Scripture Speaks of the Stranger in Our Midst

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (rf. Lev. 19:33-34 NASB)

The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you.”(rf. Ex. 12:49)

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (rf. Eph. 2:13-19 ESV)

            One of the key issues of our day is that of immigration. Indeed, so great are the emotions involved in this topic that, because of the personalities and political parties included with the dispute, the subject of immigration has caused deep divisions within the American people. As with most concerns of this nature, truth and objectivity have become casualties of these pitched battles of policies that take place in the media. Sadly, as with the general population, the American church finds itself split as to its response to this difficult problem as well.
            Apart from discussing the legalities and politics involved, there are, indeed, theological and spiritual dynamics in play here that must be considered by everyone who considers himself/ herself a follower of Jesus Christ. First of all, there is obedience to the two pivotal commandments of God: You shall love the LORD your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (rf. Mt. 22:36-40). Note that the second of these is referenced in the Leviticus passage above. It is the basis of God’s commandment to be kind to and receive with open arms the “stranger” that is in our midst. “Strangers” in the Old Testament were non-Jews who had decided to take up residence within the land of Israel. God reminded His people to be compassionate to them because, in their own history as slaves in Egypt, they, too, were “strangers” in a foreign land. In showing such love toward our “neighbor”, we are, in fact, showing God the love He desires, which, in itself, is an act of true worship.
            However, as noted above in the second passage, according to the Lord, the Law that governed Israel was just as applicable to the “stranger” as it was to the children of Abraham. God is not a deity who upholds the double standard when it comes to justice. He shows “no partiality” (rf. Rom. 2:11 ESV). Therefore, the “stranger” or sojourner (lit.) in Israel had to be notified that he or she was responsible for upholding the same precepts that the Jews were required to live by while he or she chose to abide within the boundaries of Israel. If the “stranger” deliberately chose to sin against the Law, he or she suffered the same punishment as did God’s people for committing the same trespass.
            Secondly, especially as Americans, we must be reminded that, unless our heritage is directly from a Native American lineage, we are the products of immigration ourselves. Personally, I come from a stock that is a combination of Scottish, Irish, French, German, and English ancestry. Some of us came as derivatives from aristocracy, others as merchants and businessmen. Still, many came to these shores, poor when they departed from their homeland, poor when they arrived here. A good number had their required papers ready for presentation to the proper authorities. Others snuck onto our land in whatever way they could. All desired to find freedoms that had not yet possessed and a new life for themselves and their families. We, today, are the beneficiaries of their sacrificial and diligent efforts.
            By the same token, the work of Jesus on the cross did what we ourselves could not do—He made us who were hitherto “strangers” into “natives” by bringing us into His family by His blood. In His atoning for our sins, Jesus tore down the barrier that had previously prevented us from being able to enter into His land as free citizens. Not only by His actions was the “wall” removed for us, He welcomed us in and made us residents of His kingdom. It truly was an act of mercy and grace on His part. So, if we have experienced His salvation first-hand, then we know exactly what is like to have been moved from being an “alien” to a “citizen”, undeservedly I might add, by no means of our own, but solely by the grace and power of God Himself.

          Compassion and true justice are not incompatible nor are they enemies of one another, both having their origins in the heart and being of our Lord. God often challenges us in His Word to think on things much differently and deeper than the does the world around us. As He reminds us from Scripture, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (rf. Is. 55:9). However, when we do listen and abide in His Word to us, we will find that, not only do we please Him by our thoughts and actions, we will actually have a greater impact on the world around us by the true love we share and the way in which we glorify Him in doing it. These are just a few thoughts for us to “chew on” for our spiritual growth.

