Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reasons to Fast Day 3: Revival

It's the last day of our fast. If you're starting to dream about how you're going to break it tonight, you're in good company, but let's be careful to make this last day count in prayer.
It was quite remarkable to see God breaking people free from chains of generational sin, and to commission our prison ministry team for the work God has for them. I believe God still has some great things to say to us  and do in us.

Today, I'd like to focus on revival as a third reason why God's people have fasted through history.

Jesus, when questioned why his disciples did not fast like the disciples of John the Baptist, he answered, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days"(Mark 2:18-20)

Essentially Jesus was saying that his disciples would fast after Jesus was taken away, because they longed for Him. They would fast because they missed His presence and power. Now we know that although Jesus has ascended to heaven, He has given us the gift of His Holy Spirit, who communicates Jesus' presence and power to us. And yet there also seems to be an ebb and a flow of the sense of Jesus with us; both in our own lives and in the history of the Church. Revival, at it's essence could be described as an undeniable sense of the presence and power  of Jesus with His people. This is why we fast. We long for more of Jesus.

Martin Lloyd Jones spoke of revival often during his ministry. "I am profoundly convinced that the greatest need in the world today is revival in the Church of God. Yet alas! the whole idea of revival seems to have become strange to so many good Christian people... [This] is due both to a serious misunderstanding of the scriptures, and to woeful ignorance of the history of the Church. My prayer is that as we read it and are reminded of our glorious God, and of His mighty deeds in times past among His people, a great sense of our own unworthiness and inadequacy, and a corresponding longing for the manifestation of his glory and His power will be created within us. His arm is not shortened."

J. I. Packer, writing in God in our Midst, suggests that, among the variety of God’s ways, five constants appear in biblical revivals:

1.  Awareness of God’s presence: “The first and fundamental feature in renewal is the sense that God has drawn awesomely near in his holiness, mercy and might.”

2.  Responsiveness to God’s Word: “The message of Scripture which previously was making only a superficial impact, if that, now searches its hearers and readers to the depth of their being.”

3.  Sensitiveness to sin: “Consciences become tender and a profound humbling takes place.”

4.  Liveliness in community: “Love and generosity, unity and joy, assurance and boldness, a spirit of praise and prayer, and a passion to reach out to win others, are recurring marks of renewed communities.”

5.  Fruitfulness in testimony: “Christians proclaim by word and deed the power of the new life, souls are won, and a community conscience informed by Christian values emerges.

Today, let's simply pray for these marks of revival to be increasingly evident in our church and in the Church in our nation. Let's pray that great revival prayer from the prophet Habakkuk:
"Lord we've known of your deeds, we've heard of your fame,
In the midst of the years revive them, renew them in our day,
In wrath remember mercy!"

See you tonight!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reasons to Fast Part 2: Mission

Worship during a fast is somehow different, isn't it? Although we may feel weak, tired and even a bit grumpy, there seems to be a kind of hunger for God in the room that's often missing when our stomachs are full. Last night, God's presence was palpable as we gathered to worship and pray. It's all about God's strength made perfect in our weakness.

We're looking each day at the reasons why God's people fasted in Scripture. One reason was for the sake of mission, and there is no better example of this than in the church at Antioch.

Acts 13:1-3  Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Note that when these prophets and teachers first gathered to worship and fast it wasn't because they had a special mission trip. It's more likely that fasting was a regular means of grace for them. But  it was during a time of fasting and worship that the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul, directing the leaders of the church to commission them from the church. Barnabas and Saul got a new assignment during their fast. They walked into that prayer meeting as local church leaders and they walked out as men set apart for trans-local mission. You never know what new assignments God is going to hand out during a fast! Notice that after the Holy Spirit set them apart the church continued to fast and worship for a time before hands were actually laid on Paul and Barnabas and they were sent out. It appears that they decided to extend their a fast few days because of this moment! It's a great reminder to us  that the Spirit's commission needs the Spirit's power, which is given during times like this, of prayer and fasting.

