Friday, October 12, 2018

Solitude: Gateway to Freedom (Psalm 46:10) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke


We often think of solitude as a monk in a tiny room performing his prayers or a person who decides to run away from the world living in the desert or the mountains. In other words, someone who lives away from the world, away from people. It means finding your way in the world alone; deciding what to do and living without others. But this is just the geography of what we think solitude is. Solitude is not about geography or about absence of contact; it is rather a spiritual reality that has nothing to do with being alone. We often set solitude up this way so that we don’t have to face the reality of what it is: which is being alone with ourselves and God. It means facing our inner selves, our regrets, our weaknesses and our true self. That is why when many of us who decide to just be with ourselves for the day or to just spend a few minutes reflecting on meaningful things find something else to do. Soon as we sit down or walk down the street our minds create possibilities of action that we must race back to. Before you know it we are back in the same habitual actions that are not guided by any meaningful direction.

Solitude is not loneliness, either. Loneliness is a world of sorrow. But solitude is a world of enlargement and joy. Solitude is a way of retracing steps with God and finding a way to take future steps with God. Psalms 46 is an expression of the purpose of solitude. The Psalmist begins his journey of solitude stating his experience of God’s protective nature. And then at the end he says “stand back and be still and know that God is God.” What he is requesting of the worshipper is to remove himself from the everyday activities, be still and think about God’s protective nature. Think about God’s love, mercy, grace and parental qualities and then engage God accordingly. We cannot address God accordingly except through what we learn in silence and solitude after bringing into these moments scripture and our reflection.

Think about how you chose your friends and how you stay friends. It is usually after spending hours and hours together doing things together and an equal amount of time being alone with your friend and exploring for intimate thoughts. The strengthening of the relationship is done within these intimate moments. The strengthening of the relationship comes as a result of love and builds itself so it can even withstand the hurt and pain of the other. Friendships that can be easily destroyed by a few words, even though words are powerful, it is a weak relationship. However, friendships that withstand the storm of disagreement are based on love. Solitude, and the desire for solitude, is a desire for love. For it is only in those moments that relationships can be strengthened.

We seek solitude because we seek the other, God. It is the beginning of the journey to be open, receptive and letting go. We can’t do this unless have a sense of trust and goodness in the other. The story of the Canaanite woman who had a sick child illustrates the desire to know the other. Jesus came into a region of the country that made his disciples uncomfortable. These were people they considered not worthy of their company. Jesus began teaching and soon a woman came screaming out of the crowd. She wanted Jesus to heal her child. She knelt before him, screamed at him and finally went up to him face to face. She pleaded with him to come to her sick daughter. Jesus said abruptly, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” This is what many Jews called the Canaanites. Instead of getting up in anger she agreed with Jesus, but added, “Even the dogs get the crumbs.” Of course she did this because if there was a chance of her daughter being healed she wanted to take it. But there is another side to this. She engaged Jesus because somehow she knew him. She knew that he was more compassionate than that statement. Jesus told her to go home because her daughter was healed. Then he said, “I haven’t seen such faith in all Israel.”

She found more than her initial desire. Stepping into solitude is like stepping into the unknown. We, more than not, get more than what we are seeking  in silence. What we find in these moments is more ease in being open, we learn to be more receptive, which then gives us the strength to let go of our false self. This woman found more than she wanted. She found a friend and a new image of God who loves, is gracious and kind. She found more reasons to seek solitude to find the God of Jesus. But if she returns to her old habits of prejudice and bitterness she will soon lose what she found in that moment.

God is reaching out to us everyday saying, “Be still and know that I am your friend. Be still and let me help you. Be still and get to know me.” To do this we must seek solitude.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Finding Breath to Praise (Psalm 150) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



To praise anyone, especially God, you have to step back from yourself and then immerse yourself in the glory of that person. It is in many ways like learning to sing. Many rock and roll singers have short careers because they don’t understand how to sing. They can’t step back from the affect their persona has on the crowd and they forget to breathe, to find the right pitch and diction. Singing is an exercise, a physical appreciation of body and soul that brings forth the depth of passion in the song. It means pushing everything else away from your mind and body, all the anxiety and fear that can close the throat and hurt the pitch. It means first learning to breathe and feel the air as a wonderful gift of life moving through your body to provide the perfect sound. You have to stand back from the pain of your life, the fear of your life, and the doubt of your life before you can see what is truly worth praising.  These are breathing lessons of the heart. We need to learn to breathe again to feel the freshness, the freshness and the exuberance of the air. To praise God we need to breathe: we need breathing lessons.

Praise is not easy; it finds itself stuttering off the tongue. It is born out of the things we see, the things we pay attention to not necessarily from passion. Praise comes from the flowers that smell beautifully, the trees the stand majestically, and the people in our lives that stand courageously. Praise is observation before it is inspiration. In order to stand before the world to praise a God that many find objectionable, we need to learn to pay attention. Praise is beyond wanting; it is listening without wanting anything for ourselves. Praise is beating the drums because there is nothing else to do. It is strumming a guitar with melody and vibrant excitement because you have lost yourself in the sound of the chord. When things become pedantic, there is no praise, there is only precision and personal enjoyment. But when the keys excite you, and when the strings compel you, and when the breath through the trumpet brings you joy, then you are on your way. It all begins with breathing lessons.

