Falling Away: A Before and After Picture

In this sermon, we look at the reasons behind King Saul’s “lifeslide.” We then consider what we can do to follow a different path.

Approximately 25 min.
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Don’t Overlook The Importance of Desire in the Spiritual Life

Desire plays a critical and often overlooked role in life, including the spiritual life. Desire forges a person’s future and chooses the path they follow. Humans cannot live without desire. Were a drug to be disseminated in our atmosphere that deprived humans of desire, the race would perish from failure to propagate. Of course, it would die from starvation before that.

Desire is a good, albeit dangerous, gift. It has, as the philosopher Dallas Willard once said, “the tendency to take over one’s life.” When desire takes over, a person’s mind is reassigned from its other tasks and its resources are allocated to finding means of gratification. That person has been sold – or has sold themselves; they hold the bill of sale – into slavery.

The Bible regards desire as a critical feature of life. It moves us and is, as such, indispensable. Desire can, however, move us into a dead end. People can become so dominated by their desires that they lose the capacity to appreciate other good things in life. The desire that enslaves them demands more frequent gratification and in increasing measure. This is the life of addiction.

In his famous Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul pictures himself ambushed by desire and in the unenviable position of doing what he hates and not doing what he wants. Those caught in this situation habitually think about “how to gratify” their desires (Paul’s words). They find that they cannot help but “obey its desires” (again, Paul’s words).

What then is the solution? People cannot live without desire; that is impossible. People must not be enslaved by desire; that seems unavoidable. We all have desires that are not good for us and lack ones that are. Since desire is not the kind of thing that can be turned on an off with the flip of a psychological switch, how can we develop desires that are good for us and lose desires that are not?

It may help to think of desires as layered. Deep-level desires are shared by all people, whatever their race, sex, or nationality. (These are the desires that made their way onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid.) They are part of what it means to be human.

God also gives distinctive desires that are peculiar to the individual. Each of us has a “desire fingerprint” that is uniquely his or her own. Such desires are an important part of what makes people interesting and enjoyable to be around.

There are still other desires that are mediated to us by the people who surround us. Who we spend time with has more to do with what we desire than we may realize. Would anyone desire coffee and cigars had they not been first introduced to them by someone who already had that desire?

I developed a desire for coffee while I was in college. All these years later, I genuinely desire it, and that desire influences my behavior. I did not develop a desire for cigars back then, though I tried a couple. Had I hung around with my cigar smoking friends, I might now crave a good cigar. As it is, I cannot even imagine a good cigar.

Good desires cannot simply be enabled, nor bad ones simply disabled. Desire does not work that way. What we can do is spend time with those whose lives we admire and whose desires continually reinforce the quality character they have developed.

If hanging out with others influences the development of our desires, who better to hang out with than God? The church has encouraged this practice, which not only informs our thoughts but also shapes our desires. Various traditions offer different models for what hanging out with God looks like, but all recommend prayer, the reading and study of Scripture, along with meditation, and gathering for corporate worship.

The apex of this life with God is summed up in the phrase, “pray without ceasing.” Those who learn to do this can work, play, eat, relax, tinker, and even suffer in company with God. They discover that the psalmist was right: God really does give those who delight in him the desires of their hearts.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Will Give You the Desires of Whose Heart?

To what degree, I wonder, are our desires shaped by other people’s desires? How many things do we need because other people have them? How have our tastes been shaped or even reshaped by the tastes of others? People eat things, drink things, and smoke things their taste buds once told them were disgusting because other people, who seemed to be in the know, did.

Have you ever watched the birds in autumn all take off – hundreds of them – at the same time and in the same flight path? Scientists say they are so attuned to each other’s movements that their acts are governed by the flock. People are like that too.

In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Leeds, groups of people were instructed to walk aimlessly around a large hall, without conversing with one another. However, the researchers secretly gave a small number of people precise instructions on where they should walk. The result: no matter how large or small the group, it wasn’t long before everyone was following the path of the handful of people who seemed to be in the know.

One researcher put it this way: “The research suggests that humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals.” They discovered it takes only 5 percent of “informed individuals” to influence the direction of a crowd of up to two hundred people. The rest follow along without any idea that they are being influenced.[1]

We need to be careful or our natural human desire to be like everyone else does will prevent us from being ourselves! God never intended for his people to be like everyone else, to desire what they desire, and do what they do. He intends for them to be influencers, not merely influenced.

