An Amazing Display of Christian Unity
June 20, 2016
Each year in the middle of June, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
holds its annual meeting. This year, the meeting was held in St. Louis, Missouri, and more than seven thousand messengers from Southern Baptist churches around the nation gathered to hear reports from convention entities and to vote on matters of importance to the denomination.
Among the matters to be voted on this year, the one that garnered the greatest amount of attention from those of us who gathered there was the election of a new convention president. Although there were three candidates who had been nominated for the position, two had come to the forefront in a race that was as hotly-contested and potentially contentious as any in recent memory.
One of the candidates, Dr. Steve Gaines
, formerly served as the pastor of Gardendale's First Baptist Church (my home church) and presently is the pastor of the historic Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, following in the footsteps of great pastors like Adrian Rodgers and R. G. Lee. As an older pastor, Dr. Gaines appealed to his supporters as someone familiar with convention structures and processes whose ministry has been characterized by prayerful, revival-centered preaching and leadership.
The other candidate, Dr. J. D. Greear
, is a younger minister who serves as pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, a church that has grown under his leadership from 300 people to more than 10,000. Dr. Greear is also the author of several books and formerly served on the International Mission Board, working its outreach efforts to Muslims. His supporters were enthusiastic about his potential to bring new and visionary leadership to the denomination, and his appeal was very strong among younger SBC messengers.
Following our initial presidential vote on Tuesday morning, we were informed that no one had received a clear majority, and a second vote would be required that afternoon as a runoff between the top two candidates--Dr. Gaines and Dr. Greear. That evening, during our worship time, we were told that, once again, no clear majority had been reached (in fact, the candidates had only been separated by fewer than 150 votes) and that a third
vote would be taken the next day.
When we gathered on Wednesday morning at the time appointed for the vote, both candidates were called to the platform, and most of us assumed that we were about to hear speeches in support of their candidacies. Instead, Dr. Greear told us that the night before, when the need for a third vote was announced, he immediately decided that he would pull out of the race for the purpose of preserving unity in the convention. He went on to inform us that he had approached Dr. Gaines about the matter, and his response was the same--that he had also decided to remove his name from consideration for the sake of unity.
After much prayer with each other and consultation with other SBC leaders, the two men concluded that Dr. Gaines should serve as our next president, and he reluctantly agreed to do so. Dr. Greear was asking that as a result, the convention elect by acclamation Dr. Gaines as our new president. We did just that, and the moment served as a dramatic and wonderful display of unity and brotherly harmony unlike anything we've experienced in our convention in years.
You see, we Southern Baptists have been known to have a good fight from time to time, and most of us expected that this presidential election, with its clearly-defined sides, would be no exception. How wonderfully surprised we all were! As we dismissed for lunch, it was gratifying to hear the conversations as people glorified God and expressed thanks for this great display of humility and agreement by these two godly leaders.
I'm telling you about this not merely for informational purposes, but rather because I want you to know about this amazing moment in the life of our denomination. It was great to see our leadership exemplifying through their attitudes, words and actions the best of who we can be and should be as believers in Christ. And I just thought you should know about it. "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!" - Psalm 133:1
the Southern Baptist Convention
June 13, 2016
For many years now, I've often referred to my Christian upbringing by saying that I started going to Gardendale's First Baptist Church nine months before I was born. A few months ago, I heard a speaker who had an even better way to describe his background, referring to himself as a "prenatal Baptist"--a term which I immediately borrowed, because it even more aptly describes my life experience. Truth is, I'm a lifelong Southern Baptist--born, raised, educated by and ministering in Southern Baptist churches all of my years. In all likelihood, I will remain a Southern Baptist the rest of my life and die a Southern Baptist when it's my time to go on home.
This week, I will join thousands of other Southern Baptists in St. Louis, Missouri, at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, where we will worship, fellowship, enjoy the preaching of God's word, listen to reports by the entities of our convention and vote on matters of denominational importance. I look forward to such gatherings, because I enjoy reconnecting with ministers I've known over the years, and I also appreciate hearing updates on the Kingdom work our missionary agencies, seminaries and other groups are doing worldwide.
Mixed in with the rejoicing, felowshipping and thanksgiving, however, will be some serious sadness and concern, as we will once again--for the ninth year in a row--note a decline in both baptisms and church membership within Southern Baptist churches. In fact, membership numbers across the board in our denomination are down by more than 200,000, and baptism numbers are down another 3.3%. These declines come in spite of a renewed emphasis on church planting over the last several years that has led us as a denomination to have more churches than we've ever had (more than 46,000).
While we are still the largest protestant denomination in the United States (at more than 15 million members), the negative growth trend among Southern Baptists has seen our membership numbers reduced by around one million members since 2003. During that same time, there have been multiple other religious trends of interest that may relate to Southern Baptists declines:
- The aging of our denomination. As Southern Baptists grow older, they are not necessarily being replaced by new generations. Younger generations raised in Southern Baptist churches are not only smaller; they also have less denominational loyalty than their predecessors.
- The rise of non-denominational churches. Following on the previous trend, the lack of denominational loyalty--and in some cases a stance against denominationalism--has led to a subsequent meteoric rise in churches with no denominational affiliation (more than %400 in forty years). One need look no further than the explosive growth of Birmingham's Church of the Highlands (partly fueled by many former Southern Baptists) to find an example.
- The rise of the "nones." Over the last few years, there has been a steady and growing rise in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. This trend is especially strong among the younger generations. For SBC churches, this means that the climate for evangelizing is not as friendly and open to our efforts as it used to be.
- The consistent growth of the Assemblies of God. This trend is interesting because it reveals that not all American denominations are seeing declines. In fact, even as the SBC has posted consistent losses, the Assemblies of God have experienced 25 years of consistent growth.
In addition to the above, there are many other trends and matters of interest that intersect with our denominational decline, some of which may have an impact on it, others of which may be coincidental. What cannot be numerically measured is the spiritual state of the SBC, and my heart tells me that we're in deep need of revival and renewal on many levels. Regardless, one thing is clear: if something isn't done to reverse this trend, we're headed for trouble as a denomination.
So, as I head off to the convention this week, I ask for you to pray--for our church, for our denomination, for our leaders--that we might experience spiritual renewal and that we might, once again, be a denomination on fire, in love with the Lord, in love with His word, Spirit-filled, and dead-set on reaching souls for Christ.
June 6, 2016
Way back in 2004--twelve years ago--I began my first day as pastor of Liberty Park Baptist Church accompanied by a few hundred creaming kids. The reason for this was that my first day in the office coincided with the first day of Vacation Bible School that year, and, while people apologized profusely to me that I had to start on such a crazy and raucous day, I would not have had it any other way. You see, I'm a huge fan of VBS; and besides, I've been a pastor before of a church with quiet hallways, devoid of the voices and laughter and messiness and general loudness of children--and I didn't like it one bit. I would far, far prefer to have a church covered with kids, because the alternative signals the death knell of a church.
Today, we started the 2016 version of VBS at LPBC, and once again, we are experiencing the beautiful cacophony generated by hundreds of loud and messy kids. And, there in the midst of it all, is another new face that belongs to another minister starting his very first day on the very first day of VBS, just like I did twelve years ago.
His name is Matthew Marsh ("Mr. Matt" to the kids), and today he began his work as LPBC's new Children's Minister! As Matthew gets the ball rolling here, he also brings with him his family--his wife Kelly, and his kids Haley, Ailee, Avery, William and Paisley. It's great for us as a congregation to have the pleasure of welcoming them into our church family, and I want to encourage everyone who's a part of LPBC to be intentional about getting to know them.
