Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Born Again 4: He Rewards Those Who Earnestly Seek Him

Previous:  Born Again 3:  I'm Just an Emotional Wreck!

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Sharon's emotional letter had come at the end of the day.  She had such a way of opening so many doors at once that I felt overwhelmed. How on earth could I compose a response in the few minutes I had? Yet here she was laying her soul bare, and I could neither leave her hanging nor dismiss her with a curt reply.

She was doing all the hard work, making my calling comparatively simple: keep up! But I needed more time!
I regret that I don't have more time right now to spend writing you ... I have to go pick up my kids from piano and I'm still in DC (50 miles from home). So once again, I can only promise that I will sit down and construct a worthy reply to your very open and honest letter.
To stop here would be the very definition of "curt".  I pressed on.  It seemed important to recognize all that Sharon had opened up to thus far. It was truly an extraordinary display of transparency. She needed and deserved acknowledgement for her courage. But now it was time to overcome my natural caution (or, less charitably, my natural cowardice) and get down to brass tacks. 

Was she in need of salvation, or merely assurance?  I couldn't be sure, but based on her candor I no longer feared giving offence, so I assumed the former and moved ahead:
For now, please allow me to remind you of something: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6) The great thing about following Christ is that the journey begins from where you are. That's why Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8)

Don't worry about the past, or where you've been, or how "lost" you are. Everything is in front of you:

"But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ--yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:7-14)

That, my dear friend, is where true peace lies. Ask, seek, knock. You will find Him there ready to receive you with open arms.
I pressed the "Send" button with a wave of gratitude tarnished only by a hint of doubt.  The gratitude sprung from my sense of great privilege at being chosen for this sacred charge, a moment toward which I'd truly done so little to contribute--indeed, perhaps not a little to impede many years ago.  The doubt came from my inner pessimist.  Sharon was reaching the threshhold of eternity.  When she at last arrived and counted the cost, would she pull back?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What if God Hates our Worship? (Reprise)

"Get Your Praise On?"  What does this mean exactly?
As we prepare ourselves for worship today, Mrs Jailer dug up one of my older posts, in which I asked the question, "What if our worship works great for us, but God hates it, because when he scratches down below the surface, he recognizes it's all about us?"  She then drew my attention to some comments by a reader identified only as "Ian". She really appreciated some of his comments, which I will highlight below.
One of my greatest concerns for the church today is the way we shout nonsense to a loud and rhythmic tune.
Personally, I'd be elated to come into a church service where we worshipped by being still and knowing that He is God.

Don't get me wrong: I love my church--this is a problem in every church that I have been part of over 20 years. When the Spirit isn't moving, let's turn up the volume!! 
Subsequently he replied to another reader and moved in a more positive direction ...
I have to qualify my statements there Keith, because I was in "blunt mode" when I wrote that. One of the great contributions that the church has given to the world is the gift of music and arts. Few people know that system of musical composure was developed by a Christian monk, as a means of incorporating all of the vocal and instrumental pieces he wanted to create. Without this, written music and orchestration as we know it today could not be possible.

Poetry and music are integral to the Bible, from the earliest writings. But, I think that [Jailer's] point is well taken that God may be bored and offended by the way that we have made music the center piece of worship. Most churches (mine included) have put a band or choir up front, to perform for us in an audience; which is completely wrong. Worship is about us performing for God - an audience of one.

This was made very poignantly for me at a funeral I attended some years ago in a more traditional-liturgical church. At the benediction, we were to sing a hymn and I was completely rocked to my core with worship when the choir--above and unseen behind me--led into the hymn. I felt like heaven itself was joining with me to worship God. Rather than being a distraction, as most singers on the platform can be, it was a boon to my own sense of worship to God--who was my audience.
If every Sunday congregant could learn to consider the quality of his or her worship in such a substantial way, many of our stylistic concerns would fade gently into the background.

P.S. - If you're waiting for the next installment in the "Born Again" series, it's coming. This is just a Sunday interlude. :)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Born Again 3: I'm Just an Emotional Wreck!

Previous:  Born Again 2:  Assurance and the Quest for Inner Peace

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I mentioned at the beginning of my last post that I was nervous about how Sharon would reply to my previous e-mail, but perhaps not as much as might have been.  In truth, I had hedged my bets a little.  Frankly, I didn't know exactly where to place Sharon.  Was she a bona fide believer?  Did she think she was?  Not wanting to assume too much, I was walking carefully while trying to move the discussion gently toward the core of the issue.

I needn't have worried.  While I was watching my steps, Sharon was more than ready to move this discussion to the next level:
Thank you very much for your reply. I have been reading it over and over since I arrived at work this morning. I appreciate you taking the time to write something that is indeed moving and encouraging. I have caught this nasty cold over the weekend and my eyes are burning right now and look bloodshot red. It serves as great camouflage to the real tears that keep coming because I'm just an emotional wreck!

