Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Review of Brennan Manning's "The Ragamuffin Gospel"
The 2005 re-print of the 1990 classic best seller, The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, comes complete with a foreword by Michael W. Smith, a testimony by the late Rich Mullins,  nineteen meditations for a personal spiritual retreat, and an updated chapter chronicling some of the opposition the author has received from his critics. Loaded with scripture, cited quotations, and anecdotes that will make you laugh, cry, and retreat into deep contemplation, The Ragamuffin Gospel is written like a well researched sermon intended for an audience of a handful of friends gathered at your house. 
            Grace—a word I thought I understood after walking with the Lord for over half of my life, three years of seminary, private study, and a career in the ministry, but Manning stretches all of our understanding of what it means to experience it. Manning writes the book from the dichotomous perspective of a former Franciscan priest and an alcoholic—someone who understands and can explain the most complex theological positions and make them understandable, and has experienced the depth of his own depravity with his addiction to alcohol. Manning argues that we each must come to grips with our own depravity before we can move on in much the same way an alcoholic cannot begin recovery until he or she admits the seriousness of their problem.
            Manning has received harsh criticism for his views on grace, and God’s love for us despite our depravity. One can understand his critic’s point of view if they only listen to half of his message. Their criticism is rooted in the fear that if God loves us exactly where we are (something we all teach the youngest of Sunday school students) what motivation do we have to grow and mature as a Christian, and what is the role of the pastor or other spiritual leader? Should we not be encouraging our flocks to live a godly life? Manning would say, “Yes, of course, but pretending to be something we are not isn’t helping anybody including yourself.” Once you understand the depth of your depravity, that God is still head over heels in love with you, and that you have done nothing to earn it and, therefore, can do nothing to maintain it, then and only then do you have the freedom to grow in Christ. Failures are no longer detrimental to your life, but mere stepping stones.
            So pastor, parishioner, or unbeliever, if you are feeling “bedraggled, beat-up, or burnt out;” if you sought Your Best Life Now but felt like you were left with nothing but hollow theology; if you truly want to grow your relationship with Christ, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. If the Lord tarries, it is my belief that this book will go down in history as one of the great classics. Manning rises above the crowd of weak-kneed, ear tickling, applause loving preachers, with a self-deprecating humility that is much needed in today’s world. Thank you, Mr. Manning.           

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why Does Fasting Take Forever?

