Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A Legacy and a Liturgy in a Land of Famine.

Oasis in Ein-Gedi, Hadorom, Israel.


It was the summer of 2010 and I'd been asked to take the role of leading our team of elders.  I was full of hopes and dreams about the future but daunted by the financial situation I'd inherited. We were still emerging from a national recession, had an eight hundred thousand dollar lawyers' debt from a law suit we'd had to defend, plus we were down about twenty thousand dollars a month. The whole situation weighed on me heavily.  Out of the blue I received a phone call from a man called Mike Hanchett who was a friend of the church with a proven prophetic gift, asking if we could meet. Over coffee he said he felt God had given him a word for our church. It was profound in its simplicity. He quoted from Genesis 26:12.  "Isaac sowed in a land of famine and reaped a hundred fold." He reminded me that God enabled Isaac to open wells in a drought so that he could plant a crop and yield a harvest, and proceeded to tell me that God wanted us to sow our way out of financial famine through teaching and modeling generosity. 

At this stage we had been doing a good job of cost cutting. I thought we could save our way out of financial famine, but the idea of increasing our giving as a church seemed counter-intuitive. Still, Mike's prophetic word brought faith to me and consequently to our team, and that was exactly what we did, looking for ways to give beyond ourselves to the poor and to other churches. I figured that even if we didn't reap a hundred-fold, his counsel lined up with the words of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:19) We continued to be thrifty, but rejected being stingy. I did a few weeks teaching through Genesis 26 on Biblical principles of generosity. Quite quickly, things began to change. 

 Within months we began meeting our monthly budget as a church. Within three years we had paid off our lawyers debt. Our elder team decided around this time to start putting our personal tithes into a church planting war chest instead of using them for the running of the church. Soon after that we were given a second church property and school which we now use to house Southlands Chino. God is faithful. Mike Hanchett's prophetic legacy lives on in our church. Sadly, Mike passed away recently after battling illness, but I wanted to let those who knew and loved him know that his faithful obedience was pivotal for our church. He also never asked me for a cent when his prophetic word came to pass. He was a not-for-profit prophet! A rare breed indeed. I honor both his prophetic accuracy and his prophetic integrity. 

Twelve years later recession threatens us again. Inflation is at a 40 year high, interest rates keep creeping up and it costs me $150 to fill up my truck. Crazy days! Many fear the threat of financial famine. Of course, we are all looking for ways to cut our spending,  and this is wise. But I want to exhort us again to consider God's counter-intuitive ways. He calls us to keep sowing in famine as we remember His faithfulness. He is the one who opened up wells in the desert for Isaac, so that he could sow and reap a hundredfold in famine. I don't buy into the prosperity gospel. But I do buy into the Biblical truth of sowing and reaping as we live in the abounding grace of God no matter the season.

The apostle Paul reminds us of this same principle : "The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work." 

God is able to make financial grace abound to us, not so that we can get rich,  but so that having sufficiently what we need, we may abound in every good work.  Good can make financial grace abound to us so that it can abound through us. In all things and at all times. Even in famine. Even when it takes $150 to fill up my truck!

 Of course, I write this as a pastor who lives on what my flock gives to the church, so I may be easily accused of having mixed motives for writing at this time. So be it. I do want our church to keep being able to meet budget. But hear me out, I also write this as a husband and a father, and owner of an Airbnb business, who is looking with you towards an uncertain future. I feel the anxieties that many of you feel. Still,  Jesus' teaching that our Father, who clothes the lillies and feeds the sparrows is able to feed and clothe us, because we are worth more to Him than sparrows, ring louder than my anxieties.  These truths anchor my soul in peace and in generosity and I want them to anchor your soul too.

Every time I send off our monthly tithe or give to some kingdom cause,  it is a faith declaration of three truths that Rynelle and I have lived out over almost 30 years. First, that God is our Provider. Second, that money is not our God. Third, that sowing into eternal things, even in the midst of our material needs, will reap an eternal reward that we will never regret in heaven. Tithing and giving makes no sense apart from the reality of these truths. But when done in faith, it is a sacred liturgy, one that we have seen God confirm abundantly even in this life.

