Now, take the 23rd Psalm for instance…

The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want…

Oh? You already know that Psalm?

These days, one of my missions in life is to urge God’s people to get into the Psalms, the beloved “songbook of Israel,” and to live there. The older we get, the more this wonderful collection of hymns seems to speak our language, to understand us, and to know where we live and how to touch us in the deepest, most personal places.

In addressing a seniors group when I recite the six verses of this beloved Psalm, I can hear some thinking, “We all know that Psalm.  It’s old news.”  My response is: No, you do not know it.  You may know the words and may be able to recite it. But no way do you “know it.”  I’ve been preaching over six decades and I still make discoveries in that psalm–as well as the rest of them!  That, incidentally, is one of the lies Satan uses to keep you and me out of God’s Word.  He says “you already know that scripture; there’s nothing new there” and tells us “no one can understand that scripture; it was written thousands of years ago in another language; only scholars can do this.”  Both are lies.

We can understand much of it, and more of it as we live in it.  And no, you will never plumb its depths.  The word of God is a bottomless well.  We never reach its end.

Take the 23rd Psalm for example….

Now, I personally am convinced a teenage David did not write this while keeping his father’s sheep.  There are too many deep references in this Psalm for a teenager to have penned it.  One has to have lived a long time to know how that having “the Lord (as) my Shepherd” satisfies, provides, leads, and gives victories.

When I was a kid, I would read the Psalms and once in a while stumble across a nugget.  But most of these 150 songs of Israel were closed to me.  I had not lived long enough, suffered enough, experienced enough betrayal and disappointments to see life as the Psalmist saw it.  But in time, that all changed.

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The worst kind of Christianity

I know what it is to bore myself with my own preaching.

It’s not putting words into His mouth to say that one thing the Living God utterly despises is limp, weak-as-tea ministry rendered by insipid, bored disciples who would rather be doing anything in the world than that.

I have been guilty of this. And if you have been in the ministry for any length of time, my guess is you know about this kind of failure also.

You possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My Name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:3-4)

The church at Ephesus was doing a hundred things right and one big thing wrong: they had lost the heart for God they had at first. They preached and taught, they ministered and served, they prayed and witnessed. But their heart was not in it any longer.

And to God, that negated the entire thing.

Remember how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5)

If you think that sounds like what the Lord said to another church down the road a few miles, you would be correct.

I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)

Lukewarm religion. Passionless Christianity.

The worst kind.

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The biggest problem with prayer

This is an issue about prayer that almost never gets addressed. It was put to me by my friend Nancy. Her note, almost verbatim:

Someday I need you to help me understand why we are told when we pray and believe our prayers will be answered. Then people die in spite of our pleas for health. I know it is within God’s will but why ask if His will is what is going to occur anyway? I know thousands of prayers were said for (a friend who died some years back) and for my friend I saw buried today. Thousands are being said for (a friend with cancer) yet she is in a battle for her life.

We are told “you have not because you ask not.” Maybe this would be a good blog topic. I can’t be the only one who struggles with these thoughts.

If you only knew, Nancy.

Let’s start by this upfront admission: When it comes to prayer, things are not as simple as they may seem at first.

Frankly, as one who likes things simple and cut-and-dried, this is painful to admit.

True, the Bible actually does say things like: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives….” (Matthew 6:7-8) And it says: “Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

There are plenty more similar texts, but those two are sufficient to establish that the blanket promises are out there.

What are serious disciples of the Lord Jesus to make of such prayer promises? Here are some aspects of the subject that should help…

1. The disciples clearly did not understand these as blank checks.

Had they interpreted such promises as “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, they would have cashed them in. At the first sign of trouble, they would have “named it and claimed it” and poof! all is well.

That is not what we see happening in the early church.

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Man is basically good. Try saying that with a straight face.

A pastor friend says he was checking into a website responsible for a series of “believe-in-yourself” television commercials that had been airing. When he checked to see who was responsible and what their values were, he found this: We believe in the basic goodness of all people.

One wonders what kind of number a person would have to do on himself to convince himself of that misguided philosophy.

True, we want to believe that. It’s part of our sinful nature to believe that everyone is all right and no one needs forgiving or saving. A major strain in our sinful system holds that all we need to do is release everyone from restraints and preachers should quit laying guilt trips on unsuspecting audiences.

