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 originator of your thoughts, words and behaviors? Is it the lens through which you view all of your existence and the filter through which everything in your life passes before it proceeds from you (like your words) or into you (like what you watch/listen to)? If we assess honestly, most of us will come to a conclusion similar to that of my physical therapist: we're not too bad, but we have some serious work to do.
I'm glad I listened to my physical therapist and followed her instructions. Just a few years later, I ended up having back surgery, and having strong core aided my recovery greatly. Likewise, I hope we'll all follow the guidance of Scripture, giving strength and stability to our spiritual cores. That way, when the tests come--and they will--we'll have the strength to stand.
We Cannot Do This
January 25, 2016
On Sunday afternoon, our staff and lay leadership met together to kick off the new year by focusing on our 2016 goals and plans. Personally, I've always been a planner and a goal-setter. I'm not one to just "wing it," but rather the kind of person who even likes some planning and some structure built into my spontaneity. I'm of the opinion that plans and goals are good things to have.
There are times, however, when even the best-laid plans and the loftiest goals can escape us, and we find ourselves in need of someone to intervene and to fix everything for us. When I was a pastor in my early thirties, I experienced such a moment. I was in seminary at the time, and I had become the pastor of a small church in Clarksville, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. The church was very small (six people), due to church splits and the exit of most of its members over the preceding years. The church--Parkwood Southern Baptist Church--had decided to shut its doors and disband, but the local Baptist associational director had asked them to hang on for a little while longer while he worked to help them get back on their feet. His first act in that regard was to help the church find a pastor, which is how I got there.
I arrived filled with hope and enthusiasm, but I quickly discovered that I was in way over my head. Although surrounded with a neighborhood that was ripe for the harvest, our church had no resources, a dilapidated building that was both an eyesore and completely inadequate for what we wanted to accomplish (our "educational" building was made of two boxcars with a "fellowship space" built between them--no kidding), and we were few in number and dispirited from years of struggle and infighting. In addition, the time I could commit to work there was limited due to the fact that I held four other jobs and was a PhD student at the time.
As I pressed into my work, I quickly began to realize that there was little I could do to "grow a church" there. After spending much time wracking my brain, asking advice of others and working up some pretty good anxiety over the whole thing, I came to a stark realization one day: as I was cutting someone's grass (part of my landscaping job), it dawned on me that there was absolutely nothing I could do and that I was completely dependent on God to accomplish what I could not.
I certainly found a great deal of irony in this situation, considering that I was working on a doctorate in church growth! At one point, in a conversation with my former college roommate, who was also a pastor, I complained about my circumstances, declaring that I was completely unable to do anything and had to totally depend on God for anything at all to happen. His response was to tell me that I was in the best place I could possibly be! After grumbling a while over his analysis of my situation, I began to consider the truth of what he had said, and I began to ask God to do what I could not. The short version of the story is that God responded in a big way, and that little church grew to 108 members, baptizing fifty people over the next five years.
The great lesson I learned from this is that we don't need to wait until we've reached the end of all that we can do to depend on God, but rather that we should recognize upfront that we, in and of ourselves, cannot do anything of eternal value on our own. We need to acknowledge from the beginning that "we cannot do this" and proceed with that understanding in mind, neither acting in nor depending upon our own strength, understanding and resources, but instead placing everything before God, trusting Him for the outcome. And it was this that I called our leaders to consider as we gathered on Sunday to focus on what we will do as a church in 2016.
That's a hard thing for planners and a goal-setters to do, but I've learned through the years that it's the only way to truly see something happen that bears the marks of eternity.
The Cost of Discipleship
January 18, 2016
Among the books that has had the most impact on my life is one written in 1937 by a German theologian and pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer penned this declarative statement regarding the nature of what it means to follow Christ as a contrast to the developing culture of Nazism that was beginning to take root and grow in his home country. Among the things that I always found intriguing about this book is that Bonhoeffer, having published his declaration of faith and practice, was soon faced with the real-life scenario that would require him to live out, water down or outright reject that which he had proclaimed.
As Germany began to gear up for war in the late 1930s, Bonhoeffer's friends urged him to flee to the U.S., because his stance of faith and his opposition to the direction of the Nazi regime had placed him in perilous circumstances. Although he initially agreed, leaving Germany with some American friends in 1939, Bonhoeffer soon felt the need to return home and to face the persecution that was quickly befalling all who stood firmly and resolutely for the Christian faith, noting that he would have no right to participate in the rebuilding of Christian life in Germany if he did not share in the trials of that time with his people. In 1943, Bonhoeffer, along with members of his family, was arrested by the Gestapo and would remain imprisoned until his execution in 1945, just days before the Allies would free the camp where he had been held.
As a history buff and a believer in Christ, such a story was very compelling to me, and my first encounter with Bonhoeffer's writings, while in my twenties, would leave deep and indelible impressions on my life. The furrows dug by the words of this man who lived out what he believed to the point of martyrdom went all the way to my heart, and I have never been the same since in regard to my thinking and my living. Other than the Bible itself, no other book has had such a profound effect on my life and my thoughts.
Among the many impact craters made by the powerful truths communicated in Cost of Discipleship was the one made by his statement that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Except for the teachings of Christ himself, I had never heard such thoughts, presented so forcefully and candidly. I was also deeply influenced by Bonhoeffer's discussion of "cheap grace" versus "costly grace":
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline,
Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship,
grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has...It is the
kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble...Such grace is
costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it
costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin,
and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son...
Cost of Discipleship is not an easy read, an ear-scratcher, a tummy-rubber or a back-patter. No, it's rather a book that challenges its reader to the very core, and its stark truths and declarations do not allow for comfortable fence-sitting. It is the proclamation of one man, but it challenges all who read it, leaving them with both the wounds from a friend (see Proverbs 27:6) and the courage that comes from standing on one's convictions.
For this reason, as we delve further as a church into what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, I want to challenge you to get this book and to read it cover to cover. Underline and highlight the truth you find in it; let its challenges stare into your soul and call you to a higher place. Deal honestly with your own heart as you read, and let the Holy Spirit use it to call you into a place of sold-out followship of Jesus Christ. Let it force you to ask the question--"Am I really living as a disciple?"
If you decide to pick up this challenge and read the book, please let me hear back from you. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Enthusiastic Kingdom Pioneers
January 11, 2016
On Sunday morning, I challenged our congregation to focus this year on becoming what I termed "Enthusiastic Kingdom Pioneers." I know that this is not a term that automatically resounds with recognition in people's minds, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I meant by it:
First, there's the word "enthusiastic." The dictionary definition of "enthusiastic" describes a state in which a person is strongly excited and passionate about something. As we approach the year in front of us--one that will be filled with changes, challenges and forward progress, my hope (and truly, my request) is that we as a faith family will approach the pursuit of our biblical mission with an enthusiastic heart.
I've always been interested in the origin of the word "enthusiastic" or "enthusiasm," because at its root it's derived from the combination of two Greek words (en and theos) which were combined in ancient times to describe a state in which a person was inspired by or possessed by a god. From a Christian standpoint, it would refer to someone who was inspired by God and filled with His Spirit. As such, this individual would be strongly excited and passionate about the things of God with emotions that emanate from a desire to see God's will accomplished.
For us specifically, that would mean an enthusiasm for the great "kingdom" mission that God has for His church of communicating the Gospel and, subsequently, leading people to Christ and growing them as disciples--that is, people who are fully-devoted followers of Christ. It would mean that we wholeheartedly embrace--to the exclusion of lesser things--God's desire to see people redeemed to Himself through faith in Christ. As we do this, we embrace God's Kingdom purposes--those that are connected with His lordship in the lives of people.
That gets us to the third word--"pioneers." By definition, a pioneer is someone who is first in something. In our nation's history, pioneers were people who bravely moved into uncharted, unexplored territory, opening it up that others might come in and occupy it and develop it as well. For us, it refers to the fact that we, as a church, may be moving into some new territory for us--not necessarily geographically, but in terms of new thinking and new ways of doing things.
Being a "pioneer" in this fashion requires courage, as we may encounter challenges that make us uncomfortable at times and that call for us to make tough decisions regarding the blazing of bold, new paths. Another mark of the pioneer is hard work, which is required in the pursuit of his/her goals. The life and work of a pioneer is not one for cushy Christians!
Pioneers also need ingenuity, as they find themselves running into situations that require the application of creative thinking to solve problems. Endurance is another character trait of pioneers, who, in spite of hardship, long days of toiling away with sometimes seemingly little progress, and dealing with the occasional failure, find themselves with the ability to stay focused on the goal, to pick themselves up and keep moving and to never give up in the face of difficulty and trial.
I hope the above gives you some insight into what I mean now by "Enthusiastic Kingdom Pioneers." I also hope that you will commit, along with me, to a godly pioneering spirit in 2016!
Beginning with Joy
January 4, 2016
Our church family started out the new year of 2016 with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, as we shared together in the Lord's Supper. Prior to our participating in this special time of communion, we reflected on Hebrews 12:2, particularly focusing in on the phrase that tells us that Jesus, "for the joy set before Him, endured the cross." As we considered this passage, I highlighted the thought that it was His focus on this "joy" that awaited Him on the other side of the cross that led Jesus to endure the suffering and death that He experienced for our sake. Specifically, I asked everyone to think about what this joy was, recognizing that it must have been something of an extremely powerful and compelling nature to motivate Jesus Christ to endure the cross in pursuit of it.
In reading the rest of Hebrews--specifically passages in the tenth chapter--we find that part of this "joy set before Him" was bound up in the victorious and successful completion of God's will concerning our salvation, as He accomplished our redemption and forgiveness on the cross. As Jesus hung there, His cry of "It is finished!" was not one of defeat but rather one of a victorious warrior who had reached His objective and accomplished his mission. Certainly, part of His joy was bound up in doing for us that which we could not do for ourselves, motivated by love, grace, mercy, kindness and compassion for a lost human race.
Another aspect of this joy in my mind is connected with the victory that Jesus won over death itself. For most everyone, death is considered to be an ultimate enemy. Cultures have personified death as a skeletal entity, a terrifying persona that drags us away unwillingly from everyone and everything we know and love. As human beings, we do everything we can do to delay death, and we have stories in every generation about people who try to cheat death by making deals with the devil or some such thing.
And yet, Scripture tells us that Jesus, in His death and subsequent resurrection, took the sting out of death and removed its status as the ultimate victor over all of humanity (see 1 Corinthians 15:55-56). In fact, Jesus transformed death from "the last enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:26) into a safe harbor--a place of welcome, rest and peace for those who place their faith in Him. The knowledge of this great work of Jesus Christ led the Apostle Paul to write, "for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). In our finite minds which are often focused on the temporal, we still struggle with such a concept, but our faith instructs us that in Christ, death has simply become a gateway that we pass through on our way home.
As we reflected Sunday on the joy that motivated Jesus to hang on the cross, accomplishing God's will for our sake, we also noted that God has a will for us to accomplish as well (Hebrews 10:35-39), and in the completion of that will we, like Jesus, discover pure joy. Although I introduced the idea that God has a will for each of us to accomplish, I intentionally did not go into detail concerning the nature of that will. In fact, I asked that each person there spend time with God, asking Him what His will for them might be. For some, it might be to establish a first-time walk of faith in Christ. For others, it might be to settle into a church family and become a more useful part of God's work there. For others still, it might be to "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles" (Hebrews 12:1) and to run with perseverance the race that God has marked out for them. Together, for us as a church, it may be something that is as yet beyond our thinking; it may be something that represents a great leap of faith for us that we have not even yet considered. Only God knows; that's why we should begin earnestly to ask Him.
We may not yet know what God wants us to do, but we do know, however, is that there is great joy that awaits those who accomplish His will!
Ending with a Crescendo
December 14, 2015
In the world of music, the term "crescendo" refers to a gradual, steady increase in loudness and force. As a young trumpet player in high school and college, I always enjoyed songs that ended with a crescendo, with the music building and growing bigger, louder and stronger right up until that final note. One of my band directors used to describe how hard and loud he wanted us to play by telling us, "I want to see your tongues hanging out of the end of your horns when we're done!" While that's anatomically impossible and a clear exaggeration, his point was well-expressed, and we responded accordingly.
As we're moving quickly toward the end of 2015 (this will be my last article of the year!), I've felt that things around here lately have been building toward a big crescendo-like ending. In terms of advancements made, the development of a strong spirit of unity, ministries strengthened and work accomplished, I can honestly say that I'm pleased, excited and enthusiastic to see what the Lord has done in and through us in recent months. And if this past trend is any indication of the future, I'm enthusiastically looking forward to seeing what He's going to do next.
This past Sunday afternoon/evening, we were blessed with what was without a doubt the finest Christmas musical presentation that I have seen at this church in my twelve Christmases here. Led by Ryan Leffel, everything was on a level of quality and depth that to me represented the beginning of a new era for our worship and arts ministries at Liberty Park Baptist. From the exterior and interior decorations, to the interactive live nativity scene (with real animals!), to the hospitality area filled with coffee, hot chocolate and Christmas goodies, to the community children's chorus, orchestra and choir, everything was just wonderful and absolutely kicked off the Christmas season for us in a grand and glorious fashion.