So, to our dear Southlands family, thank you for your faithful generosity. You have been extraordinary. Let's keep it up. For some of us, let's step it up. And let us trust God together for a harvest as we sow in famine.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Making More of Church Gatherings


 Martin Luther once said, “History is like a drunk man falling off a horse into a ditch on one side, getting back up on it and falling off the other side into another ditch.” (credit Andrew Wilson) We are forever over-correcting and over-balancing, living in drunken reaction to the extremes. 

For instance, before the Reformation, the Church had fallen into a ditch of legalism, preaching a salvation through penance and piety. The Reformers, affirming the 5 Solas, got the Church back up on the horse of salvation by grace through faith alone and for that we are forever grateful. I am over-simplifying, but in the years that followed, the Church over-reacted and fell into the ditch of license. The Council of Trent convened in 1545 with the aim of getting the Church out of the ditch and back on the horse, by helping it to see that true saving faith is shown by good works. John Calvin emphatically stated, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” In other words, stay on the horse!  The ditches of legalism and license are still there for us to avoid today, but in the West, our license presents itself especially through  individualism. We are not just law-breakers. We are a law unto ourselves

We dare not underestimate the role of individualism in our cultural moment of Church Deconstruction. Certainly, the hypocrisy of leaders whose moral failure was exposed rather than confessed, the horrific abuse of countless congregants covered up to preserve power, the megachurch pursuit of celebrity and wealth; these have all produced an understandable mistrust  towards leadership and the institution of the Church. The vital need of the hour is to distinguish between the church that man is building and the Church that Jesus is building, and to some degree, this will require deconstruction. But let's not be so naiive as to think that all deconstruction is done in good faith. Much of it is an expression of rampant individualism that resists the gospel's call to sacrifice for God's covenant family, that claims to love Jesus but scorns his Bride. If I can dismantle  God's household, nobody can call me to come to the table. Deconstruction too often seeks its own convenience. We've fallen off the horse and into the ditch again. 

The writer to the Hebrews has this in mind when he gives this exhortation. "Consider how we may spur one another on to love and good works, not neglecting the gathering of the believers as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Hebrews 10:25

Apparently, some Jewish believers, having been set free from the ritualistic legalism of temple sacrifice, and having realized that Jesus made a sacrifice once, for all and for all time, had climbed on to the horse of grace and fallen over into the ditch of neglecting gatherings altogether. It was not just that they took the odd Sunday off to go to the beach. They were in the habit of neglecting gatherings. Church gatherings were in their planner in pencil and everything else was in ink. If something better came along church gatherings were erased and replaced. Ring any bells?

What had they misunderstood about the gospel that caused this neglect?  The writer to the Hebrews argues that while the blood of Jesus gives each one of us confidence to enter into the presence of God at any time and in any place, that Jesus is a high priest over the house of God. (v 20) He is not just a high priest for us as individuals, but a high priest over God's house. And God's house is not a brick-and-mortar place in the New Testament but a gathered people. His presence is experienced among his people in ways that it is not experienced when I am by myself. There is an encouragement that is peculiar to worshipping Jesus in his house. There is a spurring on that is peculiar to gathering with Jesus' people in God's house. I can encounter the presence of God by myself on a mountain, but I won't be spurred on to love someone that's not like me, or to serve someone that can't serve me back. That only happens in the gatherings of God's house in its various shapes, sizes and places . 

It seems from this passage, even with our helter skelter schedules, that gathering with the believers does not get less important the busier our lives get. No, it would seem that as the Day of Christ's return approaches, discouragement from the world, the flesh and the devil will intensify, and so the need to find encouragement from other believers will increase. "...but encourage one another,  and all the more as you see the Day approaching! " All. The. More.

