Praising God; September 13, 2019

Psalm 117:1-2 Praise the Lord, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love towards us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise the Lord.

As the shortest Psalm, this is also the shortest chapter in the whole Bible. It strikes me as significant that if you aren’t going to say much, this is what you should say. And what is it? It is an invitation to all mankind to praise God, because He is just so good. It focuses on two parts of God’s goodness: His love (the Japanese says grace) and His faithfulness. His love is far better than we deserve, which makes it grace, and it’s not just a flash in the pan, but is rather eternal. That’s worth getting happy and telling other people about! The NIV renders the last line as “Praise the Lord,” but in a footnote they concede that in Hebrew it says “Hallelu Yah.” That’s probably the best-known Hebrew expression in the world, understood practically everywhere as an expression of praise and joy. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from his Messiah oratorio is justly famous, and it was certainly chill-inducing to see video of 2,000,000 protesters in Hong Kong singing that word just recently. They were far from all Christian, but they understood the word and what it meant, and they were singing it in defiance of the oppressive Communist Chinese government. That is powerful indeed! I think this is probably what the Old Testament is talking about when it mentions “the shout of joy,” or “the festal shout,” in several places. (The NIV doesn’t render it that way.) In all simplicity it is, “Yahweh (the Creator) be praised.” We can do nothing better than to praise Him ourselves, and to invite others to do so with us.

I was enormously blessed to be raised in a family that loved God and loved to sing praises to Him, but it wasn’t until I was exposed to the Charismatic Movement around 1973 that I started to move into a deeper level of praising God. I haven’t had the most difficult of lives, (though it certainly hasn’t all been easy) but I have even learned the reality of Job’s famous statement: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13:15) To be honest, in my memory that was recorded as, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him.” I have learned that praising God is the ultimate cure for depression. (Isaiah 61:3) I have come to the conviction that there is no circumstance in which it is NOT appropriate to praise God! I cannot force anyone to do it with me, but I can set the example and seek to explain why, (1 Peter 3:15) and that will be the best form of evangelism.

Father, thank You for this reminder, and for how You’ve been teaching me this over the years. Help me not “leave it on the shelf” as simply abstract truth, but rather live it out in every area of my life, to give You the glory You deserve and attract as many people as possible to You, for their salvation. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Faith in Trials; September 12, 2019

Psalm 116:10 I believed; therefore I said,
“I am greatly afflicted.”

This is another anonymous Psalm, but it is a powerful one indeed. From beginning to end it speaks of the experience of a faithful servant of God, and so calls to mind Jesus famous words, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) It also brings to mind Andrae Crouch’s beautiful song of testimony, Through it All. To me, this is the key verse to the whole Psalm. The NIV translation is confusing, and really makes very little sense. However, in the footnote they give an alternative that matches how the Japanese translates the original Hebrew: “I believed, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” Faith does not deny suffering, but rather says that God is greater than the suffering and is to be trusted in spite of it. Far too many people look at religion strictly from the viewpoint of “What’s in it for me?” By that they generally mean benefits in the here-and-now; they rarely have their hearts fixed on eternity. We have had people come to this church and say all the right words, going so far as to be baptized by immersion, and then when what they saw as their problems didn’t disappear, they disappeared. That’s not saving faith! A life following Christ is better in more ways than I could count than any life without Him, but it is certainly not without difficulties, even as Jesus said.

This certainly applies to me as much as it does to anyone else, as I’ve just had a strong reminder. My hernia surgery eight days ago was my first taste of general anesthesia since I had my tonsils out at four, and I don’t remember that. Also, laparoscopic surgery has much faster recovery times than conventional surgery, but that certainly doesn’t mean recovery is instant! Before getting on the operating table I was remembering that my father went directly from anesthesia to heaven at age 64, when his heart wouldn’t re-start after bypass surgery. I knew that my procedure was nowhere near that risky, but I still went through submitting myself, and my wife and ministry, to God. Waking up in the recovery room, I spent a good bit of time in prayer, in between sleeping, asking the nurses what time it was, and telling them my painkiller had run out. My progress has been steady since then, getting out of the hospital on the third day post-op, but I am still distinctly shy of 100%. All of that said, God has very much been with me, and I am grateful. My wife has been through several major surgeries, each more severe than what I just went through, and she lives with Parkinson’s Disease every day. She is an inspiration and an example to me, because like the Psalmist, her faith has not wavered in any of it. Like her, I need to demonstrate the reality of Jesus’ words to all who see me, rejoicing in Him whatever I am going through, so that many may be drawn to Him for their salvation and His glory.

Father, thank You for this Psalm, and for making it clear that I’m to speak on it Sunday. Guide me in organizing the notes so that it will be indeed what You are saying, and not just my thoughts on the subject, so that those who hear may be touched, encouraged, and strengthened in faith, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Glory to God; September 11, 2019

Psalm 115:1 Not to us, O Lord, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness.