It is worth pausing to consider whether our desires are manufactured by the people around us. God promises to give us the desires of our heart not the desires of other people’s heart. Since our desires clear the path to our future, this is tremendously important. Our desires will only lead us into our best future when we are delighting ourselves in the Lord (Ps. 37:4). If we are not delighting ourselves in the Lord, it will be culture, not God, that gives us the desires of our hearts.

(Excerpted from the sermon, We Want What We Want It and We Want it Right Now. The entire sermon will be available for viewing later this week.)

[1] Martin Lindstrom, Brandwashed (Crown Business, 2011), p. 104-108

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It Is Time for an Insurrection

(Excerpt from: We Want What We Want and We Want It Right Now)

An unwillingness to wait, the tendency to force our way, is symptomatic of a trust problem. Isaiah 28:16 says, “Whoever believes will not act hastily.” The elders of Israel acted hastily because they were not believing. They had a trust problem.

We will always have a trust problem when we allow fear to boss us around. If fear dictates our actions, then fear – not Jesus – is our Lord. If we were honest, some of us would have to admit that in our hearts we have set apart fear as Lord and have been living in obedience to its word.

Jesus’s people must stubbornly refuse to be ruled by fear. But what if we are already ruled by fear? Then it is time for an insurrection. There must be an uprising; that is, we must rise up and listen to what God is saying and refuse to listen to our fears. It’s time to disobey our fears.

The elders of Israel obeyed their fears, not their God. And the result was that they were saddled with a king who was not qualified to lead, and whose competency decreased with age, rather than increased. Israel was thrown into an unnecessary civil war that lasted for years. People died. Families were divided. Misery was pervasive and God’s name was dishonored. And it probably took longer for them to get the good thing God had for them. Sometimes saying, “Now!” to God is as harmful as saying, “No!” to God.[1]

We get in trouble when we allow ourselves to get flummoxed and act out of emotion. The controversial University of Chicago philosophy professor Mortimer Adler was once part of a discussion group and the conversation was not going well. Opinions were expressed with which he disagreed. Things got heated, Adler got upset, left the room, and slammed the door behind him.

Trying to ease the tension, someone said, “Well, he’s gone.” But the host said, “No, he’s not. That’s a closet!”

When instead of waiting to listen and understand, we go rushing forward in an emotional welter, we’re liable to end up closeted from God and from our future. Israel did and the result was heartache and delay.

(This entire sermon will be posted for viewing later in the week.)

[1] Bill T Arnold, NIV Application Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel. p.154

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The Church: Deconstructing or Deteriorating?

Today, many Christians, especially those under 40, are asking tough questions about the faith. They are questioning assumptions taught by, or caught from, their parents. This is particularly true of assumptions regarding sexuality and racial justice. The process is known as “deconstruction,” a term borrowed from the philosopher Jacques Derrida and applied to the faith by the theologian John Caputo.

Beliefs about sexuality and race are not the only ones being deconstructed. So are beliefs about the church. Do people need to go to church? The answer is no—for people who are not Christians. For Christians, the answer is more complicated.

Most self-identified born-again Christians who do not attend church have not concluded, based on theological reflection, that church is unnecessary. They are not deconstructing; they are merely deteriorating. Their reasons for not participating in corporate worship are frequently individualist and consumerist: they don’t get enough out of it to make it worthwhile.

The idea that the value of corporate worship can be gauged with a consumerist scale should itself be deconstructed. It is not the result of theological reflection or “the mind of the Spirit,” but the result of American individualism and the spirit of commercialism. The Bible tells a different story.

The theologian and biblical scholar Scot McKnight has written: “There must be thousands of verses [in the Bible] for community to every one verse about the afterlife … From the book of Acts through the end of the book of Revelation the gospel is the work of God to form community.”

“Community” is a buzzword, or maybe a fuzzword, among Christians today. Everyone is talking about and looking for community, but many are looking outside the church, which they consider hidebound and irrelevant. Yet the church is Jesus’s community. There are no substitutes.

McKnight notes that “The apostle Paul traveled the Mediterranean founding churches, and he wrote to churches and organized churches, and Peter and John did the same.” The individualistic spirituality of our time knows no parallel in biblical literature. As McKnight says, “There is a lot of churchiness about the New Testament.”

That is not to say that the church, either in biblical times or in our own, is without its problems. The church is full of problems precisely because it is full of people, broken people, like you and me. But the restoration of broken people into the image of God and into a community of restored people – or, rather, a community of people who are being restored – is God’s work. It is called the church.