Please pray for Matthew and his family as well as they make this major transition. It's always tough on a minister's family when moving from one church to another. Even as you make new friends, encounter new challenges and enjoy the excitement of a new ministry setting, you leave behind good friends, people with whom you've partnered in ministry, a church family in which you've invested yourself, and lots of good memories. As their new church family, it's on us to smooth out the transition for the Marsh family, praying for them, befriending them, helping them and encouraging them. The good news is that I know from personal experience that you're up to the challenge!
I also want to ask everyone to pray this week for a successful VBS! One of our young moms--Rebekah Payne--has worked for months as our VBS director to plan, organize, recruit and prepare, and we're hoping that everything this year will go as planned, without a single hitch. She's joined this week by dozens of volunteers, all of whom are taking their spot on the team and working hard to make this VBS the best it can possibly be.
The most important thing, however, is that every child in attendance has the opportunity to hear the Gospel. We want them all to hear the message that God loves them so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, to live and to die for us, and we want them to know that through faith in Christ they can receive forgiveness and eternal life. This is really why we go to all the trouble to hold VBS every year in the first place!
So--pray for the kids to hear and receive the Gospel, and pray for this wonderful message of God's love and salvation to be communicated to entire families as well. Thanks for your prayer support!
Say "Yes!" to VBS!
May 30, 2016
Some of my fondest memories of my own personal church involvement prior to my time serving as a minister involve Vacation Bible School (or "VBS," as most Baptists refer to it). I remember during the summer following my second grade school year being in my mom's VBS class and being blown away at how awesome she was with crafts. Although we only made a little baby bird using cotton balls, googly eyes, tiny paper wings and a little glue, I was amazed at my mom's craft skills (as a student helper, I would later have the privilege of serving one summer in VBS as her "craft assistant").
I also recall being in fourth grade VBS and acting out a variety of stories from the life and ministry of Jesus in full biblical costume, as our teacher took Polaroid photos and gave one to each kid to take home as a keepsake (you younger readers will have to Google "polaroid photos" to see what I'm talking about--or ask your parents, and they will explain this seemingly miraculous photo-making process to you). All of the scenes were photographed outdoors where the ground was being cleared for a major construction project, and we utilized the big piles of dirt and other available features for maximum effect. We even had a fake dove attached by fishing line to a long pole that a kid held over the head of "Jesus" as we reenacted Christ's baptism. Talk about great special effects! Believe it or not, it was fun stuff for kids in the era before the explosion of video gaming systems and the constant presence of digital media!
I also remember with great fondness my years working as a student helper/leader in VBS, starting in the 7th grade and going all the way through the 12th grade. By my 9th grade summer, I had settled into working each year with a great lady named Gail Griffin, who taught 6th graders. We made a great team, and she even let me do some teaching along the way--my first ever forays into what would become my lifelong calling of communicating God's word. Thus, for me, VBS was just as important from the leadership end of things as it was when I was a kid. From both perspectives, the lessons I learned impacted me for life, serving as a firm foundation for throughout my entire life and ministry.
For the above reasons and many more, I greatly value VBS! As I have said many times before, I believe that it is the single greatest tool that we as Southern Baptists have for communicating the Gospel to children, for encouraging children to make decisions for Christ and for reaching out to families across the board. It is a no-brainer for me, therefore, that this amazing ministry must be given a high, high priority and that it must be an "all-hands-on-deck" proposition for our church.
In fact, if you haven't yet volunteered to serve in some capacity, I urge you to do so now by going to www.libertypark.org/vbs and signing up today. Even if you can't serve during the day, there are other places to serve. If you're only able to do one or two or three days during the week, there are places to serve. Basically, if you are willing and able, there are places to serve. Here's an example: some of the ladies in our church family have to work Monday through Friday during the day, so they are unable to serve while VBS is in session--yet they want to help. So, the VBS team has them working as the "Reset Team," coming in each evening after work hours to assist the daytime workers by readying their supplies for the next day and doing a number of other helpful chores. Another example: several of our deacons will meet on the Sunday afternoon before VBS begins to create the "corrals" where kids will gather each morning prior to the worship rally. Other examples abound; basically, if you're willing and able, there's a place for you!
I hope my telling of my VBS stories prompted recollections of your own fond VBS memories. As you recall your stories, I hope that God will ignite in you a desire to help make this year's VBS the most successful ever. Praying, volunteering, inviting others to attend and following up with unchurched guests are among the many ways that you and I can serve. Why don't you say "Yes!" to VBS this year? You'll be blessed and thankful that you did!
may 23, 2016
Almost two years ago, on the occasion of my tenth anniversary as pastor of Liberty Park Baptist Church, you, our church family, did something very generous for us. As a gift, you as a congregation gave us a monetary gift with the expectation that it would be used "to take a trip to a place of religious significance." Although it took us a couple of years to get around to planning and taking the trip, we finally did, leaving for Rome, Italy, on May 13 and arriving home late on May 22, after touring through Rome, Pisa, Florence and Venice.
Why Italy? Well, for starters, Rome became the central base of the Christian church by AD 380, when Christianity was named the official religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius I. Leading up to that time, the Christian church had a very contentious relationship with the Roman Empire, with Christians being horrifically persecuted from the time of the Apostles Peter and Paul (both of whom were said to have been put to death in Rome) through AD 313, when Emperor Constantine I decriminalized Christian worship. We also know that there was a strong Christian community in Rome by the latter part of the first century AD, because Paul wrote the book of Romans as a letter to the believers there. In addition, Rome is the seat of the Catholic Church which has, both for better and worse, been a powerful influence in the in the development of western Christianity since the 4th century AD.
While in Italy, we visited Vatican Square, toured St. Peter's Basilica (the largest Christian church building in the world), and toured the Vatican Museum, including a visit to the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling of which is famous for its paintings by the legendary artist, Michelangelo. We also visite
d many ancient Roman sites, including the Palatine Hill, where we stood in the ruins of the palace of Caesar Augustus (see Luke 2:1
for his significance to biblical times), and the Colosseum, where thousands of Christians died a martyr's death, torn apart by wild animals and killed by gladiators to the delight of merciless Roman crowds who saw it as wonderful sport and entertainment.
Among the other amazing sites we saw were the massive cathedral in Florence (the third largest Christian church building in the world), the cathedral in Pisa (where the pulpit was hand-carved in marble by the great artist Giovanni in the early 1300s) and St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, which was built around AD 1063 (the original was built in AD 828 but was burned down in a political rebellion). During our visit to the Florence cathedral, we were also able to tour the crypt. There, archaeologists have excavated for decades, uncovering ruins of earlier church buildings going all the way back to the AD 400s!
Honestly, by the time we had finished our first day there, I realized that there was more history, more artistry and more beauty than anyone could possibly take in during the time we would have there, perhaps even in a lifetime. In fact, we as a family took thousands of pictures, knowing that with many of them we would have to come back home and do some real studying to gain even in inkling of the history and significance of what we had seen.
I look forward to sharing about our trip with you as I have opportunity to do so, but even more so I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of my family for making it possible for us to take this epic family trip that we will remember for the rest of our lives. Many times during our stay there, we reminded ourselves that you, our church family, did this for us, and we prayed several prayers of thanksgiving for you while in this special place.
God bless you all, and thank you so much from the Guffins.
With love and thanksgiving,
-Beth, Blake, Bailey and Scott
Let the Little Children Come
MAY 16, 2016
One day, while Jesus was ministering in the community, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and grandparents began to bring little children to him. They had heard his teaching and some had even seen his miraculous healings. Having heard and seen these things, they brought their children to see Jesus, hoping He would place His hands on them and pray for them.
When the disciples observed what was happening, they sprang into action. Jesus was their teacher and they thought he was too important to be bothered with little children. They fanned out in the crowd and began rebuking the people who were bringing their children to Jesus.