As a church we are on the cusp of some specific sending for mission too. Southlands Whittier is just over a week away from launching, and we want to pray specifically for the team that is going today and tonight. Please pray for boldness for them, for unity, for favor with neighbors and co-workers, for God-appointments with people who need Jesus. Pray for the leadership team too, and pray for God's protection and provision on every family that is going.  We will also be praying for our brand new prison ministry team as they launch this week, as well as for the team that are preparing to go and plant in Thailand. All of these sending assignments need to be bathed in prayer. Apart from Christ we can do nothing!

In one sense, Paul and Barnabas's apostolic ministry was a specific and unique calling. They were going to be traveling to churches to strengthen and encourage them and set elders in place, as we see them doing in the next chapter. This is not an assignment that everyone gets. In another sense though, we have all been set apart by the Holy Spirit through Jesus' Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. When we fast we are all asking for fresh power, boldness, compassion and direction from the Holy Spirit before we are sent out again. Many of will not make a move geographically, but being set apart is a new reminder that we are not of the world but we are in the world, sent by Jesus as the Father sent Him. This is what God does for His people when they fast and pray. He fills us up and sends us out. Pray that the Holy Spirit would do this for all of us again today.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Reasons to Fast Part 1: Distress.

We begin our Fall fast today and I'm so encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed to seek God together. This is not just a hunger strike. We deny ourselves food in order to feast on Jesus. It's worthwhile to set aside some time each day privately to pray, so that we're not just wishing and waiting for a chance to eat again. God desires to meet us all with great love and power. Gathering each night to worship and pray together also helps give us a sense of journeying together, so I encourage you to be at those times.

Each day over the next three days, I'll send out a short blog to provide some thematic guidelines to help us as we journey together. I want to look at the reasons why God's people fasted in Scripture. Today I want to look at a very common reason. God's people fasted when they were in distress and God met with them powerfully in that distress.

When Nehemiah heard that the returning exiles to Jerusalem were in great trouble and disgrace, and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and its gates burned with fire, he was greatly distressed.

"When I heard these things I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: 'O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands, let your ears be attentive and your eyes be open to hear the prayers your servant is praying before you night and day for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you....O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant.... grant your servant success.' " Nehemiah 1: 2-10

Some helpful insights and questions to ask around this passage:

1. What do you see around you that is broken and burned, that causes you to be distressed? Nehemiah mourned and wept.  Let's take some time to think, mourn and weep about our nation, our county and our city. Ask God for a heart of distress, so that you can pray with compassion.  Pray into a particular area of brokenness in our culture. Is it fatherlessness, sex-trafficking, poverty, the porn industry, the high rate of divorce, racism, materialism, hardness of heart towards the Gospel, drug addiction, Christian hypocrisy, Christian persecution? Pray that God would restore it. In Acts 17 Paul saw that there were many idols in Athens and he was greatly distressed. What are the idols in our cities that distress us?

2. What is broken and burned in your own life, in your relationships, family or marriage? Notice how Nehemiah includes himself in the prayer of confession for Israel's sin. "I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed..." Allow the Holy Spirit to convict you and bring you to repentance instead of simply pointing out others' brokenness. Ask Him to point out if there is some brokenness passed on from your father's house that needs healing. Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us. What are the idols in our own lives that should distress us? Allow the Lord to expose them so that we can repent of them.

3.  What are some practical steps that God is calling you to take to bring restoration to distressing situations? Nehemiah's fasting and prayer was a precursor to empowered action. "Grant your servant success." Note that his prayer begins with distress but ends in a prayer for success, which God answered. This shows us the power of prayer and fasting.

May God break our hearts, lead us to repentance, and grant us success in our distress. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"Sports God Part 3: Thinking Biblically as parents, coaches, players and fans."

As I blog about the benefits and dangers of living in a sports-crazed culture, I'm watching the Sharks play the Pumas in South Africa's Currie Cup Rugby league.  The irony of this does not escape me. My wife says I have a remarkable ability to multi-task when it comes to watching sport. For this compliment I have no defense. One of my favorite things is to get up early on a Saturday here on the West Coast of the US,  and watch Rugby or Soccer that took place during the night from a prior time zone. It takes great discipline not to check the score!

