Jesus voted and we got a copy of his ballot! He registered his opinion on twelve issues that affect the governance of our country.
The above scripture was delivered as a sermon. Matthew's record of it concludes with this statement: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
It's impossible to tell who Jesus would have voted for. But it's not impossible to tell what he would have voted for. The teachings of Jesus don't necessarily fit neatly into a Yes/No box on your ballot. We should be disturbed by that. You are naturally inclined to vote conservative or liberal or somewhere in between. Whatever that tendency is, the question I want to ask is this: Are you still amazed at the teachings of Jesus? Do they still hold authority in your life? Or are you simply following whatever "teacher of the law" you are used to agreeing with?
When called upon to vote, do it humbly, prayerfully. And even if you must cast your vote for a who, don't align your heart with any what that Jesus has already spoken against. Continue to stand up for what is right and just, what is holy and Christian. No matter what, align yourself with his kingdom. This earthly kingdom has great potential to do good or bad, but either way it does not last forever. The Kingdom of God, however, does good and lasts!
I keep lists. They help me keep my thoughts in order.
This is even true for my prayer life -- especially where I have decided I'm going to intercede regularly for someone in prayer. It might be for a specific need that will eventually get checked off the list, or it might be for my family members in all the general and specific ways we pray for family members. But they're on "the list."
I keep my list on my smart phone, and I just went and counted how many people are on it. As of right now, it has 198 people on it. I had no clue.
Let me be the first to say: That's just weird! I mean, did your mom ever tell you at the dinner table that "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach"? I still tend to put too much on my plate. And apparently my heart is bigger than my head, because I tend to put too much on my prayer list!
But it all comes from a genuine place. I mean, if a person is on my prayer list, it means that at some point my heart said, "Pray regularly for this person!" so I wrote them down. And several days a week now, I spend time praying through that list.
But 198 people is a lot! And my head can't really get around that, so it tends to just go right through it, if you know what I mean. What I've noticed is that, in those moments when I could spend time praying to God "with fervent cries and tears," I tend to just pray through my prayer list, and that's different. I mean it, but I don't often cry over it.
This morning I found Jesus's prayer list. I read Hebrews 5:7, "During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission."
Do you see Jesus's prayer list? Yeah, me neither! I really don't think Jesus kept a list! But I'm sure he kept a heart, and then he prayed that heart fervently.
So, today I'm doing two things:
We are a "praying church." We have many who say their daily prayers. They pray for missionaries, and family members, and even me. And man, that's wonderful. But today I am encouraging us all to turn our prayer lists into care lists, and then spend time in heartfelt prayer for the things that the Spirit has put on our hearts each day.
If you had ten minutes of God's undivided attention today, what would you cry fervently to him about?
Like many, our church offers two different worship environments: Traditional and Modern. As a church we genuinely value both expressions as legitimate and beautiful. I'm glad to say that "worship wars" doesn't describe our church.
I recently noticed a social media discussion sparked by a blog trying to make the case that singing hymns out of a hymnal is a best worship practice. How unfortunate. That sort of discussion works against the mutual respect and understanding that many of us in multigenerational churches have worked so hard to encourage.
This specific conversation will eventually die, but another will spring up, so let me (again) speak to what's really going on here: a spiritualizing of cultural preference. All the theological arguments about musical style (classical, gospel, contemporary) and media (paper books vs video projection) is really just spiritualizing non-spiritual things in hopes of making our preferences seem more sacred.
And with all due respect: It. Just. Doesn't. Matter.
Jesus matters. Worship matters. But people are silly, and musical styles are trivial--even the best and most long-lived of them. (Yes, I mean that of both "people" and "musical styles.") And it seems to me that a little information and honesty would help.
The definition is simple. "Hymn: a song of praise to God"
If that's true, it's not about style or era in which it was written. We're all singing hymns. Some are old hymns, some are new hymns. Some have one meter, some have another. Some are rooted in one culture, some in another. And we silly people get all worked up in our trivial arguments about what style or medium is better. It just seems so silly. And trivial.
So, why do we do it? Because music is so meaningful to us! And rightly so! God designed us that way.