Imagine yourself as a Jewish person in the 8th century B.C. You have lost your homeland, but your heart yearns for the times you sang with your family, you sang with your friends in the temple to the delight of your heart. Then you are removed from this experience. You try to sing but you need to learn how to do it under a new king and a new God being praised all around you. So you go into your houses and in the fields, when your captors are not looking, and you sing your songs. Your breathing was free; your mind was captivated with the hope of going home. And then you find yourself transported home to the temple with the songs of tradition. Would not you want to free yourself from the shackles of your captors and sing with the triumphant sounds of praise? You praise God because of the hope in your singing, the hope in your breath. All this takes new breathing lessons to praise God.

What are these breathing lessons necessary to praise God?
· Praise does not begin in the noisy atmosphere of the busyness of life. It begins as we step back from this atmosphere and listen for the distinct voices that form the chorus of sound. It is paying attention to the voice of stillness, the voice of patience, the voice of goodness, and the voice of wisdom. It is listening to the wind through the trees that may frighten but also ignite a sense of life and power.
· Praise is perfected through the practice of listening as we learn to breathe again with the breath of God. As the confusion inside us begins to calm down and we breathe in the fresh air of God, our mind begins to attach itself to the ways of living that honor God.
· Praise is set loose in the act of living or as in this Psalm, the act of playing. On the drum we raise up from our silence and set loose the joy of praise. As we strum a chord it raises a smile on our face because of its wonderful sound. In the same way, when we live harmoniously with God and others there is a smile arranged in our heart which is the praise of God.

For the Psalmist, one of his goals in life was to “rediscover the breathing lessons” that can produce a wonderful sound. That is what he wants for his life: to find the spiritual harmony between himself and God.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Uneasy Pilgrim (Psalm 121) by Rev. Steve Locke



I think it fair to say that the Psalms are addressed to Israel and about Israel’s spiritual vision. The subject of the Psalms almost always turns to God and God’s power, right and protection of Israel. These nationalistic prayers need be deconstructed for those of us who have a faith that is centered in Jesus. It is up to us to deconstruct these Psalms from their nationalistic direction for the spiritual empowerment of individuals that stand outside Israel’s tradition. It is especially important to do this when we consider the “Pilgrim Psalms” that begin with Psalms 120. We must dig deeper to find the treasure in these Psalms that will provide spiritual direction. Psalms 121 directs our attention to God’s protective and providential nature. But it is not just for Israel. As we have come to believe through Jesus and Paul these prayers are for all of us, from different traditions. They are to be used by us with full confidence that they are useful tools to unearth the way of God in the world.

For these Pilgrim Psalms we need to ask the basic question, “What do we need from God to start our pilgrimage?” The answer to this question is the reason Psalm 121 is so popular.  It says that what we need for any pilgrimage is to know God is walking with us protecting us from harm, that God will keep us from evil and will help us from going astray. In other words, first we need to have faith that God cares for us and will enter into our life as we ask for traveling mercies. Second, we are counting on God to protect us from the evil things of this world, which come from individuals and forces beyond our control.  Third, we pray to God to help us stay on the path. We need help in keeping the goal in front of us instead of getting sidetracked into things that detour our purpose.

Imagine that all of us were taking a pilgrimage to Louisville, which happens to be the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Each year Presbyterians from around the country would prepare to go to three days of seminars and lectures designed to strengthen our spiritual life. Those that were going from this church would get together and plan our itinerary. We might stop over in Las Vegas for a night, or we might decide to visit New Orleans along the way. Some of us might decide to go to the Bourbon Country or to some other entertainment place.  And because it was such a big event there would be signs along the way advertising cheap lunches, cheap motels and everything else people might want. All these distractions are hazardous to the journey. 

It was the same for Israel.: roads were filled with advertisements, with temptations and with those ready to take your money. Psalms 121 was written with these hazards in mind. It laid before the people of Israel, as it does us, the profound need to pray and keep praying as we look forward to the day. All the strategies and plans we make are useful but the most useful thing we can do in each day of our pilgrimage is to pray for the protection and care of God. There are dangers in each day that are unforeseen, known and ignored. Prayer helps us stay centered throughout the day so that we not only reach our destination but also grow in our faith through this experience.

Our help comes from God, not from all of those promising protection along the way of our journey (The Hills).  God will help us from the pressures of the day and the craziness at night when we have time to think about the temptations all around us (sunstroke and moon-stroke). God is concerned about your life and where it is going along this road to spiritual discovery (keep you from evil). If we keep this in mind we will be living out the prayers of Psalms 121.

But this Psalm is not only for pilgrimages or journeys, it is for each day. Each day is filled with enough possible danger and evil to handle. Each day has enough distractions in it that can set us adrift from our goals. But also in each day is the chance to engage our faith to meet these temptations and challenges. As long as we bring God with us on our journey throughout the day we will succeed in completing God’s purpose.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Honest Hearts (Psalm 32) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



“We are lived by forces we pretend to understand,” says W.H. Auden. Auden was a poet of the last century whose most important poems were in a work entitled, “The Age of Anxiety.” He understood that we act, feel and make decisions by forces we don’t often understand but think we can fix through intelligence or will. We think we can fix our grief by just keeping busy without going through the pain. We think we can fix our depression by just listening to “positive thinking” tapes and upbeat music. We think we can fix our spiritual deadness by reading scripture all day but without going through the pain and suffering of the humiliation of confession. To move past these emotional walls to fix our life is the gift of faith given to us by our relationship with God. Through faith the forces of anxiety and fear can be diminished to engage a more honest approach about our life, and not only more honest but more courageous. This is what is necessary to negotiate these forces we don’t always understand.