Anyway,  I can't help notice that the tag line for the Currie Cup Competition is, "Glory is eternal!"
That's a pretty grand claim right there. From a Biblical point of view, as much as I enjoy the gutsy heroics of rugby, that tag line seems wholly inappropriate. Although glory is indeed eternal, the claim that 30 big slabs of humanity chasing an egg-shaped ball around a muddy field will somehow achieve eternal glory, may be the epitome of over-promising and under-delivering.

But this offer of glory underlines my final big idea in a three-part, three-idea blog. We've looked at the idea of sport as a gift, sport as a gamble, and finally we'll look at the idea of sport as an idol. It is this quasi-religious promise of glory that allures us and distracts us from the true glory of God. We feel that our team or our kids can achieve something that will go down in history, achieving for them some kind of significance, some unfading glory.  There are few things more glorious than the swelling of pride when your child does well on the sports field, or when your team wins a title. And yet we know from history that moments of glory are so quickly forgotten, records are broken, and statues of sporting heroes are perched on by pigeons. (and all that goes along with perching pigeons) All to often, when sporting glory fades it leaves fragile egos, squandered fortunes and broken families. Sporting glory is not eternal at all, is it.

Tim Keller describes an idol  as a good thing that has become an ultimate thing. So how do I know if the glory of sport has becoming something of an idol to me, whether I'm a parent, player,  coach or a fan? I think I know because the demands of sport on my schedule, money, family and fellowship will always take precedence. Sport will be ultimate. I will sacrifice anything for it. Everything else will be secondary or tertiary.

I recently read about a couple who were such University of Alabama Football fans that they sold their house, bought a $300,000 RV and basically spent all their time following the Crimson Tide wherever they played. When their daughter got married they could only go to the reception because the actual wedding ceremony interfered with an Alabama Football game. They saw this as quite reasonable. Alabama Football was their idol, and nothing else got in its way.

We would quickly label this couple as fanatics for whom sport had become ultimate. Being at the game is more important to them than their daughters own wedding! But even if we are not as fanatical as they are, I would simply ask that we would do an audit on the demands that sport makes on our schedule, our money, our family and our fellowship. As a family, we have had to ask God for wisdom about what we can and cannot afford to further our kids' sporting goals. I have had to ask serious questions about how much sport I watch as a fan. We have asked ourselves how we can maintain a cohesive sense of family in the midst of numerous sports practices and games. And we have had honest conversations with coaches about the priority of worshipping together as a family on a Sunday at church.  We have found coaches and other parents to be surprisingly understanding, and the conversations have been a bridge for the Gospel.

I am not telling you where you should  land. I am simply calling us as God's people to invite Jesus to be Lord of our sporting lives which means sport becomes a dialogue not just an automatic decision. This dialogue may be uncomfortable at first as He adjusts and challenges, but I believe it will ultimately free us to enjoy sport as His gift, handle it wisely as a gamble, and approach it ultimately for His glory.

Sports God Part 2: Thinking Biblically as parents, players, coaches and fans.

In my first blog on this topic,  I wrote about sport as a gift that brings joy, teaches discipline, team work and perseverance, and unites people from diverse backgrounds. While Scripture teaches that physical training is of temporary value, the lessons we can learn from it are eternal, which is why the Bible employs sporting imagery on numerous occasions to describe life as a Christian.

But before we go too far in seeing sport as the source of all good,  Scripture also views sport as a gamble. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon is at his philosophical best when he describes sport's ability to break our hearts, lose us money,  jinx us and just generally confound us. "The race is not to the swift nor the fight to the strong...but time and chance happen to them all." (Ecc 9:11)

This verse describes the uncertainty of sport, and it's ability to destroy hopes, friendships, careers and fortunes when we place too much stock in it. Some have called it luck,  others juju. Solomon calls it 'time and chance,' and he insists that it happens to us all. He is telling us that sport is one big crap shoot, to use an AmericanismFrom a Biblical point of view,  we see that the strange bounce of the ball, a sudden gust of wind, the tearing of a normally healthy muscle, the popping of a usually strong knee, or the inexplicable loss of concentration of famously strong mind, can happen to the best in sport. This means that the fastest and strongest player or team on paper can curiously lose the game.

