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A Great Post-Easter Lesson
April 21, 2014
Over the Easter weekend, I read an interesting article in the online version of The Telegraph newspaper from London, England. The headline read, "China on Course to Become 'World's Most Christian Nation' within 15 Years., and the article highlighted the tremendous expansion of Christianity in China--a Communist nation that is officially atheist--noting that, at its current pace of growth, it will have more "churchgoers" than the United States by 2030.
As I read this article, I was reminded that the seeming nature of Christianity--historically speaking--is that it thrives in places where it is forbidden and where oppression of Christians abounds. Such has been the case in China for more than fifty years, beginning with Chairman Mao's efforts in the 1950s to rid China of all religious influence, and of Christianity in particular. This intense persecution continued through Mao's death in 1976, at which time the Chinese government moved more toward a stance of strict state control of religion rather than eradication of it. Even so, the restrictions on and persecution of Christians in China has been intense for many years now.
Prior to its Communist Revolution, however, China had been a nation that had experienced vast revivals and powerful movements of the Holy Spirit. Through the work of missionaries like Robert Morrison in the early 1800s, J. Hudson Taylor in the mid-1800s, and Lottie Moon in the late 1800s, the Gospel was spread throughout China, and the people of that nation responded to it with hundreds of thousands of them becoming believers in Christ. By the early 1900s, Christianity had taken root in China, and from 1927-1937 the nation experienced a great awakening of sorts (The Shantung Revival) as God moved powerfully among its people to draw them to Christ.
Having experienced both spiritual highs and lows as a nation, China is now undergoing a new spiritual renaissance, another period of intense Gospel awakening, with hundreds of thousands of new believers being baptized there annually. Reading the article in The Telegraph on the eve of Easter, I rejoiced in the fact that we do indeed have a risen Savior who is active in the world today, drawing all people to Himself as He is lifted up. I also rejoiced in the knowledge that Christians around the world never discounted China or marked it off as a lost cause, but rather, through the decades as it endured religious persecution and oppression, Christians have quietly--and sometimes surreptitiously--provided a hopeful witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of that country.
What a wonderful thing to be able to see at last the results of that consistent and tireless witness! Now, as faith in Christ flourishes in China, we can see a real-life illustration of how godly perseverance is rewarded and how seeds that are planted--sometimes without seeing results for decades--will eventually sprout and grow and yield a harvest of souls.
Sometimes in our lives, we get discouraged when we don't see God move right away in regard to our concerns and requests. I can just imagine heavy hearts of those missionaries who served in China for decades with minimal results, and I can see in my mind's eye those Chinese Christians who for years and years cried out to God to lift the oppression, to open the doors and to give them the freedom to practice their faith openly. How joyful they must be now to see the fires of revival burning there! Although they yet have a ways to go before their society is truly open and free in regard to the Christian faith, it is clear that God has honored the tireless work and the faithful prayers of believers throughout previous decades.
That's a great lesson for us, in whatever we face in life: Our God rewards the work and the prayers of His people, and no nation--and no person--is outside of the reach of His powerful grace.
Entropy and Easter
April 14, 2014
I've always enjoyed words. As far back as I can remember, I've especially enjoyed learning new words--gaining an understanding of their meaning and learning how to use them in conversation. Many years ago, I learned the word "entropy," which is defined as "a gradual decline into disorder." Its synonyms include words like "decline," "deterioration," and "degeneration."
I recently saw a picture of entropy in action that was fascinating. It was the coastal city of Varosha, which was once a playground to the wealthy and famous on the eastern shores of the island of Cyprus. During its time as a world famous resort, Varosha hosted celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot. It boasted some of the world's finest and most exclusive hotels and restaurants and was home to an international airport that saw the rich and the famous come and go in elegance and style.
In 1974, however, Cyprus was invaded by Turkey, and in one fell swoop this once-thriving beachfront city became a ghost town. Today, pictures abound on the internet of highrise hotels and condominiums that are slowly decaying, left untouched and unattended by human hands for forty years. Never-purchased cars remain in a dealership's garage, slowly rusting away; unperishable items stock the shelves of abandoned stores, degrading as the years go by. As fascinating as such frozen-in-time scenes are to me, they also serve as a reminder that, left unattended, our buildings, goods and products--even those found in such a high-end setting as Varosha--are all bound for entropy. The same is true for our own physical bodies, even when we take care of them to the best of our ability, a truth each of us discovers if we live long enough to experience it.
All of which brings me to the focus of this week--our upcoming celebration of Easter. Scripture reminds us that "this world in its present form is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:31). As human beings we are part of this creation, and we too are bound by the laws of entropy, prone to experience the ravages of decline, deterioration and degeneration. We can do some good in holding off or delaying it a little, but there's no stopping it entirely.
Or so we thought until Easter.
Easter--some call it Resurrection Day--reminds us that entropy is not all that there is and that our ultimate end is not death. Easter, the day that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead powerfully and victoriously, informs us that decay is not the final eventuality for all who have placed their faith in Christ, but rather that resurrection is due for all who believe. The Bible calls Jesus the "firstfruits" of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20) and reminds all believers that we too will be raised in like fashion (see 1 Corinthians 15:23).
As we approach this Easter Sunday, let us remember and be deeply thankful that God's long-term plan for those who belong to Him is not to be trapped in the results of entropy as our eventual end. Instead, as those who are objects of the great and awesome promises of God, we look forward to something far better--the resurrection of our own bodies when Christ returns. And that gives us hope in a world that is passing away.
The Heart of Our Father
April 7, 2014
In Luke 21:41-44, we read the story of Jesus as He was in the midst of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Having just experienced the praises of His followers and the ensuing rebuke of the Pharisees as a result, He approached the entrance to the city, and He began to weep. As He cried, He spoke lovingly and longingly of the spiritual lostness of this city that, ironically and sadly, was the place that God had assigned for His people to worship Him. With obvious sadness and distress, He lamented that the very thing--the very One--who could have brought peace to them was, at that moment, hidden from their eyes. He was not hidden physically, of course, but rather spiritually, because their hearts were blinded by their own sinfulness so that they were unable to see Him or to know that He was the One they had always long for and desperately needed.
As we approach our own celebration of Palm Sunday and the Holy Week that follows, culminating in Easter, we will--rightfully so--spend time considering the activities of Christ during that week so long ago, and we will rejoice that He took on Himself what we were owed for our sin ("The wages of sin is death..." - Romans 6:23) and that He rose again to prove that He was indeed able to defeat sin and death and to give us the victory. As we revel in the benefits that we have received from Christ's sacrifice and His resurrection, I cannot help but feel a tinge of sadness in regard to our lost world, much like Jesus must have felt when He approached Jerusalem on that day so many years ago.
And yet, I do not weep.
And my lack of tears bothers me greatly.
Deep down, I wonder why I do not weep. Certainly, the Lord Himself must weep as He looks out over His creation, viewing the hearts, minds and lives of everyone into whom He has breathed life, seeing their profound lostness. Certainly, He must have compassion on them, as He did when He observed the crowds in His days on Earth and regarded them as "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:35-37). I'm sure, in my heart of hearts, that God weeps often for lost and dying humanity; and I wonder why such compassion is not always right at the surface in my own heart.
In evaluating my heart and my view of lost humanity, I am reminded of a song by the late Keith Green that has always spoken to me:
My eyes are dry, my faith is old, my heart is hard, my prayers are cold.
And I know how I ought to be, alive to You and dead to me.
Oh, what can be done, for an old heart like mine, soften it up with oil and wine.
The oil is You, your Spirit of love; please wash me anew in the wine of Your blood.
As I approach the start of this Easter week, I am praying that God will soften my heart, that I might look on lost humanity and experience the brokenheartedness that Jesus felt as He looked on Jerusalem. I am praying also that the One who would bring peace to their hearts will cease to be hidden to so many, and that they will see Him and know that He is the One who has come to bring them life. And I pray that they will see Him in me.
Preparing for Easter
March 31, 2014
Like any other holiday, Easter can bring with it a tremendous amount of busy-ness and stress as we prepare for its celebration. As we approach this most meaningful of days for those of us who are believers, there are many plans to make and questions to answer: What will we do about lunch that day? When can we get the family together? Are the kids too old this year for an Easter egg hunt? What about Easter baskets? Are we going to dye eggs? The list goes on and on.
Likewise, it can be a busy time in terms of church work. There's advertising to be done--banners ordered and hung, mailouts created and sent. There are preparations to be made--readying the building and grounds, planning a dynamic worship service, rehearsing the choir and musicians, writing an engaging sermon, figuring out where to put everyone when they're all here, making sure there are plenty of childcare workers, decorating the sanctuary, etc. And all of this preparatory work has to begin well in advance of the day. It truly has to begin months ahead, so that nothing is left to handle at the last minute, to be done in a haphazard way.
Honestly, I can so easily get caught up in all of the above-type of preparation for Easter that I find it quite possible to miss out on the most important type of preparation for our celebration of Jesus' resurrection. The type of preparation I'm referring to, of course, is the internal kind--the preparing of the heart, soul, mind and spirit as we approach the time of remembering this event that truly shook the world, as the Son of God claimed victory over death, dramatically proving that He truly was who He said he was, showing that He had the power to fulfill His promise to bring life to all who believe in Him.
For me, such spiritual preparations, like those previously mentioned, cannot be left to the last minute. They cannot become for me an afterthought, so that I wake up Easter Sunday morning and just for that day recognize the immensity of Christ's resurrection. No, for me, it's important to begin early to consider and contemplate and pray about the importance of Easter--and not just to me, but to all of humanity.
How do you prepare yourself spiritually for this great holiday? Do you take time to focus intently on Easter as it approaches? If not, may I make a few suggestions about how you can make this Easter a uniquely special one? Let me suggest the following:
1. Go back and re-read the story from the Gospels. Begin with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and take time each day to meditate on all aspects of the story. Ask the Holy Spirit to open up to you the deep truths found there.
2. Revisit the moment that you received Christ. Reconnect with the feelings of joy you experienced when you realized that you had received forgiveness of sin and the promise of new life. Remember that this is all possible because of the first Easter! Ask God to restore that joy in your life, that you might celebrate Easter with a glad and enthusiastic heart.
3. Ask God what new thing He might do in you this Easter. Because of the focus on resurrection, Easter is a great time for new beginnings. Is there some new thing that God might desire to enact in your life this year? Have you asked Him about it? Try this, and see if God might just be desiring to accomplish a new work in your life that you would not have imagined!
Whatever you do, now is a great time to refocus your heart, mind, soul and spirit on Christ, remembering His perfect example, His amazing sacrifice and His powerful defeat of death. Will you be ready when Easter arrives? Now's the time to prepare!
March 24, 2014
Something happened in our church over the last two weeks that was just wonderful. On Monday, March 8, an email was sent by one of our church members to some other church members and staff members promoting a simple idea to aid us in celebrating Easter. It was not a new or ground-breaking idea--nothing trailblazing about it at all--but it was an idea, nonetheless, that just felt right. Simply put, this church member was advocating the idea of someone building and offering to church members a wooden cross to be placed in their yards in the weeks leading up to Easter as a means of drawing attention to the holiday and helping to identify that home as a Christian household.
All of us who received the email thought it was a great idea, but the questions remained--Who will take this ball and run with it? Who will get this done. And then, beautifully, amazingly, in a Body-of-Christ fashion, it happened. One party agreed to get the wood, another to have it cut, another to pre-drill holes for nails to join the pieces together and another to ensure that the crosses were constructed in time for Sunday. Our AWANA boys did nailed the wooden pieces together, and now the crosses are available for each family in the church to have one for display. It all happened so organically, so quickly, so easily--and so joyfully--that it was a bit of an anomaly in terms of how things often happen in churches. Of course, I honestly believe that the reason it all went so smoothly was because it was solely about Jesus and nothing else. And that's good to see and to experience in a church--that we have the capacity to do things that are just all about Him and lifting Him up, with no other goal or agenda in mind.
As all of this was occurring, I thought about the cross and its meaning, all of which especially takes front and center as we approach the Easter season. Here are some of my thoughts:
When it comes to the cross, it's not really the "what" that's important. After all, the cross in and of itself was simply an instrument of torture and execution used by the government of ancient Rome to punish its criminals or anyone the deemed to be an enemy of the state or of their society. Undoubtedly, it was an object of fear and of threat in the eyes of the subjects of Rome, and it would not have been something to promote for display or for decoration as we often employ it today.
What changed all of that, of course, is the "who" of the cross--Jesus. His death on the cross--taking upon Himself the sins of all, becoming the sacrifice for us that through Him and Him alone we might have a way back to God--transformed an instrument of punishment and death into a symbol of grace and salvation and life. What irony!
As we receive Jesus Christ as Lord and experience the forgiveness of sin and salvation from death that He brings into our lives, the "what for" of the cross also becomes meaningful to us. As the One who died for us that we might live, Jesus commands us as believers to "take up your cross daily" and to follow Him. In doing so, we surrender our selfish desires and pursuits to Him and submit to His will and to His priorities, and we seek to have lives that display Him to the world and glorify Him before others. As we take up our own crosses, we follow Jesus in submitting ultimately to the good, acceptable and perfect will of God.
And so, I cannot wait to display the cross in my yard, not only using it to remind others of the holiday and to identify mine as a Christian household, but also to remind me every day as I see it standing there of Christ's sacrifice for me and of my responsibility to be a living sacrifice for Him.
Corrosion and Construction
March 17, 2014
Every once in a while, I hear something that really catches my ear and captures my mind and sets me to thinking deeply and extensively in a certain direction. Such was the case last Friday, when I was driving and listening to the radio. The person speaking on this particular talk show was a guest host whose name I was not familiar with, and I honestly don't recall much he said beyond one particular statement. At one point, as he was talking about the nature of political discourse in America, he noted that we have developed in our nation as a whole a "corrosive culture of complaint" that has rendered us unable to have civil conversations that lead to constructive conclusions.
His thoughts in this regard struck a chord for me for a handful of reasons: For one thing I readily agreed with his assessment of our culture today. Now, let me say that I realize that "corrosive complaint" is nothing new--Israel harshly complained about Moses in Exodus 15-17, there was "no small dissension" and "much debate" in the early church about making the Gospel available to the Gentiles in Acts 15, and even Jesus' disciples in Luke 22 had an argument over who was the greatest among them. Such complaining and arguing and struggling appear to be part and parcel of our nature as human beings.
I do believe, however, that today's society has taken things up a notch, enabled by the constant flow of digital social interaction and by the anonymity that much of it provides. Take, for example, the comment section on any given online article about almost anything. I truly believe that you could write an article about puppies and rainbows, and someone who have something harshly negative to say about it and would feel free to demean your character in the process. This just seems to be how we're wired--argue, complain, slice and dice.
Another reason that this radio host's words caught my attention, however, was that I felt the sting of his finger pointing at me. As a human being immersed in this culture, I too can easily succumb to that part of my natural self that wants to analyze, critique, criticize, complain and condemn without giving so much as a thought to the damage I might cause. Here's why this is a problem: As a believer in Christ, my attitudes and my words are not to be corrosive in nature, because corrosion, by definition, is the process of "eating or wearing away gradually as if by gnawing." Paul addressed such attitudes and speech in Galatians 5:15, where he wrote, "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other." And this is the danger in which we find ourselves in so many areas of life today, whether it be in our churches, our relationships our businesses or even our anonymous interactions with others--we often seem to be intent on destroying each other by biting and devouring each other.
The approach to which we are instead commanded in Scripture is that of building each other up. The Bible uses the word "edification" in Ephesians 4:29 to describe the impact that our attitudes and our words should have on others. "Edification" is the process by which a person builds up another, carefully choosing his thoughts and his words so that their impact will be positive and not corrosive. It is to this that we as Christians are called. This being the case, we are commanded in Colossians 4:6 to make sure that our "conversation" is "always full of grace."
Perhaps more than anything we strive to attain, the transformation of our thoughts and our words into conformity with God's expectations is beyond difficult. For this reason, I have begun to ask God to work in me to examine all of my attitudes, thoughts and words and to ensure that are gracious and edifying to others at all times. I hope you'll join me in doing likewise. Who knows what a difference this new, God-ordained way of thinking and speaking might make in all of our relationships and our interactions with others?
A Silver Anniversary
March 10, 2014
Do you remember what you were doing twenty-five years ago? I certainly do. I'm not asking because this is one of those where-were-you-when-this-happened articles. No, I'm asking because I have a deeply personal connection to this week that goes back a quarter of a century. You see, it was on March 11, 1989, that I stood at an altar, surrounded by friends and family, and watched my beautiful bride walk down the aisle as Trumpet Voluntary was being played. As Beth joined me at the altar, escorted by her father, we began the ceremony that would include making lifelong vows to one another, and then we sealed our vows by placing wedding rings on each other's fingers.
That was a great day. A momentous day. A beautiful, glorious and wonderful day.
But it was just the beginning.
The ensuing days and years since March 11, 1989, have been a great mix of the best of times and the worst of times and everything in between. In fact, if I were to tell you that every day since then has been equally as wonderful and glorious as that day was, Beth would be the first person to call me a liar. As with pretty much every married couple, we have indeed had our share of great times, but we've also had our share of difficult times. We have experienced days when we loved each other so much that we couldn't fathom how it was even possible to love another that deeply, and we've had days when we could barely tolerate each other. Like other couples, we've had both the highs and the lows. That's all part of the deal.
Through all of our twenty-five married years together, however, there has been one thing that we have always gone back to, one thing that we have stood strongly upon and that has been the basic, bedrock foundation of our relationship as husband and wife--our wedding vows. We've run the gamut of those vows we made to each other back then, walking together through richer and poorer, through better and worse, through sickness and health...yet we were very serious when we said that day that we would hold to these promises we made to one another "until death do us part."
In an era when a married couple's chances of remaining together "for as long as they both shall live" are about fifty-fifty, I am tremendously blessed to have a wife who has always taken her vows as seriously as I have mine. For this I am deeply thankful, completely indebted in gratitude to God, who orchestrated the events of our lives decades ago in such a way that we might discover each other, fall in love with each other and then commit to love each other for the rest of our lives.
And God has continued to bless. Throughout a quarter of a century as husband and wife, God has given us two wonderful children, surrounded us with great family and friends, has always taken care of our needs and has continually made His presence known to us through good and bad days alike.
And as Beth and I celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary this week, all of this is worth far more to me than the most precious of silver.
Son of God
March 3, 2014
By now, I'm sure that most everyone reading this article is aware of the spate of Christian-themed movies that are either already showing or will be showing in weeks and months to come. Among these movies are Bible-based films (with some artistic license) like Noah, comedies like Mom's Night Out (due out in May), and dramas such as last summer's Grace Unplugged (some of which was filmed at LPBC). The biggest of these movies, however, is a film produced by actress Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, entitled Son of God.
Taken from their wildly popular History Channel miniseries The Bible, this new film is made up of those portions that examine the life of Christ as told in the Gospels, covering Jesus' earthly existence from birth to resurrection. Prior to its release this weekend, Son of God was panned by many critics, some of whom saw it simply as a rehashing of a well-worn story. Rafer Guzman, a critic for Newsday, opined that the producers' apparent commitment to keep the movie "faithful to its sacred source material" left him with the sense that they were "almost literally preaching to the choir" with "a rote retelling of an arguably familiar story." Thus, he concluded, "the target audience would seem to be those who simply want to hear it again." Still, regardless of such poor-mouthing by critics, cinematic experts predicted that Son of God would take in more than $17 million in its first weekend in theaters.
They vastly underestimated!
In its opening weekend, Son of God surpassed predictions and expectations, taking the number two spot in total theater receipts with an intake of $26.5 million, second only to Non-Stop, a suspense/thriller starring Liam Neeson. The surprising popularity of this film not only shocked critics and experts alike, making big news nationally; it also once again reminded Hollywood of the broad appeal of stories (even "arguably familiar ones"!) that speak to our deepest spiritual needs.
As I heard about the success of Son of God, two quick thoughts popped into my head: First, I was reminded that we as believers are not isolated and alone, existing on our own little island of righteousness in an otherwise spiritually hostile world. Honestly, there are days I feel that way, and such feelings can become a common theme at times in my own preaching and the preaching I hear from others. I don't discount the societal tension that exists in a culture that Scripture refers to as being under the influence of "the prince of this world" (aka Satan; see John 12:31, 14:30 and 16:11), but at the same time I take immense encouragement from knowing that there are millions of others out there who believe as we do. Just as God reassured Elijah with the knowledge that there were seven thousand others like him who had never bowed down to false gods, I am both enheartened and emboldened by knowing that we likewise are not alone.
A second thought that popped into my head was that the vast number of people going to see nothing more than this "rote retelling" of the story of Jesus as revealed in Scripture reminds me that there are a lot more people willing to hear the story than we sometimes are willing to tell it. This understanding spurs me to seek to be more open to the opportunities around me to communicate the Gospel to people with whom I interact. Too often, we as Christians (I say this with my finger pointing at myself) are quick to communicate the bad news, laying out our laundry list of all that is wrong in the world and highlighting everything that we are against. The Gospel, however, by its very definition is good news, and people most often are very willing and eager to hear that which is good, uplifting and bathed in hope. Sometimes we (I) forget this simple fact.
Now is a good time for us (me) to remember this truth and to ask God to open doors for us to tell the good news to people who are willing to listen. There are likely more of them out there than we think.
A Riff on a Theme
February 24, 2014
Early in my years as a college student at Samford University, I considered possibly majoring in music. As a trumpet player and a fledgling arranger, music held a strong appeal for me. At that time, I could easily see myself following a career path into that world, and I spent countless hours taking advantage of opportunities that opened up to me to express myself in a musical fashion. One such occasion that came my way was pretty unique and amazing, although back then I was fairly clueless about it.
Here's my story: As a trumpet player in our school band, our director often provided me with "gigs" that allowed me to make good money and to play in a professional setting. I enjoyed such opportunities, and I jumped at every one that came my way. Around Christmas one year, he asked if I might be available to play backup for an entertainer who was holding a Christmas concert at Samford. As was my usual practice, I said "yes" and thought little else about it until I heard that it was a jazz concert. I enjoyed jazz music, but let's just say it wasn't my forte when it came to playing.
Regardless, I was committed, so I showed up for rehearsal only to discover that the performer I'd be backing up was none other than jazz legend Dave Brubeck! Knowing the name but not fully comprehending his fame, I quickly surmised that I was way out of my element and my level of expertise within a matter of minutes. And then, just as I was feeling the depth of my discomfort, Mr. Brubeck walked over to me and the trombonist (also a Samford student) and told us that in the song we were rehearsing, he wanted us at a particular point to "do something in D." When he saw the look of confusion on my face, he added, "Just do a riff here in D, and keep on playing it until we get to here" (as he pointed to a spot in the music). We agreed, and then, as Mr. Brubeck walked away, I asked the trombone player to explain to me what a "riff" was.
What I found out is that a "riff" is a line (or phrase) of music that is repeated over and over through a song or a portion of a song. Sometimes a riff just serves as filler in a song (as did mine), but it can often be the thing that defines a piece of music, to the extent that most people can identify the song just by hearing that particular phrase (think about the chord progression of Sweet Home Alabama" or, for more classical folks, the repetitive phrases of Pachelbel's Canon in D). As I was reminiscing recently about this moment in my life, I thought about how we all as human beings have our own personal "riffs"--that is, we all have those things that we repeat over and over that define our lives to varying degrees. Some of them can be rather benign, like our hairstyle, but others may have a real impact on us and others around us. We may, for instance, have certain attitudes or behaviors or even emotional states that define us. Or, we may exhibit certain patterns in the way we handle difficult moments or even the good times that friends and family can spot a mile away. Some might be harmful; others might be beneficial.
The spiritual application of this is that we as believers should identify the "riffs" in our lives and examine them carefully to see whether these defining patterns are pleasing/displeasing to God and whether they are beneficial/harmful to us, to others or to God's purposes and plans in our lives. We may find that some riffs require a total rewrite; others might need to be refined a little; some might just turn out to be masterpieces. Ultimately, people ought to be able to hear and see the "riffs" in our lives and note that we look and sound a lot like Jesus!
By the way, here's how my story turned out: After I worked feverishly for several minutes to come up with something, Mr. Brubeck asked me to play it for him. Nervously, I played my riff; he said "cool" and went back to leading the rehearsal. I breathed a sigh of relief and just played my riff like I knew what I was doing. Someday, when I go home to heaven, I hope to receive the approval of the One who desires to orchestrate all of our lives. I don't think I'll hear a Brubeck-type "cool," but a "well done" would be awesome.
Trash and Treasures
February 17, 2014
Boy, it was nice to have a moment of warm weather and sunshine this weekend! It's also a wonderful thing to have a forecast that includes temperatures in the 60s and no snow or ice! As Beth and I were enjoying the recent warmer and brighter weather, our thoughts and our conversation began to turn to springtime, and with that focus came the inevitable discussion about some spring cleaning we want to accomplish. As we talked about what we'd like to tackle, Beth brought up an item that is long overdue and that I had earlier told her would be an emphasis for me in the year 2014. The item to which I'm referring is the gargantuan stack of boxes in our basement (around 25 total) that contain my books. These books represent the combined libraries of both of my grandfathers (who were ministers), around 200 books from the library of the former West End Baptist Church (which disbanded years ago), and the books that I have built up through college, two rounds of seminary and twenty-nine years of ministry.
I openly confess that I am a book hoarder. I love 'em. I'm not a big fan of digital books--no, I love the real thing, especially the hardback kind that look great on a shelf. Part of my passion for books comes from the fact that I love to read and do so voraciously. Part of it also stems from the fact that I enjoy obtaining knowledge, and I like to have available for reference the books in which such knowledge can be found. I also have a fondness for old books, especially those with which I have some sort of connection (for instance, I recently received some old books written by one of my maternal grandfather's beloved seminary professors that actually came from that professor's own personal library--awesome!).
I also begrudgingly admit that it's time for me to "thin the herd" in regard to my books, and that there is space in my basement that needs to be set free, having been occupied by boxes now for almost ten years. As I reflected the last few days on the task ahead, I began to think about how "the great book cleanup of 2014" is much like some of what we deal with in our own lives:
For instance, I know that as I go through the boxes, inventorying their contents, I'll come across many books that I just need to give away to a library or even perhaps to some younger ministers. To me, these books may represent the clutter that sometimes gums up and prevents God's great work in our lives. Like the books, this "clutter" in our lives needs to be removed. Such is the sentiment expressed by the writer of Hebrews 12:1, which exhorts us to "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and...run with perseverance the race marked out for us." In that regard, we could all use a good "spring cleaning" in our lives from time to time, freeing us up to run the race God has laid out before us!
On the other hand, I'm also looking forward to rediscovering some of the treasures that I know are in those boxes--like the antique books I've collected over the years and the pre-publication copies of books sent to my paternal grandfather by Christian greats such as R. G. Lee (which include personal letters from him to my grandfather). This "treasure hunt" reminds me of the amazing gifts, talents, abilities and experiences that many believers keep "boxed up" in their lives, never allowing them to see the light of day or to be used for God's Kingdom purposes. Like my books, which should be displayed for others to enjoy, I truly believe that most Christians have treasures hidden within them that God desires to use for His glory. They just need to be unboxed!
Just as I am doubtless going to require some strong encouragement and exhortation to get this job done, I want to encourage and exhort you to remove from your life that which does not belong, and to uncover and put to use those aspects of your life that God desires to use for His great purposes!
All Things to All People
February 10, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled "What a Church Needs," in which I promoted the idea of the church recognizing and prioritizing that which is "necessary" versus that which is merely "nice." The purpose of that article was to remind us that we can sometimes get so focused on the "window dressing" of doing church that we begin to treat those things that are not vital as if they are, occasionally going so far as to attach to them a level of importance far greater than they deserve. That article from two weeks ago drew some "amen" emails and other digital high-fives, and my original plan was to follow it up with another article that would give the "other side of the coin" to this line of thought, but we were interrupted by the big winter storm, and I felt compelled to write about some things experiences from that event.
This week, however, I would like to pick back up with my original line of thought, and I would like to close the loop on this conversation. Let me explain: Going back to my original thesis, I would argue that one of those things that is necessary and vital for a church is to live up to its God-ordained design as the Body of Christ, created with the intent of carrying out the ministry of Christ "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). I don't know many Christian people who would disagree with this statement. In fact, most all of us would agree that it's a necessary and admirable thing for the church to reach the lost--we just don't always as churches do a very good job of it.
One of the reasons I believe we often falter, stumble and fail at this task is that we don't think analytically about what it might take to gain a hearing from the world that is around us. On the mission field, we know that to reach a group of people it is necessary to communicate in their language and to give careful attention to their cultural norms. We seek to contextualize our ministry in order to make it easier to communicate the message of the Gospel, understanding that what's important is not our American cultural norms, expectations and language--no, what's at stake and what is important is delivering the good news of God's gracious salvation to those who need to hear it. This being the case, we alter our methodologies accordingly, that we might be successful in this great task of making disciples of all the nations.
The Apostle Paul understood this necessity, and he asked the believers in his day to pray for God to open doors for his ministry and also to pray that, when those doors opened, he would be able to communicate the Gospel clearly to those who would be receiving the message. Paul took seriously this need to contextualize his ministry according to his surroundings, to the extent that he was willing to proclaim the following: "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22).
But what does this mean for us? For me, it challenges us to get down to the core of who we are--the Body of Christ, God's missionary organization on earth, tasked with communicating the Gospel--and to ask, "In our context, how do we contextualize our ministry to communicate God's great message of salvation to the world in which we find ourselves?" If I am to answer such a question honestly, I begin to realize that some of the things that I might deem unnecessary (and perhaps even undesirable to me) are the very things I need to employ as tools and methods for contextualizing my ministry to my surroundings, so that "by all possible means I might save some," also realizing at the same time that some things I might have deemed necessary before truly are not.
Such a line of thought can be risky and scary to us, because it opens up everything--including the traditions that we hold dear--to examination, with the determiner of the value of all we do being whether or not it furthers God's stated goal for the church of proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples. And this is a conversation that never stops, because our context and culture are forever changing, and we must likewise be methodologically agile enough to change with it, altering our means and methods accordingly while always, always, always holding on uncompromisingly to the truth of the Gospel. Our task in a nutshell? To reach an ever-changing culture with a never-changing message.
The question is, as we as a church focus on what we truly need, will we be able to make the mental, emotional and cultural leap that is necessary to do the job of reaching those around us with the truth? Only time will tell, but my hope and my prayer is that more and more we will become a church with the heart of Paul--who displayed in his life and ministry Christ's great goal of seeking and saving the lost.
The Image of God
February 3, 2014
Before I go any further with this article, please allow me to go ahead and reserve your thought processes for next week in regard to what I intended to write about this week. Originally, I had intended that this week's article would be a continuation of my article from last week ("What A Church Needs"), but there's something I want to share with you instead while the timing is right. Next week, I'll return to the line of thinking from last week's article, but what I'd like to share with you this week stems from what we as a metropolitan area experienced during the recent winter storm.
By now, we're all safe and warm and dry, but last week's unanticipated weather emergency caught everyone in our area--even James Spann(!)--by surprise. For many, the storm became a 48-hour ordeal, as people were unable to leave work or school, or were stranded in their car trying to make the hazardous trek back home. As many have now noted, this time of emergency provided moments of opportunity for normal folks to perform noble and heroic deeds. For some, these noble acts of heroism involved something as simple as pushing someone's car or directing traffic to help drivers safely navigate the maze of wrecks and icy spots. For others, it meant opening their homes to family, friends and even strangers, taking them in and providing food and shelter for a day or two.
Some actions brought notoriety to a few individuals, including Chick-fil-a owner Mark Meadows, who fed--for free--drivers stranded out on Highway 280. His story was picked up by national news organizations, who extolled the virtue and generosity displayed in the kind act of simply providing food for hungry, weary, stressed-out travelers. Another local person whose story went national and then international was Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw, a neurosurgeon at Trinity hospital who left his stranded vehicle and walked six miles through snow, ice and sixteen-degree weather to perform a life-saving surgery on a patient. Many of us know these two gentlemen personally, and we were excited and proud to see their stories told before the nation and the world.
Countless others, however, stepped up and acted with selfless heroism as well, including the myriad teachers, administrators and other faculty in area schools who cared for, fed and entertained students stranded in their schools, all the while working to reassure frantic parents that all was well. Then there were the workers at the places like the Inverness Home Depot, who handed out free water and coffee to stranded motorists and invited them inside their building to stay until things cleared up. From restaurant and hotel managers, to gas station workers, to piano shop owners, folks around town stepped up in a big way and did what needed to be done to assist others in their time of need.
And here's why I think this is worth noting: It's not just because I want to extol the virtues of good old Alabama folks (although I do). It's not just because I think it's great to see positive stories come out of negative experiences (ditto). It's not just because I like to hear about and communicate heart-warming, good news (ditto, again). No, the reason I wanted to write about all of this is because I think it's important to highlight the rare moments when we get to see in ourselves and others the Imago Dei--the image of God.
Scripture tells us that God created humanity in His own image, but it also teaches us that our sin has so distorted that image that we seldom recognize it in the human race. Too often, our main view of humanity is filled with vile, evil and disgusting images that remind us how far away we have fallen from God's intentions for us. But every once in a while, something happens that reminds us that somewhere deep in our souls, there is still that image, shining through the darkness, hungry to reveal itself to the world. It should be no surprise that those who belong to Christ display the character of God in their lives. But, when we have the rare opportunity to see God's image displayed by people in general, it creates hope in our hearts that there is still a glimmer of something that resembles the Creator in us all, something that cries out for connection with the God who loves us all and desires to draw us to Himself.
That just makes my heart feel better, and it makes me want all the more to introduce others to the God in whose image they were made.
What a Church Needs
January 27, 2014
Lately, our church has been involved in a fascinating--and hopefully profitable--process of assessing our church's needs and communicating them to a group (the Church Needs Assessment Group, no less) of people selected by the church to gather and report this information. As we've gone through this process, it has been an interesting exercise thus far in sparking some debate regarding what we are doing versus what we should be doing and what we need versus what we do not need as a church.
As someone very interested and invested in this church's success in accomplishing its God-given mission, I have spent a great deal of time in recent weeks praying and pondering about what we as a church need. This exercise got me thinking about what we in the modern, American evangelical church have come to believe regarding what churches are supposed to look like these days and how so much of what we now view as "necessary" for a church to be successful is just so much window dressing in the grand scheme of things.
Here's what I mean: You'd be hard-pressed these days to find a church that doesn't utilize projected media in some form. Even the smallest of churches have taken steps to purchase equipment and computer hardware and software to bring them into the digital age. Another growing trend that has been developing for a while now also has churches moving from the old coffee pot in the hallway to full-blown coffee bars or coffee shops where people can get their Starbucks (or reasonable facsimile thereof) "fix" before the worship service starts. I've just named two items, but go down your list of things that you would consider "standard issue" for a church and see how many of them, at the heart of it, are really necessary for God's people to meet together to worship, pray and study God's word (If you actually do this exercise, you'll quickly begin to whittle down your list of the "nice" versus the "necessary").
Now, please don't hear me wrong--I'm not advocating the removal of everything that doesn't have the "necessary" stamp on it. Quite the contrary, I see the value in communication tools and creature comforts that aid us in getting the message across to people. What I am advocating here, however, is the proper recognition and prioritization of those things that are necessary for a church to be a properly-functioning family of God and body of Christ, as opposed to those things that are not.
We should ask, for instance, whether our bigger concern on Sunday mornings is the heat (or air conditioning), or is it that we are seeking to be open to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Are we focusing intently on the one spelling error in the media or the glitch in the sound system, meanwhile missing the greatest opportunity we will have all week to join other believers in lifting our praises to God with one heart and one voice? Are we carefully listening for the voice of God to communicate to our hearts through the Bible Study lesson or the message, or are we all hung up because we ran out of decaf coffee or because the teacher or preacher had an off day? You get the picture.
To assist myself in getting down to what is really necessary, I will often imagine what it would be like to be in a group of believers who, due to persecution, are forced to meet (like many in the early church) in a cave, or (like many in today's persecuted church) in a hidden, remote place. I ask myself, "In that situation, what would be absolutely necessary--biblically speaking--for my brothers, sisters and me to 'have church'?" When I go through this exercise, I begin to understand how precious little of what we deem as "necessary" actually is necessary. Additionally, my mind begins to get focused in on the true necessities. And, in these moments, I find that the most vitally important things have much more to do with what is internal than what is external!
Now, I could continue on and tell you what I think a church really needs, but what would be the fun in that? I think a far more valuable thing would be to ask you to take the time to imagine yourself in a cave or hidden room with fellow believers, trying to be the church. When you reach that place in your mind, ask yourself, "What do we really need?"
Own the Mission
January 20, 2014
For decades now, much literature written for pastors and ministers has been devoted to promoting the idea of leading one's congregation to develop a sense of "ownership" in regard to the church. Loosely defined, the concept of ownership means that the members (and regular attenders) of a congregation move from the mentality that says, "This is the church I attend for now," to a mentality that says, "This is my church." In other words, these individuals move from looking at the church as a provider of spiritual consumer services to instead viewing the church as their family, and themselves as an inseparable part of it. They truly become a part of the body, rather than something that exists outside of and on the periphery of the body.
As a concept, ownership moves the person from being a receiver of ministry to a becoming participant in the carrying out of those ministries; rather than being an external critic who points out problems and waits for someone to solve them, the person with a true sense of ownership takes responsibility not only for seeing the problems (shortcomings, opportunities, etc.) but also for engaging in activity that will help solve them and make the church stronger and healthier. Such ownership is a positive development that brings people into a deeply committed relationship with the church and leads to good things for everyone involved.
In recent weeks, as we have been going through our church needs assessment process, a thought has occurred to me in regard to the concept of ownership that I would like to share with you: While a sense of ownership among church members is desirable feature in the life of a church, I believe that there is a deeper level of commitment that, when grasped and taken hold of by the members of a church family, propels a church to a new level of Kingdom effectiveness that most churches--and most church members--never experience. This new thought (and I'm absolutely sure I'm not the first to think of it) involves church members not just taking on a sense of ownership in regard to the church--which in itself is a very good thing--but even going beyond that to the point that church members begin to take ownership of the missionof the church.
Please note the distinction: While it is a positive and desirable thing for a person to feel a sense of responsibility about a church and its general well-being (ownership of the church), the person who goes to the level of feeling ownership of the mission of the church develops a sense of responsibility in regard to the church accomplishing its God-given, scriptural mission of making disciples. This person moves from asking, "What is the church doing to make disciples?" to instead asking, "As part of this church, what am I doing to make disciples?" This person moves from saying, "Someone should (fill in the blank)," to saying, "I should (fill in the blank."
What I'm talking about here is a level of church involvement that is self-starting and highly participatory, one that takes it personally when people are not being saved and baptized (and personally does something about it--like inviting people and witnessing to people), one that drives a person to use his/her gifts, abilties and resources in such a way that contributions are made to the church becoming a true Great Commission church, reaching people in the world, leading them into relationship with Christ and training them in their growth in Christ.
Many years ago, my grandfather told me about a ministry involvement campaign that he led in a church he pastored in his younger years, the theme of which was, "If it's going to be, it's up to me." I remember at the time thinking how corny and outdated the theme sounded. Today, it sounds like music to my ears. How does it sound like to you?
A God-Defined Vision
January 13, 2014
Vision. It's something we hear about all the time, whether in the business world, the political realm or even within our churches. Hundreds upon hundreds of books have been written about it. Articles, speeches, presentations, seminars, sermons--even commercials--have been devoted to it. In the last few decades, we have been bombarded with messages about the importance and the necessity of having vision to the point that we don't even hear the message anymore. And yet, all of this doesn't change the fact that, without vision, any individual or organization will certainly amble about, going in circles, accomplishing little.
The same is true with the church. We, more than any business or organization, should be visionary in our approach to our existence and to how we carry out what we do, because our mission is not to make money, to sell products, to provide services, to build a customer base, to lead in innovation, to promote a namebrand, to impress people, to craft a great reputation, to develop an adoring fanbase or even to better human existence. On the contrary, our mission--clearly and unequivocally stated in Scripture--is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, people who are sold-out Christ-followers, living for Him through obedient keeping of His words and leading others to do the same. The clarity of that calling is undebatable, as everything in the New Testament points us toward its accomplishment. That's why it's such a wonder to me that churches generally have such trouble seeing it and pursuing it.
As we walk through the final week of our Church Needs Assessment process, I hope and pray that this God-defined vision of making disciples is what is at the forefront of your mind. Oh, we may have varying opinions about how we approach this vision and how we accomplish the mission that emanates from it, but I sincerely hope that when all is said and done, we can honestly say with full integrity that the one thing everyone absolutely agrees on is that, whatever we do, the end goal of making disciples has been at the forefront of our thoughts, our words, our goals, our plans and our actions.
If this has not been at the forefront of this matter for you, I would like to ask you to take some time to read and meditate upon the words of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus' Great Commission for the church. After you've done this, go back and filter all of your thoughts about the church through the lenses of this Great Commission, and see how it alters or affirms your thinking. Ask yourself, "Are my thoughts and my goals for this church conducive to helping this church draw people from out of the world and into a saving relationship with Christ? Does my approach to being and doing church line up with Christ's goal of lifting Him up and drawing people to Him?"
Once you've made this assessment, if your answer is "yes" then I commend your spirit and your heart and your attitude, and I encourage you to continue in the path you're currently traveling. If your honest answer is "no,"' however, then I urge you to spend some time praying and asking God to align your heart with His vision--not the pastor's or anyone else's vision, but God's vision alone.
I once asked a pastor search committee I interviewed with, "What would you be willing to do to reach lost people for Christ?" Their answer: "Whatever it takes." I became their pastor soon after, and we saw God blow the doors off of that place, as many souls came to Christ through the ministry of that church.
What would we be willing to do?
January 6, 2014
"Hey, did you hear the one about what kind of car the apostles drove? It was a Honda, because the Bible says they were 'together in one Accord!'" (Ugh). It's jokes like this one that have gotten preachers a terrible reputation for being ardent purveyors of corniness, as we seek to communicate eternal truths in ways that people will listen. In my earlier years in ministry, I was particularly fond of the above joke, however, because I actually drove a Honda Accord at the time. So, I was guilty of making constant references to the "together in one accord" pun, much to the eye-rolling chagrin of those who chose to travel with me.
And yet, while there has always been a corny, "punny" attachment to this phrase for me, there is also a deep seriousness with which I take the idea of Christians being "together in one accord." Here's what I mean: The old phrase, "with one accord," that you find in the King James Version of the Bible (and the New King James) but not in the newer translations comes from a Greek word in the New Testament that literally translates into the phrase "same mind." This word is used several times in the book of Acts to describe the church as having a united, singular focus as they followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I find this biblical idea of same-mindedness to be intriguing on two counts: First, I'm intrigued because it's such a clear, scriptural command in regard to the church. Time and time again throughout Scripture, we are commanded to unity, and the ideal of a united church is upheld as a marker of maturity. In Ephesians 4, we are called to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit" (verse 3), as we are reminded that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father over all of us who believe (verses 4-6). As the chapter unfolds, Paul writes about God's design for the church and His intent that it will all work toward the end of us being "built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (verses 12-13).
A second reason I find the idea of same-mindedness intriguing is because it seems almost impossible to accomplish. Because we all have varying backgrounds, attitudes, opinions, priorities, emphases, ways of looking at things, types of reasoning, etc., we approach the things of God and the mission of the church often from very different points of view, which brings with it a tremendous amount of head-butting and even the occasional struggle and strife that seem to be so common to churches.
Sometimes, the differences can become strong enough almost to cause one to throw his/her hands up and walk away from the whole thing in frustration, but I have learned and experienced over the years that God can and does use all of our various-ness to paint a bigger picture with us together than we could ever see alone--or just with people who have our exact mindset. The miraculous thing is not that God necessarily changes our minds so that we all think the same way and hold the exact same opinion on everything, but rather that He takes us in all of our diferences and works all the variety together toward one common, greater, eternal goal. It's an incredible thing to watch and to experience!
That's why I am looking forward to seeing the results of the survey and listening sessions that are presently being undertaken by our Church Needs Assessment Group. When it's all said and done and the results are in, I will be looking (and I hope you will too) for those places where, in our variety, we see the similarity of the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit, guiding us to points of "same-mindedness." And, when we see those points, I can't wait for us to pursue them together....
...in one accord.
Tips for Jesus
December 16, 2013
A few weeks ago in a Sunday morning sermon, I shared a story that at the time was in the news. The story centered around an incident that had allegedly occurred back in November that was widely reported by news agencies around the nation and even gained notoriety internationally. According to reports, a New Jersey waitress who is homosexual received a note on a customer's receipt informing her that this customer could not leave a tip "because I do not agree with your lifestyle and how you live your life."
At the time, I noted that the assumption among many commentators on the incident was that the people who left the message must be conservative Christians, and I lamented that such actions leave a black eye on the cause of Christ in the world. Further, I remarked that we, of all people, should be generous, even to those with whom we vehemently disagree, as is clearly outlined for us in Scripture (see Proverbs 25:21 and Romans 12:20). I was saddened that someone who might be a believer, in an attempt to make a statement about what is right and true, ended up making a mess that was reported on an international scale.
In the past week, however, the whole incident has been revealed to be a hoax perpetrated by the waitress herself, who, as a result of her actions has been fired from her job and has been roundly criticized by people on all sides. Needless to say, I was relieved to hear that the whole thing was false and that no one representing the Body of Christ had done something like this.
While all of this was playing out, another story began to quietly surface that cast a positive light on Christ and His church. While reported in only a few media outlets, it is certainly worth noting and highlighting, and I want to share it with you in case you missed it. In the midst of the brouhaha brought on by the New Jersey hoax, waiters across our nation--and even one in Mexico--began receiving tips of $1,000, $2,500, $5,000 and even $7,000 and $10,000 with the words "God bless" written on the receipt and "@tipsforjesus" stamped next to the signature.
One of the people who has been identified as a "Tip for Jesus" representative is Jack Selby, the former vice president of PayPal.com. When asked by a restaurant manager about the enormous tips, Selby reportedly responded, "Just because. We tip a hundred times the bill."
As saddened as I was about the waitress story that turned out to be a total fabrication, I was elated to read about these amazing acts of generosity by individuals representing Christ around our nation. And, I believe that the example of such individuals is certainly one for all of us as believers to follow. Now, I know that most (if not all) of us cannot afford to tip a hundred times the amount of our bills, but all of us can certainly think of unique and wonderful ways to be generous to others, including many ways that do not have a dollar sign attached to them.
As you consider how you might represent the Body of Christ through a kind and generous spirit this Christmas season, allow God to do a work in you that moves your heart to see others in a new light. open doors for people, help someone who needs an extra hand, pick up something someone drops, maybe even anonymously purchase the food of the person in the drive-through line behind you, leaving the message "God loves you" with the server to pass along to the person in the car behind them. Such acts are guaranteed to impact people, and in a very positive fashion.
And in so doing, we spread a little more light this Christmas.
(Pastor’s note: Special thanks to our new Minister of Music, Ryan Leffel, for sharing his heart in this week’s article)
What Will the Fruit Look Like...
December 11, 2013
Last week I shared with you how God led me and my family to Liberty Park. How He showed me that it’s about more fruit in my life and in the life of the church. The last several months I have wondered what He meant by more fruit. What it would look like and how much would there be? Having been here just over a month, I am still learning about the church. I am seeking to understand what God has planned for Liberty Park Baptist Church and how I fit into that plan. Even though I cannot speak in specific terms as to what the worship ministry will look like, I can paint a big picture view based on some biblical principles.