David was a person who found help in exposing his sins to God and then to his nation. It was through this process he found a way out of the trap of trying to fix everything. He was a political leader that was trained to fix what was wrong on the surface by discounting it with political rhetoric. He could make his bad press go away. But he could never do that with God. Therefore he gave his heart to God and then divulged to Israel his lessons in humility. He did not try and engage the forces he didn’t understand, instead he gave to God the simple truth of his sin; a force which he not only didn’t understand but knew how it destroyed his life. In order to destroy sin from his life he needed to give it God. He said in his song to the temple musicians, “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be---you get a fresh start. . . Count yourself lucky---God holds nothing against you.” This understanding does not arrive by contemplating God’s nature, it comes from his deep remorse and love for God that drove him to humiliate himself to God and nation. From there he gets a fresh start. It only comes to a person when the cycle is broken.

Sin is a power that is not completely understood except when it leads our life to unimaginable grief. But only then do we understand its consequence on how it convinces us to change our behavior according to its designs. We understand our devastation through sin but don’t necessarily know what sin actually is.

The only quest that we have when sin comes into our life is to break through its falsehoods with honesty. To be honest helps break the cycle of lies by transparency. An honest heart breaks the cycle of deception, manipulation and the unending task of rationalization. David says, “When I kept it all inside my bones turned to powder . . . the pressure never let up.” His point is that when I tried to hide my sin, when I tried to fix it by myself I entered an eternal circle of pain.  “But when I let it go, it gave me the power to address God and make a clean breast of things.”  I was free to live for God, not bound up with lies which only made me think of trying to get out of things. It only brought misery that could not be fixed.

David’s poem of confession and heart break is a courageous act of coming clean. But it is also a poem for the nation that might provide them a second chance at making an “honest heart” in all of them. What David did in this Psalm is to help them not be afraid at opening their lives before God. They needn’t worry about retribution by coming clean with God and each other. They can look forward to a life of freedom. By his courageous act of confession he tried to help his people throw off their painful bondage of guilt and find a life of salvation and grace with God.

Eventually, David moves past his days of hiding his sin to actually deciding to let his life become an open book to God, to the public and even himself. He had to admit his pain and sin so he could move past his continual pain of guilt that he couldn’t fix. His last phrase is an address to the nation just for this purpose. He says, “Celebrate God. Sing together----every one! All you honest-hearts, raise the roof!” He wants to raise the roof in celebration because there is nothing like the freedom of being known by God and being forgiven. Once we celebrate we will not be bound to “live by forces we pretend to understand”, we can live without fear.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Faith in a World of Hostility (Psalm 3) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke




“Enemies past counting...” This is a phrase expressing the fears in the mind of those who feel the world pressing in on their comfort and convenience. What kind of enemies? Are they the enemies of politics or the enemies of war? They could even be the enemies of society that try to lay claim upon reputation and position. Since we know that this is a Psalm of David, after the death and treason of Absalom, his son, we should surmise that the enemies are those that try to lay claim to his position, as King. David laid out before God his pain with bitter emotion. This event is enmeshed with suffering and pain attached. His experience of the pressure upon his life is real, but in the Psalm there is no realization of his part in his son’s disloyalty. Indeed there may not be any part, but the pain of his loss as a father is specifically expressed. We, of course, do not know that he was an ineffective father, but given the circumstances and his remorse it might have led him to that conclusion.

Because his remorse is somewhat subdued I assume that he is talking to the nation, and not to God through intimate conversation. He wants to bolster the nation to believe in God and to secure their faith in order to engage the future. He is not willing to engage his sin or inability as a father; he wants to give the nation a new direction of hope. They know that his son betrayed him and the nation but he addresses only the interest of his people and not his despair. Their interest is, according to the king, that their enemies have been crushed. David expresses his pain as a king who feels the pressure of the responsibility, and of his enemies. They have suffered, they have reached out to God, and they have looked for the resolution that would bring this all to an end. God has fulfilled their desire.

Enemies are all around them but who is the enemy? David knows and the nation knows. Everyone is hard pressed to find a resolution of their pain other than in God, who is already working in David and the nation to find a new future for everyone. David narrates his pain of being attacked but it has already happened. Therefore he is providing the nation a way of coming to grips with treason and with betrayal. “There are enemies,” they are on every side and in every corner of our lives. “But you God shield us,” from the terrible forces that try and defeat us. This of course is the reality we hope for every day. We believe that God’s vision will survive and that he wants us to succeed.  This is our hope, this is our daily endeavor.

Reading the Psalm, like reading our life, depends upon knowing what is going on around us. When we do then we are able to speak with clarity and purpose. We are able to assess the situation and respond accordingly. Spirituality is not acting according to a template, but according to what God desires for us in that moment. It is this moment that the Psalms press us toward. They force us to listen to God instead of making rules for ourselves.

Enemies are those that act against us, often because of provocation from us and others. We create enemies by position, personality and actions. Enemies are not always those that are wrong and they are not always right. We must look past our position and our ideology to assess who comes against us. Humility is not a spiritual trait devoid of political will. It is a necessary trait to determine how to respond in the face of anger and hatred that seeks to destroy us.

