Spiritual

Spiritual Discomfort

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SPIRITUAL - PART 4

Spiritual Discomfort
Sunday, May 19, 2019
Acts 11:1-18

I heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!’” I responded, “Absolutely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Acts 11:7-8

We all want to live good, moral, and righteous lives, yet in truth, Paul reminds us that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Yet somehow in our “righteous minds,” we have created our own hierarchy of sins. If someone calls us out when we disobey God’s law, we quickly respond as though our infraction is relatively insignificant on the larger scale. “I’m only human,” we say. “Nobody is perfect.”

Yet when someone else commits a sin that we could never imagine committing ourselves, that sin becomes so repugnant to us that we are quick to condemn. As Jesus says, we rarely notice the “logs in our own eyes” (Matthew 7:3-5).

“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” 

“If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.” 

― Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

This description of the endless moral, ethical, ideological and political battles in our culture and our world sounds a lot like Peter’s dilemma when he was called to the home of a Gentile, and not just to his home, but to dine with him at a table full of unclean foods.

“Absolutely not, Lord,” he responds.

Notice the irony and the confusion present in Peter’s response.

On one hand, he is saying “Absolutely not” to something which he considers to be a horrible sin, that is, eating unclean foods that go against the Jewish dietary laws.” This is admirable and proves Peter’s desire to remain pure and righteous.

But in the same response, he says, “Lord”. The very Lord and King he is seeking to honor by not eating with the Gentiles is the same Lord and King he is defying by refusing to do so. How can this be? Would God call us to sin?

Of course not.

But as Jonathan Haidt says, morality binds us together but also blinds us to the stories and experiences of others who do not share our moral values.

Consider these words from the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth.

Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up. No one should look out for their own advantage, but they should look out for each other. Eat everything that is sold in the marketplace, without asking questions about it because of your conscience.  The earth and all that is in it belong to the Lord.  If an unbeliever invites you to eat with them and you want to go, eat whatever is served, without asking questions because of your conscience.  But if someone says to you, “This meat was sacrificed in a temple,” then don’t eat it for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.  Now when I say “conscience” I don’t mean yours but the other person’s. Why should my freedom be judged by someone else’s conscience?  If I participate with gratitude, why should I be blamed for food I thank God for?  So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory.  Don’t offend either Jews or Greeks, or God’s church.

1 Corinthians 10:23-32

Everyone has a conscience, and that conscience or moral code is determined in life by a number of factors including upbringing, culture, education, religion, etc. And because everyone’s experience is different, everyone’s conscience is slightly different. For one person a single glass of wine may be as bad a sin as drunk-driving. For another, a fully stocked wine cellar in their home tells a different story. Has either one sinned? Not necessarily.

God wasn’t calling Peter to sin, but God always puts relationships first. Our conscience should never prevent us from “building others up”. Our conscience should never allow us to “put someone else down”. God isn’t interested in our personal moral values. God is interested in how we treat those whom he loves, regardless of how their conscience may or may not differ from our own.

If we view someone else as morally repugnant and keep our distance, we may just be keeping our distance from Christ. Jesus says, “Whatever you do (or do not do) for the least of these, you have done (or not done) it for me” (Matthew 25:45).

Spiritual Authority

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SPIRITUAL - PART 3

Spiritual Authority
Sunday, May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43

Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 

Acts 9:40

Have you ever been in the room with someone in a coma? Sometimes the family is there and we may offer a few words of comfort or a prayer, but there are times as a pastor I have visited hospital rooms where nobody is present and the patient is completely unresponsive. In some cases they are completely brain-dead and will never recover. I cannot imagine walking into a room like this, standing over the hospital bed and saying, “Jim, get up!” or “Ann, get up!”.

Could you imagine the response if the nurses overheard you, or worse yet, a family member. Everyone would think you were crazy.

When I read today’s passage, however, I wonder if I, and we, might be underestimating our spiritual authority.

Peter walked into the room of a person not only in a coma, but a woman who had already died, and he simply had the audacity to tell her to get up, as if she were a child struggling to get out of bed for school in the morning. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t offer a prayer. He didn’t whisper words of encouragement to her family. He walked in with the certainty that Tabitha would get up and walk out of that room with him.