Jesus, always observant, noticed what the disciples were doing. Seeing that the disciples were turning children away from him, he addressed his disciples. What he said probably surprised everyone standing there. Jesus told his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Jesus wanted the little children to come to him, and he still does.
In just a few weeks, we, as a church, have an opportunity to invite and encourage children to come to Christ. The first full week of June, June 6-10, we will host Vacation Bible School for children ages four through 5th grade. Each year, VBS provides a unique opportunity for our faith family to pour ourselves out by investing our time and talents to serve our community and share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who will attend.
Our VBS theme this year is Submerged. Throughout the week, children will be encouraged to submerge themselves in God's Word. As they do, they will discover that Jesus saw people differently. He didn't just see what's on the outside; He saw who people (including children) were down deep. As kids learn to see themselves and others as Jesus sees them, they will realize that everyone needs a Savior - even those who look like they have it all together.
As we make final preparations for VBS, there are four ways that you can help us to invite and encourage the little children to come to Jesus.
- Pray – Pray that God would prepare the hearts of the children who attend VBS to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. Pray that our volunteers will be prepared to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the children through word and deed. Pray that God will raise up additional workers for the week of VBS. Prayer requests will be posted daily on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/libertypark. If you have not done so already, like our page and pray daily for VBS.
- Invite – As the school year comes to a close, you will most likely attend end-of-the-year parties or programs with your children or grandchildren. This is also the time of year where you may have opportunities to watch them play baseball, softball, etc. When you have those opportunities, be intentional to invite the children of the other families present to attend VBS. If they are interested in more information, direct them to our website, www.libertypark.org/vbs.
- Register – For those of you with children who will attend VBS, please go ahead and register them. By registering your child(ren), you will help us to determine class sizes, place volunteers, and order materials. You can register them at www.libertypark.org/vbs.
- Serve – If you have not done so already and are available to serve the week of VBS, please sign up to serve at www.libertypark.org/vbs. We still need people to help with setup, to serve as guides, and to reset everything each night.
Jesus wants the little children to come to him. As his followers, we want what he wants, so let’s be intentional in the next few weeks to invite and encourage children to come to Jesus by inviting and encouraging them to come to VBS.
the power of recognition
may 9, 2016
When was the last time someone recognized you, honoring you for an achievement, or for your station in life, or just because you're you? Although most of us don't enjoy the spotlight, isn't it nice when people show their respect and gratitude by honoring you in such a fashion?
Each Tuesday, our ministers meet together following our larger staff meeting for a time that we have specifically set aside to plan our worship services. During this meeting, we discuss every aspect of our worship services, from the welcome and announcements to the music and the message. Everything about the service is on the table, and we hold nothing back in our assessment and in our planning process, praying over every portion of the service and seeking God's guidance as we prepare.
When we get to the latter part of March each year, we begin to look ahead to the month of May (we try to plan at least six weeks in advance), and we always find it to be a challenging month, due to the number of "recognitions" that naturally fall during that time of year. Here's what I mean: the first Sunday in May is broadly recognized as Senior Adult Sunday, the second Sunday is always Mother's Day, the third Sunday is our annual Graduate Recognition Sunday, and in those months of May with only four Sundays, the last one encompasses Memorial Day weekend, a time in which we remember and honor those who have given their lives in service to our country.
As a younger minister, I used to be bothered by all of this recognizing, feeling that there that we were taking up a lot of valuable time patting each other on the back, time that could be devoted instead to worshiping or studying God's word. Several years ago, however, as I was studying through Romans 12, my thoughts were captured by verse 10, which says that we are to "be devoted to one another in brotherly love, giving preference to one another in honor."
The latter part of this verse is what struck me so strongly, because it clarifies that one of the ways we show a familial love toward one another is by honoring our brothers and sisters in a preferential way. The idea presented here is that we as believers should go out of our way--even go over the top--to recognize each other, to celebrate each other, and to show our gratitude for each other. The extent to which this is to be done is highlighted in the English Standard Version's rendering of this verse: "Outdo one another in showing honor."
While we might be more inclined to "tone down" such recognitions and celebrations, God's word is unequivocal in calling us to step it up, working hard to make our brothers and sisters feel loved, accepted, honored, appreciated, wanted and valued. So, here's my encouragement/challenge to you: If you begin to suffer from "recognition exhaustion" as we go through the month of May, remember the words of Romans 12:10, and recall how much it means to you when your faith family shows you how much they love you and appreciate you.
And then, taking up the call to "outdo one another in showing honor," celebrate your brothers and sisters with reckless abandon, knowing that as you do so, you're fulfilling God's command, saying a big "I love you" to your church family members in the process. As you do this, you just might transform from a "recognition curmudgeon" to a "celebration expert"! And couldn't we all use some of those in our lives?
(Let me remind you that in this Sunday's worship service we will recognize and honor our church family members who have achieved a great milestone in life by graduating from high school, college or grad school. I hope you'll plan to join the celebration!)
may 2, 2016
Sunday, May 8, is Mother's Day, and in honor of our moms, I thought I'd share with you a few quick, random facts about this holiday in America:
- A fourth of all flower purchases in any given year in the are made in the days leading up to Mother's Day.
- Carnations are a popular flower choice for Mother's Day. Traditionally, wearing a colored carnation meant that your mother was still living; wearing a white one meant that your mother had passed away.
- About 133 million Mother's Day cards are given each year.
- American consumers will spend roughly $21.4 billion celebrating Mother's Day.
- In the early 1900s, Mother's Day was celebrated by all of the family going to church with mom, writing letters to mom, and giving mom hand-made cards.
- As of 2015, it was estimated that the tasks performed by the mom in an average household would be worth $65,284 in the professional world. Go, moms!
I love trivia like this. While it undoubtedly takes up space in my brain that I probably cannot spare, i enjoy learning and knowing random facts like these.
Because this Sunday is Mother's Day, however, this set of facts is not entirely random, but rather carries with it the intent of helping us all think about our moms and how important and influential they are in our lives.
In my years of working with people in ministry, I've had a front-row seat in seeing how a mother's life and love impact children from their earliest of years and all throughout every stage of life, well into their adulthood. Moms are among the most important and powerful molders and shapers of our personalities, and their influence goes so deep that we often don't even recognize it, because its so deeply ingrained into who we are.
Because of their great role in the determining of so much about our lives, I cannot think of anything better to do in regard to the moms in our society than to pray for them, to encourage them and to affirm their value to us and to our culture at large. I also consider it to be of utmost importance that we as the church highlight godly moms who are raising their children to be godly adults, thus spreading their influence and challenging all moms to follow their example.
I hope you'll take time this week to pray for and with your mom (and husbands, pray for the mother of your children). I hope you'll make her feel honored and valued, and I hope you'll affirm the good things that she does and the positive influence that she has on your life.
Even more so, I hope you'll make an intentional effort to point out to her how her motherly care and nurture resembles the heart of God, who multiple times in Scripture mentions His desire and His activity of hiding and guarding us with His "wings," just as a mother hen or other bird does for its babies (see Matthew 23:37 and Psalm 36:7, 57:1, 63:7, 91:4).
To all of our moms--Happy Mother's Day!
the best thing ever--love
April 25, 2016
Do you have a favorite love song? Perhaps it's the song that first fanned the flames of romance in your younger years, or maybe it's a special song that you share with your spouse that still makes you hold hands when you hear it. Regardless, most everyone enjoys a good love song, which probably explains why there are so many of them and why, decade after decade, there are timeless classics that remain popular in the hearts of the masses.