The one thing that spirituality cannot succumb to is to dishonor God by a lie. David did not lie. He told the truth as a king. He gave the people a statement of truth to indulge their national hope. This is a Psalm of security and of personal acknowledgment of the power of God to do what is right. We struggle to see the truth, but it is hazy until we understand the vision of God. “Real help comes from God. Your blessing clothes your people!”  It is this belief that allows David, the nation and us to get up each morning with renewed hope that we can enter the world of enemies. But we miss the point of the Psalm if we think God wants us to demonize our enemies. We are not always right and our enemies are not always wrong. The Psalm points us to God and God pushes out the door to live and learn among our friends and enemies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Do You Have Enough? (Luke 12:13-21) by Rev. Dr. Bryan Kile



Let me start with the title: Do you have enough? Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: enough what? Enough of anything? Enough money? Enough space in your house? Enough stuff?

Many people think that if they could only win the lottery, they would have enough money; they would be set for life. People who win the lottery think they then have enough. But does that kind of money really solve all your problems? I read where 70% of lottery winners lose it all within seven years.

Someone has suggested that we have become a culture of clutter. The comedian, George Carlin, is quoted as saying that “the essence of life is trying to find a place to put all your stuff.” The self-storage business has certainly capitalized on that thought. According to the Self-Storage studies, in March of this year there were approximately 50,000 self-storage facilities in the United States. They note that, at the same point in time, nearly on in ten US households currently rent a self-storage unit. That has increased from 1 in 17 in the last 25 years—an increase of approximately 65%.

I know from personal experience. When I retired ten years ago and moved to Houston, we downsized from a house with a two car garage to a townhouse with a carport. We took ten Jeep Cherokee loads of “stuff” to the Hospice Thrift Shop in the area we were moving from. We never missed a single thing.

What I have said so far about money and possessions is nothing new to you. You have known it all your adult lives. You just didn’t want to admit it, but what is really important is to take a look at life from a godly viewpoint. Or as Ray Charles put it, “Live every day like it’s your last, ‘cause one day you’re gonna be right.” In other words, collecting stuff is not what will be important on that last day of your life. You can have barns full of “stuff” or banks full of money, and it will make no difference to you. I mean face it—have you ever seen a hearse pulling a u-haul trailer?

I believe the man in Jesus’ parables missed the point. The Lord prospered him, but he wanted to keep it all for himself. He forgot the Old Testament command to tithe. I believe it is better to eliminate some of the “stuff” and give more to the Lord’s work.

I read about a professor at USC who studied people’s attitudes about money over a twenty-five year period. He found that “many people are under the illusions that the more money we make, the happier we’ll be. We put all of our resources into making money at the expense of our family and our health... The problem is we don’t realize that our material wants increase with the amount of money we make. The study discovered happiness was related to:
·         Quality time with loved ones,
·         Good health,
·         Being friendly,
·         Having an optimistic outlook,
·         Exercising self-control, and
·         Possessing a deep sense of ethics.”
·         Duh! Isn’t that what Jesus was teaching 2000 years ago?

You see, in this parable, Jesus is talking about more than money or possessions or “stuff.” Jesus is talking about a higher calling in life. He is teaching that real happiness comes from a completely different way of life. Remember what the first question of the Westminster Catechism is? “What is the chief end of man?” Or, to put it in modern language: “What is the chief purpose of people’s existence?” The answer is: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

So what is it that is important for a happy life? Three things: First and foremost, is your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Second is a good relationship with others, and third is an optimistic outlook on life. “Stuff” and money don’t even make the list.

When you have a good relationship with God, when you walk daily with Jesus Christ, you’re well on your way to personal satisfaction. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus started out with what we now call the “Beatitudes.” Each one starts, “Blessed are those who...” I’m not encouraging you to repeat all nine of them, but I would encourage you to look them up later today in Matthew 5. You will notice that not one of them mentions “things.” When Jesus was saying in those beatitudes is that your trust in God is what will bring blessings to your life. When you are walking hand in hand with Jesus, day by day, life becomes a joyful time, a time of celebration.

We should be celebrating every day: celebrating the fact that all is forgiven, celebrating the fact that God loves us and cares a great deal about each and every one of us. We should be celebrating the fact that victory is certain because of our faith in Jesus Christ. And that, my friend, is a promise!

Paul tells us that Christians should be cultivating the “Fruit of the Spirit” in our lives. Those nine fruit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NCV) Did you notice as I read those that every one of them is a positive, uplifting, happy characteristic? They are all part of celebrating the joy of Christian living.

The second thing that makes for a happy life is our relationship with others. Over the years, I have talked with many people who were miserable. When we talked about what it is that is bothering them, it almost always comes down to a troubled relationship with someone: a spouse, a child, some other family member, a neighbor, a friend. Your relationships with others are important to your happiness. Dr. Bernie Siegel has written extensively on healing from a spiritual standpoint. His writing isn’t necessarily Christian, but summing up briefly what he reports, it is clear that people in good relationships, especially marriages, are happier and live longer.

