Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Praying for Your World

(Articles of Faith, 2)

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message . . .(Colossians 4:2,3) 
How can we effectively pray for our neighbors, friends and relatives who may not have faith? How can prayer really make a difference in our world? The Apostle Paul gives us four clues for effective, outreach-type of praying that can change your world for Christ.

Clue #1: Understand Your World-System
Paul understood his world. Belief in self was at the center of his world, as it is in ours. Christianity was being debunked and replaced by a cult that demoted Christ and that stressed rigorous self-discipline and self-denial as the way to God (cf. Col. 2:16ff). He knew that Jews, even Jewish Christians, would be misunderstood. Thus, he asks the Colossian Christians to pray for clarity for him in conversing and witnessing to those around him. He wanted to be wise in the way he acted around his world. He wanted to seize every opportunity given him for the gospel proclamation.

Similarly, you and I live in a system of non-Christian thought and life. What worked twenty or ten or even five years ago does not work today in reaching those around us with the gospel. Do you know, really know, your world-system? Do you understand the burdens, sorrows, pains and thought patterns of those who do not know Jesus Christ around you and with whom you work with, or visit with, or even live with, every day? If not, find out!

Clue #2: Watch!
The term indicates a cautious and active sensitivity to the deceitful and deceptive nature of sin around us. It is a verb in the present tense, so the emphasis is on a continuous, daily alertness. Christians, the “sin” alert level is beyond orange or red. We must guard against being desensitized by the open disregard for God and what is right around us. We must guard against the tendency for spiritual drowsiness in not clearly seeing the spiritual battles going on around us. We must fight spiritual paralysis in thinking that prayer really doesn’t matter. Watch!

Clue #3: Give Untiring Commitment to Prayer
“Devote yourselves to prayer,” the Bible says. That means persist in prayer, be faithful in prayer, have the courage to persevere in prayer, and do all of this daily! Joseph in Egypt continued in prayer irrespective of his political or personal position. Daniel and his friends persevered in prayer, even directly disobeying royal orders.

In watching the Australian open, I have been impressed with Serena Williams play. She entered the tournament far down in the professional standings. Yet, she continues to win, even when the announcers and others seem to write her off. Why? She knows that winning means never giving up, never letting up, never getting frustrated and angry, never letting her opponent dictate her game. She knows how to win. Do we know how to win in the spiritual arena of prayer?!

Clue #4: Always Be Thankful!
Thankfulness in prayer is actually a conscious consecration of the heart, mind and will to acknowledge the daily mercies of God through Jesus Christ. Lack of thankfulness indicates a heart of unbelief and hypocrisy (Romans 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:2,3). Thankfulness in praying for our world helps us maintain perspective, be consciously aware of our blessings, relieves tension and worry (Philippians 4:6f) and replaces wrong speech patterns as we daily deal with those around us (Ephesians 5:4, 20).

Why pray? As one writer has reminded us: “Prayer is striking the winning blow. Service is gathering the results.” Let’s strike the winning blow for God – and pray!!

Monday, February 16, 2009

IN the world, but not OF the world

"'In' the world, but not 'of' the world"
An Article of Faith (1)

(Note: Beginning today, and most every Monday for a while, I will be sharing ideas, thoughts, convictions and feelings called "articles of faith." I invite all readers to interact and share their responses.)

Jesus' words in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, have evoked many discussions and, unfortunately, controversies among people of faith. Christian people are to be "in" the world, not as recluses, not as separatists, not as "holier than thou" but rather as people in touch with God but living out their faith in the nitty-gritty of everyday life, just as their neighbors and friends do. As we do this, we are not to be "of" the world.

A Personal Journey
My wife, Nancy, and I and our family went through a spiritual, philosophical and real-life journey on Halloween dress-ups, Easter bunnies, Christmas trees and decorations and so forth. In our younger days, we attended and served in a very strict Baptist church in northern Virginia for a while where the senior pastor taught that the "holidays" we celebrate were rooted in false and Satanic traditions, or at least the traditions of men and not of God. He refused, for instance, to acknowledge Christmas by the Christmas tree or Christmas ornamentation. He even avoided preaching a "Christmas-type" of sermon on Christmas Sunday lest anyone would infer that the church supported the traditional Christmas celebrations. It was the same with Easter. He truthfully pointed out that we should celebrate every Sunday as resurrection day, not just "Easter Sunday." He also preached against Halloween, due to the obvious and historic Satanic associations.

For Halloween he suggested we write a letter of explanation to our neighbors telling why we did not give out candy or let our children dress up and go around the neighborhood. We did this for two years. We restricted our kids' activities on these holidays, taught them why we did not participate, and basically dreaded the whole holiday thing. While we had a Christmas tree during those days, we de-emphasized gifts exchanges and sought to focus on Christ and His Person and birth.