We will soon finish up the Christmas season with our two Christmas Eve Candlelight Services at 3:00pm and 5:00pm on December 24, and then we will have that usual holiday lull as everyone spends time with family and friends, celebrating Christmas together. Then, as the calendar rolls into 2016, we'll once again step into a new year filled with promise and opportunity. As we approach this new year, I hesitate even to try and quantify what I would like to see God do in and through us, because I fear that I would undershoot God's intentions and plans!
Even as we finish this year with a crescendo, however, I hope and pray that the next year will start with a bang as well. Many years ago, when I was a trumpet player in college, we played a piece of music that began with a first note that was high, loud and forceful. Our band director told us that he wanted us to "blow people out of their seats" with that first note, to startle them with its intensity. I will never forget when we finally got the opportunity to play the song in a chapel service, filled with students who were mostly there because they had to be. No one expected it, and no one saw it coming, as we blasted that first note so strongly and powerfully that people jumped in shock and surprise. Someone said that they literally saw a piece of plaster fall from the rear ceiling of Samford's Reid Chapel! I'm telling you this story because, just as we've seen the year end on a high and powerful note, I hope you'll join with me in seeing that 2016 starts the same way.
Who knows? It just might shock somebody!
Our Only Real Solution
December 7, 2015
On Wednesday, December 2, we were all horrified yet again as the news of yet another mass shooting unfolded from San Bernardino, California. In the wake of this flurry of events, officials began to piece together something that was almost unfathomable: a young couple, still newlyweds and parents of a 6-month-old baby, walked into a holiday party filled with the husband's coworkers, opened fire with semi-automatic weapons and brutally murdered 14 individuals and injured another 21. After a brief stint on the run, the young couple was stopped and killed by police in a hail of gunfire on a public street. Police and FBI would later describe them as being prepared for battle--dressed in tactical clothing and gear, carrying several pipe bombs and enough ammunition to do far more harm than they had already done. An examination of their house further uncovered what was essentially a bomb-making factory, revealing that they intended a much larger and broader assault had they not been stopped.
Before the initial shock had even passed, the anticipated back-and-forth political rhetoric regarding gun control was in full swing, and strong opinions on terrorism and religious tolerance were being lobbed about like cannonballs. In the midst of the punditry, a new line of thinking began to work its way to the top that people of faith found shocking and dispiriting: in social media--especially Twitter--some individuals were telling people of faith to keep their "thoughts and prayers" to themselves, often utilizing vulgar language to further punctuate their message. Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut tweeted, "Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your 'prayers' should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again." Jumping quickly on this religion-bashing trend, the New York Daily News declared on its front page, "GOD ISN'T FIXING THIS."
As distressing enough as the event was in and of itself, the fact that national leaders and media would use the moment to reveal their anti-religious bias is startling. And yet, their response in the face of this tragedy is not unlike moments recorded in the Old Testament when enemies of God and His people would deride people of faith in the midst of their suffering. The writer of Psalm 42 records such a moment, noting in verse 10, "My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying all day long, 'Where is your God?'"
The irony here is that the same people making such comments are the very ones who have worked diligently to minimize our nation's recognition of God in the public square and to dis-invite Him from American society. They have been the main drivers of a cultural shift toward a willful and intentional forgetting of God that has taken us down a path of spiritual rebellion and ignorance. As a result, we very much have come to resemble the description of ancient Israel, about whom it is often said in Scripture that "they forgot the Lord their God" (see 1 Samuel 12:9 as one of many examples of like statements). Having given tremendous effort to kicking God out of our collective consciousness and societal conscience, they now are quick to declare that calling on Him in the face of a fearful onslaught is a useless pursuit.
In the face of such vitriol, I would offer the thought that calling on God is really the only true solution to our problem. Back in August, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared, "I don't believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate." While I would agree with her that there are times that laws must be changed even in the face of hearts that refuse to do so, I would add to her statement that, in order to see true societal change for the better, hearts must be changed. There are no laws that can be made that will stop hateful people from hating and murderers from murdering. Even outright tyranny and complete governmental control of everything cannot tame the human heart, and the fruit of that heart--both good and bad--will always find a way to express itself, to the benefit or to the detriment of others and of society as a whole.
So, in spite of those who would put their trust in government and politicians, in laws and societal pressure, in feel-good appeals for people to be nice to one another or any other human-centered solution, I will call on God in prayer, because I know that He is the only one who can truly change the human heart. He is the only one who can transform a murderer into a man of peace or a hatemonger into a person of love for his fellow man. Only the One who can address the soul and spirit is capable of making us into people who desire the good of others before that of ourselves; He is the only One able to take away our bloodthirstiness and replace it with lovingkindness.
And for this reason, my thoughts and prayers will continue unabated. This is our only real solution.
Serving Those Who Serve
November 30, 2015
This is the time of year that Southern Baptist churches focus intently on our international missions efforts as we give attention to the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, which goes to benefit the work of our missionaries abroad. The national goal for Southern Baptists this year is $175 million, the same as 2014, when Baptists gave a record $154 million in response. Our church's goal is $24,000, which I would like to see us meet and surpass.
In recent months, you may have heard about the financial crisis at our International Mission Board, and you may be wondering about whether or not your giving will be utilized wisely. I would like to address this concern in a couple of ways: first, let me point you to some resources to help educate you on how to understand the crisis (www.sbclife.net/Articles/2015/12/sla4) and what is being done in response to it (www.sbclife.net/Articles/2015/12/sla1).
Second, I let me summarize the issues by pointing out that 1) the IMB has always operated in the black and does not have a budget deficit now. Through the selling of overseas assets and the use of reserve funds, the IMB has always fulfilled its budgetary requirements. 2) The present crisis has necessitated a "reset" of the IMB's philosophy and approach to missions, one that is long overdue in regard to new currents in missions and our understanding of how best to reach people abroad. 3) The initial "reset" will require a downsizing of existing IMB missionaries and stateside staff, the first wave of which is being handled through an effort called the "voluntary retirement initiative," or VRI. Through this drawdown of staff, the IMB leadership hopes to move more quickly to a place of financial solvency.
Now, a question that has come up across the Southern Baptist Convention in regard to the VRI is "What will happen to those missionaries who are too young to truly retire but find themselves stateside in the near future?" The first and simplest answer is that some of them will come back to the U.S. and will take on ministry roles such as pastors, church staff members, professors in seminaries or Christian colleges, and the like. For some, this transition will be a matter of moving their ministry venue from overseas to "home." Other missionaries will be utilized by state conventions or by other missionary or evangelism organizations for the purpose of reaching people here in the U.S. that are of the same ethnicity or culture that they worked with overseas.
Regardless of where or how they land, however, one would have to imagine that there is a difficult transition in store for many missionary families as they relocate from places they have been living for years and seek to reintegrate into American culture. Recognizing this unique situation, our very own Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (aka ALSBOM or Alabama Baptist Convention) has preemptively worked to identify approximately 20 IMB missionary "units" (either an individual or a family) who claim Alabama as their home who will be taking the VRI route in this first wave of downsizing. Because of privacy concerns, they cannot publicly release their names just yet, but the 20 that we are aware of have volunteered their information, and their names and other information will be available to churches soon.
Each missionary participating in the VRI will receive a generous financial package from the IMB to aid them in their transition, and ALSBOM, along with our state Women's Missionary Union (WMU), has already begun building relationships and working with them to fill ministry positions in the state and to connect them with people, churches and associations in the state where they are likely to settle. ALSBOM and WMU will also give each "unit" a $1000 combined gift to assist with resettling expenses.
As we become aware of any missionaries coming to our area, we will communicate their needs to you, and I would like for us as a church to consider how we may bless and serve those who have served. Among the ideas suggested by ALSBOM is throwing a "stateside shower," providing for them with things such as clothing, electronics (many only have electronics that fit foreign electrical setups), household items and non-perishable food items. Primarily, however, I would urge each of you to pray for them as they adjust to living in America. Some have lived abroad for decades; others have children who were born overseas and have been raised in other cultures. They will also have needs like places to live, transportation, secular jobs and the like. Their needs--spiritual, physical, financial, emotional, educational and occupational--provide for the rest of us an opportunity to say "thank you" and "we love and appreciate you" in a very tangible fashion. Let's step and do it in a big way!
So Thankful for You
November 23, 2015
Has anyone ever told you that they are thankful for you? Perhaps your spouse, your child, a parent, a friend, a neighbor or a co-worker? As a pastor, I am blessed to be the recipient of such expressions of gratefulness from time to time, as church family members and even fellow ministers bring gracious encouragement into my life. Better yet, I am blessed to have a wife who tells me frequently that she is thankful to have me as her husband--and I am certainly blessed beyond measure to have Beth as my wife!
In this week during which we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, however, it has dawned on me that there are people who seldom--if ever--receive such affirmation. There are husbands and wives who do not hear from their spouse, "I am thankful to God for you," as well as children, parents, and a host of other individuals whose lives are not routinely blessed in such a fashion.
This being the case, I want all of you to know that I am thankful for you. Now, I know that such a blanket "thank you" is rather impersonal, but I also want all of you to know as my church family that I am enriched, encouraged and affirmed by you; I am blessed to be your pastor and your brother; I am honored by your kindnesses and built up and buoyed by your friendship. I enjoy the warmth of your fellowship, I rejoice in our partnership in Gospel ministry, and I deeply value your prayers.
I am truly grateful to God for you. I hope you hear and receive this message in the deepest part of your heart, and I hope you are encouraged and affirmed by the knowledge that someone does indeed give thanks to God for you.
Now, please allow me to shift gears--I began this article by asking if anyone has ever expressed to you that they are thankful for you, but let me now turn the question around and ask this: Have you ever told anyone else that you are thankful for them? Do you tell your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your neighbors and your co-workers? Do you tell your fellow church family members? Do you tell others in your life who maybe you wouldn't normally think to tell, like your Bible Study teacher, your school teachers (students and parents of students), your trash collectors, your restaurant servers, your babysitter?
Here's the thing about receiving expressions of gratitude: they are more often given to those who give them to others! It's as simple as the biblical principles that remind us that whatever we sow we reap (Galatians 6:7) and that to those who give, much will be given in return (Luke 6:38). I believe that such principles hold true even in the intangible things of life, such as giving thanks and showing appreciation, kindness, compassion and love toward others.
If you're a doubter, try this experiment: Smile at people this week, and see how many smile back at you. Say "thank you" even when someone does what is expected of them (like refilling your glass at a restaurant or bagging your groceries at the store) and note the positive responses you receive. Go out of your way to tell the people in your life that they are important and that you are thankful for them. You might be surprised by their reactions!
In fact, if you do this little thanksgiving experiment, I'd like to hear back from you. Tell me about how it made you feel to express your gratitude to and for others, and let me know about your biggest surprise as you did. I just might ask you about it this Sunday!
(This week's article is written by Wesley Braswell, Pastor to Students.)
Macy’s, Dressing, and Pneumonia
November 16, 2015
It’s no secret. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It is my favorite for many reasons. I love the traditions. I love the food. I love being in my hometown, Jackson, AL. I even love the travel.
Our traditions are probably similar to many of yours. We wake up on Thanksgiving morning and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. After the parade is over, it’s time to eat. My mom is a fantastic cook! To say the least, it’s a good day in my parents’ home. If I’m really honest, my favorite part of the whole meal is the dressing. It’s got the right amount of seasoning and no egg pieces (I don’t do boiled eggs). I could make a meal out of dressing and cranberry sauce.
A couple of years ago, before we were to leave for Jackson, Olivia, my daughter, began to feel bad. We called our pediatrician’s office and headed in to see him. By the time we got to the back, her temperature was over 103. The doctor did his assessment and determined that she had pneumonia. He prescribed some medicine and advised us to not travel because she was contagious. The verdict was in, we were staying put for that Thanksgiving. No travel. No hometown. No typical traditions. No momma’s cooking. Nicole, my wife, got straight to work making the best of the situation and planned for us to have a nice Thanksgiving at our home with our little family. She did a fantastic job, but something was missing. It wasn’t just my mom’s dressing either. It was FAMILY.
You see, I discovered that year that it wasn’t the traditions and food that made Thanksgiving my favorite. It is FAMILY that makes it my favorite. As a child, the importance of family togetherness was lost on me. Now, as an adult, I realize that the times that all of my family is able to be together are few and far between. That Thanksgiving, I missed the traditions and the food, but I missed my family most.
As we continue on in our vision series, we’ve come to the second measure of a disciple at LPBC: Enjoying His Family. As a Christian, one who has trusted Christ as Savior and Lord, you are a brother or a sister with other Christians. God is our Father and we’ve been adopted into His family. 1 Corinthians 12 tells us that He’s placed everyone into His family, exactly where He wanted them to be. It also tells us that we’ve each been given a role to play in His family. God wants His Family to grow and get bigger. He has placed each of us in this faith family to serve in our role and accomplish this task.