The Reality of Love

 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (rf. Dt. 6:5 NASB)

Hate evil, you who love the Lord, Who preserves the souls of His godly ones;
He delivers them from the hand of the wicked. Light is sown like seed for the righteous
and gladness for the upright in heart. Be glad in the Lord, you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy name.” (rf. Ps. 97:10-12 NASB)

            Most of us have been raised with a very shallow concept of “love”. The term has been so romanticized that it is hard to separate its meaning from some level of pure emotion. For our unbelieving world, love is really nothing more than hormones ignited or animal magnetism at work (which is not surprising given their overwhelming affirmation of and belief in the theory of evolution). However, such a perspective voids the word, “love”, of the inherent richness and depth of its value. It is tantamount to expressing “light” only in terms of the amount of energy it displays. There is so much more to love than feeling alone!
            Love” in the Bible is conveyed in terms of commitment, devotion, and sacrifice. As Jesus put it, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (rf. Jn. 15:13 NASB). One does not sacrifice oneself for others on a mere whim or by means of a passing impression. There is a greater intensity and gravity at work in one’s heart to move one to an action as this. In Jesus’ case, it was both His deep affection for His sheep to save them from their sin and to fulfill the will of the Father concerning these same sheep (rf. Jn. 10:11-29). His love was, then, action borne out of a heart of commitment, devotion and sacrifice, fully setting aside Himself on behalf of the benefit of the well-being of others.
            As Jesus so loved us and, especially, His Father, so He expects us to “love” Him and His Father (rf. Jn. 5:23; 14:21). This is not simply an emotional love that He speaks of. It is a love of total commitment of one’s life, energy and priorities. This is the very essence of Deuteronomy 6:5. Everything in our being we should give to the Lord out of our devotion to Him because of who He is, not simply for what He has done for us. Our love for Him should be as His love for us—unconditional.
            When we move from the shallow, emotional-based perspective to a commitment to an action-based, sacrificial view of love, we will also begin to see evil for the ugliness it represents as a contrast to the purity of this love, as noted by the psalmist above. Like darkness is to light, so is wickedness to unconditional love—it is reprehensible and worthy of our hatred, even as it is of God’s wrath. Evil stands for everything counter to God’s holiness and righteous will. It will come to a just end in God’s economy, rest assured. It is definitely not a sin to hate evil. Indeed, God already does. However, we must be careful not to stand in God’s stead, dealing out God’s final judgment on those who, at this point, are caught up in evil’s snares (rf. Mt. 7:1-5). We must remember that, had it not been for the grace of God, we would be in the very same traps, destined to eternal damnation, relishing in our own “pleasures of sin for a season” (rf. Heb. 11:25 KJV) without a clue of how desperate our situation truly is before God! We must learn the distinction between hating evil and loving our enemies, interceding for those ensnared in the clutches of wickedness.

            Thus, to love as God loves is a more profound concept than we have probably ever realized. This is the high calling which He has given each of us as believers. We are to “love” Him and our “neighbors” (those in need who cross our paths daily, especially in the household of faith—rf. Lev. 19:18; Gal. 6:10), but with a love committed to the benefit of others, even to the sacrifice of ourselves. May the Lord grant us the grace necessary for us to make the personal changes in our understanding of our love to match His!

Starting Afresh, Starting Anew

 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You.” (rf. Ps. 51:10-13)

Starting afresh is always an exciting venture, especially when the past has not been necessarily a good experience. Each new day, turn of the seasons, and, most notably, the flipping of the calendar provides us the opportunity to reflect back on what has transpired before and how we hope things will move in a more positive direction for the future. However, as much as we may want to bring about lasting change in our own lives, if we really face the truth about ourselves, we are creatures of habit, having carved out ruts that we will default to chiefly when the pressure is on or the stresses of life begin to increase sharply. In other words, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"—"the more it changes, the more it's the same thing", usually translated as "the more things change, the more they stay the same," (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes, January 1849). Not much hope there, huh?
However, King David possessed insight that many today do not possess. He realized that the source of real change comes from without, not within. If I am to experience a fundamental transformation, it will be because the Power that created the universe will recreate me from the inside out, starting with my spirit and my heart. From there my mind and will will be renewed in such a fashion that I will no longer be the same as I was before. I will have been touched and truly changed by the hand and Presence of Almighty God.
Having then experienced Him firsthand, my life is never the same again. I now have the platform to be able to share with others the same path that I have trod. I can tell them how to gain the benefits I have obtained by seeking Him who came into my life and did what I could not do by my own efforts. My life has been thoroughly renewed by Him and now I want those around me to share in what I know to be true personally.