On the whole, it appears that we as human beings are hard-wired for emotional connectedness, and when we encounter something like a song that speaks right to our heart and touches on our innermost longings to be connected in the deepest way with another human being, it sticks with us. The degree to which such things effect us can be seen in how we can go without hearing a song for years and then, upon hearing it again, we can be mentally and emotionally transported to a place of our fondest and sweetest memories.
Still, even the best love song cannot come close to encompassing what we as Christians have come to understand about love--if we've paid close attention to God's word and have learned from His Spirit and through experience how a God-kind of love is supposed to look and work. In 1 Corinthians 13
, which has become known as "the love chapter" in the Bible, Paul describes in detail the nature of the love that Jesus commanded us (see John 13:34
) to have for one another.
Here's how Paul characterizes this exceptional kind of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Now, let me be ultra-clear about something in regard to this love: Jesus commands
us to love our fellow Christians with this love (once again, see John 13:34
). He does not suggest it. He does not offer it as one among many alternatives. He commands
it. Because of Christ's clear expectation of a love like this, we have no other choice as believers than to commit to
, grow into
and work hard at
loving our brothers and sisters in this fashion. I'm certainly under no illusion that this task is always an easy one to accomplish, but it's clearly the thing which Jesus Christ has demanded of us.
So let's get to it.
When we do love in this fashion, we will discover that what Paul said about this love is true--that this love is the best thing ever (he literally calls it "the most excellent way"
in 1 Corinthians 12:31
and "the greatest of these"
in 1 Corinthians 13:13
). We will also discover that it is a tremendous witness for us (see John 13:35
), making it clear to everyone we encounter that we are true followers of Christ, sold out to Him and deeply obedient to Him.
Because of the unique nature of this kind of love, it will attract people who are hungering longingly for such unconditional acceptance and community. Our love will then open the door for us to speak to them about God's love, which is the model and the source for ours. And perhaps then, they themselves will discover through Christ the greatest love of all.
And isn't that what we all want?
Relationships that Matter
April 18, 2016
Many years ago, I heard a pastor talking about how God seemed to use him to speak into the lives of other people just about every time that he traveled somewhere by airplane. He noted that, as he would strike up a conversation with a person in an adjacent seat, he would remain in a state of spiritual openness toward God, waiting and watching for the prompting of the Holy Spirit to make him aware of opportunities to inject the Gospel into the conversation, or, if he had ascertained that the person was already a believer, to speak a word of encouragement or help to that individual.
Knowing that people would sometimes clam up and shut down when they would find out that he was a pastor, he had started referring to himself as a "relationship expert" when others would ask what he did for a living. His reasoning for this made-up job title, as he explained from the pulpit, was that much of his calling as a minister centered around connecting people with God or helping people navigate their connections with others--both inside the church and outside the church--so his unique career description was not at all inaccurate.
This Sunday, we will focus on relationships too, as we turn our attention toward the topic of "Enjoying God's Family," which is the last of the four measures of a disciple that we'll be studying (the previous three were "Connecting with God," "Pouring Myself Out" and "Shining His Light"). It's not really possible to talk about family without talking about relationships, and the Bible has a great deal to say about how our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ ought to look and work.
Ideally, all of our relationships as believers should carry the clear identifying marker of love. In John 13:35, Jesus was clear that this is how everyone will know that we belong to Him--by the love that we have for one another. Beyond the overarching factor of love, however, I want to offer four other characteristics of meaningful Christian relationships that we should seek out as we connect with others in God's family:
1. Prayer - At the center of all strong Christian relationships is prayer. As we pray with one another and for one another, we develop a godly affection for each other and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. I've sometimes heard people say during and about desperate circumstances that "all we can do now is pray." Instead of viewing prayer as a last-ditch effort to gain God's attention to address a difficult situation, making prayer a preemptive activity in regard to our fellow believers puts us in a place of considering their welfare in advance of hard times and bad days. Prayer is the best place to start.
2. Encouragement/Edification - These two words go together, because they both speak of intentional efforts to build others up through our words and our actions. When was the last time you thought about a spiritual family member as someone that God had assigned to you as a "building project"? Typically, we as human beings are far more adept at tearing others down, but the calling of Scripture in this regard is clear: it is our responsibility to build each other up (see 1 Thessalonians 5:11)!
3. Accountability - All of us need people in our lives who we trust to lovingly hold us accountable as we seek to live out our faith. In true godly Christian relationships, we feel the safety and the freedom to keep each other accountable, often with a gentle nudge, and sometimes even with the occasional loving rebuke. Relationships like this are rare--those in which we can be completely open, completely vulnerable and not at all defensive and self-justifying--but they are deeply helpful and refreshing when they are developed.
4. Growth - Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." As believers unite around the study of God's word, we have the opportunity to experience mutual growth and sharpening of our knowledge, our wisdom, our ministry skills and our work for God's Kingdom. In the loving and supportive back-and-forth of the study of God's words and His ways, we challenge each other, we embolden each other and we partner up with each other to live the God-kind of life.
The above are just four (but an important four) of the characteristics of strong Christian relationships--what others come to your mind?
One Step Forward, Two Back, Three Sideways
April 11, 2016
I once heard someone describe his life by saying that it was like he was always taking one step forward, but then two steps back and three sideways. I remember thinking what an apt description that was for how life can be as we try to make progress on many fronts, and yet we find ourselves either set back or distracted by prevailing issues that demand our attention. When applied to our spiritual lives and progress, this analogy is particularly apropos. In my own experience, I've discovered that my spiritual progress can be easily impeded by the "stuff" of life getting in the way or demanding my attention to the extent that the things of utmost importance get covered over and smothered by the things that are urgent.
Think for a minute about the times that you have made significant spiritual commitments--to pray more, to study the Bible more seriously, to participate in a ministry of some sort, to focus on witnessing to others, etc. How often have you experienced interference from other matters that demand your time and attention, ultimately unmooring you from your commitment, away from which you slowly drifted? For me, this has been a common experience. Whether it's family issues, health issues, financial issues, car issues, house issues, job issues, or whatever else happens to crop up, it seems that there's always something that steps in the way, demanding my attention and frustrating my efforts to focus in and make important forward strides in my faith commitments.
And I know that I'm not alone. As a pastor, I hear time and time again from church family members who are likewise just struggling with all that life can throw at us. I hear them talk about how they wish things would go and about the spiritual progress they so desperately crave, and I hear them talk about how life just gets in the way, setting them back or turning them to the side every time they seem to be advancing. I also know--from watching their lives but even more so from looking in the mirror at my own--how the continual avalanches of problems, trials, struggles, difficulties and just plain old busy-ness can step in and prevent us from making progress in climbing the mountain of spiritual development.
As I thought about this common problem, I began to consider solutions, and here's what I came up with in terms of a few steps to help us in minimizing the backwards and sideways steps:
1. Pray, pray, pray - Prayer always helps. I'm convinced that there are times that God will allow things in our lives to get our attention focused on Him. If our automatic reflex is to pray when life begins to pile on, then we may see God intervene more quickly and more decisively (from our point of view) in resolving or providing answers to the issues that detract from our spiritual growth.
2. Make yourself accountable to someone - It's always a good idea to have someone in your life who will hold you accountable for your spiritual progress and development. Find someone you're comfortable sharing your goals and commitments with, and then make a plan to check in regularly to see how you're doing. Sometimes just knowing that someone will be expecting accountability from you will make all the difference in terms of keeping the most important things in the forefront of your thinking.
3. Take a long view of things - I've always loved the title of Eugene Peterson's book about growth as a disciple--A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. The title is a wonderfully descriptive phrase that reminds us that we're engaged in a marathon, not a sprint, and that strong spiritual development happens more often over the long haul. In The Complete Green Letters (a book that was formative in my own early spiritual growth), Miles Stanford notes that God is more concerned with growing "oak trees" than "squash," and growing oak trees takes a good bit of time. Don't expect to become a towering oak tree of the faith overnight!