First, I believe that God desires for the believers of LPBC to be a mighty army of worshipers. In John 4, we learn that God is seeking worshipers that will worship Him “in spirit and truth.” We worship God according to who He has revealed Himself to be in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In II Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat sent the choir ahead of the army to sing and praise the Lord and their enemies were defeated. I desire to see the entire church family totally engaged in worship so that the enemy is defeated and lives are transformed. We as the body of Christ, should be overcome with excitement as we join together to worship Almighty God. The lost need to see passion for Jesus and the brokenhearted need to experience the grace of God in the shelter of the church. When we join together with hearts and minds completely focused on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and not ourselves, that is when we can experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
Second, I believe it is God’s desire for the believers of LPBC to be united in their worship. Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation shall praise Your works to another, And shall declare Your mighty acts.” How wonderful it is to see generations of families worshiping together and sharing their journey of faith. Each generation should embrace the expressions of different generations, when these expressions are firmly grounded in the word of God. The body of Christ is edified and strengthened when this occurs… grandparents worshiping alongside grandchildren and children worshiping alongside parents and so forth. The world has seen enough division in the body of Christ. One presenter, at a worship conference I attended, went as far as to say that the world has seen enough divorce and separation. It did not need to see and experience it in the church.
My desire is to see a worship ministry that reaches the generations from birth to glory. If we are going to be a mighty army of worshipers and see true transformation, we must disciple every generation to understand what it means to worship in “spirit and truth.” Each generation should disciple and learn from one another. One of the reasons there is great division in the church concerning worship, is because we have disregarded the words of Paul in Philippians 2:2-4, which states “regard one another as more important than himself”. Personal preference and taste has become the driving force rather than the God of the Universe and the unity of the body.
I pray that we can develop music and worship ministries that disciple children, students and adults. To begin this process I will be devoting much of my time and energy this first year to our weekly worship gatherings and the adult choir. In a multi-generational church the adult choir is the backbone of the worship ministry.
Please join me in praying for the growth and development of the music and worship ministries. There is much work to be done and it will take the support and encouragement of the entire church family. It thrills my soul to think about the kind of “fruit” God has in store for LPBC.
In Christ Alone,
Ryan Leffel, Minister of Music
(Pastor's Note: Special thanks to our new Minister of Music, Ryan Leffel, for sharing his heart in the next two weeks' articles.)
December 4, 2013
On June 9, 2013 during the evening worship service at First Baptist Church of Athens, Alabama God began to show me why He wanted me to be the next worship pastor at Liberty Park Baptist Church. Our worship team had finished the worship set and found our places to sit and listen to the guest preacher. He announced John 15 as the scripture passage and I was excited because it is one of my favorites and one that God has used in my life over and over again.
Previously God had used John 15:5 which states, “I am the vine you are the branches; he who abides in me, and I in Him, bears much fruit; for a part from Me you can do nothing,” in a powerful way during my last year of service at FBC Montgomery. Since those days God has continued to remind me that I can do nothing without Him. To be a growing disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ I must be abiding in the vine. So on that June night I listened a little more attentively than usual.
About half way through the message that night, I realized the Holy Spirit was speaking to me about leaving Athens and coming to Liberty Park. I sat there amazed at what the Holy Spirit was saying to me. The only thing I could think was “God, are you kidding me. You cannot really be calling me and my family to do this?”
I do not remember the title of the preachers message nor his points, but I do remember verse two of chapter 15 and what the Holy Spirit brought to light. John 15:2 says, “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit.” So as God gently tapped me on the shoulder, He revealed the reason I needed to leave FBC Athens and pack up my family of five and come to Liberty Park…MORE FRUIT.
I had nine years of fruitful ministry at FBC Athens and had no reason to believe that the years ahead would not be fruitful. There were still many projects to begin and developments to pursue. Why would God want me to leave when so much work still needed to be done? On a personal level so much had happened in Athens. I met Kelly and we were married. Our three sons were born. We survived two renovations to our home and countless other events that caused our roots to grow deep. This was Kelly’s hometown and home church. Kelly’s parents were part of our everyday life. Our boys enjoyed the daily contact with grandparents and we as parents enjoyed their help.
I kept asking God, “Are you sure?” Every time I asked, God kept reminding me of John 15:2, “and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit.” I sought wise counsel during this time and one mentor shared with me after I poured out my heart that maybe I was more concerned about the comforts and security of home and nine years of ministry than I was about surrendering my life to God and a new ministry opportunity.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, I finally realized that sometimes things have to be taken away or as Jesus says “pruned,” so that new growth might occur. And with that clarity I began walking through the doors that God opened. I am here, along with my family for more fruit. More fruit in our personal lives, our family, our ministry and more fruit in the life and ministry of Liberty Park Baptist Church.
Romans 7:4 says,“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.” Dear friends, we have been set free from the bondage of sin and joined together as the body of Christ to bear fruit for God and His kingdom. I’m not specifically sure what the fruit is going to look like, or how it is going to taste or smell, but I do know if we trust Him for the growth it will be far better than we can imagine. Next week I hope to share with you a least a big picture view of my hopes and dreams for the worship ministry of Liberty Park Baptist Church.
In Christ Alone,
Ryan Leffel, Minister of Music
Thanksgiving--Where Science and Religion Agree!
November 25, 2013
For many centuries now, it seems that science and religion have often been at odds with one another, sometimes violently so (Please note, by the way, that I use here the term "religion" as opposed to "Christianity," "faith," or "Scripture." The reason for this is that I believe that a great deal of needless conflict has been created by people on both sides of the aisle, while in truth there is much less conflict between science and matters pertaining to faith than we perceive there to be. Yet I digress...). History is rife with many prime examples, some of which are shocking to note in the hindsight of centuries, and yet we still find different segments of humanity sharply divided when these two powerful and potent forces stand at odds with one another.
For this reason, it's wonderful to find those moments when science and religion intersect in a positive way. It's refreshing when, rather than being diametrically in opposition to one another, the two meet in the same place and agree on the same truths. Such has been the case in recent years in the understanding of both religion and science in regard to the matter of gratitude/thankfulness.
In recent years, a variety of scientific studies have sought to gauge the effects of gratitude on the emotional, mental and physical well-being of individuals, and the results have shown something that religion has held to be true all along: that being thankful brings into a person's life a number of clearly-identifiable benefits. Among these scientifically-recognized benefits are sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life, better treatment of others and a generally optimistic view of things. Researchers also found that grateful people are more likely to exercise regularly, eat a healthier diet, cope better with stress and daily challenges, schedule regular exams with their doctor and to have stronger immune systems, improved mental alertness and a brighter view of the future.
Among the more prominent of the "gratitude scientists" is professor and research psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons ("the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude"), who in 2007 compiled his research at the University of California, Davis into a book entitled Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (it was reintroduced in 2008 with a slightly different subtitle--How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier). I highly commend to you Dr. Emmons' books and articles, which, rather than keeping an arm's length from religion, instead embrace scriptural calls to and examples of thankfulness, seeing in them the wisdom of the ages that is available for the benefit of all humanity.
Dr. Emmons writes not only about the benefits of gratitude, but also about the barriers to gratitude and even about what one can practically do to become a person of gratitude. As he writes about the development of a lifestyle of thankfulness, he stresses that the key to gratitude is humility that grows from a recognition that we are not completely self-sufficient and entitled to all that comes our way. He notes that an honest, humble assessment of life finds, rather, that we are vastly dependent on others--"parents, friends, our pets, God"--for what we cannot provide for ourselves and that all of life "is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed." When we discover and grasp this mindset of humble gratitude, we move away from egocentricity, self-aggrandizement and a bias toward being self-serving and to a place of "spiritually and psychologically liberating" thankfulness. "Gratitude," declares Dr. Emmons, "sets us free."
As we enter into this holiday season, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and on into the New year, I as a pastor am pleased to concur with this scientist with a hearty "Amen!"
November 18, 2013
Back in 1986, a book was published that caught my imagination and attention. Penned by author Robert Fulghum, the book--All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten--was an instant hit, resonating with people across the nation and around the world due to its simple, folksy wisdom that reminded us of how complicated we can make life, often at the cost of the most rudimentary of things that we need to know and to do as human beings.
Fulghum summed up in sixteen statements the things he learned early on that we should all know and practice, including "share everything," "play fair," and "clean up your own mess." Although I was only a college student at the time when the book appeared on the shelves, I ate it up and enjoyed it thoroughly. In the ensuing years, however, I have noticed some matters along the way that Fulghum left unaddressed--matters that I feel are of equal importance and that also hearken back to the things many of us learned when we were young. One such matter can be summed up in this statement: "Cooperation is important."
This point was driven home to me last week, as I attended the annual meeting of the Alabama Baptist State Convention in Huntsville, Alabama. As I sat and listened to reports from the various entities of our convention on Tuesday and Wednesday, I was reminded about the tremendous ministry that happens throughout our state, across our nation and around our world due to the cooperative giving and cooperative efforts of Alabama Baptists--including us at LPBC.
You see, what some folks don't realize is that ten percent of every dollar that is given through Liberty Park Baptist Church goes into a fund called the Cooperative Program--a fund that has been in existence since 1925 and that serves to supply the needs of the entities of our national Southern Baptist and state Alabama Baptist ministries. On the national level, our ten percent combines with the funds given by almost forty thousand other Southern Baptist churches to provide support for more than ten thousand missionaries at home and abroad, plus their dependents. Our cooperative giving and efforts also support our work in disaster relief, a ministry with which Southern Baptists have become almost synonymous. Beyond that, our giving supports six Southern Baptist seminaries, which train ministers and missionaries whose ministries impact hundreds of thousands--if not millions--more. And that's just some of what we do together.
On the state level, our giving and our going supplies the needs for all sorts of ministries, including everything from student and college ministries to racetrack evangelism at Talladega Raceway events to literacy ministry for internationals living in Alabama. Our state efforts also serve to create and strengthen global missions partnerships around the world, as we connect with believers and organizations in other nations who share our desire to lead others to Christ and to plant new churches.
As we work cooperatively, we find that we can do much more together than we can separately. That's a great lesson to learn on every level, from the local church level to our associational, state and national partnerships. This lesson is so simple, so fundamental, and yet, we so easily bypass it. I want to encourage you to ask God to open your mind and the "eyes of your heart" to the myriad opportunities that surround you to cooperate with other believers to reach the world for Him and to minister to others in His name. You just might be surprised--and amazed--at what you find.
November 11, 2013
Last week, I discussed in my article the matter of church membership, highlighting its importance and its biblical nature. I noted that, in today's American Christianity, a trend is developing in which otherwise seemingly mature, strong believers are disinclined to commit to be connected to a particular church, choosing instead to meander about from church to church, taking in a little here and a little there. I referred to this practice as "Nomadic Christianity"--a type of Christian practice that commends the philosophy of not settling down and becoming a committed part of a local congregation, one that almost hyper-spiritualizes the notion that one should dabble a little in many congregations, never developing anything more than a surface-level relationship with any given church.
I also noted in last week's article that I know there are some who heartily object to the idea of any sort of set membership, drawing their argument from the fact that church membership is not spelled out explicitly in Scripture. My counterargument, however, was that, while the Bible never says, "Thou shalt be a church member," it certainly does uphold the ideal of membership in a local body of believers throughout much of the New Testament. Here's a case in point:
In ! Corinthians 5, Paul writes that there is a man in their church who is proudly involved in an adulterous relationship with his stepmother. Rather than addressing this, the church appears to be celebrating the relationship, an attitude which Paul finds detestable. Instead of celebrating, Paul declares that the church must "expel the wicked man from among you." Here's the rub for a person who doesn't believe in church membership: how can a person be expelled from something if he's not a part of it to begin with? If there's no formalized membership of any sort, how can the church take action to disinclude or expel the immoral man?
Now, as I mentioned in last week's article, I'm not talking here about mere "paper membership"--that is, a membership that is based on a person simply being a member on a roll. No, I'm talking about a much deeper type of membership, one that emanates from a deep commitment to a local church family and carries with it ties and bonds of deep relationship. While such a member might indeed have a membership that is noted on a roll somewhere, his commitment has little to do with that piece of paper and much to do with "the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love."
Don't get me wrong here; I do believe that paper membership--that is, a formalized roll of some sort--does have its place. In fact, as a shepherd, I would find it very difficult to keep up with my sheep if I didn't know who they were, and it's awfully hard to know who they are without some sort of formalized membership. On the other hand, when that piece of paper is all that exists of one's relationship with a church, it's awfully hard to consider that person to be a true member of that church (please note that I'm not talking here about the homebound or others who are Providentially hindered from being a part of a church).
If I were to sum up my thoughts on this matter, here's what I would conclude: While I believe that a mere paper church membership is only of limited value, I also believe that a nomadic type of Christianity is an aberration of what God intends for our church family relationship. What I would see as ideal is a formalized membership (or paper membership, if you will) that is good for the ink with which it is written because it backed up by a commitment of the heart that is revealed by that person participating fully in the life and fellowship of the particular congregation.
When it comes to church membership, where do you stand? Are you a Christian nomad, seeing no need to commit to a church? Are you a "paper member," one whose only connection with your church is written in ink on a card? Or, are you a true church member, one who loves and is committed to a particular church family--a member on paper but also a member from the heart?
November 4, 2013
Over the weekend, I had an encounter with someone I had not seen in years, an individual who I have known most of my life. This person is someone who I have always respected and have always thought of very highly, and I was overjoyed to have this interaction and to touch base again. Although our conversation was brief, it was friendly and upbeat--in keeping with this old friend's character--and it was a wonderful treat to be able to catch up, albeit in summary fashion.
As we were concluding our conversation and going our separate ways, my friend--not due to any inquiry of mine--mentioned in an offhand way that she and her husband had begun to "go here and there" to different churches on Sundays, worshiping wherever they happened to land that week. Because I've always known my friend to be a very mature, strong believer, I was a bit surprised, but not altogether concerned, knowing that people from time to time will make transitions to different churches, and I automatically assumed such was the case here, and that she and her husband were just "in between churches," as we sometimes put it.
As she was walking away, however, she concluded her comments by adding, "After all, there's no place in the Bible that says you have to be a member of any one church--as long as we're worshiping somewhere with God's people, we're happy!" And with that, my alarm bells went off. Unfortunately, we were headed in two different directions, and we both had time constraints, so I was not able to address her statement, which I find faulty at best. If we had been able to continue talking, I would have wanted to gently and respectfully disagree with my friend, letting her know that, while the Bible does not have an explicit command regarding church membership--"Thou shalt be a member of a local church"--it certainly does spell out clearly in many ways that a believer ought to be attached to a local congregation (and I'm not talking about mere "paper membership"--but more on that next week).
There are other matters in Scripture that are not explicitly defined for us either, and yet through our study of the totality of Scripture, we are able to piece together a good understanding of these matters. One such example would be the doctrine of the Trinity. Although not described or named as such in Scripture, the concept is clearly presented for us to understand. Another is the "plan of salvation." Although there is no place in the Bible where every aspect of the "Four Spiritual Laws" or any other such plan is laid out for us, the whole of Scripture clarifies for us God's path to salvation so that we are able to comprehend it and act upon it.
This is why I am disturbed by this new trend I'm seeing, even in people who are apparently strong, mature Christians, of not being connected with any particular congregation, but just floating from place to place, worshiping wherever the wind happens to blow them on any given Sunday. The prevailing sentiment among folks who follow this path seems to be that there is no definitive call for Christians to be a committed part of any particular church, and that there is somehow something commendable about flying about unattached from church to church, never really settling in anywhere.
And yet, the briefest of overviews of the New Testament reveals that much of it was written as letters to individual churches, and much of the material in those letters is intended to teach Christians how to live together in community and interact with each other in ways that are reflective of who we are in Christ. A serious reading of the New Testament lends itself to an understanding that God intends for us to be deeply connected, finding through that connection encouragement, accountability, fellowship and partnership in the Gospel. The idea of an untethered, unattached, "nomadic Christianity" is a foreign concept to Scripture.
I'm sure that some will gladly debate me on this subject, but I stand firmly on the conviction that God's intent for us is not an individualized, buffet-style, consumer-driven, flyabout Christianity, but one that calls us to look to Him for our assignment, commit to a local church congregation, settle in for the long-haul, and learn in that environment all about life together as God's people.
More on this next week...
Loving Our Neighbors
October 28, 2013
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, an incident is recorded in which an expert in the Jewish religious laws tests Jesus by asking Him, "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Because the Jewish religious leaders of the time held for the most part that all the commandments were equal, this expert's question was intended to trip up Jesus and to expose Him to ridicule from the religious establishment that would leave him discredited as a true teacher with deep understanding in the eyes of the community. It was the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" question of the day for these men who sought to undermine Jesus' ministry.
In answer, Jesus provided the perfect response, replying that the greatest command is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). He followed up with what He declared to be the second greatest command as well: "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31).
As I have studied Jesus' two Great Commands over the years, and as I have observed my own life and the lives of other believers, I have become convinced that we are far more adept at keeping the first command ("love God") than we are at keeping the second ("love neighbor"). We find it much easier to love God, because God is love. We love Him because He first loved us and because He sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10) and because He freely offers us the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23). We love God because He works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28) and because He is the Giver of all good and perfect gifts to us (James 1:17). God is also perfect and perfectly self-sufficient (Acts 17:24-25), so our love for Him doesn't drain us out of His neediness, but rather blesses us and builds us up in return.
But loving our neighbors is a bit more difficult. Our neighbors are not God. Our neighbors may not necessarily love us first or even at all. Our neighbors may not do a thing for us, either to elicit love from us or in response to our love for them. In fact, our neighbors may be more interested in doing harm to us than good, or they may just not respond to us at all. Our neighbors, like all humans, are needy, self-centered and messed up in one regard or another. Loving our neighbors can be emotionally draining, expensive and costly to us in a number of ways, and we may never receive any readily discernible benefit whatsoever in return for loving them.
And yet, Christ's command is clear: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
That's one of the reasons I think our Fall Festival us such an important event. It's a huge way for us to say to our community, "We love you!" Yes--it's expensive, it's difficult to pull off, and it requires a great deal of energy, effort, time and planning. When it's done, it leaves us a huge mess to clean up. It doesn't bring a tremendous influx of people into our church, and we don't even see numerous people coming to Christ through it. But what it does do is give us, as a church, an opportunity to love on and serve our community in a way that no other event or ministry does. For this reason, I greatly value the Fall Festival, and I look forward to it every year. I see it as a fun and easy opportunity for everyone in our church who is able to take some time to serve and to enjoy hosting our community at our place.
All of the above makes me think: What are some other ways that we can love our neighbors? Is this a question that occupies your mind? Considering that loving our neighbor is declared by Jesus to be the second greatest command, don't you think we should give it some serious thought? As we approach an interesting time of the year with naturally built-in opportunities for interacting with, sharing with, ministering to and serving our neighbors--think of all the upcoming holidays--can you think of some creative and meaningful ways to love your neighbor? I would love to hear back from you as you come up with new ideas!
October 21, 2013
On Sunday, we concluded a message series that dealt with issues regarding the family, looking to Scripture to find God's instruction for maximizing our family relationships. Each week, one of the issues I sought to keep in front of our congregation is the clear, biblical understanding that our earthly familial relationships are unique in that they reflect various aspects of our relationship with God. The husband/wife bond, for example, is often used in Scripture as a metaphor for God's connection with His people. The entire book of Hosea employs this literary device, using the real-life marriage of the prophet and his adulterous wife Gomer to display the sinful, wandering nature of Israel alongside the loving, forgiving and patient character of God. Likewise, the parent/child relationship deeply reflects the believer's standing with God who, according to Scripture, adopts us as His children when we come to Him in faith (Romans 8:15) and gives us the right to become children of God when we receive Christ as Lord and Savior (John 1:12).
When I was younger in my own faith, I failed to see the depth and significance of such passages and emphases, focusing instead on the more forensic aspects of Christianity, such as atonement, justification and redemption. My concern at times bordered on being solely legal in nature, which left me with a solid understanding of the judicial perspective of salvation, but left me with a poor grasp of the deeply relational nature of the Christian faith.
All of that began to change for me around twenty-two years ago, when my son Blake was born. Although I had lived as a child of good, godly parents who had always provided a strong example of faithfulness to me, until the birth of my son--becoming a father myself--I had never "caught" the deep, deep meaning of Scripture passages that reveal God's fatherly approach to us, His children. It was only upon becoming a father that the sense of responsibility for the well-being, nurture, security, instruction, discipline that a parent feels for a child became real to me, and thus opened to me a whole new vista of understanding in regard to how God feels and acts toward us as His children.
And the love! Such a deep, heart-rending love that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was shocked at how my heart ached with love for my son and how I longed to just sit and hold him for hours and hours, staring at him in wonder. Upon the birth of my daughter Bailey, I was further surprised at how expansive this love could be, growing to fully envelope her as well in the father/child bond, not at all diminished by having to share it with her brother, but rather doubled with the addition of another child. In all of these experiences as a father, my understanding of God grew deeper and broader.
As I considered these things, and as my children grew, I also began to see what a maturing child's relationship toward his father and mother is supposed to be, and I began to note how that earthly relationship uniquely informs my relationship with my heavenly Father. The things I desire, expect and hope for from my children--obedience, honor, respect, love--are the same things that God desires, expects and hopes for from me!
Galatians 4:6 declares, "Because you are His sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba,' Father" (The word "Abba" is ancient Aramaic--the language Jesus spoke--for "Papa," the daddy-like term a child of that place/time would have used in addressing his father). I encourage you to take some time this week to ponder the richness of God's Father/child relationship with you and to let His Spirit teach you what it means to be His child!
Help for Struggling Marriages
October 14, 2013
Years ago, someone--I'm ashamed to admit that I cannot remember who--gave my wife Beth and me some powerful advice: This person said that the best gift we could give our children would be to love each other and to have a strong marriage. For more than twenty-four years now we've worked toward that end, enjoying many good times and enduring many difficult times together. It has not always been easy, and it has not always been fun, and we still work at it to this day, but all along God has walked us through the good and the bad and has blessed us with a strong union that we enjoy and for which we are deeply grateful.
In our services last Sunday, we took a look at what God has to say about marriage in His word. Now in the closing stages of our message series on the family (Roots: Strength for Your Family Tree), we began to focus on the main relationships that make up the family, looking first at the husband/wife relationship and next (this coming Sunday) at the parent/child relationship. As we focused on marriage, we looked at some great biblical teachings on the subject, and much was said about it, but there is much yet to be said. That being the case, I wanted to use this article to address a handful of topics that I was not able to address on Sunday morning.
First, please know that as a minister for almost 29 years, I have dealt with numerous troubled marriages. In any given year, I will work with a dozen or so couples whose marriages are in various stages of struggle, some of them minor, some of them bordering on catastrophic. I am not a counselor by training--I am a Bible teacher--yet experience and insight gained over the years have helped me to help couples who are struggling. Although space prevents me from sharing all that I've learned and want to share with you, here are a few items that I think are important in seeking to gain health for a hurting marriage:
Talk with someone. Too often, spouses in troubled marriages don't talk about their struggles until they are at their breaking point. I encourage couples to seek intervention early and often, reaching out to others to gain much-needed assistance in strengthening their relationship. Please note, however, that it DOES matter who you consult for help. In this fallen world, it's pretty easy to get bad advice, even from some who claim to have wise counsel. I suggest that you first begin to talk with God Himself about it. Then, talk with a trusted minister, meet with a licensed marriage and family therapist (preferably a Christian counselor), and entrust your concerns to godly peoplewho will commit to pray for you, encourage you and hold you accountable. Getting things in the open is necessary to begin the healing process; hiding it or ignoring it only makes it worse. If your marriage is in trouble, don't wait and don't hesitate. Get help today.
Remember that love is a commitment--not a feeling. I cannot count the times in working with couples that I have heard, "I'm just not in love with him/her anymore." When I hear this claim, I always try gently to help the one saying it understand that, in their marriage vows, they did not pledge to be in love until parted by death. No, the promise was to love until death do us part.There will be times in a marriage when the feelings are not there, when the romance appears all but gone, perhaps even times when you don't much like each other. A true, biblical love, however, is one that does not wax and wane based on the whims of feelings, regardless of how deep those feelings may be. This kind of love, empowered by God's Holy Spirit, digs down deep and holds on through the stormy back of forth of feelings that come and go. A successful marriage endures through the ups and the downs because those individuals involved focus on the abiding commitment that is called for in a biblical understanding of love.
Practice patience and perseverence. Struggling marriages don't get there overnight. Generally speaking, the problems in these troubled unions are chronic in nature, having developed over a period of years. Too often, however, couples will unrealistically expect their pastor or counselor to work a miracle and to quickly unravel and repair everything that has taken a long time to get into the shape that it's in. A couple that desires to navigate through the troubled waters and to come through safely on the other side will have to commit to a long-term process of discovering what led to their problems to begin with and of repairing and rebuilding their wounded or broken relationship. The patience and perseverence required for such an endeavor can be obtained from God, and the believer who begins to seek Him will find that they naturally develop as fruit of his/her growing relationship with God.
Although there is much more to say about marriage--literally volumes--these are the issues on my heart this week, matters of importance that I want to share with you in regard to this most important relationship. Please know that if you are in a struggling marriage, God stands ready to help. Lean on Him fully and begin the process of healing. Let Him guide you to those who can counsel, support, encourage and hold you accountable. Start today.
We Are Blessed!
October 7, 2013
How about this for a big announcement: On Sunday, September 29, the Liberty Park Baptist congregation voted to call Ryan Leffel as our next Minister of Music! This decision has been long-awaited, and much prayer, time and effort has been given to this search. And, while the process has been extended and difficult, we as a church have been blessed in two major ways that need to be recognized and for which we need to be grateful to God:
First, our God did not leave us "high and dry" in the interim period. Quite the opposite--God has provided for us in the most abundant and wonderful way through the ministry of Steven Ray, whose spirit, giftedness and enthusiasm have been a blessing to every one of us over the last two and a half years. Far beyond just serving as a musical fill-in, Steven and his wife Calah have become a part of our family, and we have enjoyed their friendship and their involvement in the life of LPBC as they have nestled deeply into our hearts. We've also been privileged to rejoice with them in the growth of their family during the interim period, with the birth of their son Carter (and with another little boy on the way!), and we have all fallen in love with them as they have served among us so diligently and passionately. We would do a great disservice to God if we failed to recognize His amazing provision for us in the form of the Ray family! I hope each of you will thank God for the Rays and will also openly express your thanks to Steven and Calah for being willing vessels in God's hands through which He has poured many blessings on us.
Second, we were able to experience a powerful move of the Holy Spirit two Sundays ago, as Ryan Leffel led the choir and led the congregation in worship--truly an affirming act on God's part to express Himself among us in such a strong way! Such deep spiritual confirmation after such a long and challenging search was exactly what we needed as a church. It was good to see and experience the overwhelming unity of our vote to call Ryan, and we look forward to seeing and experiencing what God will do through him and his ministry as he joins us for his first Sunday on November 3.
Although we voted to receive Ryan on September 29, we had to wait another week before putting anything in our publications about him, because Ryan and his wife Kelly still had to take the tough step of telling their church family at First Baptist Church of Athens, Alabama, that they would be leaving there after more than nine years of fruitful and joyous ministry. The announcement of Ryan's resignation was doubly-difficult due to the fact that Kelly grew up in FBC Athens, where her parents are still members. Having such deep, deep connections to that church, one can imagine how heartbreaking this time must be for them and for that church family. Knowing this, I want to ask all of you to be in prayer--not only for Ryan and Kelly, along with their sons William, Harrison and Haynes, but also for Kelly's family and for their extended family of FBC Athens. Let's commit to ask God to cover them with His grace and also to provide for their needs even as He has provided for ours.
And, as we await the arrival of the Leffels, let's pray that God will give them a smooth and blessed time of transition, seeing to their every need in regard to housing, schooling, good neighbors, safe travel, and everything else we can think of to ask on their behalf.
My friends, God is so good to us. Let's thank Him for that.
What Have You Done for Him Lately?
September 30, 2013
Most of us at some point have had or will have at least one of those individuals in our life who is a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" kind of person. Do you know the kind I'm talking about? It's that person who is all about you as long as they're benefitting from you, but as soon as that stream of attention or benefit subsides, they either have no use for you or even become antagonistic toward you. Such a mindset in someone who you might have considered to be a friend is disturbing at best, and can even prove to be hurtful and damaging to one's emotional well-being in the long run. And yet it happens all the time, sometimes even among people who may have the best of intentions but fall into an undesirable pattern nonetheless of viewing others only in pragmatic terms that see them through the lenses of their utility and not through the eyes of God.
Gratefully, God Himself is not like that. He does not view us in terms of our usefulness to Him, but rather in terms of relationship. John 1:12 declares, "Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God." First John 3:1 similarly proclaims, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" It's wonderful to know that God sees us from the stance of a Father who dearly loves His children, rather than viewing us in a utilitarian fashion.
And yet, such knowledge of God and His view of us begs the question, "How do we view Him?" Do we view God in a utilitarian, pragmatic way, only throwing some attention in His direction when He does something for us or when we need something from Him? Is our view of God and our feelings toward Him based on a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately philosophy? How would we know? How would we evaluate such a thing?
I believe that a good way to evaluate one's stance in this matter is simply to ask, "What have I done for Him lately?" While God does not view us in terms of our utility to Him and His Kingdom, one's appreciation for and faithfulness toward God can certainly be measured along those lines. Let me give you an example from real life: It's one thing for a person to say, when asked, that he loves his wife and truly has a deep regard for her. But what if he never shows it? What if he never goes out of his way to tell her that , both through his words and his actions? What would one say about such love that goes unspoken and undemonstrated? The recipient of such so-called love would most likely have trouble perceiving that she was loved at all!
This is why, in James 2:17, God's word reminds us that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." This verse is not equating faith and works--nor is it equating relationship with activity--but rather is stressing that a legitimate faith will yield the fruit of good works accomplished for God as a result of His work in us. The one will naturally lead to the other. James 2:26 further elaborates, "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." A living faith will reveal itself through a transformed life, accomplishing Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered actions, while a dead faith will show itself as well through its lack of transformation and its inactivity in relation to the things of God.
If today you honestly had to gauge your feelings toward God by your works, how would you fare? Would they reveal a deep, abiding faith and love toward God, or would it reveal a giant empty spot where your faith and love should be?
A Giant Step Forward
September 23, 2013
Sunday, September 29, will be a pivotal day in the life of Liberty Park Baptist Church. On that day, following each of our worship services, we as a congregation will vote on extending a call to a new Minister of Music. Why is this such a big deal--other than the exciting fact that we're potentially bringing on board a new staff member? Here's why:
First, since 1998, LPBC has not had a Minister of Music with a tenure of more than two and a half years. This is an important point to note, because ministry studies have shown that it typically takes from three to five years to get a ministry into full swing. That being the case, one can easily deduce that LPBC has not experienced a music/worship ministry running at optimum efficiency in almost fifteen years! Time and experience have shown as well that churches in America without a healthy music/worship ministry have difficulty reaching their potential and tend not to thrive as well as their counterparts that have such a ministry in place for a good length of time.
Second, because this ministry has not been consistent over the last decade and a half, those people who are gifted in the area of music have either had their gifts underutilized or have stayed away from the church altogether. And we as a church have miseed out on the blessing of seeing (and hearing) those gifts developed and utilized as well!
Now, with the possibility of a new Minister of Music coming on board, we stand on the threshold of a new era in the life of our church, having really not experienced for many years now what is possible when there is a consistent and strong worship and music ministry in place. I can tell you that I, for one, am excited to consider what God will accomplish in this area of the church's life as we welcome into our faith family a new leader in this vital area of ministry!
That being the case, I want to give you a clear layout of what will happen this week that will lead up to Sunday's aforementioned vote: On Wednesday, we'll be providing our church family with information regarding the minister of music candidate, including his name, his resume information, and even a picture of him and his family. Because he is presently serving a sister church in our state, we're going to ask everyone to keep that information "close to the vest" so as to protect his relationship with his existing church until such time as he is able to speak with them about this new direction in his life and ministry.
On Saturday, September 28, the Minister of Music Search Committee will be holding a Breakfast Meet and Greet so our church family can meet the candidate and his family. This event will go from 9:00am to 10:30am, refreshments will be provided, and casual attire is encouraged. We want this time to be one of enjoyable interaction between our family and his. Following the Meet and Greet, the Minister of Music candidate will hold a rehearsal with the choir and musicians at 10:45am to prepare for Sunday morning's services (If you've been waiting for an opportune time to join or re-join the choir, this is it!).
On Sunday, the candidate will lead worship in both services, during which time he will give a brief testimony about God's work and direction in his life. Following each service, we will hold a brief business meeting to vote on receiving him. I hope that you and your family will plan to attend both Saturday's and Sunday's big moments--perhaps the biggest in this area of LPBC's ministry since 1998! Until then, please be in prayer as we stand on the threshold of taking this giant step together in faith!
September 16, 2013
When I was a kid, my family took a trip to Atlanta, Georgia (for what purpose, I cannot remember), and I was introduced to a restaurant in the nearby city of Smyrna that provided me with a new experience in dining. The name of the establishment was Aunt Fanny's Cabin, and when I say that it was a dining "experience," that's exactly what I mean: From the down-home feel of the place, with antiques crammed into almost every available space, to the cobbled-together feel of its somewhat disjointed building, and from the loud familiarity of the serving staff (I remember our waitress telling one of us who hesitated when ordering, "C'mon, honey, I ain't got all night!"), to the way several of them suddenly broke into Gospel singing followed by a passing of the hat, it was just a really unique place that proved to be fun and entertaining as well.
What truly amazed me, however, was the food. Not only was it wonderful southern food, but it was also served in a way that was new to me in my experience in eating out--it was served "family style." This meant, of course, that we ordered meat and side dishes for the whole table, and then we passed around the large dishes and served ourselves--just like home. Having never experienced such a style of serving in a restaurant, my brothers and I enjoyed the novelty of it all and looked forward to visiting Aunt Fanny's Cabin on every subsequent trip to the Atlanta area for the next several years.
As we continue our study on family-related matters entitled "Roots: Strength for Your Family Tree," I started thinking about how every family has its own "style." Some are sports-focused while others are cerebral; some are proper and preppy while others are laid-back and country (or even hippy!); some love to travel and wander while others enjoy just being at home; some are neat; others are messy. Beyond things of that nature, however, families have different "styles" as well when it comes to things like communication: some families are adept at talking through things, while some are either closed-mouthed or contentious. Families also differ stylistically in how they handle matters such as conflict resolution: Some are explosive while others do a slow burn; some are loud and demonstrative while others excel at the silent treatment; some families work diligently and patiently to resolve their disagreements while other families allow deep roots of bitterness to sink in and fester in their hearts.
Have you ever sat back and given a serious look at your family's style? Have you ever purposefully evaluated your family's approach to matters like communication and conflict resolution to see if you handle them in a healthy and edifying manner? Many families never undergo such self-reflection, and they end up as a result repeating mistakes and bad habits that have been handed down to them through previous generations and that they, in turn, pass along to succeeding generations. They never stop to evaluate and to ask, "Is there a better way?" Or, better yet, "Does God provide any guidance in Scripture to help us with matters such as these?"
The asnwer to that last question, by the way, is "yes," and over the next couple of Sundays, we will be examining what the Bible has to say about how we in our families can institute new ways of handling things that will align our families' "styles" with God's approach to family life. I hope you'll plan as a family to attend and to use what you learn as a jumping-off point for you and your family to develop a new, God-pleasing style.
Ok--for some strange reason, I'm hungry now.
September 9, 2013
Back in the late 1980s, a sitcom entitled "Family Matters" began to air on ABC. Tracing the goings-on of the imaginary Winslow family, this television show highlighted good, solid family values and occasionally addressed some of the real-life struggles that ordinary families in America routinely face. The sitcom's title was intentionally chosen as a double entendre, carrying the double meaning that the show was about family matters and that it was meant to stress that family does indeed matter. This show was one of several in the era of the 1980s-90s that sought to examine the American family from a number of angles, including "Family Ties," "The Cosby Show," "Home Improvement" and "Full House."
What made these shows stand apart was their stress on family values, the importance of strong parenting, the need for maintaining strong familial relationships, and the vital nature of the support of the family unit. It was an unusual breath of fresh air from the west coast, as issues surrounding the family were dealt with in a positive and even healthy manner. Fast forward to today, and examples of such shows are few and far between--if there are any at all. In fact, if you're looking for sitcoms that address the family today, you're far more likely to find shows that are disturbing rather than helpful and that do not reflect the makeup or the values of the average American family.
In 2012, however, in the midst of the dregs that often pass for television entertainment today, stepped the Robertson family, the crew from West Monroe, Louisiana, whose claim to fame just a few years ago was that they were among the elites of the duck hunting world as the creators and fabricators of their line of Duck Commander duck calls. Entertaining because of their redneck, backwoods ways and because of the fascinating characters like crazy Uncle Si, they are also compelling to many because of their openness regarding their Christian faith. Equally compelling is the family's backstory, which has been detailed in the autobiography of the family patriarch Phil Robertson, entitled Happy, Happy Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander. In his book, he relates the story of a life that was out of control, that was destructive and damaging to himself and to his wife and sons, and he tells of how he was saved and radically transformed through finding salvation in Christ. I highly recommend it as a quick and easy--yet enjoyable--read.
Some in the media have even begun to question why it is that people are so drawn to their show, Duck Dynasty--which is now the most watched cable show of all time--when it appears that they stand opposed to almost everything that Hollywood stands for and promotes through movies and television. Deeply religious, the Robertsons are pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, are openly evangelistic about their faith, and are adamant about teaching their children to be sexually abstinent outside of marriage. Each show ends with the family and friends gathered around the table for a meal, at which point Phil gives a prayer of thanks in the name of Jesus Christ. It's both amazing and awesome to see such a thing in this day and time!
In a recent article detailing the success of their show and seeking to answer why people are so drawn to his family, Phil Robertson responded, "Maybe it's because we live our lives like people really want to live." Maybe indeed.
I am hesitant even to consider anticipating it, but could it be that the wild success of Duck Dynasty could lead to another era when the traditional family is viewed in a positive light by those creating fare for movies and television? Could it be that those among whom "money talks" might if for no other reason see the dollar signs and realize that much of America is hungry for more like this?
I guess we'll have to wait and see if they're smart enough to realize that family truly does matter.
Moving Ahead Together
August 30, 2013
I cannot tell you how glad I am to be getting back to the "normalcy" of the fall semester here at LPBC after the craziness of this summer! In addition to the usual mix of vacations and activities over the last three months, the experiences of a mission trip to Guatemala--as incredible as it was--and a big surgery on my throat have left me craving a return to "regular" life! Of course, such a return to the norm brings with it its own flurry of activities, including the kickoff of our fall ministries, promotion to new classes for the kids and students, return to our regular Sunday morning worship times, and a return to Sunday night services, among other things. I hope you and your family will be geared up to participate in all that's offered this fall to help you grow as a follower of Christ!
Among the items that you'll be hearing more about in the weeks to come is a group that we as a church voted this summer to create called the Needs Assessment Group. This special team will be undertaking the work of ascertaining our ministry needs and facility needs as a congregation and reporting their findings to our church leaders and to the church as a whole. While I was out recently following my surgery, I entrusted to our Nominating Committee the work of putting together this team together, and they have chosen a group of folks who I believe will do a stellar job in completing the tasks ahead of them. These are the individuals who have agreed to serve as members of the Needs Assessment Group: David Wright (chairman), Julia Hillsinger (secretary), Alan Alexander, Jenny Bailey, Johnny Cunningham, Grant Eudy, Anne Lucas, Kathy Oaks and Nancy Smith.
As explained back in July when we voted to create this group, their job--simply put--will be twofold: 1) to gather information by listening to you as a congregation, by hearing from church consultants, and through tracking down a variety of other resources (i.e., recent demographic information for our community) and 2) to report their findings to the church. In this role, they will not serve as an advocacy group or a decision-making body, but rather as an information-gathering and reporting team. During this process of gathering and reporting, the team will hold listening sessions and will receive input from you as a congregation in a variety of ways. When the time comes, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that they will make available to you to provide your prayerfully-considered input. We want to make sure that, when the process is complete, we have heard from as many people as possible concerning how we can best move forward together in accomplishing God's mission for us as a church.
Once their work is complete, their report will be available for everyone in the church to read, and it will be handed off to Church Council and to the Deacons, who will then be tasked with crafting that information, under the Holy Spirit's guidance, into a strategic plan.
I ask you to put this team on your prayer list as they do their work. In my opinion, their job will be of vital importance to our unity and our Kingdom success as a church in the months and years to come. For that reason, they will need your prayer support, and they will need your input and your assistance to accomplish the large tasks set before them.
On another note: I want to thank all of you so much for your prayers, your cards, your emails, your text messages, your visits--for all of your amazing support as a church family in my recent down time. My doc feels that my surgery was very successful and that I'm ahead of schedule in regard to my recovery. I honestly believe that I must have been one of the most-prayed-for men in Alabama (at least) for the last few weeks. Thank you so much for lifting up my family and me in prayer. I love you all, and I thank God for allowing me to be your pastor!
Working Together to Accomplish our Mission
August 26, 2013
In my position as an associate pastor, I have the privilege of working with several groups in our church to fulfill our mission of making mature, fruit-bearing disciples of Jesus Christ. As we move into fall, I would like to update you on the work of three of those groups and ask for prayer on their behalf as they each enter a new season of ministry.
Nominating Committee – Serving on the Nominating Committee is not always an easy task, but it is one that is vital to the life of our church. Each year, the Nominating Committee is tasked with nominating men and women to lead different groups in our church. The committee – chaired this year by Diane Thomas and composed of Mary Huston, Donna Ivy, Lee Lucas, Barry Prince, Tom Smith, and Sheila Wright – began their term of service in January of this year. Toward the end of the last school year, they began the process of nominating people to serve as Bible Study Group Leaders. Throughout the summer, the committee met, prayed, considered, called, and worked to compose the list of nominees which was presented to and approved by our congregation on Sunday, August 25th. After taking a brief break from their work, the Nominating Committee will work this fall to nominate men and women to serve as General Officers, Committee Members, and Leaders of our Councils. Please be in prayer for this committee as they seek God’s wisdom and guidance to fulfill these leadership positions.
Bible Study Group Leaders – Every Sunday, men and women of our congregation provide leadership to our Bible Study Groups. In the coming year, 65 people will lead our 27 groups. They will shepherd these groups by preparing and teaching each week, by praying for and keeping up with group members, and by seeking ways to help group members grow as disciples through involvement in fellowship, mission, etc. Bible Study Groups provide opportunities each of us to grow in our knowledge of scripture while developing relationships with others who will encourage and push us to pursue Christ. Without the men and women who invest their time, thought, and talent each week, we would not have these opportunities. Please pray for these leaders this week as they prepare lessons and seek to create environments which will cultivate the development of relationships. Also, as you have opportunity, please take time to thank them for their willingness to invest in the lives of their group members.
Liberty Pals Enrichment Center – Since its inception, Liberty Pals Enrichment Center has served as an important outreach ministry of our church. For years, parents in our community have entrusted their children to the staff and faculty of Liberty Pals. On Tuesday, September 3rd, Liberty Pals will begin its eighteenth year of service. As of today, 126 children are enrolled for the fall semester. The current enrollment includes 28 families who are new to Liberty Pals. My family is one of those new families. After observing this program over the course of the last eight years, I am excited and comforted to know that my daughter will be cared for and taught by women who have proven themselves to be trustworthy, caring, able to teach, and committed Christ followers. As Liberty Pals begins its eighteenth year, please pray for smooth transitions into the school year for teachers, children, and parents. Also, please pray that Liberty Pals will continue to serve as a bright light in our community beckoning families of preschoolers to come to Christ.
Unfortunately, space does not allow room for me to comment on the many other groups that work alongside these three to help us accomplish our God-given mission of making mature, fruit-bearing disciples of Jesus Christ. To those of you, who serve on these groups and others like them, thank you for your commitment to Christ and your willingness to serve Him and His church.
Your brother in Christ,
The Importance of Friends
August 19, 2013
Sixteen years ago, I began my freshman year at Mississippi College. I knew a few people on campus, but few of them very well. One of the people I did know was an upperclassman who invited me to join a Bible study he would be leading. He was one of the few friends I had and I really did not have anything better to do, so I decided to attend. I was too naive to know it at the time, but my decision to attend that group would impact the trajectory of my life.
Through that Bible study group, I made friends that I still have today. Those friends walked with me through four years of college. They challenged, encouraged, and even pushed me to grow in my faith and become more like Christ. Through the years, we have shared joyful moments, painful trials, and many rich moments of prayer. The friends I made through that group influenced who I have become, my choice to move to Birmingham to attend seminary, and even my initial involvement here at Liberty Park Baptist Church.
Friends are important. They help shape who we become and where we go in life. I was blessed to stumble into a group of friends who influenced me positively and pushed me to pursue Christ. Given a different set of friends, I might have drifted in a different direction. I have little doubt that a different set of friends would have also led me to a different destination.
As you consider your life, who are your friends right now? Who are the people that influence your beliefs, decisions, and trajectory of life? Are they positive influences? Are they leading you in a direction you want to go? Are they encouraging you to follow Christ or distracting you from doing so?
Thankfully, God shepherded and guided me to a positive set of friends when I was too naive to know better. Now I understand that who I live life with is too important to be left to chance. Our friends will influence who we become and where we go. They will influence our spouses and children. And, depending on who they are, they will either influence us to pursue Christ diligently or distract us from doing so.
Based on these truths, I encourage and challenge you to take one of the following two courses of action:
1. Consider your current group of friends. Evaluate how they are influencing and impacting your life. Decide whether or not your current group of friends is leading you in a direction that God desires for you. Then, act on your decision.
2. If you decide you need to shake up your group of friends or if you don’t really have many friends right now, find a group of people who are heading in the direction you would like to go and join them.
Each fall, we restart our Sunday morning Bible study groups and offer new Life Transformation Groups. We do so to provide you with opportunities to form new relationships that will put and keep you on the path to pursuing God. Maybe this fall is the time for you to try a new Sunday morning Bible study group or make time to attend one of our Life Transformation Groups.
Friends are important. They influence and impact who we become and where we go in life. This fall, be intentional to surround yourself with friends who will positively impact your life and your pursuit of Christ.
Your brother in Christ,
Fall is Rapidly Approaching
August 12, 2013
Although the weather refuses to acknowledge it, fall is rapidly approaching. School supplies are on sale. College football is becoming the talk of the town once again. Many college students have returned to their campuses. Some elementary, middle, and high schools have started classes and those who have not will do so shortly.
As fall approaches, routine also prepares to make a return. Vacations, weekend getaways, and day trips will soon be replaced by school schedules, athletic activities, and community commitments. To be honest, I enjoy the flexibility of summer and the opportunities that flexibility provides for rest and reconnecting with loved ones, but I crave the routine that fall brings. While routine may sound boring, it is necessary for growth. Routine enables us to build habits and, as we habitually do the same thing over and over, we are transformed. For instance, those students who invest a little time studying every afternoon this fall will grow in their knowledge and be prepared to take the tests that await them. College athletes who work daily to develop their discipline and technique will outperform their competitors who do not. Routine breeds habit and good habits bring about growth and transformation.
With this truth in mind, I want to ask a personal question. What spiritual habits will you develop this fall? If you are anything like me, the flexibility of summer may have eroded some of the spiritual habits you were working to develop last spring. As we enter fall, what spiritual habits do you need to develop? My challenge and encouragement to you is to be just as intentional about forming spiritual habits as you will be about forming study habits, exercise habits, work habits, etc. If you are not sure what habits to develop, below are a few suggestions.
