Sunday, September 28, 2014

God Has Not Left Us Alone

Are we alone?

This is a question many of us ask when we gaze up at the stars at night.

While we many never know if alien beings inhabit the planets circling one or more of the countless stars in our universe, we can know for certain that no, we are not alone in the universe.

The Rev. Thomas Belsham wrote, amazingly, in 1826: 
"Behold the starry orbs, glittering like spangles, innumerable in the vast expanse of heaven. Conceive each star a sun, and each sun as the center, the fountain of light and heat to many habitable worlds, as large as, or larger than, the planet in which we dwell. Conceive of thousands of worlds, and clusters of suns and systems beyond these: of millions and millions remoter still than those. Who was the author of this stupendous fabric? God is the sole Architect. And God is love - infinite, immutable Love."
And he was right. The same God who oversaw the creation of trillions of stars – each one a massive, fiery nuclear furnace coalescing together to produce and spew forth unmeasurable amounts of energy for untold millennia – this God also loves each of us, here on this tiny globe in an average-sized galaxy.

While this mighty God, "determines the number of stars" and "gives to all of them their names" (Psalm 147:3) He also “heals the brokenhearted” (147:2.) He is aware of us, and knows our names, as well.

"The Heavens," the Psalmist says about God, "are Yours, and the earth and all that is in it, You have founded them" (Psalm 89:11.) 

Even when we cannot find another soul to turn to, we must know that God is always there, awaiting our words, our thoughts and also our pain.

This same God created our very souls, watching over us, knowing our hearts, caring about our welfare, and hoping for us the wholeness and completeness that He, himself enjoys.

Our Master and Teacher, Jesus, says God knows when sparrows fall from the sky, and knows the number of hairs on our head. Do we, then, believe God is not aware of our suffering and inner turmoil?

We all experience loneliness, alienation from others, and a feeling that we have nowhere to turn, and no one who will listen. But God is here, with us, even as he oversees the entire Universe. God is that big, and that close.

And God did not leave us alone. He sent us an example – our Master, Jesus – to show us how He wants us to live.

This Jesus served others completely, and he calls us to be there for others – just as he has done. He calls us to serve God and also to serve others: to clothe the naked, care for the sick, house the homeless, feed the hungry (Matt. 25:35-41.)

Even in our loneliness, we are called out to pick ourselves up and serve our neighbors, easing their loneliness and filling their needs. We are called to be the ones to whom others can turn and find comfort. We are to be the light of this world, just as a billion billion God-created suns light in our sky. And, not by accident, our service to others erases both their loneliness and ours, as well.

God waits for us to turn our troubled eyes towards Him, and He has promised that, like the Prodigal Son, He will always welcome back all who seek His warm embrace. And as long as we serve God, and others in His name, know that we can never truly be alone.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Christian Religion We Should be Seeking

(Guest minister Rev. Henry Ware, Jr.)

Religion, in a general sense, is founded on our relationship and accountability to our Maker; and it consists in cherishing the sentiments and performing the duties which result from this, and which belong to the other relations to other beings which God has appointed us to sustain.

Religion, with us, is the Christian religion. It is found in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. It consists in the worship, the sentiments, and the character, which he enjoined, and which he illustrated in his own life.

What we are to seek, therefore, is, under the guidance of Jesus Christ, to develop our relationship to God, and to live under a sense of responsibility to Him and to perform all the duties to Him and them, deriving from this character and relationship. Whoever does this is a religious person, or, in other words, a Christian.

If we desire to be Christians, three things are required: belief in the truths which the Gospel reveals; possession of the state of mind which it enjoins; and performance of the duties which it requires: or, I might put it, the subjection of the mind by faith, the subjection of the heart by love, the subjection of the will by obedience. This universal submission of ourselves to God is what we are to aim at. This is Religion.

It is a rule of life; it is the law of God; causing the external conduct to correspond to the principle which is established, and the sentiment which breathes, within; bringing every action into a conformity with the divine will, and making holiness the standard of the character.

Love to God and man is declared by the Savior to be the substance of religion. As a law or rule, it is a commandment of God, requiring obedience. We are 'to do his will.' 'If you will enter into life, keep the commandments.' And, 'He who keeps my commandments, he it is who loves me.”