 It may be what confounds and infuriates us, but it's also what we love about sports, and what keeps the betting industry afloat.  The underdog can beat the champion with an against-all-odds-win.
If we were to name just a few of these famous wins in recent sporting history we might think of  the Red Socks beating the Yankees in the 2004 World Series breaking their losing curse. Or maybe Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson at 42/1 odds to take the world heavyweight title. What about Liverpool's recovery of a 3-goal deficit against AC Milan to take the Campions League Final  in 2005? And then there was that fateful day in Johannesburg that I mentioned in my previous blog, when the Springboks  beat the All Blacks in the final of the Rugby World Cup.  It was honestly a David against Goliath victory, and legend has it that the indomitable All-Blacks got food-poisoning from some suspect seafood  in their hotel the day before. There were cries of conspiracy and sabotage, but whatever the case, it affirmed Solomon's claim. Time and chance happen to us all. 

How does this inform our approach towards sport besides the excitement of underdog victories? It is simply this, that there is no such thing as a sure thing in sport. With this in mind we should treat all sport with a healthy measure of skepticism and a refusal to bank our futures or our souls on any sports result. When we understand sport's ability to thrill us one moment and devastate us the next, we will not entrust ourselves to it. It is a fickle lover.  I have experienced this first hand as a sports fan, spending countless viewing hours during a season in the hopes of victory, only to see those hopes dashed in a few minutes as my team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. This leaves me with a hollow sense of wasted time. I have invested massive time and energy into something that is so fragile and unpredictable. How can my sense of well-being be tied so closely to a few burly men chasing an odd-shaped ball around a bumpy field?" And then a new season arrives and hope springs eternal. I am starting, biblically, to second guess my naive trust in sports. Nobody likes losing, but I am beginning to engage slightly more for the love of the game, than simply the sweet, but illusive taste of victory.

A little closer to home, I am second guessing the vain hope of spending thousands of dollars and countless hours on side-lines with the sole  aim of seeing children winning a college scholarship through sport. If it happens, I'll be delighted but I'm not holding my breath. While I know of athletes who have received scholarships, I also know that the odds are very slim, and that the pressure to excel in the hopes of a scholarship or a league promotion can crush ours and our childrens' enjoyment of sport. When time and chance happen to our children, all the investment and encouragement in the world cannot make them immune to injury, loss of form, or just loss of interest in the sport of our choice. Just because you work harder doesn't mean you win, because sport remains at best, a risky investment and at worst, a reckless gamble.

Of course, no fan, player, coach or parent wants to lose. I am competitive by nature and I love the competitive nature of sport. But understanding that sport is a gamble should mean that we should never teach our kids to co-opt little proof-text verses from the Bible like 'If God be for us who can be against us,' or 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.' These are not verses about sport. They are about suffering for the Gospel. We cannot co-opt God as our sports mascot. After all, especially in OC where seemingly everyone is Christian, how bizarre to think that both teams are praying to Jesus to give them a win?

Maybe winning really means that we have gambled less on our childrens' sporting future and  invested more in their spiritual future?

Sports God part 1: Thinking Biblically as fans, players, coaches and parents.

It's the Fall here in the USA, which means the kick off of a new academic year,  Friday Night Lights football and British Premiere League soccer. As a pastor, parent and fan, these are a few of my favorite things!

 I love the renewed sense of focus and vision in the church as people return from summer vacation, but I also feel the tension of people's jam-packed lives as they launch into new academic rhythms and a myriad of extra-curricular activities. None more so than sport.

This week I've had 5 separate conversations with parents who are overwhelmed with the allure and demand of club, school and professional sports. One parent laments that they never eat together as a family anymore. Another is wrestling with the fact that their club schedule takes them away from church. One man has decided not to play fantasy football because he realizes it means he's glued to his TV, laptop and phone from Thursday through to Monday. Another man berates me because I'm willing to miss a quarter of my son's football game due to a pre-scheduled meeting.  How do I respond to these conversations as a pastor, parent and sports fan, myself?

