Running with Endurance

Even though the Heritage campus is closed, our school is still open.  Students are working hard to finish their courses.  But now instead of being in class, they are online.

Over the past week, I’ve been part of several Zoom classes with students.  While we miss being in the same place, the virtual classroom has worked quite well.  We even joined our virtual voices to sing Happy Birthday to one student (all from our various places).

Another thing we’ve done to keep some sense of rhythm is to post “Virtual Chapel Sermons” each week.

This week, I preached a message from Hebrews 12:1-3 on Running with Endurance.  While it’s targeted at Heritage students, it has an encouraging message for all who are feeling a bit weary and worn down at this challenging time.

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Make the Most of Your Time

watchIn the midst of this pandemic, I’ve heard from a number of students who are feeling disoriented and out of sync.  Like many others, they find themselves stuck at home.  Rhythms and routines are gone.

Welcome to life in limbo.

When life gets disrupted, it’s easy to start drifting.

Motivation declines.  We start wasting time.

This week, I recorded a sermon (from home) to provide biblical challenge and coaching for all who are tempted to Netflix the day away.  While it’s directed at students, the biblical truths are helpful for all.

Let’s not waste time.  By God’s grace, let’s make the most of it.

As I was preparing this sermon, I listened to a song by Chris Rice that puts to music the biblical call to “make the most of the time.”

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Remembering Zora in the Pandemic

Two years ago, this Saturday, Zora Kightley won her battle with cancer.

ZoraIt had been a long, protracted battle, one demanding patience, resilience, and faith.  She, and her faithful husband Jim, withstood the devastating blows of bad news from oncologists.  She fought the good fight as she faced round after round of radiation and chemotherapy, as she endured numerous surgeries.  Zora faced down the fear of dying, looking death in the eye.  And she won.

I say that even though, two years ago this Saturday, Zora died.

Linda and I became first became friends with Zora and Jim because of cancer.  Hers and mine.  When I (Rick) was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, I started to receive cards of encouragement from Zora.  We had not yet met the Kightleys, so Zora’s cards were our introduction.  Written in a beautiful, flowing cursive script, her cards were always incredibly thoughtful, filled with words to sustain us when we were weary and frightened.

Her cards brought us God’s peace.  That’s because Zora knew the God of peace (Hebrews 13:20) and had learned to live in His peace. She did that by drawing near to Christ through God’s Word.

When she was first diagnosed with cancer, discouragement and fear flattened her.  Even though feeling numb and defeated, she turned to God through His Word.  Here’s how she explained it:

“I finally opened my Bible and read the book of Acts and then the Gospels. The words were alive on the page and had fresh meaning. I felt the need to read “the whole story” so I have been following a plan to read the Bible in a year. As I’ve read, I’ve learned about God’s plan for us and I’ve felt the urge to expand my reading and understanding of the Bible and God’s word. Through His word, I’ve felt a peace and calmness in my soul and my hope in my eternal life has blossomed.”

The two-year anniversary of Zora’s homegoing comes in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Fear is now spreading faster than the virus. Sickness and death cast a dark shadow over the future.

At this moment, Zora’s example speaks powerfully.  She reminds us it’s possible to face down fear—even the fear of death.  It’s possible to find peace, even in the midst of deadly sickness.  Like Zora, we can turn to God’s Word and find peace, calmness and eternal hope that death cannot destroy.

Zora’s life testifies that faith in the Lord Jesus gives victory in the fight with sickness and death.  Because Jesus defeated death, all who are in Christ will too.  “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).  Death may knock us down, but it can’t keep us down.  Like Zora, all who have put their trust in Christ for forgiveness will eternally triumph over death in resurrected bodies.  “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56).

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Divine Detours

It’s a strange feeling to preach to an empty room, but that’s the experience many pastors are having these days.

