Publication:Pastoral Letter, November 2014
Dear Friend in Christ,
I pray this letter finds you well and enjoying the Autumn. This is my favorite time of the year for many reasons, but primarily because we are nearing the celebration of Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. In addition to the deeply meaningful acknowledgement of God’s provision in our lives and also His providential hand in the founding of our nation, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be together with loved ones.
This Thanksgiving has special meaning for me because I am just now recovering from a very serious and painful health issue, which required surgery. It was all very unexpected and, for me, quite unusual.
A few weeks ago, I found myself with difficult respiratory problems and an excruciating migraine that persisted for many days and was continuing to ratchet up in terms of intensity. I reluctantly finally went to the Emergency Room. My blood pressure level, which usually remains at a normal, healthy level, spiked up into a life-threatening range … ridiculous numbers. Doctors attributed the spike to my body’s reaction to the severity of the pain I was experiencing.
What followed was a fitful hospital stay marked by many tests, heavy drugs, constant pain, and uncertainty. I was briefly discharged until test results finally indicated the cause of the problem, which turned out to be a toxic fungus “ball” growing in one of my sinus cavities. It had to be removed surgically. There were many risks, but time was of the essence to deal with this problem. Thank God, the three-hour surgery went well, and though I am still somewhat slowed, I am improving and have a bright outlook.
One aspect of this adventure has been that I’ve had plenty of time to think and to reflect on what I believe. More importantly, I’ve been able to meditate on the One in Whom I believe.
It’s one thing to teach on a truth, or even believe it theoretically, but it takes on new resonance when you are in a storm and that truth is the only hope you have of survival. I am thankful for family, mentors, pastors, and friends who have sown truth into my life, and that the fruit of that sowing has been flourishing and available to me in my hour of need.
One of these life-giving truths is the importance of thanksgiving in every circumstance. My friend Michael Coleman said, “If you’re ever wondering what is God’s will for you, there it is: give thanks in everything.”
On the morning of my surgery, some friends sent Scriptures to me to encourage and build me up in faith. What amazed me was that the Scriptures they sent to me had already been on my heart that morning, and the Lord was so graciously and powerfully confirming His Word.
One brother said, “Let’s agree together and pray Psalm 91 over you.” The first part of that Psalm says, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust.'”Isn’t that a powerful promise in times of trouble? I held onto that entire Psalm, which speaks of healing and deliverance, and it brought me joy and peace, like an anchor in a storm.
Another brother sent me Psalm 103, which says,“Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies…” (Psalm 103:1-4).
He Who resides in our hearts can actually direct and correct what is in our minds. The mind says, “I hurt, I’m frustrated, I’m angry, I’ve been mistreated, my bank account is empty, there is no food in the pantry, my boss is a jerk!” But then there is a welling up of the Holy Spirit Who resides in our hearts that says, “Hey, wait a minute. Stop. Re-set. Re-focus. Bless the Lord. Praise Him, for He is good. Thank Him, for you are blessed. Don’t forget the things He has done for you. He is worthy of all gratitude, honor, and worship. The One Who provided all these things is still able and mighty to save!”
Years ago, I was stunned to read a survey that said only a small percentage of people had ever sensed the presence of God during a church service. I thought, “Why would anyone go to church if they didn’t sense God’s presence?” Why should I bother to get up early on a Sunday morning just to hang out with some folks for a couple of hours, sing some pleasant tunes, hear some positive affirmations, and thoughtfully sip a latte? If I am not going to encounter God at church in some kind of meaningful, tangible, transformative way, I really don’t want to go. I’ve got other stuff to do.
David said, “In Your presence is fullness of joy” (see Psalm 16).Later, in a time of deep repentance, he pled with God, “Don’t cast me away from Your presence, O Lord” (see Psalm 51). How important is it to you to be in God’s presence? To enjoy right relationship and abiding fellowship with Him? Is once a week good enough?
My theory is that if we are not “practicing the presence of God” during the week, then we will not be fully sensitive to Him when Sunday morning rolls around. God’s glory should not be a hobby for us, but a lifelong passion and pursuit. If we better understood what happens in His presence, we would do whatever it takes to be close to Him.
While there are no formulas or rituals for “conjuring up” the presence of God, as if we could do that, the Lord does give us one important key to accessing Him. In Psalm 100:4-5, we read, “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.”