Yeah, right.  But one wonders how many people were killed last night by those who were resisting restraints and determined to have their own way.

In two rather unexpected places, I came upon discussions regarding the contradictory nature of man. One was a western novel and the other a biography of a longshoreman philosopher from over 40 years ago.

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My second favorite story

I bemoan the death of mail-out church bulletins. The internet–and maybe the busy lives of church members–was the culprit.

Years ago, we preachers would receive as many as thirty or more bulletins from other churches every week in the mail. A secretary in each church was assigned to type up the congregational news, pastoral announcements, and such and put in the mail, usually by Wednesday or Thursday, with the assurance it would be in the mailboxes of the members no later than Saturday.

Most of us received only the mailouts from churches and pastors we knew well, or admired greatly and wanted to keep up with. A few I took because the minister or secretary (or both) could be counted on for a great story. Here is one story taken from a church bulletin that changed my life….

The date is Saturday night, December 6, 1941, the eve of “a date that will live in infamy.” The speaker was Roy Robertson.

My ship, the West Virginia, docked at Pearl Harbor on the evening of Dec. 6, 1941. A couple of the fellows and I left the ship that night and attended a Bible study. About fifteen sailors sat in a circle on the floor. The leader asked each of us to recite our favorite Scripture verse. In turn, each sailor shared a verse and briefly commented on it.

I sat there in terror. I couldn’t recall a single verse. Finally, I remembered one verse: John 3:16. I silently rehearsed it in my mind.

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A pastor who makes us think!

…and in that law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)

In his book Eat This Word, Eugene Peterson says that word “meditates” reminds him of something he saw his dog do in the Northwest woods where they were living. One day his dog dragged a huge bone up to the house. Clearly, it came from the carcass of an elk or moose, he said, and that little dog had certainly not brought the animal down. But that pup sure did enjoy that bone.

What the dog did was to gnaw on it day after day, eating it away little by little. Sometimes, the canine would bury the bone under leaves and later dig it out and resume its worrisome process of ingesting that huge bone. Eventually, he had consumed the entire thing.

That is what the believer is to do with the word, Dr. Peterson said. Think about it, consider it from every angle, take in all he can today, then lay it aside for the moment, only to bring it out later and gnaw on it again until it has become his.

Two groups can be found in every church: those who enjoy being prodded into thinking and those who insist that their spiritual food be predigested so it goes down smoothly.

My observation is that only the first group will grow spiritually. The unthinking group is content to remain spiritual infants.

The unthinking member demands simple sermons, easy lessons, no gray areas, all Scripture interpretation to be neat and orderly with no room for differences of interpretation, and no challenges to his beliefs, his position, his world.

The unthinking has a difficult time with Jesus. Our Lord refuses to abide by their demands, just as He did with every group He ministered to in the First Century.

The pastor’s challenge is to move members of the second group into the first category–to show them the delights of reflecting on God’s Word, thinking about His message, studying their Bible lessons, and then to incorporate God’s truths into their lives.

Consider this example.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered that way?‘ (Luke 13)

The Lord proceeded to answer his rhetorical question with a “No, but unless you repent, you too will all perish,” but clearly, He wanted them to think about this.

“Do you think?”

Then, stressing the point, Jesus called to their mind a similar tragedy with an identical truth. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:1-5)

Well, Lord, pardon me, but…well, you see…we don’t actually like to think about these things. Can you just lay it out there in black and white and we’ll simply quote you and run along.

Sorry. He refuses to play into our laziness, to cater to our inertia.

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Revelation, fabrication, and make up the “truth” as you go

“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses….”  “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16,21).

I’ve been reading books again.

That explains a lot of things.  It explains where my mind is these days, what’s been bugging me, and where I’ve been searching the Word.

I’ve been reading “The Story of Ain’t.”  This is mostly the story of struggles to decide what goes into dictionaries, culminating in Webster’s Third Edition.  Author David Skinner brings us into the inner offices of G. and C. Merriam Company and tells how decisions are made concerning the English language.  If you like that, you’d love watching sausage being made.  (It’s a difficult book to read and only the wordsmiths among us should “rush out and buy this book.”)