The Apostle Paul gives us some good advice for keeping happy relationships. He says, “Wish good for those who harm you; wish them well and do not curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and be sad with those who are sad. Live in peace with each other. Do not be proud, but make friends with those who seem unimportant. Do not think how smart you are.” (Romans 12:14-16 NCV) Jesus reminds us what to do when we have a disagreement with someone else: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-244 NIV)

You see, healthy relationships are so important to our personal health and well-being. It is important to maintain friendships and family relationships in good condition. Let’s face it, our own happiness depends on it.

Now, I know there are some who are saying, “Well, I just can’t repair that relationship, it’s too far gone.” It’s not too far gone. With prayer and God’s help, you can make it right and you and the other person will be better for it. Remember what Jesus told Peter when he asked how many times he must forgive someone else? Peter thought he was being pretty magnanimous when he suggested forgiving seven times. Jesus said, forgive seventy times seven. And that didn’t mean 490 times. It was a Hebrew way of saying as many times as necessary. I believe that as Christians, it is incumbent upon us to be the one to make the effort, to take the first step toward reconciliation.

A teacher asked her students to list what they thought were the present Seven Wonders of the World. The students cast the most votes for:
1. Egypt’s Great Pyramids
2. Taj Mahal
3. Grand Canyon
4. Panama Canal
5. Empire State Building
6. St. Peter’s Basilica
7. China’s Great Wall

While gathering the votes, the teacher noted that one student was still working on her paper. She asked the girl if she was having trouble with her list. The girl replied, “Yes, a little. I couldn’t quite make up my mind because there are so many.” The teacher said, “Well, tell us what you have, and maybe we can help.” The girl hesitated, then read, “I think the Seven Wonders of the World are:
1. to see
2. to hear
3. to touch
4. to taste
5. to feel
6. to laugh
7. to love”

That child was on the right track!

The third key to our happiness is to maintain an optimistic outlook on life. A study of 1,000 people aged 65-85 points to the importance of a positive attitude in dealing with life. After almost 10 years of follow-up, researchers found that people who described themselves as optimistic had a 55% lower risk of death from all causes, and a 23% lower risk of heart-related death. Optimistic people tend to be more physically active, drink less, and smoke less. They cope with stress more effectively. While one’s attitude toward life isn’t everything, it does make a crucial difference in dealing with life. And who has more reason for optimism than Christians?

Christians have real reason to be optimistic. We have been given promises that remind us that no matter what may happen today, tomorrow with Jesus will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. We have an eternity of joyful living to look forward to. What better reason to celebrate and give thanks to God? The Bible says, “May the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.” (Psalm 68:3 NIV) Paul put it this way, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13 NIV)

The rich man in today’s parable had as optimistic outlook on life. But, it was based on how much “stuff” and how much money he had, not on the promises of God.

Haddon Robinson, the eminent preaching professor, tells a story similar to this parable of the rich fool. A man in today’s society opens a newspaper and discovers the date on the newspaper is six months in advance of the time in which he lives. He begins to read through the newspaper, and he discovers stories about events that have not yet taken place. He turns to the sports page, and there are scores of games not yet played. He turns to the financial page and discovers a report of the rise or fall of different stocks and bonds. He realizes this can make him a wealthy man. A few large bets on an underdog team he knows will win will make him wealthy. Investments in stocks that are now low but will get high can fatten his portfolio. He is delighted. He turns the page and comes to the obituary column and sees his picture and story. Everything changes. The knowledge of his death changes his view about his wealth.

I’d like to close with a personal story about change toward wealth and “stuff.” When Linda and I were called to the last church I served, we were living in a big house in a lake waterfront community. We needed that big place to house all our “stuff.” The place was killing us financially. When I took the call to serve the little church in a little town called Jones Creek, Texas, we put the house on the market. We felt fortunate that we were going to be living in a church-owned manse and not having to carry an additional mortgage payment. We had a few folks look at the house at the lake, but not a single offer. One day, I was looking over our finances and said to Linda, “You know, we are struggling financially, but we are not tithing. I believe we need to start tithing.” So we did that. The next Sunday we put a check in the appropriate amount in the offering. That day, when we got home from church there was a message on our answering machine. Remember those? It was the realtor. She had a contract on the house. It sold and we closed a few weeks later.

You see friends, it doesn’t matter if you have a lot or a little, whether you are wealthy or poor, or if you have storage units filled with stuff or not enough “stuff” to fill the space you live in. What is important is that you are walking with God in a relationship with Jesus Christ. If there is anyone here today who is not walking with Christ as their Savior and Lord, anyone who is not celebrating the love of Christ, please talk to me at the door today. You see, if you’re not walking with Christ, you don’t have enough.

Friday, June 1, 2018

What is Faith? (Hebrews 11:1-12,17-19) by Grant Kay



Faith is a word that we use a lot as Christians. We are part of the Christian faith. We are told that we are saved by faith in Jesus. The bible tells us that God is faithful to us. And the author of Hebrews in chapter 11 tells us that all the great heroes of the Old Testament lived and worked “by faith.” Clearly, faith is an incredibly important part of our lives. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that we often have a very murky idea of what faith actually means!

It seems to me, based on conversations I’ve had with many people, that most Christians today assume that faith is essentially the same concept as belief. Having faith in God means believing that he exists and that what the Bible says about him his true. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. If faith and belief are the same thing, then why not just use the word belief? James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Clearly faith means more than simply believing certain things. Since we believe that it is faith alone that saves us, we had better be sure we know what faith is! Fortunately, the author of Hebrews gives us some clues as to the full meaning of faith. Faith includes three major elements: belief, trust, and loyalty.