Hebrews 10:25 encourages us to be committed and consistent in meeting with one another. Proximity builds community. It is hard for us to grow in and show our love to one another when we are not together (as I discovered the year of Olivia’s pneumonia). Make sure your family is plugged into the life of our faith family. We need you. We want you. We love you. We want to be loved by you. Hebrews 10:24 offers some incentive for us to be together. When we are together, we encourage one another in godliness, love, and good deeds. When we are together we receive comfort, encouragement, hope, joy, and help.
You see, that Thanksgiving that we didn’t get to travel, caused me to miss the refreshment that comes with being with my family. The same is true for our faith family. We need you, but you need us. We all need each other. Let’s Enjoy His Family as we join together to receive from God the love, encouragement, and peace we need. Let’s Enjoy His Family as we take what we’ve received and give it to others.
Pastor to Students
The Measures of a Disciple
November 9, 2015
Back in August 2000, I began what would be a four-year tenure as the associate pastor of Montgomery First Baptist Church. Long before I had begun my time there, the church had committed to an ambitious and expensive building program to meet their already-urgent needs for worship, education and fellowship space. Fairly quickly, I noted that when speaking of this new, multi-million dollar building, our pastor would almost always refer to it as the First Baptist "Missions Factory."
When I asked him about this one day, he explained that his goal in making this reference was to keep the church focused on what the building was actually being constructed to accomplish. It was not for the sake of having a breathtaking and awe-inspiring edifice (although the long-completed building certainly is those things), and it was not just for the comfort and enjoyment of the people. The intent, he noted, was that the building might become a "headquarters" from which this resource-rich church would do the work of reaching the world for Christ, starting in Montgomery and fanning out across the world. And, long story short, they've done just that.
As we began on Sunday to move toward completing our discussions about our "vision framework," having thus far addressed our mission, our strategy and our values, we turned our attention toward our "measures," which I defined as "the things that define for us what a true disciple of Jesus Christ looks like." As we began this new focus, I asked a question reminiscent of my discussion with the pastor of Montgomery FBC: "If this church was a factory, what would we produce?" The answer, easily deduced from the Great Commission ("Go, therefore, and make disciples..." - Matthew 28:19-20), is that our product would be disciples--particularly, disciples of Jesus Christ.
Now, if disciples are going to be our product, how can we know for sure when we've "made" one? In order to truly know, we must have a good idea of what the end product of the disciple-making process looks like, and for this reason, our Vision Team developed a list of four measures which we can hold up as a mirror to gauge whether or not we're doing a good job with our Christ-assigned task. I'm aware that four measure seems like an awfully small number, considering all that is commanded of us in Scripture, but I would also note to you that each measure carries with it multiple explanatory subheadings that help to fully flesh out this picture of a disciple.
The first measure, for example, is Connecting with God. Simply put, this means in a very broad fashion that a true disciple of Jesus Christ will be someone who is in an active and ever-deepening relationship with God. The subheadings (and accompanying Scriptures) that go with this measure spell out in greater detail what this means. The person connecting with God will...
- Surrender to Christ (John 1:12; John 3:16; Romans 10:9, 13)
- Abide in Christ (John 15:1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20)
- Pray in faith (Matthew 7:7-8; Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:17)
- Live in the Word (John 15:7; John 8:31-32; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Joshua 1:8)
- Worship in Spirit and Truth (John 4:23-24; Romans 12:1)
Over the next three Sundays, as we examine our four measures of a disciple, I want to ask you to utilize them as spiritual markers by which to measure your own level of commitment and growth. Because, in the long run, we want to be a very productive "factory," making disciples as Christ commanded. But--in order to make disciples, we must ourselves be disciples!
The Neighbor Question
November 2, 2015
Sunday was not the first time that I've preached or taught through the story of The Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. Truth is, I've encountered this story many, many times throughout my life through my own personal Bible study, through others' preaching and teaching, and through my own preaching and teaching as well. It's a rich parable, filled with deep and powerful lessons that can be mined from the spoken and the unspoken details of the story, and the insights to be gained from it are applicable to everyone who is living and breathing.
As we dealt with this story on Sunday, however, my initial focus was not on the parable story itself, but rather on the "bookends" of the story which involve Jesus' dealings with a man who was an expert in the Jewish Torah Law, laid down in the first five books of the Bible. By Jesus' time on earth, a religious group called the Pharisees had taken God's laws that were given to the Jewish people and had extrapolated them out to such a degree that they had added some 600-plus more rules and regulations on top of what God had required of Israel, prompting Jesus to denounce them for their legalistic practices that only served to weigh down the souls of people: "They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them" (Matthew 23:4).
It was one of these men, an expert in this burdensome religious legal code, who asked Jesus in Luke 10:25, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus' response to Him was to ask this man what the law said about it, to which he replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus commended the man for a correct answer and appeared to conclude the interchange, when the man then asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus replied to the man by telling him the story of The Good Samaritan, after which He asked the man to identify the character in the story that was a neighbor to the man who had been beaten, robbed and left for dead. The legal expert correctly indicated that the man who showed mercy by helping the robbery victim was indeed the neighbor, to which Jesus replied, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).
The fascinating thing to me about this exchange is that the man asked, "Who is my neighbor?" but Jesus replied by asking him, in essence, "Are you a neighbor?" In doing this, Jesus moved the onus of responsibility from the person on the receiving end of the mercy and gracious help to the person on the giving end of it. Thus, he revealed that the legal expert's question was the wrong question to begin with. Instead of asking "Who is my neighbor?" the man should have been asking, "Am I a loving neighbor?" Then, the man should have followed up with asking of Jesus how to become the kind of neighbor that God desires for us to be.
Of course, the text reveals why he asked the wrong question. In verse 29, Luke divulges that the man's intent was not to learn from Jesus about how to carry out the commands he had just highlighted, but rather to justify himself--to absolve himself for not having done what he knew to be at the heart of the command and to excuse himself from having to do it in the future. He sought to do this through bypassing the spirit of God's law and wiggling out of his responsibilities to others through legalistic maneuvering and verbal gymnastics.
Leave it to Jesus, however, to see right through this man and to get directly to the heart of the matter. In the way that only Jesus could do it, He dismissed this man's legal scheming and and redirected him to the truth. We're not told whether or not the man actually went and did what Jesus had taught him in that moment, but the bigger question for us is what will we do with what Jesus has taught us? Because you see, the neighbor question was not just one for a legal expert from two thousand years ago--no, it's a question that Jesus calls us to answer today! So--are we the neighbors that God wants us to be?
Ministering Across the Generations
October 26, 2015
In churches across America, there is a new and growing concern for intergenerational ministry, that is, ministry that seeks to pull together the generations and address the needs of all, rather than segregating them to address their specific needs individually. This new way of thinking sees tremendous value and richness in mingling the generations together in worship, in Bible study and in serving, so that the older generations mentor and impart wisdom to the younger ones, while the younger ones bring new energy and new ways of thinking about and doing things to the older.
This new way of thinking about ministry is quite a reversal, as we have spent decades and decades separating the generations with their own worship services, their own small groups and their own avenues for service. For years and years, a practice known as "targeting" has been a major focus of church planting efforts and of the shaping of ministries, and church leaders have targeted specific generational groups, designing every aspect of the organization to appeal to the specific needs/wants/idiosyncrasies of the designated generation. Many very large churches were developed using such methodology, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, as churches targeted the "baby boomer" generation, which was then coming into adulthood and fully spreading its wings and exerting its influence.
As the boomer generation began to move toward senior adulthood (I was born in the very last month of the boomer generation, and I'm 50 years old), however, these churches began to realize that their target would need to shift to the younger generations. For this very reason, today's generational focus seems to have jumped right past the "baby busters" and "generation X" to a fixation upon the "millennials," which is the generation to which my children belong. Do a Google search for articles and books about reaching the millennial generation, and you'll find more information than you can begin to digest!
While such targeting can yield results in terms of drawing numbers, there are certain inherent problems that it brings that churches are now beginning to experience. Among them is the sad fact that our churches have become places--much like the rest of culture--where each generation is segregated into its own little pocket, seldom if ever interacting with the other generations. This practice has yielded a competitive spirit among the generations, such that each sees the things of the other (worship, for instance) as illegitimate, the older generations complaining that the younger ones have abandoned meaningful traditions and the younger ones acting as if the older ones have nothing of value to pass down to them. Each group sees its own way of doing things as better--more meaningful, more sincere, more authentic--and each group becomes dismissive of the others.
Having practiced such generational segregation for generations, the American church is now finding itself in a quandary over how to draw the generations back together in a way that is both appealing and beneficial to all involved. This is difficult, because we've invested decades focusing on each generation's wants and needs, building separate ministries and even separate physical structures that accommodate and highlight the segregation. As we've done so, we've given little thought to matters such as how to integrate a child who has grown up in a fast-paced, fun-filled children's worship ministry into a worship service that is designed for adults. We've not yet addressed how to take a church that is targeted to a specific generation and transform it to address all generations. Yet, as we begin to move in this new direction of intergenerational ministry in American Christianity, I applaud those churches and ministers who are giving serious thought and intentional effort to re-integrating the generations.
I know from my own experience that the richest years of worship for me were the four that I spent as an associate pastor. During those years, my children, who at the beginning of the four years were ages 3 and 8, sat with me on the very front row every Sunday morning during our 11:00am worship service. I look back on that time with deep fondness, wishing that I could relive those days, as God gave me a brief window to teach and train my children by word and example in regard to worship. Likewise, some of the greatest memories I have of serving have been those when we've been able to serve as a family.
Contrast such pictures with the message of a video I saw several years ago in which a spokesperson for a church was welcoming people in a service and said--among other bold proclamations about her church--"This is NOT your grandmother's church!" I remember thinking, "I guess that's great--unless you're a grandmother. How sad for her that this is not her church."
While I certainly do not have all of the answers to how churches simultaneously meet the needs of every individual generation while integrating them too, I am encouraged that churches in America are starting to realize the value of and to think about intergenerational ministry. I hope it's a trend that gains footing and takes off, and I hope it finds many advocates at Liberty Park Baptist Church.
Wolves among the Sheep
October 19, 2015
Before I get into the body of this week's article, I want to begin with a bit of a disclaimer: Generally speaking, I try not to be reactive in regard to my writing and speaking in such a way that I am constantly responding to whatever issues come up in a given week. I would rather be strategic and careful to address issues in a way that encourage and edify others for the purposes of making and growing disciples. Also, I 'm no a huge fan of the "preaching to the choir" approach, where a speaker or writer simply says what his people already believe for the sake of whipping up the crowd and getting folks fired up. While this method may have its place when advocating for issues or running for office, it doesn't accomplish much in regard to challenging and stretching and growing people.
There are times, however, when I think it is appropriate for a pastor, as a spiritual leader and as a representative of his church, to respond and speak with a clear and unequivocal voice in regard to matters that are happening in the culture at large. I could provide many examples of such instances, including a variety of both negative and positive occurrences or trends that have impacted our nation and society in recent years, as could you, by simply going through the big news stories of recent years.
An example of this was played out in the news media of our nation last week, when it was widely reported that a group of ministers in Cleveland, Ohio held an event to "bless" a Planned Parenthood-affiliated abortion facility. According to the group leading the event--the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice--the intent behind the "blessing" was to bring protection on the facility from "preachy protesters" and to "encourage the strength and bravery" both of the workers and the clients of the facility, meaning both those who were seeking abortions and those who were providing them.
Now, before I address this matter in more depth, let me relay one more disclaimer: I am definitely pro-life. I do believe that abortion is a sin, the taking of a life. I am also, however, pro-redemption, and I know that it is God's desire to lovingly and graciously forgive and redeem both those who perform abortions and those who have chosen to abort a baby. However, I also deeply believe that a Bible-based Christian stance on this matter--especially from clergy--should in no way entail support for this heinous activity and anyone's participation in it, whether as provider or a client of abortion services.
The leader of this aforementioned group of clergy (and please understand how much it pains me to use that word in regard to them), Laura Young, said that Christians who protest against abortion and seek the closure of abortion facilities have a "misguided faith." Wow. I am just amazed at the unbelievably audacious backwardness of this woman's thinking, and I cannot fathom how one could legitimately speak for Christ and come to such conclusions. At the risk of sounding judgmental (which apparently has become the "unpardonable sin" of our culture, although Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:11-12 that we are to "judge" those in the church--that is, to hold one another accountable, expelling an unrepentant sinful person from the church if need be), I would place such clergy as Rev. Young and her cohorts in the category of false teachers.
The Bible has quite a bit to say about false teachers (just Google "Bible verses about false teachers" to see what I mean), and it's pretty strong stuff. In Romans 16:18, Paul writes that such people "do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites." Peter declares that these "false prophets" introduce "destructive heresies" that "bring the way of truth into disrepute" (2 Peter 2:1-2). Jesus Himself perhaps has the strongest words for them, which are recorded in Matthew 7:15--"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves."