Pray – Are you feeling disconnected from God? If so, perhaps you should work to develop the daily habit of prayer. God invites us to converse with Him through prayer. As we do so, we are able to share our anxieties, concerns, dreams, hopes, joys, and triumphs with Him. We are also able to hear His heart for us. Through this ongoing conversation, our relationship with God is strengthened and grows.
Read the Bible – Are you seeking God’s will for your life? God reveals His will through His Word. As we read scripture, we learn God’s will. We learn what God values, prioritizes, and thinks. The more we read God’s Word, the more we become acquainted with His will. Eventually, God’s will is no longer a mystery to us, but clearly known to us based on what we know about His values, priorities, and thoughts revealed through His Word.
Worship – Are you burdened by the cares of this world? Too often, we spend most of our time focused on the cares of this world. We worry whether we will have enough money left at the end of the month to pay the bills. We worry about our health or the health of a loved one. We worry about the state of the economy, the current political climate, or the growth of terrorism. When burdened by the cares of this world, God invites us to focus on Him through worship. As we do so, we are reminded that while the cares of this world are real, they are miniscule compared to the surpassing glory, love, and power of our Lord.
Connect with a Community – Are you consistently pulled away from the spiritual direction you desire to go? If so, consider joining a small group of people who desire to walk in the direction of spiritual growth. As you band with others who desire to walk in the same direction, you will be encouraged and challenged to grow spiritually. You will also be able to encourage and challenge others to do the same.
Fall is almost here. As you plan your new routine, I encourage you to be intentional about developing spiritual habits. As you do, God will use those habits to bless you and transform you into the likeness of Christ.
Your brother in Christ
Learning to Trust
August 5, 2013
Do you ever struggle with trusting God? Ironically, one of my most difficult struggles in that regard has often come at the end of mission trips, like the one I participated in last week, as a team from our church headed off to San Andres, Guatemala. Like most other mission trips, it was a wonderful time of focusing solely on God's work, with the week given over to spiritually counseling the 600+ patients who came through our medical clinic. As usual, it was a struggle at times, due to the language barrier and cultural differences, but God blessed the effort regardless, and we saw a good harvest of souls.
I've never had trouble trusting God with that aspect of a mission trip--having faith that He would guide us, protect us, fill us and use us. No, I've always felt thoroughly confident that God would be there for us, in us and through us, accomplishing good, solid Kingdom work, and He has never left me disappointed. This trip was no exception, with God not only blessing the spiritual counseling, but also with Him providing abundant blessings on several levels.
Here's where I have often struggled to trust Him, however: When you lead someone to Christ, you feel a sense of responsibility, almost like you're the "spiritual midwife" who helped in the birthing process of a new baby Christian. As such, you desire to see that new baby brother or sister flourish and grow, and you want to do all you can to help that process along. Problem is, when you lead someone to Christ on a mission trip to a foreign country, the chances are pretty good that you may never have contact with that person again--at least until you see each other in eternity. That being the case, I have often worried and wondered about these new believers after we have exited the scene, doing mental and emotional gymnastics about the what-ifs and struggling over my inability to be there with them to walk them through the early stages of their growth and discipleship.
In times like these, I have reminded myself of Paul's words about his own work in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7--"I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow." I'm reminded by this passage that I have done what God asked me to do: I have planted the seed, or I have watered it, or maybe I've even had the pleasure of bringing in the harvest. But God--and only God--can make things grow. This reminds me that, while I want to be there for these new believers and may even feel a deep sense of responsibility and empathy for my new brothers and sisters, ultimately, they are in God's hands, because they are His children--not mine. I may have had a role of spiritual midwifery, but the child who was born into God's Kingdom is His to nurture, to protect and to grow.
With this thought in mind, I pray for my new brothers and sisters, and I ask God to help me to trust Him to take care of them, knowing that He loves them and is concerned for their growth and development on a level far deeper than I can understand or imagine. Such an understanding of His interaction with them helps me to be settled in my spirit, but even beyond that, it helps me also to realize how much I truly need to learn to trust God in everything else as well. As I learn such important and valuable lessons, my faith in Him grows.
"The Lord is trustworthy in all He promises and faithful in all He does." - Psalm 145:13
A Truth I Learned from My Daughter
July 29, 2013
I recently shared the following article with our Bible Study Group leaders. I wanted to share it with you this week, in hopes that the truth I learned may encourage you.
My daughter, Allie, is now nine and a half months old. The last nine and a half months have opened my eyes to several new truths about myself including: what it means to be a parent, how much sleep I really need to make it through a day, baby clothes, baby dietary needs, things in our house that might fall if pulled on, how quickly a child can crawl from an area with no hazards to an area with several, and many other things I never thought I would need or want to know. These last nine and a half months have also opened my eyes to better understand certain truths about God.
Even before Allie was born, God began to open my eyes in a new way to one truth about Himself which I thought I knew, but, apparently did not fully understand. As we prepared for Allie's arrival, I was hit with the realization that I would be her father and that she would be my daughter. (I know that seems obvious, but it hit me pretty hard one day.) As I thought about this truth, I realized that there is and will be nothing that Allie can do to change that relationship. Now, don't get me wrong, I am under no illusion that she will be perfect. I'm sure there will be times when she disobeys me, infuriates me, frustrates me, thinks I am ignorant, or chooses to ignore me completely. However, no matter what she does, Allie will always be my daughter - that relationship will never change.
As I considered this truth about my relationship with Allie, I realized that the same truth applies to my relationship with God, the Father. The apostle Paul put it this way:
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.- Galatians 4:4-7 NIV
When I placed my trust in Christ, God adopted me as His son. He redeemed me from my sin. He sent the Spirit of His Son into my heart. I am no longer a slave to sin, but a son of the living God. In the same way that Allie will always be my daughter, I will always be God's son. Nothing can change that relationship. Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ.
The same is true for you when you place your trust in Jesus and receive His gift of eternal life. When God adopts you, you become His son or daughter forever. He redeems you from your sin. He sends the Spirit of His Son into your heart. You are no longer a slave to sin, but become the daughter or son of the living God. When God adopts you, nothing you have done or will do can separate you from His love. Nothing can change that relationship. You are His child.
As you walk through life this week, I pray that this truth - that you are and always will be God's daughter or son - will encourage you and cause you to celebrate our heavenly Father who loves us dearly and desires that we should share in His kingdom. As Luke said, "... it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." - Luke 12:32 ESV
May you rest and rejoice in this truth.
Your brother in Christ,
Reaching Our Culture--One Heart at a Time
July 22, 2013
As you interact with and mingle with the culture that surrounds us, how do you respond to it? What do you experience emotionally, and what gut reactions do you have toward it? As you see all that is out there, and as you see it trending away from God and away from biblical morals, values and ethics, how does it all make you feel? As I evaluate my own reactions to the surrounding culture, I have to honestly say that I experience a myriad of feelings, ranging from disappointment, disgust and anger to shock, disbelief and distress. My ensuing responses to culture can range as well from a righteous judgment and indignation to a cynical "what would you expect" attitude or even to an intentional rejection of and separation from anything and everything that stands outside of the sphere of my faith.
I don't think that I'm alone in feeling and responding this way. As believers in Christ, we are different--in the King James Version of 1 Peter 2:9 we are called "a peculiar people"--and sometimes that difference leads us to a place of standing in opposition to almost everyone and everything else.
And yet, as we watch Jesus and consider how He interacted with the culture that surrounded Him, it seems that His attitude and response was one that varies greatly from our own. In fact, it honestly appears that Jesus seemed quite comfortable mingling with even the outcasts of "polite society," having no difficulty whatsoever interacting with the "high end" outcasts like the wealthy tax collectors or even the "low end" outcasts like the lepers and prostitutes. As we read about Jesus' life and work in the Gospels, we see someone whose righteous indignation and judgment appears to be aimed more at the religious people of His day (see His interactions with and words about the Pharisees!) than at the culture and society at large.
It appears from the Gospels that, rather than walling Himself off from society, Jesus instead immersed Himself in it, to the extent that some of the more religious folks referred to Him as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." While Jesus was certainly no drunkard or glutton, He was indeed a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He was a master of the art of being in the world but not of the world, able to meet people where they were--lost in their sin--without becoming ensnared in it. He was able to look beyond the sinful actions, thoughts, mindset and words to see with compassion the deepest needs of the heart of an individual. And the amazing thing in Jesus' story is that, very often, these individuals He encountered within that fallen culture responded back to Him with faith, giving their lives to Him and submitting to His Lordship. In the process, they were transformed from fallen, broken creatures to saved, cleansed, and forgiven children of God.
I believe that Jesus' approach to culture is an informative example to us regarding how we should interact with our culture today. Like Jesus, we should be a friend to sinners without becoming enmeshed in their sin. With a confidence borne from our conviction that Jesus is truly the Way, the Truth and the Life, we should approach people representative of today's culture with love in our hearts and with truth on our lips. We should boldly--yet respectfully and lovingly--let them know that there is a better way that leads to life.
It sounds easy, doesn't it? But, the truth is, we as believers often find it extremely difficult to exist as a redemptive force in our fallen culture. Perhaps it is because of our own weakness; perhaps it is because we haven't yet learned to be in the world but not of it; it could be that we find it difficult to hate the sin while still loving the sinner. Regardless, we as the church--God's saved, peculiar people--need to rediscover the combination of separateness, courage and winsomeness that we see in Jesus. When we do, perhaps we will begin to reach our culture, one heart at a time.
Are You Worried?
July 15, 2013
One morning, as a junior at Mississippi College, I hurried up the hill from my dorm room to the cafeteria for breakfast. I was running late – not late enough to miss class, but late enough to miss breakfast – and to miss breakfast would throw off my routine. I remember being very burdened by worries that morning. To be honest, I do not recall what I was worried about; I just remember feeling weighed down by my thoughts and burdens. Perhaps I was worried about being late. Maybe I was worried about what career path to pursue or what to do after college. I really do not remember, but I do remember the heaviness of heart that I felt because of my worries.
As I look back on that moment almost fifteen years later, I realize that the size of my potential worries today dwarf any worries that I may have had as a junior in college. My worries then only involved me. Today, my worries also involve my loved ones. I worry about things like: Are Elizabeth and I investing in the right areas? Since my sister and her son have moved back to England, when will Allie see her aunt again? One year? Three years? What type of culture will Allie grow up in? Will our culture continue to walk away from Christ or will there be another Great Awakening that causes our country to repent and return to Christ? Will Allie be persecuted for her faith some day?
Most likely, you have some worries of your own. Perhaps you were reminded of them as you read a few of mine. Though I do not know your exact worries, I imagine you may be worrying about things like: Will my child be accepted or rejected by others? Can we afford to send him/her to college? Will our marriage survive this crisis? Will the economy turn around? Will I lose my job? Will I have to lay off more employees? Will my spouse live through this disease?
If you find yourself burdened by worries today, I want to share the same encouragement with you that was shared with me that morning as I walked up the hill to breakfast. About halfway up the hill, a small tree sat off to the right of the sidewalk. As I passed that tree, a bird hidden in the tree began to sing. In that moment, the Holy Spirit reminded me of Jesus’ words about worry found in Matthew 6:25-34, specifically verses 26 and 33.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” – Matthew 6:26 NIV
“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33 NIV
When that bird began to sing, the Holy Spirit reminded me that, as a child of my heavenly Father, I do not need to worry. Our heavenly Father feeds birds that neither sow nor reap. Surely, since He considers us to be much more valuable than birds, He will also provide for our needs.
Does this truth make all my problems magically disappear? No, but it does enable me to stop wasting time worrying about them. If my heavenly Father truly values me and promises to provide for my needs, then I can trust that He will do what He has promised to do. As I trust Him and lay my worries at His feet, I can invest (rather than waste) my time in seeking His kingdom and His righteousness.
If you find yourself burdened by worries, let me encourage you to spend some time today reading Matthew 6:25-34. Then, take a stroll outside and witness the truth of God’s Word revealed through His creation. As you do, may our heavenly Father remind you of His great love and desire to provide for all your needs.
Your brother in Christ,
July 8, 2013
A great deal can be ascertained about a culture by taking a look at its heroes. Not too long ago, the cultural icons that America identified as its heroes were people like President George Washington, whose valor, integrity, perseverance and character helped establish a nation and gained him the title "The Father of Our Country." We also lionized others like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who stood for noble ideals and fought for the freedom of all people, while we held in high esteem men like the Wright brothers, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, all known for their vision, their inventiveness and their hard work which benefited us all. We honored women like Clara Barton, known for her mercy, humanitarianism and administrative acumen, and Amelia Earhart for her adventurous spirit and her feats of daring.
In the last couple of weeks, however, I have seen words like "hero," "champion" and even "ray of light" used quite differently from ways I have seen them used in the past, as they have been assigned to Wendy Davis, a state senator in Texas whose eleven-hour filibuster led to the defeat of a pro-life bill in the Texas legislature. This bill, had it become law, would have greatly restricted the practice of abortion in that state by banning abortions after 20 weeks of gestation--the point at which an unborn child begins to feel pain--and it would have required abortionists to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their facility--already a requirement in Texas for physicians at all other surgical centers.
As pro-life supporters outside of the capitol building sang Amazing Grace, inside the capitol, Senator Davis essentially argued against any further restriction on or regulation of the abortion industry in Texas whatsoever, all in the name of preventing women from being denied access to healthcare (which is not true, unless one equates abortion with healthcare) and under the guise of "reproductive rights" (although no such accounting was given to the rights of unborn children--even those that are fully-formed and viable outside of the womb when they are aborted).
Because of her stance, Senator Davis has been hailed in various reports as "brilliant," "brave" and "principled," and she has received a great deal of attention from those in the media who have advanced her status from obscure state senator to national media darling. Advertisements have appeared on websites--even otherwise conservative ones--supporting her and calling on people to "Stand with Wendy," and she has made the rounds of many national news talkshows, including those on CNN, ABC, NBC and the CBS show This Morning, on which she was hailed as a "superstar," as the hosts suggested that she should even run for governor or for a higher national office.
What disturbs me so much in all of this is not just the debate over abortion, which is not going to go away any time soon, but more so that a segment of people in that debate want to raise someone to the status of cultural icon because of her stance on this one issue alone. Do those who hail Senator Davis so strongly know what she believes about anything else, or if she is a person of integrity and character, or even if she is competent to serve as a governmental leader on a higher level? It seems that some are ready to exalt her to national leadership status simply because she carried out a lengthy filibuster to defeat a bill that would not have banned abortion altogether, but one that would have made it safer and rarer, in line with former President Bill Clinton's (another icon of recent years) call to make abortion "safe, legal and rare."
Rather than allowing that to happen, Wendy Davis stood for those who would keep abortion in Texas less safe and less rare, and for this she is now hailed by many as a hero.
If our heroes truly reflect who we are becoming as a society, may God help us. Please.
July 1, 2013
Here we are, just days prior to our country's 237th birthday, and I'm wondering what in the world happened. It seems that it was not too long ago that we as a nation were emphasizing things like "family values" and that it was becoming more and more acceptable--even celebrated--in our society to be an evangelical Christian. It feels like it was just recently that it was okay to speak of God publicly and to openly declare one's faith in Jesus Christ without fear of recrimination or backlash or ridicule.
Now, things feel different. Things feel foreign, unwelcoming and threatening. It feels like the rug has been yanked from under us, like someone snuck in when we weren't looking and changed everything. It feels like we have lost--or are at least in the process of losing--what some have called "the culture war" in America.
As I pondered the above last week in the wake of our Supreme Court's decisions and the political and media crowing that appear to be moving us ever closer to a mandated full acceptance of homosexual marriage in our nation, I considered what Scripture had to say about culture wars and how we should fight them as Christians. What I discovered was both startling and freeing:
First, I discovered that the Bible doesn't really address culture wars and that at no point does the power of the Gospel hinge on God's people winning such a war or on any culture's approval. In fact, as I studied, I discovered quite the opposite to be true. I even noted that, historically, it seems that the Gospel and the Christian faith in general thrive in places and times when opposition is the norm. In Romans 1:16, Paul tells us why this is true, and he reminds us of the source of the Gospel's power: "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."
Second, I noted that the wars we are truly called to fight as believers are not cultural, but spiritual. This truth is clarified for us in Ephesians 6:12--"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." This passage explains that we are actually engaged in a spiritual war, one that goes far beyond the cultural standards and the civil laws of this world. The war in which we are engaged is a fight for the souls of human beings, and the prize is eternal salvation, not cultural affirmation.
Third, I realized that Jesus, the Disciples, Paul, etc., did not take into account how the culture at large perceived them when it came to the carrying out of their mission. Jesus said that we are to "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21), and He wept over the lostness of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Paul told us to pray for our civil authorities (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and Peter reminded us that we are to submit to human authorities as a general rule (1 Peter 2:13-14). For all of them, however, the bigger agenda had nothing to do with culture and everything to do with their Gospel mission.
This is not to say that we are to throw up our hands and walk away defeated, discouraged, angry or cynical. No, we as Christians still need to vote our consciences, advocate for what is right, stand up for what is true and shine our light in the darkness. But, if we're placing all our eggs in the basket of winning the cultural wars, we're placing our eggs in the wrong basket.
Love for Country
June 24, 2013
Liberty Park Baptist Church received a special treat last Sunday, as we held our annual Patriotic Celebration. In addition to bright decorations, lively congregational music, two tremendous choir presentations (how about that packed-out choir loft?) and a wonderfully celebrative atmosphere, we were privileged to have as our guest speaker Lieutenant General Ron Burgess, Jr. USA (ret.).
General Burgess, who served in his last assignment with the Army as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, talked with us about how he turned his entire career over to God early on and spoke of how God had guided him, even when at times he didn't understand the wisdom of God's plan except in hindsight. He also spoke of how he always sought throughout his career to keep his faith at the forefront of everything he did, constantly maintaining an awareness of opportunities to express his faith and to share his faith with others, and he urged the men in our congregation to do the same in their own chosen career fields.
When all was said and done, I believe that all were in agreement that this was our best Patriotic Celebration in years. And yet, even as we were enjoying our time together, I kept thinking about the fact that many churches have chosen to forego celebrations of this sort, setting them aside out of concern that such services led people to focus on our nation rather than on God. For some, flag-waving congregations smacked of "civil religion"--worship of the state--and this perception led many to abandon such times altogether. I admit that as a minister, there have been times that I had such concerns as well, but let me tell you where I have come to land on all of this:
First, I think it's perfectly fine and normal and right for a person to love the country of his birth and to desire to openly express how he feels about it. Such love for country--when combined with a fervent faith in Christ that guides it and gives it focus--can be a strong tool for promoting what is right and true about our nation, and it can be a powerful force for keeping us headed in the right direction.
Second, I don't believe that celebrating one's nation necessarily distracts one from focusing on and worshiping God. To the contrary, such times can and should serve as a platform for expressing our gratitude to God for allowing us the grace to live in a country that values religious freedom and that allows its citizens to travel throughout the world to share their faith with others. Our celebrations should also lead us to highlight those areas in which we as a nation stand outside of God's will and then should lead us to pray for God to awaken us spiritually and to bring revival.
Third, as we celebrate, we are reminded that to whom much is given, much will be required (see Luke 12:48). As a nation that has been blessed with a strong Judeo-Christian heritage and ethic, and which has been raised up in a relatively brief period (historically speaking) to become wealthy and powerful on a scale never seen before in the history of the world, we have much required of us in the sight of God. We as a nation should take seriously the responsibility we have to promote the advancement of God's truth throughout the world and to maintain godly character as a nation here at home. God's principles should be our driving force.
So, by all means, let's celebrate America, rejoicing with gratitude for the blessings that come along with being Americans. And as we celebrate, let's pray that we will once again become one nation under God.
June 17, 2013
It has been said time and time again that time flies when you're having fun. I have also heard the converse of that saying--that time drags on when you're not having fun. All of this, of course, is just a matter of our human perception, because time really just ticks along at a constant pace, moving inexorably toward the future, regardless of how we feel about it or perceive it. Knowing this, however, does not necessarily change how we feel about it.
For a strong example of how all of this perception-versus-reality stuff works in regard to time and how it impacts our feelings, one need look no farther than the season in which we are now living--summer. For me, as I look at my calendar during the bulk of the year, it feels as if summer will never arrive. At the risk of sounding like a school kid, I openly admit that I spend most of my year longing for summer to come back around so I can enjoy all that it has to offer. That being the case, the apparent dilation of time leading up to summer's arrival would almost lead me to conclude--if I did not know better--that time had ceased to "march on" and was now just moving along at a snail's pace.
When summer arrives, however, I have a habit of looking at my calendar upfront and noting how quickly it will be over. In addition, as we enter summer, it seems as if the speed of the passing hours gets cranked up a few notches, and that the days begin to fly by, leading me to lament the rapidity with which it is passing. If I'm not careful, I can waste valuable minutes and hours and lots of emotional energy mourning the passing of summer before I even get too deeply into it!
I say all of this as a preamble to reminding you that we are full-blown into summer, and that things will be flying by at an exhausting pace with a flurry of activity right up until we get just past the middle of August--and then summer will come to a grinding halt, as we roll back into the routine of the school year and the fall "semester" of church activities. Meanwhile, however, we have miles to go before we sleep, and I want to encourage all of you to be aware of all that is available to you through LPBC in the midst of your vacation time and your other family and individual R & R.
Among these upcoming activities and events is our annual Patriotic Celebration, which will be held Sunday, June 23, at 11:00am. In addition to some great patriotic music that will celebrate America and glorify our God who gives us the blessing of living in this great nation, we will be honored to have as our guest speaker Lieutenant General Ron Burgess, USA (Ret.), the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who now serves as the Senior Counsel for National Security Programs, Cyber Programs and Military Affairs at Auburn University.
The following Sunday, June 30, we will also hold a BBQ fellowship lunch following our morning service, and everyone is invited to attend and to bring a bunch of friends, too. As we continue on into summer, we will have people going away on mission trips, young people serving in a variety of summer ministry positions, our students going away to M-Fuge, and a whole host of other activities for us as a church to enjoy as we serve, fellowship and grow together.
Make sure to jump in with both feet and take your place in this summer of LPBC--because it'll be gone before you know it!
A Father's Place
June 10, 2013
The longer I live, and the more I watch and experience the throes of transformation that our society is experiencing, the more I become convinced of the importance of the role of fathers in society. We presently are living in a culture that values life less and less, that is perilously pessimistic, that objectifies and sexualizes women, that is increasingly angry and violent, and that is one in which men are living in a state of extended adolescence, refusing to grow up. At the same time, we are living in an age in which the dissolution of the family unit is reaching epidemic levels, as marriage is considered by younger generations to be relatively unimportant (they feel that the better option is to cohabitate with someone outside of the boundaries of marriage until that relationship no longer "works" for you, and then move on to the next one), and out-of-wedlock births rates are rising to historic levels.
As I look at these trends--and others as well--I can see how the absence of a father's positive influence can be a huge factor in leading us to where we have come. In my mind, it's easy to draw the lines and connect the dots between many of our cultural ailments and the deterioration of fatherhood in our culture. As someone who works with people, it's easy for me to see the negative impact of a failed fatherhood on the life of a child--the damaged self-esteem in a young girl, the lack of discipline and self-control in a young man, the skewed views of male/female relationships in both, the scarcity of healthy ambition and motivation, the lack of emotional maturity, and a whole host of other issues.
Although there are multiple factors that have led us to this place of declining fatherly influence in the lives of families and children, I think the greatest factor is just our sinful human nature. Men who follow their testosterone and selfish ambition rather than submitting to the will of God, or who follow the example of a sinful father rather than living in obedience to the perfect Father; men who seek to please the world to receive its accolades, and who live to gratify the desires of the flesh--this is our greatest problem. If I could be granted one wish on this Father's Day, it would be for the men of our nation to grow up, sober up, man up and look up to the only One who can redeem fatherhood and begin to transform the fathers in our nation into agents of change for the good.
And yet, I know there are men around who do just that. I know them personally. I see how much they love their wives; I see how they interact lovingly with their children; I see how the lead their families in faith. I see how they provide structure and discipline, and how they lead by example in regard to how they think, speak and act. I see the strength of heart they display as they swim upstream against the cultural tides that would pull them off track. And I also see how their children grow up into spiritually and emotionally healthy adults, making positive contributions to church and culture, leaving a trail of good things in their wake.
In men like these, I find great strength and encouragement, and I take every opportunity to hold them up before others and to speak well of them to their families and to those who are in our common sphere of influence. I seek to emulate such men in my own life as well, and I seek to spread word of their example to other men.
For men who are struggling as fathers, however, I also want to bring a word of encouragement, calling on you not to give up, but rather to seek the help and the instruction of godly men who will hold you accountable and who will walk alongside you, helping you to fulfill your God-given place as a father. I cannot overstate how much is riding on us taking our role as fathers and living it out as God intends.
Who Will Tell Them?
June 3, 2013
There are a lot of reasons why I love Vacation Bible School (VBS). I love the fun and excitement; I love having kids all over the place; I love the loudness and the chaos and the craziness; I love seeing our church family serving as teachers, workers, helpers and administrators; and I love the fact that we have multiple hours over a five-day period with these kids to teach them and impact their lives with the life-changing message of God's love and salvation. As I'm writing this, our church has just kicked off our annual VBS with our largest first-day enrollment ever. That excites me, not because of the sheer numbers of it, but because every number represents a child who will be hearing the Gospel message--some for the first time.
I'm proud (in the Lord) to be the pastor of a church that takes seriously our call to tell others about Christ. We seek to do this through our ministries here at home, and we extend our telling of the Gospel around the world through our missions work. In the summer, we really seem to hit our stride in this regard, as we kick off with VBS and then participate in multiple mission trips and activities throughout the summer months. As I was reflecting on this the other day, however, I started thinking about what might happen if we extended our telling others to those parts of our summer that go beyond the activities and missions. I started wondering how it might change things for us if, in addition to our focus on going and telling others, we began to focus on telling others as we are going.
What I mean is this: What if our summer vacations became infiltrated with an awareness of lost people around us and the opportunities that we have to share the Gospel with them? What if our summer routines, including the leisure activities our families share together, were to be infused with an intentionality about telling others about Jesus? You see, I can picture my brothers and sisters talking with their server about Christ as they eat out; I can envision them sharing the Gospel with the kid who pumps the gas into their boat at the marina; I can imagine a poolside conversation that intentionally moves from the mundane to the eternal; I can see people sharing Christ on the beach, at the ballpark, while shopping at the mall, or while hanging out with friends and eating food hot off the grill; I can see just about any and every situation presenting itself as a platform for being a witness. It excites me to think about the transformation that could take place if we all just gave it a try!
Can you imagine the conversations we might have, going back into the fall season, as we ask each other about our summers? Along with the stories we tell about our summer adventures and the fun we had with our families and friends, wouldn't it be amazing to hear people telling stories about seeing people come to know Christ because we made it a priority to tell them about Him? Can you imagine what a celebration and what a revival might ensue from our common experience in and acknowledgement of the work of God in and through us?
We all know that there's a world out there that desperately needs to hear about Jesus. Sure, some of them don't want to hear, but most are a lot more willing to listen than we are to tell.
So, who will tell them? It could be us.
In the Face of the Storm
May 27, 2013
On Monday, May 20, our nation looked in horror on the devastation that was left in the wake of a deadly tornado that roared through the outlying areas south of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. With initial estimates of more than fifty people killed, the only sense of relief came from a downward-revised death toll that revealed fewer than thirty killed by the tornado. For those of us in Alabama, having recently observed the second anniversary of the tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011, the news of this one and its aftermath hit close to home.
I am among those who kept a close watch on the rescue and recovery efforts in Moore and Shawnee, Oklahoma, where homes (some estimate as many as 13,000), schools and businesses were obliterated by the storm. As I watched the reports, I began to see a common theme appear in the responses of many people who were approached by media personnel covering the tornado-ravaged area. I kept hearing people say things like this: "We're just thankful to God for sparing us." "We're all just trusting God right now to get us through this." "We prayed for God to spare our home, and if He did not, then to provide for us." "We lost our homes, but we will not lose our faith." "I'm a believer in Jesus, and I know He'll walk us through this." "We know that God is good, and He will take care of us."
I'm always encouraged by such expressions of faith in the midst of trials, and I am proud in the Lord to see God's people stand when all around them has fallen and to display a spirit of faithfulness and trust in God to see them through. Holy Spirit-fueled determination and perseverance are powerful, and they bless--and perhaps even challenge--those who see them in the lives of others.
In addition to these powerful, verbal expressions of faith, I was glad to see physical, material expressions of faith as well, as trucks and trailers from Christian organizations all over the U.S. began to roll into those cities within 24 hours to bring relief and to start the process of debris removal and rebuilding that we in Alabama know all too well. Of course, among those teams were Disaster Relief crews from the Alabama Baptist Convention, brothers and sisters of ours who will provide meals for victims and workers, aid in clean-up efforts and assist in repair and recovery work. Funded by the giving of Alabama Baptists--including us--these relief workers bring help in Christ's name to those who are devastated and in need of everything.
By early Tuesday, May 21, we in the church office were already receiving phone calls from people asking how they might help. Those organizations that are on the ground now have put out word that the best way to help is by making monetary donations to groups that are doing the work--especially those groups that are well-recognized specialists in the area of disaster relief. I want to encourage you to give as the Lord leads you to any organization that is providing help, but I honestly can think of no better organization for believers to give to than Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief.
In addition to the incredible work they do, one of the great things about Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief is that people can donate to them through their local Southern Baptist Church. If you would like to give through us, please make your donation payable to Liberty Park Baptist Church and write in the memo line "Disaster Relief." One hundred percent of these donations will go directly to Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief and will be used to help fund the work going on right now in Oklahoma. As you give, you will partner with highly-trained teams of fellow believers, working with their hearts as well as their hands.
It's good to know that God's people can stand firm and stand together in the face of the storm.
May 20, 2013
Every third Sunday in May, our church celebrates its Graduate Recognition Sunday, honoring those who are about to graduate or have recently graduated from high school, college or graduate school. Having experienced this day three years ago with the graduation of my own son from high school, I remember what that day felt like: the pride over my child’s accomplishment, the joy of celebrating it with my church family—and the tinge of anxiety over my son’s next step as we made plans to send him off to college in the fall.
Each year when we celebrate our Graduate Recognition Sunday, I am reminded not only of these emotions but also of the fact that they are feelings common to the experience of every family. Now, I know there are families with no children—either by choice or by virtue of circumstances—but I still hold to my statement that the emotions surrounding a graduation are common to us all. Let me explain what I mean:
The pride of significant forward movement in life is not an emotion that is limited to the academic graduate. To the contrary, every advancement in our lives should be accompanied with a sense of accomplishment that comes from a true understanding that these blessings come to us through God’s work in our lives. Even for those who don’t acknowledge Him, the Lord rains down blessings (see Matthew 5:45) that include these moments that allow us to bask in the glow of achievement, whether our successes be large or small.
Likewise, times of accomplishment are wonderful fodder for celebration for those who love us and support us. For so many reasons, joy erupts as our loved ones feel along with us the emotions that accompany moments like these, and together we experience the positive sentiments that simultaneously lead us to laugh and to wipe away tears. What a blessing from God it is to have people surrounding us who feel what we feel! For some, this group of sympathetic people is large; for others it is small—maybe even just one other person. Regardless, having someone to share our joy doubles our joy, and such sharing is vital to our growth and development as human beings.
But what about that other emotion—the anxiety that emanates from looking ahead to the next step we are about to take in life? Unfortunately, this feeling is probably the more common one that we all experience, coming along with every step that we take into a new phase of our existence. I’ve detected this anxiety in conversations with little children as they talked about going off to “big school” for the first time; I’ve heard it in the happy/sad voices of parents whose children were heading off to college; I’ve seen it in the eyes of the new retiree; and I’ve had it clearly communicated to me by elderly people moving into assisted living or nursing facilities. It’s an anxiety that stems from a fear of the unknown, and it can only be eased by placing our complete trust in our God who controls the future.
No matter what type of “graduation” we are experiencing, it is a surety that we will feel the emotions that come along with it. In such moments, it’s a good thing to be surrounded by those who will come alongside us, bearing the burden of anxiety with us, thus lightening our load, and it is good to have those who will celebrate with us, sharing in and increasing our joy and our sense of accomplishment. Of course, for me, the greatest of all is the knowledge that I have a God who does the same thing.
A Mother's Day Postscript
May 13, 2013
Sunday was Mother's Day, and what a beautiful gift of a day it was! The weather was one of those perfect days for driving around in a convertible, or for going hiking, or for taking a long nap in a backyard hammock. As days go, it could not have been a more appropriate expression of the beauty of motherhood and of the blessings that emanate from a healthy mother-child relationship. When all was said and done, it was a great day to pause at the end of and to say a prayer of gratitude to the One who provided it.
Sunday was a great day for churches as well, as Sunday morning visits with Mom yielded mini family reunions and families sat side-by-side in church, worshiping together and enjoying one another's company. Such Mother's Day worship attendance appears to be a priority in American churches these days. In a recent study conducted by LifeWay, it was revealed that, behind Easter and Christmas, Mother's Day garners the third largest church attendance of the major holidays on churches' calendars. Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, explains, "Clearly, mothers want to be present for the affirmation that is typically offered in most churches, but families also are present knowing their attendance will honor their mother. Many families make church attendance on Mother’s Day nearly obligatory." Our own worship services reflected the importance of Mother's Day church attendance, with many guest family members joining us in worship and many of our church family members visiting where their moms attend as well.
In our church services, I took the opportunity to ask our moms what gifts they had received for their special day. To a person, not one of them dwelt on material, temporal things, but rather focused on things like handmade cards, handwritten notes, and acts of service. Some of our moms noted that their children had called from out of state, while others excitedly pointed out their children who were sitting beside them.
In all of these responses, I began to note a common theme in terms of what was truly meaningful to these moms. It did not seem that they were impressed by gifts and goodies as much as they were impressed by what went into them. Words like "handmade" and "handwritten" revealed that what truly mattered to moms was the thought and the effort that went into the gifts rather than the gifts themselves. As I listened to our moms' responses (and thank you moms for being so helpful and vocal with your feedback), I couldn't help but think that moms were reflecting something that we all know to be true: that time equals love.
We all seem to inherently know this, and yet we all seem to have such difficulty expressing it through our living. Life is busy, and we struggle even to make room for all of the important things. That being the case, I was encouraged to hear about and to see the physical evidence of so many people expressing love to their moms through the wonderful gift of time. It was great to see families together and to know that they had set aside everything else just to be with mom.
There's just something very right about that.
Scripture Reading, Senior Adults and Soccer Uniforms
May 6, 2013
Over the last week, I've had the opportunity to experience some significant and poignant moments that I'd like to share with you. First, on Thursday of last week, I participated in the third annual Birmingham Bible Reading Marathon, an event that began on Sunday night and concluded on Thursday morning. In the time in between, hundreds of people from all over Birmingham read the Bible publicly from the steps of the historic Southside Baptist Church building, reading from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation.
This event, placed in the heart of Sheila Wright four years ago, was brought to fruition primarily through the efforts of Sheila along with Ninfa Austin, both of whom worked countless hours to raise awareness of and increase participation in the Bible Reading Marathon. This year, people read in multiple languages, as those of foreign descent communicated the Scriptures in their native tongues. Christians of many backgrounds, denominations and ethnicities joined to speak God's word over our city. Interestingly, a Jewish rabbi even joined in the reading as well, reciting from the Old Testament early in the week.
On Thursday, as I awaited my turn to read, I thought how about how unique this event truly is, in that it is one of the only things that we as a Christian community can do together in perfect unity. You see, because we're not commenting on the Scripture, preaching about it, discussing our various thoughts on it or interpretations of it--but rather, just simply reading it--there's no room for argument, as we give voice to the words before us. In that unity, there is tremendous beauty and value.
As my weekend progressed into Sunday, I was overjoyed also to be involved in our Senior Adult Sunday. As we live in an era that seems to value the new and the newer over the old and older, such moments as the honoring of senior adults are becoming a rarity. We honor our senior saints unapologetically, recognizing their vision, their spiritual leadership and their sacrifice, all of which provided us with the opportunity to have the church family we have today. On this special day, we were honored and blessed to have Dr. Rick Lance, the Executive Director of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, speaking in our services. A great leader and a godly man, Dr. Lance brought a powerful message on the top priority of prayer for us as believers and as God's church.
In the midst of our Senior Sunday activities, however, I experienced a third moment that I want to share with you. During our welcome time, I greeted two of our children, both of whom were wearing their soccer uniforms. I was delighted to see that their dad had brought them to worship, rather than just skipping it due to afternoon games. Too often, Christian families these days teach their children that attending the worship gathering of the church--the most important activity we do together--is less of a priority than going to ball games, a lesson that will skew their view of the priority of the gathering of God's people and will negatively affect their spiritual development. I would rather see a sanctuary filled with sports uniforms of all varieties than miss seeing our church families on Sunday mornings!
In fact, I encourage moms and dads to bring everyone to worship in uniform rather than setting aside this vital activity of our church family. You'll definitely find a fan in me! I recently had another opportunity to welcome one of our young girls who sheepishly came into worship wearing her soccer uniform, as her dad apologized to me about her not being "properly" attired for worship. My response to that little girl (and dad) was to tell her that I could not be happier to have her there, and that God doesn't care what a person is wearing, but rather cares about their heart. And I knew that God was happy that she was there with a heart ready to worship Him!
Has God provided any powerful moments in your life lately? Are you watching for Him to do so?
April 29, 2013
It’s amazing the significance that the month of May carries around the world. Across Europe, Asia, South America, North America, Africa, Australia—really every continent other than Antarctica—a variety of cultures engage in a variety of celebrations and festivals in recognition of this month. Perhaps it’s not ironic, then, that May is a month for celebrations and recognitions at Liberty Park Baptist Church.
First up, every year on the first Sunday in May, is our Senior Adult Sunday, a special day that we as a church set aside to honor our “seasoned saints.” Although it’s always an important day, its significance has been highlighted by the fact that Dr. Rick Lance, the Executive Director of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, will be speaking in both of our services. Since 1998, Dr. Lance has served at the helm of our state denominational entity, providing leadership to more than 3200 Alabama Baptist churches with more than 1 million members. During his tenure, Alabama Baptists have led the entire Southern Baptist Convention in giving and serving, a testimony to Dr. Lance’s godly guidance. I’m looking forward with great enthusiasm to the blessing of having him with us on Sunday, May 5.
The second Sunday in May, of course, is Mother’s Day. Set aside as a national holiday in 1914, this day for honoring our moms has powerful significance for us all. On May 12, we at Liberty Park Baptist will honor mothers as well, as we recognize the amazing role that they play in shaping us and nurturing us. Several years ago, during the week leading up to Mother’s Day, I saw a church sign that read, “Make your momma proud. Go to church this Sunday!” I hope you’ll make your momma proud too by making plans to join together with God’s people on this important day as we honor our moms!
The third Sunday in May this year is our Graduate Recognition Sunday, the day that we honor those students in our congregation who are making the huge forward leap in their lives that comes with academic achievement. We rejoice with those in our church family who are celebrating graduation, knowing that for them it means moving into a new reality of either college or career. In addition to celebrating, we commit to pray for them and their families as they take those first tentative steps into their next phase of life. As part of our recognition, our Student Minister, Wesley Braswell, will speak in both of our services that day. We were all blessed a year ago on this same Sunday to hear from Wesley, as he brought a powerful message from God’s Word that applied to us all—graduates or not. I encourage you to participate in this Sunday of recognition and prayer in honor of our graduates.
The fourth Sunday of May is the day before Memorial Day, a day set aside in our nation to honor men and women who have given their lives in service to our nation. As we remain in a state of war, with our soldiers serving in harm’s way on the other side of the world, this holiday maintains a special poignancy for all of us as Americans. Along with millions of our fellow countrymen, we will take time in our worship service that day to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the preservation of our freedoms—including the freedom to worship and to practice our religion without persecution.
Well, that’s May—a wonderful month of celebration and recognition. But, lest you relax as we near the end of it, don’t forget that VBS (June 3-7) is just around the corner!
The "Mysterious Triangle of Strength"
April 22, 2013
Over the last few Sundays, we've been looking at how we can find God's strength for dealing with the difficulties that we face in this life. We've tackled such issues as how to find peace and contentment, how to overcome self-condemnation by discovering God's grace and forgiveness, and what to do when life changes direction. Each time, we've looked into Scripture to discover what God has to say to us through His word about how His strength can be applied in each circumstance.
In preparation for these messages (and the one remaining in the series - "STRENGTH--Uncovering the Value in Suffering"), I have spent a great deal of time reading not only the biblical material, but also many other resources written by Christian authors such as C. S. Lewis, Max Lucado and Philip Yancey, among others. In my process of studying, I came across a book entitled In Pursuit of Happiness written by Frank Minirth, M.D., the famed Christian psychiatrist, radio personality, seminary professor and president of the Minirth Clinic in Richardson, Texas. In this book, Dr. Minirth addresses matters such as discouragement, loneliness, depression, relationship difficulties, stress and grief, providing practical strategies for dealing with each.
As he discusses the facing of trials in life, Dr. Minirth mentions something he calls the "Mysterious Triangle of Strength." This triangle is made up of three legs that are available to every believer and that help us to "beat the odds through dimensions that cannot be seen or heard" (p.102). The first leg of this triangle of strength is God's Word--the Bible. It's no coincidence that we as God's people tend to draw tremendous strength from passages like Psalm 23, Isaiah 40:31, Jeremiah 29:11 and Joshua 1:5. These Scriptures and so many more cry out to us in the commonality of our human experiences and provide hope, peace and comfort. They supernaturally provide strength for us to stand in and walk through life's tough moments.
The second leg of the triangle Dr. Minirth describes is prayer. Just knowing that we have the capability and the freedom to cry out to God--to deliver up our "complaint," to call for deliverance, to request sustenance, to seek restoration, to plea for help--is an amazing thing in itself. To know that the God of the universe listens and responds is almost unimaginable! The act of prayer alone is often cathartic, allowing us to vocalize our struggles, but knowing that God receives our words and acts upon them with an eye and a heart biased toward our ultimate good brings us confidence, hope and rest.
The third leg in the triangle of strength is the body of Christ--the Church. God has not designed us to exist in isolation as believers, doing our best as Lone Ranger Christians to make it through life. The testimony of Scripture is that God has designed us to exist in community--and even designed the community in which we are to exist! Additionally, God's Holy Spirit is active in this community, His Church, as we worship, fellowship and serve alongside one another. Ideally, in this community we find people who love us, encourage us, support us, minister to us, hold us accountable and walk with us through life in a number of ways. For this reason, God commands us not to "neglect the gathering together" (see Hebrews 10:25).
As we continue to discuss how to walk in God's strength through the tough moments of life, I encourage you to discover and utilize God's "mysterious triangle of strength" in your own life!
Three Text Messages
April 15, 2013
The week before Easter, amid the buildup for the big day and the busy-ness of getting everything in place and just right, I engaged in a dangerous game. It was a game of the mind, just to be clear--one that ministers engage in often--so its danger was not so much physical as it was emotional and spiritual. As far as I know, the game doesn't have a name, but here's how it works: The minister begins by thinking about the past, focusing on the names and the faces of people who for some reason--moving to another church, geographical relocation or even death--no longer are a part of their congregation. Soon, an emotional response follows that ranges from happiness over cherished friendships to despondency over the loss of valuable leaders and dear church family members. The danger in this game, of course, is that the minister can quickly find himself spiraling into a state of discouragement and even despair as the names and numbers of those no longer with us grow and the impact of their loss is felt more and more acutely.
In this particular instance, my focus was on those church family members who we have lost due to geographical relocation--those who have moved away due to the economy or in pursuit of career advancement. Without any church records at my disposal, just counting the names and faces in my head, I very quickly moved beyond 50, then beyond 75, beyond 100, and then my mind stalled out somewhere around 112. In a larger church this might not seem like that big of a deal, but for us, this equated to almost a third of our regular attendance average. I then began to think about the "what ifs": What if those people had been able to remain with us? What if we still had the leaders, teachers, servants, musicians, technicians, etc., represented in that group? Where would we be as a church by now, and what could we be doing for the Kingdom of God?
As I began to devolve into a deep funk thinking about all of this, something happened that seemed to me to be a direct message from God, designed to snap me out of it and to refocus me in on the upcoming Easter celebration. What happened, you ask? Well, I received--within a 24-hour period--three separate text messages, from three individuals in three different states, all former church members of ours who have moved away, letting me know that they were praying for us to have a wonderful Easter and praising Liberty Park Baptist for its impact in their lives. As I read their messages, I began to think about each of these families and how they had come to be connected with our church: One family joined after the husband and I met and talked over lunch; they quickly moved into positions of leadership after joining the church. Another family joined because their kids got involved in our children's and student ministries, with mom and dad also getting actively involved and eventually taking positions of leadership in the church. The third family--a husband and wife--came to us through an invitation of one of our members, I baptized them both, and they became actively involved in our ministries.
As I pondered each of these families and the work that God had accomplished through LPBC in their lives--some of them coming to faith in Christ, all of them growing in their faith and commitment, some of them becoming strong leaders in the church; all of them going on to join churches in their new locations and become fully active in those churches--I began to be encouraged. I was reminded that the work of God's Kingdom is not limited to a single congregation and that in a highly transitional community like ours, we are often a waypoint for people in their journey. That being the case, it is imperative for us to remember our duty to serve the post to which God has appointed us and to do so with enthusiasm and commitment, because we truly will not know until eternity what impact we have had in the lives of others and what the ramifications of that impact will be.
In closing, I want to share one excerpt from the three text messages with you: "You [LPBC] made an eternal difference." You know, when it's all said and done, that's what matters.
Decisions and Consequences
April 8, 2013
Anyone who's lived long enough and has paid attention knows that our decisions in life carry consequences. Sometimes, the consequences of our decisions are realized very quickly, right in the moment. If we have made poor choices, we feel the bite and the sting of their aftermath; if our choices have been wise, we feel the joy and the blessings that result.
On Sunday, our church was blessed to experience the positive outcome of wise decisions that were made in the past: First, we celebrated as a husband and wife joined our congregation, and I noted with their joining that their connection with our church was a direct result of a decision made more than eight years ago, when our deacons honored my request to open our church up to non-member weddings. Due to some problems in the past, the church had made the decision to cease allowing such weddings. In my experience, however, the opportunity provided by holding these weddings in our facility--especially the opportunity to have up-front influence in a young couple's marriage through premarital counseling and through a positive connection with a church--far outweighed the possible negative outcomes.
Our deacons agreed, and the decision was made to hold weddings in our facility for non-members who were willing to meet our requirements. In the ensuing years, many weddings have been held, much premarital counseling has been provided, and we have had the great blessing of impacting the lives of many young families in their formative stages. I even keep a picture of one such couple by my computer. This young couple both came to Christ through the premarital counseling process, and I had the joy of baptizing them. The picture is of the three of us standing in the baptistery together. A few months after I married them, they moved to Nashville; months later, they sent me an email telling me about their new church home. The decision we made eight years ago made an eternal difference in the life of that young couple and will impact that family for generations to come!
About two years ago, another couple asked to hold their wedding in our sanctuary. During the process of working with the family to put everything together for the wedding, many connections were made with the mother and father of the bride. And they were the husband and wife who joined our church Sunday morning. Who could have know eight years ago that a decision about the use of our building would bear such fruit?