But we forget that our music preferences are mostly just a combination of 1) the music culture that was formative to us as kids, and 2) the cultures we experienced during transformative key events--things like coming of age, falling in love, going off to college or war, that first job, or having a spiritual conversion experience. And God wired it into us that music helps us to relive those events.
And God saw what he had made and said, "It is good."
For me, "formative" was growing up at Warwick River Mennonite church in Denbigh (Newport News), Virginia from the late 60s to the mid 70s, and then at Tuttle Avenue/Bahia Vista Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Florida through my teen and young adult years. I still feel like the gospel hymns we sang in these two churches are the "best" ones, and that the red hymnal we used is the "real" hymnal. That stuff is still very nostalgic for me in a way that can even feel spiritual. But I also loved the "new wave" and "rock" cultures of the 80s, with Duran Duran, or the Thompson Twins, or Petra, or Rez Band. Then in the early 90s I had a spiritual awakening in a church that played contemporary music. I later became a worship pastor and led primarily that kind of music. So I continue to be very moved by modern worship music. And some of the older hymns as well.
But that's just me! It's just a reflection of the cultures that were formative and transformative to me. That's all.
What if we were all just that honest? And what if we agreed to have real and gracious conversations about our preferences, without trying to spiritualize them?
Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear someone say,"You know, I really prefer the gospel music styles from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were already old when I was a kid, but still, it makes me feel good to sing the songs I grew up singing. And I like it best when it's written down with notes I can sing. It just gives me more confidence in singing. It makes me feel more connected to the song. But no offense if someone can't read music, or doesn't want to. There are more eternal things to worry about."
Or, "I remember the first time I heard the band U2. It was so emotive for me, so "spiritual." I'm really moved when we sing hymns that were influenced by their sound. The melody just makes sense to me. It's intuitive. I can't explain it, but I can usually just sing along with new songs the first time I hear them. But sometimes I need help with the words, so it's nice to have them on the screen where I can glance at it if I need to. But no skin off my back if someone else doesn't like it."
Or what if people were honest enough to declare their fan loyalty: "I'm a Fanny Crosby fan," or "David Crowder fan," or "Charles Wesley fan," or "Matt Redman fan," or "George Beverly Shea fan." (And yes, we should notice how narrowly western that list is.)
Personally, I would find that sort of honest conversation refreshing.
So, here's the thing: I don't think we should use hymnals. And I don't think we shouldn't use hymnals. In fact, I don't think we should sit in pews, and I don't think we shouldn't sit in pews. And I don't think we should have a building, and I don't think we shouldn't have a building. And I don't think we should have a pulpit, and I don't think we shouldn't have a pulpit. I hope you get my point:
These things just don't matter. They will not survive the Lord's return!
But imagine this. I really expect that in heaven it's not gonna be rock-n-roll, or four-part SATB a capella, or even eight-part cluster harmonies, although I think all that would be cool. Rather, I suspect that the unison will be more resonant than anything we've ever experienced. And the million-part harmonies will be eternally distinct, and dense. And the time signature will be an "eternity signature" of unending discovery. And none of it will need to be written on collections of paper or projected onto reflective screens. It will be written on our hearts; it will be projected by the Spirit of God into our innermost being.
I believe the hymns of heaven will be profoundly beautiful, like nothing we've ever experienced. And yet, in the midst of all that sensational beauty, our "preference" will decidedly be to just see Jesus.
While we're still this side of heaven, let's do everything we can to renew and encourage our preference for Jesus. And then just put our hearts to music, without measuring one person's preference against another's. And let's decide that whenever we find ourselves moved by a specific style of music or media, we will be even more moved by Jesus, worshiping him in reverence and awe, with humility and great enthusiasm.
I kicked off 2014 with a sermon series called "STRETCH." It was based on the prayer found in Acts 4:29-30. The way I pray it sounds like, "Lord, consider the threats and obstacles that stand opposed to us. Enable us to speak the Word of God boldly. And Lord, stretch out your hand to heal, and to perform signs and wonders in the name of Jesus."
