Just hang on until Jesus give you the blessing.

[i] Paraphrase from Luke 2:9-11