So, as we join with David, may we let this portion of his psalm be our prayer for every new day, every new season, indeed, every new year that comes our way. God is in the recreation business. Let us be His living displays so that others may come to know His power to become new as well.

Ode to the Christmas Tree

Ode to the Christmas Tree

And now the page has turned once again.
The calendar’s colors glisten white and gold,
Replacing Thanksgiving’s browns and amber
With December’s barrenness and cold.

Amidst the hoary and ashen landscape
Pointing straightway to the skies,
Draping green its mighty branches,
Alone this ancient cedar decries

Its praise for its own glorious Creator
Who gave it depth and richly glow.
It stands as a noble emerald arbor
Heralding shelter ‘neath its stately bow.

Yet, it bends and falls to dogged teeth
Whose bite parts trunk and earth.
Now this evergreen moves fast-bound and wounded
Unknowingly destined to an end of joy and mirth.

Where once its bristles were lovingly adorned
By glistening raindrop and snow,
Its fragrant bows are now nestled and topped
By garland, ornaments and candles’ glow.

Though bedecked in light of various hues
And draped in spheres and bells,
This mighty cedar of the forest glen still
Perseveres, its core and vital message to tell

Of the Creator to Whom it others steers
Each day and night without reservation,
Whose love was so great for the creature, man,
That He became him to make his propitiation.

As the tree unwittingly gives its life  
For a few weeks an object of holy celebration,
So the Creator’s Son voluntarily became
Mankind’s sacrifice, a gift of Divine reconciliation.

When now we stand before the tree of lights
We carefully erect in living room or hall,
Let its lights remind us of Him who illumines our hearts

And its peak point us to His love which surpasses all.

Being Thankful

“I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wonders.
I will be glad and exult in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High.”
(rf. Ps. 9:1-2)

The falling of the leaves and the colorful palette created during this harvest time of year reminds us that the holiday of Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. Quite unlike the noted event of the previous month which has no redeeming qualities to speak of with its centrality on dark and evil themes, the celebration of Thanksgiving forces us to stop and take inventory of our own blessings. For but a moment, our eyes are moved away from ourselves and on to those around us as we prepare to join with family and friends in feasting and simply enjoying the company of those we love so dear. And if we do know the Lord personally, we are given this special opportunity to give Him thanks for the many ways He has uniquely touched us and shown us His grace throughout the previous year. Indeed, we even have this “open window” to disclose to others who may not have this special relationship with God that He is the One who is the giver of all “good gifts” (rf. Mt. 7:11; Jas. 1:17).
Speaking of gifts for which we are thankful, my family and I praise the Lord for our being joined with the ministry of St. John’s. We know the Lord had this connection in mind all along. Even when He laid it on our hearts to begin preparations to leave our former ministry back in the latter months of 2015, He knew, though we did not, that He would send us here to serve you. Though we believed that our directive to resign my previous pastorate would come as early as January of this year, it did not because the Lord had yet one more mission for me and my family to carry out for Him. On February 24th, an EF-3 tornado struck the Evergreen community outside our front door, damaging or destroying almost 200 homes in a 17-mile swath of Appomattox County, with most of the destruction taking place within walking distance of our parsonage. Our church became “ground-zero” for the federal, state and local emergency governmental response teams as well as the many non-profit organizations that came to assist. We headed up the relief and recovery efforts for our area for the next three months. Only until those ministries came to a close did the Lord come to us with His clear directive that it was our time to depart.
After spending the next month packing up our belongings and saying our “goodbyes” to good friends and to a ministry cultivated over the last fifteen years, we left our stuff in storage and began a three-month pilgrimage to find the next place of service for us in God’s plan. We stayed in cottages provided by friends of ours in Virginia, giving us opportunity to seek the Lord continuously, to minister to family, and for me to supply the pulpit of other churches as needed. Not until we had physically departed from Evergreen were we initially contacted by the search committee at St. John’s. When we met with the committee for an interview, we felt the leadership of God’s Spirit bringing us together. There was no question in our hearts that this was where He was directing us to come. From then, it was just a matter of Him working out all of the details. And, thus, He has accomplished everything to bring us all to the present in making this new ministry His reality. For all of this, the Lord truly is deserving of all the praise and glory. We never could have engineered such an outcome.