The downside of this rather extreme position and lifestyle was that our neighbors avoided us, our cars were soaped and egged on Halloween night, and people painted us as severe, critical, unloving, uncaring and so forth. While a few of them cursed, most just ignored and isolated us from their lives. Our witness for Christ took on, to them, the flavor of the "Crusades" of Christians versus everyone else. Our letters of explanation only further fueled their dislike and disgust. Most of the letters and tracts we found scattered in our yard and in the community dumpsters. People no doubt looked at us as "mean-spirited." I did not really care, since we were "defending" the truth and the Name of God! Some neighbors even refused letting their children play with or associate with our children. To say the least, this was not a fun time for the family. We tended to debate with neighbors instead of loving them to Christ.

We shielded our children by having them attend Christian schools, play with Christian and/or church friends, and read only Christian literature. We were the "poster" Christian family, so to speak. And, by the way, those were also the days we held to a very strict Sabbath-keeping, with Sundays being a day bracketed by morning and evening church services, with rest, sleep, reading or hospital visiting in the afternoons. For many in our church, children did not and could not play outside, make any loud noises and had to take naps.

The problem with what we were doing was that we were increasingly becoming more and more divorced from our unChristian neighbors, whom we were desperately trying to win to faith. We also became separated from other "lax" Christians and churches, as we saw them. We failed to build any relational bridges and tore down any that we had built by our very vocal and outwardly critical practices against prevailing tradition. This made me personally and increasingly negative, critical and unresponsive to others, and it made our kids outcasts.

I'm sharing these painful memories with you not to defend Easter bunnies and Halloween dress-ups and so forth. I still have many reservations and negatives to register against these pagan practices. However, I believe we were way out-of-line with Jesus' command to love others. In the name of Jesus we were driving people from Jesus! We certainly do not regret the Christian schooling, catechism and other good and proper things and principles we gave to our children. We do regret, however, their lack of fun and innocence in those early years. We taught them to first be suspicious and then to maybe participate and love. We are thankful that to a great degree those early practices and negative lessons have not been followed by them, though all three may still be much more critical and careful Christians than perhaps they should be.

Reasons To Build Bridges
I see three reasons why we need to have dinner shows in churches without a definitive spiritual purpose or message, Christmas trees and celebrations, and even the Easter bunny. The first is that we desperately need to build bridges to unChristians around us. They already think we are weird, hypocritical and negatively oriented. However, fun is not necessarily sin, and in many instances, Easter egg hunts, Halloween costumes, and so forth, have no thoughtful connections or associations with witches, Satan or heathen celebrations. Most of our unchurched neighbors are ignorant of these things and do not infer by practicing these holiday associations what they might historically signify. They are harmless fun.

Second, we must build a relationship with neighbors and unChristians. We cannot do that by always "defending the faith." Our defensive and negative posture is read first before any words are spoken, any tracts are given or any Bible verses quoted. Our avoidance of them and their practices is interpreted as disgust and lack of love and consideration.

Third, we must focus on the thrillingly positive and helpful reasons Jesus came, died and rose again. To a darkened, sin-soaked world spinning its way to hell, Jesus is the light, the hope, the joy, the inspiration and the reason why we can go on in the midst of tragedy and terror. Most of my unChristian neighbors, no matter where we have lived, already know they are sinners, already know they are judged by God, and already suspect the Christian Church has consigned them to hell. What they don't readily know, however, is that God loves them in spite of themselves, that God desires them in heaven when they die, and that God has given Christian people and churches to herald and show this exceedingly hopeful and positive message.

I agree wholeheartedly with the position against Halloween, the Easter bunny and so forth. But somehow, I need to meet people "where they are" and gently, lovingly, yet firmly and powerfully lead them by the Spirit's power, to where they "need to be." I honestly think that is why we have Christmas celebrations, Easter eggs and bunnies and a host of other religiously oriented kinds of holidays. Not to agree with them or propagate paganism or Satanic ritual or whatever, but to help them see, experience and understand that the God who is Almighty and Holy is also Loving and Good.

That's why I am not now so upset or bothered by a church or a Christian doing some "on-the-edge" kinds of things, or even having the Easter bunny. Of course, I believe we need to teach our children what is right or wrong, what is fictional or real, what problems we might have by "going too far" with these kinds of celebrations. But, as James Dobson himself has said, we need to not be so severe and so critical that the world suspects we have a miserly, unloving God who cannot possibly care about them. Dobson, who with us shielded his young children from these kinds of celebrations and festivals, now says he wishes he would have let his kids dress up on Halloween, hunt Easter eggs and hug the Easter bunny.

What are you and your family doing to either "build bridges" or "isolate" the unChristians around you and your family? What would Jesus do?!