In recent days, I have recorded a few sermons in virtually empty rooms.  I also wrote a blog post giving some coaching tips to those who find themselves speaking to a microphone instead of a “live” congregation. (You’ll find the blog post under “News and Events” on Heritage’s homepage)

Below is a message I recorded (from my living room) for our Tuesday chapel.  This sermon, from Exodus 13-14, deals with the topic of “Divine Detours”–those times when God allows our lives to be rerouted.

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Pruned

A Master Gardener, an older kindly gentleman, came to prune our apple tree yesterday.  He doesn’t seem to know there is a coronavirus – he’s whistling while he works outside.

He mentioned that he had asked advice from a professional apple grower.  That advice:  “Don’t feel sorry for the tree.”

dd19f200-62bb-43ce-aa78-1ce5d573d8caAnd so he whacked deeply.  What was before a fifteen to twenty-foot tree is now reachable with our hands.  Its breadth was as great as its width – is now simply nine bare branches.  No stalks, no-frills, no spindles, no . . . nothing.

Every now and then as he cut so deeply, he patted the tree.  A tree whisperer.

As I (Linda) watched from my window, safely living within social distancing, I felt my own heart resonating with the tree.  What had been in our lives one week ago, classes, academic courses, preaching and teaching all about the province, gym workouts, friendly visits, and essential prayer times are now all laying on the ground.

The Master Gardener has pruned us deeply.

In one week, over a dozen people have been laid off from Heritage.  Refunding all the students for room/board and canceling all spring and summer conferencing has changed everything financially.  Faculty are struggling to move online and future enrollment is uncertain.   The school is shuttered, the doors are locked.  We are now simply a few bare branches.  No stalks, no-frills, no spindles, no…nothing.

We know that “every branch that does not bear fruit, He takes away.  And every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2). 

Somehow this complete dismemberment is still part of His all things that work together for good (Rom 8:28).  He pats.  A tree whisperer: “Abide in me.  This will produce “more fruit.”  That’s His part.

Our part, He says:

  1. Not only quarantined at home – but to abide closely with Him (15:4).
  2. Completely.  Where?  What?  How?  Do whatever He says (15:4-7).
  3. Let His Word abide. (If you abide in Me and My words abide in you (15:7)
  4. (Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you – 15:7, 15:16).
  5. Seek His glory, and it will bear much fruit and prove our discipleship (15:8)
  6. Love (15: 10, 12, 13, 17).
  7. See His joy made full (15:11)

A Master Gardener, a kindly Father, came to prune our tree this week.  He says: “more fruit.”

 

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Still

still“Be Still and Know that I am God.  Psalm 46:10

For over a year, one single word has felled me: [1]  Still.

As in:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  Over the past year, through a simple brochure (see banner above), God has brought my (Linda) soul to still time often, regularly, and now all day long.

Still isn’t easy.  Blaise Pascal stated: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”[2]  Evidently, long before our time, people could not be still.  Which means we cannot deeply know God.  A study in Science magazine, revealed people could not spend six to fifteen minutes in a room with nothing to do but think.[3]

From a recent survey in the above Science article, 95% of adults had found time for leisure in a 24-hour time period, but 83% noted zero time just to think.  The study found that adults could not sit in an “unadorned room,” finding it difficult to concentrate, unpleasant, or neutral at best.  Those without smartphones responded similarly.  According to Grandfield’s report in the Guardian, “when 42 people got to choose between sitting doing nothing and giving themselves electric shocks, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose the latter.”[4]

As so many of us are now at home, some in quarantine, being still is not easy.  We’d rather be in the “know” on our phone rather than “in the know” of our God.

Today, Malaysia mandated a countrywide policy of “movement control.”[5]  What will it take for us to be still?  The truth is:  Will I use the stillness to know God?

Recently, an intercessor friend corrected the early concept of the coronavirus as a hoax by passing along these words of warning from Jeremiah 4:11-12:

In that time….a scorching wind from the bare heights in the direction of My people—not to winnow and not to cleanse, a wind too strong for this—will come at My command; now I will also pronounce judgements against them…. Woe to us, for we are ruined.