I’ve been reading “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.”  Author John L. Brooke takes us back into the context of the birth of this American-made religion to show that almost everything about it was the product, not of revelation, but of ideas floating around when Joseph Smith was a young man.

I’ve been reading the Bible.

The contrast in these three is enlightening.  Reflecting on them resulted in the following observations….

1) Some things we make up as we go. Language is that way.

I’m the product of an educational system (1946-1973) that taught students to turn to the dictionary for “the real meaning of that word.”  English teachers assured us that “will” and “shall” are used in different ways, and that educated people knew the difference.  Infinitives should not be split and prepositions should not end sentences. Nouns must not be used as verbs, otherwise they might (ahem) impact us wrongly.

We were left with the impression that these things were set in stone, that somehow somewhere a high council handed down iron-clad rules on proper English usage.

And then we learned otherwise.

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Now, take Christmas. That’s certainly not how I would have done it.

(With tongue firmly planted in cheek, let us rethink this greatest of all stories.)

What was the Lord thinking, doing Christmas the way He did?

A Baby is born to an unwed couple after a long, arduous journey.  The cradle is a feeding trough in a stable in Bethlehem.  Welcoming committees of shepherds and foreigners show up. A murderous king sends his soldiers to slaughter babies. The young family flees to Egypt.

And thus Jesus arrives on the scene.

Admit it.  You would not have done Christmas that way.  Me either.

It’s not just me.

As the God of the universe, the infinite and omnipotent Heavenly Father, you could do anything you please, right?  In the beginning, You created the Heavens and the earth, right?  The opening statement of Scripture certainly establishes who is in charge.  So everything is on the table.  Nothing off limits.

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Ron Dunn’s stories about prayer

Ronald Dunn, now in Heaven, was a prolific writer and speaker on prayer and the deeper life.  He pastored in Texas and authored many books.  What follows are stories taken from his book “Don’t Just Stand There, Pray Something: The Incredible Power of Intercessory Prayer.” Published in 1991 by Thomas Nelson.

First story. (I’ve heard this from numerous speakers, but it’s Ron’s story.)

I was speaking at a banquet for a church’s intercessory prayer ministry when (this mother of a teenager) shared a recent answer to prayer. A few days before, as she was getting a pie ready to put into the oven, the phone rang,  It was the school nurse.  Her son had come down with a high fever and would she come and take him home?

The mother calculated how long it would take to drive to school and back, and how long the pie should bake, and concluded there was enough time. Popping the pie into the oven, she left for school. When she arrived, her son’s fever was worse and the nurse urged her to take him to the doctor.

Seeing her son like that–his face flushed, his body trembling and dripping with perspiration–frayed her, and she drove to the clinic as fast as she dared.  She was frayed a bit more waiting for the doctor to emerge from the examination room, which he was now doing, walking toward her with a slip of paper in his hand.

“Get him to bed,” he told her, handing her the prescription, “and start him on this right away.”

By the time she got the boy home and in bed and headed out again for the shopping mall, she was not only frayed, but frazzled and frantic as well. And she had forgotten about the pie in the oven. At the mall, she found a pharmacy, got the prescription filled and rushed back to the car.

Which was locked.

Yes, there were her keys, hanging in the ignition switch, locked inside the car.  She ran back into the mall, found a phone, and called home. When her son finally answered, she blurted out, “I’ve locked the keys inside the car!”

The boy was hardly able to speak. In a hoarse voice he whispered, “Get a wire coat hanger, Mom. You can get in with that.”

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The pastor’s scariest time

I sit there listening while my pastor friend tells what he’s going through in his church. And sometimes all the alarms go off. I realize he is in a dangerous place in his ministry.

Not always, but sometimes, I can tell him this. If I sense a leading from the Holy Spirit or if he and I already have a close enough relationship, I’ll interrupt him.

“Brother Bob, can we pause the narrative here a moment? I need to point something out to you.”

“My friend, you are exposed. You are a sitting duck. Life has drawn a target on your back. Satan has his gun-sights on you.”

“You’d better do something big in a hurry or you’re going to get in bad trouble.”

He sits there stunned, without a clue.

“What do you mean? I’m doing everything I know to work my way through this.”

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