The second outcome of a previous decision that we experienced as a church happened when three students--two brothers and a sister--presented themselves before the church for baptism Sunday morning (I baptized them Sunday afternoon). Although now in their teens, the connection between these three and our church started years ago, when as young children they attended our preschool--Liberty Pals. The decision for our church to start a preschool, made almost twenty years ago (and not made without opposition), has borne fruit time and time again, but it was most clearly on display Sunday when these young people stood for Christ in the waters of baptism. Once again, wise choices made long ago yielded eternal fruit.
All of the above served as a reminder to me that we as individuals and as a church can choose the route of self-protection, circling our wagons and closing ranks so that we benefit ourselves, and we will reap the consequences of those actions. Or, as we did in the above instances, we can choose the path of openly ministering to others, knowing that it will be costly, time-consuming, messy and inconvenient--perhaps even downright troublesome at times. Yet, when we choose to minister to others in the name of Jesus, there will always be positive consequences--eternally significant consequences--that will reverberate for years to come. Sometimes eight, maybe even twenty years down the road, but consequences nonetheless that remind us that God rewards our obedience.
My hope and my prayer is that we as a church will continue to make decisions in light of their eternal consequences, always trusting God to provide good fruit. Just like He did last Sunday.
April 1, 2013
As a pastor, I have the opportunity to be with people in their best moments--like when they become husband and wife, when they have their first child (and even subsequent children!), when they accept Christ and when they go through the waters of baptism. I thank God for those joyful and special occasions and for the sharing of those times that my place in ministry allows. I also, however, have the gracious opportunity to be with people in some of their most difficult moments, often walking with them through the most difficult struggles of life.
One of my most often-prayed prayers in those moments is a request for strength--strength for those walking through the time of difficulty and strength for me to minister to them as they walk through it. You see, I've come to realize that our own strength is often inadequate for meeting the challenges of life, and unlike those who deride all religion as a "crutch," I'm grateful to have something--Someone!--to lean on and to receive strength from in those hard times of life.
During the month of April, I'll be presenting a series of messages addressing some of the tough challenges we face in life and how God promises and provides strength for us in those moments if we are willing to receive it. Here are the four issues I'll be tackling as we examine "the immeasurable greatness of His power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:19):
"Winning the Fight for Peace and Contentment" - Philippians 4:4-13
"How to Stop Beating Yourself Up" - 1 John 3:19-22
"What to Do When Life Changes Direction" - Joshua 1:1-9
"Uncovering the Value in Suffering" - 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
There are some reasons why I'm providing you with all of this information up front: First, these are universal issues that we all face in this life, and I want you to gain insight, wisdom and answers from God's word. That being the case, I want you to see in advance what we're going to be talking about so you can study the Scriptures on your own and prepare for our times of diving into God's word together, maximizing your opportunity to learn and grow.
Second, because of the universality of these issues, they speak to everyone. This provides you with a wonderful opportunity to invite to church people you know who may be walking through some of these circumstances in life. Do you know someone who's struggling to find peace and contentment? Do you have a friend or co-worker who needs help with self-condemnation? Is there someone in your life who is trying to find their footing after a significant change in life (unemployment, loss of a spouse, becoming an "empty-nester," health changes, newly married, etc.)? Are you connected with someone who is suffering and needs some answers? If you can say "yes" to any of these, then these messages may open a door for you to invite someone to attend worship and to find the help and encouragement they need.
Third, these messages will provide you with some strong tools for your own growth as a disciple and help for you in encouraging others in their own discipleship--perhaps even opening the door for you to make a new disciple by leading someone to faith in Christ! I encourage you, as you hear these messages, to share the ones that speak to you and that you believe will speak to others who you know. I hope you'll make it your plan to attend each service as we seek together to discover God's STRENGTH.
The Joy of Easter
March 25, 2013
By all counts, we as Christians have more reason to be joyful than anyone else on the planet. Just consider this: We are saved by God's grace because of His love for us, our sins are forgiven, we are adopted by God as His children, and we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. We have a huge family of brothers and sisters, we have a citizenship that is in heaven, and we have a hope of eternal life in the presence of God. Meanwhile, we live with purpose, in the light of God's promises, and we are privileged to participate in His great plan to redeem the world to Himself. As we cling to Him for strength, He is at work in us, transforming us to be like His Son and empowering us to do His will and His work.
All of this is possible, of course, because we serve a risen Savior in Jesus Christ, who was raised to life after dying on our behalf, taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins. Just as His life provided us with a perfect example, His death provided us with a perfect sacrifice. And just as He invites us to die with Him (to sin and self and the world), He also invites us to live with Him. Now, one would think that all of this great news would render us almost spiritually giddy, constantly overflowing with joy and desirous of spreading this wonderful, exciting news to anyone who would listen to us.
And yet, we Christians often have just the opposite reputation. In a study of how non-Christians perceive Christians, Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, found seven commonly-held perceptions. Here was the first one: "It just seems to me that Christians are mad at the world and mad at each other. They are so negative that they seem unhappy. I have no desire to be like them and stay upset all the time." When I read that a few months ago, my immediate thought was that it only hurts because it's true.
So how do we change it? How do we become people who live out the joy we claim to have reason to possess? Honestly, it's not easy. In fact, it's a difficult task to refocus one's heart, mind and spirit on existing in a state of joy--but from all indications, the end result is truly worth the pursuit of it.
That being the case, one of my prayers as I approach Easter is that God will do a transforming work in me that will daily focus me in on the reasons I have to live and exist in His joy. Of all the things that could overflow from my life--both positive and negative--one of the main things that I want people to "catch" from me is a sincere and deep joy that naturally flows from my walk with the Lord.
The late Zig Ziglar, motivator extraordinaire and fellow believer, once declared, "Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know. People will start to gather and want some of what you've got." I cannot think of better advice for us as we approach Easter!
Do You Have a Plan?
March 18, 2013
Let's face it: we place a high value on planning in our society. I remember as a child seeing commercial after commercial and promotion upon promotion touting the idea of having a "family escape plan" in case one's house ever caught fire. These days, in light of the tragic weather-related disasters of recent years, various organizations are stressing that every family have a "weather plan" as well, complete with a weather disaster kit to help your family through a weather-related event. We also know that in many other areas of life, planning is not just a good thing but a crucial thing, in every area from our education to our career to our retirement to the planning of our estate through proper wills, powers of attorney, living wills, etc.
Recently, I've also taken note of the planning aspect of God's nature, noting that His approach to His interactions with us is not haphazard, but rather conforms to His great plans that stretch back into eternity past. Many of us take tremendous comfort from scriptural reminders about God's plans, such as the one we find in Jeremiah 29:11--"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" One of the passages that I've been fascinated by in recent years in regard to God's planning is 2 Samuel 14:14, which says, "Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, He devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from Him." This passage reminds me that God is always at work, drawing lost and wandering and rebellious humanity back to Himself, "devising ways" to bring the estranged and spiritually banished into relationship and fellowship with Him.
And that got me to thinking--what sort of plans do I have in my life that will bring me into participation in God's plan to draw people to Himself? I'm just now really beginning to think through this, but here's my thinking so far about "devising ways" to join God in His work:
1. I need to make it a matter of prayer - I need to pray that God will open my eyes to those existing opportunities; that He will make me open and sensitive to the work of His spirit and to the spiritual needs of those around me. I need to ask Him to open doors for witness and then to aid me in boldly--yet gently and respectfully--proclaiming the good news in such situations.
2. I need to put myself in the "field" - Most of my work and even my leisure time is spent with people who are believers. I'm working now on being intentional about putting myself into situations that will provide me opportunities to spend time with people who don't know Christ, so I can live my faith alongside them and share with them the good news of Christ's love for them.
3. I need to be urgently intentional about this - We tend to prioritize and make room for those things that are important to us, placing upon them a sense of urgency that keeps them at the forefront of our thinking and our doing. I'm asking God to help me keep His mission as the top priority in my obedience to Him, so that I will remain in a high state of readiness to move and act at His command in regard to His plan.
This is my thinking so far. I'd love your feedback and your thoughts on this matter. I'd also love to hear from any of you who may have such a plan in your life--which leads to a question: Do you have a plan? If not, I invite you to join me in this exercise of joining God in His work!
Salesman or Witness?
March 11, 2013
One of the more difficult aspects of being a true follower (disciple) of Jesus Christ is that of learning to become a witness. In theory, most Christians agree that we as believers are personally responsible for sharing our faith with others, yet few of us actually will ever get around to doing it. I'm not exactly sure why it's such a difficult thing to do (even though I find it difficult at times to do it myself), but I wonder if it's because we have often made it into something very unnatural and unappealing to the average believer. Here's what I mean:
Sometimes our approach has been that of a sales agency, teaching people how to promote our "product" and training them to be comfortable and smooth in their presentation. While teaching and training people how to present the Gospel is a legitimate exercise, an over-dependence on a sales-based approach has often left a bad taste in the mouth of both the person on the receiving end and on the giving end. Feelings of insincerity and accusations of spiritual hucksterism quickly and easily do disservice to the very Gospel that we are seeking to promote. Even for those with the best of intentions, there can develop a sense of uneasiness that leaves one feeling uncomfortable with such sales tactics.
I have been a "victim" of the sales approach myself, as a well-meaning man handed me a Gospel tract in a McDonald's parking lot in Athens, Alabama, as I was in the process of moving my family to seminary (and yes, I was a Christian already at that point!). Rather than engaging me in any sort of real conversation, he handed me the tract, threw out a quick "sales pitch," and moved on to the next "customer." While I appreciated that he was at least doing something, I had to wonder about the effectiveness of his approach--especially when he seemed more concerned about handing out his quota of tracts than about actually engaging anyone in a conversation about Jesus Christ. Being on the receiving end of this tract distribution, I experienced what it must feel like for an unbeliever who might truly welcome a sincere spiritual conversation rather than being treated like a spiritual consumer.
Nathan Creitz, a church planter and blogger, asserts that "in a culture that craves honesty and authenticity a Gospel gimmick isn't going to make disciples." I agree. That being the case, we need to make our witness training less about salesmanship and more about relationship--meaning that as we teach people how to share the Gospel, we also need to teach them how to grow in their relationship with God, so that we love Him enough that we want to talk about Him as a result of the natural overflow of our hearts. Through that relationship, we also maintain a constant sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, so that we are always ready when He provides an opportunity for witness. Simultaneously, we need to learn how to develop redemptive relationships with non-Christians, living out our faith authentically before them so that we gain an opportunity to engage them in sincere spiritual dialogue through which we can share with them the Gospel.
Such authentic and sincere engagement, through which we speak from the heart about the One we love to people we love, is what will turn salesmen into true witnesses.
An Encouraging Word
March 4, 2013
How full is your encouragement tank? Seriously, right now, how is your level of encouragement and contentment--as opposed to your level of discouragement and discontentment? As a pastor, I hear from all kinds of folks struggling with all kinds of difficulties on a regular basis, and my heart often breaks for my brothers and sisters who seem weighed down with the worries and concerns of this life. I see them as I stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, and sometimes, even as I am preaching, I will deliver up a quick prayer on their behalf.
As a fellow human being, I myself sometimes struggle with life's disappointments and difficulties, and I am thankful that God has placed people in my life who pray for me as well. I'm also glad that God has blessed me with people who will speak encouraging words into my life, and even those who will sometimes challenge me and hold me accountable when I begin to wander into the miry sinkhole of discouragement and discontentment.
Do you have people like that in your life too--people whose influence helps provide an antidote for the negative emotions that we struggle with regularly as human beings? Do you also have a strategy in place to help you walk through tough times? If not, I want to provide you with a few words of counsel that will help you deal with the rough patches of life:
1. Pray, pray, pray - We talk a lot about it, but do we do it? Ironically, we often pull away from God when we're struggling, when He's the one who can benefit us the most. He invites us to cast our cares on Him, assuring us that He will help in our time of need.
2. Seek out positive people - In Philippians 4:8, we are told to focus our minds on those things that are positive in nature. Too often, however, we engage in a self-perpetuating mindset of negativity. When we're in that mode, we typically will seek out other negative folks to reinforce what we're feeling and thinking. If you want to think better, spend time with people who are upbeat and look at things from a positive perspective.
3. Invite accountability - Find a close friend or relative who knows your tendencies, and give them permission to point out to you when you're allowing negative emotions to drive your thoughts and feelings.
4. Add some encouragers - We pretty much all have commendable aspects of our lives that true encouragers can highlight and build upon, if we let them. Find such people and add them to your circle of friends. How does one find such people? It's simple--practice encouragement yourself! Someone once told me that negativity attracts and breeds negativity; positivity attracts and breeds positivity. I've found these words to be very true! If you want someone to encourage you, become an encourager of others!
If you're struggling, I hope this information will prove helpful to you. It does not come from a self-help book, but from personal experience. Above all, I hope that you will find encouragement in Christ!
February 25, 2013
"No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." These are the words of Jesus in John 13:16, as He was teaching the Disciples a powerful lesson about serving. The setting was the Last Supper, and Jesus would soon go to the cross as a servant of all humanity, taking upon Himself the sins of the world, so that by His death we could have the opportunity to be released from the penalty of sin and receive God's awesome gift of eternal life. Jesus told them that He was providing them an example, and that they should do as He had done. With the exception of the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, they all did.
The Disciples would watch carefully as Jesus carried out His service to mankind in an amazing way, going willingly to the cross, suffering intense physical agony and spiritual forsakenness, yet all the while doing so without complaint, anger or bitterness. Knowing that His suffering service was God's will for Him, Jesus set the tone for the dramatic work that God would do through the tireless service and self-sacrifice of the Disciples, all of whom would give their lives to the spread of the Gospel.
Today, we look at such men--and all such people who have been their spiritual descendants in history--and we marvel at their willing service to God. We honor those who serve tirelessly, without complaint and without anger or bitterness in regard to their plight. We are fascinated that Paul, another great servant of God, could speak from Roman imprisonment about the contentment, peace, satisfaction and outright joy that he felt in knowing that his chains were serving to advance the Gospel.
We are impressed with people such as these, but we too quickly and easily forget that they are not meant to be exceptions--truth is, we are all called to follow the example of Christ in serving tirelessly, without complaint, without anger and without bitterness, to advance the Gospel. And while the concept may sound pretty simple, the accomplishment of it is not. Even as a pastor, I struggle with it myself, finding it almost impossible at times to obey the scriptural command in Philippians 2:14--"Do everything without complaining or arguing."
And yet, I have found that true Christ-like serving--called by God, directed by the Holy Spirit and pointing others to Jesus--is an incredible antidote to my negative emotions, which the enemy smells like a shark does blood in the water and pounces on with relentless and savage attacks. I need such an antidote, a spiritual "shark repellant," so I can serve God with gladness of heart and with the contentment, peace, satisfaction and joy that Paul found in his service, as he followed the example of Jesus.
What about you?
Two New Additions
to the Great Cloud of Witnesses
February 18, 2013
Last week, two of our brothers, John Lewis and Wayne Hughes, went home to be with our Lord. We celebrated their lives through memorial services on Friday and Saturday. As we remembered these men, I was reminded of their servant hearts and their willingness to consider others as more significant than themselves. I was also challenged, as I often am at memorial services for saints, by their examples.
Prior to the decline in his health, John Lewis was the smiling face that greeted me on Sunday mornings before the 8:30am worship service. Each Sunday, he arrived early, got organized, and then greeted those who came to worship with a smile, a handshake, and often, a humorous story. When the 8:30am worship service concluded, John made his way downstairs to the Children’s Entrance to greet and hold the door for families as they came for Bible Study. With a smile and a good-natured personality, John helped many families to begin their worship experience each Sunday in a healthy and happy frame of mind.
Wayne Hughes served alongside John as a greeter at the Children’s Entrance for many years. When his service time concluded downstairs, Wayne often made his way upstairs to help rearrange the Fellowship Hall and then returned downstairs to help set up classrooms for Liberty Pals. During the week, Wayne worked on projects for the church. Sometimes, someone asked Wayne to work on a project – build a rickshaw for VBS, build a stage for a music program, etc. Other times, Wayne simply walked around the church to find out what needed to be done and did it.
I am certain that both John and Wayne served in many ways not mentioned above – it was just their nature. Sometimes they were asked to serve; other times they took it upon themselves to discern needs and meet them. Do not misunderstand; neither man was perfect, they were both human. However, they were faithful and, in their faithfulness, sought to use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve their Lord by serving others.
The example of these two men challenges me to be a better servant. Neither of these men had easy lives, yet rather than complain they learned to appreciate the goodness of their Lord and the good things with which He blessed them. Rather than wait to be served, they sought opportunities to serve others.
Because of the way they expressed their faith in Jesus both verbally and through their service, I am confident that both John and Wayne stand with the great cloud of witnesses in heaven today. We are told in Hebrews 12 that these gathered saints surround and encourage us to persevere in our race of faith. May we follow their examples, heed their encouragement, fix our eyes on Jesus, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Your brother in Christ,
An Obedient Church
February 11, 2013
“The church is not a building; it’s the people.”
I’m sure you’ve heard this statement before. Just to be clear, it’s absolutely true. The church is not a building; it’s not an organization; it’s not a denominational structure—and it’s certainly not a business. The church, rather, is the gathering of believers—whoever they are, wherever they meet—who have come together as one to pray, to worship, to learn, to fellowship, to evangelize and to make disciples.
When working at its optimum, the church is an unstoppable force—in fact, it was Jesus Himself who said that not even the gates of hell can prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). When fulfilling its mission, it is powerful and miraculous; it is the body of Christ bringing hope, light and life to a dark, broken and lost world. To be working in that fashion and to that degree, however, requires that the church be functioning in obedience to God.
Such obedience does not simply mean that the music is good, that the preaching is solid, that the programs and ministries are running smoothly and that the church’s financial house is in order. It means far more than having good leaders in place, having by-laws that make sense and having all the staff positions filled with top-notch ministers. It goes far beyond good marketing, a great website, an attractive logo and a catchy mission statement.
The kind of obedience that is required in order for a church to reach its peak effectiveness for God’s kingdom is the kind of that goes beyond simple right and wrong. It’s the kind of obedience that digs down to the real guts of pursuing the will of God by casting aside everything that does not matter eternally and by falling in line with His agenda and His great purpose of redeeming the lost. It is faith expressing itself in love (Galatians 5:6), and it is love expressing itself through obedience.
And it is rare among churches today. Why is it so rare? I believe it’s because the people are sitting on their hands waiting for “the church” to get things right—when they themselves are the church. They are looking for someone else to be obedient on their behalf—their staff, their deacons, their committee leaders; someone; anyone! And yet, THEY ARE the church. And they are the ones who need to be obedient. They need to pray; they need to worship; they need to fellowship; they need to evangelize; they need to make disciples; they need to love. And when they—we, the church—finally figure that out and do it, they’ll change the world.
Walking on the Edge
February 4, 2013
When I was a kid, I really enjoyed walking on the edge--not figuratively, but literally. Find me a tree that had fallen across the creek behind our house, and I was walking over it, carefully balancing so as not to end up in the creek. The brick wall between our driveway and our neighbor's--I was constantly on top of it. Climbing rocks in the woods, swinging on vines across deep drop-offs, walking on slippery rocks across the creek--if it had an element of danger, real or perceived, then I wanted to do it.
And yet, something happened along the way that stopped all of that for me (or at least curtailed it significantly--I still like to go rock climbing with my kids). Maybe it was watching the vine separate from the tree and watching my friend's brother fly through the air, landing hard on the rocks and badly breaking his arm. Maybe it was the brain concussion I received after falling from the ice-covered top of my dad's pick-up truck that I was climbing on. Maybe it was the realization that human beings can't fly, and that falling from great heights can result in great physical harm. Perhaps I became overly-cautious; more likely, I grew up and matured in my thinking.
These days, as I observe people's lives, it seems that a lot of Christians enjoy "walking on the edge" (I mean it figuratively this time). I see believers involved in behaviors that they shouldn't be involved in, and I hear them saying things they shouldn't say. They enjoy the thrill of being "edgy," of courting the danger that comes with thoughts, speech and behaviors that are proscribed for God's people in Scripture. Such thrillseeking can be exhilarating, as one perches carefully on the razor's edge of disobedience. But, as many believers have discovered, when slipping and falling occurs, great damage can be done to the believer and to those who surround him.
Such disobedience in a Christian is a sign of immaturity, an indication that this believer has not yet understood the danger involved in--and the damage that can result from--falling from great spiritual heights. And yet we struggle with the relative boredom of "playing it safe," because the world holds before us all sorts of enticements and temptations to walk their edge. Truth is, we need to grow up, because mature believers understand that there is another "edge" out there that is more exhilarating, more breathtaking and requires more courage than anything the world has to offer--it's the "edge" of faithful obedience.
That's the edge that God's man walks when he refuses the status quo in the business world and walks by faith; it's the edge that the believing young person walks when she opts for purity rather than following the crowd; it's the edge that the true disciple walks when he says "yes" to God's life-altering new career path; it's the edge that the "going" Christian walks when he goes on mission; it's the edge that the faithful mom walks when she raises her children with God's word at the center of their lives; it's the edge that the godly husband walks when he decides deep in his heart that his eyes will always be only for his wife... And it's an awesome place to be.
The Growth Factor
January 28, 2013
Years ago, when I was a student at Bragg Junior High School in Gardendale, Alabama, I became enamored with the biological sciences. I had a great teacher--Mrs. Bevill--who captured our attention and made everything fascinating and interesting, and her instruction helped launch me into a lifelong enjoyment of the study of life.
Among the many things I learned in that class was a list of the characteristics of living things. Depending upon which list you use, there are anywhere from five to eight general characteristics that scientists utilize to determine whether or not something can be categorized as being alive. I won't bore you with the entire list, but I will note that one item that is common to every list you see is the characteristic of growth and development.
In regard to spiritual things, I have often thought of how appropriate this characteristic is when gauging whether or not a church or an individual Christian is "alive." Now, I'm not talking about "alive" in terms of whether or not eternal life is present, but in terms of being conscious of and responsive to the presence of God and the work of God in their midst. A biblical example of what I'm talking about is found in Revelation 3:1-2, where Jesus addresses the church at Sardis, telling them, "I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die..."
Jesus' powerful warning to this church addressed the fact that, rather than growing and developing in their faith, they were spiritually stagnant, a state very much akin to being dead. Acknowledging that they were not truly dead in the eternal sense, Jesus called on them to wake up and to begin to strengthen what still remained of their once-strong spiritual status.
I think Jesus' words speak loudly to us today as believers and as church members. For many of us, if our spiritual growth and development were placed on a graph, it would be a straight, flat line or even possibly show a downward trend. For others, it might be a wild, roller coaster-type line, with drastic ups and downs. Ideally, however, that line should look like a long, steady incline, revealing that we are always growing and developing, perhaps sometimes maturing more drastically than other times, but always in the process of becoming more like Christ and more obedient to His word as we go through life.
This is what disciples do. They grow; they develop spiritually. And this is what disciple-making churches do as well. It's not enough just to have a reputation of being alive; Jesus calls us to real life through true spiritual growth.
The Connection Factor
January 21, 2013
"I just don't feel connected."
That's a phrase I have heard from people in church numerous times through the years, and it almost always is followed by that person visiting other churches, often leaving and joining another church eventually. It's a sentence I hate to hear, because it always means that we--both us and them--have failed in the most foundational endeavor we have to carry out in the life of the church--establishing relationships.
The most primary relationship, of course, is the one we have with God through Jesus Christ. It was Jesus Himself who said in John 17:3, "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." If we had any doubt, this passage clarifies for us that the ultimate focus of the church in regard to people should be to bring them into relationship with God that they may experience eternal life. This matter is best accomplished through relationships we have with others, not through events, programs and the like.
Having established this primary relationship, we are designed by God then to live and exist in community with other brothers and sisters in Christ. A good exercise to give you a hint of the scope of the New Testament's teaching on our faith family relationships can be accomplished by going to a website like www.Biblegateway.com and doing a search for the phrases "one another" and "each other," or for the word "love." What you'll find is a rich treasure trove of passages dealing with our relationships with other believers, and with others in general.
Now, I want you to know that I'm not telling you all of this merely for informational purposes, but rather to challenge you--us, really--to be more intentional about our relationship building. Why? Because our mission of making disciples depends on the establishment and maintenance of healthy relationships. Without strong relationships within the church family, we will never unify around the task of making disciples. With strong, healthy relationships, however, we identify ourselves clearly as God's people ("By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" - John 13:35), and we attract a world in need of love and open the door for God's message of His love displayed so clearly in Jesus Christ's sacrifice for us.
As I've begun to focus on this issue, there are some phrases that have risen to the forefront of my thoughts in regard to relationships that I will share with you: Be intentional; Forgive one another; Bear with each other; Encourage one another; Live in harmony with one another; Have fellowship with one another; Speak the truth in love; Consider others above yourself; Love one another deeply, from the heart. With the exception of the first phrase, all of these come straight from Scripture. I want to challenge you to start taking these to heart as well, and to try honestly to live by them. This is important--vital, even--because when it comes to making disciples, relationships--connections--are foundational.
As We Are Going...
January 14, 2013
In our Sunday morning worship services, I began this week to communicate to our congregation a new vision and direction for 2013. Now, to be honest, the vision I laid down was not really a new one--not new in general terms, because it was first expressed by Jesus around two thousand years ago, and not new to us as a church, either, because it's already the core of our church's mission statement. What I talked to the church about was simply this: making disciples. This is our mission.
Having been in ministry for almost 28 years now, I have seen churches go through cycles of focusing on their scriptural, God-given mission, then getting distracted and "wandering in the wilderness," and then getting back on track by rediscovering and reawakening to their original mission/vision as a church. To be crystal clear, the mission for the church never changed; the thing that changed was the church's recognition of and pursuit of that mission. Our mission has never changed either; we have just been distracted, and it is time for us to refocus and return to that mission.
On Sunday, we went back over the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), reminding ourselves of Jesus' clear statement concerning what we are supposed to be about as His followers. We noted that we must decide that we will indeed be a disciple-making church, realizing that we cannot make disciples unless we ourselves are disciples. We also noted that in order to make disciples, we must first baptize people. Baptizing, of course, requires that we're leading people to Christ and bringing them into the fellowship of the church. Additionally, we saw that we must be committed to the disciple-making process--to participating in it and leading others in it as well.
This all sounds very simple, but it is challenging. Over the years, I have seen many people hear about discipleship, get all excited about it and then sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do in order to become a disciple and to disciple others. They see discipleship only as an institutional thing--a program carried out by the church, when in truth, it is much more organic than that. In fact, the best examples of discipleship I have seen have not come through church programs, but rather through individual believers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, following the natural lines of relationship in their lives and developing Bible studies, prayer groups, mentoring relationships and the like with their friends, family, co-workers, neighbors or others with whom they have some connection. Then, as they grew together, they drew others in as well, pulling in new believers and others with long-dormant faith that needed to be reawakened.
Discipleship such as this is at the heart of the Great Commission. It is an "as you go make disciples" approach, and it is the kind that can spread exponentially, like wildfire. My hope and prayer is that we will begin to see God engineer this kind of discipleship (in addition to the more formal, institutional kind) in the year to come.
January 7, 2013
A few weeks ago, as the end of 2012 was approaching, I had someone wish me good luck in the New Year, and it got the gears in my brain rolling. First, I thought how ironic it was that someone would wish me "luck" (which I don't believe in anyway--more on that later) for a year that others would consider automatically "unlucky" because it's a whole year of thirteen (which, once again, I don't give any creedence). Second, it got me to thinking that I wish I would have taken that moment and used it as an opportunity for witness instead of just letting the remark and my reply ("Thanks!") go by in passing. In hindsight, having had time to think about it, I wish I would have taken the time to tell that person something like the following:
Thanks for the kind wishes, but you know, I don't really believe in luck;I believe in God and His grace and goodness. To those who believe in it, luck is an imaginary, impersonal, arbitrary force that visits some and not others. Truly superstitious people will even go through all sorts of rituals and maneuvers to try to increase their chances of having luck visited upon them, hoping that through their efforts good things will come to them. God, on the other hand, is a personal being who loves us all. He pours out His grace on good people and evil people alike (see Matthew 5:45), with His ultimate desire being that all people through His kindness would place their trust in Him and find eternal life (see Romans 2:4 and Peter 3:9).
I also believe that the truly good things in life are blessings from God and that those blessings increase for those who are obedient to Him. Now, when I speak of the good things in life, it's important to know that I'm not talking about winning the lottery or other things that the world might consider to be in that category. I'm referring rather to the truly good things in life--things like love, peace, contentment, and hope. Of course, the Bible says that every good and perfect blessing in our lives is a gift from God above (see James 1:17), so I always give credit and thanks to God any and every time I experience something positive in life. The Bible also teaches that obedience to God--my adherence to His way of being, thinking and doing--brings even greater blessings from Him in this life, as my life falls in line with His will (see Luke 11:28).
So, as we enter 2013, don't count me among those who will place their hope in luck or who will suffer a year-long bout of triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen). No, count me rather among those who will trust in God, remembering His love, goodness, kindness, mercy and grace. Count me with those who will look to Him for the greatest blessings in life, seeking to be obedient to Him so that my life matches His desires for me. That's where I want to be. And may God bless you greatly in 2013!
December 17, 2012
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." This statement, made by newsman Francis Pharcellus Church in an 1897 editorial responding to eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon's question about Santa's existence, has gained the status of a cultural icon. In her note to New York's The Sun newspaper, Virginia lamented that some of her little friends said there was no Santa, yet her father said that if it was in The Sun, it must be true. Thus was written one of the most famous editorials--containing one of the most oft-quoted lines--in history.
As I watched the events of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, unfold last week, I wondered if little Virginia, living in this day and time, might have different questions entirely. Rather than being concerned about the existence of Santa, might she be searching for answers to the constant unfolding of such horrible events in her world? Would she struggle more to make sense of the larger world around her, less concerned about Santa and more concerned about survival--physically, emotionally and spiritually? In wondering what her questions might be--even assuming a little--I also wondered how we might answer the concerns of her heart:
Yes, Virginia, there is evil in this world. We saw it clearly on display last week when Adam Lanza murdered his own mother, killed 6 adults and 20 little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and then took his own life. But this is not the first time we have seen evil, and it will surely not be the last. Evil will be around as long as the enemy, the devil is around. The Bible says that this being is evil personified, and that it is his goal to "steal, kill and destroy" (John 10:10). His greater intent is to cause people to become cynical and hardened toward God, turning them away from Him. There is also evil in the hearts of humans. From the beginning, man has chosen to follow his own evil desires and to go his own way rather than obey God. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, chose out of jealousy to kill his younger brother Abel, and thus evil begat violence. People who give in to their own evil desires will always do violence to others in some form or fashion, and we have much history to prove this: the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide ongoing in Sudan, etc. We see it when men abuse their wives and children, when one kid bullies another just because he can, and when people deal with others maliciously. Evil and violence appear to be deeply ingrained in the hearts of humanity. However...
Yes, Virginia, there is a God who is with us. And His name is Jesus. He came to save us from our evil selves and to give us victory over our evil enemy, the devil. We celebrate His birth at Christmas, but He is always around you, desiring nothing more than to enter your heart and to change it, so that you will not be enslaved to your own evil desires, but rather will have the freedom to live a life of love. He is strong enough to defeat the devil, and when we encounter evil in this world, He is able to comfort us, strengthen us and give us peace and the power to stand. He can do this because He has overcome the world (John 16:33). He also offers you hope in this life and the next, promising eternal life in heaven to all who trust Him completely. We may not have all the answers in the face of something as horrible as what we as a nation experienced last week, but we certainly have the most important answer: Jesus.
Let Your Heart Be Light
December 10, 2012
In my "binge" of Christmas music as of late, I have been re-hearing many old holiday songs, really listening to some of them for the first time. Among these songs is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which was originally written in 1943 by Hugh Martin at his parents' vacation cottage here in Birmingham, Alabama. Later introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, this ballad has grown through many revisions to become one of the most beloved songs of the season.
As I listened to the song recently, I was struck by the first line in a way that it's never really affected me before: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas; let your heart be light." I particularly focused in on the statement, "...let your heart be light." What an interesting turn of a phrase! As I considered the meaning of that appeal, I reflected on a conversation I had not too long ago with a dear Christian friend. As we talked, he confessed that he really had few positive feelings about the Christmas season, declaring that "Other than the celebration of Jesus' birth, I'd just as soon we skip on to the 15th of January."
As I thought about his statement and the emotions that it revealed, I hurt for my friend because I knew that Christmas for him is not a time of joy and laughter and celebration, but rather a time of remembering losses and failures of the past; a time of considering what might have been and could have been if he had made different choices in his life. The result for him is that, at Christmas, his heart feels heavy, not light. This new understanding of my friend's heart toward Christmas has led me to pray for him more intensively at this time and to look for ways to encourage him--and perhaps even challenge him a little in his thinking--in regard to this season of remembering the incarnation of Christ.
And yet, I know there are many people who are believers in Christ--strong believers, even--who feel the same way. Perhaps their reason for feeling this way is due to loss; perhaps it is because they have broken family relationships; maybe their are emotional or psychological issues there that they struggle with. Regardless, I want to encourage all who read this article to be your brothers' (and sisters') keepers at this time of year, watching out especially for those whose hearts may be heavy.
Interestingly, the original opening lyric for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was "Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last." Recognizing that the line was a little depressing, the directors of Meet Me in St. Louis asked Martin to change it. "...let your heart be light" became the new, uplifting lyric. As you encounter brothers or sisters who may be struggling this year with a heaviness of heart, pray for them (and with them), love on them, encourage them, walk alongside them, and assist them in walking through this time. Who knows? You may just be the one to help change the lyric of their heart.
The Wonder of a Child
December 3, 2012
For me, part of the fun of Christmas is watching children and their reaction to all of the stuff of the season. It's especially gratifying to watch the younger children as they respond to seeing Santa, as they ooh and aah at the decorations and lights, and even more so as they open gifts on Christmas morning. In those moments, you really get to see the embodiment of the phrase "the wonder of Christmas." It's sad that the joy and wonder of Christmas fades in us as we grow older. Yet, as we are faced with the stark realities of life and the often-maddening aspects of the Christmas season itself, it's no wonder that we lose the wonder. And it's difficult to get it back too. I had an experience recently that highlighted this for me:
When a local radio station started playing Christmas music in September this year, my initial response was very cynical--almost angry. I was forced to re-examine myself, however, when my daughter got in my truck one day, tuned the radio immediately to that station, and declared, "I love Christmas music!" Seeing the joy that she still retained even as a teenager at the idea of listening to Christmas music, I had to stop and check myself. That check revealed that I needed to reevaluate my emotional state and what I was projecting to others in regard to this important holiday. I quickly decided that, rather than suppressing my daughter's joy, I would take a cue from her and listen with fresh ears and a fresh heart. And it worked. I've been listening to Christmas music ever since.
Last week, this thought about losing our joy and wonder came home to roost once again in my heart as I watched a video from an organization called New Tribes Mission. It's an older video that tells the story of their mission work with the Mouk people of Papua, New Guinea. The Mouk people had never heard the name of Jesus and had no concept whatsoever of the things of God. The New Tribes group worked with them for two years, starting with creation and teaching them through the stories of the Old Testament before finally introducing them to the story of Jesus.
Once they heard about Jesus, the Mouk people fell in love with Him, seeing Him as the fulfillment of all they had been taught for two years. When they heard of His death, they were distraught. When they heard of His resurrection, they were overjoyed! But when they were told that through faith in Him they could receive forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation, they responded immediately and emphatically. Given the news that they as new believers were saved, they broke into a celebration that went on for more than two and a half hours! Talk about joy and wonder!
My hope and prayer this Christmas, is that we, as children of God, will regain our joy and our wonder--not just for the Christmas season, but for our God, for our Lord Jesus Christ, for the story of the Gospel and for the salvation of our souls.
The Power of Inviting
November 26, 2012
Isn't that a great word? When I have the opportunity to experience something that is "inviting," I savor every moment. Perhaps it's a restaurant or a place of business that I find inviting, or it could be someone's home that is inviting to me. Often, I find God's great outdoors to be an inviting place, away from the hustle, bustle, crowds and noise of civilization. Even more often, it's less about the setting than it is about the company--I enjoy the comfort and the camaraderie of being around people who are inviting as well. Regardless of what it is that I find inviting, the experience of being in that place or with those people (or ideally both at the same time!) is always something that I find to be pleasant and worth looking forward to.
I've always thought that the church ought to be that way. After all, we're God's children, which means that we are spiritual offspring of the most inviting Being in all of existence! And yet, often people feel far less than comfortable and welcome when they attend a church's services and events. However, from the time people drive into a church parking lot to the time they leave; from the moment they encounter another person to the moment that the last "goodbye" is spoken, their experience should be pleasant, enjoyable, and something that they look forward to experiencing again--in a word, it should be inviting.
Shifting gears for a moment, let me also point out that "inviting" can be used in a way other than the above adjectival usage. It can also serve as a verb--for instance, "We as a church need to do a good job of inviting others to attend worship." Equally as important as its other usage, the verb form of the word describes the action of intentionally reaching out to others for the purpose of drawing them into an event or activity or group. Just as I've always thought that a church should be inviting (adjective), I have also always thought that a church should be inviting (verb)!
And the Christmas season is a great time to do just that! As we participate in a variety of activities and events in the month of December, consider the impact that could be made on the life of another person by simply inviting them to join you. Might they hear the Gospel for the first time--or really hear it for the first time? Is it possible that they could be looking for a church family and find one with our church family? Could it be that your simple act of inviting might make an eternal difference in the life of a person--perhaps the life of a family--for generations to come?
It could happen--so let's be inviting!
Because the Truth Matters
November 19, 2012
Toward the end of last week, I received an email from a kind gentleman who had visited our church website. Having read my blog article from November 12, he found an inaccurate statement about our president, and he gently chided me concerning my communication of something that was not true. The statement in question regarded President Obama's "refusal to present proclamations regarding the National Day of Prayer, contrasted with his eagerness to present proclamations regarding homosexual pride days" during his tenure in office. The gentleman who sent the email noted that a simple internet search reveals that President Obama did indeed sign proclamations in support of the National Day of Prayer each year that he has been in office. And he was correct. That being the case, let me set the record straight:
The only big issues regarding the National Day of Prayer and the president occurred in 2009, when he decided to halt White House celebrations of the event, instituted by George W. Bush, and when he further decided not to participate in any public commemorations of the day. Both of these actions were roundly criticized at the time by Evangelical and Catholic Christians alike. The president later garnered further criticism from these groups when, in addition to presenting proclamations in support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, he held a White House reception in honor of that month as well, which those who questioned his cancellation of the White House celebration of the National Day of Prayer took as a slight toward people of faith. So, you may wonder, why write an article presenting a mea culpa in regard to that one incorrect statement--especially if the underlying sentiment that this president has taken positions hostile to the Christian faith seems to be correct? Here's why:
Because the truth matters. I am a stickler for the truth. When I receive emails like the ones we've all received that make outlandish claims, I always check out their veracity and gently correct the sender if they turn out to be untrue. I do this because I feel that it is important that we as Christians only pass along as truth that which really is truth. If we mix truth with error, we just end up with error. And yes, I believe that even the passing along of inaccurate information from emails and internet sources can harm our ability to be trusted in regard to things that really matter, potentially doing harm to the cause of Christ.
In this instance, I used a source that in my haste I did not check, and I ended up passing along false information (the phrase in question has now been removed from my blog on our website). That is not acceptable for me, as Scripture itself says that those who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). That being the case, please accept my apologies for this mistake, and be assured that when you read this article, I will do my utmost to check the truth of every statement that I make. And have a happy Thanksgiving!
What Just Happened?
November 12, 2012
When I wrote my article last week, we were on the verge of a national election that many around the country--both on the left and on the right--felt would be a significant point in history in terms of our nation clarifying the path down which it has determined to travel. The results were indeed significant, and to many, startling. First, there was the presidential election itself--one in which we as a nation chose to keep in office a president who has taken stances in clear opposition to biblical values and principles, and who has acted in ways that were seemingly hostile toward the Christian faith. Additionally, let's not miss the fact that three more states voted to approve same-sex marriage, bringing the total to six and pushing us closer to an eventual national legal showdown over the issue.
For many of us, the results of this election further clarify that we as a nation have chosen the path that we feared America would follow--one that signals a rejection of biblical morals and standards and takes us in a direction that, unchecked, will lead to the marginalization of biblical, evangelical Christianity in our nation. Without a revival on a national level, America is dedicated to becoming something other than "one nation under God."
I know some are asking why it is that God let this happen. Didn't He listen when we prayed? If so, why didn't He act to change things? I've heard several responses to questions like this since the election, many of them coming from my own church family members. Here are some of them:
- In His own sovereign will, God allowed us the free will to make our choices as a nation, and now He will let us live with the consequences, much like Israel in the Old Testament.
- God saw us praying and heard our prayers, and He's letting us know that our efforts in that regard were a good start. Now, we get to see how serious we are and if we will persevere in prayer until we see revival in our nation (in our churches first!). We also get to see if we will stand for what we believe and will truly be salt and light, serving in love and spreading the Gospel as our society pulls farther away from its biblical moorings and rejects the truth more and more.
- This is a signal that things are going to get worse, and God is beginning to "separate the wheat from the chaff." In years to come, it will cost you something to stand up as a biblical Christian in America, but the end result will be the cleansing of the church.
I believe that all of these thoughts have merit, and I encourage all believers to do more "theological thinking" regarding what we have experienced as a nation in recent days. I also encourage all believers to get serious about their faith, because the time for playing church has passed. Heed the words of Isaiah 7:9--"If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all."
By The Time You Read This...
November 5, 2012
By the time most of you read this article, we will know who our next president will be. If the pre-election polls are to be trusted, they would indicate that our nation is almost evenly divided right down the middle in regard to who our president should be and what the direction of our nation should be. If this is true, one thing can certainly be guaranteed in regard to this election: when the president is sworn in on his inauguration day, about half of America will not be happy.
What if that unhappy group happens to be the majority of evangelical Christians? How will we handle it? Will we sulk; will we become discouraged; will we become angry and lash out? What if the unhappy group is the "other side"? How will we respond then? Will we gloat victoriously? Will we seek to press our agenda and tell the other side that all of their concerns are illegitimate (some of them certainly may be, but others are most certainly not)? Regardless of how things turn out election-wise (or have turned out if you're reading this post-election), there are some things that will not change or be influenced by the results:
1. God is still in control. Regardless of who is in the White House, who the Speaker of the House is, who the Senate majority leader is, and who holds sway in the Supreme Court, God will not be moved from His throne. With the fluid nature of politics in this country and the fickle nature of our society in the choosing of its leaders, it's good to know that there is One whose character and agenda we never have to question, and whose will is going to be accomplished no matter what. For those of us who trust in Him, our hearts can be at rest.
2. The church still has the same mission. And our mission is clear: we are NOT called to be the moral police of our society, but rather the salt and the light. We are the ones called to make disciples by leading others to faith in Christ. We also are called to serve others--even those who don't see things our way--following the example of Christ. We are called to meet the needs of the poor and the downtrodden, ministering to others in the name of Jesus Christ, and we are called to stand for justice for those who cannot stand for themselves. We are called to love--even to love our enemies.
So, however things turn out (or have turned out), let's not be sidetracked one way or another as God's people. Rather, let's walk by faith and live in love.
The State of Our Union—Part 5
October 29, 2012
As a pastor, you might imagine that this time of year always brings questions from concerned Christians regarding the celebration of Halloween. Such questions tend to take me back to my childhood, and I confess freely that I was a kid who always had a great time at Halloween. I enjoyed the creativity of putting together a costume and the fun of dressing up for that night. I always looked forward to our big Gardendale community Halloween festival, especially all of the games and the goodies. But, more than anything, I looked forward to going house to house in pursuit of candy!
Those days seemed to be more innocent; although we sometimes dressed in “scary” costumes, there did not seem to be such demonic overtones to our celebrations of Halloween as we see today. In recent years, however, it appears that this time of the year has taken on a much more sinister tone, and Christian families have found it necessary to shield their children from the spiritually dark aspects of Halloween.
I certainly understand and share their feelings on this matter, but at the same time I also feel that there are much darker and sinister forces at work in our nation on a daily basis, demonic forces active in our society that bring far more concern to my heart than the scariest of Halloween decorations, “haunted” houses or frightening costumes.
I’m speaking, of course, of the movement in our nation away from the biblical principles that in years past defined us—principles that everyone would have considered to be basic to the healthy operation of our society. I’m also referring to those spiritual forces that in our society are seeking to push Christianity to the outer fringes of culture. Furthermore, I’m referencing the tendency toward a growing moral and ethical decay even within the church in America itself that continues to water down our biblical standing and authority in the world that surrounds us.
Far from being an alarmist, I think I stand in line with other evangelical ministers who are raising similar red flags about the magnitude of our present moment in history and the momentous nature of the decisions we are soon to make that will impact the direction we are heading as a nation, perhaps for generations to come; perhaps forever. None other than Billy Graham himself has weighed in on the matter, recently taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and other widely-distributed newspapers.
In his ad, Graham begins by declaring, “As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last.” He further adds, “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.”
I could not agree more.
In Christ -
The State of Our Union--Part 4
October 22, 2012
As a Christian in America today, it's a difficult thing to watch our nation as it heads down a path that appears to be leading it straight into perdition. Morally, spiritually and ethically, we seem to have no sense about us, no inkling of what is true, right, noble, pure and praiseworthy. We revel in our own sinfulness, openly rebelling against the One who has blessed us as a nation and given us the grace strength to have the status that we hold in the world today. As a believer, there are times when I am inclined to take a fatalistic attitude about the whole thing, throw up my hands, throw in the towel and just wait for God's wrath to hit us.
And yet, as a Christian, one among many whose life has been transformed by the hope of God, I cannot succumb to a pessimistic, hand-wringing type of existence that waves the white flag of surrender to the enemy and just gives up. I'm just not willing to go there. On the contrary, my inclination is to hold out an optimistic hope for the destiny of our nation, knowing that God has captured the heart and soul of America before and believing that He can and will do it again.
My optimism is also fed by an understanding of the One under whose banner I serve. He is the God of the impossible; He is the God of salvation; He is the One who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. He is also the One who can change a man's heart, soul and entire life, transforming him from a godless, self-loving sinner into a righteous, God-fearing individual. He is the God who in love captures the hearts of nations--look at the story of Jonah, for instance, when God brings revival to the great city of Nineveh, which was not a bastion of godliness, but rather the capital of the nation of Assyria, known for its warlike nature, its bloodthirstiness and its false worship. If God can reach their hearts, I know he can reach America's too!
My optimism also has as its source an awareness of what Christ can do through His church. When the church is alive and on fire, when it is a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit, when it is intent on fulfilling its divine mission, the church is a force for change and for good in this world that cannot be denied. She is at her best when times are hard, when the pretenders fall away like so much chaff and the true believers rise to the occasion. She is powerful when she is fully submitted to her Lord, and when she is, the gates of hell itself cannot prevail against her.
Now, I'm not blind, and I'm not inclined to wear rose-colored glasses--it is crystal clear to me that right now we stand on the precipice as a nation, and the path we will choose--wrath or redemption--remains to be determined. But I, for one, am not willing to surrender my hope.
The State of Our Union--Part 3
October 15, 2012
The American family is under assault these days. I mention this because I believe that the state of the family, to a great degree, determines the state of our nation. More particularly, I believe that the state of Christian families has a powerful impact on the health and well-being of our nation. And yet, I'm fairly certain that most American Christian families deeply underestimate their influence and their impact on the society at large.