She felt a wind coming.  The wind contained his judgements on us.  In her prayers, she joins in repenting for our nations, and for us as people.

When the wind blew this week, I noticed.  And stood Still.

The current coronavirus is slowing us down, but are we still?  During these days of curtailed socializing, cancelled hairdresser appointments and kyboshed work plans, are we still – still?

Will I use these moments to deeply consider this “wind?”  Will I check my phone or my Bible?  Will I give as much time to prayer as worry?

Consider the wind in this section of God’s Word:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other      side.”  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as He was…

And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat so that the boat was already filling.   But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.  And they woke Him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 

And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace, Be Still.”

And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:35-41. 

Isn’t it time to be still and ask for help from the Wind Maker?  Isn’t it time to know that “from Him and to Him and through Him are all things.”  (Romans 11:36)

It’s time to be still.  Let me leave behind the cancelled calendar and open the Bible.  It’s filled with little words that fell him (Satan).  And calm me.

Still.

Here’s a great worship song for all our hearts right now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Fw8DgvTQA

_____________________________________________

[1]A reference to a line from Martin Luther’s song, A Mighty Fortress in our God.  Luther’s meaning of this one little words is unclear, see Bryce Young, “What one Little Word shall Fell Satan?”, August 20, 2017, Accessed March 18, 2020, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-one-little-word-will-fell-satan

[2]Oliver Grandfield,  Just sit down and Think, The Guardian, Accessed March 17, 2020,   https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/19/change-your-life-sit-down-and-think.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Trinna Leong, “Coronavirus:  Desolate Streets as Malaysia Movement control order Kicks In, March 18, 2020, Accessed March 18, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/some-malaysians-chat-in-coffee-shops-go-jogging-on-first-day-of-movement-curbs

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The Church in Action (Acts 8)

Acts-768x576Acts 8 divides into two halves, both focused on the ministry of Philip, one of the seven leaders chosen to serve the widows in the Jerusalem church (6:5).  The first half of the chapter tells of Philip’s ministry in Samaria (1-25); the last half highlights Philip’s ministry to an Ethiopian official near Gaza (26-40).  Philip’s ministry in Samaria sees many come to faith through his preaching and miraculous signs.  Philip’s ministry in Gaza sees one man come to faith through an explanation of Scripture.  Both sections show the gospel spreading beyond the borders of Jerusalem (Acts 1:8) and reaching non-Jews.

philPhilip, who had been chosen to help oversee the ministry to widows in the Jerusalem church, is one of the many believers “scattered” due to the persecution driven by Saul of Tarsus (1-3).  Though scattered, Philip is not silenced.  In Samaria (north of Jerusalem) Philip “proclaimed the Christ” (5).  The combination of his preaching and “miraculous signs”(deliverances and healing) lead many to pay “close attention to what he said” (6).  Many “accept the word of God” (14) and are baptized.  While they are filled with “great joy” (8), none of these new believers are filled with the Holy Spirit (15-16).  Peter and John are dispatched from Jerusalem; they come and lay hands on the new believers who receive the Holy Spirit (17).

This episode has led some to conclude that receiving the Spirit happens after believing in Jesus (and even being baptized in His name).  They would contend that the Spirit is given through the laying on of hands by spiritually approved leaders and that the reception of the Spirit is evidenced in an unmistakable way (as Simon was able to see that the Spirit had been given—18).  The evidence of the baptism or filling of the Spirit (terms can be used synonymously or with different nuances) is often said to be speaking in tongues; while this is not specified in Acts 8, this is the evidence of the Spirit’s coming in Acts 2, 11 and 19)

The epistles (which explain the theology and practice of the Church) do not seem to present a two-staged entry into the Christian life as normative.  What is happening in Acts may be due to the transition between the Old and New Covenants.  Acts shows us what happens as the gospel breaks out of a Jewish community and spreads into Gentile lands.