Why Does Fasting Take Forever?
Sermon on the Mount Series: Matt. 6:16-18

            What’s the first thing you think of when you think of fasting? Most of you probably think of going all day, or even days at a time without eating. That is one type of fast. In fact, what’s the first meal of the day? Breakfast—break-fast. You are breaking your fast—not eating since dinner the day before.
            A fast is an avoidance of doing something for a specific period of time for spiritual reasons. There is really an infinite amount of ways that you can fast. The only thing that limits you is what you can think of. The common traditional Jewish fast was from sun up to sun down. Someone keeping this fast could rise early and eat breakfast, and then eat a late supper and still keep the guidelines of that particular fast. When Jesus went into the desert to fast, He did not keep the typical fast because He didn’t eat anything for forty days or forty nights.
            Who sets up the guidelines? That is between you and God. Two people might be fasting on the same day. One person might be fasting from midnight to midnight. Another might be only doing sun up to sun down. One might only drink water. Another might drink Gatorade or fruit juice. It all just depends on the restrictions you set on yourself. Now if you make a vow between you and God to only drink water, and you breakdown and drink a Powerade late in the afternoon, what have you just done? You broke your fast. Is it a sin to break your fast? I hope not, but in James 4:17 it says, “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” But in Romans 3:23 it says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Everybody has messed up. Shake yourself off and get back up and try it again. If you try to do something great and mess up, you are better off than the person who has never tried to do anything.
            What’s the purpose of a fast? The purpose of a fast is to get your mind focused on God and not on yourself. We cater to the wants, desires, and needs of our bodies so much and many times ignore our mind and soul. This becomes glaringly obvious when you do a food fast. Here’s a tip: I’m not a doctor but your body doesn’t need about 90% of the junk we are putting into it. There are special fasts called cleansing fasts where you only drink water allowing your body to get rid of all of the sugars and other junk stored in us. So going without food for a day won’t kill us, (Jesus managed to hold off for forty days somehow. It’s says He was hungry afterwards so it must not have been his divinity side taking over.) but when we miss a meal we’re like, “I’m going to die!” How many of you have ever said, “I’m starving to death”? For a designated period of time, you deny your body and feed your mind and soul.
            Now that’s just a food fast. There are other fasts designed to clear the junk out, too, but they’re designed to cleanse the junk out of your head. In January, K-Love was promoting listening to nothing but Christian music for a month. Barbara Unruh, the worship leader here, and I had a discussion before about listening to talk radio. We both like to listen to politically conservative talk radio shows like Glenn Beck, but we both agreed that after listening to it for a couple of hours we feel like throwing something, and that we have no hope, whereas, a couple of hours listening to Christian music puts us in a positive, lighter mood. Why is that? It’s because there’s trash, just like the sugars, and the fats going into our bodies, going into our brains and it affects us negatively. The reason why pornography is so dangerous and so addictive is because when it is viewed the brain releases a chemical into the body which is as addictive as heroin. That chemical is affecting the body, but the images you viewed are now stored in your brain forever. How do you beat your addiction to pornography? You have a pornography fast. Stop viewing it, which will stop the chemical flow. The problem is that the images stored in your brain occasionally are recalled which releases that chemical again. You can’t get rid of the images, but you can delude them with positive images until they’re hardly ever recalled again.
            Here are some other fasts that you can participate in.
Sex Fast: Every one of you non-married students listening to me should be participating in a sex fast right now. Remember a fast is the avoidance of something for a specific period of time, for a spiritual purpose. That specific period of time should be until your wedding night, and the spiritual purpose is to focus on God’s calling on your life, and keeping yourself and your future spouse pure. Men, you will be held accountable for how well you do at keeping your spouse pure (Eph 5). You could be feeding your spiritual lives with each other, rather than feeding your physical side, sinning against God in the process. It’s good to not have pre-marital sex for secular reasons (like not getting pregnant or diseases) but it is better to not have pre-marital sex for spiritual reasons. It’s not a fast, and you don’t get any “spiritual credit” if you are out looking to have sex but just haven’t stumbled upon it yet.
Media Fast: There have been people who stopped watching, and reading the newspapers didn’t get on the internet, listen to the radio, or watch TV. What did they do instead? Read the Bible, prayed, and spent time with their families.
Cell Phone Fast: Turn off your cell phone for a specific period of time. Pastor Brian says the silence of the cell phone is a spiritual discipline.
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Fast: Take whatever R-PB Cups you have and give them to your youth pastor.
Soda Fast: I was inspired by Josh to cut down my soda intake. He didn’t drink soda for over a year and lost like 30 pounds. I was in the process of drinking way to much soda everyday and gaining weight every time I stepped on a scale. So after a few months of trying to quit drinking, and failing miserably I finally stopped the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and have lost around 5 pounds since Christmas.
Reading Fast: I failed miserably at this for reasons beyond my control, but I found myself finding time to read everything but the Bible. If I was sitting at the table for five minutes I would read the newspaper but not the Bible. I vowed to read nothing but the Bible for a few months.
Shower Fast: Don’t bathe for a month or two. Sitting by yourself at lunch and on the bus will give you all kinds of free time.
Beauty Fast: Pick out some hair or beauty products that you use, stop using it for a period of time, and take the money you would have spent on it and put it towards a mission project. Do you think God would ignore that?
            Let’s get into what Jesus had to say about fasting: Matt 6:16-18, “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
            I was going to wear some old clothes to make a visual image for you and act like I was fasting, but all of my old clothes that I would wear to make myself look disheveled would be clothes that I would normally wear anyways. I was concerned that no one would even notice. Then I became frustrated that you all think I dress like a disheveled slob.
            The point Jesus was making is to have your fast between you and God. Don’t go around telling everyone, or displaying how miserable you are about it. If you do, you are already getting your reward you were seeking—the attention of man. But if you want to be blessed by God, fast in accordance to the vow you set with Him, and use your free time to focus on Him. My rule of thumb with food fasting is that every time my stomach growls I say a prayer, and the half hour set aside for meals is used for prayer and Bible reading.
            All fasting is meaningless unless it is accompanied by prayer, and Bible reading. Prayer is useless unless you have someone to pray to. Praying to anything other than the creator God of this universe is useless. And for those prayers to be effective, you need to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. God loves you very much, but when you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ you are now considered a child of God. And as children of God, He has a greater desire to answer our prayers than people he doesn’t have a relationship with. In the same way that I am more willing to grant a request made by Carrie, Juliette, and Caleb, than I am by some stranger. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Model Prayer