But imagine, if you will, a society in which there is a strong emphasis placed on the health of the family unit. Imagine a culture in which the husbands and fathers take seriously their biblical role as the leaders of their families, not just leading in areas like finances, yardwork and teaching the kids to play ball, but even more so in the areas that matter the most--the spiritual and the relational aspects of life. Imagine husbands/fathers who make it a top prioroty to study these matters and to work on themselves until they get things right, so that they are courageously and correctly leading their wives and children to have deep, healthy and ever-strengthening relationships with Christ and with one another. Imagine as well that these men are willing to be held acountable by other men who will help them, teach them, cheer them on and even correct them if necessary. Imagine that these men hold their wives in such high regard that they love them with a deep, self-sacrificing love--one that is so powerful that their wives never have to question or doubt the strength of their commitment or the place they hold in their husband's heart.
Imagine also wives and mothers who deeply respect their husbands and love and nurture their children in such a way that their sincerity and commitment can never be questioned. Imagine that these women are godly and strong in character--not given to gossip, not taken in by worldly pursuits, but rather prime examples to their daughters of how to develop the inner beauty that far outshines and outlasts exterior attractiveness. Imagine that they also model to their sons the virtues that they should pursue as they grow and seek out that special woman with whom they will share their life and raise a family.
Now, imagine in each household that the mom and dad join forces to raise their children "in the way that they should go," inculcating godly values into their lives, guiding them in making right decisions based on God's truth, teaching them those very truths, leading them into a relationship with Christ and leading them to become lifelong disciples of Christ as their foremost priority. Imagine the difference that families like this would make in our world--a culture-transforming impact that would have the potential to turn the heart of a nation back to God.
I'm just idealistic enough to think that this could happen. For this reason, I'm calling on husbands/dads to take the lead--which is your God-given responsibility. Decide that you will begin to transform your family by being the man that God has called you to be. It will change your life. It will change your family. It just might change the world.
The State of Our Union--Part 2
October 8, 2012
Last week, I began writing about our upcoming presidential election and the crossroads we now face as a nation. In numerous conversations with Christian people about these matters last week, I have found what seems to be a common thread in regard to Christians trying to understand and make sense of the times in which we live: that common thread is that Christians seem to be searching for some kind of biblical precedent in regard to God's dealings with His people that might provide us with some insight regarding how He might choose to deal with America as a nation. Along those lines, I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share:
First, if we're looking for biblical precedents, I cannot bypass the moment in Israel's history when she made a turn down a path that led her to some of the worst moments as a nation. In 1 Samuel 8, the story is recounted of Israel's decision to set aside God's method of leadership for their nation and instead to have a king. When the prophet Samuel tried to talk them out of it, the people refused to listen and responded that they wanted a king over them so they could be like the rest of the nations--thus giving up the distinct identity that God had for them as His people under His direct leadership. God's response to their desire was to let them have exactly what they asked for. And they paid a huge price for it.
How does this apply to our circumstances in America today? Well, if God gave Israel what they asked for, even though He knew it would be detrimental to them for centuries to come, might we draw from this story that America will also receive exactly what it asks for? After all, it's been reported recently that more than half the people in our nation now support the marriage of homosexuals to one another. There is also strong support for abortion on demand with no restrictions in our nation--and we as a country have elected leaders that reflect these "beliefs."
But, there is also scriptural precedent for a group of people in Israel oft-referred to as the "righteous remnant." This is a group that God values highly, a group that God spares from the worst of His wrath and who He always uses to re-establish His people when they finally return to Him. Sometimes, God even withholds His wrath because of this group. One important note about these people: they are righteous not because they hold the "right" political views or party affiliation, but rather because they love and obey God; they live as His people and shine as lights in the darkness. Many of us in America today are hoping and praying that God will look favorably upon the righteous remnant in our nation and will spare us.
David asked in Psalm 11:3, "When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Here's one answer: The righteous can stand up and stand firm and be who they are supposed to be! And perhaps God will save this nation.
The State of Our Union--Part 1
October 1, 2012
In a little over a month, we as a nation will engage in an exercise of freedom that is unknown in many areas of the world: We will choose an individual to lead our nation over the next four years, and this person we choose will peacefully take office as our president. This choosing of our own leader, which we have been practicing now since our inception as a nation, is one of the truly great freedoms that we Americans enjoy--and often take for granted. As we approach this election, however, much emphasis is being placed on the two starkly contrasting philosophies and paths forward that our choices represent. In fact, there are many people on both sides of the aisle who are saying that this election is one of the most vital in the history of America for determining the direction and future of our country. I agree.
Beyond the impact that a particular leader might have on our nation, I also believe that as a country we are at an historical hinge point as a society. That hinge point is one that calls us to consider which path we will follow: Traditional, biblical morality or the "new" morality? Freedom "of" religion or freedom "from" religion? The traditional definition marriage and family or the "new" definition? Dependence on government or independence? Conservative financial practices or growing national debt? Traditional "blind" justice or justice based on one's affinity group? These are just a few of the matters of concern.
To further deepen our conundrum, there is not necessarily just one path in this election cycle that even likeminded people can agree upon, thus making it difficult even for people of faith to be able to join arms and to move forward in a direction that we feel bodes what is best for our nation. So what do we do?
We pray. I know that sounds like a simplistic, catch-all answer, but it's good to remember that prayer is also God's clear prescription for a nation--particularly one that is facing times of uncertainty and that seems to be moving away from Him at an ever-accelerating pace. In moments of national calamity, in times of confusion, when guidance is needed, when choosing leaders--in just about every moment of a nation's life--God's call is to prayer.
So, God's people, let us commit to prayer. Let us practice it and cry out to God with sincere hearts. Let us call on the Lord for healing, for guidance, for unity and for spiritual renewal. He promises that He will listen.
The Heart of God
September 24, 2012
Last Friday night, my daughter's high school--Vestavia Hills High School--played my home high school--Gardendale High School--in football. The game was held at Gardendale's football stadium, and my family and I went out there to see the game and to visit with family and old friends. As the game progressed, my family and I moved from the visitors stands to the home stands, where I had the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with a number of people I have known most of my life but haven't seen in years.
Among those people was a good friend of mine who I have known since we were in preschool together. Just three years ago, he experienced a tragedy of horrific proportions in his life. Following his daughter's graduation from high school, his family was taking a trip to the beach. Traveling with them, in a separate car, were his daughter and several of her friends. As they drove down I-65, he caught a glimpse of something unusual in his rearview mirror that diverted his full attention to what was going on behind him. To his horror, he watched as the vehicle carrying his daughter and her friends rolled and flipped down the freeway, coming to rest on the shoulder. Getting to the wrecked and mangled car as quickly as he could, he found his daughter, who had been ejected from the vehicle, and he held her as her life quickly slipped away.
He told me that in that moment, he felt every negative emotion a man can feel about himself. He felt useless, worthless, helpless, dirty, sinful and pitiful. And he felt that there was nothing he could do about it. Over the next several weeks and months, however, he experienced something different and powerful: As people began to pray for him and his family, as brothers and sisters in Christ began to come alongside them and encourage them and minister to them, he began to get a glimpse of the heart of God. He still knew that all of that stuff that passed through his mind about himself was true, but at the same time he found in God an overwhelming love and grace and compassion that allowed him to walk through that tragic time.
As we sat there talking, he looked me in the eye and said, "Scott, I honestly believe that God cares for us so much that when our hearts are broken, He cries with us." I had to agree. For such is the heart of God.
Where Is Our Hope?
September 17, 2012
There are many days when I am convinced that we live in an age of pessimism. Listening to talk radio, reading articles in newspapers and magazines, watching the news on TV, and just having conversations with people in general have led me to the conclusion that, for many of us, life is not a pleasant experience and nothing is good--even within the church. It becomes easy, especially in times like these, to join that chorus of negativity (even to the point of people harshly complaining about how negative everyone else is) and to ride that wave of pessimism and gloom.
And yet, when I read God's word, I find a very different way of looking at life. I find a transformation of heart and mind that recognizes the darkness and yet does not give it a place of precedence over the light. I find a view of time and eternity that calls forth the human soul from the muck and mire of this world and this life and sets it on a higher plane of existence--one that is dominated not by the harshness of this world, but rather is recolored by something called "hope."
In Scripture, hope is a powerful force. It is the thing that strengthens the heart of the weak, that protects the mind of the weary and anxious, and that reminds the suffering soul of God's promises of provision and salvation. Hope points to a better future, and it reminds us of God's presence and protection in the present. Hope brings joy to our lives, and hope never leaves us disappointed. For these reasons and more, the call for God's people to live in His hope needs to be heeded by all of us who believe.
Now, I know there are some who set all of this aside by saying that they are "realistic." It's fine to be realistic--to see that bad things are bad, that the darkness really is dark, and that evil is evil. I understand that. And yet, God calls us as His children to put more stock in Him than all of the bad things in the world rolled together. It was Jesus Himself who declared, "In this world you will have trouble." But remember, He concluded His thought by adding, "but take heart! I have overcome the world." And when we really think about it, isn't this what the heart of hope is all about--realizing (realistically) that the world can be a bad, evil place and that people can be greedy, selfish, bloodthirsty, blasphemous, etc., yet at the same time knowing that the One we declare to be our Lord has (past tense) overcome it all? In that--in Him--I place my hope.
September 10, 2012
I can't believe that we're almost halfway through September. It seems that just yesterday we were finishing up Vacation Bible School and, all of a sudden, here we are, barreling headlong toward the fall. Summer is gone, we're well into the first session of the school year, and we're almost three games into the college football season. I just can't believe it.
There's an old saying that declares, "Time flies when you're having fun." I think it's also true that time flies when you're dreadfully busy (Ever have lots of time left at the end of that big project you have to finish?), or when you're on vacation (Have you ever had one go by too slowly?), or even when you're not paying attention to it at all. In short, time flies--regardless.
The Bible has a lot to say about time and our use of it. Psalm 90:12 is a prayer to God asking Him to teach us "number our days" rightly, that we may prove to be wise. In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, we are told that "the time is short." As a result of this knowledge, we should spend our time focusing on the things of God, which are eternal, and not on the things of this world, which are temporal and are passing away. In Ephesians and Colossians, Paul echoes the call for us as God's people to "redeem the time"--meaning that we are to make the most of it--because the days are evil.
At my mother-in-law's lakehouse, there's a decorative wall hanging with this message: "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time." Maybe there's something to that. In the grand scheme of things, however, I think the bigger issue that we have to figure out in our lives is how to make our time count--and I mean really count, like in eternal ways. That's a big deal, because time is not going to slow down for any one of us.
In fact, my experience as I get older has shown that time just flies by faster. I have no control of the flight of time, but I get to decide every day what I will do with it.
A Caring Church
August 31, 2012
This week has been a very unique experience for me, the culmination of about a year-long journey, and hopefully, a significant turn in a new direction in terms of solving a decade-long health issue for me. Without going into great detail, let me summarize by saying that I had some abdominal surgery that should go a long way toward relieving a throat problem that has caused trouble with my voice for many years. I’m hopeful and prayerful for the success of the surgery, but that’s only a sideline issue regarding what I want to talk about in this article. What I really want to talk about are my experiences as a member of Liberty Park Baptist Church and as a part of the larger body of Christ during this time.
First, let me say that I could not be prouder as the pastor of my church than I am right now of you. I also could not be more grateful to you and for you than I am right now. Why? Simply put, it’s because you—my church family—have cared for me. Sounds like a simple concept, just to care for someone, right? Yes, it does, but it’s a powerful and vital concept, and one that I have learned a great deal about in the last year. And, in the last week, I have experienced caring from a different perspective—not as a caregiver, but as a receiver of care.
I want you to know that in regard to caring for me, you as my church receive high marks. You prayed for me (both in person and from a distance), you visited me, you called me, you sent me cards and emails and text messages, you saw to the needs of my family, you “covered the bases” in my absence, and you generally gave me enough of a sense of well-being to be able to step away for a week and not worry. You did what a church should do.
Now, let me close with another thought: My desire as your pastor is that we as a church will become so attuned to the needs of others that everyone who is connected with this body will have the same experience I had. I know that other people already experience that sort of care and love to a great degree when they come to our church. I’ve heard it from strangers; I’ve heard it from visitors; I’ve heard it from new members who joined because of it. It makes a huge difference. So, please join me in praying for and working toward LPBC becoming even more of a caring and loving church. It makes us look like Jesus.
August 27, 2012
I have never had a problem with living as a Christian in theory. Looked at from a purely philosophical standpoint, the doctrines and demands of the Christian faith are beautiful, elegant, respectable and reasonable. The commands to love God and others, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to love your enemies, to serve others sacrificially, to exist as a person of joy, peace, compassion, kindness, gentleness, gratitude and self-control (among many other wonderful things) are like verbal works of art. The person who lives by them sounds like the person we would all desire to know and to emulate.
The problem I've always had is in living out my Christian faith in a practical sense. It's easy to read, hear, preach, teach and fully believe with all of my heart in the beneficial and effective nature of all that my faith expects of me, but it's another matter altogether to actually do it. Why? Simply put, it's because we're human, and deeply flawed humans at that. As deeply flawed humans we find that the living out of practical Christianity is hard, requires tremendous amounts of energy and will, forces us to get our hands dirty and to really care, requires us to set aside "self," and that it almost always pushes us out of our comfort zones.
And being who we are, when push comes to shove and our life is thrown into the crucible of difficult circumstances, too often we opt for doing what comes naturally, and what comes naturally is most often in complete contradiction to what God expects of us. In these moments, we find it easier and more comfortable to fall back on old patterns of thought, reaction and action, drawing not from the depth of God's word and the strength of His Spirit to live out our Christian faith in the line of fire, but rather drawing from the deep pool of our natural instincts.
I recently heard a friend of mine, when asked how people could pray for him, respond by requesting that people pray for him to have godly reactions. I told him that I was stealing his prayer request, because the ability to have godly reactions to situations and people and crises in life means that I have really hit a newer and higher level of patterning my life after Christ. It means that for me, my Christian faith has moved beyond theory into practice. And honestly, the Christianity that really matters--the one that will make the real difference in our lives, in the lives of others and in the world around us--is not the Christianity that is held in theory, but the one that is lived out.
August 20, 2012
It's hard to believe that summer is over. My daughter started back to school on Monday, and my son moves back to college this weekend, so it's truly official and definitive for us. For me as a parent, this not only means an end to the freer and more fun times of family vacations and weekend getaways; it also means a return to the very different routine of the school year and with that a return to focusing on the expectations that I have for my children as they further their education.
Like most parents, my expectations are pretty high. I expect my children to work hard and to meet up to their God-given potential. Sometimes they meet those expectations, bringing praise and encouragement for their performance, while other times they fall a little short, resulting in everything from positive exhortations to stern, serious, dad-type talks. As a parent, I understand and recognize the value and importance of such expectations. As a child of God, however, I often struggle with the expectations that my Father has for me.
Have you ever given any thought to what God's expectations are for us as His children? It seems that the Bible is full of God's expectations, and sometimes it's easy for us to become overwhelmed keeping up with them all. As a result, we can fall far short of them, finding ourselves content with mediocrity or even ignoring them altogether, following instead our own path through life. Or, we can miss the spirit of what God is trying to accomplish in us and settle into an empty, self-righteous legalism.
To prevent such failures in my own life, I have to keep my focus on the fact that God's highest expectation for me is that I become like Him--in my character, in my relationships, in my actions and reactions, and in my goals and priorities. I also have to remind myself that the journey to become like Him in these areas is a life-long journey that I must commit myself to over the long-haul, continually submitting myself to God so that His Spirit can accomplish His work in me, transforming me little by little so that I look like Him more and more.
And when it's all said and done, I hope that I will have made my Father proud by reaching His high expectations for me.
Whatever Happened to Sin?
August 13, 2012
Over the last few decades, there have been numerous changes in American Christianity. The music has changed to reflect the musical styles of the day, most churches use some type of projected media in their services, ministries have been renamed (note how Sunday School is now Small Groups or Life Groups or Bible Study Groups, etc.) and in many churches the pews have been replaced with chairs or theater seating. While there are people out there who wring their hands and fret over changes such as these, biblically speaking, these are just changes to window dressing--changes made to things that are malleable without altering the eternal message of the Gospel.
Another change that has taken place in American Christianity in recent decades, however, is a de-emphasis on the issue of sin. It doesn't seem that we even talk about sin much anymore. Pastors refer to it less and less from the pulpit, having softened their stance on the seriousness of sin for fear of turning people off and losing their crowds. Brokenness over sin and repentance from sin have become sideline concepts, as we have moved away from such matters to focus almost solely on self-help related matters and encouraging messages that contain nothing that we might deem "negative."
What brought us down this road? How did we get here? I have a couple of thoughts on that: Generally speaking, I think there are two great forces that have moved us toward this place. First, on the part of the church, there has historically been a tendency toward legalism that has led to focusing on the minutiae and on managing others' behavior. Such legalism leads to the condemning of people rather than the condemning sin, and it develops into a judgmental approach to people that demeans the redemptive nature of the Gospel. Society's understandable rejection of such legalism led to a "tossing out the baby with the bathwater" in regard to the issue of sin, so much so that to call anything a sin these days is seen as hate speech.
The other great force is the permissiveness of our society as a whole. Things that are openly accepted, promoted and celebrated in today's culture would have been viewed as shameful and even unspeakable just a few decades ago. Having walked away from God and His truth as a society, however, we have no prevailing authority or social conscience that prevents us any longer from involvement in and promotion of that which stands opposed to God. We have become an authority unto ourselves, and, quite frankly, we're a poor substitute for God.
In such an atmosphere, the enemy prevails. It's time for us to recover a biblical view of sin and to remember what it means to be broken before God.
The Relationship Question
August 6, 2012
If you're an evangelical Christian, it's probably old news to you that God calls each of us as individuals into a personal relationship with Him through faith in Christ. I'm sure you've heard it time and again from preachers and Sunday School/small group teachers, you've read about it and you've studied it. In fact, it may be such a well-worn idea to you that you almost don't even really think about what it means anymore when you hear about it or read about it. If you're in that boat, I want to challenge you a little...
First, I want to challenge you to go past the idea of what it means to have a personal relationship with God and to examine the reality of what it means. Let me explain: I believe that there are many people in our churches today whose approach to Christianity consists of something much less than a personal relationship with God. There are those who live in a form of "cultural Christianity," meaning that these people exist in a state of mental acceptance of the ideals of Christianity and perhaps even have a connection with the church in some capacity. Then there are others who have gone a little farther, actually taking steps to go through the rituals of membership that lead to a connection with a local church, perhaps even participating regularly in the meetings and events of the congregation. Beyond that are the folks who have stepped things up significantly, going so far as to develop the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, tithing and perhaps witnessing, even becoming involved in the leadership of the church.
Problem is, all of the above can be done without having a personal relationship with God. How so, you say? A simple reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus spent much time condemning the religion of even the most religious of His day, decrying the fact that they had all the rituals and practices down pat, but they had missed out on the relationship. He called them on their lack of spiritual fruit ("Each tree is known by its fruit" - Luke 6:33), which is evidence of one's relationship with God, and He declared that, in spite of their religious practices that seemed to be aimed at God, they did not know really know Him ("You do not know me or my Father" - John 8:19). This is extremely important to note, because Jesus stated firmly that our eternity is based in this very relationship--"Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" - John 17:3.
So here's the big question: Do you know Him? If not, you can. Seek Him out, and you'll find Him. He's not far away (see Acts 17:17-27).
So Much for Tolerance
July 30, 2012
It would be difficult to be an observer of American culture and not be aware of the furor over the remarks of Chick-fil-A's CEO Dan Cathy in regard to the issue of marriage. When asked, Cathy affirmed that he and their organization support the biblical definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. And then everything exploded.
Boston Mayor Tom Menino declared that Chick-fil-A is not welcome in his town, proclaiming, "You can't have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population." Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno made similar statements, promising to block any plans to build a free-standing Chick-fil-A in his ward, while Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray echoed his sentiments, announcing that he would oppose the restaurant's expansion into his city. Never mind that Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, was crystal clear that its "culture and service tradition...is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender". As the week rolled into the weekend, the story became well-worn, with Chick-fil-A and Dan Cathy being thoroughly pilloried in the popular media.
To be fair, there were some editorialists who dealt with the issue evenhandedly, but the vast majority chose to use the moment to vent their anger and hatred toward anyone opposing their views on gay marriage. Beyond the popular media, the blogosphere and social media were on fire with comments as well, much of it very revealing in regard to the level of intolerance toward a traditional, biblical view of marriage (one, by the way, that has been legally supported by 38 states through legislation and is held by around half of the people in this nation). Note, for instance, the following statement on Twitter: "PR guy from Chick-fil-A dies of a heart attack? Excuse me for smiling after reading that headline."
Really? Have we really sunk so low in this country that a human being would be pleased with the death of another human being, simply because he disagrees with the stance of the man's company over this issue? Have we fallen so far that one man's personal tragedy would be another's delight? Such a person is, in my mind, the worst sort of human being. And are we now at a place as a culture that what would once have been considered unthinkable (the redefinition of marriage) is now the supposed "moral" high ground on which our public officials are taking a stand, abusing their places of authority by seeking to deny a company the right to do business over what should be a First Amendment issue? So much for tolerance.
July 23, 2012
There are times that we walk through, both as individuals and as parts of things bigger than ourselves (our church, community, state, nation or world), when it seems that bad news is all around us and that the darkness is almost oppressive. In recent days, for example, we as a nation have walked together through the scandal surrounding the Penn State football program--a scandal that has revealed itself as a true tragedy, in which a sports program and the legacies of those connected with the program were held in higher regard than the welfare of young children. Over the weekend, as many speculated about punishment that would be handed down to Penn State from the NCAA, we were blindsided by the horrific news from Aurora, Colorado, that a gunman had walked into a theater and gunned down more than seventy people, killing twelve of them.
If that were all, it would be bad enough, but then you layer on international incidents such as the bus full of Israeli tourists being blown up in Bulgaria and the speculation that it might have been done at the behest of the Iranian government, along with the shooting of three of our soldiers in Afghanistan, adding the poor job numbers that were posted recently, and it just gets uglier and uglier. Of course, all of this doesn't even take into account the personal crises and tragedies that people are living out in their own individual lives. Piling it all together, it's easy for us to get to the place where we feel that Thomas Paine's statement--"These are the times that try men's souls"--applies to us personally.
In moments like these, I have to find refuge in two ways: first, I cry out to God for help, echoing the sentiments of David expressed in Psalm 130--"Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice!"--and in Him I find a rock to stand on and a fortress for protection in this often troubling world. Second, I go to His word, discovering there the spiritual sustenance I need to calm and strengthen my heart, soul, mind and spirit and to bring me reassurance and confidence. I know that neither strategy necessarily brings an end to all of the storms of life--after all, we live in a fallen world in which evil continually makes its presence known--but through them I do find a calm and protected port in the heart of the storms.
If you're feeling overwhelmed and inundated by life right now, I encourage you to accept the invitation of Christ to go to Him and to find rest for your weary soul (Matthew 11:28-29). You'll find in Him the safe harbor that you need from the stuff of this world.
The Truth Has a Name
July 16, 2012
Over a couple of Sundays now at Liberty Park Baptist, we've been talking about the truth. Along the way, we've touched on the nature of the truth, the place of the truth in our lives, the value of the truth and the authority of the truth. We've looked at the erosion of the truth in our society (even within the church), and we noted the precarious state of the truth, especially in the younger generations. Next Sunday, we will talk about communicating the truth--why it's important and how we go about accomplishing it.
As a topic of discussion, I find such matters fascinating and necessary, yet I know that some folks can get bogged down in subjects that have to do with things that are philosophical and theological in nature. That's why, as we have given attention to this very philosophical/theological issue, I have sought to make practical applications along the way that provide all of us with some "takeaways" that we know we can apply to our lives. I do this because for me, it's not enough to know that the concept of truth has been taking a serious hit in our society and that we need to shore it up, reclaim it and reestablish it--I need to know how to do that. I need practical help that will give me direction in making a difference.
Better yet, if I can even take the practical and put it in very personal terms, I find it easier to accomplish what I need to do to be right, to think right and to live right. In that regard, there's nothing more personal for us than relationships. Our relationships get to the heart of who we are more than anything else about us. Whether parent and child, husband and wife, grandparents and grandkids, friends, co-workers or even church family, these relationships define who we are and form us and make us into who we become.
This is why it is so powerful to me to note Jesus' proclamation about the truth in John 14:6--"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." As I read Jesus' statement, I am captured by the fact that Jesus took the idea of truth--a very philosophical and theological concept--and He personalized to the extent that He named Himself as the very embodiment of it. That's huge for us, because it means that, through a personal relationship with Him, we can do far more than know about the truth--we can know the Truth. And He will set us free. Yes, the truth does have a name--and it is Jesus.
The Erosion Problem
July 9, 2012
My mother-in-law has a place on Lake Martin, just outside of Dadeville, Alabama, that has been in her family for several decades. It's a place that we love to visit for occasional R&R and family time. Originally built by her parents as their "fish camp," it's a neat little house that sits on its own little peninsula that juts out into the lake. Several years ago, we noticed a problem with this little getaway that had escaped everyone's attention for a long time: the property on which the house sits was gradually getting smaller as the water, which surrounds it on three sides, slowly washed away the land a little bit at a time. Realizing the eventual outcome if nothing was done to stop this problem, my mother-in-law took action.
First, she had someone come out and "reclaim" some of the land by bulldozing some dirt from the lakebed up against the edges of the property (the lake level had been lowered for the winter). Next, she had them place a layer of large rocks along the edges to lessen the severity of the washing away of the dirt. Finally, we had a family work-day during which we rebuilt sections of an old seawall that had fallen into disrepair. Having quite literally "shored up" the property, we felt much better about its long-term prospects. We know, however, that we will have to revisit this again someday and that the erosion problem will be a battle that we will always have to fight to maintain the integrity of the boundaries of the property.
This past Sunday, we began a three-week study of "truth," based a great deal on my concern--and on the observations of many Christian writers and theologians these days--that we are experiencing in America an erosion of the concept of truth in our society. As it relates to biblical truth in particular, the findings of authors such as Ross Douthat are startling in their depiction of the decline of Americans' understanding of truth and their feelings about truth claims in general. In his book Bad Religion, Douthat decries the state of truth in America--particularly among people who claim to be Christians--noting that we have moved so far away from the truth of Scripture that we have become "a nation of heretics."
But how did this happen? How did we start out so well--even experiencing two great awakenings as a nation--only to wander so far afield? I can tell you that it did not happen overnight, but rather little by little, as believers based their beliefs not on Scripture but instead on cultural mores, their personal feelings or on their own perceptions and reasoning, each time giving away a little of the land to the point that it has become alarming. Without a halt of this erosion and some "reclaiming of the land," we stand to lose a lot more than a vacation getaway.
The Place of Patriotism
July 2, 2012
Have you ever wondered exactly what role patriotism should play in the lives of Christians? After all, the Bible is clear that our true home is in heaven and that we are, therefore, strangers and aliens, even in the land of our birth. Additionally, it's worth noting that our belief system is not bound to a country, but rather transcends all national boundaries. This being the case, does it do harm to our cause as believers to focus our hearts on a particular nation, to pledge our allegiance to a flag and the country it represents, to sing songs about her and to celebrate her even in church on a Sunday morning?
Many would say that it does and that such things have no place in the life of the church. Many would say that to focus on our nation in this fashion takes away from our focus on God and that we divide our allegiance by pledging it to the United States of America. Many would say that such practices smack of "civil religion" that places country on an equal plane with God.
Let me be clear: I'm not one of those people.
No, I'm of the belief that America stands as a unique pillar in the plan of God for this world--not that we're a second Israel or anything, but rather that we, in our comparatively short time of existence, have served as a crucible for worldwide spiritual renewal and the spread of the Gospel--and God's not through with us yet. We are by no means the first and only nation to have been so influential, nor will we be the last. Consider Rome, which God used to spread the Gospel through its system of roads and its worldwide commerce. Don't forget Germany and its role in the Protestant Reformation. And then there's England, the home of modern missions. And that's just a sample of the nations that God has used.
In today's world, consider the power of the church in South Korea, a nation whose congregations have become known for their intense focus on prayer and for their desire to be a hub for missions in the Asian world. And keep your eye in China, which by some estimates now has as many as 60 million Christians living there, with hundreds of thousands more coming to Christ each year, even though they are persecuted for their faith.
And yet, America still stands as the great bastion of religious freedom among the nations of the world, founded on principles from God's word and sharing a history that has been shaped as much by the faith of its people than by politics, economics, war or anything else. She still stands as the largest sender of missionaries into the world, and she's still the greatest supplier of resources to meet the needs of others throughout the globe. And that's worth recognizing. And celebrating. And protecting.
And so, I will not apologize for or back away from my love for my country. No, I will continue to be a patriot and to voice my thanks to God for graciously allowing me to be born an American. And I will also--as a patriot who loves all that is great about this nation--continue to pledge my allegiance to her, to pray for her and to seek to call her back to the One who made her great. And I will do it now, more than ever, because America needs Christian patriots.
A Great Story
June 25, 2012
Over the last few weeks, I've been reading a great book by Robert Leckie entitled George Washington's War: The Saga of the American Revolution (Thanks to Lee Lucas for giving it to me!). With more than 650 pages, this tome has been a great addition to my summer reading, and its contents have kept me completely enthralled, being the history fan that I am. Generally speaking, Leckie's volume is a very well-written work, describing not only the details of the battles and tactics of the American Revolution, but also providing great background information on the lives of the main movers and shakers of the war.
While I know that such matters provided at such great length might bore some people to tears, I think there are great lessons to be learned through reading about our coming into existence as a nation. Among the aspects of that story that I have found enlightening has been simply the fact that it's truly amazing--a miracle, even--that our nation came into existence at all.
In reading the story in such thorough detail, it's fascinating to read about the strengths of the leaders of our foundling nation, but even more so to read of the surprising weaknesses and character defects found in many of them. It's a little shocking to read of the selflessness and valor of some while simultaneously noting the extreme narcissism and treachery of others. The deeper I read into the book, the more I found myself shaking my head in wonder that we as a nation in the end were able to hold it all together and to wrench victory from the grasp of Great Britain, the singular great military power of the world in that day and time. In the end, however, against overwhelming odds and in spite of its own weaknesses, the United States of America prevailed. What a great story!
In reading that story, I often have thought about the church (not just LPBC, but the Church as a whole)--made up of noble people, but also of ignoble and self-seeking people; full of strengths, yet plagued with weaknesses; born with one great goal, but often unable to operate in unity. Sounds like the story of America! As I read George Washington's War, I did so from the place of 230 years of hindsight, comfortable that in the end, in spite of the struggles and trials, the good guys would win. And likewise, as I think about the church, I do so not from the comfort of hindsight but rather from the assurance of foresight, knowing that, in spite of her weaknesses, someday the bride of Christ will prevail over the enemy. And once again I think to myself, "What a great story!"
Viewing Things Differently
June 18, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I had to have the lenses replaced in my glasses. My old lenses were from an old prescription (about 7 years old), plus they were covered with scratches and pits from years of wear and tear. To have these new lenses made and installed, my frames had to be sent off to my eye doc's lab, so I was without glasses for several days. This in itself was not a problem, however, because I also have contact lenses that I wear when I am involved in athletic activities or when glasses just aren't practical. The contacts worked great, but because I'm not accustomed to wearing them all the time, I had to make some adjustments--among them, the fact that I had to wear reading glasses to see anything up close. My family took great joy in seeing me in reading glasses, noting with much laughter how they magnified my eyes so that I looked all bug-eyed. As you might guess, they would ask me to put them on for no reason other than to have some fun at Dad's expense.
Another adjustment came on Sunday, as I wore my contacts to church. This was different for me in more ways than one: First, out of pride I refused to wear reading glasses in the pulpit, so I took out one contact, making it so that I could see up close with one eye and far away with the other (By the end of the service, I was working up a pretty good headache). Second, I got to hear a LOT of folks' opinions concerning whether I look better in glasses or contacts. Some definitively declared, "You look younger in your contacts," while others noted with conviction, "You look older in your contacts." Two things I discovered through this experience are 1) People are free to give you their opinion, and strongly so, about anything--especially when you're in the public eye, and 2) it's amazing how diametrically opposed peoples' opinions can be--in fact, after that experience, I'm surprised we can agree on anything at all!
All of this led me to understand that changing the way you view things can be a real eye-opener! In considering my experiences from those days in contact lenses, I was reminded of what Paul said in 2 Corinthains 5:16, where he noted that, as a person who was changed by Christ, he no longer regarded anyone from a worldly point of view. Because he had been re-created by Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17), the way he saw people was vastly different than how he had seen them before. Paul's statements in this regard beg a question in my life and yours: How has Christ's transforming power changed the way we see others and how we view life? Are we looking at life and others through lenses of God's love, or are we still using the old lenses, covered with the scratches and pock marks left by sin?
June 11, 2012
I can’t believe that Vacation Bible School has already come and gone! This was the best VBS ever and it was thanks to so many of you! We all saw God work with Amazing Power this week! Actually, that was the theme this week...Amazing Wonders Aviation…Awesome God! Amazing Power! It could not have happened without each of you and especially our Awesome God Almighty!
Let me tell you a little about our week. We had 326 children registered, an average attendance of 308 each day with a high attendance of 318 children on Wednesday. 162 workers served in some capacity each day. Each year, the children contribute money for a missions offering. Our goal this year was to contribute $3,000 to Sav-A-Life. As the children brought in their offering, we turned it into diapers for the needy mothers. Our children greatly exceeded the goal and because of their generosity, we will be sending $5,440 worth of diapers to Sav-A-Life! The best part of the entire week was that 30 precious children expressed an interest in knowing more about Christ as their personal Savior. Please continue to pray for these sweet children that are so close to making the most important decision of their lives.
This week could not have happened without the help of so many. You ALL played an important role in making this year’s VBS a success. From the VBS Leadership team, to prayer warriors, to teachers, leaders, guides, check in workers, table/chair movers, media and sound workers, videographers, drivers, snack workers, errand runners, last minute phone call makers, youth workers, early morning childcare workers, craft leaders, music leaders, decorators, registration workers, offering counters, recreation leaders, cleanup crew members and so many more, each and every one was vital to our success! Thank you so much for your endless hours of love, dedication and hard work. The love that poured from you to the children was evident each day. Thank you for showing Christ’s love to everyone last week as you served faithfully.
As you can tell, VBS was a great adventure and a huge success! However, the adventure is far from over, it is just beginning! VBS is the beginning for many children who are unchurched. There were 32 unchurched families that attended VBS. We have a team who will follow up with these unchurched children and their families to see how we can further minister to them. If you would like to assist us in our follow up efforts, please give me a call.
The children learned this week that God has power over nature! God has power over our circumstances! God has power over sin! God has power over death! God has power over all of our life! He knows all! He is in control of it all! Let’s learn from the children and ask God to have control of every area of our life! Ask Him for guidance, wisdom and complete peace! He desires for you to trust Him and to count on Him to be in control of your life! He is the God of all power, Amazing Power!
Again, thanks to everyone for all your love, support and help during VBS. Your heavenly rewards will be great!
Your sister in Christ,
Joy that Outweighs Responsibility
June 4, 2012
The first full week of June has arrived, which signals for us at Liberty Park Baptist that Vacation Bible School (VBS) is underway. With the onset of VBS, our usually-quiet summer days will be replaced with five intense days of being covered with hundreds of kids--kids who are loud, rambunctious, messy and (sometimes) smelly. When it's all said and done, the walls will be dirty, the carpet will need to be cleaned, the rooms will need to be aired out, and all of us will need to take a week or two to recover.
And I couldn't be happier about it! You see, I absolutely love VBS. I love having kids all over the place; I love the noise; I love the constant activity; I love the chaos and the energy. Most of all, however, I love the fact that we as a church will have the opportunity to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the kids who attend VBS and that we'll even have the opportunity to lead some of them to faith in Christ. I love that we'll get to interact with families who otherwise might not be involved in a church outside of this five-day period at the front end of the summer. For these reasons and more, I look forward to VBS each year with eager anticipation.
To be sure, however, VBS is a huge responsibility. It doesn't just happen. Ask our Children's Minister, Lyn Henderson, who lives and breathes VBS about six months out of the year, along with her VBS leadership team, and they'll give you some insight into how much time and effort it takes to pull off VBS annually and to be responsible for other people's children during that five-day period in June. It's a big ordeal.
Yet, at the same time, this whole VBS event is a tremendous joy. It's a joy for all of the reasons I mentioned above, from the noise and activity to the sharing and connecting. And the thing that keeps everyone going in all of this--the thing that brings everyone back year after year--is that the joy far outweighs the responsibility.
For the Generations to Come
May 28, 2012
It seems lately that every couple of weeks a new article comes out in the newspaper or some big magazine warning us that the younger generations are leaving the church and the faith of their youth and embracing either other religions or nothing at all. While this is often portrayed as a new phenomenon, it is something that has been going on for several decades now, although it does seem to be happening at an ever-quickening pace these days.
For some, the response to such news is to throw up their hands in disgust and resignation and declare that their negative assessment of the younger generations is being proven to be correct. For others, the news of the generational falling-away produces tremendous handwringing and anxiety, accompanied by a concern about what will happen to our nation and our world if we continue down the path that we are presently treading. There's even a small minority out there who look at the spiritual wanderings of our young people and see in it another sign that things are heading inexorably toward apocalypse--and they welcome it.
Yet for many others--and I hope all who are reading this article fall into this category--distressing information like this arises within them a call to work harder to reach these younger generations, to swim with enthusiasm and energy and heart against the tide of worldliness and falsehood that is pulling our young people away from their spiritual moorings.
Personally, I am motivated to do what I can--and for us as a church to do what WE can--not only to stem the tide but even to reverse it to the point that we see more young people coming to faith than are walking away. While most of us would do whatever we had to do--even at the risk of physical harm to ourselves--to save a young person from peril of a temporal nature, how far would we be willing to go to save a young person from spiritual peril? Are we willing to volunteer to work with them? Willing to reach out to them on their terms instead of ours? Willing to spare no expense and set to aside our own concerns to meet their needs? What we do--not what we feel or say--will reveal the answers to these questions.
Enjoying Our Freedom
May 21, 2012
Everybody's working for the weekend. Especially the upcoming weekend, which extends on through Monday--Memorial Day. With the kids finally out of school, the temperature in our area hitting the 90s, and with good weather in the forecast, it looks like it's going to be one of those holidays that will find people on the road, at the beach, on the lake, cooking barbecue and enjoying their freedom.
Enjoying our freedom... I wonder how much thought we give to the freedom in which we live and the steep price that has been paid for it. It's a good thing to do--to sit back and consider the cost of it--because freedom's not cheap. President John F. Kennedy once said, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."
As a nation, we have done just that. That is why this weekend, as we enjoy our freedom, we do so remembering and honoring those who have fallen in battle, paying the ultimate price while safeguarding the liberty that we hold so dear as Americans. That's what Memorial Day is all about.
These thoughts rolled around in my head this past week, as the news came out that Chen Guangcheng--noted Chinese civil rights activist, self-taught lawyer and persecuted prisoner of his own country--was able, along with his family, to come to America. As he spoke to the media, referring to his recent years of imprisonment, beatings, harassment and constant threat, he said through an interpreter, "For the past seven years, I have never had a day's rest, so I have come here for a bit of recuperation of body and in spirit."
Upon hearing this, my first thought was, "You can do that, my friend, because this is America." As one who has endured much to seek freedom for himself and others and understands the cost of that freedom, I hope Mr. Guangcheng enjoys the taste and feel of freedom during his time in America. And I hope that we, as Americans, never cease to pay any price to assure that our liberty always survives and succeeds.
May 14, 2012
There's an old song that we used to sing in church when I was younger that has taken on new life in the era of contemporary music. The lyrics to the song were originally penned in 1758 and put to music in 1813. In recent years, however, the song has been "rediscovered" by the contemporary worship movement (although it was never really lost--all of us folks in the older generations knew where it was all along). The song I'm talking about is Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, a song that has touched the hearts of believers now for more than 250 years and counting.
In recent years, however, the second verse of the hymn has routinely been left out, perhaps due to the fact that people who are unaware of its biblical origins find it difficult to understand. The first phrase of that verse goes like this: "Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I'm come." If that phrase stumps you, you're not alone. I remember as a kid and a teenager singing it and wondering what in the world it meant. It almost sounded like gibberish to me.
It remained an odd-sounding oddity to me until, in my twenties, I noticed an asterisk by the word "Ebenezer" in the hymn book and saw denoted at the bottom of the page that the origin of the word was 1 Samuel 7:12, which is the high point of a story of God's deliverance of Israel from the Philistines. On the day that God gave Israel a great and decisive victory over their enemy in battle, the great prophet Samuel set up a large memorial stone and named it "Ebenezer," declaring "Thus far has the Lord helped us." Samuel's reason for giving this name to the memorial stone is found in the meaning of the name; in Hebrew, the language of the Israelite people, "Ebenezer" means "stone of help."
As we walk through life, each of us will experience milestone moments that we realize have come through the Lord's help. This Sunday, for example, we will celebrate several such moments with students who are graduating (or have graduated) from high school, college and graduate school--not to mention the forty-eight four-year-olds graduating from our preschool this week!
As we celebrate such great times in life together, it's important to remember and honor our God who brought us there. And, perhaps the next time you sing the second verse of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, you'll know just what you're singing about!
We Need Our Mothers!
May 7, 2012
In Monday morning's newspaper, I read an article by George Will that prompted me to go online and read a second article. Will's article dealt with an initiative by some members of congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would undo the Supreme Court's ruling that corporations can be considered to have the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech. I have some thoughts on that subject, but it was Will's opening paragraph that grabbed my attention and pulled it away to a recent article in the British Journal of Medical Ethics.
In this article, which I read with horror from beginning to end, an argument is put forth by two writers promoting the idea of "after-birth abortion," which is a phrase that they chose to use in place of "infanticide," which is the killing of a newborn baby. The writers, arguing that a newborn is really no different than a fetus, maintain that there is therefore no moral difference between the killing of a fetus through abortion and the killing of a newborn through infanticide. They similarly note that, since most western cultures (including our own!) now place no restrictions on the reasons for having an abortion--meaning that a woman can have an abortion for any reason from severe fetal abnormalities to convenience--there should likewise be no restrictions on infanticide.
I was horrified, revulsed and sickened all at once, to think that such a conversation could even be had in a journal of such import. I hope you feel the same way! Reading their arguments made me feel that we are really not that far removed as a society from those ancient cultures that sacrificed their own children on the altars of pagan gods. I guess the big difference is that we are talking about sacrificing our children on the altar of self.
Now, why would I write about such a thing in the week leading up to Mother's Day? Why would I highlight such a horrible thing as we're gearing up to honor our moms? Let me tell you why: It's because we need our mothers! We need our mothers to remind us of the special nature of the bond of love between a mother and her child; we need our mothers to be the "mama bears" of our culture and to protect those who cannot protect themselves; and we need our mothers to remind us of the miracle of birth and that children are a gift from God!
And so, realizing the peril in which western civilization finds itself, I will honor mothers--especially godly mothers--all the more, knowing that they need to be valued highly and placed on a pedestal for all to see.
The First Sunday in May
April 30, 2012
From the time I was a child, and well up into my 20s, my family participated in an event held every first Sunday in May at New Prospect Baptist Church in Haleyville, Alabama. This diminutive "white church in the wild wood," which also happens to be the third oldest church in Alabama, was the "home church" for the members of my maternal grandmother's family, the Cheathams. Many of them were buried in the church's cemetery, including my great grandfather, Isom Cheatham, who had developed pneumonia while helping construct their sanctuary in the cold of winter and died from his illness. Although we only went there once a year, this church, with its antebellum cemetery and still-functioning two-seater outhouse, held deep connections for our family.
And so it was that every first Sunday in May we honored traditions that preceded even the days of the Civil War, joining many other southerners in taking a trip to the place they called "home" and spending the day in an "all day singing" and "dinner on the grounds." I always enjoyed these trips as a kid, because I knew that after the singing and the eating were done, the whole family would spend the rest of the day at my Uncle Earnest and Aunt Muriel's (pronounced "Murl") home and adjacent pig farm. It was there that I learned to skip rocks on a pond and learned that pigs don't like to be ridden bareback.
Those were wonderful days that I deeply miss--days that I wish I could share with my children--but it seems that such days of first Sunday in May Decoration Days are all but gone. It seems that we have now become such a transient and nomadic society, with parents and grandparents more likely to uproot and move to where the children and grandchildren are than vice-versa, that no one really seems to be from anywhere anymore, and the days of the old family homestead have disappeared. In our spreading of our wings as a culture, we appear to have lost our roots.
That's why I enjoy celebrating our senior adults each year on the first Sunday in May. While we may not be able to "go home" and celebrate our roots in a particular place, we all can certainly honor these people in whom we find a heritage of godliness, integrity, vision, wisdom and hard work. Would you help me do that very thing this first Sunday in May? I can't promise you anything as fancy as a two-seater outhouse, but we'll have a good time as we honor our living spiritual heritage.
Remembering April 27, 2011
April 23, 2012
It was one year ago this Friday that Alabama was ravaged by a series of unprecedented storms that left untold devastation across our state. When everything was all totaled up, officials counted 62 tornadoes that tore across the state that day, leaving thousands of people homeless, hundreds of businesses destroyed, complete communities virtually blown off the map, and more than 240 people dead (the latest death toll lists 248 people who died that day or died later as a result of the storms).
One year later, Alabamians are still struggling with the recovery, as piles of debris remain in various places, some houses and buildings sit unrepaired, and the forever-altered landscape provides a constant reminder of the new reality in which many communities, families and individuals find themselves. And yet, despite these constant reminders of that disastrous day, many--if not most--Alabamians will take time this week to remember it in some shape or fashion.
Which begs the question: Why intentionally remember a day that was so destructive and terrible as April 27, 2011? Why not just move on, let the past be the past, and get on with our lives?
The simple answer given by those who are experts in such matters is that remembering is important for recovery, and recovery happens on many levels as we take time to remember. When people commemorate the first anniversary of a significant loss, emotions are brought to the surface that can be experienced and dealt with, thus aiding in the grieving process. People also tend to band together with others in such times, and the experience of community can bring strength and camaraderie. Remembering also gives us an opportunity to celebrate the good we saw on that day and in the weeks and months that followed, as people stepped up to help others in significant and self-sacrificial ways. Such memories bring to mind the bright spots in the midst of the darkness.
And, for those of us who were blessed enough to suffer little or no loss on that day, remembering reminds us to pray for those still suffering and to continue to look for tangible ways to help as well, until our neighbors have experienced recovery and the storms of April 27, 2011 are just a memory.
Now That the Party is Over
April 16, 2012
Can you believe that we are now more than a week beyond Easter? It's true. Churches have now gone back to their normal attendance numbers, everyone's new Easter clothes have been put away for the next special occasion, and all the kids are coming down from their sugar highs. And, although there are still a few eggs out there that have defied our most diligent search efforts (and will probably be found as you do yard work over the summer), most of the Easter trappings have been put back into storage in attics, basements or closets, there to remain until Easter rolls around again next year.
While the coming and going of Easter may mean a big sigh of relief for many who exhausted themselves with too many Easter activities, have you ever wondered what it must have been like for Jesus' followers almost two thousand years ago in the afterglow of the resurrection? If so, I have good news for you: you don't have to wonder too much, because the Bible has a great deal to say about the days and weeks following Jesus' resurrection.