Before you write me off as a sporting kill-joy, I'm blogging in between my third and fourth soccer game. My daughter plays club and my son plays signature which makes for a busy weekend, but I'm a proud and passionate supporter. So passionate, in fact,  that I was once red carded by a ref and forced to do the walk of shame to the car park for protesting a bad refereeing call in my daughter's league final! (It was an awful call, believe me) Beyond soccer, my oldest son plays Varsity football and as I've mentioned,  Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite American past times. Besides being a passionate sports parent, I played sports at a fairly high level myself, and I'm a serious sports fan. (For Soccer it's Galaxy and Arsenal, Rugby the Springboks, Cricket the Proteas and Football it's USC)  My favorite Saturday morning past time is to get up early and watch soccer and rugby games that were recorded during the night. My boys and I have been known to play  FIFA15 marathons on our PS3. My favorite thing is to surf the almost perfect long board swell on my SUP at Doheny's. Whether it's sport for exercise, competition or pleasure, I think you get the picture. I'm not anti-sports. Far from it. I have an almost insatiable appetite for it.

Which hopefully gives me some credibility when I ask whether we have ever considered what God's opinion of sport might be?  Have we ever allowed the Scriptures to probe our sport-crazed culture? This is what I intend to do this week, in three brief blogs. I want to look at sport as a gift, sport as a gamble and sport as a god. 

Firstly, let's look at sport as a gift.
It's significant that while certain forms of sport were used to persecute Christians in the 1st century, the New Testament is full of sporting imagery.  The Roman Emperor Nero entertained thousands of citizens with his Gladiator competitions in the Colosseum in Rome around AD 60.  The highlight of the program was pitting Christians against lions as sport. If ever there were reason to denounce sport as anti-Christian, it was surely in the early church. And yet the writer to the Hebrews uses a sporting metaphor to describe the endurance needed in the Christian life, likening it to a marathon  runner. (Heb 12:1)  Paul too, uses a marathon metaphor to describe the focused endurance needed to follow Christ; "Run in such a way as to win a crown," as well as boxing metaphor to describe the discipline needed in a preacher; "I beat my body and make it my slave," (1 Cor 16)  His Olympic imagery not only redeems sport,  but points it out as a way of understanding the Christian life.

Besides the sheer enjoyment of sport, which is no small thing, my wife and I have often talked about the valuable life lessons that we and our kids have learned from being physically trained by sports coaches in a team environment. It's taught us discipline, how to work as a team, play hard but fair,  receive criticism,  persevere through pain and defeat, and win graciously. Although sports teams are not the only environment in which to learn these lessons,  I've found that people who never played sport often lack these qualities, and tend to be undisciplined, unable to work in team or unable to persevere through hardship. These qualities last long after fitness has been lost, or win-loss records have been forgotten. Sport is a common grace.

Paul also encouraged physical exercise in his first letter to Timothy. "Physical training is of some value but godliness is of value in all things, both in this life and the life to come."(1 Tim. 4:8) He was debunking a gnostic view of life here, which viewed the spirit world as good and the material world as evil. He affirmed the gift and stewardship of the human body as valuable, even if it was of temporary value.  He may have been talking more of health than competitive sport, but in Paul's day, exercise was generally communal and therefore had a degree of competition, not unlike the boxing gyms or cross fit boxes of today.

 Beyond the clear Biblical references, sport is a gift because it's a great uniting force for people of diverse backgrounds. We witnessed the uniting power of sport first-hand in 1995 when South Africa, a country previously torn apart by racism, was united as it hosted and won the Rugby World Cup. Nelson Mandela, the president of the nation at that time, intentionally used the South African team as a metaphor for unity, calling the fractured nation to rally around their team on the day of the final. When we won, the nation was transformed. It was such a catalytic moment that Clint Eastwood made the movie Invictus to herald the uniting power of sport. We see this uniting force both in sports teams and among fans, who are able to set aside racial, economic, language and political differences for the common cause of winning.

Sport is a gift indeed.