Without being too sensational here, let me state clearly and openly that those who don the trappings of called ministers of the Gospel and then promote death are false teachers; they are false prophets, and as such they bring upon themselves all of the condemnations pronounced in Scripture in regard to purveyors of heretical teachings.
And, once again, let me remind you of what Jesus said about such wolves among the sheep: "Watch out" for them.
Speaking His Truth
October 12, 2015
Truth matters. In a world like ours, where many--if not most--people believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth, it's important, perhaps even vital, to have a foundation of truth on which to build one's worldview, value system, decision-making process, relationships, attitudes, purposes, priorities, pursuits, and plans--pretty much every aspect of one's life. It's key that this foundation of truth be one that is sure and solid, one that has stood the test of time and has proven itself to be excellent and trustworthy.
But where does one find a foundation such as this?
Call me biased, but I would argue that the only foundation that is entirely sure and absolutely sound is the foundation of truth that is laid for us in the Bible, God's holy word. I know I've only been alive for a little more than fifty years, but I've yet to see anyone whose life has been grounded in and built upon God's word that turned out to be meaningless and miserable. While these people certainly have walked the path of difficulties and trials from time to time, as we all do, they generally display a joy, peace, contentment and strength emanating from the spiritual maturity that comes through a life that is filtered through Scripture.
Our goal and our hope as a church family is to encourage one another to such Christian maturity, and the way we accomplish this goal is through a serious dedication to God's word. In all of Scripture, Old Testament through New Testament, those people who are dedicated to a life of obedience and adherence to God's word display admirable traits and godly character that allow them to walk successfully through the good times and the bad times. It's people such as these that we desire to emulate.
In order to measure the impact that the Bible has in our lives, consider the following ways that God's word influences us:
- It directs us to God - and when we wander away from Him, it redirects us back to God!
- It tells us how to relate to God - faith and love, communicated through prayer are foundational for this relationship.
- It calls us to obedience to God - doing the word is a key theme of Scripture.
- It teaches us how to relate to others - all that we need for successful relationships is found in Scripture!
- It tells us how to live abundantly - life principles for the good times and the bad are found in its pages.
- It teaches us how to live eternally - in it we find how to receive God's gift of eternal salvation.
- It commissions us to tell others - through it we discover our calling to be communicators of God's truth!
The above are just a few ways that Scripture impacts our lives when we make it our foundation, but they are the big ones. For these reasons and all the others, we as a faith family deeply value God's word, and we seek to communicate it on many levels--through worship, through teaching it in small group settings and through a variety of other ministries. We seek to lay this foundation for our children from their earliest years, and we work to maintain this foundation throughout every phase of life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and on through our later years. We do this because we believe that God's way is the best way--that God's word is the truth.
For this reason, I want to encourage you to ask yourself some questions regarding God's word: Is it the foundation on which you have based your life? Is it the glue, nails, bolts and building materials with which you have built/are building your life? Is it the filter/lens through which you view all of life? Are you intentional about learning and growing in God's word? Are you passionate about following God's word? Are you careful to communicate it to others in your life--like your family, friends and associates in gracious and winsome ways that will positively impact their lives as well?
Let's commit together to be speakers of God's truth!
Growth That Really Matters
October 5, 2015
Jesus had a knack for drawing crowds. Pretty much everywhere He went, people gathered to hear what He had to say, to see or experience a miracle, or just to be in His presence. Some who turned out to see Jesus were true seekers of God, while others were looking for a sideshow magic act. Some were there hoping to catch Him in some mistake so they could discredit Him and His ministry, while there were even people in the crowd who, impressed by Jesus' power and authority, sought to make Him the political King of Israel, by force if necessary (John 6:15).
It's interesting to me that, although all of these people were in the physical presence of the Messiah Himself, not all of them became true believers. In fact, many--if not most--of them would walk away, unimpressed and unbelieving. John 6 tells the story about Jesus feeding the five thousand men (plus women and children) with only five loaves of bread and two fish that were borrowed from a little boy's lunch. Following this famous moment in His ministry, Jesus sends His Disciples to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, walking on the water to meet them in the midst of a storm at night. The next day, the crowds on foot catch up with Jesus and His followers, and Jesus gives them His famous teaching about Himself as the Bread of Life.
The part we don't usually talk about in this story is what ensues after Jesus finishes teaching: As Jesus is speaking, some of the people in the crowd (probably the religious leaders) begin to grumble about Jesus making such audacious claims for Himself. Jesus addresses their grumbling, but the end result is that "from this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him" (John 6:66). Just to be clear, this passage is not speaking of the twelve Disciples, but of the many who were following Jesus up to this point. Although we're not given an indication of how many people made up this group, it could have been in the hundreds.
The point I want to emphasize through this story is that it's easy to draw a crowd, but it's hard to make true disciples of Christ. Drawing a crowd is easy because it's just a matter of offering people what they want or need (or what they think they need). Drawing a crowd is a matter of meeting the consumer's expectations, even when the person in question is a religious consumer. Good music, good messages, good ministries and a variety of other things done with excellence have the potential to cause people to congregate in large numbers, but when it comes to making true disciples, we are asking people to take up their cross and to die. Such a message is certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but it's the message that Jesus taught in clear and certain terms (see Luke 9:23).
Such a message flies in the face of our American Christian consumer expectations--that everything is to be geared toward pleasing us and making us happy and fulfilled. And yet, Jesus invites us to die to self and to follow Him. Because of the hardness of Jesus' message, there are many who are religious but not as many who are true disciples. There are many in search of personal fulfillment and satisfaction in religion but few who are truly willing to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
But this sort of growth is the kind of growth that lasts--the kind of personal, spiritual growth that comes through a true death to self and the taking up of Christ's calling, direction and agenda in life. For this reason, I think it's important for us to put ourselves in the place of that first-century crowd who followed Jesus and to ask whether we would be among the people who walked away when the teaching got "hard" or whether we would be with those who stayed. When the larger group turned back and stopped following Him, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked if they intended to leave too. Simon Peter's response was, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69).
Peter's answer is the right answer. It's the one that reveals a heart that is ready to grow. Are our hearts ready to grow? Are we prepared to follow Christ, even in the hard teachings? Are we willing to dedicate ourselves to the growth that really matters?
Potted Plants and Strategic Service
September 28, 2015
On Sunday morning as I was walking down the main hallway by the church office, I noticed something that stood out to me very clearly--a peace lily in a container that was drooping and slightly wilted. Knowing that people would be walking past this sad-looking little plant all morning, I immediately thought that I would go grab some water and give this poor lily something to drink, hoping thus to perk it up and make it all pretty for the folks who would be coming in soon thereafter.
Before I could take a step to begin pursuing my watering mission, David Lucas, our church administrator, came walking out of the office with a handwritten note that he taped to the table on which the plant was sitting. It read, "I've been watered 3 times today! I'm no longer thirsty. Thanks anyway for serving!" David then explained to me that others had also seen the plant's condition, taken action to alleviate its suffering, and had created a big mess as water had seeped through hole in the bottom of the planter and poured onto the floor.
In a kind way, David was informing folks that their service was appreciated, but at this point watering the plant was doing more harm than good. And he was right. A quick Googling of "how to care for peace lilies" reveals that too much water will cause "root rot," which can be fatal to the plant. So, while everyone who watered the plant had the best of intentions and should be lauded for caring enough to help, the truth of the matter is that all of our help was at the very least making a mess, and at the worst causing potential harm.
With our focus yesterday being on serving, I thought how applicable this moment was to how serving sometimes works in churches: Generally speaking, when people see a need, many of them are willing to respond by stepping in and helping out, and that's a wonderful thing. I love it that our church has such a heart for serving, and I'm always proud (in a biblically good way) when I hear of our people helping others, most often without any accolades or recognition of any sort.
There are times, however, that our serving could benefit from being a little more strategic. For example, knowing our places of service within the body, fulfilling our duties according to those roles, and trusting each other to accomplish our jobs is important. This prevents us from wasting our resources of time and energy by doubling or tripling our efforts and potentially making a mess of things.
Communicating with each other about what needs to be done, who's going to do it and letting folks know when it's been done is also helpful. Communication is the circulatory system of any organization, and a poor communication strategy in regard to serving leaves people in the dark and unaware both of needs and of accomplishments.
And then there's simply the matter of the strategic focus of our service. It's much easier and way more comfortable for us to give attention to the "plants" inside our walls, but what about the ones that are outside that need our attention much more so? (Please note here that I am NOT commenting on landscaping--I'm speaking metaphorically!) Does our serving of others go beyond the walls and doors of the church? Are we all just focused on watering the same plant over and over, or does our vision for serving go beyond what's in front of us and extend to the many, many plants that truly need from us a dousing of the Living Water?
Let's pray in the weeks and months to come that God will more and more open our eyes and minds to ways of serving that are Kingdom-strategic, serving that is effective in meeting needs and opening doors for the Gospel beyond our walls.
The Chief End of Man
September 21, 2015
More than 350 years ago--specifically in the year 1647--the Church of Scotland produced a document entitled the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was designed as a tool to be utilized for teaching the truths of Scripture to children and to people who were new to the faith. Written in a question and answer format, it began by asking, "What is the chief end of man?" This is a question of profound importance, because it gets to the heart of the true meaning of life, it directs us to the center of our existence. When it asks about our "chief end" as human beings, it is calling us to consider our highest calling, our loftiest achievement, our greatest goal. And the answer to the question may surprise you...
The reason the answer to this question may surprise you is because it sounds so amazingly up-to-date for something that was written more than a third of a millennium ago. Here's the answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." In this answer, there are really two main points that are proposed; the first of these concerns our calling as human beings to bring glory to God. The word "glorify" means "to honor with praise, admiration or worship." So, this teaching tool of the faith declares that the most important thing that we can do as human beings is to bring honor to God through praising Him, admiring Him and worshiping Him.
That's fascinating to me, because we often treat our times of worship--at least those times of corporate worship--as if their value is somewhere far down the scale of things that are important in our lives. Recent research on American churchgoers has revealed that people who consider themselves to be "regular attenders" of a church will participate in worship once every four to six weeks. Think about that for a moment: the person who participates in worship once every four weeks will attend church only thirteen times a year. The one attending once every six weeks will only attend eight or nine times a year. This is the "new normal" in American Christianity, and it's a sad and alarming development. For those caught up in this new normal, there is no consistency, there can be little sense of community with their church family, and no continuity of instruction can be provided from the pulpit.
While it's certainly true that an individual can participate in his own time of personal worship (and he should), and its true that a person can receive instruction from a variety of sources that are available to us in this age of vast communication opportunities, what cannot be bypassed is the scriptural mandate found in Hebrews 10:24-25--"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day draw near." This passage reminds us as believers that one aspect of scriptural obedience is our gathering together for the express purpose of glorifying God together in worship. Regardless of new norms, it is an inescapable scriptural truth.
But don't forget that other part of the answer to our original question, "What is the chief end of man?" The rest of the answer states that man's chief end is "to enjoy Him (God) forever." To enjoy Him. For some people, the idea of enjoyment and religion just don't mix. And yet, here the idea is presented that it's not only a doable thing, but it's even a core aspect of the chief end of our existence as human beings! If this is true (and Scripture indicates that it is), then we as God's people should be about the business of finding our chief enjoyment in our God. And while it says that we are to enjoy Him "forever," I would posit that forever begins now and extends on into eternity. This being the case, perhaps the answer to the dilemma of waning worship attendance in the present era is found in us as believers learning what our Scottish forbears of 368 years ago understood and discovering our greatest enjoyment in God. When we truly enjoy Him, everything else fades in its capacity to appeal to us, and the draw of the things of God becomes greater to us than the draw of all other things. I encourage you to dwell on these ideas this week, and as you do, consider the following passages of Scripture:
"Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you" (Psalm 73:25). "For you, O Lord, have made me glad" (Psalm 92:4). "You will make me full of gladness with your presence" (Acts 2:28).
September 14, 2015
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush gave a speech from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, signaling an end to the major combat operations in Iraq. As he was speaking, President Bush stood in front of a banner that read "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED." Later, the message relayed on this banner would become a point of great contention, as the media across our nation noted--rightly so--that the work of our armed forces in Iraq and the resolution of the conflict in that region was far from over.
In spite of the fact that a Pentagon spokesperson clarified that the banner actually referenced the end of a ten-month deployment for the sailors on the USS Abraham Lincoln, it relayed a message in conjunction with the President's speech that seemed to say that our nation's work in Iraq was done, and that we could now relax and celebrate. In a 2008 CNN interview, President Bush said that he regretted the use of the banner, stating, "To some, it said, well, 'Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over,' when I didn't think that. It conveyed the wrong message."
In the same manner, churches and Christians sometimes wrongly convey that we think our mission has been accomplished and that we think that the war for souls is over. We do this when we fail to take seriously and to pursue our God-given assignment to reach lost souls for Christ. Such a lack of focus and of activity in that regard signals to all that we regard our mission as accomplished. Truthfully, however, we all know that, as long as there is one person on this planet who does not know Christ (and indications are that there are several billion who do not know Him), we cannot indicate or act as if our mission is completed, because it most certainly is not.