As you approach your own celebration of Thanksgiving, take a few moments and look over the past year to find the things in your life for which you can give thanks and praise to God for His blessings. Admittedly, not all things for which we can be thankful are positive. Like Job, if we have the right perspective and God’s heart toward us in mind, we can join with him in saying, “The Lordgave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (rf. Job 1:21). The point is that our God is worthy to be praised at all times, not just at Thanksgiving. But the celebration of Thanksgiving is an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves and others of our need to thank Him!

A New Ministry

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (II Cor. 5:17 NASB)

            Newness: the mark of true change. I remember, some twenty-five years ago or more, when automobiles were actually low enough in cost to purchase one and drive it off the lot without believing that you had left several of one’s own appendages, children, and future generations behind with the salesman! Apart from the ever-increasing price of vehicles, there is nothing like the smell of the inside of a brand new car with the interweaving of the various scents of the components of the interior. Indeed, it is rumored that such a fragrance has been put into a spray form so that your personal mode of transportation can continue to maintain that special aroma. We have a particular appreciation for newness.
            To be new is to be different from the past. The Apostle Paul makes that clear here in the text, “the old things passed away; behold, new things have come”. This is not only true of the biblical marks of the authentic Christian life, to which he is referring specifically, but it is also indicative of a change of ministries whenever a new pastor comes on board and begins his work as God’s appointed shepherd of the flock. By nature, God will endeavor to use the new pastor in a different fashion than He did the one previously. Different does not denote better or worse. It simply means that the Lord, who is the Head of the Church, desires to lead this expression of His Church along the path of His will using a new perspective provided by this shepherd of His choosing.
            To be new, by definition, will bring changes. Paul in this passage stresses that, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature…new things have come”. In other words, the way we used to live, according to the world’s standards, following the culture’s lead, gauging our actions to the pleasure of those around us—these things are no longer to be the norm for us as Christians. Because of the reality of Jesus in our lives, we have changed and, therefore, how we are to live, act, think and behave has changed. We now are to operate by a new paradigm—the teachings of Christ, the Word of God. Thus, things we used to do without thinking because we were lost, now we should no longer do because of the potential negative impact they will have on others and because of my connection to Jesus and His kingdom. My guide for my actions is now whether or not God would truly be glorified by what I am doing since Scripture tells me in “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31 NASB). Change is implicit with such recourse.
            As it with us personally, so it is with God’s Church. In the bringing of a new pastor to lead His people, He intends to stir their hearts to greater growth and action. He does not desire us ever to become stagnant or content with our own spiritual well-being, but to constantly pursue Him toward maturity in our faith. This pursuit requires flexibility on our part and the acceptance of change as He, the master potter, continues to conform us into the image of His Son (rf. Rom. 8:29). He is simply using the new pastor and his ministry as one tool to accomplish that task (see Eph. 4:11-13).

            So, as we begin this new journey together as pastor and flock, know that your pastor has your best interests at heart. It is his desire to follow the Lord’s leadership in serving you so that the direction we go as a church will be under the guidance of His Holy Spirit and in accordance with His Word. He realizes that he will bring to the table differences from the pastors of the past simply because of who he is and how God has made him as a minister. However, no doubt together we will pursue the course God has planned for us, one that, by faith, will be, in His words, “a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11 NASB).