Thanksgiving is the entry point into God’s presence. It is the key that opens the gates. You can have every gift, talent, resource, and good work, but without a grateful heart, you simply don’t get in. There are those who want me, as a preacher, to give more topical or self-help sermons. Or, they want me to pursue some of the more exotic passages of Scripture and “deeper theological truths”. But, in the meantime, they may be arrogant or ungrateful. And what I say is, “If you don’t deal with the thanksgiving issue, everything else is a moot point. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to get any of it.”
It’s a bit like going to college and automatically expecting to take Senior level courses without first completing the Freshman level pre-requisites. You would not be prepared for the training and responsibilities of a Senior without having dealt with the basics. Thanksgiving is a basic. It is foundational, fundamental, and elemental. It is an absolute necessity for entering His presence. Thanksgiving is your passport into a new and glorious place in God. A thankful heart is a hearing, seeing, and willing heart.
The moment we begin to give God thanks and praise, regardless of our circumstance, something happens to our vision. It is lifted off of ourselves and our circumstances and onto the Sovereign, glorious, merciful, mighty God. We behold the Father Who loves us so much that He gave His only Son to save us from sin; to liberate us into the life that He created us to live. The more we offer thanks and praise, the higher and clearer our vision becomes. Peace and joy fill our souls. The spirit of revelation starts to flow. He gives us answers that we did not know before.
In Psalm 100, there is first an acknowledgement that He has made us; we did not create ourselves. Just as thanksgiving is the key for entering His presence, the fear of the Lord (rightly reverencing Him) is the key for accessing His wisdom. Arrogance is a blockade to wisdom, just as ingratitude deflects us from His presence and peace.
Romans 1 reveals a reverse pattern: people forget God, Who He is, what He has done, and fail to give Him thanks; soon they are given over to every form of foolishness and perversion. When creation rebels against the design of the Creator, chaos is the result. Previously unimaginable behaviors and circumstances become the natural consequence. Closing the door on the source of all wisdom opens the floodgates to a toxic tide of foolishness. It wasn’t only true 2,000 years ago, but this has been the blueprint for Western society in the 21st Century.
A couple of days before my surgery, I was laying in the dark alone, head and eyes covered with a heating pad, unable to take any more painkillers, and yet overcome with intense pain and weakness. All that doctors and I knew to do, we had done. I couldn’t sleep or do anything for relief. I cried out to God, and He simply said, “Sing.”
Of course, singing was not what I felt like doing, but I began to weakly croak out some praise choruses. As the words began to seep into my consciousness, I sensed God’s courage and favor. I began to sing with greater boldness, joy, and conviction. I was declaring truths about God’s faithfulness and my own salvation. The more I declared this, the more I could feel chains of fear, self-pity, confusion, and frustration starting to break. I became acutely aware of His presence, which had been there all along, but I had missed it.
Soon, I could hear God’s voice speaking to my heart, and He was lifting my eyes to see a new revelation of His purpose in my life. As the peace of God settled upon me, I also sensed His joy in our fellowship.
May I encourage you, in the midst of all of the great needs you may be facing, or the great things you may be seeking, to simply pause and give thanks to the Lord for all that He has already done? “Count your blessings,” as the old hymn says. I believe it will affect your vision and help you to see things you may have missed before. It may well be that the answer to your most complex troubles will be found in the simplicity of giving thanks to God.
Here at CSM, we are certainly thankful for you and your friendship to this ministry. We sincerely ask for your prayers and your financial support this month as we share equipping and encouraging ministry resources across the world. There is a card and envelope provided for your convenience, as well as information about audio Bible teaching that we pray will be a blessing to you and to others.
Also, please mark your calendar for the upcoming 2015 CSM Gatlinburg Leadership Conference May 13-15, featuring Nik Ripken (The Insanity of God The Insanity of Obedience) and Charles Simpson. We would love to fellowship with you there. It’s going to be a profoundly timely and revealing look at our mission together as God’s people in the world “for such a time as this.”
May God bless you and yours in these days and always!
Scripture Reference: 1 Thessalonians, Psalms, Romans
STEPHEN SIMPSON is the Editor of One-to-One Magazine and the Director of CSM Publishing. In addition to publishing ministry, Stephen has served in leadership for churches and ministries in Costa Rica, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Michigan, as well as being the Senior Pastor of Covenant Church of Mobile (2004-2013). He continues to travel in ministry across North America and in other nations.