And one final word--never give up!
Following Hard After God
April 4, 2106
On a train trip from Chicago to Texas in 1940, A. W. Tozer--a pastor and author in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church--was struck with inspiration and conviction and began to write down his thoughts. By the time he had completed his trip, he had taken another journey of sorts, completing the rough draft of a book that would be entitled The Pursuit of God (published in 1948). Now considered to be a twentieth-century Christian classic, Tozer's work is not only inspiring and insightful but also deeply convictional, calling all who read it to a higher plane of reverence for and interaction with God.
Central among the matters that Tozer addressed in this book was his concern that, while the churches of his day were doing a good job of focusing on correct biblical interpretation, there seemed to be a pronounced lack of the manifestation of the presence of God in them. Tozer decried the spiritual dryness of his day, wondering if the church had ever seen such "a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb." And yet, even in the midst of this spiritual drought, Tozer took great encouragement, noting that, "in this hour of all-but-universal darkness, one cheering gleam appears: within the fold of conservative Christianity there are to be found increasing numbers of persons whose religious lives are marked by a growing hunger after God Himself."
As I read these words of Tozer, written some 70 years ago, their truth and their relevance glare out at me as if he'd written them in regard to 2016. In light of the state of American Christianity today, Tozer's words ring louder and truer than ever, and we would do well to read them and to heed them. In his preface, Tozer declares that "the only real harbinger of revival" that he was "able to detect anywhere on the religious horizon" was the small number of believers he encountered who were "athirst for God." And, although he sized up this group as being like "a cloud the size of a man's hand," he was yet encouraged that there were believers around who would "not be satisfied till they have drunk deep at the Fountain of Living Water."
Generally, speaking, the basic purpose of The Pursuit of God is to speak to such believers, giving them guidance and encouragement in their quest for God, while also serving as a challenge to other believers, pressing them to take up this all-important pursuit. Tozer teaches along the way that God has made (and is always making) loving overtures toward us with a desire to connect deeply with us, and he reminds us that it is our obligation in response to pursue Him in "positive reciprocation" of His gracious drawing of us to Himself. Tozer explains that "if we cooperate with Him in loving obedience, God will manifest Himself to us, and that manifestation will be the difference between a nominal Christian life and a life radiant with the light of His face."
If you've never read The Pursuit of God, I want to encourage you to do so. You'll find it to be a challenging yet encouraging read, and you'll discover that its message is just as pertinent now as it was 70 years ago, because the human heart has remained the same, regardless of changes and advances in other arenas of our existence. You'll discover, as I did, that Tozer's words speak directly to the Christian and the church of today, and you'll gain instruction and insight from your reading that will lead you to greater heights of interaction with God and greater depths in your understanding of Him and how He honors the hearts of all who draw near to Him.
Among the treasures you'll find in this book is Tozer's closing prayer in the first chapter (a chapter that is entitled "Following Hard after God"):
O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, that so I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away." Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long.
If you take up the challenge to read The Pursuit of God, I'd love to hear what God teaches you through it and about any changes you make as you "follow hard after God"!
He Destroyed Death!
March 28, 2016
As I was preparing my message for Easter, I followed my usual pattern of looking at several passages of Scripture, both for the purpose of identifying the main passage I would base my sermon on and also for narrowing down the list of those that I would use as supporting verses for the material I would cover. One of the verses that particularly spoke to me this year was 2 Timothy 1:10--"...but it [God's grace] has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (the brackets are mine, not in the original verse).
As I read this verse, there was one phrase that stood out to me in a very strong and powerful way: "He destroyed death." What an amazing declaration! Consider this: of all the enemies humanity faces, the only one that has proven to be absolutely unconquerable for us is death. Regardless of what we do to hold it off through medicine, technology or through other means of prolonging life, death is an inevitability for even the best and heartiest among us, and every single one of us is bound at some point to be reined in by its all-encompassing grasp.
This is why, for me, the idea that someone could even be capable of defeating death is an amazing thought. How is this possible, considering what our experience tells--that no one gets out of here alive? Curious, I knew that I needed to delve further into what this Bible verse was saying, so I pulled out my Greek Bible and my Bible study tools and started investigating.
What I found was interesting. The Greek word that is translated "destroyed" in the NIV Bible is typically translated as "abolished" in the most widely-used English versions (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV), while the New Living Translation renders it with the phrase "broke the power of." In my Greek Bible dictionary, the word "abrogate" was used to describe what the Greek word means.
This is fascinating, because "abrogate" means "to abolish by formal or official means," or "to put aside or put an end to." These definitions are consistent with the biblical understanding that Christ, through the "official" and authoritative act of His resurrection, abolished death as the final say in our lives, negating its power and transforming it from a fearful dead-end to a welcome doorway for those who believe. Of even greater fascination to me, however, was this one other definition of "abrogate" that I found to be of particular interest when applied to the Christian view of death in light of Jesus resurrection. This other description defines "abrogate" in this manner: "to treat as nonexistent."
I found this definition to be spot-on in regard to how we, as believers in Jesus Christ, may view our death in light of His life. Knowing that death is not the end for us, recognizing that "death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54) and that it no longer carries any "sting" for us, we are blessed to have the stance from which to treat death as something nonexistent. Now, I'm not denying the existence of physical death. As a minister, I've been up close to it way too many times to say that it doesn't happen. What I am saying, however, is that the idea of death as the end for us is nonexistent, that its finality is a myth and that its absolute power as our ultimate enemy is not reality for us. Instead, for those of us who believe, "to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).
And in that regard, Jesus has indeed destroyed death, abolishing its sway over us, negating its fearfulness and rendering it--when our time comes--a welcome portal into eternal life, to the extent that the Apostle Paul was able to say, "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (Philippians 1:23). Certainly, like Paul, we should hope until that day arrives to experience "fruitful labor" for Christ (Philippians 1:22); but when that moment comes, isn't it good to know that the One we know "destroyed death"?
the Echo of the Empty Tomb
March 21, 2016
Easter is a really big deal. I say this because I'm not always sure that we as Christians understand how big a deal it is and give it its just due. Let me show you what I mean:
There are three huge moments in the life of Jesus Christ that Christians have historically focused on the most and that have garnered the greatest amount of attention throughout the centuries: His birth, His death and His resurrection. In celebration of Jesus' birth, people around the world have come to celebrate the Christmas holiday in glorious fashion. It has become so deeply ingrained into cultures across the globe that it has almost become a universal time of worldwide celebration and generosity. And, in spite of the desire of many to secularize Christmas, it cannot be denied that the origin of this holiday is completely and uniquely grounded and rooted in the celebration of the birth of our Savior. Without a doubt, Christmas is the largest and most pervasively recognized moment in the life of Christ on a broad, culturally popular basis.
In spite of all this, only two of the Gospels--Matthew and Luke--include narratives of the events surrounding Christ's birth--the angelic visitations to Joseph and Mary, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, the stories of shepherds, wise men, etc. John, meanwhile, tackles the event from a more theological perspective, and Mark says nothing at all about Jesus' birth, picking up the story of Christ with His baptism at the beginning of His time of ministry. I don't say this to undermine the significance of Christmas, but just to point out that the birth narrative is not a prevailing theme throughout the New Testament.
Biblically speaking, the most attention appears to be given to Jesus' death. References to the cross, to Jesus' blood, to His atoning sacrifice and to our redemption and forgiveness that result from it are abundant in Scripture. The cross is central to the presentation of the Gospel, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 2:2, where he declares "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." As believers, we focus on the death of Christ in our practices as well, with the Lord's Supper (or communion, Eucharist, etc.) taking a major role in our worship. In 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul notes that every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He returns. Even symbolically, we highlight the death of Jesus every time we employ a cross in representation of our faith. In terms of our biblical and practical focus, the death of Christ clearly sits squarely at the center of our attention.