Instead, realizing that the war is full-on and that people are lost daily as they pass into eternity without knowing Christ, our level of urgency and seriousness about acting on our mission must always remain high, and we must always be about the work of planting the seeds of the Gospel, serving as ambassadors for Christ, communicating the message of reconciliation and forgiveness in Christ, and leading others to salvation in Christ. We must always be about the work of making disciples. When we rest from this or hedge on this, we convey to the world either that we believe the mission is accomplished or that we have become apathetic about it and have given up pursuing it.
Such an approach stands in stark contrast to Jesus, who was single-minded in the pursuit of His mission. As He "came to seek and to save what was lost," (Luke 19:10), He never relented in engaging with His God-given assignment. Instead, His entire life was about that one thing, and the way He lived and the way He interacted with individuals left for us a clear example that we as Christians and as the church are to follow.
In addition to providing an example for us, Christ also left instructions for us, commissioning us to go into our world and make disciples by leading people to faith in Him and training them to walk in obedience to His teachings. Further, Christ provided empowerment for us, as He sent the Holy Spirit to be our guide and our internal fountain of truth, knowledge and understanding.
Knowing what we know, let us never even hint that we believe that our mission has been accomplished. Rather, let us with all intentionality press on in pursuing the mission that Christ has laid out for us. Then, someday in eternity, perhaps we will hear from our true "commander in chief" those wonderful words "well done," and then we will know that our mission has truly been accomplished.
September 3, 2015
Have you ever noticed how many times the word "path" or some form of it is used in Scripture? Particularly in Psalms and Proverbs, the idea of a path is used extensively as a metaphor for the direction of a person's life. Psalm 119:105, for instance, affirms that God's word "is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path," while Proverbs 3:6 declares that when we acknowledge God in all of our ways, "He will make your paths straight." Both Psalm 119:32 and Psalm 119:35 promote an understanding that there is a unique path that is composed of God's commands, while Psalm 119:104 reveals that there are multiple paths that threaten to lead us away in any number of wrong directions in life.
As believers, it is abundantly and vitally important that we focus intently and seriously on discovering the path that God lays out for us and that we follow it obediently and carefully. First, for us as Christians this means that we are to track in the general path that is laid down for all believers by learning and then incorporating into our lives the dictates of Scripture, giving close attention as we walk through life to the "narrow way" (Matthew 7:14) that God expects His children to pursue. Second, it means that we are to pursue that specific pathway that God has laid down for each of us as individuals and even for us collectively as a church. This requires a close walk with God, one that allows us to listen to Him intently so that we can discover His path for us and "keep in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5:25) as we go along.
With this in mind, I want you to know how excited I am about the Pathway Bible Study Series that we will be working through this fall in all of our student and adult Bible Study Groups. Specifically designed from our interactions with the Auxano (which is Greek for "I go") folks, these studies will lay out the biblical framework for the path that we see laying out before us as a church, both generally and specifically. Because these studies are thoroughly steeped in a scriptural theology of who the church is supposed to be and what it's designed to do, they speak on one level to every church. Because they were written specifically for this body in this context at this time, however, they speak specifically to us as a church, and I'm looking forward to the rich interactions that will come from the times of study that we will have together in our various groups and even in our homes and beyond as we consider and discuss these lessons.
Because I feel so strongly about this series of studies, I'm going to be starting a "Pastor's Class" on Sunday, September 13, at 9:40am in the sanctuary (we'll settle into a different location after we see how many will be in the class at our first meeting). If you are not connected with a Bible Study Group, I want to invite you to join my class. Or, if you know someone who's not connected, encourage them to give my class a try. Because we'll all be starting anew together, it will be a great time to jump in and get involved. Nate French will also be leading a group on Wednesday nights at 6:00pm for adults who are otherwise occupied on Sunday mornings, teaching children's classes or attending to other duties. I would love to see our church family take this time seriously and give it our best effort in discovering together God's path for us.
When it's all said and done, I hope to see a renewed vigor in our congregation to follow God's guidance and direction, much like we see displayed in Psalm 119:32, the writer of which enthusiastically proclaims, "I run in the path of your commands, for you will enlarge my heart" (or "you will broaden my understanding"). As I read this verse, I envision God's people, focused on God's clear path, running with enthusiasm and excitement toward the completion of the race that He's laid out before us.
But, I also know that even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, let's fire the starting pistol; let's take the first step (or steps!), and let's get underway as we follow God's pathway together.
Deliverance, Fulfillment and Building
August 31, 2015
Over the last three Sundays, we've examined three different major themes from the Old Testament that are particularly meaningful for us as we seek to live our lives in ways that please God and that bring us the peace and blessings promised by God for those who live by faith. The first of these is the theme of Divine Deliverance found in the book of Exodus, where we read the story of God's deliverance of His people from bondage in Egypt.
Together we learned from this story that all of us encounter things in life that have the potential to "enslave" us, as Paul noted in Romans 6:16-17 where he writes about the ease with which we often offer ourselves to become entangled in sin's snares, thus becoming slaves to our sin. Sometimes, however, the things that seem to "bind" us are not necessarily of our own making, but rather circumstances, sickness, or even tragedies that are beyond our control. Whatever it is that oppresses us, the biblical model of God's people crying out to Him and of Him hearing and responding in compassionate deliverance is a meaningful and important scriptural theme (in addition to Exodus, see the book of Judges) that speaks to us and brings us hope.
The second theme we looked at came from the story of Israel's crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3. In this story, we were reminded that God has wonderful promises out there for us--our own Promised Land, if you will--but that there are often barriers that stand between us and the possession of God's promises. Like the Israelites, who responded with strength and courage, stepping into the swirling flood waters of the Jordan in faith-filled obedience to God's command, we too, must "step into the water" in response to God's calling in our lives. When Israel stepped into the river, God caused the water to "pile up" upstream, cutting off its flow, and the whole nation walked across on dry land. Likewise, when we act in faith, God clears our path and give us solid footing in our lives.
The third theme in this series came from the book of Nehemiah, where we read about the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, some 900 years after Israel had crossed the Jordan. As we looked at this story, we were reminded that God desires to build His Kingdom, to build His church and to build His people. We also noted that God puts into the hearts of His people a desire to build (Kingdom, church and others) and that He rewards faithful builders who take their appointed place on the wall and do the work that He assigns them.
Put together, these themes remind us about certain aspects of the nature, character and activity of God. They highlight for us that our God is a delivering God, that He's a faithful God, and that He's a building God. At different points in our life's journey, each of us needs God to be at least one of these on behalf of us. As a church, we also need God in each of these capacities--sometimes to deliver us, sometimes to show His faithfulness through fulfilling His promises, and sometimes to build us up as His people--and to allow us to participate in the building as well.
I want to challenge you to take some time this week to consider in what capacity God might need to work in your life, or in what capacity you might already see Him at work. Spend time in prayer, asking God to show you more of Himself and to reveal His work in your life. As you grow in your understanding of Him and your recognition of His work, you may just be surprised at how your faith grows as a result.
Attached to the Master
August 24, 2015
About ten days ago, I received a phone call from my son Blake that both excited me and terrified me. You see, Blake--who graduated from college back in December--moved away from home back in June, taking a great job in the Atlanta area, and he has spent his first couple of months out of the nest really spreading his wings and enjoying his new city and his new life. His phone call to me was in regard to one of the things he had decided to try out in terms of new experiences--skydiving.
In our conversation, he proceeded to tell me that early on Sunday morning, August 23, he would jump out of a perfectly good airplane at a height of 14,000 feet, free fall for a good while, and then (hopefully) float to the ground, safely attached to a parachute. This excited me for him, because it's an awesome thrill that I've always wanted to enjoy myself, but it terrified me, because I'm his dad, and jumping out of airplanes at 14,000 feet obviously carries inherent dangers with it that can be catastrophic if something goes wrong.
As Blake's father, I gave the cursory warnings about safety, asked about the organization with whom he'd be jumping (and checked out their safety record online) and told him that he should probably let ME be the one to break the news to his mom. He agreed with that last part. Long story, short, Beth and I waited anxiously Sunday morning to receive the text message from Blake that said, "On the ground, safe and healthy." Instead, we received only a text that said, "AWESOME!" By that we assumed that he was okay, and he was.
The picture you see embedded in this article is of Blake during his free fall. Note the look on his face: pure excitement, pure joy, pure exhilaration. But, also note that he's attached to someone who made that excitement, joy and exhilaration possible--a guy named Adam, who is a master skydiver. Without Adam attached to Blake, it would have been a different experience entirely--one filled with fear, terror and the expectation of catastrophic consequences at the end.
As I watched the video of Blake's skydive, I thought about how his experience mirrors our own spiritual experience in life: unattached from the Master, it can prove to be a fearful, terrifying experience, one filled with dread as we anticipate a catastrophic ending. On the other hand, when our lives are harnessed to the Master--Jesus Christ--life can be pure excitement, fun and exhilaration, with the anticipation of a "safe landing" at the end. After all, it was Jesus who said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
I was struck that, at the end of Blake's jump, the woman filming the skydive told Blake to turn to Adam and to thank him "for saving your life." I think that's good advice for the rest of us too--to give thanks to the Master for staying attached and for saving our lives. Are you living your life attached to the Master, fully trusting Him to get you safely where you need to go?
Two Good Old Sayings
August 17, 2015
Toward the end of last week and over the weekend, I was involved in a couple of experiences that brought to mind two old sayings. Now, please understand that these are not Scripture passages (I think sometimes people hear a saying so often that they mistake it for Scripture, but that's fodder for another article), but rather just a couple of good, old sayings that popped into my head that I thought were appropriate to the moment.
First, Wesley Braswell, our LPBC Student Minister, made an appointment last week for the two of us to meet with the manager of the apartment complex adjacent to our church to talk about potential ministry possibilities there. In the past, we had held such conversations with her predecessors, and we had typically been held at arm's length and met with much hesitancy and some resistance. In this instance, however, the manager's response was just the opposite, as she welcomed our ideas and gave us the go-ahead to extend a kind and loving hand to the apartment community next door to us.
Another experience that I participated in was the Greater Birmingham Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham that was held over the weekend. Nate French, our Associate Pastor, worked the entire weekend (and many days in preparation as well) as a supervisor for the counselors, and a handful of our church members served as counselors for the event. Having been involved to a small extent in the leadup to the Festival over the last year, I have heard several times the story about how some of our local Christian leaders--including Mike McLemore, the Director of our Birmingham Baptist Association, began praying a decade ago that this event would come to fruition. It was wonderful to see and experience the results of the tireless and persevering prayers of a few individuals that brought great blessings to our community and new souls into God's Kingdom!
Both of the above experiences reminded me of the old saying, "Good things come to those who wait." Specifically, however, they refocused my heart on the many scriptural reminders that we are to "wait upon the Lord" (See Psalm 27:14, 38:15, 130:6 and Isaiah 40:30-31 for examples) and that there is tremendous reward that comes from doing so.
Both of these experiences also reminded me, however, of another old saying--"He who hesitates is lost." When I was younger, I used to misconstrue this one, misquoting as "He who hesitates is last." While this version certainly made sense, it focused more on the competitive side of things than on matters of eternal significance. Although I'm not sure what the original author's intent was with this old proverb, I am reminded by it that God often provides opportunities in our lives to take significant steps of obedience, and sometimes those open doors of opportunity are only open for a time. If we hesitate in stepping through them, we show a lack of enthusiasm for the things of God, a lack of faith in God and/or a lack of obedience to God. And people, as well as opportunities, may be lost as a result.
In the case of the apartment ministry opportunities, God has provided an incredible open door for us, and Wesley and I intend to make the most of it. As we make you aware of how you may be involved, I hope you'll do the same, enthusiastically. In regard to the Festival of Hope, I think about the countless leaders and volunteers (many of whom I know personally) who sacrificed an enormous amount of time and energy over the last months and years to bring to reality an event that brought blessing and hope to an entire metropolitan area. My prayer is that it will continue to encourage the local churches and that it will spark a city-wide revival as well. I'm always excited to see and experience God's open doors of Kingdom opportunity!
Has God opened doors to you as a result of your waiting faithfully and patiently? Are there opportunities for ministry and the Gospel available to you right now? If so, don't hesitate--run through them!
God is Gracious
August 10, 2015
Last week's article about the recent trials and travails of the Guffin family really seemed to hit a chord with a lot of folks. As I heard from people about the article through emails, text messages and good old face-to-face conversations, there were two things that stood out to me about why people were affected by what I wrote: several people told me that they were just concerned and were glad to hear things "straight from the horse's mouth," so that they would have correct information and would also know how to pray for us. For some of those people and additional others, however, the article reflected what they themselves have experienced as they have walked through similar and even more difficult trials of their own.