So this summer, enjoy a vacation, by all means. Don't fall into the ditch of legalism by thinking you can't be in God's presence on the beach or at the river. But stay on the horse of prioritizing the gathering of God's people. Put the gathering of believers in ink in your planner. Let other gatherings be in pencil, for the sake of your encouragement and the encouragement of your brothers and sisters. They need you more than you know!  

Below is a link to the full message I preached on  Making More of Church Gatherings. It's about  10 minutes longer than I normally preach, but there it is.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Chapter 1: The Saturated Soul

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? - Psalm 42:5a

Burn-out. Exhaustion. Workaholism. Those are a few symptoms of my generation一a generation that spent the 80’s and 90’s addicted to Prozac, donning power suits with shoulder pads, and launching multi-million dollar tech startups from their parents’ garages. Yuppie flu (a euphemism for chronic fatigue) infected us with pandemic-like potency. 

Naively, we wore burn-out a bit like a badge of honor. The cool kids lived at work and lived to work. Everybody was red-lining on reserve, burning the midnight oil, chasing the next deal. Business was booming. Revenue was up. But emotional and physical health was in the gutter.

Today, work-life balance is a treasured topic, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also encouraged that churches are reemphasizing a theology of sabbath, because of course, burn-out is still prevalent. But it’s not the hot topic it was 25 years ago. Today, our lives are not stretched thin as much as they’re weighed down. 

So Full, We’re Empty

Sometimes we’re thirsty because we’re too full of the wrong things. You can eat loads of salty popcorn until you’re stuffed, but all that sodium will make you unbearably thirsty. In the same way, our souls can be so intoxicated with things other than God that they need detoxing before we can drink from God’s river of life. This is what I call a saturated soul and I believe it is a cultural pandemic.

Our souls are saturated with nonstop news cycles that bombard us with calamities around the clock and around the globe. Our souls, designed by God to empathize with the hurting, are burdened beyond what they can bear. It’s little wonder we feel numb. The circuit breaker of our souls trips. We shut off to survive. Callousness isn’t our goal一it’s a survival tactic. 

Our souls are saturated with entertainment. Endless streaming services claw for our attention and wallets. When one episode ends, within seconds another starts automatically. Binging is touted as “taking a break,” but really it’s breaking us. The title of Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, proved to be prophetic.

Our souls are saturated with online connectivity一a slew of mile-wide, inch-deep acquaintances replace the deep, embodied intimacy our souls crave. We try to be known using platforms that isolate us. Rather than friends around the table, looking each other in the eyes, we’re loners peering into the glow of screens.  

This world offers a feast of technology and information, but ironically, the more we gorge ourselves, the more hungry we become. Oversaturation promises satisfaction while slowly starving us. Could it be that we’ve fire-hosed our souls into an emotional drought?

I find this paradox at work in my own life in perplexing ways. God alone can satisfy the human soul, as Augustine writes: “Almighty God, You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” I have experienced such deep satisfaction and comfort from God’s presence in my soul. 

But sadly, like the well-known hymn, I’m prone to wander from the God I love. While my soul thirsts for the living water of Christ, I still stoop to drink from the bitter waters of Marah. C.S. Lewis sums up humanity’s disallegiance well: “Human history is the long and terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah warned Israel about the dangers of seeking life outside the Lord: 

For my people have committed two evils: 

      they have forsaken me, 

    the fountain of living waters, 

    and hewed out cisterns for themselves, 

      broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer 2:13)

I can be a real sucker for broken cisterns, how about you? Broken cisterns not only let precious water leak out, but they also let dirt in, which contaminates any water that’s been conserved. But these self-made cisterns leave us feeling overfed-yet-underfed, gorged yet grasping, filled but famished.