There is much more to the church than “attending services.” The consumerist mindset that views the local church as an entertainment venue that happens to be open on Sunday mornings makes an authentic experience of church life all but impossible. Church is not a spectator sport, or a concert, or a religious TED talk. A meaningful experience of the church requires participation in a community.

Such participation involves both what one receives and what one gives. The apostles taught that God has provided each church member with a capacity to contribute to the welfare of all the rest. The Bible calls this capacity a spiritual gift.

Further, participation in the church means serving, caring for, and helping other people. The old word for this is “ministry.” In the church, every person is a minister.

Because everyone in the church is a broken-but-being-restored image of the Creator, participation requires patience. The apostolic letters to the churches are straightforward about this: “Put up with one another. Forgive one another.”

It is through serving each other, putting up with each other, contributing to each other that the church becomes a fellowship of holy love, a community that embraces one another even in life’s messiest moments. That embrace enables a process of a transformation to take place both on an individual and a corporate level.

This transformation doesn’t happen to consumerist churchgoers but to participants. It doesn’t happen while attending church as much as while being the church. It happens to people who embrace each other because they have embraced Jesus and the life – the transforming life – he offers.

(First published by Gannett.)

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“I Have Sinned”: A Study in Repentance

Viewing Time: 26.34
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When Faith Is Hardest (It’s Not When You Think)

America has begun what will likely be a decade’s long competition for international supremacy with China—a competition some western analysts do not see America winning. Relations with Russia are more tense than they have been since the end of the Cold War. Iran has just elected a hardline president who is already subject to U.S. penalties for human rights abuses. Hopes for a renewed nuclear deal are fading.

At home, the U.S. faces new economic pressures. While a post-Covid jump in inflation was anticipated, it has leaped higher than experts expected, with a 5 percent consumer price increase in May. The increase in used cars and trucks hit a shocking 7.3 percent over the same period. Food prices have risen more than they have for more than a decade.

Add to all that a deeply divided Congress and the deeply divided country it represents. If the House swings to the right in the mid-term election, one can expect a legislative stalemate in Washington. Congress has had difficulty getting anything done even when one side controls both the executive and legislative branches, as it does now.

It is a stressful time in America, which means it is a good time for a spiritual awakening—a fresh and (sometimes collective) awareness of the reality of the spiritual world. People do not wake up to new possibilities when they are comfortable but when they are shaken. America is being shaken.

What is collectively true is also individually true. Spiritual awakenings come to people, not just churches and communities. In fact, they start with individuals and spread outward from there. And they usually start during times of discontent and discomfort.

Dissatisfied people look for alternatives. Happy people do not. People who like the show don’t change the channel. It’s the people who dislike the actor and are bored by the plot who look for something better.

Likewise, it is not the happy person but the unhappy one who is open to change. I’ve met many people who turned in God’s direction because they were uncomfortable. For some, it was because of illness, for others it was relational conflict, and for a few it was because even success proved unsatisfying. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who awakened spiritually because they were comfortable.

People have told me that life is so painful and unfair, there cannot be a God. But no one has ever said to me: “Life is so easy and painless, there must be a God.” Life’s hardships, not its comforts, turn people from God; and life’s hardships turn people to him.

Even people who have turned to God, who attend worship services regularly, pray, and support the church financially, find it difficult to trust God when hard times come. The ironic thing is: they find it even harder to trust God when everything is going well. When things are going well, few people feel the need to trust.

Difficulty and uncertainty are precisely what faith needs to grow. I recently spoke to someone whose life has been especially difficult for the past few months. There have been health issues, employment issues, and financial uncertainty. He is finding it exceedingly difficult to entrust himself and his situation to God.

I wanted to tell him: “If you won’t trust God now, when things are hard, you certainly won’t trust him later, when things are easy.” When things are easy, he’ll be thinking about projects and promotions, home improvements, and a better vehicle. That is the way we operate. It’s now or never.

This has been the consistent testimony of people of faith throughout the ages. It has certainly been my story. I came to faith around the time my brother died. Over the years, uncertainty and hardship have caused me to seek God, not abandon him. Faith has sent its roots deep during times of privation, not times of plenty.

No one likes it, but we need times of strain and toil. Those who learn to trust during the bad times are able to trust during better times. They may be the only ones.

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Don’t Give Your Kids a God-on-the-Box

Don’t give your children a God-in-the-Box.