This is an anonymous Psalm, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t anointed. This initial statement/prayer expresses a vitally important attitude for all who would serve God. We tend to be glory hogs, and that is a massive hindrance to being used by the only One with infinite wisdom and power. Every part of this Psalm speaks to me. Living in a nation that is filled with physical idols – perhaps only India has more – the section from verse 2 through verse 8 really clicks. I remember with a chuckle something that happened many years ago when we were living in Sasebo. The church we were attending had a break-in and robbery (it was a US Navy guy) and the police came to investigate. A police detective was standing in the sanctuary with the pastor and said to him, “I see they stole your god.” With only a simple cross, the detective couldn’t see any “object of worship.” In a situation like that it’s easy to look down on those who worship objects, and Israel frequently fell into that. However, that attitude takes credit for God’s gracious revelation of Himself through the Bible. When God reveals Himself to someone it isn’t because that person is special, it’s because God is! We aren’t to feel intrinsically better than those who don’t worship the Creator, we are to feel more blessed, and desire to bring them along with us in the sort of worship that fulfills the purpose for which we were created. When we do that, it indeed gives God the glory, just as this first verse says.

In practical terms, Japanese today are far more likely to “worship” their smartphone than an idol in a temple, but the issue remains the same. I am not to despise or ridicule those who are blind to their Creator, but I am to pray for them and offer them the healing Word that can restore their spiritual vision. (Psalm 107:20) I am always to speak the truth, and always to do so in love. Coming across as holier-than-thou is a guaranteed way to sabotage evangelism! I must never lose my appreciation for God’s amazing grace in revealing Himself to me, but share the Gospel out of an overflow of gratitude to such a merciful Creator. My life is to be an instrument of His glory.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for all that You are doing in and around me. Thank You for the lady who will be coming this morning for help with the paperwork surrounding canceling benefits for her recently-deceased mother. I’ve never done that before myself, and I ask for Your wisdom. May my words and attitude toward her draw her to You, so that she may receive the salvation that she has only heard about from a distance, for Your glory indeed. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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The Name of the Lord; September 10, 2019

Psalm 109:21 But you, O Sovereign Lord,
deal well with me for your name’s sake;
out of the goodness of your love, deliver me.

David was so thoroughly identified as one who followed Yahweh that he could ask the Lord for things not for his own sake but so that the name of the Lord would be honored. Christians are theoretically in that position, but for far too many of us our relationship with God is a relatively minor part of our lives: a convenience or even an afterthought. We need to consider what it means to claim the name of Christ as a Christian. There is an attractive humility in the old Spiritual, Go Tell It on the Mountain, where it says, “And if I am a Christian, I am the least of all.” We are not to draw back from calling ourselves Christians, but we need to put real thought into what that means, and live accordingly. Of course, we can’t do it right in our own strength and goodness, but if that is the honest desire of our heart, God will do it in and through us by His Spirit.

This of course applies to me as much as it does to anyone. Born in a missionary household, I’ve been associated with the name of Christ all my life. I wish I could say I’ve always brought honor to that name! By God’s grace He has kept me from major scandals and/or disasters, but that hasn’t been because of my own goodness. At this point I am perhaps as thoroughly associated with the name of Jesus as anyone in this city, which should be powerful motivation to bring honor to that name. In my recent hospitalization I shared freely that I was a pastor, and I sought to be kind and appreciative toward those who were taking care of me. When believers visited me, I know that our interactions were observed by the other men in my room, and I think the impression was attractive. I am to remember the words that are attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach constantly. When necessary, use words.” I am to so live that all who know me will desire to know my Lord themselves, for their salvation and His glory.

Father, thank You for the privilege of bearing the name of Your Son. May I be a Christian indeed, living always as Your agent, Your representative, to do Your will on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Words and Hearing; September 9, 2019

Psalm 108:1 My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.

Someone once recommended this verse to my wife as a faith declaration when she was having heart trouble, because in another translation it is rendered, “My heart is fixed!” It was clear that person had Encourager gifting, rather than Teacher gifting. What David is expressing is firm commitment. The Japanese expresses it as “My heart will not waver.” We too need to make that declaration at times, because commitment boldly spoken is strengthened. It’s like Paul said, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) Actually, the original text doesn’t say, “hearing the message,” it just says, “hearing.” (The Japanese says, “starts from,” rather than “comes from,” but I think that too is a bit of an interpretation.) What we hear really does influence what we believe, which is why the current issue of media and fake news is so huge. Christians have a vital responsibility to run everything through the filter of the Holy Spirit, accepting as true only that which receives His approval. However, all of that is tangental to what this verse is talking about. As David realized, we need to declare our commitment to God and sing it out, in order to strengthen it. It may seem odd, but faith is often strengthened by what we hear from our own lips. I’m not at all advocating “name it and claim it,” or “We must never make a negative confession.” However, saying out loud, “God will get me through this, and His grace is all I need,” is of huge benefit at times. That isn’t hypocrisy, it’s agreeing with what God has already said, and reminding our hearts of it.

I have had some very interesting times of being in prayer and God speaking to me directly through my own words, just as we usually think of prophecy as one person speaking to another. There wasn’t anyone else around, but God was speaking through my mouth! I have learned the joy and power of faith declarations, but I also know that words by themselves can be empty. James goes on at some length about that issue, from various angles. Listening to truth without applying it in my own life is deceiving myself, (James 1:22) and protestations of faith without follow-through are almost totally empty. (James 2:14, etc.) I need to say the right things and also walk them out. Like David, I need to declare my faith in words and in song, and let that faith lead me to faithful obedience to my Lord.