Let’s start with the basics: First, faith does in fact include belief, which is what we most often think of when we think about faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Assurance and conviction are powerful words. They speak of a belief that seems close to knowing rather than believing. Yet we are also told that this is assurance of things that are hoped for, conviction of things we have not seen. Faith isn’t knowing something without any doubts. Doubt is inherently part of faith, because we are dealing with things that we have never seen and cannot see. Rather than pure conviction or knowledge, faith is believing despite the doubts, not without any doubts.

Verses 5-6 tell us, “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. For it was attested before he was taken away that he had pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” These verses tell us what living with true, faithful belief looks like. When we believe, we have hope, and we live with that hope in mind. Hope protects us from despair and defeat. When we live with believing hope, we live as if Jesus really matters, that what he said and did was true and right, and that means that the promise of eternal life is true and available to us.

So the first aspect of faith is belief, which leads to a life of hopeful living. This leads nicely to the second part of faith, which is trust. Trust is closely connected to belief. In essence, trusting someone means believing that they will do what they say. But it also includes a sense of safety. If someone is entrusted with something, it means that they are tasked with keeping it safe. So when I have faith in God, it not only means I believe in God, but that I offer God my life for safekeeping. I trust God to protect me, to care for me, and to do what he said he would do.

Let’s look again to Hebrews 11 to see what this means. The first example of faith the author gives us is Abel, in verse 4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.” What was it that made Abel’s offering more acceptable than Cain’s? In order to understand this, we have to go back to Genesis 4 and see that Abel offered to God the best, fattest sheep from his flock; while Cain offered fruit he’d picked up off the ground after it had fallen off the trees.

Cain offered something he could do without. Those fruits probably meant very little to him. Abel, on the other hand, offered the very best he had. Not only was this a sign of respect to God, but it would be very costly to Abel. He could have sold that sheep for a great price, or used it to breed a better, stronger flock, or otherwise. But Abel trusted God to provide, even as he sacrificed the most valuable thing he had. When Hebrews tells us that Abel had faith, it is not only belief but also a deep trust in God.

Noah is another example of trust. Verse 7 tell us, “By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.” Noah trusted that God would protect him and his family. He trusted that God would do what he said he would do. Noah endured ridicule from the people around him, and he endured the harrowing 40 days of the flood, because he entrusted his life to God.

What does a life with this trusting faith look like? It is a life without fear, a life of peace. To trust in God means that there is nothing to feat, because you are in God’s hands. We can do things that other people cannot or will not do, because if we are seeking after God then whatever happens to us is God’s will. Now, this trust is not an invitation to stop caring about our lives, or taking care of ourselves, but it is an invitation to stop worrying about the things we cannot control. And when we let go of that worry and fear, we will be able to truly love one another. It is hard to love other people when you are afraid of them. But faithful trust allows us to see every person as someone that God loves, rather than someone who might do us harm.

So far we have covered two aspects of faith. Faith is belief, which leads to a life of hope. Faith is trust, which leads to a life without fear. Finally, faith includes loyalty. When we say that someone is faithful to their husband or wife, we do not mean that they believe in their spouse, or that they trust their spouse, though those things are part of it. Instead we mean that they are loyal, that they have not cheated on them. A faithful person sticks by you, even when things are bad.

This is what the Bible means when it says that God is faithful. God sticks by his people, no matter what. Deuteronomy 31:8 says, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” God never abandoned the people of Israel, even though they were unfaithful to God and abandoned him over and over again. God promises to be loyal to His people, and asks us to be loyal in return.

Thus the final part of our faith is loyalty to God. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac demonstrates loyalty to the utmost. Hebrews 11:17-19 says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. HE who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham was willing to sacrifice the child of promise, the one that God had told him would make a great nation, in order to remain faithful to God.

This demonstrates what it means for us to have this loyal faith. Loyal faith is shown by a life of obedience to God. If we are truly loyal to God, if we are a ride-or-die part of God’s team, then we will obey what God has told us to do. This is an important part of the life of faith that I think many people misinterpret. Why do we do what God says in the Bible? Whey don’t we just live any way we want to? The answer is not because we are scared of going to hell if we disobey, or at least that should not be the answer. The Apostle Paul tells us over and over again in his letters that those who of us who have faith no longer need to worry about punishment from God! So why don’t we just live however we please?

The answer is that we do live the way we want to, because what we want is to be close to God! When we are honest even when it would be easy to lie, or when we wait until marriage for sex, or we forgive someone even though we would rather hate them, we do these things because we believe they are pleasing to God, they are what he wants for us. This is one of the biggest ways we demonstrate loyalty to God. We are called to obey God’s will, even when it contradicts the world around us, or our natural impulses. And as we grow in faith, we will grow in joy as we obey God’s commands, because what God wants will become what we want.

So many Christians silently ask themselves: how do I know I’m really saved? It seems to be one of the most common doubts we face today. Scripture tells us that we are saved by the grace of God, through faith. Now we know that faith is not simply belief: it is belief, trust, and loyalty. So if you are one of those people, silently wondering how to know if you are saved, I offer you the following suggestion. Does your life look like the life of faith I’ve just described? Do you live as though what Jesus Christ said and did were true, or do you feel unsure about the future? Do you trust God to take care of you, or do you live with a lot of fear and worry? Do you obey God with joy, or do you ignore God’s commands, or obey only out of fear of hell?