When our kids were small, we had a Jack-in-the-Box. We would turn the crank, the melody would play on and on until, suddenly, the jester popped out of the box. Our kids wanted us to turn the crank again and again, and it always surprised. But then they turned three, and Jack was no longer interesting. They outgrew him.

If you give your kids a God-in-the-Box, the same thing will happen. What is a God-in-the-Box like? He is powerless. If you don’t turn the crank, he doesn’t do anything. He’s safe to ignore. You can go weeks, months – years, even – without paying any attention to him but, should you want him, you can turn the crank and he will do your bidding.

Whenever parents treat God that way – ignore him for a while and only get back to him when he fits into their schedule – they are giving their children a God-in-the-Box. If those kids don’t discard him altogether when they’re grown, it will be because of nostalgia, not faith.

A God-in-the-Box can be controlled. When you need him, you just say the right prayers, give a decent amount of money, go to church, and wait for him to pop up. You just have to turn the crank the right number of times.

A God-in-the-Box is smaller than us. We can comprehend him. But the real God awes. He is unpredictable. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [his] ways higher than [our] ways and [his] thoughts than [our] thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Even his love is beyond anything we can imagine. Who among us would ever have predicted that the God who refused to be put in a box would allow himself to be nailed to a cross?

A God-in-the-Box gets called up to serve our cause. The true God calls us up to serve his. In America today, we see the God-in-the-Box conscripted for many causes – and some of them good … But God is not a pawn…; he is king. He will not be used even in support of a just cause.

(This is an excerpt from the sermon, God-in-the-Box. To see the entire sermon, click here.)

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Listening Time: Approximately 24 minutes.
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The Lesson My Dad Taught Me

My dad was a tough guy. He served as a Marine in the 1940s. He married while he was still in the Corps and was divorced not long after. I know almost nothing of his first marriage and only learned about it as an adult. He married my mother in 1953 and they had two sons: my older brother Kevin and me.

My dad was not an easy person to live with. When he was drinking – and he did a lot of drinking when I was young – it was best to keep your distance. I would not say that he was abusive, but he was angry. He could be verbally spiteful, especially to my mother.

He stopped drinking in the mid-sixties. Again, I never learned the whole story but there was a night when there was a run-in with other tough guys in the neighborhood and the police were called. I don’t know what my mother said to him that night, but he stopped drinking and, shortly thereafter, quit hanging out with his drinking buddies.

A year or so after that, my older brother was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I can only think that my dad was resentful: here he was trying to straighten up and be a good dad, and this happened. My brother went through chemotherapy, many hospitalizations and blood transfusions, but his condition slowly deteriorated.

My family didn’t attend church, except once or twice at Easter to make my grandmother happy. But now, with disaster looming, my dad accepted an invitation to attend the local church. I suspect my parents, having tried everything else, thought they would give God a shot. It was a bargain of sorts: we’ll give you your due if you will spare our son.

That bargain did not work out as they hoped. My brother died. But the church took us in and on an April day in 1968, my dad professed faith in Jesus Christ.

I too confessed Christ and began to change. But the change that had begun in my dad seemed to stall out as time went on. He carried a big chip on his shoulder and lots of anger in his heart.

When hospital bills strained family finances, my mother had to go to work. Dad’s church attendance became erratic. He hit a low point and went out and got drunk. My esteem for my dad also hit a low point. By the time I left for college, the two of us were not getting along well.

I went on to get married and have kids and we frequently made the 70 mile trip home to visit. I couldn’t help but notice that my dad had mellowed. He was a gentle and loving grandpa, though the short-tempered husband continued to make appearances.

Over the next few years, the change in my dad became more apparent. I sometimes whispered to my wife, “Who is this man?” He was more attentive to my mother and more affectionate with all of us. By the early nineties, I was asking his opinion about decisions I needed to make, something I had not done since I was a child.

When he died, I officiated his funeral, per his request. In preparation, I looked through his Bible to see if he had highlighted anything, for I would often find him sitting at the kitchen table early in the morning, a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, reading his Bible. He had marked many passages that spoke to him.

I saw with a sudden clarity what I had been blind to earlier. There was a correlation between the changes we had witnessed – the gentleness and kindness to my mother, the generosity he displayed toward others, his choice not to retaliate when wronged – and the scriptures he had highlighted. The spiritual life that had begun in him years earlier had blossomed and was bearing sweet fruit.

The final and, perhaps, most enduring lesson my dad taught me was that God can change anyone, even him. Even me. That lesson has proved invaluable, and I am especially grateful to have learned it from him.

(First published by Gannett.)

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