When I was doing my CPE (clinical pastoral education) at the hospital, I loved talking to one of the ICU volunteers. She sat with families in the waiting room and offered them whatever comfort and care she could as they waited and worried about their loved ones. She told me about the time she was in a deep coma for several months. Nobody expected her to live. It was a spiritually dark place for her. She has vivid memories from that time of seeing visions and hearing voices. She describes darkness in her visions, like black smoke and even dragons reaching out to claw at her mind. But she also remembers the voices. I know she was not hallucinating because when she miraculously awoke, she recounted specific things certain people said when they were alone in the room with her. No one else could have known what was said.

Much of her darkness, however, came from what she heard the voices saying. Her own family members would stand over her hospital bed talking about funeral arrangements as if she wasn’t in the room. As the weeks passed, they moved from worry and grief to frustration and hopelessness. There was no way she would ever wake up, the doctors said, and so they treated her like she was already dead. She could not see them, but she heard every word. She tried to reach back with her own voice. “I’m right here!” she shouted over and over again through her tears, but on the outside there were no tears and no sound came from her mouth.

Somewhere deep within her, God’s Spirit breathed new life into her darkness, but part of her darkness always remained because she heard so many heartless things people said about her in their grief and anger and she could never see her loved ones the same again. That’s why she volunteers at the hospital. She wants people to know that even at the brink of death, their loved ones can still hear them and respond, even if we never see or hear a physical response on the outside. She doesn’t want patients to feel alienated by their families in these incomprehensible circumstances.

I don’t know if we will ever see a dead person raised before our eyes, but I imagine the Spirit wants us to speak and live with the kind of authority Christ gave to Peter and his disciples to raise the dead. Whether a person is fighting for their final physical breath or lost in a bottomless pit of emotional or mental death and despair, we have the authority to speak life… not death. We have the authority to encourage them to “Get Up”, no matter how long and painful the process might be. But it is indeed a process. They cannot get up on their own. With our spiritual authority comes the responsibility to walk alongside them for the long haul until they can once again stand and walk on their own.

How are you using your Spiritual Authority to speak life into someone right now?

Spiritual Strength

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SPIRITUAL - PART 2

Spiritual Strength
Sunday, May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-31

Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.

Acts 9:13-15

Our culture greatly values strength. We put a lot of stock in power, control, and victory. The weak often find themselves on the margins and if someone finds themselves in a low place, the most common advice people will give is to toughen up or grow a thicker skin.

Spirituality, for many people, is a source of strength. There is something empowering when we tap into sources of power and strength beyond our own understanding. The first few steps of any 12 Step recovery program involve admitting that we are powerless and that we need rely on a higher power for the strength to overcome whatever addiction we may be trying to break through.

Yet in our text today, we find two very strong individuals brought to their knees by an encounter with the Holy Spirit. A genuine “spiritual experience” with God may indeed give us strength, but that spiritual strength comes first through vulnerability and humility.

Saul is a great religious leader feared by anyone who would challenge his authority or teach against his understanding of God. He stood over Stephen with approval as the people stoned him for blasphemy because of his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. He was on his way to Damascus to destroy the Jesus movement in that community. He was indeed a strong and powerful man.

Ananias was also a strong man. In spite of such great persecution from people like Saul, he continued faithfully proclaiming the Gospel and following the way of Christ. His understanding of the Spirit’s voice indicates a strong prayer life and a strong faith.

Two strong men with completely opposite beliefs about God and about the nature of Jesus and neither are willing to back down. An unlikely pairing to say the least. The thought of a friendly meeting between Saul and Ananias so soon after the stoning of Stephen might be comparable to Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush sitting down for tea the week after 9/11.

Yet when each encountered the Holy Spirit, they were humbled. Saul was blinded before the Lord and became physically weak and dependent on his servants and even on his Jesus-following enemies. Ananias was challenged in his desire for self-preservation and in his understanding of who could truly be saved by God’s grace. Could there be mercy and forgiveness for one as evil and opposed to Christ as Saul, who even now was on his way to Damascus to kill Ananias and all of the believers?

