GUARDING PEACE WITH GIVING THANKS

Preserving Unity When Your Church Struggles

Every church experiences its ups and downs.

Ours has had its share. Most have involved me as lead pastor.

Between mega-loss and poor health, it seems I’ve spent more time out of the pulpit over the last three years than in it.

It’s awfully tough for a church to maintain momentum when the point man goes down.

Those things are largely behind me now. We’re working on rebuilding. But staying positive has its challenges.

And yet remaining thankful in all things matters so very much to a church’s peace. Paul exhorts in Phi. 2:14, Do all things without grumbling or disputing.

The church at Philippi suffered its share of disunity. Paul went so far as to call out publicly two women at odds with one another within the body (Phil. 4:2-3). Yikes, that must have hurt!

A spirit of discontent cripples the peace of any congregation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered this counsel for navigating hard times in a needy congregation:

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

How’s your thanksgiving quotient in your church? Its peace depends in part on your faithfulness in the little things.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:18).

A Holiday Reflection

Thanksgiving-Image

I woke up early this morning with First Thessalonians 5:16-18 on my mind. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I got up and did some digging in the text. Here are some thoughts that may help shape this holiday in a Godward fashion. Bottom line?  Simple. Be joyful, be prayerful, and be thankful.

These staccato exhortations by the apostle come embedded in a series of final instructions to the church at Thessalonica.  Everything therein focuses on obligations for the church in community as a whole. Even the three verbs in v. 16-18 all have second person plural “we” subjects. So while I don’t think it wrong to apply commands (imperatives all) like rejoice, pray, and give thanks to the individual, personal life of the believer, Paul stresses in the text the necessity of the church gathered putting on these gospel graces. He’s adamant about this. It is the will of God for those of us who are connected to Christ Jesus by grace through faith. Corporate worship should consistently look like a joyful, prayerful, thankful affair. Do I hear an “Amen!” from the Hebrew poet (Psalm 95:1-2)? Absolutely.

The emphasis Paul puts on the need for consistency in these practices stands out big time in the Greek text. The present tense of the verbs conveys continuous, keep-on-doing-these-things, kind of action. As if that were not enough, Paul uses adverbs like “always” and “unceasingly” and the prepositional phrase “in all things.” And he places all three modifiers before each verb to punctuate the emphasis. ALWAYS rejoice, WITHOUT CEASING pray, IN EVERYTHING give thanks.  He virtually dares us to miss the point. A gospel-shaped people gathered to worship King Jesus for who He is and all He has done should relentlessly manifest a joyful, prayerful, and thankful DNA from start to finish.

What embracing each of these graces looks like will have to wait for later posts. But one final consideration. The three intersect and overlap. Charles Spurgeon said it well:

When joy and prayer are married their first born child is gratitude. When we joy in God for what we have, and believingly Spurgeonpray to him for more, then our souls thank him both in the enjoyment of what we have, and in the prospect of what is yet to come. Those three texts are three companion pictures, representing the life of a true Christian, the central sketch is the connecting link between those on either side. These three precepts are an ornament of grace to every believer’s neck, wear them every one of you, for glory and for beauty; “Rejoice evermore;” “Pray without ceasing;” “in everything give thanks.”

When you get dressed today for your Thanksgiving celebration with whomever and wherever, make sure you put on your ornaments of grace. Wear them for glory and for beauty. And please don’t forget to do the same when Sunday rolls around and you head off to church for your Lord’s Day worship.

A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

Several years ago we had Gary Witherall of Operation Mobilization come to OGC and share his testimony of loss in the martyrdom of his wife in Beirut, Lebanon back in 2002. I received this from him earlier last week as a testimony of how the Lord may grace us to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10). I offer it as an encouragement to those whose Thanksgiving weekend knows that paradoxical blend of gratitude and grief.

I am sitting at a Starbucks on Hamra Street in West Beirut. A famous little road full of little shops, honking cars, and people making business, sitting, watching, sipping coffee and checking cell phones. It’s a little unknown area of the world. It’s a wonderful place, yet only the bad stuff makes the news, bombing, killing, rocket attacks, or some militant group showing force. It was on this piece of land that I first came in January 2001, and my life would never be the same again. On November 21st 2002 in Sidon, Bonnie’s life was brutally taken by an unknown gunman.