Acts 1:3 tells us that Jesus remained on earth, interacting with His followers, for a period of forty days following His resurrection. Forty days! Can you imagine spending more than a month with the resurrected Jesus Christ? That's what Jesus' followers did, as He appeared among them, allowing the doubting Thomas to see and touch His wounds, as He taught them, as He performed miracles and restored Peter (who had denied Jesus three times) and as He gave them their marching orders to take the Gospel to the world and make disciples of all the nations. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that Jesus even appeared to more than 500 of His followers at one time before His ascension into heaven!
This post-resurrection time with Jesus resulted in His followers being transformed from the hesitant and fearful group that had abandoned Jesus prior to His crucifixion into the band of brothers and sisters who would turn their world upside down for Christ (read Acts 17:6 in the King James Version). But what about us? Now that the "party" that is our Easter celebration is over, how will this focus on Jesus' resurrection impact our world? Will we turn it upside down for Christ, or will we take a breath and go back to business as usual?
Becoming a Person of Joy
April 9, 2012
I read an article in this morning's newspaper that spurred a thought in my mind. The article was about a church in Texas that held its Easter service outdoors and invited NFL quarterback Tim Tebow to be their guest speaker for the day. The article told that 15,000 people attended the service--several of them sporting Tim Tebow jerseys. Tebow's message was about the importance of living our Christianity out in the open, so that people can see our faith and works in such a way that they are pointed to Christ.
I like Tim Tebow. I liked him when he played for the Florida Gators, and I cheered him on last year when he played for the Denver Broncos. I'm not a fan of either of those teams, but I always want someone with such a clear and strong witness to do well and to expand his platform for communicating the Gospel to others. And yet, it was not Tim Tebow or his message that spurred in my mind the thought to which I previously alluded.
No, my thoughts were captured by the name of the church that had him speak. It's called "Celebration Church," and its name reminded me of a truth I often have to revisit: that we, as believers in Christ, truly have reason to celebrate. Why? We are forgiven of our sins, filled with the Holy Spirit, freed from death, and have a future in heaven. We are children of God, objects of His grace and love; we are held in and blessed by His hands. We have every reason to be filled with joy and for that joy to overflow continually from our hearts.
I was also reminded of all of this as I worshipped in our Easter services on Sunday. I had (Dare I say it? Yes, I think I will) a good time! I left church with a smile on my face--and that's the way I think we should have left Sunday's services, in light of who and what we were there to commemorate.
Now, I know that there are times we gather as a church that call for somber reverence--those times of quiet reflection, corporate contrition and solemn assembly--but those times must also be balanced with healthy doses of rejoicing. I hope you enjoyed rejoicing on Sunday, and I hope that you will consider all that God has done for you and--if you are not already one--will become a person of joy. As you do, you will find to be true these words from Nehemiah 8:10--"The joy of the Lord is your strength."
Easter: It's Really a Big Deal!
April 2, 2012
In the spring of 1990, I was a young seminary student working as a youth minister at a church just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. It was at this church that I met Troy, a young man whose family would become some of our closest friends over the next several years. Troy was a different kind of kid: He could be rebellious, cynical and difficult; yet at the same time he could be funny, engaging, and willing to help out with anything.
In one of our earliest encounters--a Wednesday night youth Bible study, as we were talking about Easter--Troy declared that he did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When I questioned him about this, he stated that he didn't have a problem with any other aspect of the story of Jesus: He was good with the virgin birth, fine with Jesus as God, and believed in the perfect life and substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. But when it came to someone rising from the dead, he just couldn't go there.
I asked Troy if he considered himself to be a Christian--someone who had faith in Christ and claimed Him as Lord. He was astonished that I would even ask such a thing. He certainly believed in Jesus. He had been saved and baptized. He just didn't believe in the resurrection.
Turning my Bible to Romans 10:9, I read aloud to the group: "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." I then asked them, "If we don't believe in the resurrection of Christ, what do we do with this verse? Is it possible to be saved without believing in Christ's resurrection?" As gently as possible, I talked about the importance of Christ's resurrection, taking the group to 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul says that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is useless and futile, and we are still in our sins. If Christ has not been raised, then we are false witnesses, preaching and believing a lie.
Truth is, the resurrection is a big deal--something I was able to teach that group of students that Wednesday night twenty-two years ago. Without it, we have no hope. Without it, we are still lost in sin. Without it, we are living a lie. Yet, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, "Death has been swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54), and we trust and serve a risen Savior!
Happy Easter, everyone! He has risen, indeed!
A Wonderful, Terrible Week
March 26, 2012
My family and I had a great week last week. It was spring break, and after working a couple of days at the first of the week, we all piled into the car and headed to the beach. While we go to the beach every summer, it had been quite a while since we had been to the beach on spring break. In fact, the last time we went to the beach on spring break, there were only two of us--although we found out on that very trip that we would be adding a third member--our firstborn son--to our little family. That good news made that week a great one too.
There are four of us now, however, and that firstborn child is twenty years old and a sophomore at Samford University! Let me do the math for you: that means that it has been 21 years since the last time we went to the beach on spring break. What we lacked in frequency, however, we made up for by relaxing and enjoying ourselves. Yes, it was a great week.
Our week was nothing, however, like the week that Jesus had in the thirty-third year of His earthly existence. It began with a grand entrance into the city of Jerusalem, where He was greeted in the fashion normally reserved for a conquering king. As He rode into the city, seated on the colt of a donkey, throngs gathered to wave palm branches in His honor and to lay their cloaks on the dirty road so His mount's hooves would not even touch the ground. Those same crowds shouted, "Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" recognizing Jesus as one who was worthy of worship.
As His week continued, Jesus taught before large crowds in the temple and spent time celebrating the Passover with His disciples. It looked to be a wonderful week, but Jesus knew better. He knew that this week would end with His own horrific execution on a Roman cross. He knew that on that cross He would bear the weight of the sin of all humanity. And He knew that the last day of the week would find His cold, dead body in a borrowed tomb. We begin the commemoration of this wonderful, terrible week on Sunday, April 1st--Palm Sunday--noting its significance for all of us who believe. It is an opportune time to reflect on who Jesus is and on the sacrifice He made for us all.
It's also a time to remember that--just one week after His triumphal entry--Jesus proved who He said He was by defeating death forever. But more on that next week...
The Calm Before the Storm
March 19, 2012
As a native of Alabama, I am not unfamiliar with storms, even storms of great magnitude, like the tornadoes that tore through our state about eleven months ago. In fact, like many other Alabamians, I've even had a couple of "close encounters" in my life with such storms, the earliest coming when I was a young boy. I remember the moment vividly: My older brother and I stood in our den, looking out two large plate glass windows as an enormous, black wall cloud moved toward us. We could see large pine trees being ripped up and tossed aside like matchsticks, and just as the cloud began to draw close to our house, our mom, with our younger brother in her arms, grabbed us and ushered us quickly to the safety of our basement.
We were very blessed that day. The tornado that passed over us did not touch down, and none of the trees that fell hit our home. Nonetheless, I remember the fury and the fear of that moment. And I also remember the odd calm before the storm. It had been raining pretty hard up until that point, when suddenly the rain ceased and everything grew very still. In the quiet peace of that moment, it would have been a perfectly normal thing to think that all was well. My mom, however, knew better. Also an Alabama native with personal knowledge of such storms, she knew that the strange calm meant that the worst was about to hit. And she was right.
I thought about that "calm before the storm" this week as I was reading through the Gospels in preparation for Easter. I wondered how much the followers of Jesus really understood what was going on. Although Jesus tried to warn them of His impending suffering and death, it seems that they responded as most of us probably would, urging Him not to think like that and denying that such a thing would truly come to pass on their watch.
The storm would come, however, and there was no stopping it--not with positive thinking, not with declarations of to-the-death allegiance and not with physical resistance. The storm was predetermined by God; it was inevitable. The storm, of course, was the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross that scattered the disciples and--in their immediate thinking--brought the whole movement to a halt.
But there would be a beautiful sunrise just days after the storm...
The God of All Comfort
March 12, 2012
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all compassion
and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those
in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." - 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
The above passage has been one of my favorite Scripture passages for years. As a young believer, almost 30 years ago, I came across these words as I was reading through the New Testament letters of Paul, but they did not really have a strong impact on me until a few years later, when I began serving as a minister in a church.
As a new, young minister at that time, I was full of enthusiasm and energy, ready to fight for the faith and to build churches for the Lord. In my mind, all I needed was the ability to communicate the Word effectively and the strength to "reap the harvest." I gave little thought to anything beyond that, church-wise.
As I began to get involved in the other aspects of ministry, however--things like visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes, and spending time with families that had suffered tragedy and loss--I began to see that compassion and mercy were required to walk with people through the dark and difficult times of life. Problem is, I wondered how one person could continually draw from that emotional well without it eventually running dry.
It was then that this passage came back to me, reminding me that I did not have to depend on my own limited emotional resources--I had the "Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort" living and working in and through me. I had the ability through His Spirit to tap into His unlimited resources of mercy, compassion, comfort, kindness and grace to help others in their time of need. Understanding this truth was a huge comfort in itself, because I deeply desired to be a help to others in their time of need.
Such a supply of compassion and comfort is not just limited to ministers, however, but is available to all the sons and daughters of God through Christ. It is there to comfort us when we walk the path of "troubles," and it is there for us to draw from when we need to comfort others. And, as we "comfort those in any trouble," we serve as an extension of and a reflection of our Father, the God of all comfort.
From Generation to Generation
March 5, 2012
Under normal circumstances, we as parents hope that our children will do better in life than we have done. For some, that hope has educational or financial dreams attached to it. For others, it may be relational--hoping that their children will have greater success in their marriages and with their own children. For others still, the hopes and dreams may be more about the child just living a life filled with a sense of peace and contentment.
For many of us, however, at the top of the list of hopes and dreams are the ones that are spiritual in nature. Many of us desire to see our children walk more closely with God than we do, to love Him more deeply than we do and to serve Him more strongly than we do. We desire to see God work through our children to change the world by leading others to Him and by being salty salt and bright-shining lights in a tasteless and dark world.
Although I have prayed these things for my children since their birth, I was reminded of them this weekend as our students and children participated in what we call Breakin' Free Weekend (often called Disciple Now at other churches). It was encouraging to see children and students who were hungry for the Word, who had a heart for worship, who desired to serve others in the name of Jesus, and who desired to seek the face of God.
As a pastor, I thought about what a blessing it is to be part of a church that supports, encourages, prays for, instructs, and guides by example its young people. I also reflected on what I learned years ago about how many of the great revivals in Christian history began first with the young people and then spread to the rest of the believers. And that thought rekindled in me a desire to pray ever more earnestly for our children to rise up as a generation that leads our nation and our world to a new faith awakening.
Not that I've given up on my generation or the ones that have gone before me. By no means! My prayer for revival and renewal in our time includes all of us! Truth is, I long and pray for the day when we can all be honestly described with the words of Psalm 79:13--"...we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise."
Control and Influence
February 27, 2012
I recently read an article on leadership that I thought was very profound. It was written by Michael Hyatt, the chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the largest Christian publishing company in the world and the seventh largest trade book publishing company in the U.S.
In the article, he talked about the difference between control and influence, pointing out that true leadership has little to do with the former and is truly all about the latter. He declared this stance clearly and strongly, noting that “Influence is the essence of leadership.” By way of explanation, he pointed to the lives of Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., noting that while they controlled virtually no one, they all had a profound impact on history through their influence.
As I mulled over his thoughts, I realized that what he was saying was also true in regard to the role of Christians in the world. It’s a fairly easy thing to see that believers as a group and as individuals have little control over the affairs of this world. That’s a fact that should not surprise us; after all, no less an authority than Jesus Himself stated clearly that there is a “prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11) who is most decidedly not on our side, and he holds sway in the world as it now stands.
While we have little to no control, we most certainly have influence. The late Dr. D. James Kennedy wrote two wonderful books in which he outlined various aspects of that influence: What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? and What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? Both of them are easy reads, yet at the same time they provide great information about the influence of Jesus Christ and of the Bible on the world, noting that it would be a far different place had neither existed. I recommend both books highly, because I think that even we as believers sometimes fail to note the way our world has been shaped by our Lord and by His word.
I also encourage you to take notice concerning how you influence the world and the lives of others within your personal sphere. Are you the salt and light that Jesus calls you to be? I am convinced that we as followers of Christ have far more sway than we imagine. That being the case, I want to challenge you to use your God-given influence to go out and change your world for Him.
Time to Prepare
February 20, 2012
As I entered the grocery store last Friday, I found myself wondering what holiday they would be promoting. For several weeks, I had been greeted with Valentine’s merchandise. However, since Valentine’s Day had now passed, I expected to encounter a new holiday layout. The display I found upon entering had generic merchandise, so I assumed they were between seasons and went about my weekly duties - that is until I turned down the seasonal candy aisle. I am not quite sure what I expected to find, perhaps some type of chocolate shamrock, but I can tell you that I did not expect to find what I found. I could not believe my eyes. On February 17, the aisle was full of … Easter candy! Could it really be time to prepare for Easter?
After I overcame my initial shock, I realized that Easter is just around the corner. In just a little more than six weeks, we will celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have to be honest with you. I am not yet prepared for Easter. Perhaps you find yourself in a similar situation. The good news is that we still have time.
As we look forward to Easter, I encourage you to begin preparing your heart by participating in one or both of the following spiritual disciplines.
* Read the Bible – If you are already involved in a Bible reading plan, keep it up! However, if you are not, take the next six weeks to read through at least one of the Gospels. If you are a slow reader like me and can only handle about a chapter a day, you can actually read through Mark (16 chapters) and John (21 chapters) between now and Easter and still have a few days left over to catch up on what you might have missed.
* Pray for the Lost – Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost. As we prepare to celebrate His victory of sin and death, let us be faithful to pray for those who are not yet participating in that victory. Pray specifically for family members, friends, or neighbors who may not know Christ.
God rewards those who earnestly seek Him. If we will faithfully prepare our hearts for Easter by focusing on Christ, I believe God will bless us in ways we cannot imagine. Let us prepare to celebrate the victory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ this Easter!
The Bottom Line on Wisdom
Last Sunday, our church completed a study in the book of Proverbs that we've been involved in for several weeks now. Proverbs, along with Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, is in a group of books referred to by Bible scholars as "Wisdom Literature." I've always loved the book of Proverbs, because I find in it just that--practical wisdom for dealing with daily life. It provides understanding, knowledge and insight for helping me to know how to deal with things both big and small--from matters of eternal significance to matters of daily business.
In our time of walking through the book of Proverbs, I have used the following as my working definition of "wisdom": It is the right application of God-given knowledge and understanding for the purpose of bringing about God-desired results. As I have refreshed my knowledge of Proverbs during our study, I have been reminded of how important God's wisdom is in our lives--that it is not an optional matter for us, but rather something that is vital for living a life that is pleasing to God.
I have been reminded as well of how God's wisdom impacts so many areas of my life, including the handling of my relationships, my finances, my work life, my physical, mental and emotional health--and especially my eternity and my relationship with Him. Proverbs even offers wisdom for knowing what kind of people to avoid and how to keep myself from trouble (and what to do to get myself out of trouble when I don't follow that wisdom at first). Did you know that Proverbs even has something to say about how we deal with our pets (see Proverbs 12:10)? God's wisdom reaches into every area of life that we will open up to Him!
The bottom line on wisdom for me is that I desperately need it in every area of my life, and I love receiving it from God, putting it into action and watching for the God-desired results. I love seeing God's wisdom proven right in all of the areas of my life, knowing that His plan in every situation and circumstance is the best plan.
So, if you're struggling right now, trying to figure out what God would have you do in your life to bring about His best results, go and seek out His wisdom. Pray for it; seek it through His word; and live out what you discover. You'll find, as I am finding, that God's way is the best way.
Right Man, Right Place, Right Time
February 6, 2012
The biblical character Nehemiah has always fascinated me. Although he served in the court of a pagan king, he was a man of God--one who knew God and knew His word. Likewise, although his position in the king's court was a humble one (he was the king's cup bearer, which meant he tasted the wine before the king to ensure that it wasn't poisoned--talk about expendable!), Nehemiah turned out to be an impressive leader.
As we began our in-depth study of Nehemiah last Sunday night, I invited everyone to note some traits of this man that set him apart as someone uniquely suited for the task God had prepared for him. In addition to being godly and knowledgeable in regard to God's word, Nehemiah was a man of passion and a man of prayer, and it is my belief that those two traits fed one another.
Let me explain: As a man of prayer who knew God, Nehemiah was tuned in to the very heart of God. This close bond led Nehemiah to be passionate about the things that God was passionate about, so that his driving force and his motivation were fueled by those very things. As a man who knew God's word, He had special insight into the way God thinks about things and the way He does things. This insight led Nehemiah to an understanding about what God wanted to accomplish through him. And that led him to pray even more!
Although he knew what God wanted him to do, Nehemiah didn't jump the gun and run ahead of God. If you read Nehemiah's story, you'll find that about four months lapsed between the time he discovered the need that God would use him to fulfill (the rebuilding Jerusalem's wall) and the time he approached the king to ask for his help. What did Nehemiah do in those four months? He "mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven" (Nehemiah 1:4). After this extended period of spiritual preparation, when God's timing was right, Nehemiah approached the king with his request to go to the land of his ancestors and lead them in the recovery of their city. God granted him success, and the king sent him on his way with what he needed to do the job.
What great lessons we can learn from Nehemiah! He was the right man, in the right place, at the right time--and God was able to use him powerfully because he was ready and prepared when that time arrived. O Lord, teach us to prepare ourselves, that when your timing is right we will be ready to do what you ask of us!
Behind the Scenes
January 30, 2012
Isn't it fun when you get to be an "insider" somewhere? Don't you love being able to "see behind the curtain" and have insight into what's going on that is not available to the general public? Oh, it doesn't really matter what it is--it could be anything from a local high school sports events to the halls of Congress--we as humans just seem to love having that insider's knowledge.
Sometimes as a pastor, I have an inside track on things that are going on that few others know about. Some of those things are good; some are not so good. It may be the secret pain a family is going through, a publicly undisclosed illness that someone is fighting, the struggle of someone caught in a habitual sin or the quiet anguish of emotional or even mental distress that someone is dealing with. On the other hand, it might be the wonderful hush-hush news of a new pregnancy, the exciting behind-the-scenes negotiating over a new job or the anonymous deeds of a Good Samaritan to which I have insider access.
All of this is to say that there is a world of hurt and misery--but also a world of grace and ministry--that's out there that many people walk by each day and miss entirely. It's a world that some of us know about and keep discreetly quiet about for the sake of the privacy of those people involved. However, without breaking any confidences whatsoever, I want to say today to those of you who are suffering in silence to be encouraged. God knows your heart and He knows your needs. I also would encourage you to inform godly people about your circumstances and receive help, prayer and kindness from them.
To those who quietly and anonymously do good deeds in the name of Christ, I want to say to you that there are those of us who see you and who take heart at the way you reflect Christ through your actions. You may never receive any accolades in this life--which is fine for you, because you're not seeking any--but your Father knows and will reward you for your kindness and compassion to others. What you are doing for others, you are doing for Him.
Regardless of our level of access, isn't it good to know that our God knows our secret needs and meets them, and that He knows our secret deeds of grace and kindness and rewards them? I certainly think so!
Just One Thing...
January 23, 2012
The sporting world received the sad news on Sunday that Joe Paterno, the long-time head football coach of Penn State University and the winningest football coach in NCAA history, passed away from complications due to lung cancer. Paterno was 85 years old when he died, and doubtlessly was living an existence in the last ten weeks of his life that no one ever would have thought would befall this coaching legend.
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've heard the story: One of Paterno's former assistant coaches was accused back in the fall of molesting young boys over a period of years--a horrific crime that Paterno had been made aware of some years ago. According to reports, Paterno at that time did not reveal this news to the authorities, but rather chose just to inform his athletics director. In the long run, things were kept quiet, until the accusations found their way to a grand jury and the former assistant coach was brought up on charges.
When all of this was found out, Paterno and all others who knew about the allegations were summarily dismissed from their jobs. Since then, much has been said about the legacy of this coach whose record up to this point had been virtually spotless. It seems that in an instant the coach who many felt had the best reputation in the business tumbled to a place where his name will live in infamy. And to think that it just took one thing to do all of that damage; just one thing to wipe away in the minds of many people all the good he had done for years and years. How tragic.
This happens in life sometimes. We've all seen it. That person we love and admire, the one whose good works shine so brightly, is suddenly brought low because of one evil thing. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, for all of those whose reputations have been soiled by one bad thing, there are many more whose lives have been a source of blessing and inspiration to others because of one good thing. The lesson I want to learn and follow in all of this? We should guard our lives carefully, combatting evil at every turn and seeking to do good at every opportunity, because others are watching (God is watching!) and it really matters when all is said and done.
With that thought in mind, let's commit, then, to live our lives according to these words of Scripture: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" - Romans 12:21.
A Rock and a Soft Place
January 16, 2012
You've most likely heard the saying that describes someone as "caught between a rock and a hard place." The meaning of this old adage, of course, is that this person has gotten himself into a predicament in which his options in either direction present hardship and difficulty, with no satisfactory solution apparently available.
I often talk with and counsel with people whose lives might be well described as being "caught between a rock and a hard place." Sometimes I've felt that way myself in life! As I was doing some reading and pondering of Scripture last week, however, the thought occurred to me that we as believers could better be described as being "caught between a rock and a soft place."
Let me explain: First, we're caught not in the sense that we have fallen into and become entangled in something, but we are rather caught in the sense that God in His grace has "caught" us in the midst of our freefall and has given us a safe landing ("I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you." - Isaiah 46:4). That's a good thought that provides us with a sense of security.
But what about the "rock" part of it? Who wants to be caught on a rock in any way, shape or fashion? I do, for one--but only if that rock is a foundation stone, a place where I can find firm footing regardless of all else around me that might be shifting and shaking. We're told in 1 Corinthians 3:11 that the only true foundation like this is Jesus Christ! For me, it's good to know that there's something (Someone!) on which I can base my life that will never move and never fail. Like the psalmist David, I praise Him as the Rock of my salvation.
Now, what about the soft place? Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:29, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." It's great for me to know that my Lord is gentle and humble and that He offers rests rather than further struggle. It's also encouraging to hear from Him that His yoke is easy and His burden is light, in the midst of a world that is often hard and heavy.
So forgive me if I, for one, rejoice in and take courage from the fact that I am "caught between a Rock and a soft place." It's exactly where I want to be.
The Path Before Us
January 10, 2012
Every Tuesday morning, we hold staff meeting for our ministerial and support staff at the church. We spend the first half an hour or so praying for people whose requests we've received or whose needs we are personally aware of, and then we get into the business at hand, evaluating what we've already done, planning for what we are going to do, working on outreach and also giving attention to "inreach," a term we use for taking care of our church family.
One of the things we do to keep us all on the same page is a review of the upcoming six weeks of the church calendar. As we do our review, we make sure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities and that all the "i"s have been dotted and all the "t"s have been crossed.
This morning, as we were reviewing the calendar, I cheated and started looking ahead. Perhaps this is a function of age, but I was shocked at how quickly we will fly through the upcoming months and in no time at all be on the cusp of summer. Rather than feeling daunted or intimidated by this, however, I felt a rush of excitement as I considered what lies ahead for us as a church this year.
Considering the exciting things that God did in and through our church in 2011--the vast number of people involved in missions, the new volunteers working in ministries, the mass of children involved in VBS, the outpouring of families at our Fall Festival, the wonderful celebration of our 125th anniversary--I look forward with great anticipation toward what He will do in and through LPBC in 2012. I have every reason to believe that it is going to be awesome.
All of the things I mentioned above, however, didn't just happen spontaneously last year, and the things that will happen in 2012 will not just occur on their own either. Truth is, God works in and through us, but He simultaneously expects us to give full attention and effort to the things He's called us to do. I believe that God has big things for us in 2012, but with big blessings come big responsibilities.
I hope as you look at the calendar--and even more so as you spend time with God hearing from Him what it is that He wants you to do--that you won't be intimidated either, but rather that you'll be excited as you anticipate the path that God is laying out before us.
A New Thing
January 3, 2012
"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a
new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?" - Isaiah 43:18-19
When the prophet Isaiah recorded these words of God, he was delivering a message to Israel from God Himself telling of days to come that would be filled with renewal and restoration. God's people, as a result of their own sin, were being held in bondage, and the Lord's words to them in Isaiah 43 were words of hope and comfort, reminding them that He had not left them alone and that they would not be in bondage forever.
It might just be that some of us need to hear words of hope and comfort as we step into this new year--words reminding us that God is not through with us, that He has not cast us aside, but rather that our Father in heaven is keenly aware of what we are facing and stands ready to do "a new thing" in our lives that will surprise and amaze us, things that will bring us restoration and renewal as well.
I love when I read this passage, however, that God does not speak about what He intends to do, but rather speaks about what He is already doing. In saying this, He reminds us that His work is springing up around us all the time, and He simultaneously challenges us, asking if we are aware of what He's doing. Personally, I am deeply challenged by this declaration: First, I am challenged about whether or not I have my eyes open to see God at work. Could it be that I am not perceiving what God is doing because I'm not really looking for it?
Second, I am challenged in regard to my response to God's work. Am I struggling against Him, putting out the Spirit's fire even as He seeks to do great things in and through me, or am I cooperating with Him and His great purposes to see His work brought into fullest bloom in my life?
Our God is a God of the new. He enjoys refreshing and reviving His people. Let's pray and hope for and expect God to do great things--new things--in and through us in 2012!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
December 19, 2011
Christmas is almost upon us, and the kickoff of 2012 will follow soon thereafter. As this time advances toward us, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people: for some it means that there will be much celebrating, joy, fun and adventure in the days immediately ahead. For others, it means that there will be time for that no-often-enough interaction with family members who we only get to see and spend time with a handful of times each year.
Still others will see in the next few weeks opportunities for reaching out to others and ministering to others from the abundance of blessings with which they have been blessed. At the same time, there may be those who are in need of a blessing from another person. Some people will be looking toward the New Year and all of the possibilities that it represents. Others may see nothing but challenges lying ahead for them.
Regardless of your outlook on the coming days, and regardless of your expectations, I would like to offer my Christmas and New Year's blessing and prayer for you and your family:
In these days of holiday and celebration that lie just ahead, may God grant you and your family a deep and abiding sense of His presence. In turn, may His presence fill your heart with peace, joy, and hope, that your spirit may be lifted and that you may in turn lift the spirits of others. May God fill your life with His grace, that your paths may be straightened, that your struggles may be lessened and softened, and that your needs may be met.
May He guide you clearly with His Holy Spirit, and may His guidance always bring you comfort and strength on your journey. May He give you assurance, that you will walk in confidence through the good days and the bad. May He protect you from the enemy, and may He always make clear the path of escape in times of temptation and trial.
Ultimately, may God draw you close to Himself, that you may experience the full measure of what it means to be His child. And may you, in turn, let others know that they can be His child too.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
All Else Is not Enough
December 12, 2011
"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel, which means, 'God with us.'" - Matthew 1:23
Sometimes, I wonder if we truly understand the significance of the incarnation. As people who live with the benefit of around 2000 years of Christianity behind us, and as those who are firmly and deeply placed in the heart of the Bible Belt, I just wonder if we are aware down in that deepest part of us just what it means to have had Jesus born to us.
God with us. That's what it means--and what an amazing concept it is! With the birth of Jesus, the human race experienced the visitation of the divine into our realm. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we all experienced the intervention of the divine into our lives and into our eternal destinies.
And yet, I still wonder if we truly understand the significance of having God with us. Jesus said that anyone who drank the water He offered would never thirst again (John 4:14). He also said that whoever ate the bread that He offered would never go hungry (John 6:35). He came to fill the deepest and most vital of all our needs--the need to connect with God, to be saved from sin and self and to receive hope for this life and for the next--and yet I'm still not sure that we understand.
In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote, "All that we call human history--money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery--[is] the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy."
And yet, He came here to do just that--to give us life, and life more abundantly. As you ponder the incarnation this Christmas, let God remind you that all this world offers is not enough. We needed then, and we still need now, Immanuel, God with us.
The Peace of Christmas
December 5, 2011
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men."
The above words, written by the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, flow beautifully and have a powerful lyrical quality to them. Penned on December 25, 1864, and later set to music in 1872, Longfellow's words have inspired many generations of people, reminding them of the declaration of the angels following the announcement of Jesus' birth in Luke 2:14--"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men."
Taken at face value, these words sound refreshing and celebratory. When one looks at the story of Longfellow's life and the happenings of the times in which he wrote them, however, they take on a whole new quality:
Written just months shy of the end of the American Civil War, as our nation was in its worst state ever, these words came from the heart of a man who knew and daily walked in significant pain and struggle. You see, Longfellow had experienced tremendous tragedy in life--the loss of his first wife following a miscarriage, the death of his second wife from severe burns (he was also terribly injured trying to put out the flames that took her life), the crippling of his oldest son in the War, and constant pain due to a severe neurological disorder.
The Christmas after his second wife's death in 1861, as he struggled to father five children, he wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." On the first anniversary of her death, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."
Considering the life and times of Longfellow when he penned these words, they become all the more meaningful and inspiring to me--and I hope to you as well. May the God of all peace be with you and your family this Christmas season!
'Tis the Season
November 28, 2011
Attention everyone: The season for giving is officially here. The spirit of generosity is in the air, Christmas bonuses are beginning to filter into bank accounts, and, in response, organizations are asking for donations.
Coming off what is being hailed as the largest Black Friday ever for retailers, I think we can safely say that we are in the Christmas season! That means a lot of things for me each year, among them the fact that I will receive by mail, by phone, by email and in person dozens of appeals for donations from a variety of organizations in the coming weeks--including secular help organizations, Christian relief ministries, missions organizations, schools I have graduated from, and a wide variety of other organizations dedicated to a plethora of causes.
Now, I'm no Grinch. I would love to help fund every worthy organization that asks. Like most, however, I have limited expendable income and have to prioritize my charitable giving (beyond my tithe, of course!). If you're interested, here are some of the main guidelines I follow in making my choices about giving:
1. Is there a Kingdom purpose at the heart of the organization's mission? There are tons of great groups out there doing good work. For me, however, it's important to be sure that the spread of the Gospel is central to what the organization seeks to accomplish.
2. Does the organization have a good track record of stewardship of its resources? If I don't have access to personal knowledge of how an organization spends its money, I look for the endorsement of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), a group that holds its members to very high standards.
3. Is this an organization to which my family and I can be connected? It's important for me to feel a sense of connectedness to an organization I am funding. Is there a way for my family and me to get personally involved in the work? Is there someone who can keep in touch with me and update me on the work and its results?
You may already have your own guidelines as well. If not, feel free to borrow from mine. Above all, pray about your giving, because there is great joy and satisfaction in feeling the sense of God's guidance as you give!
Acts of Gratitude
November 21, 2011
Thursday, November 24, is Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that pretty much all of us hold dear for one reason or another. For some it's the food associated with the holiday, for others it's the traditional football games that happen throughout the weekend, while for others it's the time off from work, the time spent with family or on leisure activities, or just the opportunity to stop and focus on being thankful for all we have been given.
Over the years, I have heard it said many times around Thanksgiving that it is important for each of us to have an "attitude of gratitude"--for each of us to have a grateful heart that responds with thankfulness at all times. I agree with this philosophy, and think a pretty airtight case can be made for it from Scripture.
However, one thing that I have not heard as much about is the stress that the Bible places not just on feeling thankful, but also on acting thankful. Take, for instance, the story about the ten lepers found in Luke 17:11-18. You may remember that in this story Jesus heals all ten men, but only one of them comes back afterward to say thank you.
Now, I'm sure that all of them were grateful--I mean, they had been healed of a disease that at the time was incurable and that was horribly disfiguring and led to a life of ostracism from society. Sure, they were all grateful, but only one of them acted upon it by going back and thanking Jesus for His kindness. As I thought about this story in recent weeks, I was struck by the thought that many times I may feel grateful, and yet I may not necessarily show it by acting grateful.
As a result, I have decided to make a more concerted effort in my life to act out my gratefulness by spending much more time thanking God and thanking others. It's not that I've not been grateful in the past--I just need to do a better job of expressing it. What about you? Do you need to do a better job of turning your attitude of gratitude into acts of gratitude? I can't think of a better time of the year than now to do just that!
How Will You Vote?
November 14, 2011
Every year, during the first three weeks of November, Liberty Park Baptist focuses on the issue of stewardship. Over the last several years, I have offered a simple definition of stewardship: "Stewardship is what you do with what God has given you." I'm sure that there are far more elaborate, theological definitions out there, but I'm a simple person, and I work much better with simple definitions.
On Sunday, we took time to look together at Luke 19:11-27, in which Jesus tells the parable of the ten minas. This story might be unfamiliar to you, although, if you read it, you'll find it to be similar in many ways to Jesus' parable of the talents, which is found in Matthew 25:14-30. It does, however, have some unique distinctions from the parable of the talents as well, and it was one of those unique points that I found highly intriguing.
Unlike the parable of the talents, in the parable of the ten minas Jesus begins by talking about a man of noble birth who travels to a distant land to have himself appointed king and then to return. When the man travels to this place, his subjects--who hate him--send a delegation after him to declare that they don't want this man as their king. Jesus resolves that aspect of the story in the next verse, declaring, "The man was made king, however, and returned home."
As I read this story, it was so clear to me that Jesus was not just telling some random story, but rather was telling His own story! He was the man of noble birth who traveled to a distant land to become king and then return home. He was the one who was hated by his own people and the one about whom it was declared that they did not want Him as king. And He was the one who became king regardless and returned home!
Why does Jesus include such a beginning to this story? What bearing does it have on this parable about stewardship? I believe the answer is clear: Jesus tells this part of the story to remind us that, at the very heart of things, stewardship is really a matter of lordship. Jesus, the One who is and will be King of all, regardless of what we think or how we vote, gives us the opportunity to follow Him personally as Lord right now and to experience the great blessings of being a part of His greater plan and His wonderful work. So, in regard to His kingship in your life--how will you vote?
Commemorate and Celebrate
November 7, 2011
I enjoy learning--especially when the new knowledge comes as a bit of a pleasant surprise. That's what happened to me on Sunday, as we were celebrating the 125th anniversary of our church. The learning moment happened for me when our Pastor Emeritus, Dr. Jim Bruton, was giving a brief talk about our story as a church. It was a surprise because I expected that moment to be just a historical presentation, but I received so much more.
Dr. Bruton began his talk by asking why it is that we celebrate such things as church anniversaries. He answered his own question by referring to God's interactions with His people in the Old Testament, noting that on many occasions God called Israel to remember what He had done for them by commemorating and celebrating His deliverance and support of them as a nation. Dr. Bruton further iterated that such times of remembrance always had the intention of bringing renewal to God's people.
As I thought about what Dr. Bruton was saying, I reflected on my own thinking about anniversary celebrations and such over the years. In the past, I have often thought that such commemorations were at best a fun distraction, and at worst a huge waste of time, money and energy. Dr. Bruton challenged my thinking on all that, highlighting for me the biblical significance of these times in the life of God's people in the present in addition to the past.
And on Sunday, I saw firsthand how God can use a time of commemoration and celebration in the life of a church. Sunday was like a breath of fresh air--a time of remembrance, a time of fellowship, a time of rejoicing, and a time of renewal. And for me, a time of instruction as well.
So now, I look forward with great anticipation to our next time of commemoration and celebration as a church, knowing that it will--like Sunday--be a time of honoring God for His work, a time of rejoicing and fellowship, and a time of renewing our hearts and refocusing our minds intently on the vision that God instilled in us as a congregation for the present and future.
1886 - 2011 (and Beyond)
October 31, 2011
The year 1886 was a big one. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Coca Cola was first sold from a small pharmacy in Atlanta, Karl Benz (no, his first name was not Mercedes) patented and drove the first automobile with a modern, gasoline-powered engine, and the great Apache Chief Geronimo surrendered, ending the last major US-Indian war.
That same year, a church was started as an outgrowth of a Sunday School that had met in a family home on the eastern side of the city of Birmingham, Alabama. This new congregation chose for itself the name East Birmingham Baptist Church, and about a year later changed its name to Woodlawn Baptist Church after the area in which it would settle and thrive for many decades.
Many who are now reading this article know the rest of the story: The church prospered and grew to become one of the largest and most prominent churches in the state of Alabama, a mega-church of its era. As the community began to experience decline in the second half of the 20th century, however, the church suffered as well, losing hundreds of its members.
After exhausting all efforts to reach its surrounding community, the congregation made a leap of faith in 1994 and relocated to a new, just-budding community, taking on the name of its new home by calling itself Liberty Park Baptist. Now, in our 125th year as a church, we continue on as we began in 1886--firmly planted in our community, serving and reaching others for Christ, always looking ahead to see what God has for us to do.
As we celebrate our 125th anniversary as a congregation this Sunday, my prayer to God is one of deep thanks for His many years of faithfulness and for the many ways that He has allowed this church to be deeply involved in His kingdom work throughout our history and into the present. My prayer for the future is that this congregation will always be true to its roots and to its God, seeking always to please Him through who we are and what we do.
A Wonderful Visit
October 24, 2011
Today, I had a wonderful visit from three friends. Don Anderson, a former member of Liberty Park who now lives in Montgomery, came by for a visit and brought with him Fidel and Adelpis Rivas, who are members of Iglesia Bautista Betania (Bethany Baptist Church) in Bolivar City, Venezuela, where Fidel also serves as a Minister of Worship.
The common bond that connects all of us together goes back to August 2005, when a group from Liberty Park Baptist went to Bolivar City on a mission trip. This group included a medical team (Don was one of our pharmacists), an eye glasses team, an evangelism team, a children's ministry team and a women's ministry team. Their assignment was to assist Bethany Baptist in reaching its community for Christ--an assignment which they carried out well, seeing several hundred people come to Christ in their time there.
The reason for today's visit was to allow Fidel to hand deliver a letter to me from the pastor of Bethany Baptist and to update me on the health and status of their congregation. In a word, they are doing great! Their church has grown to around four hundred members, they have started three new churches, and they have continued our team's strategy of outreach, using medical personnel within their own congregation to hold medical clinics, through which they reach people with the Gospel.
God was kind to bring such friends to my door on a Monday. Their visit reminded me that the work we do is vitally important on a Kingdom level and that it has repercussions that reverberate long after we have departed. To all who served on the home and away teams for the 2005 Venezuela mission: I deliver greetings to you from your friends at Bethany Baptist Church in Bolivar City.
To all who may be considering going on mission: Go. Be a part of something outside of yourself that is bigger than yourself. You may not know until eternity the extent of the impact of your willingness to go--although God just might arrange a visit from a friend someday like this one, just to give you a glimpse.
October 17, 2011
It's impossible to spend much time studying the New Testament without running into the many directives from God that call us to love others. We are told, "love your neighbor," "love one another deeply," "live a life of love," and that our "love must be sincere." We are even told--from the mouth of Jesus Himself--that our love is to be of such character that we are to love our enemies. This is not your run-of-the-mill kind of love, but a radical love.
You've most likely heard of this command before, but have you ever really let it sink in? "Love your enemies." On a purely human level, such a demand defies common sense. How can I love my enemy? Doesn't the very idea that he's my enemy preclude any sort of love for him from me? And yet, there it is in Scripture, in red letters. Jesus says, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28).
Wow. That pretty much paints me into a corner in regard to this matter of love--that is, if I indeed proclaim to be an obedient believer. To do less than this is to tell God "no," to be openly defiant and to act as if I can pick or choose which of His commands I think are legitimate and which I think are not.
And yet, here's the problem, if I do want to be obedient: God commands me to enact a type of love that is preemptive, that is one-sided, that carries with it the strong potential for rejection and that places me in a vulnerable position in regard to my enemy. On a human level, it is completely counter-intuitive, does not make sense to me and is all but impossible to carry out. What am I to do?
Thankfully, God does not leave me to figure this one out myself. Instead, He has provided me with examples of this kind of love (Himself, Jesus Christ), He has given me instructions for carrying out this kind of love (in the Bible), He has empowered me to live in this kind of love (through the work of the Holy Spirit) and He is willing to work in me to develop this kind of love as I seek to grow in Him. Without Him, it would be impossible, but through Him--the one who gives us strength--we can do all things.
Passivity vs. Intentionality
October 10, 2011
The longer I live, and the longer I serve as a minister in churches, the more I am convinced that most Christians take a passive approach to their lives rather than being intentional about applying their faith in every circumstance. What am I talking about? Let me answer by providing some examples:
Someone is faced with a difficult choice regarding how to handle a damaged relationship with another person; a family needs to make decisions regarding their finances; a young person has to make a call on whether or not to date someone who is not a believer; on the job, a person has to choose between crossing some ethical boundaries where he can make a financial windfall or doing what's right and receiving nothing while others cash in. These are just a few scenarios, but you get the picture.
Now, in each of these circumstances (all drawn from real life), the believer can a) spend lots of time in prayer about it, apply scriptural principles to the situation, make decisions that he/she feels will be pleasing to God--in spite of the cost or consequences to self--and live in the joy of having been found pleasing to God (the intentional route); or b) make a list of "positives" versus "negatives, follow his/her feelings, make a decision according to what they feel benefits them the most and continue to live life oblivious to God's guidance and pleasure/displeasure in the matter (the passive route).
I believe that we too often choose the second route, disregarding the spiritual processes we need to go through to make godly decisions and giving ourselves credit for "doing the right thing" because it benefits us or "feels right"--all the while failing to concern ourselves about pleasing God, seeking to live out His plan in our lives and participating in His greater plans in the world.
The next time you are faced with a difficult choice or situation, ask yourself the question, "How will I handle this--will I be spiritually passive, ignoring God in this matter, or will I be intentional, seeking God's will, following God's plan and trusting Him for the outcome?" And then be intentional.
October 3, 2011
Over the last few weeks, we have been studying through the book of Colossians on Sunday nights. It has been a rich study thus far, as we have looked intently into Paul's deep theological statements concerning the person and the work of Jesus Christ. On Sunday night, we studied Colossians 2:8-3:4, noting the strength of Paul's convictions concerning Jesus' deity ("in Christ all of the fullness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form" - Colossians 2:9) and His saving work that has been applied to us.
Something that stood out clearly to us was that everything Paul said about our salvation was always placed in the sphere of our relationship with Christ-- 1) we have been given "fullness" in Christ, 2) our sinful nature has been "circumcised," or cut away, by Christ, 3) we have been buried with Him through baptism, 4) we have been raised with Him through faith, and 5) we have been made alive with Him.
It doesn't take a genius to see that the common thread in all of this is Christ! In fact, Paul warns the Colossians against falling for any "hollow and deceptive philosophy" that is based on human thinking, human traditions or the principles of this world rather than being based on Christ. For Paul, there is no salvation outside of Christ. His stance, of course, is no surprise; it is completely in keeping with all of the revelations concerning salvation and faith in Christ found throughout the New Testament.
Now, I know this stance is not the most popular stance in the world--it never has been--but it's the heart of what we believe: that salvation is through Christ alone. Sadly, it's lack of popularity has at times pushed Christians to compromise their message for the sake of getting along with everyone (see Joel Osteen's 2005 interview with Larry King and his subsequent apology). The issue of salvation through Christ alone, however, is one matter on which we absolutely, without question cannot compromise. To do so is to jettison the very heart of our faith and the core of the Gospel.
Instead, let's remain true to the words of Jesus Himself, recorded in John 14:6 - "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." That's good enough for me.
Am I a Jerk?
September 26, 2011
I am often intrigued by what I read on bumper stickers, t-shirts and marquee signs--you know, the little one-liners that stick with you and make you laugh, encourage you or even make you think. A while back, I saw such a bumper sticker. It said, "Jesus Loves You--Everyone Else Thinks You're a Jerk." Now, I have to admit that, on the face of it, I found that bumper sticker to be simultaneously disturbing and funny--disturbing because of its irreverence, yet funny because I certainly didn't expect that second statement to follow the first!
At the same time, I also found this silly bumper sticker to harbor some hidden profundity, because it pointed to a truth that sometimes gets past us--that, while we may feel that our relationship with God is fully intact and functioning properly, our human relationships can easily fall into sinful dysfunction that brings with it both difficulty and anxiety. There are times that, while Jesus certainly loves me, everybody else thinks I'm a big jerk.
This truth brings to mind the biblical understanding that our human relationships really do matter to God (try to read through the Bible without running into stories and instructions about our person to person relationships--you can't!). It reminds me that how I deal with others is not just a matter of my opinion about them and theirs about me, but rather a matter that is addressed by God Himself and that has consequences in regard to my relationship with Him.
Now, I know that I can't control what everyone thinks of me, and I can't make everyone like me. There are some folks out there who will just dislike me because I am me. I can't help that. What I can help, however, is how I deal with people in all of my human relationships--family, friends, neighbors, strangers and enemies alike--and I can do my part to ensure that I am acting toward them in the love that I am called to live in as a believer.
Sure, there may be some folks in the end who think that bumper sticker refers to me, but I want to be able to say when it's all said and done that I did my best even to make that person my brother. Because, while I cannot control what someone else thinks or does, I can certainly control myself. And I don't want to be a jerk.
Cleaning Out the Closet
September 19, 2011
There's something very cathartic about cleaning out one's closet. I experienced this sort of catharsis recently, as my family got a bunch of stuff together for a huge yard sale. Although the results were wonderful, I have to admit that it was difficult to make decisions about getting rid of things. Some of the things in my closet (and in my basement) held sentimental value (not family heirlooms; more like favorite hats); others fell under the "just in case" category. Still others were things that, for whatever reason, I just had trouble giving up, not because of any value they held--sentimental or real--but just because I struggled to let them go.
And yet, on the other side of things, post-yard sale, I have to confess that it feels wonderful to have a far less-cluttered closet and basement. In fact, the feeling of spacious openness and cleanness that I have experienced in the aftermath of it all has inspired me to jump on some other clutter-related projects that I've been putting off for quite a while.
Standing in my far-less-cluttered basement after the weekend, I pondered the spiritual parallels. I thought about those times when I have gone before God and just spent a significant amount of time opening up the "closets" of my life (and even the "basements"!) and clearing out the spiritual clutter. I thought about the spiritual catharsis that comes from such times, as I am able to look upon the far-less-cluttered areas of my life and to enjoy the spacious openness of my heart and mind that has come about as a result of the time spent cleaning things out before Him.
I also thought about the difficulty I sometimes experience in letting some things go as I deal with God--although I know that they had no real value in my life. And yet, once I have let it all go and cleaned it all out before Him, I find myself grateful for having done so and inspired to tackle even larger "spiritual overhaul" projects in my life.
Have you ever had this experience of "cleaning out the closet" before God? Have you ever felt the relief and the freedom that come from being spiritually clutter-free? Have you experienced the wonder of forgiveness, renewal and restoration that comes from letting go of the things that no longer belong in your life?
I Will Never Forget
September 12, 2011
What an emotional weekend it was for our nation! As we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the terrible tragedies of September 11, 2001, we relived those horrific moments when we saw the planes sail into the Twin Towers and then saw the aftermath of the planes that crashed into the Pentagon and into the field in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.
Many of us were taken back mentally to that place where we were when we first became aware of all that was taking place. We remembered what it felt like to be a nation in shock. We also remembered, however, what it felt like to be a nation that gathered itself up and pulled together in a deeply powerful fashion, crying out to God as one and steeling ourselves with a resolve that would carry us through that difficult time.