Anyway, it's amazing how ONE SENTENCE can answer a life long question. You said in your reply:
“Sharon, I have come to understand over the years that what we all seek is assurance of our salvation and our relationship to God. That assurance comes as we follow Him. If we're not following Him closely, then we shouldn't feel assured, because our insecurity alerts us to the danger of not following Him.”
I have always enjoyed writing in my journals ever since I learned how to write ... in English, I mean :). It's a great escape. When there's no pillow to yell in to or a door to slam, I at least know that I have my journals. In all that I have written in the past, and in the present, there is always an underlying message and it is more apparent now that I'm older. I'm always questioning why I am so "obsessed with death and dying". Yes there was a time in my life that I would have rather been dead than alive, but I don’t feel that way anymore. Actually, my daughter “keeps me alive”. I’d really like to see her graduate from High School, at least :) . I try to embrace my life daily and enjoy it as much as I can because deep down inside, I feel that I’m going to die soon, and that scares me. I think I know now why I feel very scared of dying: I have not been a true follower of God; that I have never really made continued effort to seek. That kind of makes me sad and encouraged at the same time. Sad because it is the truth and encouraged because at least I know now what I need to do.

Thanks for your words of wisdom. At least now I know that I’m more welcoming of it. I just remember when I was younger, I pushed away anyone who tried to be a witness to me. Not ready then, I guess. I’m happy that at least I got to live long enough and am given the chance to understand it better now.

I can talk forever but I will end it here. Like you, work gets in the way of more important things. :) I’ll talk to you again soon. For now, keep safe.
Wow.  Could it be ...?  By this point I was getting pretty emotional myself.

Next:  Born Again 4:  He Rewards Those who Earnestly Seek Him

Monday, May 23, 2011

Born Again 2: Assurance and the Quest for Inner Peace

Previous:  Born Again 1:  A Letter from Sharon
Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works

I wasn't able to answer Sharon's initial e-mail instantly, and I told her so.  I felt both blessed with a precious gift and entrusted with a tremendous responsibility.  So it was with a certain amount of fear and trembling that I began to compose my reply:
I'm going to try to take your letter in little bites, because my time during the week is so limited. I'd like to start with the part of your letter that most touched my heart, where you said this:

"I have gone through life wanting and needing more when it comes to my relationship with God. I get so choked up even as I write this because I know there is a need and I don't know how to fill it. I have always believed that it was enough just to be born and raised in a religious home, but then I meet people like you who remind me that I must be more proactive in my quest for inner peace. I will admit it, that I am one of those you call 'half-Christians'."
First, thank you for your honesty. I feel privileged that you shared this with me, and I hope I am able to be helpful. Moreover, please don't think you're "bothering" me with this. Being able to share about this brings me joy, especially if it will encourage your heart.

A quarter century of life has made me a little more thoughtful, and (I hope) less judgmental. I am told that I could be fairly harsh in my judgments as a young man, and I don't doubt that to be true. I guess "half-Christians" was a term I once used, though I don't remember it. I don't think I would use that term today. In the end, the Bible is pretty clear that ultimately we are all either followers of Jesus (Christians) or we are not. I know that I am a follower, though in a weird way I actually get less impressed by the quality of my spiritual life the longer I follow Him. I suppose that's because the closer I get to Christ, the more I realize how poor a reflection of Him I really am. Still, with all my warts and faults, I do indeed desire to know Him more, and that assures me that I am His child.

So I suppose that's it ... a Christian is someone who grows in his or her love for (and therefore obedience to) Christ. Not perfectly, of course, or necessarily quickly ... but over time definitely. God clearly tells us that certain things are essential to a growing Christian:

1. The Spirit of God - ultimately having God's Spirit live inside you is what makes you a Christian.
2. The Word of God - knowing and regularly studying the Bible is the only way to really know Christ better, which is what all Christians truly want.
3. The Worship of God - prayer, song, meditation, praise are what He made us for.
4. The Works of Obedience - living out our faith is how we actually demonstrate how much we love Him.
5. The People of God - Christians are made to live in community with other Christians. He made us to need one another.

Sharon, I have come to understand over the years that what we all seek is assurance of our salvation and our relationship to God. That assurance comes as we follow Him. If we're not following Him closely, then we shouldn't feel assured, because our insecurity alerts us to the danger of not following Him.
One last thing I would suggest. You talked about your "quest for inner peace". It might help if you rethink that in terms of what Jesus said: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well." Seeking peace can often lead us in the wrong direction, because there are so many "false gods" that can bring us temporary, false peace. Seeking the true God Himself will eventually result in the right kind of peace.