For the above reasons--especially the second--I wanted to write a follow-up article, because I felt it necessary and even helpful to recount for you how, in the midst of the past few weeks, the most outstanding thing that my family and I have experienced is the overwhelming grace and kindness of God toward us. Please let me provide some examples of what I mean:
First, as my family and I have dealt with medical concerns, we have seen God's grace at work through the medical professionals who have served as His instruments in bringing us back to good health. Although there are numerous individuals who fit into this category, including some of the finest doctors, nurses and technicians anywhere on the planet, I want to single out one individual, because many of you know her and because she was there to help with Beth, with my mom and with me as we all had surgery within the span of two weeks. The person I'm referring to is Pam Waudby, who serves as a CRNA (nurse anesthetist) at Trinity Medical Center.
Pam grew up in our church, and she and her family have been good friends and neighbors of ours for many years now. When Beth was anxious about her neck surgery, it was Pam who prayed over Beth and sang praise and worship music with her as Beth was being anesthetized. Before my mom's surgery, Pam "prayed the sweetest prayer" (Mom's words) before they too her into the operating room. Prior to my surgery, Pam also prayed with me and served as a friendly face along the way. She was also kind and gracious to our family and friends, coming out into the waiting room with each surgery to give us progress reports as she was able.
God's grace was also made clear to us through our LPBC family (and many other wonderful Christian friends) who overwhelmed us with prayers, weeks' worth of wonderful food (Beth and I have both gained weight!), visits, phone calls, text messages, emails and a truckload of cards. Our church and our Christian friends have been a comfort, strength and encouragement to us as we've experienced a variety of issues as of late. So many of you even reached out to us with sympathy regarding the loss of our little dog Molly, and we appreciate your kindness more than you know.
I would be terribly remiss if I failed to mention both my co-workers and Beth's work family as well. In both cases, we have been encouraged and lifted up by the kindness, assistance and patience of those alongside whom we work. From my perspective, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have the confidence that our church staff--with very little notice--can pick up extra responsibilities and keep everything on track for our congregation in my absence.
While I could continue for many more paragraphs, talking about God's grace through the healing of our physical bodies and about the "no cancer" diagnosis I received from my pathology report(!), I just want to note something in case you missed it: As I've talked about God's grace, I've pretty much just talked about what people have done for us. I did this intentionally, because I wanted to highlight that each of us has the ability and endless opportunities to serve as conduits of God's grace and kindness to others. Every time we pray for someone, encourage someone, minister to someone, speak a kind word to someone or even perform a kind act for someone, we display the character of our Father for the world to see and experience. We also build up one another in God's grace, fleshing out the scriptural command in 1 Peter 4:10--"Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms."
It gives me great joy to have seen and experienced so many of you doing just that. Thank you, and may God bless you all.
August 3, 2015
About a week and a half ago, I had to have my thyroid removed, my sixth surgery since June 2004, when I became the pastor of Liberty Park Baptist. As I was recovering, I received a text message from a friend and former church member who now lives in Texas, asking me how I was feeling. My immediate, half-joking reply was, "I'm feeling like if they take anything else out of me, I'm not going to have much left." After some other back and forth comments, we wished each other well and ended our text message conversation.
As I thought about it later, however, I began to think about this summer and how it seems like Beth and I are walking through one of those transitional times in life when it does seem as if pieces of us, both large and small, are being pulled away in different directions. It all started with our son, Blake, moving away from home to take a job in Atlanta, Georgia. Although he had already lived away from home while in college, he was then only twenty minutes from home, not three hours. And, while we are certainly proud of his accomplishments (just ask us!), his move was tough for us emotionally. It's like a piece of us has been removed
As the summer has continued on, Beth required surgery to her neck to remove a ruptured disc, just two weeks to the day before my surgery (my mom also had a back surgery in between our two surgeries). In the middle of all of this, one of Beth's brothers is moving, and Beth's mom is in the process of relocating to an assisted living facility. As she makes this move, her house, which has been the family home for more than forty years, will be sold. More pieces being pulled away.
Throw into the above mix the death of our beloved Molly, our sweet little puppy dog who has graced our family with her joyous presence for fifteen years. Molly's death deeply affected all of us in the family, and we'll be grieving her loss for a long time to come. Yet another piece of us is gone.
And then there's our daughter, Bailey, who will be moving out of the house in less than two weeks to begin her freshman year in college. Once again, we are very, very proud of her, but with her departure, Beth and I will suddenly become empty-nesters, after having spent almost half of our lives raising our children. More pieces--our daughter and a large part of our identity--gone.
Lots of pieces, pulled away one by one. Now, please understand that I'm not saying that these transitions for us are greater or worse than those that others have undertaken. No--I've seen families devastated by one tragic loss after another, people uprooted and moved due to catastrophic economic factors, relationships torn apart, all kinds of terrible and difficult things. I've seen people whose lives would rival that of Job, who had everything--family, health, financial security--and lost it. Well, he lost everything but his faith.
Among the responses of Job to his losses that have taken on a life of their own is his declaration found in Job 1:21--"The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Far from being an expression of despair and resignation, Job's statement serves as an affirmation of faith; it is indeed the Lord who blesses our lives with every good thing we have and experience.
Scripture is filled with such affirmations and encouragements: James 1:17 proclaims that "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." Jesus declares in Matthew 7:11 that our "Father in heaven" stands ready to "give good things to those who ask Him." And in 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul stresses that we are to set our hope "on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy."
While our tendency as human beings is to focus on the taking away part of Job's statement, a broader look at Scripture and at our lives will reveal that, while we will in this life experience the ebb and flow of giving and taking away, our God is a generous and loving God, a Father who cares more for us than we could ever fathom and who blesses us in ways that we are not able even to understand and acknowledge. So, while I'm painfully aware when pieces of my life are pulled away, my faith, my understanding of Scripture and my experience tell me that my Father in heaven is behind the scenes, preparing to add many more pieces that I cannot even imagine and that will bless me yet in years to come.
And that is why I choose to say, "Blessed be the name of the Lord."
An Insight Gained on the Mountain
July 27, 2015
(This week's post is written by Nate French, Associate Pastor)
The summer after I graduated from high school, I served as an Assistant Counselor at Camp Rockmont, a Christian summer camp for boys, in Black Mountain, North Carolina. As an Assistant Counselor, my job was to serve as a mentor for the 8-13 boys who were assigned to my cabin. As an Assistant Counselor, I worked under the supervision of a Counselor, who led our cabin. The first counselor I worked under was Mike. Mike was a few years older than me and was in college. He had grown up attending Camp Rockmont and knew all there was to know about the camp.
Camp Rockmont is located at the base of a mountain. At least once each session, we were instructed to take our cabin on a hike to the top of the mountain. The first hike our cabin made up the mountain was quite an adventure. We left late in the afternoon because we planned to stop at a shelter on the way up and camp overnight. Mike, having hiked the mountain many times before, led the way. I, having never made the hike before, took up a position at the back of our group to make sure we did not lose anyone along the trail. When we reached our overnight shelter, we were joined by another cabin of boys who were also hiking up the mountain. After supper, we all settled in for a good night’s sleep.
We woke up early the next day, planning to summit the mountain, enjoy the scenery, and then hike back down to the camp. After breakfast, Mike led both cabins to the summit of the mountain. At the summit, we took some time to let the boys enjoy God’s creation. After a while, we decided it was time to head back down the mountain to the camp. Since our cabins had joined together the night before and the boys seemed to be getting along, we decided to make the trek back down the mountain together.
Mike led the joint group down the mountain. The other cabin’s counselor, who had also grown up attending Camp Rockmont, took up a position in the middle of our group. I, having the least experience, again took up a position in the back to make sure that none of the boys wandered away. I am not sure when it happened, but at some point on the way down, the back part of our group was separated from the front part of our group. I was no longer following Mike; I was now following the counselor of the other cabin. At first, I was not that worried. He had made the hike many times and appeared to know what he was doing.
However, before too long, it became apparent that the other counselor did not know what he was doing and that we were, in fact, lost. When that realization first hit me, I felt helpless and scared. I had no idea how to get back to camp. And I had no idea how to get the boys with us back to camp.
One day, while he was teaching, Jesus encountered a crowd of people who felt the same way I did that day on the mountain. Matthew writes, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NIV). Each day, we are surrounded by people who feel just like that crowd felt and just like I felt on the mountain – helpless and scared. These are people who are trying to make it through life, but who really do not know where they are going, how to get there, or whom to follow.
Having compassion on the crowd, Jesus turned to His disciples and made an interesting observation and request. I believe He makes the same observation of those around us and the same request of us. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field” (Matthew 9:37-38 NIV). Many of our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers feel helpless and scared. Pray this week that God would give you eyes to see the harvest, the courage to serve as a worker in His harvest field, and that He will send out more workers.” As someone who once found himself helpless and scared on the side of a mountain, I know that the one that He leads you to help will be glad you did.
Turning and Returning
July 20, 2015
One of the issues that appears to be at the heart of our ongoing cultural descent in America is the "dumbing down" of sin that has occurred over the last several decades and that has increased in its intensity and intentionality in recent years. What began initially as an acceptance of a variety of sinful behaviors, lifestyles and attitudes on a broad societal level has transformed--in some cases--into an attempt by some to force approval by others whose beliefs and consciences stand in contradiction to these new societal norms. With such forced efforts being pushed through with legal backing from the highest authorities in our land, one has to wonder--and many have begun to do so--how long society will allow those who object conscientiously to continue to hold to their beliefs without broad, open, government-backed and culturally approved ostracism of and eventual persecution of people of deeply-held religious faith. As some of us see such storm clouds looming on the horizon, we begin to entertain questions concerning how we got here in the first place. How did we as a nation begin with a willingness to die for religious freedom, guaranteeing such freedom in our Constitution, and end up in a place where these same freedoms are now in peril?
The answer can be found time and time again in the Old Testament, by reading about Israel's back-and-forth relationship with God, and their constantly-repeated cycle of sin, suffering, repentance and deliverance. In the book of Judges alone, the pattern is evident, as the nation of Israel seems to be stuck on a carousel of obedience and disobedience, as the writer of Judges notes multiple times with phrases such as "Once again, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord." (See Judges 2:11, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 8:33, 10:6, 13:1)
Such cycles often happened in generational intervals for Israel, as one generation would dive deeply into sinfulness, only to be given over by God into the hands of their enemies as a result of their disobedience. After suffering--sometimes for years--they would cry out to God, He would raise up a leader to rescue them, and then they would live in faithfulness for a period of time, only to forget the Lord again and fall into sinfulness as a nation. Israel appears stuck in a never-ending cycle of turning from and returning to God.
It doesn't take a biblical/theological genius to see that America seems to follow a similar pattern as well. Prior to America's founding, the colonies were not very Christian in character. As a society, they were far from God, up until the First Great Awakening, which occurred in the early to mid-1700s. This spiritual revival left an impact on our nation that lasted through its founding--and yet the revival fires waned and cooled by the late 1700s. Then, beginning around the turn of the 19th century, America experienced another revival, often called the Second great Awakening, a time of deep spiritual renewal that lasted until around 1840.
Once again, our nation cooled toward the things of God, then experienced a Civil War and went through a period of immense upheaval in its aftermath. Then, in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, America experienced another awakening--the Revivalism Movement--again drawing close to God as a nation. Following World War I, America went through a time of prosperity, experienced The Great Depression., and then was drawn into World War II. After this Second World War, America again turned its heart toward God, as churches flourished, revivals broke out, and people were baptized in numbers that we haven't seen since.
Culturally, starting in the late 1960s and continuing through the present, we've been in another cultural slide away from God. What's disturbing about this one, however, is that it feels deeper, longer and perhaps even more permanent in many ways than in times past. With the constant media presence reinforcing ungodliness in our lives and aspects of our culture being redefined at the highest levels of government in ways that will be difficult--if not impossible--to reverse, this cultural slide seems as if it may be harder to turn around.
I know that such a sentiment doesn't sound very hopeful or optimistic, but let me assure you that my hope is not in culture. I assume up front that the world will be worldly, and I know that sin doesn't just "get better." No, my hope is in the Lord, and I trust that, in His due time, He will deal with America, bringing either wrath or revival--or maybe both. What that will look like, I do not know and would never venture to guess, but my prayer is that, once again, we will turn to Him. And sooner rather than later.
Raising Believers in Babylon
July 13, 2015
As Christians continue to try to digest all of the cultural changes that continue to come our way and try to make sense of the animosity that is aimed toward us on so many levels, one of the recurring questions that I hear from young Christian parents concerns how one goes about raising children as believers in a world that will be hostile to them and that will defy and challenge them at every turn. I wish I could provide for these parents a quick and easy answer, a solution that can be readily applied and that is guaranteed to work. My gut tells me, however, that this is a subject that will have books written about it in the coming years, and that communities of Christian parents who are serious about raising their children to be Bible-believing Christ-followers will develop and will discover together how best to raise believers in "Babylon."