One of the memories that stands out to me stems from the Wednesday night prayer meeting the day after all of this had occurred. At that meeting, I spoke with a lady named Sue, who seemed to be distressed about something. Assuming she was dealing with the same emotions that we all were struggling with, I engaged her in conversation, only to find out that her struggle was quite different--she was wondering, in that moment, how she as a believer could show obedience to Christ by loving her enemies, as Christ had commanded in Matthew 5:44.
I was fascinated to watch over the next few months as Sue--a retired paralegal, divorced mother and grandmother--began to feel an overwhelming call to express this love of Christ by going into the heart of the enemy's home and serving sacrificially. Leaving home, family and even her dog, she joined an organization that worked with women in the mountains of Afghanistan, educating them and ministering to them in Jesus' name. She spent the next few years there, sending me an occasional email about her trials and her triumphs, until all non-governmental organization employees and volunteers were forced by the military to leave the country.
While I will never forget September 11, 2001, and all that occurred that day, I will also never forget people like Sue, who fleshed out for all of us what the love of God really looks like when put into action.
All Over the World
September 2, 2011
Last Wednesday night, we had the wonderful opportunity as a church to hear from a man named Manny Fernandez, who is the founder and leader of an organization called World Link Ministries. Manny shared with us about the work that their organization has been doing in Cuba, where they have seen a massive church planting movement blossom, with thousands of people coming to Christ as a result. As he shared with us, I was struck at how this wildfire-like spread of the Gospel resembled what occurred in the early days of the church as recorded in the New Testament.
Simultaneously, I was reminded about similar movements that are going on worldwide, where hundreds of new churches are springing up every year in nations that we would consider to be less than hospitable to Christianity--Muslim nations, Communist nations and secular Socialist nations, for instance. Sometimes, as a citizen of a nation that was founded in and steeped in Christianity, I look around and see how difficult it is to lead people to Christ or even for the church itself to gain an enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel, and I am amazed at the incredible way that faith is exploding in places where there is little freedom and where professing faith in Christ can be a dangerous thing.
Then I am reminded that God's work is not limited to conditions that we would find conducive to the spread of the Gospel, but rather that He seems to take great pleasure in tearing down walls of resistance and or growing His church in the midst of persecution. That being the case, it becomes incumbent upon those of us living with the luxuries of freedom and abundance of resources to see that we are doing all we can to support and foster the work of God all over the world. As I think about our role in this matter, and of the joy that we can receive from our participation, I am reminded of Paul's statement in Colossians 1:6:
"All over the world the Gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth."
All over the world. Those words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago.
Deep Love, Unbridled Enthusiasm
August 29, 2011
When I woke up this morning, the temperature outside was in the 60s--nice and crisp, cool, with low humidity--perfect weather for college football. Yes, I will openly admit it: I am a huge college football fan, and I have been waiting with rabid anticipation since January 11 (the day after the National Championship game) for football to start back. With the season kicking off (pun intended) this weekend, I, along with millions of others, will be glued to the television, radio, computer or other media device to catch the opening salvo of games.
As I thought about the draw that college football has for so many of us, I began to ponder what it is that fosters such enthusiasm in us for our teams that we support as fans. I mean, what is it that motivates us, regardless of age, status or place in life, to wear our team gear, paint our faces our team colors, put flags, stickers and other decorations on our vehicles and to spout off endlessly (and often mindlessly) about the virtues of our own team over all others?
I decided after much thought that this enthusiasm is just an overflow of something that's deeper down in each of us that supports a team. In fact, I think this enthusiasm is simply a result of the deep love that we have for our school and our team. This deep love fosters our unbridled enthusiasm.
Like many of you, I have heard preachers from the pulpit ask why it is that we can muster up so much enthusiasm about football while simultaneously finding ourselves unable to get much excited at all about God. I think I have an answer: Love fosters enthusiasm. We are nuts about our teams because we love them. Even when they're losing, we would go to our grave waving the flag of our school, cheering all the way.
It's my contention that we would have just as much (or more) enthusiasm about the things of God if we loved Him at least as much as we love our football teams. Honestly, we should love Him far, far more. When we do, there will be no need for preachers to try to "whip up" our enthusiasm by cajoling us, indicting us or inciting us. It will just be there. So, as you start pulling out all your gear to get ready for the big season, ask yourself this question: "Do I love God this much?" It's a question worth asking.
Our Gospel Imperative
August 19, 2011
The image was startling to me. Taken by one of our church members on a mission trip to Guatemala, it was a picture of a small family--mother, daughter and son--kneeling at a place of worship. The place of worship was among some old, Mayan ruins in Guatemala, and that family was kneeling to worship and to offer a sacrifice.
With their hands clasped in front of them in prayer, this small family was making an offering to gain the favor of some deity unknown to our team, all three of them courageously kneeling in the open, with no concern for who might see them or what they might think about their actions. As I looked at this image, however, I found this humble act of piety to be profoundly disturbing, as a single, distressing thought pervaded my mind: "This dear family is worshiping something that is nothing, and they have placed their hope in something that can give them no hope."
In that moment, as I stared at the photograph, I was reminded of the imperative of our mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, making disciples of all the nations. It's not about numbers. It's not about our glory and accomplishment. It's not about being the biggest, most powerful and most dominant religious group on the planet. What it is about is making known to others the message of a God who loves them, a Christ who died for them and a hope that awaits them in this life and in the next.
This is our Gospel imperative, and as we accomplish this task, we honor and glorify God, who desires to draw all to Himself, that they might receive grace and mercy from Him, and in doing so find eternal life.
"How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” Romans 10:14-15
Finding a Moral Compass
August 15, 2011
Over the last week, those of us who have been keeping up with it have been startled at the violent nature of the riots in England's two largest cities, London and Birmingham. Along with the looting that is typical of such riots, there has been a great deal of physical violence as well, including some deaths that have gained worldwide notoriety--particularly the cold-blooded killings of three young Pakistani men who were run down by a speeding vehicle while trying to guard merchants in their neighborhood from looters.
An article in Sunday's New York Times noted that Britons are startled by the riots and have been left wondering why so many normally law-abiding citizens would fall into such unlawful and mindless modes of behavior as mob violence, looting and even murder. In a speech about the riots, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron decried the "slow-motion moral collapse" that has taken place in his country over "these past few generations" and called on Britain to find its "moral compass."
As I read and pondered this article and speech, two thoughts came to my mind: First, I find it fairly easy to answer the question of why the riots occurred. Whatever the immediate spark that started the inferno, the people simply fell into the default mode of acting out of what the Bible refers to as our "sinful nature," our basest of instincts. When there is no prevailing and overriding authority in our lives that prevents us from falling into that mode, or when we rebel against that authority, we do mindless things that hurt ourselves and others. Just look at the normally upstanding man with a wonderful wife and three small children who will leave them for another woman. This is what happens when we succumb to our sinful nature.
Second, I also noted that the matter of finding one's moral compass is not all that difficult either. That is, it's not difficult unless you as a society have become so secularized that you have jettisoned, or at least marginalized, all religious thought and influence from your society. The answer to finding a moral compass is found in establishing a moral foundation, which clearly find in the authority and influence of God in our lives. Whether or not the people and leaders of Britain understand and accept that remains to be seen. Pray for them.
Growing Up Ain't Always Easy
August 8, 2011
It's true. I suppose there may be some people out there for whom growing up has held no struggles or problems, but those people are certainly few and far between. For most of us, growing up--that is, going through the process of maturation that leads one to become a competent, useful and functioning member of society--is fraught with pitfalls, missteps and "learning moments." In spite of all the struggles, those who apply effort, learn from their mistakes, gain wisdom along the way, keep moving forward and persevere through the hard times usually end up doing okay.
The same can be said for our spiritual growth. The road to spiritual maturity is often filled with bumps, potholes and even occasional breakdowns along the way. If, however, we submit ourselves to God's way of doing things--more and more as we go--we find spiritual victory and maturity that eludes those who just muddle their way through on their own terms.
In our routine existence, a wise person comes to value guidance and even seeks it out from family, friends, mentors and available resources that can provide him some "how-to" information for living life in everything from the mundane to the important--everything from how to write a check to how to make out a will. The blessed man is the one who has many such resources available to him. The wise man is the one who makes use of all these resources as well.
In regard to our spiritual maturity, it's also good to have resources and networks of mentors and supporters available to help us grow and develop. The most invaluable resource, of course, is the Holy Spirit, whose guidance is always there. Also of utmost value is the Bible, which provides us with God's plans and directions for maturing. Starting this Sunday at LPBC, we'll be looking at God's plan for growth laid out in 2 Peter 1:3-11. I hope you'll join us in person or catch the messages online as we explore the "Eight Steps of Spiritual Maturity." Growing up may not always be easy, but it can certainly easier when we follow God's directions!
To Be Emptied Out
August 1, 2011
In Luke 7:36-50, there is a beautiful story about a woman who did something very profound and beautiful and powerful. This woman, whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life, approached Jesus as He was eating at the home of a religious leader and stood behind Him, weeping. Her tears fell on the feet of Jesus, who was reclining at the table as was the custom of the day. As her tears wet His feet, she wiped His feet with her hair and kissed them.
She had also brought with her an alabaster jar of perfume, which she then poured out on Jesus' feet as well. The fact that the perfume was in such an expensive container hints that it was an expensive perfume, a fact that is noted in the telling of this story in the other Gospels.
For some folks, this story might sound a little odd--a little creepy, in fact! When truly understood for what it means, however, it's an amazing story. One thing that must be understood is that this woman's act of pouring the perfume on Jesus represented for her the giving of a highly-valued possession as an expression of her love for Jesus as her Lord and Savior. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus also notes that it represents a preemptive act of anointing His body for His coming burial following the crucifixion.
Perhaps more powerful--at least to me--is the accompanying act of wiping Jesus' feet with her hair as her tears fell on them. When His host objects to the woman touching Jesus, He notes that His host did not do Him the courtesy of providing water for the washing of His feet when he entered the home, yet this woman was washing His feet--which would have been dirty and grimy--with her own tears and hair. This act represents an emptying of self--far more difficult than emptying a jar of perfume--that reveals a deep humility in her life.
Imagine what it might mean for the Gospel today if we all would be willing to be emptied out for Christ--poured out, as it were, as an offering to Him, for His use. Might the world be changed by a group of believers humble enough to be wholly committed to Him? I think it would.
Delays, Difficulties and Disasters
July 25, 2011
Over the last several weeks, as we have had several of our church family members away on international mission trips, I have written a number of articles dealing with a variety of matters concerning missions. Over the last weekend, another issue surfaced that I would like to address in that our Bolivia mission team, which was supposed to arrive back home on Saturday, experienced a flight cancellation that pushed their return home back to Monday.
Now, this delay was not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, and it was not really even that unusual in terms of experiences on the mission field. In fact, such delays--along with other difficulties and even the occasional outright disaster--are almost expected, to the extent that we tell people that one of the number one things they'll need to carry on a mission trip with them is flexibility!
While such experiences might seem highly undesirable and worth taking great effort to avoid, some of the greatest stories in our church's recent missions history have come from God's resolutions to our mission field problems (Due to space restrictions, I can't regale you with the stories here, but just ask me sometime when you have a couple of free hours, and I'll tell you about them). Our experiences in the delays, difficulties and disasters have taught us that God is in control, that He is not unaware or caught by surprise, and that He uses times like these to display His creativity and power in ways that we would not have even imagined.
Seeing God at work in such times is a true faith-building experience, and those of us who have seen it firsthand come away deeply changed. Among the ways that it has changed me is that I have learned that the God who takes care of these things on the mission field is the same God I have at home, and that He can handle my delays, difficulties and disasters here, too. Likewise, I have learned that the faith in and dependence upon God I have displayed on the mission field is called for when I go through such experiences at home as well. I'm still working on applying that lesson, by the way...
May we all learn to trust deeply in the God who reigns over our delays, difficulties and disasters!
Are You Aware?
July 18, 2011
When I sat down at my desk this morning, the prayer calendar for our mission team in Bolivia caught my eye. I intentionally left it on top of my desk because I find that it is easy for me to forget to pray without a reminder to do so. As I read the entry for today, I was drawn to the verse referenced, Ephesians 6:19. I did not know what Ephesians 6:19 said, so I decided to look it up. Here's what I found:
"Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel."
As I meditated on this verse, God granted me an insight which I would like to share with you. This insight guided my prayer for our team this morning and also challenged me to pray for the same thing in my own life. Hopefully, it will do the same for you.
At the time he penned these words, Paul was in prison for being a Christian. Most of those in his company, both prison guards and other prisoners, would have been aware of or come to know this fact. Christianity was still relatively new and unknown in the Roman Empire, so Paul most likely served as their only example of a Christ follower. As such, he knew that every word he said would be judged by the others and attributed to Christ. He knew that he must be very intentional with his speech, so while writing to the church in Ephesus, he asked them to pray that every word out of his mouth might be used to proclaim the gospel of Christ. In doing so, Paul provides us with an insight that should guide our prayers for all Christians - effective evangelism begins with an awareness that others are listening at all times.
As our teams go with Christ on mission this summer, they are also being listened to at all times. Others will listen not only while they are preaching and ministering, but also during the seemingly mundane moments of the day when are teams are “off”. What they say during those “off” moments will be attributed to Christ and will either hinder or help their witness.
Whether we know it or not, others are also listening to us at all times. They may know we are Christians or they may not. Either way, they are listening and what we say can either lead them to Christ or push them away from Him. This insight challenges me to pray as Paul did, “that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.”
Please join me this week in praying for our team in Bolivia. Pray that they may be aware and intentional to proclaim the gospel at all times.
Remember to Pray while They're Away!
July 11, 2011
As I mentioned in a previous article, this summer is a huge one for missions involvement at Liberty Park Baptist Church. Last week, a group of seven of our members was in Peru on a medical mission trip. Last Saturday, a dozen of our members spent the day helping to rebuild Alpha Ranch, a Christian foster home for boys that was destroyed in the April tornadoes. This Saturday, we have another team leaving for Santa Cruz, Bolivia to do medical work and help start four new churches, and that team will be home for only one week before another team leaves for Guatemala to help in the construction of a medical clinic.
While these teams area away, our greatest responsibility as their church family is to devote ourselves to the task of praying for them. In response to this call to pray, LPBC has for years practiced the "home team" concept--that is, while we have a team away on the field, we have another team at home that commits to meet every night to pray for them. Additionally, we provide prayer guides that let people know the team's daily agenda and how to pray specifically for them.
In spite of our efforts, however, it's sometimes easy for us simply to forget to pray daily for our teams. Life interferes, things come up, we get busy with all we have to do, and, next thing you know, we've forgotten to spend significant time lifting up the team in prayer. That being the case, I want to encourage you to make every effort to set yourself up for success in this matter of prayer.
One suggestion that I heard several years ago that has helped me is to use mental association with ordinary things I see on a daily basis to remind me to pray. For example, the countries our teams are going to are Spanish-speaking countries. So, when I see a Mexican restaurant, I remind myself to pray. Bolivia produces lots of potatoes, bananas and papayas. So, when I eat any of these items or pass by them in a grocery store, I remind myself to pray. In Guatemala, our team will be building a medical clinic. So, every time I pass by a "doc-in-the-box," I remind myself to pray! I'm sure by now you see how this works, so let me challenge you to come up with your own ideas that work for you--just don't forget to pray while they're away!
July 5, 2011
Coming off another great Fourth of July celebration, I am back in the office with a jumble of thoughts about America rolling around in my head in no discernible order. I thought I might share them with you--perhaps to provoke some thinking and discussion; at the very least to get them out of my head...
First thought: According to those who keep a tally of such things, the U.S. has about 4.6% of the world's population, yet more than 30% of the world's wealth. What does this mean, that God has blessed us so strongly with such financial wealth? To me, it means that we have a responsibility to be faithful stewards of that wealth, employing it to spread the Gospel and to assist those in need. If we do not, does He take it away?
Second thought: U.S. media--television, movies, music, newspapers, etc.--is a worldwide phenomenon. Material produced in America is craved by people in almost every nation of the world and is routinely translated in their languages. Additionally, other aspects of American culture--from food, soft drinks and clothing to cars, hairstyles and language--are routinely imported into the cultures of other nations. What if, however, the world soaks in the worst of who we are, yet never sees the best of who we are? What, then, is our cultural footprint?
Third thought: In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the colonies that eventually made up our country were only about 18% Christian, according to the best stats available. It was the First Great Awakening, in the 1730s and 1740s that made us a Christian nation. It was the Second Great Awakening, 100 years later, that solidified our national character. Will there be a Third Great Awakening at some point? Will it be in my lifetime?
And finally: At 235 years, our nation's age is a mere drop in the bucket, historically speaking. When people speak of America in 200 more years, will they speak of her greatness in past tense, or will she still be a Christian nation, a light to the world? These are my thoughts; go discuss amongst yourselves.
A Christian and a Patriot
June 27, 2011
Before I write another article, we will celebrate the 235th birthday of our nation. As is the norm, my family will join with a larger group of family and friends to observe the July 4th holiday with the eating of much food, the enjoyment of each other's company and, most likely, the exploding of a bunch of fireworks. In the midst of our celebrations, however, we will also take time to pray a prayer of thanksgiving, recognizing that the freedom we are enjoying is a gift from God--one of our "inalienable rights" with which we have been "endowed by our Creator."
In recognizing that deeply important truth, we will stand with America's founding fathers, whose writings clearly denote their firm belief in the Divine origin of the foundations of our nation. Although there are many naysayers and rewriters of history today who desire to divorce the founding of our nation from its roots in the Christian faith, it is clear from the statements and writings of our forebears that our beginnings are deeply rooted in our faith.
Having lost that argument, some who would like to see our nation become a secularized republic are now beginning to ask in a very public way what relevance our beginnings have to our present predicaments and goals as a nation. In so doing, it appears that their assumption would be that the building can stand on its own without the support of its foundation. I would argue, as did many of our founding fathers, that when faith is severed from the public domain, all that we hold dear as a nation will begin to erode.
I encourage and challenge you in this season of celebration to do some reading about our founding as a country. My guess is that you'll walk away from it a convinced Christian Patriot, a stance which flies in the face of much of today's thinking, yet a stance right in line with those whose wisdom shaped this nation.
It's Time to Go!
June 20, 2011
Over the next several weeks, our church family will be in an interesting state of affairs. Beginning July 2 and continuing through August 6, we will be saying "Goodbye" to a large number of people--the largest number, in fact, that have ever left from this church to go on mission in the span of five weeks.
The first group we will say "Goodbye" to will be leaving Saturday, July 2, headed to Peru. Along with several nursing students from Samford University, they will be involved in medical missions and church planting, and plan to arrive back in the States on July 10. Meanwhile, a group will be heading back up to Shoal Creek on Saturday, July 9, to help with the restoration of the Alpha Ranch foster home for boys--part of the ongoing tornado relief efforts in which we've been involved.
On Saturday, July 16, the largest group from LPBC will be departing for Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where they will be involved in medical church planting work. They will arrive back home on July 23, just one week before our next team will leave for Guatemala, where they will be involved in construction on a missionary medical clinic and will also do some medical fact-finding work. They plan to return home on August 6, less than one week before school starts back for Vestavia students!
In the midst of all this (July 11-15), we'll be sending some of our older students off to Mission Fuge, where they will also be involved in mission work, worship and Bible study.
As you can see, it's going to be quite a busy time, and a lot of people will be coming and going from week to week. We will be saying "Goodbye" (and "Welcome home!") quite a bit. And we will be doing a lot of praying too. What a wonderful summer of going with Christ! Please pray for our teams as they prepare to go!
A Tough Job
June 13, 2011
Being a dad is tough. That's one thing (but not the only thing) that I've learned about being a dad through my nineteen-plus years of being a father to both a son and a daughter. Now, I'm not taking anything away from moms here--their job is equally as difficult, and sometimes more so. It's just that I can't speak from experience in regard to being a mom, so you'll just have to bear with my one-sided perspective.
Back to the dad thing: Growing up as a kid, it seemed to me that my parents always knew exactly what to do in every circumstance. Having a great dad who provided loving discipline for us, many father-son adventures, strong guidance and a godly example, my assumption was always that he and my mom (who is a great mom too!) could do no wrong. If there was such a thing as a parenting handbook, I would have assumed that they knew it backward and forward and followed it with great prudence to the most infinitesimal detail.
Now, with almost two decades as a dad under my belt, I fully acknowledge that the task is great and difficult, and that my parents must have just been blessed with great, godly wisdom. I pray for that kind of wisdom daily, knowing that my words, my actions, my decisions, my discipline, my example--pretty much everything about my life--will have a profound impact on the lives of my children. And, as a part of the "fraternity of fathers," I commiserate with fathers who often feel inadequate to the task, guilty about our failures and anxious about the lives of our children.
That's why it is comforting to me to know that I have a perfect heavenly Father who doesn't leave me to handle this task all alone. Instead, He walks through this fatherhood thing with me, providing wisdom and guidance through His Spirit and through His word, encouraging me and helping me along the way. More importantly, I know that He is the heavenly Father of my children too, and that He loves them even more so than I and that He is active in their lives as well. These thoughts set my heart at peace and remind me that while the job is tough, my resources for doing the job are infinite. Happy Father's Day, gentlemen.
Markers of Health
June 6, 2011
At the end of our worship service last Sunday, we had the wonderful opportunity to pray for one of our college students--Danielle DuBay--who will be spending most of her summer at Lake Shasta, CA, as a student missionary with the North American Mission Board. As I considered her missions involvement this summer, I also thought about other college students from our church who are working at Christian camps or serving as ministry interns or who are otherwise participating in a variety of ministry endeavors.
I thought about what a significant marker it is of our church's health that these young people, who really could be doing anything with their summer, have chosen to make their time away from school count for Christ. From there, I naturally began to consider other significant signs of health within our congregation that remind me that God is working in wonderful ways through our faith family. I thought about such things as missions involvement by adults who have never done anything of the sort before, about healthy families that are living out God's plans for them, and I thought about the spiritual growth I have seen in the lives of so many individuals in recent years. And most importantly, I thought about people who have made decisions for Christ.
As I pondered these matters, I began to think about the fact that the same principle of looking at the "health markers" of a congregation can be applied on a personal level. What I'm referring to is that each of us has certain aspects of our lives we can take inventory of and examine to gauge our spiritual progress. Some of these would include matters like prayer, the study of God's word, our involvement in ministry and missions efforts, and to what degree our everyday lives are reflecting Christ-like values, attitudes and behaviors.
I encourage you to take some time this summer to do a little spiritual inventorying and to assess where you stand in regard to the great spiritual health markers laid down for us in Scripture. You just might find some wonderful evidence of God's work in your life that you were not aware of before!
Recharging the Batteries
May 27, 2011
Taking a break is important. Early in my ministry I did not realize that, and I jumped into two years of full-blown, wheels-up, hard-charging youth ministry without so much as a few days off. Two years into it, however, I began to experience some of the symptoms of what we often call "burnout." My pastor at the time suggested that I take a week and go on vacation--away from phones, ministry responsibilities and everything--and unwind, relax and rejuvenate. I followed his advice, spending some time down in Panama City, FL, with my family, and I learned through that experience the value of getting away.
Such times are not without biblical precedent. In the Gospels, there are multiple examples of Jesus getting away from the crowds and going off by himself to pray. Constantly surrounded by people who were seeking help and healing, even Jesus felt the need to take a break and recharge spiritually and in other ways as well.
Additionally, it is worth noting that "rest" is a valued commodity in Scripture, with multiple examples of people praying for rest and descriptions of a God who offers rest for our souls. It's also worth noting that this "rest" is found within the sphere of our interaction with God, not in our all-out enjoyment of the world. It's not that the two are mutually exclusive, but it's important to recognize that in our taking a break from everything else, we don't take a break as well from God--after all, He is the One who is the ultimate Recharger of our batteries!
As we are breaching the wall of summer, I know that many of you will be taking a break or two (or more), getting away from the daily grind, taking time off to enjoy trips and activities with family and friends. I encourage it. But let me also encourage you to make sure that you don't take a break from the things of God.
Instead, take Him along with you, so that He can do His great work of recharging you spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. After all, since He's the One who made you--He is the One who knows how to take care of you!
VBS--the Mission Field Comes to Us
May 23, 2011
As believers, we have been tasked by Jesus Christ Himself with going into all the world and telling others about the Gospel, with the goal of leading them to become disciples of Christ (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8). From its inception, the church has taken this mission to heart, sending missionaries out to accomplish this task, incurring great expense and taking great risks to deliver the Gospel to people who have never heard it and who, otherwise, might never hear it.
Imagine how great it would be, however, if the people who needed to hear the Gospel came to us and sat quietly while we shared it with them--how awesome would that be? I think it would be pretty incredible! That's one of the reasons I am such a huge fan of Vacation Bible School. It is unlike any other thing we do as a church, in that it brings into our building for several hours a day--for five days--hundreds of children who are eager to hear what we have to say. For this reason, I strongly encourage our church members to volunteer to serve in VBS, and I personally support the effort through my own involvement.
As we gear up for the summer, preparing to send mission teams to work in our own community, in our state, in other states and in a variety of other countries, my hope is that we will kick things off properly by first giving strong attention to the mission field that will come to us Monday through Friday, June 6-10.
The opportunities that VBS presents are multi-fold: First, we get the opportunity to teach the very young children the basics about God's love for them. Second, we get the opportunity to love on these children and to express God's care for them in practical ways. Third, we get to make connections with families that may need help in a variety of ways. Fourth, we get to talk to the older kids about faith in Christ and to give them the opportunity to make a decision to receive Him in faith. And these are just a few of the opportunities that come our way through VBS!
In the midst of all that has gone on in the last three weeks--storms, relief work, a mission trip, end of the school year, etc.--there was an event that was held in Birmingham's Southside area that was amazing in its impact on all involved. Although it did not garner as much attention as some of the other things going on, its relevance to this time in the life of our community was profound. What I'm referring to is the Bible Reading Marathon--a public reading aloud of the entire Bible--that occurred on the front steps of the historic Southside Baptist Church, beginning at 6pm on Sunday, May 1st, and concluding at 11:30am on Thursday, May 5th.
Originally, the Bible Reading Marathon was the heartfelt burden of Sheila Wright, a member of Liberty Park Baptist, who, after hearing of similar events around our nation, approached me about doing this in our own city. That was more than a year ago, and at that time my response to her was that our staff would support her and assist as we could, but she would have to take the lead in organizing and carrying out the event.
Sheila did just that, gathering around her a team of ladies who connected with other churches and groups to organize this event that proved to be a tremendous blessing to all involved. And what a group it was! There were doctors and housewives and professionals, there were children and homeless individuals. There were people of different nationalities, reading in their native languages (one Korean and one Kenyan, who read in Kiswahili!), and there were even college students who, in the middle of their final exams, took time to read.
One woman, whose entire home--except the bathroom that she had huddled into--had been blown away by the tornado that week, stood and read from the book of Jeremiah. She was an example of the power of the spoken Word and its impact on our lives, even in times of tragedy and suffering and loss--perhaps especially in such times! There are many more stories to tell--and I would encourage you to track down Sheila Wright or Ninfa Austin and let them tell you in person.
But we should not be surprised. After all, God Himself said in Isaiah 55:11 that His Word does not go out and return to Him without accomplishing the purpose for which it was sent! Amen!
I Am Guilty
May 9, 2011
I am guilty. I admit it. Unashamedly. "Guilty of what," you ask? Guilty of boasting; straight-up, chest out, loud enough for everyone to hear--that kind of boasting. "Boasting about what," you ask?
About this: In the days since the devastation of the tornados that wreaked havoc on our state on April 27, I have seen the Body of Christ being the Body of Christ unlike any other time I can remember in my forty-six years of life.
As I have been out with others doing relief work, I have seen firsthand the vast number of believers who have stepped forward, compelled by their faith, to do everything from the hard, back-breaking work of removing debris, to preparing and handing out food, providing medical help, and even counseling one-on-one with victims.
I have also seen those who cannot go physically step up in other ways--writing checks for disaster relief, providing material goods for others and--most important--praying for victims and relief workers. It has truly been a sight to behold, a testimony of God's work through His people.
And about all this, I will boast--not in the proud, arrogant way that we usually associate with undue pride, but in the way that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1:31, where he writes, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." That's the kind of boasting I'm doing.
And I would imagine that I will have continuing opportunities for boasting in the Lord, because I know that our work is not even close to being done. In the weeks, months and even years to come, there will be much for us to do as we move from recovery to rebuilding. Already the projects are beginning to be planned for this next phase, and I cannot wait to see how the Body will respond!
And in that regard, go ahead and count me as guilty in advance, because I will certainly be boasting in the Lord!
God Beyond the Storms
May 2, 2011
"I don't think words can fairly express the level of devastation." This was the assessment given by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after viewing the destruction left in the Birmingham area by last Wednesday's tornadoes. With more than 230 dead across the state and hundreds more missing, and thousands of homes destroyed, this disaster has proven to be a unique one in the history of our state.
Over the weekend it was gratifying, however, to see people of faith mobilizing to help their neighbors--supplying needs and helping the recovery through manual labor. LPBC was a part of that effort, with volunteers going out daily. Due to the level and the scale of destruction, these efforts will be ongoing for months if not years to come, and we as a faith family want to remain mobilized to help. That being the case, let me encourage you to help out in these ways:
Pray - People are hurting in ways that most of us cannot imagine. Now is the time to pray for these victims in an ongoing fashion.
Give - Donations are needed right now by all relief organizations. As Alabama Baptists, we are blessed to have one of the best. To give to the Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief fund, make a check payable to Liberty Park Baptist Church and write "Alabama tornado relief" on the memo line. We will ensure that 100% of your donations go to help tornado victims in Alabama.
Provide material goods - There is a tremendous need for just about anything relating to daily life--food, water, clothing, diapers, toiletries, etc. LPBC is serving as a receiving site for such items and will place them in the hands of groups that are in direct contact with victims, including the Birmingham Baptist Association, Mission Birmingham and Samaritan's Purse.
Go - Groups are going out from the church almost daily; some formally organized, some just going out and finding places to help. If you would like to go, call the church at 969-1236 to find out where we are sending teams, or Google "tornado relief volunteer sites" to find places where you can go and help.
Remember through all of this that the God we served before the storms and to whom we cried out during the storms is still God beyond the storms.
A 125-Year Legacy of Faith
April 25, 2011
Take note of the date that this article is being written: April 25, 2011. This is an important date in the life of Liberty Park Baptist Church, because it was on this date, back in 1886, that our church was founded as East Birmingham Baptist Church.
Originally started as a mission church by the legendary Ruhama Baptist Church, East Birmingham Baptist traced its roots to a Sunday School that a woman named Tirzah Wood (Mrs. Morgan Green Wood), had started in her home just years before. As the Sunday School grew, and as the surrounding Woodlawn community (named for the Wood family) grew as well, members of Ruhama saw the need for a church there and took the necessary steps to start the new congregation.
Later, the church was renamed Woodlawn Baptist Church after its community, and the congregation began a long and wonderful pattern of growth that was to last them for decades to come, resulting eventually in Woodlawn Baptist becoming one of the largest and most influential churches in the state of Alabama.
As the church entered the later decades of the 1900s, however, it began to experience tremendous decline. Although it continued to work to reach its neighborhood, the church made the difficult decision in the early 1990s to relocate to what would become the Liberty Park community, planting itself in the new neighborhood with the goal of ministering to its new residents.
Today, Liberty Park Baptist Church—125 years old on this very day—exists as a congregation intent on leading people to become mature, fruit-bearing disciples by leading people to know Christ, to grow in Christ and to go with Christ. Due to the proximity of our anniversary to Easter and a variety of other upcoming special recognitions, we made the decision to postpone our “birthday” until the fall, when we can celebrate properly. But today, we take note of our “real” birthdate, and we thank God for what the legacy of faith that is Liberty Park Baptist Church.
An Easter Addendum
April 21, 2011
Some argue that the resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot be real because such things just do not happen—it is not scientifically possible. Such an argument, however, must be viewed in the light of the fact that if the resurrection were just another normal occurrence—expected and easily explainable—it would not stand alone as a singularly miraculous and history-altering event. It would not be that big a deal if it wasn’t such a big deal.
As it stands, however, it is an event of eternal proportions precisely because it is a one-time, singular occurrence in history, a stand-alone incident that is not easily explainable, one that leaves us breathless and astounded.
To be otherwise would make it an event not befitting the great God of the universe, who is a being of stand-alone nature. Of such a God, one would expect no less than something unique, something unexplainable, something that doesn’t fit into our parameters of what is “possible.” And something like that, from a God like that, is worth dying for.
He Is Risen!
This Side of the Resurrection
April 18, 2011
Have you ever wondered what must have been going through the minds of Jesus' disciples between Friday evening, following Jesus' death, and Sunday morning, when they found out that he was alive again? We can't know for sure, but I imagine that there must have been a mix of thoughts and emotions, a swirl created by the struggle between the surreal notion that Jesus would actually rise from the grave versus the reality-fed understanding that such things just don't happen.
These men, however, had already experienced in their time with Jesus many things that fell outside of the realm of normal human experience. They had seen the sick healed, they had seen thousands miraculously fed with what started out as just a handful of food and they had seen the dead raised to life--even one who had been dead for four days. Such experiences must have fed their hopes, yet there still must have been the nagging reality in their minds that the man who had accomplished all these things was now the one who was dead.
But hadn't Jesus said to them that he would suffer all of these things, be put to death and then be raised to life again? Indeed He had, not only to the disciples (Matthew 16:21 and 20:17-19), but also to the Jewish religious leaders, declaring that if they tore down the temple He would rebuild it in three days (John 2:19), speaking figuratively of His resurrection.
So there they sat, waiting to see if it was all true--if He really was the Messiah--or if it was just a bunch of conflated hopes and brash words, spoken in the defiant heat of the moment by a zealous religious reformer who had paid the price for his insolence.Very soon they would know, because the moment had arrived; this was it.
We of course, know the end of the story, and we celebrate that Jesus did indeed rise from the grave--victorious Lord, redeeming Savior, glorious One. Isn't it great to live on this side of the resurrection, knowing and celebrating that Jesus is alive?
A Cause for Celebration
April 11, 2011
This Sunday we will begin the celebration of Holy Week, a name used for centuries to describe the days extending from Palm Sunday to Easter. As we start our Holy Week celebration this year, we will do so by participating in the Lord's Supper together, in recognition of the death of Christ on the cross.
I don't know about you, but for me the Lord's Supper is always a powerful thing. It carries with it a whole set of remembrances and emotions that emanate from a very deep place within my soul. I am always drawn in by the somber nature of the event, traveling in my mind back to the upper room where Jesus met with His disciples to share the Passover meal together prior to His death, burial and resurrection, as Jesus equated Himself with the Passover lamb, whose blood was shed to redeem God's people.
Likewise, I am drawn to the events surrounding the cross--Jesus' appearances before the High Priest Caiaphas and before Pontius Pilate. In my mind I watch as Jesus is beaten and abused by the soldiers, and I see Him walk the hill to the Place of the Skull, where he is then nailed to the cross and hung up as a spectacle for a bloodthirsty crowd.
I also hear in my mind the words of Jesus as He hangs on that cross--His plea to God for His tormentors to be forgiven, the agonizing cry of forsakenness, His redemptive interaction with the thief hanging next to Him, His final triumphant declaration that His work was finished.
As we move closer to the day that we recognize Jesus' death, I encourage you to set aside some time to walk in your heart and mind through the story. Re-read the Gospel accounts of that day. Find time to be alone and to imagine yourself there and to consider what you would have experienced. Think about the deep love of Christ that drove Him to become the sacrifice for our sins. And think about the victory that Jesus' blood has brought to all who receive Him. That's cause to celebrate.
I See You...
April 4, 2011
…I really do. When I am preaching on Sunday mornings, I see you from the pulpit. I see when you’re wide awake and locked into what’s going on, and I see when you are sleeping. I see when something has made you laugh that uncontrollable laughing-in-church laugh, and you feel like your head is about to explode. I see you—I really do.
Now, I’m not saying this to make anyone feel self-conscious; I’m just stating the facts. And the fact is, there are Sundays when I wonder how many lemons had to be drained dry to obtain the faces that I see out there. It’s true! You ought to join me up in the pulpit some Sunday morning and take a look for yourself. It just might change your whole outlook on the need for a renewed sense of joy among God’s people.
Truth is, joy is supposed to be part and parcel of who we are as God’s people. In 1 Peter 1:8, we are reminded that we as believers are to be filled with “an inexpressible and glorious joy,” and in Philippians 4:4, Paul calls on Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always.”
Once again, let me reiterate that I’m not writing this to make anyone feel self-conscious on Sundays when I’m in the pulpit. No, I’m writing this to let you know that I see something on a weekly basis that perhaps most people are not even aware of—the symptoms of joylessness on the faces of God’s people. I also want you to know that I’m writing this because I want to encourage everyone to begin doing something about restoring the joy of our salvation.
With Easter almost upon us, I cannot think of a more appropriate time for believers to renew and express their joy than on the day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. In fact, I want to challenge you to begin working on it now, so that by Easter you’ll be experiencing a renewed sense of God’s great joy in your life. Begin by being intentional about rejoicing—even when you don’t feel like it. On top of that, pray that God will do a powerful work in your inner being, renewing the joy in your life. I look forward to seeing the results!
March 28, 2011
This past Sunday, we as a church began our focus on Easter. Now, lest you think that this is a bit premature, let me remind you that Easter is only about four weeks away! Are you surprised to hear that? I know it's a little shocking to think about it, but the truth is, we're steaming in that direction pretty quickly.
As we began to talk about Easter on Sunday, one thing I encouraged our congregation to do was to begin to prepare spiritually for the coming celebration of Christ's resurrection. Such a thought might sound a little odd, but I have to confess that I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to this most important of holidays in the Christian calendar.
It is, by the way, the most important of holidays for us. I know we go all out for Christmas, but if you look at the history of the church, you'll find that this is a relatively modern phenomenon. Historically, the greater emphasis for Christians has always been on Easter, because this holiday represents for us the resurrection of our Lord, without which, as Paul put it, "our faith is useless" and in the absence of which "we are to be pitied more than all men." Indeed, without the resurrection, Paul notes that we are still lost and dead in our sins!
That being the case, believers have for centuries observed the forty-day time of preparation for Easter called Lent. During this time, Christians are called upon to fast in preparation for the celebration of Christ's resurrection. Many people pracitce Lent today, although most evangelicals do not. Regardless of what you might think about the observance of Lent, I think the intent of preparing onself spiritually for the celebration of Christ's resurrection is a fantastic idea, and so I have begun to prepare my own heart and to encourage our church family to do the same.
What about you? Are you ready for Easter? Are you preparing your heart for the celebration of this deeply powerful and meaningful time in the life of every Christian? If not, take the time to get ready!
Not an Accident
March 21, 2011
My family and I spent most of last week in Washington, D.C. on vacation for spring break. While there, we had the blessing of staying with friends--General Ron Burgess and his wife, Marta--who showed us wonderful hospitality.
Although I had been to D.C. several years ago, this was the first trip to our nation's capitol for the rest of my family. As you might imagine, there is much to see there, and to take it all in would have required a couple more weeks than we were able to take off. We did, however, get to see a great deal relating to our nation's history, and I was reminded, as we viewed exhibits and learned more about how the United States of America became the nation she is today, that so much of that history can only be explained by God's providential guidance.
There are so many points in our history when, if just one small thing had happened differently, we might never have made it as a nation. As I reacquainted myself with many such historical facts, I noticed how these wonderful "circumstances" seemed to pile up. At one stop, as I was reading about an occurrence of this sort in a Revolutionary War exhibit, I overheard two boys talking about one of those moments when things just fell together perfectly for George Washington's army, so that they were able to route the British and turn the tide of the war. After reading about it, one of the boys blurted, "Lucky!"
I remember thinking to myself that our nation's place in this world is far more than a matter of luck. In fact, it is difficult to walk away from such a historical setting with anything less than a feeling that God has guided the development of the U.S. and has given us our role as a superpower for His own purposes. I think one of those purposes is that we might serve as a lighthouse to the nations, carrying the Gospel to every land.
This is not to say that we are God's perfect instrument as a country. No, we are far from it. Our standing in the world, however, is not an accident, and as Jesus said, "to whom much is given, much will be required." My prayer is that we will fulfill all the purposes for which God created us, sustained us and elevated us.
March 14, 2011
Thursday morning brought news of an unprecedented earthquake and tsunami that had hit the island nation of Japan with devastating force. As video and pictures from the various news agencies rolled in, they told a story of an unfolding tragedy, the proportions of which are still yet to be completely known. In one area alone, reports from Japanese authorities tell of as many as ten thousand people missing and feared dead.
Meanwhile, Japan's nuclear energy industry has added new problems to an already-horrific situation, as multiple nuclear power plants have had systemic failures, bringing concerns of nuclear meltdowns and radioactive contamination. This, of course, also means a loss of electricity-generating capability which, combined with the loss of drinkable water and food resources, multiplies many times over the tremendous human suffering.
It is in times like these that we as believers in Christ feel a particular call to action. First and foremost, we feel a call to pray--to pray for the people of Japan, particularly those who are injured and those who have suffered loss; especially for those who have no hope for tomorrow or for eternity. We also feel a particular call to pray for disaster relief workers, many of whom will be from Southern Baptist teams that have been well-trained and carry with them the compassion of Christ and the message of Christ. We also feel called to pray for our missionaries and for Japanese Christians--not only for their safety, but also that through this tragedy they may have opportunities to share the Gospel with people who are hurting and hopeless.
Now is also a time for believers to give. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has set up a relief fund (http://imbresources.org/index.cfm/product/detail/prodID/3352) as have many other Christian relief organizations, and I encourage you to give generously to help alleviate the suffering.
Now is the time for us, the Body of Christ, to reach out to the people of Japan.
Getting What I Deserve
March 7, 2011
"I deserve this!" How many times in your life have you said something like that? Perhaps you were saying it because you had lost 10 pounds and wanted a little treat because you had been so good. Maybe it was because you felt like you had a promotion coming to you after years of service, or maybe you had saved up some money and wanted to buy yourself something nice.
Regardless of our motivation, it seems that there are times in life when we feel that we deserve something in particular, and in such times we can become mighty indignant when we don't receive it. Such was the case with ancient Israel, as is recorded in Malachi 3. In verse 13, God says that they have been saying "harsh things" against Him. The gist of what they have been saying against God is that they don't feel that God has given them what they think they deserve for serving Him, and, as a result, they have decided that serving God is "futile."
Their criteria for judging the value of their service to God can be seen in verse 14, where they ask, "What did we gain" by serving God? That's a pretty bold question that reveals their criteria was solely based on what they felt they stood to gain from their obedience.
It's easy to sit back and judge those ancient Israelites, but how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing? We feel that we deserve special consideration or blessings because of the time we have put in, because of the faithfulness we have shown, or just because we are Christians and we show up at church! And yet, in an ironic twist, our demand for what we deserve--what we feel that we have earned or are entitled to--negates the very grace of God! His grace is not about what we deserve, but is rather about what He mercifully chooses to offer us, in spite of our lack of being deserving!
So, next time you're tempted to demand of God what you deserve, be careful--you just might get what you ask for. Better to go with God's grace.
February 28, 2011
One of the verses in the Bible that I have found intriguing for many years is 2 Corinthians 3:5. In this verse, Paul is writing about himself and his co-workers, noting that in and of themselves they lack the competence to accomplish what they are accomplishing. The reason they are able to do what they are able to do, Paul declares, is because they have a competency that comes from God Himself.
As a minister, this thought has always resonated with me, because I know that what I am seeking to accomplish in my work can only be brought about through the intervening work of God. I can try hard, and I can summon up all my skill, abilities and energy to tackle a task, yet I know that without God's hand in it, all my efforts will ultimately bring nothing of eternal value.
For that reason, I find it necessary as a minister to place all I do in God's hands, asking for His guidance, His empowerment and His results. In doing so, I am assured that every success that I have comes from God and will yield eternal fruit.
But hey, this isn't just a deal for ministers! What about you? Have you been feeling incompetent in some area of your life lately--In your career? In your relationships? In your dealings with God? If so, there's a great scriptural recipe that anyone can follow that will bring God's guidance and empowerment into your life.
It's found in James 4:10, and it simply says, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up." Amazingly, a simple submission of oneself to God is all that is required to experience this uplift of God in one's life--an uplift that yields competency in all areas of life. Now, this does not necessarily mean that you will become this person with super powers or anything, but it does mean that you will certainly find success in doing those things that God had gifted you to do and assigned you to do.
Competency from God--I highly recommend it!
February 21, 2011
Over the past few weeks, we as a congregation have been looking at passages in the Bible that give detailed, practical advice for living. As we've looked at these passages, one thing that we've noted is the vast amount of biblical material that focuses on our human relationships.
In fact, if you spend much time at all studying the Scriptures, you can't avoid that God takes a tremendous amount of interest in how we live in regard to one another, letting us know that if things are not okay in our human relationships, things cannot be okay in our relationship with Him. Jesus even takes it so far as to let us know that if we come to God's altar with an offering, and there remember that someone has something against us, we should go and resolve the matter, and then come back and make our offering to God (Matthew 5:23-24).
Truth is, the Bible addresses almost every human relationship you can think of: It talks about husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. It speaks to our dealings with our "faith family"--our brothers and sisters in Christ, detailing how we are to treat each other and respond to one another. It gives advice for dealing with our neighbors (which Jesus defines more broadly than just the people who live in your neighborhood), and it even addresses how to treat the strangers and aliens who live among us.
Beyond that, the Bible addresses our relationships with the downtrodden in society, outlining our responsibilities toward the orphans and widows, the poor and the sick, the oppressed, and even those who are imprisoned. And it doesn't stop there. We also find in Scripture what we need to know even for dealing with our enemies and those who persecute us, learning that our goal should not be to seek vengeance but rather to make our enemy into our brother!
And the above is just a sampling. There's much, much more. So, let me encourage you, as you deal both with the people you love and the people you don't love so much, to go to God's word to find what you need for making those human relationships successful in God's eyes
February 14, 2011
I once heard someone say that opinions are like belly buttons--everybody has one. I'm not sure that quote is accurate. If 46 years of life and 26 years of ministry have taught me anything, it is that everybody is FULL of opinions!
As a pastor, you can imagine that I hear a lot of them, especially on Sunday mornings: for one, the sanctuary is too hot, for another it's too cold; for one the music is too traditional, for another it's too contemporary; for one we stood too long, for another we didn't stand long enough; for one the sound is too loud, for another it's too soft (it really is like this, by the way!). But I truly don't mind--I've come to understand that it's just part of the territory that comes along with being a pastor, and people feel a need to have their say.
On a broader level, I've noted that we are a nation of opinionated people, voicing--often loudly and dogmatically--our opinions about everything from our favorite sports team to our preferred political party. We hold our own opinions in high regard, and we're often willing verbally to grind all opponents into the ground who might dare to differ with us, even about the most menial of matters.
And yet, there are opinions that do matter. The one that stands out to me the most is the one that Jesus forced people to take a stand on when he declared, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23). When Jesus made this statement, he forced people to step off the fence and to take a position on Him one way or another.
As I read that statement, I realize that, beyond my opinion on this one issue, little else matters in the grand scheme of things. All my other opinions take a distant back seat to this one. How about you? Where do you stand on this Jesus person? Are you with Him or against Him? If you claim to be with Him, are you gathering with Him or are you scattering?
Your opinion really does matter!