A Love for Misfits

…you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (rf. Lv. 19:18)
Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” (rf. Lk. 6:31)

            I have always had a soft spot in my heart for misfits, the socially-awkward, outcasts, and those who who have never quite “measured-up” to the standards of the popular, the beautiful, or the “elite” among us. It may not be politically correct to use such terminology, but, since I deal in the truth rather than the feelings or fads of the moment, I will stick with what I have written. This is not to say that in the use of the term, “misfits”, I am in any way in agreement with that contingent of present society who would have the rest of us be forcibly made to accept sinful behavior as “normal” protocol. The Lord Himself has already set the standards of right and wrong, good and evil, normal and abnormal. It behooves us to get with His program and stop trying to rewrite and redefine His creation dictates.
            No, by “misfits” I am referring to those who believe themselves to be somehow defective when compared to the accepted “norms” that culture and society has set up as for beauty, athletic prowess, strength (inner and external), intelligence, social grace and wealth. This deference of mine for those who fall into this category is partly due to my understanding of Scripture (which I will explain momentarily) and partly out of my own experience. You see, I can personally identify with those who believe themselves to be misfits, because, while growing up, I considered myself to be one. Though I possessed some athletic abilities, I was taller than my peers and far skinnier than they (I couldn’t pay to add weight, though now I don’t have that problem). I played some sports (i.e. football, baseball) in younger years, yet these same sports became out of reach for me when I hit high school. So, I turned all of my attention to the arenas of academics and drama, finding blessing in great achievements, though these were areas where misfits like me tended to congregate. We had a great deal of camaraderie because we had this tag in common.
            I share this information without regret, because I learned a great deal in the experience. Not being a part of the “in group” provided a wealth of perspective, especially after I began to understand more of the ministry of Jesus. The vast majority of the Master’s ministry was spent reaching out to just such a group of people as these, ranging from “a prostitute” (rf. Lk. 7:36-50) to the untouchables of His time, the lepers who were the classic example of outcasts (rf. Mt. 8:2-4). Jesus taught His disciples that His love extended to all kinds of folk. They were not to spend their time with the people just like them nor to concentrate their efforts on the powerful or rich who might end up doing them harm (rf. Jas. 2:1-13). In this way, if we follow the Lord’s example, we provide a true object lesson of God’s grace, disclosing that we are all, in fact, misfits in the light of His holiness, having been received into the Lord’s presence despite not being worthy to do so because of our own sinfulness.

            Therefore, as we seek to be missional in our individual and corporate Christian lives, let us keep our eyes open purposefully for those misfits in our community to whom we can reach in the love of Christ. We can never underestimate the positive effect such efforts can make in their lives nor the pleasure our Lord finds when we do so.

A Return to Holiness

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts” (rf. Is. 6:3)
…Holy is His name” (rf. Lk. 1:49)