While I would never assume to be able to provide "the answer" in a brief article such as this, I do believe that I can provide some suggestions and encouragement that will at least get parents pointed in the right direction as they seek to raise Christian children in what is looking more and more to be a post-Christian era:
First, I would say to parents that you need to make sure that you're a disciple yourself. If you are going to lead your child to be a faithful follower of Christ, you need to be one first. Interestingly, in spite of our nation's terrible spiritual state, the majority of people in America self-identify as Christians. Then why does it seem that our society has such an anti-Christian bias? I don't have empirical data to back this up, but my firm belief is that a good number of those who self-identify as Christians are not what one would consider to be true disciples, but are more of what would be deemed as "cultural Christians"--those who have grown up in it, have a family attachment to it, maybe even participate in church and are even upstanding and moral people, but who are not really Christ-followers at their core.
So, how does one become a true Christ-follower? Simply put, this person must have an intimate, ongoing, growing relationship with Christ, based in faith and love and fueled by prayer. You see, to be a Christian in the philosophical sense is not enough--a person who has simply grabbed onto Christianity as a philosophy of life will not have the spiritual wherewithal to stand when things get difficult and will compromise and conform as the world turns up the heat. Neither is it enough to be a Christian in purely legalistic terms--in other words, a person who has disciplined themselves to live morally, to practice Christian disciplines and to hold rigidly to Christian standards, yet does so not as fruit of a growing relationship with Christ but merely because they have completely committed to follow this lifestyle and to expect the same of others. Such a person often descends into cynicism, self-righteousness and a judgmental mentality toward others.
Neither worldly compromise nor judgmental cynicism is an acceptable path for the true follower of Christ. A real, growing relationship with Christ will allow a parent to navigate the waters of this new age and will transform him or her into a true child of God, a fruit-bearing branch that is attached to the True Vine (see John 15:1-8) and that is able to stand under trial.
Another brief piece of advice concerns how we train our children as cultural warriors for Christ: In the past, we taught our children to love Jesus, to be good and to be kind to others. That's still a good start, but we can no longer assume that our children will be received kindly by the culture at large, nor can we assume that their beliefs will be the majority's belief system and that they will go unchallenged. As a result, parents must begin to train their children from their earliest not just to have faith, but also to have an answer for their faith. We are already seeing summer camps developing for Christian kids that have as their theme the teaching of Christian apologetics--the defense of the faith. A child's first round of defense, however, must come from their home, so it is becoming more and more incumbent upon parents to know why they believe what they believe and to pass it along to their children.
Space prohibits me from continuing in this article, but this is a subject that we will broach numerous times in the years to come. In the meantime, remember, parents, that praying daily for your children and living a life of faithfulness before them--especially at home--will make a huge impact on your kids as they grapple with a culture that is growing increasingly hostile to our faith.
How Should We Then Live?
July 6, 2015
Back in the late 1970s, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, an American theologian, wrote a book and created a documentary film series entitled How Should We Then Live? The book/film series addressed the trend toward secular humanism in western culture and its resulting deleterious effects. Schaeffer drew his title verbatim from the King James Version of Ezekiel 33:10, where God is speaking to Ezekiel regarding Israel and the prophet's role in that nation as one who has been entrusted with a message from God for His people. In the first nine verses of Ezekiel 33, the Lord relates to the prophet in pretty stark terms that it is his responsibility to warn the nation of God's impending judgment for their sin ("I have made you a watchman over Israel...") so that its people can realize the depth of their sinfulness, repent and return to God and His ways. If Ezekiel refused to warn them, God would hold him accountable ("...his blood I will require at your hand."). If, however, the prophet did warn them and they then refused to turn from their sinfulness, he had done his duty in the eyes of God.
In Ezekiel 33:10-11, God then spells out the message that Ezekiel is to deliver to Israel: "This is what you are saying: 'Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?' Say to them, 'As surely as I live,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?'" (NIV).
Schaeffer--almost 40 years ago--addressed in a very prescient way the route of secularism and humanism that our nation (and really all of western society in general) was then following and has continued to follow. He predicted with great accuracy that our path would lead us to a place of recognizing ourselves as the final authority and that we would find ourselves looking at our existence and our values no longer from a transcendent perspective--as coming from God--but rather from a secular, utilitarian perspective, very much as ancient Israel had done.
Fast forward to the year 2015, and Schaeffer seems very much like a prophet himself. It's amazing how on-target he was, and the direction of today's society along the lines of Schaeffer's predictions brings to mind the situation that ancient Israel found themselves in time and time again, when they ceased to acknowledge God, went their own way, and then suffered the consequences of their actions.
In today's America, it doesn't take a prophet to recognize that we have broadly ceased to acknowledge God in our society, with many even seeking to erase the slightest mention of God in any way, shape or fashion in public settings outside of local houses of worship. We have also purposely rejected the notion of biblical ethics and morality as the baseline for our societal values, substituting in its place an approach that places the individual as the ultimate authority in what is right or wrong, true or false. And we are suffering the consequences, as our nation becomes more and more divided and the hearts of people bloodthirsty and intolerant. We look around and acknowledge that we are broken and lame and suffering on many levels, yet we blindly and arrogantly refuse to recognize the only One who can fix our brokenness and heal our land.
In such a society, the church in America finds itself bewildered and confused, wondering how we should live in a culture that is weighed down and wasting away due its own sinfulness and its rejection of God. This question is one that we will have to commit to prayer, seeking God's wisdom and counsel as we move more deeply into this new era. As we do, there are three clarifying thoughts that we need to keep at the forefront of our understanding:
- God is still sovereign - Society, in all its hubris, can do nothing to diminish God's ultimate authority and power. God will not be altered by the changing winds and whims of society. He stands eternal, His will is unstoppable and He will be exalted.
- God's word is still true and authoritative - Because God is sovereign, His word carries with it His authority. Regardless of what the world thinks about it, His word is the final word.
- Sin is still sinful, and it is unto death - As our society declares (even in official ways) that wrong is right, that darkness is light and that bitter is sweet and deems itself to be the ultimate authority in all things (see Isaiah 5:20-21), we must not forget that God's standards are eternal, that anything less than full adherence to His standard is sinful, and that our sin separates us from Him--eternally so if we do not know Christ. It is our responsibility, therefore, to communicate clearly to those around us regarding the temporal and eternal consequences of sin and of God's provision for forgiveness and redemption in Christ.
A commitment to these three simple thoughts will start us down the right path, but the future church of America is going to have to step up its commitment, ramp up its influence in society and hold up through the tough days to come as we exist and carry out our God-given mission in a culture that seems intent on moving farther and farther from God.
"How should we then live?" That's a tough question. Let's start looking intently to God for answers.
June 29, 2015
On Friday, June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States of America, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that it is the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in every state of the union. This ruling was met with broad celebration from many in our society--perhaps the majority of our society--and was hailed by them as a forward movement for our nation on par with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For many others of us in our nation, however, this action by the Supreme Court brought with it a tremendous amount of anger, sorrow and deep concern and anxiety about the path that our nation appears to be taking in its seemingly ongoing campaign to jettison the moral and religious moorings and foundations that have served our nation so well from its beginning.
To be clear and unequivocal regarding my own personal stance, let me declare openly that I am deeply opposed to this decision by our supreme court, and, although it is now the law of our land, I refuse to accept the validity of same-sex marriages and pledge that I will not as a minister of the Gospel ever engage in the solemnizing of such unions, even if this means that I am called a bigot, am ostracized for my stance and/or find myself under legal duress over this matter. That being said, I am aware that there are other ministers in our nation who are celebrating this ruling and who are already planning to perform same-sex weddings as a result. I am aware, and I am deeply saddened that this issue will form a deepening and insurmountable rift that will now divide clergy, churches, denominations and individual Christians along lines of their stance over homosexuality (not to mention the debate over transsexualism that is now raging as well). Of all the matters that would divide people of faith, who would ever have imagined that it would be one's stance regarding something about which, until just a couple of decades ago, Christians have had a pretty clear consensus?
As this rift deepens and widens, let us not think that it will be the only resulting ramification of the Supreme Court's ruling. None other than the four dissenting justices themselves sounded the alarm regarding two matters that should concern all Americans who value freedom: First, this ruling has the potential to radically alter our governance as a nation. Justice Antonin Scalia noted in his dissenting opinion, "Today's decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court." He further iterated, "This is a naked judicial claim to legislative--indeed, super-legislative--power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government...A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy."
Second, we should expect at the very least that the Supreme Court's decision will foster a host of further lawsuits stemming from the clash between this newfound constitutional right of same-sex couples and the religious rights of Americans who conscientiously oppose it. Justice John Roberts warned in his dissent that the ruling "creates serious questions about religious liberty." While "the majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to 'advocate' and 'teach' their views on marriage," he writes, "the First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to 'exercise' religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses." Justice Clarence Thomas argues that "the majority's decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has so long sought to protect," and Justice Samuel Alito says in regard to protection for the religious and conscience objections of other Americans that "the majority today makes that impossible. By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas."
In light of the above, my friends, let's just go ahead and call it: if we are not already there, we are certainly barreling headlong toward a Post-Christian America. And it's not just post-Christian in the sense that Christians are no longer the clear majority, but also in the sense that our values and our ethics as a nation have shifted significantly from a traditional biblical point of view. Many will celebrate this fact--even many who call themselves Christian. I myself will begin more and more to ask for God's wisdom and understanding regarding how to live as a biblically orthodox believer in this post-Christian era. Historically, Christians have flourished under ostracism, persecution and duress; may God grant us the wherewithal to do it again.
An Important Truth
June 22, 2015
(This week's post is written by Nate French
, Associate Pastor)
In October 2012, God blessed Elizabeth and me with the birth of our daughter, Allie. Since that time, I have learned many things. I learned how to change a diaper and that I would have to do so. I learned how to make a bottle and how to swaddle. I learned that I can function on a lot less sleep than I thought I could. I learned how to carefully brush tangles out of a little girl's hair in order to avoid crying. I learned the heartache of seeing your child sick or hurt and the joy of seeing them happy and healthy. Needless to say, I have learned a lot over the course of the last thirty-two months.
One of the most important things I have learned and am still learning is a truth that God began to teach me right after we found out that Elizabeth was pregnant with Allie. I had known this truth before, but when we learned that we would become parents, God began to reveal it to me in a fresh way - from a new perspective. It is a truth that is foundational to our faith as Christ-followers. And it is a truth that, if believed and applied in our daily walk, can free us to grow in our faith in and obedience to Jesus.
As the realization set in that I would be a father, God began to teach me about the enduring nature of the relationship between a father and child. Specifically, He taught me that it was a relationship that could never be broken. In other words, Allie will always be my daughter and I will always be her father. Nothing can change that relationship. As the years go by, I have no doubt that we will have our struggles. I am sure there will be times when we disagree, when I am disappointed in her, or when she is disappointed in me. There may even be seasons when she distances herself from me. Through it all, however, she will always be my daughter and I will always be her father. Nothing can break that relational tie.
As I contemplated the enduring relationship I will have with Allie, God reminded me of the enduring relationship that He has with me. As He promised in John 1:12, when I received Him and believed in His name, I became His child and He became my Heavenly Father. If, as an earthly father, my relational tie with my daughter is enduring, how much more so my relational is tie with my Heavenly Father. When He adopted me as His son, I entered into a relationship with Him that cannot be broken. We have surely had our struggles. Since God adopted me, I have disagreed with Him, disappointed Him, and, at times, even distanced myself from Him. However, our relationship has never been broken. He has always been and always will be my Father and I remain His son.
I share this with you today in hopes that you may be encouraged. When you received Jesus Christ and believed in His name, you became a child of God. When He adopted you as His child, you entered a relationship that can never be broken. He will always be your Father and you will always be His child. Rest in this truth today and be refreshed by your Heavenly Father’s love. If the regrets of your past resurface, stand on this truth and claim its promise. Then, use the permanence and security of this truth as a springboard to propel you forward by faith and in obedience to Jesus, trusting that your Heavenly Father will be with you always – every step of the way.
Faith of Our Fathers
June 15, 2015
The statistics are pretty convincing when it comes to the effect of a father's faith on his children. Multiple studies over the last couple of decades have revealed that for fathers who are irregular in their church involvement, 3 percent of their children will become regular attenders, while around 2 percent of the children of non-practicing fathers will attend church regularly. On the other end of the scale, 38 percent of the children of regular church-attending fathers will become regular churchgoers themselves.
Another study put it this way: In the category of fathers who are not actively involved in church, only 1 in 50 of their children will become regular attenders themselves, regardless of how active the mother is. On the other hand, for fathers who are actively involved in church, two-thirds to three-fourths of their children will become active, regardless of how active or inactive the mother is.
Needless to say, studies like these clarify for us that a father's influence is a powerful determining factor in a child's participation in church. And, while we know that church involvement does not necessarily equate with faith itself, one can certainly assume that a child's exposure to the Gospel, growth in biblical knowledge, training in the faith and encouragement to become a believer will all increase for the child who is active in church.
While the above should serve as an encouragement for fathers who are diligent in their church participation and growing in their faith, the thing that should concern us all is that we see fewer and fewer men these days taking such strong stands for the faith and stressing by their own example the importance of being actively engaged in a local church.