This is the personification of religion. This is the model which we are to imitate. And it is when we are imbued with this spirit, when we are filled with this sentiment, when our words, actions, and life, shall be only the spontaneous expression of this state of mind, we will have attained the religious character, and become spiritually children of God. We will have built up the kingdom of God within us; its purity, its devotion, and its peace, will be shed abroad in our hearts, and it will display itself in the manners and conduct of our lives.

To attain and perfect this character is to be the object of our desires, and the business of our lives. We must never lose sight of it. In all that we learn, think, feel, and do, we are to have reference to this end. Whatever tends to promote this, we are to cherish and favor.

It is plain, that this occurs only by a surrender of our entire lives to the will of God, in faith, affection, and action; by a thorough imitation of Jesus in the devout and humble temper of his mind, in the spirituality of his affections, and in the purity and loveliness of his conduct.

Anything less than this, any partial, external, superficial conformity to a rule of decent living or ritual observance, is wholly insufficient.

Who will hope to receive salvation without actual obedience? Where is it promised to those who will do nothing in the way of self-government and active virtue? Where is it offered to any, except those who seek it by, “bringing forth fruits in keeping with repentance?”

We must be on our guard, therefore, from the first, against setting our mark too low. We must not allow ourselves to be persuaded that anything less is Religion, or will answer for you, than its complete and highest measure. Remember that these things must be ' in you and abound.'

The higher you aim, the higher you will reach; but if content with a low aim, you will forever fall short. The scriptural word is Perfection. Strive after that. Never be satisfied while short of it, and then you will be always improving. But if we put a limit on our devotion and love, we will at some point believe we have reached it, and will remain in a condition far below what we might have attained.

Remember always, that we are capable of being more devout, more charitable, more humble, more devoted and earnest in doing good, better acquainted with religious truth. It is because people do not think of this, or do not practically apply it, that so many, even of those who intend to govern themselves by Christian motives, remain so deficient in excellence. They adopt a low or a partial standard, and strive after it sluggishly, and thus come to a period in religion before they arrive at the close of life.

Happy are those who are so filled with longings after spiritual good that they go on improving to the end of their days!

(By Rev. Henry Ware, Jr. (April 21, 1794 - September 22, 1843.) Abridged and adapted from, “Formation of the Christian Character,” 1831.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Can We REALLY Follow Jesus?

Jesus teaches: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 14:15; 13:15.)

The words and teachings of Jesus have great weight. They never pass away, and they speak plainly and clearly for us today, nearly 2,000 years after they were spoken.

Jesus is our example in all things, and his life, teachings and even his death taught us the power of repentance, love and forgiveness to bring us into close fellowship with God. And these teachings of his must never be diminished, belittled, or explained away, because they hold the power of our salvation from sin within them.

But Jesus didn't just teach, or give commands, he also gave us an example that he said we could follow. Jesus lived, taught and died as a pure moral example, that we should follow him.

His ministry shows us how to serve and love others the way God wants us to love and serve others. He said we must follow his example and do as he had done, and that is the challenge we accept when we become his followers.

Jesus ate with the outcasts, those the Religious Elites of his day believed should never be touched, spoken to or taught. But Jesus said he wasn't ministering to the healthy and the Righteous, but to those who were ill with sin, and needed a physician.

Jesus said that we must repent - turn from - those things which separate us from God. When we turn back to God, Jesus says it's as if we return to our father after squandering our inheritance. We become prodigal children, coming back to God, our heavenly Father, and God’s infinite mercy forgives those who return to Him without any payment or sacrifice required.

Jesus taught that loving our enemies is more powerful and a higher calling than simply loving those who love us back.

While striking someone who strikes you on the cheek seems reasonable, Jesus says we shouldn't fight back. And for those who compel us to walk one mile, we should offer to walk with them two miles. Is all this contrary to our logical understanding? Perhaps. But to destroy evil with good is the Godly way.

Jesus teaches us that we must deny ourselves, even though self-preservation is an instinct that kicks in naturally. But denying ourselves, and serving others completely, restores and refreshes the soul, and is at the core of who we should be as human beings.

Is all this impossible? Is it beyond our human abilities? No. Not with the help of God's Spirit giving us additional wisdom and feeding our souls with goodness and guiding us towards God's Will, along with the perfect example of Jesus always before our eyes.

To do as he has done, we must simply believe that Jesus left us an example that we can really follow.