Truthfully, none of us lives this life of faith perfectly. Doubts overwhelm all of us at times. We all give in to fear and worry on occasion. Sadly, we all turn away from obedience to God sometimes in order to chase after other things. Yet a true faith is one that is growing. You might not be perfectly hopeful, peaceful, or obedient, but if you are seeking God then God will grow those qualities in you over time. Remember that even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful to us. He will not leave you or forsake you through the long journey of faith, even when you take a detour. The journey of faith may be long, but the best place to start is knowing that God’s grace allows us to believe in him, trust in him, and be loyal to him.

The Prayer of Faith (James 5:13-16) by Rev. Dr. Bryan Kile



Introduction

As James draws to the end of his letter, he speaks of one of the most important aspects of the Christian life.  Here he draws the reader’s attention to the power of prayer. / Some of you are well aware of the power that prayer has. Others may have heard of its’ power, but have never experienced it. Still others have never really seen its’ power or known anyone who has. 

Many of you have probably had a mother who prayed for you from the day of your birth or even before you were born. Some may have had mothers who were not women of faith. But for those of us whose mothers were faithful in their prayers, we can be very thankful. While some may have strayed for a time, you are here in worship now and hopefully each praying for your own children. I trust that all of us fathers here today are also praying for our children.

James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  

He also reminds the people of the importance of confession; as someone has said, “confession is good for the soul.” 

So, today, I want to take a look at prayer and the power that prayer can have when prayed in real faith. Of course, there’s the frivolous prayer that is not given in faith and sometimes even in jest.  I’m reminded of the boy who was misbehaving in church and finally his exasperated father picked him up and carried him out of the worship service. Just as they got to the back door of the sanctuary, the boy called out to the congregation, “Y’all pray for me!”

James starts off talking about praying when you’re in trouble.  For some people that’s the only time they think to pray.  You know what I’m talking about, “Lord, get me out of this mess!’  “God, I can’t face this situation!”  “Jesus, if you get me out of this mess, I swear I’ll start attending church.”  That’s not what James is talking about. 

You see, we have to look at the full context of what he says in these verses.  James is talking about fervent, heartfelt prayer offered in faith that God will honor the request because He is able to do so.  There’s none of this, “God, if you can....”  “Father, I hope you’ll help me here.”

One of the things we see James attaching to prayer here is the importance of confession.  In the early church, and even before the time of Christ, it was believed that one’s sins contributed to their predicament.  Now sometimes, even today, we recognize that is true.  After all, how many times have people ended up in hot water as a result of their sinful actions or activities?  Maybe you’ve had that experience yourself, I know I have. 

Confession is an important part of healing, as well.  If we are burdened with a load of guilt, our mental state is not conducive to the healing of our mind.

So, let’s take a look at the power of prayer and what James says to do to appropriate God’s power by prayer.  I believe it would be safe to say that theologians and pastors across the globe – and across the ages – would agree that prayer is the most effective and powerful tool we have available in the church and in the lives of individual Christians. 

James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.”   He’s very matter of fact about it.  It’s almost like he’s saying, “Every Christian knows this, but I just want to remind you: Prayer is the powerful tool you have at your disposal when you’ve got a problem.”  I could spend the whole morning listing all of God’s faithful servants whose lives are recorded in the Bible. Those who, when facing a difficult situation, lifted their prayers up to God and were delivered. / One in particular I want to mention is Jonah after he disobeyed God’s call.  While in the belly of the great fish, he said, “When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord” (Jonah 2:7). Often we act the same way. When life is going well, we tend to take God for granted; but when we lose hope, we cry out to him. This kind of relationship with God can result only in an inconsistent, up-and-down spiritual life. A consistent, daily commitment to God promotes a solid relationship with him.

I could spend many more hours sharing with you the experiences of many other faithful servants from across the ages and even from my own lifetime who have discovered the power of prayer.  They range from the most critical need to the most mundane. But in every instance, people of faith have lifted their needs to God and through their own faith have experienced God’s fulfillment.  Jesus prayed often and for long periods of time.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to His arrest, so-called trials and crucifixion, Jesus prayed fervently.  He knew the power of God could save Him from that terrible ordeal, but He also knew he must remain within the will of His heavenly Father.  So, He prayed that God’s will be done. / Later, when Peter was in prison for preaching the Gospel, the prayers of the others locked away in a house somewhere else in the city brought the angel to release him.  As Thomas Watson said, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” 

I ran across this story of answered prayer told by a missionary to Zaire many years ago. It shows how, even before the prayer of faith was offered, the answer was set in motion. "A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. 'Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won't feel so lonely.' That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, 'If God sent that, I'm sure He also sent a doll!' And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child's sincere requests, and 5 months earlier, He had led a ladies' group to include both of those specific articles."

Over the years I have read numerous similar stories where people of faith have expressed their deep and immediate needs to God in fervent prayer offered in the faith that God would answer – and He did! / Many of you know that John Knox was a Scotsman who took the Presbyterian expression of Christianity to Scotland and from there it became the beginnings of the American Presbyterian Church. Mary, Queen of Scotland once said, “I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten thousand men.” 