Father, thank You for this reminder. So many of us have trouble doing the things we say. I ask for wisdom in encouraging those who say nice things but rarely follow through. I also need wisdom in dealing with those who are forever negative in what they say, failing to give You glory by trusting You. May I be an example and a coach, so that together we may grow as You intend, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Learning from God; September 8, 2019

Psalm 107:43 Whoever is wise, let him heed these things
and consider the great love of the Lord.

After giving such a recitation of how God has rescued people out of a wide variety of situations that were mostly created by their own actions, the Psalmist expresses the point of the whole Psalm. We tend to observe events and not process them in our hearts and minds, and so fail to learn from them. The Japanese translates this verse as, “Who is the person with wisdom? Let him fix his heart on these things, and so grasp the grace of the Lord.” God would much rather not have to teach each of us the same lessons over and over. Frankly, those lessons can be rough to experience, as this Psalm makes clear. What God would like is for us to see and really think about how He has dealt with others, and so receive those lessons vicariously, without having to go through all the mess. That’s a major reason for the historical sections of the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament. As Paul said, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) Whether we’re reading the Bible or simply watching the people around us, we need to open our minds and hearts to recognize the incredible grace and love of the Lord, as well as the reality that “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8) Neither legalism nor “hyper-grace” (libertinism) understands the character and heart of God.

This is truth in which I am continuing to grow. I had the huge advantage of parents who were excellent examples of what it is to follow God in full commitment, and I have also seen countless examples of the other extreme. As a pastor I seek to point people to God and help them really think about and assimilate what they have seen and even experienced. However, as someone with Teacher gifting I have a tendency to lecture, and that is seldom the most effective way to go. That’s why I’m grateful for my recent exposure to what is called coaching, as an outgrowth of the Cell Church movement. In coaching, the aim is to help people recognize what God has already spoken to their heart, rather than lecture to them. It is coming alongside, rather than speaking down to them. Between being a school teacher as well as a pastor, along with having a high IQ to begin with, I have tended to feel like it was my job to tell people what was right. I am to do that, but never with the feeling that I am the authority, much less the source of the truth I express. Rather, I am to seek to help people recognize these things for themselves, and so own them to do them, instead of resenting my lectures. I’ve had more than enough of that sort of reaction!

Father, thank You for this reminder. Last Monday You gave me a message on “Saints” for today, before I entered the hospital on Tuesday. Keep me from coming across as though “I’m a saint and you aren’t, so get with the program.” Help me be an accurate channel of Your grace and truth to all who hear, so that together we may indeed grasp Your grace and love, and so be transformed. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Evangelism; September 7, 2019

Psalm 107:1-3 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say this—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.

This whole Psalm is a recitation of things that people had done in turning their backs on God, and then what He did when they turned back to Him. This first statement encompasses all such people, and says what they should do: proclaim that the Lord is good, and His love/mercy/grace (the Hebrew has many shades of meaning) endures forever. This was written presumably after the Babylonian captivity, but it seems to apply even more today, when God has literally gathered Jews from all over the world to reconstitute the nation of Israel in the Promised Land. However, this truth isn’t limited to Jews. As Paul tells us, all who live by faith in God are children of Abraham. (Romans 4:11-12, and others) Anyone who has turned to God and discovered His deep grace and mercy needs to talk about it! We get tied in knots thinking about personal evangelism, but it is really nothing more than what this is talking about. We create all sorts of systems and train people in them, wondering why we don’t get many converts, when the Biblical pattern is far more simple: live your life in gratitude for what God has done for you, and when people ask about it, tell them. (1 Peter 3:15-16 Some translations separate the verses differently.) The problem is, few people seem to grasp just how much God has done for them, and so fail to live with a radiant hope and joy that draws others to desire it for themselves. Part of the problem is that we think we deserve an easy life, when nothing could be further from the truth. All of us have effectively spat in God’s face and participated in nailing Jesus to the cross. Failing to realize that gives us the wrong attitude right from the start. We don’t appreciate God’s grace until we understand how much we need it, but once we do, our gratitude overflows and we indeed proclaim, “The Lord is good, and His loving, gracious mercy endures forever.”

This of course applies to me as much as it does to anyone, but it didn’t really click until I was 24. When God showed me how black my heart was with pride toward Him, I was devastated, because I was raised to love Jesus and thought I was a good Christian! In the almost 50 years since then I have learned more and more of the depth and height and outright magnitude of God’s grace and love, and I expect to learn even more when I am before His throne. (Ephesians 3:17-19) Evangelism is difficult in Japan for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it is a “shame culture” rather than a “sin culture,” but I am never to draw back from sharing the goodness of God, not as one who dispenses it but as one who has received it and wants others to do likewise.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for the people who came to see me yesterday, and for guiding our conversation so that we ended up giving quite a testimony to the other three men in my room. I pray that what they heard would pique their interest and draw them to learn more of You, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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