Theologically speaking, however, Easter rises to prominence, because without it, the other two moments in Jesus' life lose their meaning.While Easter doesn't receive the greatest amount of attention in terms of its popularity as a holiday or even in terms of the amount of attention given to it biblically--or even in our worship practices--Paul clarifies for us its importance in 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19:
If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith...
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also
who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be
pitied more than all men.
Paul lets us know that the empty tomb of Jesus casts a loud, resounding echo over all else, reminding us that it is through the resurrection of Jesus that He is declared with power to be who He says He is--the very Son of God (see Romans 1:4). As you and your family celebrate Easter this year, I hope you'll do so with this understanding in mind. And I pray that you will appreciate with joyous gratitude the amazing importance of the truth that we serve a Savior who is RISEN--indeed.
Shamelessly Audacious Prayer
March 14, 2016
Are you ready for Easter? Have you bought your Peeps, your chocolate bunnies and your fake grass to put in the Easter baskets? Have you finalized your plans for the big family Easter egg hunt and Easter lunch? By now, most people who intend to engage in such holiday fun are well along in their preparation, making and solidifying their plans. But what about your spiritual preparation? Are you ready for Easter on a far more important level? Are you seeking to engage with God in a deeper way, focusing more intently on Him and on His purposes as we approach this holiday of incredible significance for us as Christians?
One good way to prepare spiritually is to make a concerted, renewed effort to pray on a deeper level. In order to help our congregation do just this, our Missions and Evangelism Council has put together an Easter prayer guide that you can pick up at the church or access online at www.libertypark.org/announcements, where you can click on the prayer guide link. We will also be holding a 24-hour prayer vigil from 7:00am, Saturday, March 19, to 7:00am, Sunday, March 20, asking people to pray in 15 minute increments in preparation for Easter. You can sign up to participate by going to www.libertypark.org/prayervigil or by calling the church office to reserve a spot.
The point of these efforts is to move us as a congregation to be more focused and engaged in prayer, recognizing that we're living in a moment in time when God's people need to be "hitting our knees" and asking for great things from God. Considering the nature of our political discourse as of late, the obvious division within our nation, the increasing secularization of our younger generations (who claim no religious affiliation on a scale beyond anything we've seen in our nation) and the state of America's churches (80% of which are at best static, at worst declining), it's time for believers in America to start asking God with reckless abandon for a new and fresh visitation of His Spirit on our nation, our churches, our families and the world at large.
As I was preparing for my sermon last week, I was deeply convicted and moved regarding this issue when I read Jesus' parable in Luke 11:5-10 from the new update of the NIV Bible. The story Jesus tells in this passage is of a person who has a late-night surprise visitor who has journeyed from afar. Because he doesn't have enough food to take care of his friend, he goes to a neighbor's house at midnight to ask for a loaf of bread. The neighbor is initially dismissive, but, due to the person's persistence and insistence, he gets out of bed to answer his neighbor's request. In the older version of the NIV Bible, Jesus referred to the "boldness" of this man (Luke 11:8) as he sought his neighbor's help. In the newer version, the word "boldness" has been replaced with the phrase "shameless audacity."
Intrigued by this alteration, I looked in my Greek Bible to see what the original said. What I found was that Jesus uses a word, for which we don't have an exact English equivalent, that refers to a complete lack of shame or modesty. In various versions of the Bible, this word has been translated as "persistence," "impudence," and "importunity." Because the word "persistence" is not strong enough, and because most folks don't really know what "impudence" or "importunity" mean, I guess the translators of the updated NIV Bible decided to use the more descriptive phrase "shameless audacity."
And I have to say that I really like it. I like the way that it reminds us that God's expectation for us is to pray big, to pray boldly, and to pray persistently until we hear from him. This is vital because, unlike the man in the story who begrudgingly fulfills the midnight request because his neighbor won't let up, we have a Father who is deeply desirous that we seek Him and His purposes and plans. As such, He stands ready to bring answers and solutions and to respond to our shamelessly audacious and persistent prayers. He's just waiting on us to pray in the manner that Jesus describes.
This makes me wonder if a lot of our problems in America and in America's churches go back to a lack of prayer, or at the very least a lack of shamelessly audacious prayer. What if we started praying this way? What do you think God might do in response? I'd like to try it and see. Would you join me?
Four Ways to Start Celebrating Easter Now
March 7, 2016
It's hard for me to believe that we're already into March and that Easter is just around the corner! Like many others before me, I am finding that, as I grow older, the days seem to move along much faster, at a seemingly accelerated rate, with holidays, birthdays and anniversaries flying by. Unlike the days of childhood, when it seemed like the next thing would never arrive, the years have given way to the sense that everything arrives far too quickly. Regardless of our perception of time, however, Easter is just over the horizon, bringing with it a special season that cries out for us as believers to reflect on the meaning of the season and to listen for God's calling to times of deeper commitment as we approach the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Has the Easter season "snuck up" on you too? If so, please allow me to throw some ideas your direction that will make this time more meaningful and perhaps even more spiritually productive for you:
1. Read the Gospel accounts of the Easter story. If you're somewhere else in your Bible reading, take a break and spend the time remaining before Easter focusing on the accounts in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that tell of Jesus' experiences from the beginning of His last earthly week of ministry all the way through to His post-resurrection ascension to heaven. The chapters to read are Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 19-24 and John 12-21. As you read, pray that God will give you fresh insight into the story and deeper understanding of its meaning.
2. Commit to pray through Easter. This week is our week of prayer for the Annie Armstrong Eater Offering, when Southern Baptists as a whole focus on giving for North American Missions. In addition to giving (our church goal is $11,000), we are called to pray for our missionaries and their invaluable work. If you did not receive a prayer guide brochure, you can get it online by going to www.anniearmstrong.com, clicking on "Resources," "Print Resources" and then clicking on "Prayer Guide English." We're also going to be holding a 14-day prayer emphasis in the two weeks leading up to Easter, including a 24-hour Palm Sunday prayer vigil the begins Saturday, March 19, at 7:00am and concludes Sunday, March 20, at 7:00am. You can sign up for a 15-minute prayer time during the vigil by going to www.libertypark.org/prayervigil.
3. Talk to someone about Easter and what it means to you. A good place to start with this is with your own family. If you have kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews, make sure they're fully aware of the reason for the Easter season. Also, make it a daily point of prayer to ask God to bring someone into your sphere of influence who needs to hear the Gospel message that is embedded in the Easter story. Ask Him to give you the spiritual sensitivity and awareness to know when that opportunity arrives and the courage to speak up in the moment. As with Christmas, people are more open to spiritual conversations around Easter than at other times, and you just might be surprised how God honors your willingness and your courage to have such a conversation.
4. Invite someone to attend Easter worship with you. People are also more open to attending church on Easter than at other times of the year. Joyfully invite them to attend church with you and your family, and then do your best to serve as their host for the day, meeting them in the parking lot (or giving them a ride if they need it), guiding them to where they need to go, and then making sure that they have a great place to sit during worship. You just never know who might take you up on your invitation!
As you put any or all of the above into action, I'd love to hear back from you! Did God give you new insight? Did He open new "prayer avenues" to you or answer your prayers in unique and powerful ways? Did He bring someone into your path who you could tell about Christ? Did someone say "yes" when you invited them to attend Easter worship?
Email me and let me know what God does to honor your Easter focus!
Concerning Spiritual Gifts...