Today I want to remind us that it was more than just a several-week series. I believe God is calling us, as a church, to LIVE it. And I believe he has already equipped us with everything necessary for answering that prayer. I believe God is saying that it will take hard work and investment--and such will be the evidence of love to a skeptical and cynical world. And I believe that if we follow Jesus, the "signs and wonders" will be the signs of "love" and the wonders of "transformation." Oftentimes this will be mystical and supernatural. Other times it will seem rational and methodical. But at all times it will be traceable to a movement of genuine love where each of us invests our gifts and talents in serving real people.
As God has led me in this understanding, I've been praying: Lord, stretch out your hand through us to bring...
That continues to be my prayer.
I wonder how God has gifted you to stretch out your hand? Has anyone ever looked to you for hope in their hopeless situation? Have you ever found yourself with insight for someone when life wasn't making sense to them? Do you love to provide necessities for people when they can't make it without assistance? Do you pray with discernment and power, and do you feel a special urge to pray deliverance for people who feel trapped?
I believe God has equipped you to stretch out your hand as his hand. So I invite you to continue to pray with me, "Lord, stretch out your hand to heal through me to perform the signs of loveand wonders of transformation as one who loves and is loved by Jesus." Then go do it, believing that he is answering your prayer--through you and me and many other regular people just like us.
Here, even now, even in our lifetime.
I'm entering a long slow fast tomorrow. My flesh hates the idea. Like it really, really, really hates the idea.
But my spirit is growing more and more eager for it, because my faith really does expect to see God. I expect an increased sense of union with him, like seeing God internally. But I also expect to see God externally, through different evidences of his activity.
I expect to see a new responsiveness to the gospel in Sarasota. I expect to see new opportunities to love people with the love of Jesus. And I expect to see people around me experience spiritual breakthrough in ways they never have. Some bondage is stubborn and, like Jesus said, can only be delivered by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:17-29)
So I'm going in. And I'm asking God to gently and boldly refresh my spirit, even as I deprive my body as an act of discipline and devotion. I want to see Jesus more clearly. I want to know the Holy Spirit's heart and mind with greater strength and conviction. And I want to be filled to overflowing with the bold and gracious love of Christ, even for my enemies. Lord, have mercy and hear my prayer.
I would encourage you to enter this prayer emphasis as well. Here's what I've written elsewhere to explain this fast:
40 DAY FAST: March 21-April 29, 2014
Fasting is an ancient and modern “spiritual discipline.” It’s a practice that many have experienced as helpful in focusing their lives on prayer. To “fast” is to deny yourself something that is generally a good thing, and often a necessary thing. Although in recent times people have learned to apply this discipline to a variety of things, such as TV or social media, the most basic fast is to abstain from eating. This can be from eating food altogether, or from eating certain types of food.
Fasting is an act of devotion to God that is often accompanied by a greater sense of union with him, and clarity in discerning the Spirit’s leading. It is not a “hunger-strike” meant to get God’s attention, or a “diet” meant to break bad habits. It is a prayer emphasis.
When Jesus fasted in the wilderness, he went forty days without food. During that time he successfully resisted the seductions of the devil, and discerned the Spirit’s call on his life. When Daniel fasted, it was from “choice food and wine.” God gave him knowledge and understanding, and the ability to interpret dreams. When the early church fasted and prayed, it was to make key decisions. They sent out missionaries like Paul and Barnabas, and they appointed elders to take care of churches. (See: Matthew 6:5-18, 2 Samuel 12:16-23, Acts 13:2-3, 14:23)
I am asking you to consider joining your pastors and overseers in this 40 Day Fast, along with a number of other church leaders in our region. If you’re unable to go without food for forty days, there is grace for that! Modify it however you need to! What counts is that it is a disciplined act of prayer and devotion. Let it serve as a constant symbolic reminder to ask God for this thing that you want “more than food itself.”
What you pray for is up to you. Let the Spirit of Christ lead you. I would suggest asking for greater personal union with God. I would also invite you to join in praying for revival and a new openness to God’s redemptive work in our church, and in our city.
Hungry for that,