A Psalm for the Saturated Soul

In Psalm 42, we meet someone caught in this same dilemma一thirsty for God’s presence but oversaturated with the things of the world. In the first verse of the psalm, he expresses the dryness of his soul and his longing to be quenched by God’s presence:

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Yet, despite his thirst the psalmist’s soul is also overflowing with turmoil. Verse four says: ‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul.” In order to drink in God’s presence, he must first pour out his soul. Psalm 42 is not a quick-fix formula for our thirsty souls. It points to a process of emptying, investigating, reconnecting and speaking to our souls in the hope of God’s promise to refresh us more fully than we ever dared dream. Like the psalmist, to fill our souls with God we must first empty our souls of all else. 

Too Full to Feel

One of the dynamics of the saturated soul is that we are too full to feel. Like a child scribbling too many colors on a page, the barrage of emotions in ourselves and others clash on the canvas of our souls, and the end product is the dull gray of numbness.

If you’re like me, you know the wretched feeling of wanting to feel, but being unable to. You sit listening to someone you love tell you an amazing story of answered prayer. You celebrate with them cerebrally, but not emotionally. You watch another devastating crisis on the news and you feel unable to empathize. Like the Rascal Flatts song, you “feel bad that you don’t feel bad,” or at least not as bad as you think you should feel. You know that it’s right to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, but it feels forced. You listen to a powerful sermon or song, knowing you should embrace the wonder of it, but instead you feel indifferent. The guilt of not feeling is almost worse than the numbness itself.

We get so desperate to feel again, we’ll actually harm ourselves to revive our emotions. Pink Floyd’s 1979 hit, Comfortably Numb, describes fighting numbness with narcotics:

There is no pain, you are receding

A distant ship smoke on the horizon

I have become comfortably numb…

Just a little pinprick

There'll be no more, ah

But you may feel a little sick.

I have become comfortably numb.

Others fight numbness by self-injury. The Mayo Clinic explains the rationale of cutting or burning oneself: “People so badly want to feel something when they are otherwise dissociated and numb.” Feeling pain becomes better than feeling nothing. But mutilating your flesh doesn’t solve the problem in your soul. Like narcotics, they offer temporary relief, followed by painful emotions like guilt and shame. They push people into a life of secrecy and denial. No doubt, self-injury is one of the saddest symptoms of a saturated soul.

Freedom to Feel

Still others normalize numbness, as if it’s a virtue. We justify our stoicism with various mantras: “I’m too strong to feel,” or “I’m too grounded in Christ to let emotions push me around.” There’s certainly validity to emotional resilience, but many of us who grew up in the church were taught to ostracize our feelings in unhealthy ways. 

As a teenager, my father sat with me at the kitchen table and drew a picture of a steam train pulling some carriages. On the train he wrote the word “Bible” and on the carriages he wrote the words “feelings.” The message was: Let God’s Word lead and your feelings follow, not the other way around. It was wise counsel for an emotionally stormy young man, and thanks to my Dad, I’ve learned to ground my fickle feelings on the unshakable foundation of God’s Word. Emotions are a wicked master if we’re slaves to them.

But emotions are also a profound gift from God, and too often my pendulum swings toward emotional denial. I’m unduly suspicious of my feelings. I’m stoic where I should be soft-hearted. Honestly, really happy people tend to annoy me and really sad people tend to exhaust me. More concerningly, my stoicism distances me from Jesus himself, who scripture calls a “man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering” (Is 53:3), and also “a man anointed with joy above his fellows” (Heb 1:9). If Jesus sounds too emotional to me, something’s wrong.

Rather than check our emotions at the door, we’re to use them for God’s glory. It’s noteworthy that the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 have an emotional dimension: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control (Gal 5:22). The Spirit-filled person is an emotionally healthy person. The incarnation, in which Christ exercised the full range of human emotion, proves that we’re meant to feel. God’s love isn’t just his willpower, exercised impassionately through gritted teeth; it’s his affection and passion. 

Christ gives us freedom to feel fully, and wisdom to feel rightly. He teaches us to pull negative emotions out from under the rug, into the open, where we can process them in a safe environment of grace. In the next chapter, I’ll unpack how to do that, using Psalm 42 as our guide.

You can purchase Psalms for a Saturated Soul by clicking  here.