February 29, 2016
This week's article is very special, because it represents an absolute first for me. In my eleven years and eight months of writing weekly articles in my tenure as pastor of Liberty Park Baptist, this is the first time I've ever written an article that was posted on February 29! If my calculations are correct, this leap-year date will not coincide again with a Monday (the day I write my articles) until the year 2044. If Jesus hasn't returned by then and I'm still alive and kicking, I'll be 79 years old then, and hopefully retired. So, this is both a first, and most likely a last as well!
That being said, the focus of this "special" article is not about days of the week and leap years. No, for this article, I would like to focus in on the subject of spiritual gifts, something we began to look at in both our Bible Study Groups and in worship last Sunday. It was about this matter that the Apostle Paul declares, "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed," (1 Corinthians 12:1). As a means of combating such ignorance in God's people on the subject of spiritual gifts, Paul writes extensively about them and their utilization in both 1 Corinthians 12 and in Romans 12. The Apostle Peter also addresses spiritual gifts in 1 Peter 4:10-11, urging believers to put their gifts to use as if it is God doing the work through them as they serve as stewards of His grace. In this article, there are three quick matters I want to tackle that I think every Christian ought to know regarding spiritual gifts and their use:
1. It's important for us to discover what spiritual gifts we've been given. In 1 Peter 4:10, the Apostle relates to us the idea that each one of us has a gift or even multiple gifts, and we are to put them to use for God's purposes. If this is the case, it would seem to be an important matter to know what one's spiritual gifts actually are. Consider this: how can I possibly put my gifts to use if I don't even know what gift or gifts God has given to me? Now, you may rightly ask the question, "But how can I know what gifts I have?" My answer to that question is fourfold: First thing you can do is to make it a matter of prayer, asking God to reveal them to you. Second, take a spiritual gift survey, much like we distributed in our Bible Study Groups on Sunday. Third, ask other believers who know you and who've worked alongside you to give you their assessment of your giftedness. Fourth, find some area of ministry that matches your passions, interests and skill set, and get to work. Soon enough, you'll know where your gifts lie.
2. It's also important to determine where and how we should utilize our gifts. There is no shortage of good things that a believer can do that are of eternal significance. At some point, however, you have to make a call on what direction you're going to go as you put your gifts to work. Sometimes, this requires some stops and starts, some hits and misses, some victories and some failures. For instance, I have always had a love for music. Having participated through the years in both instrumental and vocal music, I wondered, early in my ministry, if music ministry might be a part of my calling. In the church I was already serving as youth minister in my early twenties, an opportunity opened up for me to test this out when our minister of music left for another church with just six weeks to go before Easter. In addition to it being a big Sunday already, that particular Easter had the added significance of being our first Sunday in a new sanctuary and also the target date for a big Easter musical. Asked by the church to step in and help, I jumped at the chance, and things ended up going very well, so much so that the church offered to make me the minister of music and youth. I accepted the position, and within a year and a half--in spite of some good successes--discovered that music was not my calling. You may go through similar times of trial and error before you land on your true calling too.
3. It's absolutely necessary that we then deploy our gifts. When we discover how God has gifted us and we decide--under God's guidance--where our calling lies, it's important that we deploy our gifts in service for the accomplishment of God's Kingdom purposes. God does not provide us with these gifts that we might leave them static and stagnant, but rather that we might put them to work, passionately pursuing God's calling in our lives, investing ourselves eternally for the accomplishment of His Gospel mission. For this reason Paul writes in Romans 12:6-8, "If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully."
So let's commit to discover, our gifts, to determine where and how we'll put them to use, and them to deploy them in pursuit of our calling. What amazing things God will do as we serve Him according to the gifts He's given us!
February 22, 2016Thursday, February 18, 2016, is a date that will forever be etched into my memory, because it was the day that my Dad passed away, stepping from this life into eternity. In Dad's final days and final hours God was very gracious and merciful to us, as Dad fell asleep and went home peacefully and quickly, not in pain and not in distress. God's people were also gracious to Dad and to us as a family, pouring out expressions of love, support and admiration, as they prayed us through this difficult moment in our family's life.
Having been admitted to the hospital the week before his death with symptoms that indicated that he was nearing the end, Dad became very intentional with the moments that remained, spending time with with my brothers and me individually to talk with us about a number of things. First, he walked each of us through the things that he knew--as a medical doctor--that he was about to go through physically, preparing us so that we would know what to expect with each change that would occur. Next, he talked with us about matters such as taking care of Mom, handling estate-type matters, and what his wishes were regarding a variety of other issues that needed to be dealt with once he was gone.
More importantly, Dad spoke to us as a father to his sons, telling us that he loved us, that he was proud of us, and expressing admiration for each of us in our areas of work. I will always treasure hearing him say, "Scott, there's just no telling what wonderful things God is going to do with you in the years to come." Such love and encouragement from our earthly fathers is so deeply important for us, no matter how old we are, and I encourage fathers everywhere to be similarly intentional in expressing such sentiments to your own children, no matter how old you are, no matter how old they are.
The most important thing that he told us, however, was that he was ready when the time came for the end of his own physical life. He told us that he was not scared, he was not angry or upset, he was not anxious or worried, but that he was prepared. He declared to us, "I know where I'm going, and I know that it will be so much better than this." As a result of his deep, abiding faith, he was at peace, and we, therefore, were at peace also. And we still are.
The night before Dad's funeral service--which was a worshipful, beautiful celebration of life--I sat with my brothers, Brian and Grant, and we talked about Dad, shared stories with each other, laughed, and discussed what I should say about Dad as the representative of our family who would speak at his service. Brian, the oldest of the three of us, made the observation that Dad always sought to be "prepared and wise" in everything he did. Those words stuck with me, and I've pondered more on the truth of what Brian said and what a legacy such an approach to life is for us all.
I've also given a tremendous amount of consideration to how Dad's efforts to ensure that he was ready in every way one can imagine being ready, combined with his wise intentionality in making sure that we were also prepared, made this time one that has not devastated our family, but rather one that has strengthened and even blessed our family, in spite of the loss of a key figure in our lives. I've also come to realize that such an acknowledgement begs some questions: Are we ready? Have we taken intentional steps to ensure that those around us are ready? Being ready is an amazing thing, a blessing to us and to everyone who knows us. Are you ready?
Pouring Myself Out
February 15, 2016Since the first of January, we have been focusing on the measures of a disciple both in our Bible Study Groups and in our Sunday worship services. We've had a rich time of digging through God's word together as we've sought to uncover what the Bible says about this deeply important topic. Over a period of several weeks, we've unpacked together the idea that a true disciple is someone who connects with God, noting that this means surrendering to Christ, abiding in Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit, praying in faith, living in the word and worshiping in spirit and in truth, among other things.
This past Sunday, we began to focus on a second trait of a true disciple--pouring myself out, which means that the person who is a sold-out follower of Christ will do as Jesus did, when He "emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:7). Although emptying oneself sounds like a simple, straightforward matter, it is not something that comes naturally to us as human beings. Consider, for example, how we spend most of our lives concerned not with emptying ourselves--pouring ourselves out--but rather with filling ourselves up.
For most of us as human beings, our lives are consumed with making sure that we have not only what we need but even what we desire as well, and the more the better. Whether it's material wealth, attention, fame, authority, place, status, achievement, power--you name it--we just cannot get enough. I'd love to say that as believers we are immune to such a self-filling focus, but I'd be lying, because we all struggle as well, which is why even churches and individual believers so often fall into dispute and division (see James 4:1-3).
As we engage in this seemingly unending struggle to get to the top of the heap and to stay there, the words of Jesus Christ ring in our ears: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). Clearly, the call of Jesus for anyone who desires to be a disciple is to follow His example of emptying oneself of self. Thus, anyone who is serious about following Christ will be beholden to His requirement of self-denial and death to self.