Both had to admit that they were wrong about Jesus and about God’s will. Both had to admit that they had something to learn from each other and that God’s love was far greater than the hatred and fear that stood as an unbreakable barrier between religious leaders like Saul and the followers of “the Way” of Jesus.

The spiritual strength granted to both Saul and Ananias to humble themselves, set aside their fear and animosity, and sit down at the table together resulted in unprecedented church growth among the Gentiles across the known world along with the writing of nearly half of our New Testament Scriptures. This simple act of spiritual strength, of listening to God and listening to one another’s stories, quite literally changed the history of the world.

Spiritual strength is always about the strength to love… especially the unimaginable strength of loving our enemies. This kind of love demands the strength of humility, vulnerability and risk. At the bottom of this post, you will find a link to one of my favorite books, “Tea with Hezbollah.” While none of the stories in this tale involve the kind of radical conversion that Saul experienced, they do teach us a lot about what it means to sit at the table with our enemies, to humble ourselves and to risk everything just to listen to each other. And out of these humble and vulnerable conversations, the strength of the Holy Spirit shines through.

Click here to listen to entire sermon series - “SPIRITUAL”


A modern day reflection on sitting at the table with our enemies…



Spiritual Direction

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SPIRITUAL - PART 1

Spiritual Direction
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Acts 5:27-41, Luke 12:11-12, James 3:7-12

God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Acts 5:31-32

“Spiritual but not religious.”

While many Christians balk at such a label, accusing this ever increasing group of abandoning the church and their faith, it is nevertheless a label that speaks volumes about the religious landscape of our nation and much of the Western world. For those who fear the decline of the institutional church as we know it, it is easy to blame such “religious vagabonds” for our plight, but perhaps it would be more prudent to examine their motives, the nature of their faith, and their critiques of what we call “Christianity” in an effort to better understand where we have gone wrong.

On one hand, we might say that “Spiritual but not religious” is an easy way out because it requires no commitment or loyalty to any particular organization, religious practices or even beliefs. On the other hand, the fact that there exists such a deep longing for spirituality in the human heart, even among those outside of organized religion, should tell us a great deal about the power and work of the Holy Spirit in our world.

“Spiritual” simply means “of or relating to the spirit” or “sacred matters”, which could of course refer only to the human spirit or soul. From a Biblical worldview, however, the human spirit is given life through the breath or Spirit of God. Few will question that at some level, we are spiritual beings, yet an entirely natural source cannot give birth to a spiritual being anymore than a freshwater spring can produce a saltwater stream. If there is indeed something supernatural or “spiritual” within us, we must explore what it means to connect with this “Divine Spirit” whom the scriptures say hovered over the waters when everything began.

Spiritual Direction as a discipline involves two or more people listening for the promptings of this Divine or “Holy Spirit” in the context of conversation, meditation, memories, and other reflective practices in an effort to seek wisdom or direction from the Spirit of God. In this way, it is not the spiritual director who actually does the directing, but rather the Holy Spirit’s own whisper. Thus, one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to guide and direct our path.

Throughout the book of Acts, we see this kind of Holy Spirit Direction in almost every chapter. It is the Spirit who directs Peter, John and the other apostles how to preach to the crowds, how to respond to various needs through miraculous interventions, and ultimately directs them in how to respond when they are questioned by the authorities. In Acts 5:27-41 as Peter stands before the religious leaders, the Spirit does exactly what Jesus says the Spirit will do.

When they bring you before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities, don’t worry about how to defend yourself or what you should say. The Holy Spirit will tell you at that very moment what you must say.
— Luke 12:11-12

Rather than resisting the move in our culture toward spirituality and digging our heals deeper into man-made religious rules and traditions, perhaps it is time we religious people seek to live into our own spiritual natures by connecting with the Spirit of God and learning to become more attentive to Holy Spirit’s Direction in every part of our lives.

Click here to listen to entire sermon series - “SPIRITUAL”

Extended clips from Francis Chan on the Holy Spirit