            To be holy is to be set apart, separate, sanctified. God Himself is the perfect essence of separation in that He is sinless, having no blemish whatsoever in His righteous character. Yet out of His purity, He exhibits a love of such immense proportions as to extend to sinners, such as ourselves who deserve His wrath in the light of His holiness, the promise and gift of salvation solely upon our receiving of it. This is grace, indeed…but I digress from the point of this article.
            As followers of the Lord, the Scriptures state that we are to be reflectors of His holiness (rf. Dt. 7:6; Eph. 1:4). In our personal and public lives, we are called to be separate from the world in how we live, the things we say and do, because of our obedience to His Word and His Spirit (rf. II Cor. 6:14-18). 
            Yet, unfortunately, it is apparent how few things that professed believers in Christ actually believe to be holy or sacred (an alternative word for “holy”) today, including themselves. Most do not fear God, but treat Him as a grandfather figure or a good friend who can be counted upon in bad times, but is not necessarily required during the times of favor. Neither human life nor marriage are viewed as sacred with both subjects seen as disposable in relation to our personal wants, whims or conveniences. Even the house of God is no longer understood to be a holy place or “sanctuary” where, in times past, one tread the floors with awe, silence, and respect (and taught their children to do the same) because you were in the special place set aside for the worship of Almighty God. Now, the house of God has become just another open space, not unlike a regular theatre, auditorium or warehouse with no real significance, because the awe, respect, and concept of holiness has been thoroughly removed.
            The world needs to know this truth of holiness even if it will never appreciate it, simply because it is a reflection of God’s holiness. We as His people are responsible for displaying it to them. In order for that to happen, we must recommit ourselves to this concept and truth first. We must possess the fear, awe and respect for God in how we worship Him. We must show ourselves to be a “holy people” by a clear and defined separateness from the culture and world around us, teaching our children by word and example to do the same. We must uphold the things that God’s Word deems to be sacred or holy (i.e. the Lord’s Day, human life, marriage, our bodies, the ministerial calling, etc.), promoting them as such to others so that they will begin to understand and possess this important concept as well.

            If we make such a commitment to a return to holiness, we may yet see a renewal in the Church as God’s people begin to distinguish themselves once again as His “peculiar people” that He intends them to be. May this long-needed separation start today with each of us.

Struggling with Adversity

Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (rf. Job 2:10)

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”(rf. Rom. 8:28)

            How easy it is for us to pursue a life of comfort and bliss! Indeed, it is the very goal for which are designed, according to the teachings of our culture and society. We are to avoid pain and suffering at all costs, seeking only to drive down roads that assure us of personal victory, freedom, and absolute well-being.
            It is then no secret that we are so caught off-guard when sudden tragedy and loss takes us unawares. Most of us live within a theological construct that does not provide for God to allow (or even direct) negative things to enter our lives. Much akin to the “Health, Wealth and Prosperity Gospel” is the belief system that many professing evangelical Christians have today that affirms God as never letting anything bad to happen to His children. Should something amiss occur, according to this faith understanding, the event or episode cannot be attributed to God in any way. It must be either our fault as human beings or originate as the work of our enemy, Satan along with his minions. Yet, this is a very dangerous and unbiblical perspective for God’s people to uphold, namely, because it undermines the doctrine of God’s unswerving sovereignty over His creation, including mankind.
            The Scriptures make it clear that God is so in control over all things that, as it states, He “caus(es) well-being and creat(es) calamity;(He is) the Lord who does all these” (rf. Is. 45:7). Notice what the passage does not say. God is not the author or originator of evil. Let’s make that abundantly clear. We look at disaster and tragedy as evil because, as sinners, we tend to view anything negative as evil, even opinions opposite those of our own. However, everything that God purposes, accomplishes, or allows to occur is righteous. It cannot be otherwise because of His holy character. Therefore, the Apostle Paul is absolutely correct in Romans 8:28 when he states, “all things”, in terms of good and bad as we perceive them. Job also had this understanding, by faith, in his ability to accept both good and “adversity” at the hands of the Lord. Job knew the Lord was behind the actions taken in his life because he believed in His absolute sovereignty, yet trusted implicitly in His great love for him.

            So should we do the same. Job was undeterred in his faith, so that by the end of the book by his name, this sovereign Lord rewarded Job’s trust in God. The Apostle Paul knew the same sovereign God in the Person of Jesus Christ, believing in Him completely to provide for Paul throughout the highs and lows of his life. In their faith in this God of the Scripture, they are our examples. As we go forward with the challenges of life, may we likewise know that this God who loves us immeasurably will be with us in “all things” good and bad, as He “creates peace and…calamity”. He has promised never to leave His children even until He takes us home to be with Him forever. We can trust Him to keep His word, living in the assurance that whatever may come, He will be with us to see us through it until the end.