Unfortunately for us, our natural "wiring" as human beings directs us in the opposite pursuit. Fortunately for us, Christ is in the business of transforming us, exchanging our natural self for a new, redeemed self, one that desires to please Him above pleasing self, and He does this every day for those who are willing to submit themselves to Him and abide in Him. This is good news, because our own pride and selfish ambition seem to be intent on pressing us in a direction that is exactly opposite of what Christ desires for us, and we are too often willing to go there as directed.
When a person does follow the route of self-fulfillment and feeds his own pride and tends to his own ambitions above all else, we will often describe that person as being "full of himself." Generally speaking, we don't like people who are full of themselves; there is something within us that just finds such an attitude to be repulsive. Perhaps that's an indication that, deep down, the part of us that is created in God's image and recoils against self-focused, self-aggrandizing individuals is crying out to us to recognize that God's will is not fulfilled in being full of oneself but only in the emptying of oneself.
As we have already seen, a reading of Scripture reveals that God's desire is for us to pour ourselves out; barring that, however, God is prepared to do the work for us: "The Lord tears down the house of the proud" (Proverbs 15:25). On the other hand, those who preemptively humble themselves (pour themselves out, empty themselves) find God's grace and support in abundance: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:10).
So--pour myself out and receive God's grace and uplift or be full of myself and let God do a forced emptying. To me, that's an easy call. Let's pour ourselves out in obedience and service to Him, as true disciples of Jesus Christ.
Available and Ready?
February 8, 2016If you've never been to the mountains of North Carolina this time of year, I highly recommend it as a travel destination. Nate--our associate pastor--and I were there just last week, attending a gathering of pastors and leaders from churches around Alabama who had all traveled there for the purpose of focusing our hearts, minds and efforts on making disciples. Thursday through Saturday, we all met with Billie Hanks, Jr., a man whose life's work has been dedicated to disciple-making. During our time together, we heard amazing stories of God's work, both past and present, and we were informed, enlightened and encouraged regarding the vitally important nature of disciple-making as a matter of lifestyle and as a central emphasis in our churches.
Among the key things I took home from this meeting was a new understanding of what God is doing around the world in countries where the Gospel was formerly all but unheard and where Christians were scarce. For example, Billie shared with us that he had just held a similar gathering the week before with Christian leaders from several nations, including one leader who was there representing 162 million evangelical believers from abroad. In this meeting was also a representative from Thailand, which just last year saw 92,000 people brought to Christ and baptized as believers. He was there to learn from Billie how best to follow up with these new babies in Christ, helping them to become lifelong disciples who also make disciples.
In addition to such encouragements were also challenges, including the fact that there was one leader at the previous week's gathering who testified that forty-eight members of his own family had been killed for their faith by Muslims in his country. Such news reminds us that we are blessed in this nation still to be able to worship and to hold to our faith freely, and it also calls us out to pray and advocate for believers in places where their freedom is limited and their lives are in peril because they believe in Jesus.
One of the most encouraging pieces of news we received was that these Christian leaders from around the world took a few hours one day to travel to Billy Graham's conference center (The Cove) just outside of Asheville, NC. There, these godly men got down on their knees and prayed for spiritual revival in America. Yes, you read that right; THEY prayed for US, because they know the influence, the resources and the untapped potential of the church in America. They also know that if the church in America were to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to become intent on obeying God completely, we could see worldwide revival in our day.
In addition to hearing all of this wonderful and inspiring news, all of us Alabama Baptists were challenged to our core to commit deeply and seriously to making disciples, just as Jesus Christ commanded. In addition to receiving some training about how to grow disciple-makers in our churches (you'll be hearing more about this in weeks and months to come), we were told to consider our own calling to make disciples and to begin to pray in that regard. In fact, Billie recommended that all of us begin every day praying something like this: "Lord, I am available; I want to serve You. Please make me sensitive to your Spirit, and bring people to me who need to know You. Or, take me to them. Please give me the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with someone today."
Billie told us that this is his daily prayer, and he shared with us how God had honored and blessed that openness by giving him opportunities to lead people to faith in Christ time and time again, sometimes in miraculous ways. He encouraged us to pray and to be ready for the "adventure" that God was sure to take us on as we maintained a state of open availability to Him each and every day.
When the weekend was all said and done, I was glad to come home, but I was very glad that I had traveled to Sapphire, NC, to a mountaintop retreat for a few days to be reinvigorated, renewed and reignited as a disciple and as a maker of disciples. In the days, weeks and months to come, would you join me in praying that God would pour out His Spirit on us? Would you join me in praying daily the prayer that Billie recommended, declaring our willingness and availability to God and asking for sensitivity to the Holy Spirit? And would you commit along with Nate and me to realign our priorities as individual believers and as a church, so that we are focused on the same thing that Jesus was focused on--seeking and saving the lost (see Luke 19:10)?
I cannot wait to see what God will do with a church that is thus committed to Him!
The Importance of a Strong Core
February 1, 2016
When it comes to keeping one's physical body fit and in shape, one of the key things that physical trainers stress is the importance of a strong core. If you're not aware of what your core is, simply put, it is a complex grouping of muscles at the center of your torso that keep the body stable and balanced. Years ago when I first started having back trouble, I was sent to a physical therapist who right away started assessing and strengthening my core to support and to ease the tension on my spinal column. She stressed that one of the keys to my physical well-being is to have a strong and stable core. Knowing that she was correct, I followed her instructions carefully.
I thought about that this last week, as we were focusing on living in God's word as a key aspect of discipleship.I considered the fact that each of us also has a spiritual "core," a center from which our thoughts, ambitions, values, morals, ethics and priorities emanate, and the thing that keeps us stable and balanced down in the deepest parts of our being. It is from this spiritual core that the weight of our lives is supported, and it is out of this core that we act and react. It determines how we view life and how we view and treat others. It impacts our relationships and our behaviors; it is our compass that points the way in all of our actions and interactions.
Thus, it is vitally important that one's spiritual core--as is the case with the physical core--be strong and stable. The greatest source of such strength and stability is found in a life that is grounded upon the sound foundation of God's word. Jesus was clear about this principle when He told the story of two men who built houses--one on loose, sandy soil, and the other on a foundation of bedrock (Matthew 7:24-27). When storms came along, with rains and floods and winds, the house on the bedrock stood, but the house built on the sand quickly and easily collapsed.
If what Jesus said is true (and I certainly believe that it is), then I would think that His words should guide us to evaluate carefully our spiritual cores. Because honestly, I think it's an easy and a common thing for people who are Christians and even regular church-goers to walk through life with little regard on a moment-to-moment basis for the biblical principles on which all of life should be grounded. I'm convinced that we often, think, speak, respond, emote, plan, purchase and all sorts of other things guided not by the bedrock truths of God's word but rather according to our own feelings and desires, impacted and determined by things other than Scripture. Some of these things that drive us might be evil; others might be benign; some of them might be admirable. None of them, however, can substitute for the eternal word of God when it comes to guiding our paths correctly.
In regard to my physical core, the therapist I worked with started off by educating me a little and then by guiding me through a physical assessment of my core. She had me do a variety of exercises to test my strength, my endurance, my flexibility, my control and my functionality. When all was done, she pronounced that while I was not too bad, I had some serious and hard work to do to get my core where it needed to be, and she set me to work.
While I'm certainly not qualified to be a physical therapist, let me serve for a moment as your spiritual therapist and ask you to assess your spiritual core: When it comes to how you live your life in all of the aforementioned categories, how does God's word guide and determine the way you live? Is it the deeply-embedded ori