A few weeks ago I went with Bonnie’s parents to the grave. The first time I have returned to a place that has caused me torment. I stood there with her mother and father, quietly, in the cold looking at the ground where her body was laid. I thought for the first time, ‘ok Lord, I’m ok with this.’

When I think about you now reading this, in the deepest place of my soul, I can say, ‘Thou art worthy.’

Is it safe to follow Jesus. The answer is no. Denying self, carrying a cross, laying down your life. No, it’s not safe, that is the daily reality for many who carry the name of Christian. But we have been called to go, to declare the hope of salvation in Jesus. And I stand confident in this. So I ask believers everywhere to join me in prayer, to give and perhaps even go to these nations that are grieving from conflict, suffering and hatred. And may His Kingdom come.

Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Thank you for investing in us, and for His Kingdom, Gary Witherall

Beirut, Lebanon
November 19th 2012

RTS Chapel Message Now Available

Thanks to the good folks at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, we are able to make available the audio of my recent message from Ephesians 1:7-10 entitled The Blessing in the Son on our website.

You can listen to the audio here.

I summarized the message this way:

Unsurpassed blessing upon undeserving sinners warrants unrelenting praise. The blessing praised is our redemption. Second, the bounty paid is His blood. The benefit procured is forgiveness of our trespasses. The basis proclaimed is the riches of His grace – extravagantly dispensed, magnificently revealed, perfectly timed, and ultimately purposed grace.

So grateful to pastor in a seminary community!

ABLE for the Journey from Bitter to Blessed

On Sunday toward the close of my Mother’s Day message, I inserted an acrostic using the word ABLE to help crystallize four practical application principles for making the journey from a place of resentment in our spiritual lives to one of true blessed contentment. Naomi (means pleasant or sweet) suffered so greatly from a battle with bitterness over all the hard providences of  Ruth chapter one that she requested a name change to Mara (means bitter) in keeping with her frame of mind. A root of bitterness springing up does cause trouble (Heb. 12:15).

I went over it fairly fast due to the time. Also, it wasn’t in the notes as I only came up with the idea early that morning. I thought I would review it here in the blog in case someone might have missed some or all of it.

A – admit your struggle. There is something of Mara/Naomi in all of us. This was a godly woman. She struggled as we all do. I personally find this encouraging. The Lord loved her enough to bring her through it graciously over time. It doesn’t do any good to deny feelings of resentment. Rather than run from the Lord, take those feelings to the Lord for His help.

B – believe the truth. Begin with the truth of the gospel. I love J. D. Greear’s gospel prayer that he unpacks in his book on the gospel. The first point goes like this: In Christ, there is nothing I could do to make You love me more; nothing I have done that makes You love me less. That last phrase is particularly applicable. Satan loves to accuse us when ingratitude and other sins take hold. When he does we must cling to the gospel and remember that our standing with God in Christ is not about our performance; it’s about His provision. We have become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).

Beyond that, believe the truth of exceedingly great and precious promises of God’s word that reveal His continual plotting for His glory and our good in every circumstance, even the difficult ones. Romans 8:31 stands out among them. If God is for us, who can be against us? Psalm 118:6 is a good one to wage the fight for joy against unbelief and resentment as well: The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.

L – look for the sweet providences a midst the hard. I spent a good bit of the message demonstrating how Naomi’s bitterness blinded her to all the good things God was doing even in the midst of her struggles. Calling herself empty when she had such a treasure in the partnership of Ruth was only one but perhaps the most obvious. Ask the Lord to help your eyes to be open to signs of His goodness that you might not be noticing, like perhaps a good friend sticking with you through your trial. I failed to mention this on Sunday but one way to help cultivate that discipline is to write your thoughts down in a journal. That can tend to focus concentration on things in a marvelous way.

E – engage in thanksgiving. There is no room for bitterness in a thankful heart. If you practice the art of giving thanks for the many providence of your life, it tends to keep resentment at bay. And when you can’t find even one, as a believer you can always give thanks for the gospel and the fact that God has made you part of His greater story of redemption and that, in the words of John Piper, your life and mine in Him is not given over to trifles.