February 7, 2011
We are living in an unprecedented time in many ways. From technology, to the medical field, to interpersonal communications, we are seeing things now that we have never seen before. The same is true for the world of Christian missions. At no other time in the 2,000-year history of the church have we seen days like these, with so many streams of change coming together to create such great opportunity for reaching the world! Let me share with you a few things that reveal what I mean:
Volunteer missions- It used to be that missionaries were career people who had left home and family to go to a far away land with a different culture and a different language. Once or twice a year you might see a missionary at your church, sharing slides and information from strange lands and asking you to give. Now, with the explosion of volunteer missions that has occurred in the last few decades, the missionary you encounter could be the guy bagging your groceries, or your doctor, or your mechanic or a housewife--or your grandmother.
Resources - Perhaps more than ever, vast resources are available to help in mission work. In addition to monetary resources, the resource of knowledge has boomed as the internet has provided us with amazing interactivity and up-to-the-moment knowledge of what's going on around the world. Even on an interpersonal level, the missionary "pen pal" of the past has been replaced by the Facebook friend of today, able to provide daily reports of the work being done and of accomplishments, opportunities and needs in the field.
Access - At no other time in the history of the world has the church had such access to almost every corner of the globe. From Communist countries to Islamic republics, we are seeing Christian "beach heads" spring up in almost every nation of the world, intent on reaching every people group with the Gospel.
None of this is to say that we are by any means where we need to be in regard to missions. Most of the people on this planet are lost, and we are not even keeping up with the birthrate in reaching them. But I am encouraged as I see God moving among his people to reach the world in an unprecedented way. Let's pray that the missions work of today continues to snowball into an avalanche that reaches the world for Christ.
January 31, 2011
Lately, there's been a lot of talk out there about talk radio. First, there was the Sheriff in Tucson, AZ, who blamed the murderous shooting spree of Jared Loughner on right wing rhetoric, a la Rush Limbaugh, and then there was the cacophony of media voices that chimed in either to agree with the sheriff, to disagree with him, or to disagree with him while still saying that what's on talk radio is harmful to the country.
Now, I'm not writing this to debate the merit of talk radio or the lack thereof. Truth is, I am a big fan of talk radio. Be it political, sports, religious or humor--I just can't get enough of the stuff. I will even find myself in any given week listening to everything from conservative political talk to public radio and everything in between. I just really enjoy being exposed to a wide variety of ideas and rolling it all around in my head and thinking about it.
But that's not really what I'm writing about either! What I really want to talk about is something that happened to me over the weekend, when I turned off the radio and drove quietly down the road. At first, the silence was excruciating. I was accustomed to noise, and I needed something to cancel out the quiet. I was also accustomed to thinking about what I was hearing, and now my mind seemed to have nothing to grab hold of, wandering about aimlessly with no ideas to ponder.
That's when my mind took me back to a time several years ago, when I was in school and my car radio had gone out. I had no money to repair or replace it, so I drove to school and back each day in silence. In those moments, my mind turned toward God, and He and I had wonderful conversations. I gained new insights, found new sermon and ministry ideas, and I always exited my vehicle spiritually refreshed. That's what happened to me on this particular day--as I sat in silence, my mind connected with God, and we began to interact.
It was an awesome time--about 35 minutes--as I carried on this wonderful internal conversation with my Father. I think I will turn off the radio more often now--not necessarily because I object to what I am hearing, but because, on that day, I heard something far more valuable from someone I need to know better.
God, Us, and the Bible
January 24, 2011
Have you ever wondered what role the Bible plays in our relationship with God? That’s an important question, because we live in a day when many people seem to think that the Bible is irrelevant, and that they can have a great relationship with God while totally ignoring His word. I would argue that without God’s word, it is near impossible to have a relationship with Him at all. Here’s why:
First, God’s revelation of Himself and the way to salvation in Him comes to us through Scripture. Now, the Bible does say in Romans 1 that God reveals His character to us in nature as well, but it also says in Romans 10:17 that the faith relationship comes through hearing the words of Christ. So, in terms of the foundation of a relationship with God, it is clear that the Bible is of vital importance, taking us beyond “knowing about Him” and leading us to truly know Him.
Second, the Bible is an essential part of our ongoing conversation with God. Once again, it is true that God will sometimes give us knowledge, guidance and wisdom through just the interaction that we have with Him in prayer, but the greater part of our interaction with Him happens as we combine prayer and study of the Scriptures. In that mix, the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds to grow us in any number of ways, ultimately drawing us closer to God and fashioning us into His likeness.
Third, the Scriptures make us aware of God’s great plans for us beyond this life, leading us to place our trust and our hope in Him to an even greater degree. We don’t have to wonder, with anxiety, if we will be granted access into heaven, but rather, through the encouragement of the biblical record, we can live with assurance and expectation.
Fourth, the Bible gives us clear information concerning God’s work in the world, and it instructs us as to how we may be involved in His work. Even more so, it lets us know that God wants us to be involved in His work. I hope you’ll take some time to consider these ideas this week, and I hope they will motivate you to grow your relationship with Him by digging into His word.
God's Approval Rating
January 16, 2011
When I was a young minister, in college and in my early 20s, I was a youth minister at a church in the western part of the Birmingham area. It was a small church, but it had a lot of potential to reach the surrounding neighborhoods, and we had a young and enthusiastic staff to lead the church in doing it.
As the youth minister, I had decided early on that the best thing I could do was first to lead students to faith in Christ and then to mentor them in their newfound faith by teaching them the basics of what it meant to be a believer and to live as a follower of Christ. I knew that the best way for me to do this would be to embed them deeply into God's word. That being the case, in addition to my regular Bible teaching times with them on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, I developed a discipleship group for those who wanted to go deeper.
Our discipleship group met on a weeknight, and we sought to grow at an accelerated rate in regard to our knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. In order for that to happen, we based our approach to the Bible on three pillars: First, we memorized Scripture. Whatever we happened to be studying that week, everyone in the group memorized it, and we all quoted it together when we met. Second, we would take that week's passage and dissect it, learning the definitions of words we didn't know, exploring ideas that we found intriguing, and we would try to pull every last ounce of truth out of it that we could. Finally, we would apply the passage, asking questions like, "What does this have to do with me," and "How can I put this into practice in my life?"
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul urges the young Timothy to find approval in God's eyes by learning how to rightly handle the word of truth--the Bible. If God were to base His approval of you on how deftly you handle His word, what kind of approval rating do you think you'd receive from Him? If you don't think it would be that great, maybe you can simply do what our youth group did more than 20 years ago--begin to memorize, analyze and exercise God's word. It just might change your life!
Word to the People
January 7, 2011
In 2011, Liberty Park Baptist is celebrating something we’re calling the “Year of the Bible.” In my previous article, I described how this came about, but I left out one very important item: At the beginning of this whole process of thinking about and developing the idea of the “Year of the Bible,” I was reading an article online that mentioned that 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, and that's what really started the ball rolling in regard to this emphasis.
This anniversary might not be all that significant to you—after all, most evangelical Christians these days don’t even use the KJV Bible anymore due to the fact that it was written in language (Elizabethan English) that is extremely difficult for the average person to read and understand today. Back in 1611, however, the KJV Bible reflected the language and grammar of the day, making it thoroughly readable to the person of that period.
Briefly, let me explain to you why the KJV Bible is powerfully significant for us, even today: Prior to its publication, there were other English Bibles widely available to the public, but many of them were riddled with translation errors, some very grievous. Other versions were filled with marginal notes that promoted a particular theological or political bent, while yet others were so full of intricate illustrations that they were too expensive for the average person to purchase. Most Bibles of that period were also based on the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Catholic Church, rather than earlier Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.
In response to these issues, the translators of the KJV Bible based their work on the oldest Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, left out all illustrations and marginal notes, and worked diligently to correct the mistakes in previous translations. Because the quality of their work, the KJV Bible became the de facto Bible of the English-speaking world by the mid-1600s, and it remained so until the latter part of the 20th century. So, as we celebrate our “Year of the Bible,” we do so as beneficiaries of the work of others who labored to bring God's word to His people. And for that, I am truly thankful!
2011--The Year of the Bible
January 4, 2011
It's 2011, and we have officially launched the "Year of the Bible" at Liberty Park Baptist Church. Now, if you know anything about LPBC, you might think it a bit odd that we would call any specific year the "Year of the Bible." After all, we focus on the Bible all the time at LPBC, and all we do is founded upon Scripture and scriptural principles. In fact, you'd have to look high and low to find anything we do that is not infused with the Bible. So why call 2011 the Year of the Bible? Let me explain:
Last year, I was reading an article in which it mentioned that 2011 would be the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. That got me thinking about the emphasis we place on the Bible as a congregation, and as I was thinking I started to consider that, while we ask our children to memorize Scripture through AWANA, and some of our students as well are working on Scripture memorization, we as a church don't really ask our adults to memorize Scripture. That bothered me.
About the same time, someone sent me an email telling me about a book entitled 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know By Heart. Soon thereafter, our Minister of Education, Stephen Shelton, approached me about an idea that he had to lead the entire church in reading the Bible all the way through in a year. As all of this bounced around in my head, I started talking with our staff about it, and we all were in agreement--in the coming year (2011), we should focus as a congregation on making a concerted group effort to read the Bible through and to memorize Scripture.
Now that 2011 has arrived, the plan has been hatched. In our weekly publications, announcements, and on our website, you'll find weekly memory verses as well as a daily Bible reading plan. The website particularly is helpful, providing links to the Bible passages on the internet. So will you join me in making 2011 the Year of the Bible?
An Indescribable Gift
December 20, 2010
Sometimes a gift just takes your breath away--you know, that gift that is unexpected, perhaps even extravagant, shocking in its value and powerful in its impact. I love being able to provide moments like that for my family at Christmas. When Beth and I had only been married a few years, and our children were younger, it was fairly easy. I would take a lot of time, really do my research, shop around to find what I needed and the best price for it, and then do crazy things like skip lunch for several weeks to save up money to buy it.
Now that I've been married for more than twenty years, however, and now that my kids are older and much less susceptible to the "shock and awe" factor, it's much more difficult. As a husband and father I confess that it saddens me a little bit, especially as I think about those wonderful Christmas mornings when I could tell by the looks on their faces that I had nailed it.
I have to wonder, as I approach this Christmas season, if God as our Father experiences a similar sadness when we, as His children, fail to be amazed anymore by His wonderful, extravagant, valuable gift of Jesus Christ. I don't know the answer to that, but I can tell you that I don't want Him to have to feel that way because of me. Instead, I want Him to see in my heart the overflowing joy that the Apostle Paul displayed in regard to Jesus Christ as he exclaimed in 2 Corinthians 9:15, "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!"
As you enjoy Christmas this year, take time to consider the extravagant and unexpected gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ. Re-read the story of God's amazing and powerful grace. You might just discover in the process that God's indescribable gift still takes your breath away!
The Worth of the Soul
December 13, 2010
I always tell people that I started going to church nine months before I was born. That's my way of saying that my participation in church is something that is deeply imbedded in my life. I believe that there are great advantages that have come with that rich heritage of faith, laid down by many generations of my family, but there are also the occasional downsides I run into as well.
One such downside I have identified centers on the fact that, having heard the great songs of the faith most of my life, I often find myself not really paying attention to the words and what they mean. In fact, there are times I realize that I have never really comprehended the words of a song and that now, as an adult, I "discover" a song for the first time, although I have most likely heard it thousands of times throughout my life.
That happened to me this week, as I read the lyrics from the song, Oh, Holy Night. The words that particularly struck me were these: "Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, 'til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth."
As I read those words, I thought about how true and powerful they are. I am often concerned over the number of people who, it seems, do not realize their worth in the eyes of God. That lack of realization is evident in how they live, in the attitudes they hold, and in the things they allow into their lives and in which they participate.
And yet, in the coming of Christ at Christmas, we discover that God's regard for us is so great that He sent Jesus to us, who took on flesh and became God with us--and who died in our stead to give life to us. I hope that this Christmas will bring you a renewed understanding of your soul's worth to God.
God's Christmas Presence
December 6, 2010
Long before the birth of Christ--some 700 years before--the prophet Isaiah spoke these words: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). Later, in Matthew's recollection of Jesus' birth, he reminds the reader of Isaiah's prophecy, adding the explanatory note that "Immanuel" translates from Hebrew into the phrase, "God with us."
With that declaration, the most mysterious, wonderful and scandalous idea in all history is proclaimed: the Incarnation. That God--the Creator, the Divine and Most Holy One, the Most High, the Origin and Sustainer of all--would condescend to come to us, taking on our form and dying on our behalf, is a mystery to all. To those who believe its truth, the mystery is wonderful. To those who do not believe, it is scandalous.
The Apostle Paul said that the story of Christ is "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). I think Paul's analysis holds up today as well. For some, the whole idea is a stumbling block; for others, it is foolishness. But for those who have trusted in this Immanuel, it is the power and wisdom of God!
As you encounter others this Christmas, you will find some from every camp. Pray for those who do not understand God's presence with us that we celebrate at Christmas, and watch for opportunities to tell them about His love and offer of salvation for them. He came to be "God with them" too, and desires to make His presence known in their lives. Share your faith. Share the power and the wisdom of God. It just might be their best Christmas present ever!
Beyond Your Christmas List
November 29, 2010
It's that time of the year again--the time when we all start getting serious about finding those special gifts for the people on our Christmas lists. For many of us, it's also the time when we think about how we might be a blessing to others beyond our Christmas lists through charitable giving. If this describes you, let me make a few suggestions for you in regard to how you might direct your giving this Christmas:
First, consider giving to a Christian missionary organization. As a church, we give annually to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, 100% of which goes to provide resources for missionaries in foreign lands. There are many worthy organizations doing great work as well, so find one that you are passionate about and help them out.
Second, give to a relief agency that meets physical/material needs. Two great examples are Samaritan's Purse and World Vision, both of which provide a Christian witness as they meet those needs. Interestingly, both of these organizations have Christmas "catalogs" through which you can "purchase" things like livestock, water wells, clothing, and food (check them out online). What a great project it would be for a Bible Study group to take up a donation at their Christmas party and buy a cow for a village in Africa!
Third, provide Christmas gifts or meals for a local family that is suffering financially this Christmas. If you know of such a family, you might want to just help them directly. If not, organizations like the Birmingham Baptist Association and the Salvation Army provide avenues for assisting others on the local level.
Space prevents me from going on, but just know that Christmas takes on a whole new meaning when you choose to help others beyond your Christmas list!
The Science of Gratitude
November 22, 2010
With this being the week of Thanksgiving, I decided to do a little reading on the subject, specifically searching for scientific research that focuses on the affects of gratitude on the human brain. I had hoped that I might find a few things here and there, but was shocked to find that there is actually a great deal of research on the subject, most of which points to the necessity of sincere gratitude for a person's health and well being.
I don't know why I was surprised; in recent years, scientific research has on many occasions "proven" what the Bible has taught for thousands of years--things like the vital nature of forgiveness for the success of our relationships, the importance of fellowship and community in our lives, the negative impact of uncontrolled anger, the positive impact of a caring and nurturing environment for our children...and I could go on and on.
Point is, the scientific research that is out there regarding gratitude shows that the individual who chooses to practice sincere gratitude actually experiences a change in brain chemistry and the development of new neurological pathways that have a calming effect on the life of that person. Interestingly, these same studies show that faked gratitude has a negative effect on brain chemistry and does not produce new brain circuitry--only the real thing has such an impact!
With all this in mind, I have two questions for you to ponder as we approach Thanksgiving: Have you made the conscious decision to become a person of sincere gratitude? Have you decided stop complaining about your burdens and start counting your blessings instead? Give it a shot. It will change your life from the inside out!
The Other 90%
November 15, 2010
Over the last couple of weeks at Liberty Park Baptist Church, we have been focusing on stewardship, which we have loosely defined as "what you do with what God has given you." As we've looked at the subject, we have examined it in terms of our time, our talents (which we defined as the things that make you uniquely you) and our treasure--a threefold division of life that has been often used by believers to talk about the totality of life and biblical stewardship of it.
As we go into this last week of our stewardship emphasis, our focus will narrow in on the last part of that trio: our treasure. Usually, when we think of our treasure, we automatically think of our paychecks. That's a good place to start, but there is really so much more to it than just that. This point came home to me a couple of years ago, when I first heard a presentation from The Alabama Baptist Foundation entitled, "Stewarding Your Stuff."
In this presentation, it was noted that 90% of a person's net worth is tied up in assets outside of his or her bank account--and yet, when it comes to stewardship, it is usually only that 10% that we consider. The presenter went on to talk about our responsibility as believers to be good stewards of all that we own, encouraging us as listeners even to think in terms of what will happen with all our stuff when we die, encouraging us to consider how we might reconstruct our wills to benefit God's work when we pass from this life.
Have you ever thought about what it truly means to be a good steward of all your stuff--not just your paycheck? When I consider what could happen with the work of God around the world if we all were to commit to being good stewards of the other 90%, I'm blown away. What if it started with us?
Before you go...
November 8, 2010
When someone passes away, and I am called in by the family to perform a funeral, it has been my practice through the years to sit with the family and hear from them about the life of the person who has died. Family members will usually relate to me basic biographical information, including date/place of birth, important dates such as when the individual received Christ, graduated from high school and college, when he was married, etc.
Once we get past the basic facts of that person's earthly existence, however, the stories begin to come out--stories about family, stories about victories and struggles and failures and adventures, and humorous stories that bring smiles to everyone's faces. I enjoy these times, when the real person is revealed beyond the bare facts, and I always come away wishing that I had known that person as they did.
Every once in a while, as these stories are being told, I find myself hearing of who this person was and what he accomplished, about his life and how he spent it--and I think to myself how amazing his life could have been if all of his experiences, abilities, talents, passions and drive had been focused in on things that made an eternal difference. I find myself wondering how many lives could have been changed for eternity if he would have committed all of what made him who he was to God's great purpose of seeking and saving the lost.
That being said, let me encourage you--who are still living--to think in those terms as well. All that makes up who you are--your experiences, your talents, your abilities, your giftedness, your passions--if you were to place all of them at God's feet for His use, what might He--with the creative power that brought the universe into existence--do with it all?
November 1, 2010
In an article in the February 25, 1966 issue of Time magazine, the author looked ahead to the 21st century, doing his best to gaze into the future and describe to his readers what America would be like in the decades to come:
By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy. With government benefits, even non-working families will have, by one estimate, an annual income of $30,000-$40,000 (in 1966 dollars!). How to use leisure time meaningfully will be a major problem.
Sounds like he nailed it, right? Don't you find yourself daily tied up in knots of anxiety over how to use your boundless hours of leisure time in a meaningful way? Wait--you say you don't have boundless hours of leisure time? If not, then you're pretty much like the rest of us.
Like everyone else, you find that the above prophecy is way off, your life being better described by the forward-looking Christian writer George Barna. In his 1990 book The Frog in the Kettle: What Christians Need to Know about Life in the Year 2000, Barna noted that in the 21st century time would become our greatest commodity, superseding money as the most precious "currency" of our lives.
His thoughts could not have been more prophetic! Now, in 2010, we live as a people whose time seems to be completely consumed. That being the case, the stewardship of our time has become one of our greatest issues of obedience in regard to our Christian walk. As you consider how you spend your time, can you say with confidence that your time is being spent in a way that honors God and gives attention to His priorities?
Christians and Politics
October 25, 2010
With the mid-term elections coming up next week, the usual discussion has been brewing about the role of Christians in politics and the influence (or lack thereof) that we wield in supporting candidates and shaping policy. In a recent article I was reading, one author took the approach that the church itself is under greater threat than it has ever been before, due to the proliferation and acceptance in our nation of things that we have historically opposed, and he pushed for greater-than-ever involvement of evangelicals in the realm of politics.
The second author in the article asked the church to question whether its efforts in politics, going back to the moral majority of the 1980s, had actually borne any fruit. His argument was that it had not--politicians are just as corrupt as ever, our society appears to be in a state of quickening moral decline, and things generally are looking bleak for the church. His opinion was that the church should abandon any and all efforts to affect politics and should rather focus on converting the hearts and minds of individuals one at a time, with the goal of bringing about socio-political change through internal transformation of lives.
As I read these two pieces, I thought that both men's arguments had merit. It occurred to me, however, that they had created a false dichotomy between our societal responsibilities and our calling to reach people with the Gospel. Truth is, we as believers are to be busy in both regards, seeking to reach individuals for Christ, while also serving as "salt and light" and "a city set on a hill" in the midst of our society.
To abandon either is to abandon an aspect of who we are and who we are called to be. So I say be a witness, seeking to lead others to Christ, but also be a responsible member of society, voting according to our God-given values outlined in Scripture. Stand up for Christ interpersonally AND in the voting booth!
"I reached out for God"
October 18, 2010
Seldom in the history of the world have so many people around the world been so focused in on and excited about something as they were on Tuesday, October 12, as 33 Chilean miners were rescued from a collapsed mine where they had been trapped for 69 days. From more than 2,000 feet underground, they emerged, via a metal capsule, a mere 21 inches in diameter, that was slowly raised through a bore hole of about the same width.
As the miners emerged, stories began to pour forth about these men who had survived this harrowing ordeal. Among those that I found intriguing was the story of Mario Sepulveda, the second miner to be rescued. Excited to be alive and free, Sepulveda could be heard shouting victoriously before the capsule even reached the surface. As he exited the capsule, he handed out souvenir rocks to his rescuers, giving them all a good laugh.
What I found intriguing, however, was what he said when finally corralled by reporters. In describing how he dealt with the mental anguish that accompanied being underground for so long, unsure if he would ever see the sun again, he said, "I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God."
What an amazing metaphor for those times when we feel we have been trapped deep underneath layers of "life" from which we doubt we will ever escape! In such moments, we also face choices that will impact us and those around us, perhaps for years--even generations--to come. On the one hand, we have God's way, while on the other we have that of the devil. I encourage you, as you stand in those in-between places, to reach out for God. He's there, and He loves you.
Path and Destination
October 11, 2010
Most of us have difficult time thinking about our own mortality. Even for people who are pushing the edges of the actuarial tables, our physical demise always seems to be something that is “out there”—something that we know is an eventuality for us, but at the same time something we never really consider to be imminent. Perhaps that’s why so many people walk through life without giving much thought to the fact that for us all death is an impending reality, unless Christ returns first.
Such an approach to life makes it easy for people to wander through their existence with no thought to where they are headed or to what they will leave behind when they exit from this life into eternity. That being the case, too often we fail to consider the path we are walking and where it will take us when we get to the end of it. I am convinced that many people have some idea of where they want to end up ideally—both in this life and in the next—yet the path they are walking is completely out of synch with where they want to be.
On Sunday, I challenged our church to ask themselves this question: “When I get where I am going, where will I be?” At first blush, this question sounds like one of those Buddha-like esoteric, philosophical questions, but in truth it is a very practical question, because it gets to the heart of what we’re doing with our lives and what the consequences will be.
What about you? Have you given thought to where your present path is leading you? Are you okay with the destination that awaits you? If not, I urge you to evaluate the path of your life in light of God’s direction as revealed in Scripture, and make all necessary corrections. You might be surprised what a better path God’s path is for your life!
October 4, 2010
When was the last time you had a real "eureka moment"--you know, one of those instances in which you have just discovered something deep and profound? I'm talking about those times of discovery when you are so taken aback by what you've learned that you just have to sit down and be amazed for a while, and then you feel that you have to go and tell others about what you've learned.
For many of us, it has been a good long while since we've had a discovery of that import, and perhaps more so in regard to matters of the spirit than anything else. Especially for those of us who grew up involved in church, things that are spiritual in nature can become very old-hat, and we can easily fall into a phase of existence in which we don't even consider that there is anything new to learn, concluding, much like Solomon, that there is truly "nothing new under the sun."
Knowing that this is a danger that can result in spiritual cynicism and malaise, I challenged our congregation on Sunday to focus this week on learning at least one new thing from God. I don't know if anyone will actually take me up on it or not, but I have every confidence that God will be teaching us, regardless. The question is, will we be spiritually positioned and prepared to receive and understand what He's communicating to us?
I want to encourage you to open your spiritual eyes and ears to listen and learn from God. What might He be trying to teach you right now?
Intentional Acts of Agapé
September 27, 2010
Several years ago, there was a movement of sorts that was being promoted around the U.S. that revolved around the idea of people performing "random acts of kindness." I remember at the time thinking that it was a great idea--doing nice things for people in a completely unexpected, unplanned fashion. I even performed a few random acts of kindness myself, and it was always fun to see the happy yet perplexed look on the face of the person who was the target.
After a while, however, I remember thinking that it was all a bit too random for me. I enjoyed it, but the whole end of it seemed to just be the brightening up of someone's day. I felt a desire to do something less random; something that had as its desired result connecting a person with the love of God (a.k.a., agapé). After all, God's love is not random in its connection with us. On the contrary, John 3:16 reveals God's love is targeted ("For God so loved the world"); it is revealed through an intentional act ("that He gave His only begotten Son"); and it has a definite desired end ("that whosoever believes might not perish but have eternal life").
Don't get me wrong--random acts of kindness are great; I still enjoy doing them from time to time. However, as I walk through life, desiring to know and to connect with God's great purpose of drawing people back to Himself, more and more I desire to perform "intentional acts of agapé," acts that reveal God's love to others and point them back to Him. What about you? When was the last time you performed an intentional act that displayed the love of God to another individual? When was the last time you did something that directed another person to your Father?
September 20, 2010
Back in 2007, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman co-starred in a movie entitled The Bucket List. The gist of the movie is that the two main characters, played by Nicholson and Freeman, have both been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and, after spending some time together in the same hospital room, develop a "bucket list"--a list of things they hope to do before they die--and then the become great friends while accomplishing the items on their list.
I was thinking about bucket lists just the other day, and I wondered what sort of things I would place on my own list if I took the time to develop one. I know one item on my list would be that I want to go "noodling." In case you don't know what that is, "noodling," also known as "grabbling," involves catching catfish barehanded by putting your hand into holes where large ones reside, letting them clamp onto your hand, and them pulling them out, holding onto them by the bottom lip (theirs, not yours). I fully realize that I am most likely in a very small minority of people who would have such a thing on their bucket list, but hey, it's what I want to do.
On Sunday, I challenged our congregation to develop a bucket list--not like the one mentioned above that would involve noodling, but a "spiritual bucket list" that would include the things you would want to accomplish in connection with your relationship with God before you step out of this life. Things like developing a regular prayer life, memorizing 100 Bible verses, leading someone to Christ, going on a mission trip to a foreign country, etc. You know, the kind of stuff that really matters. What about you? If you knew that your time was short, and you were called to put together a spiritual bucket list, what would yours include?
Peaks, Valleys and Plains
September 13, 2010
When I was a kid, my family took a trip out west, driving the family van to California and back over a three-week period. As we traveled, I was amazed at the vastness and beauty of our country, and also by the variety of landscapes that we saw. As we made our way out west, we stopped in Colorado to "climb" Pike's Peak, and on our way back east we stopped in Arizona to view the majestic vastness of the Grand Canyon. I remember being awed by the grandeur of such places.
While those landscapes were appealing to me, however, I was not so fond of the vast plains out in the Midwest. In fact, I remember being bored to tears by the miles and miles of flat, featureless grasslands (remember, this was before iPods and videos). This week, I was thinking that life is like that sometimes. It has its peaks and its valleys, but then it also has its long, flat stretches of featureless terrain--and it's often in those boring plains of life that I have the most trouble in regard to spiritual things.
You see, the appeal of the peak times in life is obvious, and, while no one would ask for the valleys in life, at least they're still "interesting" and keep our focus on the important things. But in the vast, boring stretches of life I find my mind and heart wandering sometimes, and it's often much more difficult to focus on God than in either the peaks or the valleys. That's why I have to remind myself time and time again, that the God of the peaks and of the valleys is also the God of the plains--and I have to make every effort to meet Him there.
What about you? Have you pushed God out to the corners of your life so that He's just the God of the peaks and the valleys? If so, I encourage you to resolve with me to stick with Him as we travel through the plains.
One Month to Live
September 7, 2010
What would you do if you knew that you only had one month to live? That's an intriguing question, yet it's the type of question that we seldom contemplate, particularly due to its focus on our own mortality. Questions like that also tend to be a little too hypothetical for us, as long as we're healthy and things are going well. But what about it? What would you do?
Would you curl up in a ball and wait for the end to come? Would you go on a wild, libertine tear, living out the saying, "Eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow we die"? Would you spend your last days in prayer, surrounded by your friends and loved ones, seeking God's graciousness as the end approached? Would you travel? Seek to complete your "bucket list"? Give everything away? Spend all your money on excessive and riotous living? What would you do?
In all honesty, it's a little difficult to know without actually being there. You can, however, have a plan. In fact, you can have a plan that you actually start living out now, so that whenever your number is called and your time on Earth is up, you can exit from this life with no regrets.
On Sunday, September 12, our church will begin a study of "One Month to Live," a book written by Kerry and Chris Shook. We'll be examining some challenging questions and looking for biblical answers as we seek to develop plans for our lives that will bring transformation--so that whether we have one month or many years to live, we'll be able to say with all honesty and integrity that we lived and left with no regrets.
The Things that Don't Happen
August 23, 2010
"My only explanation is that God intervened. We thank God for what did not happen." That's a quote from Pastor Jay Wolf of Montgomery's First Baptist Church following an accident last Saturday involving one of their church vans. The vehicle, carrying 14 people on a student ministry daytrip to Lake Martin, rolled over three times as a result of a tire blowing out, destroying the van and ejecting some of the students--one into the oncoming traffic lanes on I-85--before coming to a rest.
I received the news from my wife on Saturday morning, soon after the wreck had occurred, and I waited to hear what was sure to be tragic news of those who had been terribly injured or even killed. Having served on staff at Montgomery FBC for four years, I was familiar with many of the passengers in the van, including their student minister, Stuart Davidson, who had to be cut from the wreck using the Jaws of Life. I shuddered to think about the sorrow that I expected to unfold and overwhelm the people of that church as the reports came in of lives lost and of others hanging by a thread due to injury.
But it was not to be. Amazingly--miraculously--what should have been by every law of nature a horrifically tragic accident turned out to be an occasion for rejoicing, as news began to trickle out that none of the injuries was life-threatening and that only three of them would even require hospitalization. As a result, Sunday morning's services at First Baptist turned into a time of thanksgiving and of recognition of God's divine intervention in the lives of His children. From afar, I thanked God along with them! I am reminded, as I continue to be amazed at the unlikely outcome of this incident, that God does so much in our lives that we won't even know about until we meet Him face to face. Aware of this, I thank God for the things that do not happen.
Conduit or Catch-all?
August 16, 2010
In our worship services on Sunday, Micah McElveen, founder and president of Vapor Sports Ministries, challenged us in regard to God's blessings in our lives, asking whether we are "conduits" for those blessings or a "catch-alls" of those blessings. As I later pondered Micah's question, I thought about the powerful distinction between these strikingly opposite ways of thinking and existing. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject:
It appears that it is basic human nature to be a catch-all--not just in regard to God's blessings, but in regard to life in general. We as a species are very self-oriented, and, although we have our moments of altruism, we generally want to gather up for ourselves all that we can and hold onto it tightly. Such an approach to life was exemplified in a bumper sticker I once saw that read, "He who dies with the most toys wins." For many of us, as God pours His blessings into our lives, we soak them up, hoping and even praying for an ever-increasing flow. In essence, we become spiritual hoarders, gathering up and holding onto every little scrap that God gives us.
The opposite approach to life is to become a conduit--that is, to become a pipeline through which God's blessings flow to others. This approach is selfless in orientation, which can lead a person to ask, "But what about me?" The ironic reality, however, is that the blessings that come from being a conduit actually exceed the blessings that come from being a catch-all. It's a hard concept to grasp, yet once grasped, it's an amazing way to live. Perhaps the grasping of this approach is helped by the counterpoint to the above bumper sticker I also saw that read, "He who dies with the most toys--still dies." So why not share? Why not become a conduit rather than a catch-all?
Back to the Routine
August 9, 2010
It's often difficult after a "mountaintop" experience as a believer to settle back into the normal routine of life without feeling some sense of loss. That's what many of us experienced recently upon our return to "real life" following a mission trip to Bolivia. Among the comments I heard (and sometimes made) reflected on the fact that, while on a mission trip, you're able to spend all your waking hours with the single-minded focus of working for God, with no distractions and no diversions. When you return home and get back to the routine, however, it seems that you have to schedule time to serve God, while everything else takes precedence.
Unless you're ready to go live in a monastery or a convent, however, that's just how life is, and the challenge for the believer is learning to serve God and be completely surrendered to Him in the midst of and in spite of everything else that's going on. That's why, since I've returned from Bolivia, one of my prayers has been that God will teach me how to wake up every day with an attitude of the heart that says, "Lord, how may I work for YOU today," rather than a hear that says, "Lord, how can you work for ME today?"
I know full well that not all of life can be lived on the mountain. I also know, however, that the God of my mountaintop experiences is the same God of my valleys and of the broad, flat plains of my life as well. My hope is that, as we learn to become more attuned to serving Him no matter what the level of life we are presently experiencing, we will find a richness of life that makes the routine much less routine.
When God Shows Off
August 2, 2010
I am not a newbie to the mission trip thing. I've been involved in missions locally, regionally, nationally and globally, and I've been blessed every time. But this Bolivia trip that a bunch of us just returned from was something different from anything else I've experienced. The meshing together of the team (which came from multiple churches), the eagerness to serve, the dependence on God, the joyfulness of our fellowship--all of it was just beyond amazing.
I'm not the only one who felt that way. Time and time again, I heard even the seasoned missions veterans say that this trip was unlike anything they had experienced. Beyond the things mentioned above, however, were the times that we got to see God at work. It seemed that every time we turned around, something was happening that only had a God explanation to it (you'll have to talk to individual team members about the stories, because space does not permit here--there are many).
As the week rolled on, and we saw God do several wonderful things, some of us began to refer to these occurrences as "God showing off." We didn't mean it in a negative way, but rather just that God was revealing Himself to us in unique and unexpected ways, displaying to us His glory, His knowledge, His power, His creativity and His redemptive heart. Now that we're back (thanks for your prayers!), my prayer is that God will continue to leave our eyes wide open so we will not miss it as He continues to "show off" right here at home.
Greetings from Bolivia
July 26, 2010
As I write this to you, I am with a mission team in Bolivia. We are here to work with local churches, encouraging them, strengthening them and assisting them in sharing the Gospel.
Last night, as we were at the hotel, something amazing happened - some of us really got to see God at work in a powerful way. I was actually a little sick - trying to decide whether or not I was going to go to my room to throw up. As I'm standing at the top of the stairwell, a young lady walked past me who was obviously in emotional distress.
Being a dad of a daughter, I was concerned and asked if I could help her. Problem was, she didn't speak English and I don't speak Spanish. Long story short (which I will expand on Sunday morning), Gene Watterson, Bob Foster and I (with help from translator Edgar) led Luciana to Christ.
It was such a God moment. Thank you God, for showing yourself so powerfully and for allowing us to be a part of your work!
A Dent in the Darkness
July 19, 2010
When I was a kid, I remember the times we would have a missionary come to our church to talk about the work being done in a variety of exotic locales around the world. I also remember being involved in Royal Ambassadors, or R.A.'s, a Southern Baptist organization for boys that was designed to teach them about missions.I remember thinking that the life of the missionary was something that was completely foreign to me, strange and almost unimagineable, and that I could never see myself doing anything like that at all.
And yet, on Friday I will be leaving with a group from our church to go to Bolivia to serve for a week as a missionary--something I never would have envisioned way back then. This is not the first time, however, that I've gone on foreign and domestic mission trips, and certainly not the first time we as a church have sent our people. In fact, what I could not have imagined just a few years ago has now almost become routine, as thousands--maybe tens of thousands--of American Christians go around the world annually as part-time missionaries to the ends of the earth.
Yes, it's an amazing time in which we live, one in which Average Joe Church Member can go across the world to serve others and to tell about Christ. It's amazing, and it's encouraging too. It's my hope and my prayer, that as more of us go, that we will really begin to put a dent in the darkness. Pray, give, and go.
July 12, 2010
Over the last few years, I have noticed--sometimes with amusement--the great name changes that have been going on in churches across America. For example, everyone used to have Sunday School, but now we have small groups, life groups, Bible study fellowships, Bible fellowships, and Sunday morning Bible study groups--all of which are still Sunday School called by another name.
Other examples of the renaming trend abound as churches these days seek to distinguish themselves by coming up with creative names for just about everything. Ministers of Music have been re-titled as "Worship Pastor," "Worship Leader," "Pastor of Music and Worship" or (my personal favorite) "Associate Pastor of Worship, Media and the Creative Arts." Worship services have been given creative names such as "The Oasis," "The Well," "Focus," and "Alive."
I even saw a video recently in which a man pointedly identified himself as a "Christ follower." It's not the first time I have heard this terminology used, yet I found it intriguing, because he seemed to employ it for the purpose of distinguishing himself as something beyond just a regular "Christian." Now, as confusing as it might be, I'm not opposed to using different names for who we are--after all, the Bible calls us many things, including Disciples, Believers, Christians, Saints, Children of God, Followers of Jesus and Followers of the way, to name a few. I am concerned, however, that some appear to put more stock in the external of a name than on the internal transformation that should result from a sincere walk with Christ.
So, as the renaming craze continues, let's not forget that what we call ourselves is far less important than who we really are. Be who HE has called you to be (Ephesians 4:1).
Far Better than I Expected
July 6, 2010
On Sunday afternoon, I drove down to Dadeville, Alabama to spend the 4th of July at the lake with my in-laws and some friends. When all was said and done, a group of 23 folks had gathered to celebrate with lots of food, frivolity and fireworks. Needless to say, it was a bit crowded, considering that my mother-in-law's lakehouse is a small, two bedroom house with only one(!) bathroom.
I have to confess that on my way down there, following our Sunday service, I was steeling myself for what I thought might turn out to be a miserable time, thinking I would just wait it out--perhaps lie in the lake on a float, tie a rope to my leg and drift far away from everyone--until most everyone went home and left just the few of us there who were spending the night and staying the next day.
As I arrived, I tried mentally to shake off my curmudgeonly attitude and put on a happy face. Yet, to my surprise, within a matter of minutes I found myself truly having a great time, and I got to see God at work that day too.
Let me explain: A friend of ours who we have known for many years (my wife has known her since she was a baby; I have know her since she was a teenager and even performed part of her wedding) was there with her three small children. Her marriage has recently disintegrated, and she and her kids are on their own. As she tried to deal with her kids, I saw a family envelop them and through their actions live out the love of Christ to them. I saw multiple daddies play in the lake and fish with the children. I saw several mommies help them with their meals and snacks and generally watch out for them. I saw grandmothers and cousins interact with them lovingly and joyfully, and, at least for a day, allow them to set aside the rough time they're going through and just have fun at the lake, surrounded by love.
That night, after everyone had left, I told my wife, Beth, that what I had initially dreaded I ended up truly enjoying. In fact, I had to confess that I had a great time with all three of the little ones--especially with little three-year-old Anna, who latched onto me and let me carry her around and play with her in the lake.
I was reminded through all this that God has a way of opening up such opportunities to us and that He often does it when we least expect it and aren't even in the proper frame of mind for it. I thank God that He enhanced my July 4th experience this year by opening my eyes to the needs of the people around me and by allowing me to see such a wonderful display of love and grace through my family and friends. All in all, I have to say that my July 4th turned out to be far better than I had expected.
I hope your 4th was great too.
An Old Friend's Birthday
June 28, 2010
I have a friend whose birthday I will be celebrating in the coming week who I'd like to tell you about. She's quite old (I don't think she'd mind me saying so), and she has been a close friend of my family quite literally for generations. As a friend, she's always been there for me, bringing blessing after blessing into my life. She has provided for me along the way as well, and over the years she has opened up to me a world of opportunities that have brought much fulfillment.
Despite her years, I think she is quite beautiful, and I'm not the only one who feels that way. In fact, she has served as a powerful inspiration to many, leading them to write poems and sing songs of her beauty. This is not to say that she's perfect, however, or even that we've always gotten along with each other. On the contrary, there are times that I have seriously wondered about the direction she was headed and have found her to be maddeningly difficult.
As I celebrate her birthday this Sunday, however, I will think lovingly of her, because I know that in spite of our occasional differences, she's one of the best things in my life. You may feel the same way about this dear lady--her name is America, and on Sunday, July 4th, she will turn 234 years old. I pray that her best days are yet ahead of her.
Hellos and Goodbyes
June 28, 2010
I have always said that in ministry you only have one first day and one last day at a church, and that both are extremely important. On Sunday, we experienced the rare convergence of the two, as we welcomed Wesley (our new Student Minister), Nicole and Jacob Braswell and said goodbye to Craig (our Minister of Music), Lynsey and Lula Biondi. For me as a minister, it was fascinating to watch how it all worked, as our congregation ran the emotional gamut from beginning to end in just a matter of a couple of hours.
What I saw on Sunday was quite pleasing to me. I saw a church with a heart big enough to extend a welcoming embrace while simultaneously tearfully embracing a friend who is departing. Because I study human actions and interactions closely, I know that this is no small thing. On the contrary, it involves an emotional pendulum swing of immense proportions, requiring vast resources of love. That amount of love is difficult to summon up when drawn from the small pool of of our humanness. When drawn from the vast, even infinite resources of God Himself, however, there is more than enough to go around, with much left over. That is what I saw on Sunday.
It's often difficult to gauge someone else's experience, or even their perception of their experience, but my hope is that the Braswells felt loved, embraced and accepted on their first day here. And, I hope that their ongoing experience with their new LPBC family is one of continual love and support in the years to come. As Wesley leads our Student Ministry, my prayer is that he and his family will find life and ministry at LPBC to be fulfilling and meaningful.
I also hope that the Biondis will look fondly upon their time here for years to come, keeping up with us and maybe even showing up from time to time to say hello. As they go, they do so with our gratitude, our friendship and our prayers. We will be interested and invested onlookers as we wait to see what God will do next in their lives. I have no doubt that it will be something big and unique that surprises us all.
I thank God that my LPBC family is one that makes first days and last days very special. Because you allow God to shine through you, you also make many of the days in between wonderful days to be remembered.
Stick the Landing
June 21, 2010
I'm not a gymnast--never have been, never will be. I'm not a huge gymnastics fan, either, but I'm a fan of competition and a loyal fan of "my" teams, so every once in a while, maybe when the University of Alabama gymnastics team has been competing for a national championship (they have six of them in gymnastics!) or the USA gymnastics teams have been competing in the Olympics, you'll find me watching a gymnastics meet (guys, stop laughing--you know you watch it too).
Many years ago, as the USA gymnastics team competed in the Olympics, I watched as one of our gymnasts performed a dismount from whatever he was on, flew through the air with all sorts of spins, twists and flips, and then landed squarely on his feet, all to the approving roar of the crowd. The commentator enthusiastically yelled, "He stuck the landing!" Now,I had never heard this phrase before, but I immediately knew that to "stick the landing" meant that the athlete had landed on his feet perfectly, without so much as a wobble to one side or the other. My common sense also told me that this was a good thing, considering the alternatives of hopping around and looking silly or falling and breaking something.
Sometimes in our lives it seems that we are like that gymnast in mid-air, spinning crazily. Yet, unlike the well-trained and skillful gymnast who is aware of his position and his intended path to the ground, we're not really sure what's going on or what's going to happen when we land. In times like these, I've learned that it's always good to do some serious praying about your situation and your response to it, and to practice patience and encouragement in the midst of it, always looking for God's guidance and hoping for and anticipating what God is going to do next. That way, when it's all said and done, you're sure to stick the landing.
Go and Teller
June 14, 2010
I saw a video last week on YouTube.com that blew me away. The video was by Penn Gillette, of the comedy/illusionist duo Penn & Teller, and it was truly something I did not expect. Before I explain the video to you, you need to know that Penn Gillette is an avowed atheist, highly critical of Christianity and strongly derisive of anyone who believes in God.
In the video, Gillette tells about how after a show, as he was signing autographs, he saw a man off to the side, obviously waiting to speak. The guy was familiar to Gillette, because they had used him as an audience volunteer the night before. After everyone left, the man approached Gillette and, with complimentary words about the show, presented Gillette with the gift of a small Gideon New Testament.
Here’s where I expected Gillette to begin to deride and belittle the man, but instead he was genuinely grateful, stating that, while he doesn’t believe, he can’t respect anyone who truly does believe in a heaven and hell and yet doesn’t bother to tell others about it. His statement was, “How much does someone have to hate others to refuse to tell them about something so important?”
Powerful and challenging words from an atheist. Someone once told me that folks are far more willing to listen than we are to tell. So let’s go and tell.
P.S. You can watch the video I'm talking about by clicking here.
Pray for the Harvest!
June 9, 2010
By the time you read this, we will be halfway through our 2010 VBS. I know that many of you committed to pray for VBS each day during the week, and my sincere hope is that you have kept that commitment, because the success of our VBS each year depends on our prayers! Ways you can specifically pray can be found on our website at libertypark.org/vbs.
There is another aspect of VBS, however, that goes beyond the Monday through Friday schedule and requires our prayers as well - the VBS follow-up. Each year, as we have kids make decisions for Christ, and as we encounter families that are unchurched, we have a responsibility and opportunity to reach out with the love of Christ to confirm those new decisions and to work to bring those families into our fellowship.
I’m telling you this because I want to encourage and challenge you to continue your prayer efforts for the weeks following VBS, praying daily for those we are seeking to follow up with, in the hopes that they will be open to God’s work in their lives. As Jesus once said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Will you commit to do the work to bring in a harvest of souls?
Gearing up for VBS!
June 2, 2010
There are two things of great importance in the life of our church that are happening in the very near future, and I want to take some time to talk about them both. First, Vacation Bible School is almost upon us, with all of its energy and effort slated to spring into action June 7-11. As always, we have been gearing up for months for this huge evangelism opportunity that comes our way every summer, and our leaders, teachers and workers are toeing the start line, ready to take off.
As with pretty every year as well, however, we are still in need of more workers. Now, I’m confident that God will move a variety of individuals to step up and serve, as He does each year, but it does make for a little anxiety heading into the stretch without a full slate of workers. If you’d be interested in serving in VBS this year, please contact our Children’s Minister Lyn Henderson and let her know. Even if you can’t work the entire week, it would be great to have you when you’re able.
In recent years, the folks at LifeWay who put together our VBS material have done an awesome job of developing interesting themes, putting together solid teaching, and developing the theme with great music and other elements. This year is no exception. Our theme for VBS 2010 is Saddle Ridge Ranch: Roundin’ Up Questions, Drivin’ Home Answers. As you might guess, it’s a cowboy/western theme, which has Craig all excited (if you’ve ever seen the set of longhorns in his office, you’ll understand what I mean, him being a natural-born Texan and all).
Regardless of the theme, however, we always know that what will be central to the whole VBS production will be the Gospel. Year in and year out, whatever theme is used, the heart of VBS is always focused in introducing children to the idea of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, no other tool in Baptist life (or in our church’s life) comes anywhere close to reaching kids like VBS does. With that in mind, please commit to pray for our VBS this year—especially that the hearts of children will be opened up to the great truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Now, the second thing of great importance that is coming up in the life of our church is not quite as life-changing is VBS can be, although it will be more all-encompassing in its impact on the entire church family. What’s happening is redevelopment of our church’s communications, all the way from our church website to our Sunday morning bulletin to our weekly newsletter. Beginning Sunday, June 6th, we will be making some wonderful changes to give our communications not just a new look, but a new approach to help us communicate better as a congregation.
As a staff, we have been working on this communications overhaul for many months, in cooperation with some of the top professionals in the church communications business, and we’re excited to be bringing these new developments to you soon.