The Model Prayer
Sermon on the Mount Series: Matt 6:5-15

            We are continuing in our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, asking the question, “Can anyone live out the requirements Jesus laid out in today’s society?” The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ longest continual teaching recorded in scripture, and is found in Matthew chapters 5-7. Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews with the goal of presenting Jesus as the Messiah. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, as the King of kings, is laying out the rules of His kingdom—not only for life in Heaven, but for life on earth. In particular Jesus was calling out the Pharisees, who were a group of people that were very religious and very legalistic. He was saying, “You think you’re all that, but you ain’t.” In chapter 5, Jesus said “Your view of theology isn’t right.” Later in chapter 6 He says, “Your view of the material world isn’t right.” And right now in He is saying, “Your religious practices aren’t right.” In particular Jesus focuses on three religious practices: giving; fasting; and praying. Last time we discussed how we are to give in such a way that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing.
            Of these three prayer is the most important. Prayer is communion with God. Paul said to pray without stopping. That’s a long prayer. How many of you would run out of things to say after a few minutes. Some of us would run out faster than others. I’ve seen people talk on the phone without ceasing. Every time I drive now I watch the other drivers and see who is talking on their phones. Women are always on the phone. I’m convinced that some people think their cars won’t run if they aren’t talking on their phones—like the batteries are somehow connected and feeding off of each other. I had two friends in Atlanta who both had really long commutes at the same time. They would talk with each other on the way, but as soon as it hit 6:59 they’d hang up, because that’s when the free minutes were over. They were communing with each other—building each other up in a godly way before heading off into their secular jobs.
            I’m probably like most of you. I’m going to run out of things to say really quick. But Paul says to pray without ceasing. He must have meant something else. When I first met Rebekah, she’s all I thought about. I thought about her night and day. She was the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about at night. I even dreamed about her. I couldn’t wait to get home from work so I could call her, because she wouldn’t call me. That’s what she said, “I don’t call guys.” Hmmm. And then one day my phone rang, and it was her. My heart skipped several beats because it showed me that she also was thinking about me. But guess what? I still remember the first time God spoke back to me in prayer. My heart skipped several beats then, too. For the same reason—He thought enough of me to talk to me.
            Maybe that is what Paul meant when he said to pray without ceasing. Get your mind focused on one thing—God, and concentrate on Him and His attributes all day long. That’s why memorizing Bible passages has been so effective for me, it forces me to focus on God and His word all day and not on whether the Indians will have a bullpen this year, or what a politician said the day before. Focus on God. Concentrate on Him. Tell Him how your day is going and the things that are concerning you. Even if He knows what you are going to say, He still would like to hear it. Don’t be like the old married man—his wife said, “You don’t say I love you anymore.” He replied, “I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
            Giving, fasting, and praying. Of those three, prayer is the most important because it is constant communion with God. We can’t give like we are supposed to if we aren’t praying. And fasting is totally useless without prayer. The whole idea of fasting is to gather your focus on God and pray for specific concerns in your life. Fasting without prayer is like taking a shower with a raincoat on. Of those three, giving, fasting, and praying, praying is the only one where Jesus gives us instructions on how to pray. In giving: “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” In fasting: “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” In praying: “Don’t do this, don’t do that, instead do this.”
            Let’s read today’s passage: “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
      may your name be kept holy.
   May your Kingdom come soon.
   May your will be done on earth,
      as it is in heaven.
   Give us today the food we need,
   and forgive us our sins,
      as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
   And don’t let us yield to temptation,
      but rescue us from the evil one.
 If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
            The prayer Jesus taught is sometimes referred to as The Lord’s Prayer, or even The Disciples’ Prayer because in the Gospel of Luke it was the disciples who asked to be taught how to pray. Many of you probably have it memorized. I had to memorize it growing up as a Methodist because we said it every service. And then I had to memorize it in German when I was in seminary. The problem is that for many of us, it is just that—a memorized prayer, something Jesus had warned about in verse 7, “do not use vain repetitions….” It is just something we say that no longer has meaning behind it.
            The Lord’s Prayer was never meant to be something we memorize and utter every once in a while. It was meant to be a model. It was meant to be a basic outline, to help you commune with God in a more fruitful manner. It is a skeleton that we are to flesh out into a real conversation with a real God. Imagine if you had a boyfriend or a girlfriend who would speak to you only once a week (if you were lucky) and only said the same memorized 60 word paragraph week after week. “Hey Becky, who lives on
Stewart St
. Amazing is your smile. I liked it when we went out and got some food, and or watched a movie. Please forgive me if I said or did anything wrong. I think you are neat.” How many of you would be excited about that conversation? Jesus, in a display of divinity was able to boil down every perfect prayer, and every aspect of a perfect prayer into a 60+ word model.
            Let’s break it down. “Our Father in Heaven” We have a Father/ son or a Father/ daughter relationship with God. That right there is awesome. Some of you might be thinking, “Big deal. My dad’s a jack-wagon.” Yeah, but everything that is wrong with your earthly father is more than made up for by your heavenly Father who is perfect in every way. “may your name be kept holy.” We have a deity/ worshiper relationship with God and there needs to be a level of reverence that is maintained. “May Your kingdom come soon.” We have a sovereign/ subject relationship with God. He is our king and we should desire that His kingdom be established soon. “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We have a master/ servant relationship with God. He is like our boss, and we are his employees. We do His bidding. Our response should be “Yes, Lord” before we even hear His request. “Give us today the food we need,” We have a benefactor/ beneficiary relationship with God. He supplies us with everything we need to survive. He wants us to depend on Him for everything. The apostle Paul said in Philippians, “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” Don’t worry about tomorrow. God will give you enough to get through today. “And forgive us our sins,” We have a savior/ sinner relationship. Only God can cleanse us from our sin. “As we have forgiven those who sin against us” We have a teacher/ apprentice relationship. God wants us to do to others what He has done for us, to us, and in us. In case you missed His point, He says it again in verses 14 and 15, “If you don’t forgive others, God will not forgive you. “And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.” Another common translation is “Lead us not into temptation….” We have a guide/ follower relationship. Just like if we all were taking a guided tour of an active volcano, we would be sure to follow the path of our tour guide.      
            But this is only a model. Once you understand the parts of the prayer you have to fill in the particular details of your life into the conversation. That’s how you make it a living prayer instead of a memorized passage. You can’t have a growing relationship without meaningful dialogue. You can’t have meaningful dialogue if you never say anything, or when you do it is something some else wrote for you.