His words were on this matter were so good, I will quote them once more here:

The book of Ruth wants to teach us that God’s purpose for the life of his people is to connect us to something far greater than ourselves. God wants us to know that when we follow him, our lives always mean more than we think they do. For the Christian there is always a connection between the ordinary events of life and the stupendous work of God in history. Everything we do in obedience to God, no matter how small, is significant. It is part of a cosmic mosaic which God is painting to display the greatness of his power and wisdom to the world and to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10). The deep satisfaction of the Christian life is that it is not given over to trifles. Serving a widowed mother-in-law, gleaning in a field, falling in love, having a baby—for the Christian these things are all connected to eternity. They are part of something so much bigger than they seem.

Are you able to make the journey from bitter to blessed? Neither am I. But He is.

Give Thanks… For CONFLICT???

Got this from Peacemakers last week. Meant to post it last week but things got away from me. It’s such good stuff I decided to post it this week. Not your average Thanksgiving fare.

As usual, Paul [in Philippians 4:2-9] urges us to be God-centered in our approach to conflict. Moreover, he wants us to be joyfully God-centered. Realizing we may skip over this point, Paul repeats it: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” What on earth is there to rejoice about when you are involved in a dispute? If you open your eyes and think about God’s lavish goodness to you, here is the kind of worship you could offer to him, even in the midst of the worst conflict!

O Lord, you are so amazingly good to me! You sent your only Son to die for my sins, including those I have committed in this conflict. Because of Jesus I am forgiven, and my name is written in the Book of Life! You do not treat me as I deserve, but you are patient, kind, gentle, and forgiving with me. Please help me to do the same to others.

In your great mercy, you are also kind to my opponent. Although he has wronged me repeatedly, you hold out your forgiveness to him as you do to me. Even if he and I never reconcile in this life, which I still hope we will, you have already done the work to reconcile us forever in heaven. This conflict is so insignificant compared to the wonderful hope we have in you!

This conflict is so small compared to the many other things you are watching over at this moment, yet you still want to walk beside me as I seek to resolve it. Why would you stoop down to pay such attention to me? It is too wonderful for me to understand. You are extravagant in your gifts to me. You offer me the comfort of your Spirit, the wisdom of your Word, and the support of your church. Forgive me for neglecting these powerful treasures until now, and help me to use them to please and honor you.

I rejoice that these same resources are available to my opponent. Please enable us to draw on them together so that we see our own sins, remember the gospel, find common ground in the light of your truth, come to one mind with you and each other, and restore peace and unity between us.

Finally, Lord, I rejoice that this conflict has not happened by accident. You are sovereign and good, so I know that you are working through this situation for your glory and my good. No matter what my opponent does, you are working to conform me to the likeness of your Son. Please help me cooperate with you in every possible way and give you glory for what you have done and are doing.

Taken from The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict
by Ken Sande, Updated Edition (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2003) p. 84-85

To subscribe to this free publication called Peacemeal click here.

Thanksgiving Sharing Service

The sharing of many of our people in our thanksgiving service for their gratitude to God in easy and hard providences alike this year is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

As was copied in our bulletin this morning, here is the Puritan Valley of Vision prayer for praise and thanksgiving:

O MY GOD,
Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,
my heart admires, adores, loves thee,
for my little vessel is as full as it can be,
and I would pour out all that fullness before thee in ceaseless flow.

When I think upon and converse with thee
ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,
ten thousand sources of pleasure are unseal,
ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,
crowding into every moment of happiness.

I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,
for adorning it, sanctifying it, though it is fixed in barren soil;
for the body thou hast given me,
for preserving its strength and vigour,
for providing sense to enjoy delights,
for the ease and freedom of my limbs,
for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;
for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,
for a full table and overflowing cup,
for appetite, taste, sweetness,
for social joys of relatives and friends,
for ability to serve others,
for a heart that feels sorrow and necessities,
for a mind to care for my fellow-men,
for opportunities of spreading happiness around,
for loved ones in the joys of heaven,
for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.

I love thee above the powers of language to express,
for what thou are to thy creatures.

Increase my love, O my God, through time and eternity.

May God grant us grace to give praise and thanks of similar substance this Thursday and every day.

Giving Thanks – Not Optional

Our confession of faith makes it clear. The giving of thanks comprises an essential component of true worship. Under the heading of Religious Worship, and the Lord’s Day paragraph 3 begins, God requires all men to pray to Him, and to give thanks, this being one part of natural worship.