If each of us began to pray earnestly and sincerely for the people of the community in which we live, we would be amazed at the changes that would happen at the hand of God.  I’m not talking about a little “God bless our community” prayer, or a “God turn our community to You” prayer.  I’m talking about earnest, focused, ongoing prayer. Prayer that leads you to hear God’s voice telling you what you can do to bring about change in the community or the neighborhood in which you live. Prayer that counts on God to act and expects God to use the person praying, prayer that is offered by a person who is open and ready to be used. We could ask the same for this church.  That kind of prayer will bring about a changed church!

Many years ago, five young college students were spending a Sunday in London, so they went to hear the famed C.H. Spurgeon preach. While waiting for the doors to open, the students were greeted by a man who said, "Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?" They were not particularly interested, for it was a hot day in July. But they didn't want to offend the stranger, so they consented. The young men were taken down a stairway, a door was quietly opened, and their guide whispered, "This is our heating plant." Surprised, the students saw 700 people bowed in prayer, seeking a blessing on the service that was soon to begin in the auditorium above. Softly closing the door, the gentleman then introduced himself. It was Spurgeon. It would be my prayer that you would create a group like that praying for your worship services.  There may be a few who are praying today, right now, for you who are present. 

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt,... you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21–22)

James also talks about prayer for healing.  He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”   In one church I served, a young couple whose daughter had suffered an injury which paralyzed her, did exactly that.  They asked the Session members to assemble and pray for her healing.  It was not immediately apparent that He answered that prayer, there was no instant healing that they had hoped for.  But I am confident that God brought healing to that little girl in His own good time. 

Another time in the same church, a woman was told she had breast cancer.  Her daughter flew in from out of state as soon as possible.  Then they called me and asked me to come and talk with them and provide some comfort and reassurances of God’s love.  When we finished talking, we stood in their living room and the four of us joined hands and prayed fervently for her healing.  A few days later, she went to the doctor’s for a follow up exam prior to her choosing the treatment form to deal with it. The exam showed there was no trace of the cancer. 

There is one thing to note in James’ statement that is very important: He’s not saying that healing depends on the faith of the sick person.  He says the prayer offered in faith is what brings forth the riches of God to bring healing.  He’s talking about the faith of the one doing the praying.  When Jesus was ministering to the crowds one time, “Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  (Mark 2:3–5) Then Jesus healed the man. 

Prayer for healing doesn’t always mean from an illness such as cancer or heart disease or diabetes or an injury of some sort.  Prayer for healing can also be for healing from an emotional strain or a psychological problem or from some besetting sin such as addiction.  In the latter cases, especially, it is helpful for a person to seek out a trusted friend to join them in their prayers and to hold them accountable.  When we know that trusted friend is going to ask us on a regular basis about our success in overcoming the struggle, we are much more likely to do our part in overcoming the problem – because, not only do we know that God is able to help us, but we also know that other person is praying for us and trusting God to help and heal.  The one thing we must remember is that in spite of the awesome power of God to do anything, He will not help an unwilling person.  When Jesus was asked for healing by the paralytic at the Bethesda pool, the first thing He did before healing the man ,was ask him if he really wanted to be healed. (John 5:2–9)

Close

Wouldn’t it be awesome to have that kind of power? / You know something?  You have it, if you want it!  But you must have the faith that says “I know God can do anything, so I know He can do what I ask.”  But we must also remember that Jesus told us He would do it if it was the Father’s will. 

One of the keys to powerful prayer is to learn how to pray and to pray daily.  It’s not something that we save for the important moments, like a moment of critical need or a time of needed healing.  It needs to be a daily experience with God.  As prayer becomes a daily, even moment by moment, walk with the Lord, we grow in our relationship with Him and learn to express our faith in Him for all things.

We need to think in terms of walking with the Lord as a best friend.  Would a friend think much of our relationship with them if we only called on them, only spoke to them, when we were in deep trouble or sick?  I suspect that friend would question our commitment to the relationship.  Paul says we are to “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17–18)

Early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in private devotions. Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the thicket where he would pour out his heart to God. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of those believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, saying, "Brother, the grass grows on your path."

Friends, is grass growing on your path?  Are you keeping a regular time of prayer: conversation with God?  Are your prayers built on the faith that is confident that the Lord will answer; that he is waiting to give you the very best from His storehouse?  God’s power is available to you if you have faith, even faith as tiny as a mustard seed, said Jesus.  (Matthew 17:30)

I would lay two challenges before you this morning. First, make a concerted effort to be regular and active in your prayer life, to set aside a time when you will meet with the Lord on a daily basis and pour your heart out before Him.  Spend time praising Him, thanking Him and confessing before Him.  Then in faith make your requests known to Him.

The second challenge is to include in your prayers this church and its leadership. In this time of transition, lift up the committee members who will be leading the search efforts. Pray that God might use you to bring about exciting, powerful, life changes in the members and in the communities you serve.  While you are here at church, or on the Sundays when you are away or unable to be here, spend time praying fervently for the people who are in worship.  Pray in faith that God will touch them, and you, in a mighty way.  Then, in faith, watch what the Lord will do!

Prayer

Gracious and loving God, thank You for being our friend. Thank You for inviting us to come and talk with You. Thank You for being there with us through all the seasons of life. Help us, we pray, to be regular and open and honest in our times with You. Help us grow in our faith to know that You will answer our prayers in the way that is best for us and the ones for whom we pray. Hold us close and help us sense Your presence with us in our daily times of conversation with You. In Jesus name and for His sake. Amen.