OK that was going to be short. At least that was the plan. :)
As I pushed "send", I felt the knot in my stomach.  This did not feel like blogging.  This was life and death and eternity. It had been almost 25 years since I'd fumbled through my first chance to share the gospel with Sharon, but had been hampered by my own immaturity and mixed motives.  Now, incredibly, God had brought us both a precious second chance.

Next:  Born Again 3:  I'm Just an Emotional Wreck!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Born Again 1: A Letter from Sharon

*First in a series*
Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works 

The e-mail was titled simply: "A letter from Sharon".  It began rather ominously.
Hi! I wrote the following letter last week and contemplated as to whether to send it to you or not. The desire to send it to you didn't go away, so here it is. Please don't be mad:
Huh?  What was this?  I hadn't seen Sharon for nearly a quarter century before our surprise encounter last October, when a business trip took me back home.  We'd once been very close, and it had been nice to see her again after so many years.  She appeared well--healthy and happily married, with a little daughter who was the apple of her eye.  Nervously I read on: 
In the past couple of days, I have had a chance to read some of your articles on The Philippian Jailer site and in The Cypress Times. At first, when I received a few on my Facebook page, I thought that maybe you were just sharing articles that you found were of interest to you. I had no idea that YOU wrote the articles. That is fantastic! You have certainly found a niche to be able to share your views that, as I remember, were and apparently are, still so dear to you. I gotta admit though, when I first started to read the articles, they went over my head. It was likely that I had too many distractions around me when I was reading them. I finally got some quiet time yesterday and today and have, so far, enjoyed those I have been able to read. 
Hm.  Not sure what there is to be "mad" about here, unless she suspects I am ill-disposed towards flattery.  Aw go on ...
You probably don’t want to hear this but I have to let it out. I don’t have anyone else to talk to about this and I feel like I will explode otherwise if I don’t say anything.
Oh.  Okay.  Bracing for impact ...
The articles you have written and published on the Internet sound similar to the letters you sent me while you were in basic training. Your articles now are just more refined; more mature, and your bible quotes are complete. I read names I have forgotten. You scolded me on the topics of abortion, astrology and mysticism. I have no idea where that came from because I’ve always believed that I was (and still am) against abortion and anyone who cites astrology in my Facebook and email accounts annoys me! 
Well. I do recall being especially strident in 1986 when talking about my new faith in Christ. I also recall that I could be something of a scold at times. 
It made me sad to read about your step father and how he affected your life. It made me laugh when you admitted that you “talk too much” and that you didn’t have a problem with blood being drawn from you for tests but that you had fears of embarrassing yourself from fainting. But most importantly, in your letters, you really tried to show me how you felt about your love for God and how important it was for you that I walk in that same path. I think I remember now that that was the downfall of our relationship. I could not relate to religion on the same level that you were. It was uncomfortable.
OK so in 1986 I was a faithful witness and an intolerable nag.  I wonder which one communicated more clearly?  I'm afraid I know the answer all too well.
I have gone through life wanting and needing more when it comes to my relationship with God. I get so choked up even as I write this because I know there is a need and I don’t know how to fill it. I have always believed that it was enough just to be born and raised in a religious home, but then I meet people like you who remind me that I must be more proactive in my quest for inner peace. I will admit it, that I am one of those you call “half-Christians”.
Hello.  Okay, I'm paying attention now.  Let's summarize, shall we?  Jailer was a young Christian, full of fire and impatience.  Sharon was ... not.  Jailer eventually got frustrated and went on his way.  God gave Jailer and Sharon 24 years to grow up and think about it.  And now ...
We had such a short meeting time, you and I, when you came to Santa Cruz. I never even got the chance to tell you how proud I am of you for what you have done with your life. I don’t know why our paths crossed again. I don’t know why I was here when you happened to come back. I just know that you have once again challenged me on an issue that I have struggled with ever since I can remember. I guess I’m writing you this letter to tell you that I appreciate you, and for what it’s worth, to thank you for allowing me back into your world by ways of reading your written messages.  I feel very fortunate that I was once a part of your life and I suppose, whether I like it or not, you are “back” and I think, spiritually, I need that.

So, keep writing and sharing your views. I’ll be here to listen.
This will be the first in a series, which as it unfolds I hope you will find as challenging, uplifting and encouraging as I did.  I've decided to give it the title "Born Again", for some reasons you can probably guess, and for others which may surprise you.

Note:  Also a quick thank you to Sharon, for agreeing to let me put this up.  I've changed her name to protect her privacy.

Next:  Born Again 2:  Assurance and the Quest for Inner Peace