Psalm 65:2 states Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion. Psalm 95:1-2 commands Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! Psalm 118 starts Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

Jesus modeled thanksgiving in his prayers. I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth; that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will (Matt. 11:25-26). Paul directed prayer as a first priority for the worshiping church and included thanksgiving as part of its character. First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people (1 Tim. 2:1). Indeed, the filling of the Spirit manifests itself in our lives by a relentless penchant for giving thanks (Eph. 5:18-20).

If I pause to consider, it amazes me just how much I have to thank God for as another Thanksgiving holiday comes around. So great a salvation. Relative sanctification (I have so far to go!). The Spirit’s voice. The precious word of God. Length of days. A loving, forbearing (if you only knew) wife. Kids, grand kids, and extended family. Shelter and provision in abundance. Ministry opportunities galore. Faithful friends. Keeping providence. Grace that abounds in the face of my sin. The covenant community at OGC. Making friends for eternity among the Digo and other people groups. Great co-workers. I could go on and on!

As this Thursday approaches and our country heeds the call of our forefathers to give thanks, how do you find your gratitude quotient? Perhaps you might make a list like the one above, recounting the many ways in which God has blessed you. Maybe you could include a sharing time around your table on Thursday as to why you are thankful. How about writing a friend and let him/her know why you are grateful. Be sure to include a note in the note about your gratitude for that friend! That will be a great encouragement. If you need help with this, you might want to read Scotty Smith’s post concerning prayer about being a gratitude-geyser.

It is not optional for the Christian, this discipline of thanksgiving. But if we give it some thought, we will find that it doesn’t take much to get the gratitude juices going. God has given us so much. If you don’t think so, just read Ephesians 1:3. If that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what will.

Big Day Tomorrow at OGC

The Lord’s Day tomorrow brings us a number of significant opportunities for gathering together as God’s people.

We begin at 8:30 AM with corporate prayer for those who can participate. As it is the last Sunday of the month, a group of us will gather for prayer on the property where we intend to build. Another group will pray in the SDA annex as usual, for those for whom  the prospect of the heat and other environmental conditions on the property seem too uncomfortable.

At 9:30 AM we have our midyear congregational meeting in the SDA sanctuary. We will begin with a building program report, followed by financial and ministry updates, and finishing with an Ask-the-Elders-Anything session. Members and regular attendees alike are welcome to join us for that meeting.

At 10:45 AM comes our regular service of worship. I hope to conclude the sixth in a series of messages from John 10:1-21 in the Good Shepherd discourse.

At 6:00 PM we will gather for a special service of thanksgiving to celebrate the 5th year anniversary this month of my being cancer-free. Dr. William Grow, my medical oncologist, will share his testimony. Pastor Danny Jones of Metro Life Church, himself an over ten year tongue cancer survivor will preach. We will also have a time of open sharing by the members of the congregation remembering how God worked in 2005. Pastor John Christiansen of Orlando Community Church, in many ways a pastor to me throughout my treatment, will close the celebration by leading in a prayer of thanksgiving. A reception in the fellowship hall will follow the service. Remember to bring your finger food to share! Beverages will be provided.

Would you please pray with me that God moves in a powerful way in our midst tomorrow?

I am immeasurably grateful for length of days and the continuing privilege of serving in your midst as pastor-teacher!

"I Can't Find Anything Wrong with You"

Sweeter words a man has rarely heard.

They came from the lips of my ENT on Wednesday.

He spoke them after doing the upteenth exam on my mouth, tongue, and neck over the last five years, looking yet again for any evidences of cancer.

The verdict? I can’t find anything wrong with you. Good thing he wasn’t doing an exam on my sinful heart!

And so I graduate. I will miss the good doctor, but not the exams. He conveyed upon me the degree, Master of Life. Best one of the four I have ever gotten.

No need to see him or the radiation oncologist any more. Only my medical oncologist remains to sign off on the “cured” designation for my five year battle against head and neck cancer before the lot falls to my dentist alone to stand guard against another invasion of renegade cells.

Cool. Five years is a long time. I’ve dreamed of August 2010 many times. That God allowed me to make it and that we will celebrate that gift on the 29th at 6 PM at the SDA sanctuary AND that doc said he would come (please pray that he does) all have made for a very good month for me. I am grateful. Extremely grateful.

The poet, himself the beneficiary of his own miraculous deliverance from death, asked in Psalm 116:12, What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?

The answer comes in vv. 13-14.

13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.

Oh, Lord God, make me faithful to do the same. Faithful to do the same.