Acts 8 indicates that the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (20) is an essential indicator that one has entered the kingdom of God.  In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter had promised those who repent and believe and are baptized that they would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38).  The presence of the Spirit in a believer’s life is the hallmark of the New Covenant promised by the Old Testament prophets (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  In the book of Acts, the coming of the Spirit into a believer’s life is unmistakable evidence of conversion (Acts 8, 11, 19).  Perhaps because of deep-seated prejudices and cultural barriers, God chose to make the reception of the Spirit confirmed by outward evidence (speaking in tongues, spontaneous praise to God); He wanted the Jewish believers to see that “gave them the same gift as He gave us” (11:17).

The Curious Case of Simon the Sorcerer:  The narrative about Samaria mentions many who believe but focuses on one:  Simon.  Simon was large and in-charge in his community.  He “amazed al the people” through his “sorcery” (9) and “magic” (11).  Simon is dazzled by Philip’s “great signs and miracles” (13).  He is said to have “believed” and was baptized (12).  Later, he offers to pay Peter for the power to bestow the Holy Spirit (19).  Peter rebukes him strongly, tells him his heart is “not right”, calls him to repent and diagnosis him as being “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (23).

So is Simon a bogus believer or a believer with baggage?  The textual evidence is somewhat ambiguous.  Biblical scholars have drawn opposing conclusions.  Plus, there was a second/third-century gnostic cult that claimed to worship Simon as the “first god.”  Whether this aberrant group was founded by Simon or just co-opted him as their “founder” is unknown to us.

Thankfully, we are not Simon’s judge; God is.  As Paul would later write, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19).  It is possible that Simon was genuinely saved but carried with him a lifetime of flesh patterns, besetting sins (bitterness) and a defective worldview (power is purchased for personal esteem).  Believing and being baptized doesn’t fast-track deep level transformation (Rom 12:2).  Perhaps the telling clue that Simon was saved is his response to Peter’s rebuke:  “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me” (24). Admittedly, his focus is still on the consequences of his sin (what happens “to me”) as opposed to a repulsion with his sin. But there is an expressed desire to get things right in a heart that was “not right before God.”

After the story of Simon, with all its drama and messiness, we are told the story of the conversion of an Ethiopian court official (26-40).  Several things stand out.  Philip is directed by “an angel of the Lord” (26) to leave the Samaritan city where many were coming to faith and to head “south to the road—the desert road” to Gaza.

The Spirit tells Philip to come alongside a chariot traveling the road (29).  Turns out, in the chariot is the Ethiopian official reading a scroll of Isaiah, providentially in the section we know as Isaiah 53.  Philip asks the official if he understands what he is reading; the Ethiopian humbly says no and asks for help.  So beginning “with that very passage” Philip tells him “the good news about Jesus” (35).  While we aren’t explicitly told the official believes, we do hear him ask to be baptized—the physical expression of his new faith in Christ.  After the baptism, Philip is “suddenly” taken away from the official and “appeared” in Azotus, continuing to preach about Jesus.

Several things stand out to me as I reflect on this incident. First, God doesn’t count significance simply by the size of the crowd.  Philip was in the midst of many who were turning to Christ in Samaria but is sent into the desert to talk to one man.  If Philip were like some of us, he might have questioned the logic of his “desert” assignment.  But there is no evidence of hesitation.  He obeyed and went.  So must I.

The conversation with the official is clearly providential on many fronts.  The Ethiopian was reading the Bible, in Isaiah, in the section about the Suffering Servant, with an open, worshipful heart.  The timing was perfect and the official was ready to believe and be baptized (2:38).

led byPhilip was directed by an angel (26) and by the Spirit (29, 39-40).  We aren’t told exactly how this happened (by a vision? by an inward prompting?).  However, it’s stated in a matter-of-fact way.  The supernatural was a natural part of Philip’s life.  Lord, surely you must see how much we need the Spirit’s leading and power.  Please help me to be sensitive to Your Spirit’s speaking and moving and directing as I serve You—with many or with few.

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