If Jesus said we can love as he loved, and serve as he served, either he meant it, or he didn't. If he DID mean it, and we wish to call ourselves his followers and friends, then we must believe we can do as he did.

Otherwise, if we do not believe it, we must believe he either lied or was giving his disciples tasks they could not perform. We would have to believe he gave them false hope and goals higher than they, or any human, could ever meet.

But if that's true, then Jesus can no longer be our Master, our teacher or God's spokesman, and we would have to view him as a false prophet, and a liar, and a fraud.

Yet, our faith and the simple teachings of Jesus put all this speculation and doubt to rest. To doubt we can achieve high goals is perfectly natural. Doubt means we are thinking. But perpetual doubt means we've stopped thinking and are just rejecting.

That Jesus challenged us with incredibly high goals is undeniable. That he believed we could achieve them is proven by his words. And because Jesus, a human being like us, has done this, we are assured that we, too, may accomplish God’s will for our lives.

Going forward, let's stop doubting Jesus and our ability to follow him. Let's instead believe the simple teachings of Jesus - the teachings that, through obedience and faith, save us from sin and bring us into fellowship with God.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Jesus: a "Mere" Man Like No Other

The Jesus Followers, without reservation or apology, acknowledge Jesus is a man, fully human, just like us.

But Jesus isn't a "mere" man - as if being human was a sin or deficiency in and of itself. No, this Jesus is special and unique in the world, as are his teachings.

At his baptism, Jesus was specially anointed - chosen - by God as His unique spokesman/prophet. "You are my son," he said. "This day, I have given birth to you."

He was sent out to preach, but not to the well-off, the comfortable, the ruling elites, and those who were spiritually healthy. No, he was sent to the poor, the distressed, the dregs of society, and to those who were spiritually ill and yearning for completeness.

The Teachings of Jesus themselves are unique, not just "good advice" or "interesting sayings" to be considered lightly. While some built on the teachings of others - the Hebrew prophets of old, and the teachers of some other schools of Judaism - many were shocking, and all were challenging.

He called people to give up everything to follow these teachings. Mere teachers don't do this. This Teacher, sent from God does.

He said we must turn the other cheek when confronted by evil, rather than retaliate in kind.

We should walk two miles when asked to walk one - doing more than required, even when being forced by others.

Rather than indulge in focusing on our selves, he called on us to completely deny ourselves, to the point of taking up a cross, a tool of death.

When most religious leaders prayed long prayers to be seen by others, he said we should go into our closet and pray secretly.

He said we must do these things even at the risk of being hated by everyone, or even being killed for our actions.

Instead of serving ourselves, we must, said Jesus, serve others completely and with compassion. This includes the poor, the sick, the hungry, those without adequate clothing or housing, and those who need spiritual comfort.

Love and pray for your enemies, he said, to the amazement of all.

And perhaps the most shocking of all - he called on people to seek nothing less than to be as holy, perfect and merciful as God Himself.

No other man had said these things, and he spoke them with an authority that amazed, confused and then angered those Religious Elites who controlled the thinking of the people in his day.

They denied we could please God by our actions. They said people were too weak to obey God, and instead should pray long prayers and rely on rituals. They said outward appearances and good intentions were enough for God, ignoring all of the teachings of their own Scriptures and of their prophets.

Jesus sought to shake things up, to reform the fundamental orthodoxy of his day. And just as in his time, many of the established elites today don't like his teachings very much, either.

But his teachings undeniably call us to Good Works and Righteousness. We cannot hide our Good Works, they must be an example just as the Teacher that inspires them. We must be the light of the world, just as Jesus showed God's light to the world.

We cannot hide behind our alleged human frailty, we cannot blame others or our supposed genetic inability, and we cannot make Jesus into a one-of-a-kind aberration among humanity - a Superhero or Demigod who cannot be followed, but only admired and worshiped from afar. Instead, we must take up the challenges Jesus lays down for us and accept them as achievable.

Jesus calls us to action, not merely contemplation. He calls us to BE an active people, not a mere collection of church-goers, believing in comfortable doctrines and mouthing mindless prayers the "orthodox" approves for us.

We "mere" human beings are called by Jesus to achieve all that God desires us to become. God's servant Jesus calls us to do, to act, and to serve. Let us take up the challenge.