Instead, we find more often today that men are driven by culture in terms of the development of their worldview, the determination of their priorities and pursuits in life, and the morals and ethics by which they live. This is even the sad truth among many men who claim to be believers in Christ. One has to wonder about the long-term effects that these dads' lives will have upon those of their children in the generations to come. With such clear indications of the cause and effect relationship of the father's faith upon that of his children, it becomes an almost inescapable conclusion that, outside of God's intervention through a deep spiritual revival in our nation, we are potentially in a heap of trouble.
For this reason, I'm encouraged by the efforts I see coming from churches and Christian organizations over the last several years that are aimed at reviving the faith of the men of our nation. Organizations like Men's Fraternity and events like the Gridiron Men's Conference held annually in Birmingham are among the positive developments I see that bring us hope in regard to men and their spiritual state.
But honestly, we're really fighting an uphill battle. If you've paid much attention, you'll note that things are pretty rough out there, and they're getting rougher all the time. The influence of worldly culture on our society seems to be growing in a never-ending way, by leaps and bounds.
For this reason, it's vital that we make the fathers of our nation a focus of deep and continual prayer, especially around this time of the year, as we celebrate Father's Day. It's also important that men who are sincere in their faith reach out to other men, calling them to faith in Christ, encouraging those who are already believers to stand firm in their commitment to Christ, walking alongside of others as they live for Christ and even mentoring those in the faith who need a good coach to assist them in their growth in Christ.
And, when you spot a father who's doing it right, make sure to encourage him and thank him for his influence in the lives of his children, in our churches and in our society at large. We need more men like that, and we need the men like that all the more.
The Inwardly Focused Church
June 8, 2015
Over a period of several weeks, we as a church have been focusing on themes based on Thom Rainer's book, I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference. So far, in the first week we looked at what it means to be a biblically functioning church member, and the next week we studied what it means to be a unifying church member, as opposed to a divisive one. This week, we gave attention to Jesus' teaching on being a servant, noting that such an attitude is the perfect antidote to our penchant as human beings to demand our preferences and our desires over all else. Because this penchant does not just automatically go away when we become Christians, we often end up bringing attitudes of self-interest and self-focus into our church life as well. Thus the need arises to be all the more intentional in developing an attitude of humility and servanthood that reflects Christ in our lives.
Over the next few weeks, we'll continue to walk through the themes presented in Dr. Rainer's book, but I wanted to stop on this issue of preferences and examine it in a little more depth. As we look further into this subject, it's worth highlighting some research that the author reflects on in the book (pp.36-39):
As Rainer tackles the issue of overcoming our natural tendency to be "preference-driven" Christians, he tells of a survey that his LifeWay research team conducted in which they analyzed the nature and practices of churches that are inwardly focused--churches that, for the most part, are not serving past their walls and their own members and are largely self-serving. Their work uncovered ten dominant behavior patterns in these churches that ought to make every church and church member sit up and take notice, and in case you haven't taken the opportunity to read the book, I want to recount them for you:
1. Worship wars - Factions in the church want the music just like they like it, and any deviation is met with anger and demands for change.
2. Prolonged minutia meetings - An inordinate amount of the church's time is given over to meetings that deal with mostly inconsequential matters, while the Great Commission and the Great Commandment are rarely discussed.
3. Facility focus - The church facilities develop iconic status, and one of the highest priorities in the church is the protection and preservation of rooms, furniture and other visible parts of the church's buildings and grounds.
4. Program driven - The church's programs become an end unto themselves rather than a means to the end of making disciples.
5. Inwardly focused budget - A disproportionate amount of the budget is utilized to meet the needs and comforts of the church members instead of being used to reach beyond the walls and existing membership.
6. Inordinate demands for pastoral care - While all church members deserve care and concern, especially in times of need or crisis, these churches displayed unreasonable expectations on the ministers' time.
7. Attitudes of entitlement - Many members of these churches felt a sense of deserving special treatment above others; especially above outsiders.
8. Greater concern about change than the Gospel - Almost any changes in these churches evoked the ire of many, while few were similarly passionate about participating in the work of the Gospel to change lives.
9. Anger and hostility - Members are consistently angry and express hostility to church staff and other members.
10. Evangelistic apathy - Very few members share their faith on a regular basis. More are concerned about their own needs rather than the greatest eternal needs of the world and community in which they live.
At the very least, the above list is fascinating for what it says about many churches today. Beyond that, it is almost scary in its nature as a warning for all other churches, because we all can just as easily head down that same path. As we look at the above list, my prayer is that it will drive us evermore to become believers and church members who reject an inward focus and instead pursue the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:2-11).
What Kind of Church Member Am I?
June 1, 2015
The question in the title of this article is one that every Christian ought to ask himself/herself. Why? Well, the answer is simple: every member of a local church is much more than just a "church member." Every member of a local church is a member of that local emanation of the Body of Christ, an identity that carries with it much weight and great responsibility. As such, it is incumbent on each one of us to ensure that we are serving as God desires for us to serve and that we are taking up our role and doing our part to attend to the health and welfare of the Body, and to see that it is accomplishing its biblical mission of glorifying God and making disciples.
I remember the first time that I ever became aware that I was meant to be an important and vitally functioning part of this thing--the church--that was much bigger than myself and more important than just an organization, indeed, something that carried with it an eternal impact in the outworking of its intended purpose. I was still in my teenage years, and our pastor had begun preaching on the issues of church membership, spiritual gifts, and our roles within the Body. As he taught on these subjects from the pulpit, there awakened in me an understanding that the church was not a group of hired ministers or lay leaders or any combination of the two. Nor was the church a place--a building where we gathered on Sundays to go through some Christian rituals. As clear as day, I was confronted with this truth from Scripture: "Now YOU are the body of Christ, and EACH ONE OF YOU is a part of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27, emphasis mine).
I suddenly found inescapable this truth that the church--the Body of Christ--is us! It's you and it's me, and each one of us is a vital, meaningful, purposeful part, placed in the Body by none other than God Himself and imbued with giftedness and with responsibility to do our part (my part!) to see to the health and the success of the Body. I made a call way back then that I would do whatever God needed me to do to fulfill my role in making that happen.
I was blessed at that time to be surrounded by adults who provided wonderful role models for me. Primarily my parents, but also a host of others, showed me through their example that the key to my personal happiness in a church and the key to the church's health in general was for me to find my God-given place within the Body and to serve with enthusiasm and with joy. Whether it was working in a nursery, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, directing children's music, playing a musical instrument, serving as a greeter or usher, operating audio or video equipment, mentoring younger students--whatever it might be--I saw others around me taking their places on the wall and using their gifts, talents and abilities to serve within the context of the larger Body to see that it met its potential.
For me, once this new understanding was unleashed, there was no going back. I could never again be a 'pew potato," a casual observer willing just to come to the trough once a week or so to get my fill. Now that I knew that the calling of a higher responsibility and its eternal consequences fell squarely on every church member's shoulders, I could never see living an existence at the edges when it came to my church involvement. No, the kind of church member I wanted to be from that moment on was an engaged church member, an involved church member, an enthusiastic church member--a vital church member. I wanted to be squarely in the middle of my God-assigned post, carrying out my God-ordained duties.
Now, as a pastor, I am overjoyed to serve with so many who are like-minded. I deeply admire and appreciate those who embrace the spot that God has reserved for them and then expend a lot of prayers and sweat moving the church forward in accomplishing its mission. From those who care for our newborns to those who serve our senior adults; from those who greet newcomers to those who help us say goodbye when a person goes into glory, I have to say that I'm blessed to know so many who continually answer God's call to serve.
Is that what kind of church member you are?
Say "Yes!" to VBS
May 20, 2015
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!
The Class of 2015
May 18, 2015
'Tis the season for graduations! Yes, it's that time of year again when we celebrate this wonderful milestone of achievement in the lives of so many. From four-year-olds graduating from preschool, to graduating high schoolers, college students and even grad students, now is one of the largest times of transition that happens annually in the lives of families all over America. Some will anticipate sending their little ones to "big school" in the fall, while others will be making plans to send their "babies" off to college. Others yet will be watching and praying as their children--who are now full-fledged grownups--make the leap into the adult world of career and family, taking their first tentative steps into complete independence.
Such is life. Babies are born, they go to school, they head off to college, they graduate into adulthood and start their own careers and families. Each stage of transition is bittersweet. We're proud and we're nostalgic all at the same time; we look backward at fond memories and we look forward with big hopes and dreams. We smile--and yes, we cry sometimes--over the times that are in the past, and we pray and anticipate with expectancy the years that are to come.
I am one of those who will be reminiscing, laughing, crying, praying and watching expectantly this year, as one of my children, having graduated from college, goes off into the adult world of making a career and establishing his independence, and as my other child graduates from high school and heads off to college in the fall. And, I must confess, I waver back and forth between extremes of sadness and excitement, and I both happily embrace and woefully dread taking on the title of "empty nester."
But, once again, such is life. I can't change it, and I wouldn't think it wise to do so even if I could. God means for our lives to be a series of transitions, and He has unique plans and joys for us in each and every stage of life. Yes, each new transition and stage comes with its own set of unique challenges and struggles, but each one also comes with its own set of unique victories and blessings--just ask any new grandparent! Regardless, whether we're facing challenges or being showered with blessings as we walk through these changes and phases of life, there is one great constant for those who believe.
It's the constant that our student minister, Wesley Braswell, spoke about on Sunday when he preached during our graduate recognition service. It is the constant and faithful presence of God in our lives declared by God Himself in Joshua 1:9 where He commanded, "...Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." Interestingly, this is a command, but one with a promise--a big promise--of God's continual presence with us wherever we go. I really like that "wherever you go" part of it!
So, if you're a part of the "Class of 2015," whether you have a preschooler who's "graduated" or if you're sending your "baby" out into the real world--or anything in between--let me encourage you that none other than God Himself declares that, whatever stage in life you may find yourself, and whatever unique challenges might come your way, He, your Lord and your God, will be with you. I find great comfort and rest in His promise, and if you're a fellow member of the Class of 2015, I hope you will too.
For the Love of the Children
May 11, 2015
In our Mother's Day services on Sunday, we had the awesome privilege of having as our guest speaker Rod Marshall, the President/CEO of the Alabama Baptist Children's Homes & Family Ministries. I was excited to have Rod coming to speak to us because I have known Rod since our college days at Samford University, back when we were both youth ministers, but even more so because of Rod's tremendous leadership in more recent years, first as the director of Pathways Professional Counseling and now in his present capacity as leader of this wonderful ministry that is funded by Alabama Baptists, including us.
I asked Rod to share with us for two reasons--first, because I knew that he would bring us a solid message from the Scriptures, and second, because I wanted him to communicate to us about the needs of children in Alabama and what the organization he leads is doing to meet these needs. I also hoped that his time with us would begin to create a closer connection between our church and the Alabama Baptist Children's Home ministry in the days to come.
As Rod spoke in Sunday's services, he shared with us some fascinating statistics from the last five years:
- 365 days a year for the past 5 years, 7 children per day were admitted into our state's foster care system.
- Nationally, a child will enter foster care every 2 minutes.
- In Alabama, 7% of these children are younger than 1; 37% younger than 5; 58% younger than 10; 82% younger than 15.
- At any given moment in Alabama, there are around 5,000 children in need of foster care.
Rod also shared with us the fact that there are around 1 million Baptists in Alabama, and he posed to us this challenging question: "How is it possible that 1,000,000 Baptists cannot provide for only 5,000 children?"
As he let this question sink in, Rod began to tell us what we as Alabama Baptists are doing to meet the needs of children and families in our state. He told us about the work being accomplished daily through our Alabama Baptist Children's Homes (ABCH):
- In 2014, 4,325 individuals were served through the ABCH ministry.
- This ministry was carried out through 6 group homes, 2 emergency shelters, 4 family care homes for homeless mothers and their children, 140 foster homes and 40 counseling centers (Pathways Professional counseling is part of the ABCH ministry).
- In the last decade, more than 200 children have made professions of faith in Christ and have been baptized while in the care of ABCH.
It is obvious to see that the needs are great, but also that Alabama Baptists are stepping up--as they have been for almost 125 years--to address these needs with Christian compassion and care. As an Alabama Baptist, I am pleased with the work that is being accomplished, and I'm glad to know that the offerings I give through my church help to fund this ministry.
I'm also challenged, however, by a gnawing sense that there's much more that we can do. As our faith family becomes more deeply connected with the ABCH ministry and its work, I am praying that God will make clear to us what path this connection will take and in what manner we can go about maximizing the opportunity to serve the "least of these" in our state, showing Christ how much we love Him by serving and caring for these who are in need.
I hope you'll be praying too. And in the meantime, I encourage you to visit the ABCH website (www.alabamachild.org) to learn more about their amazing work on behalf of Alabama Baptists. As you learn about their ministry, pray and consider how God might use you too in helping the most vulnerable and helpless among us!
"Attend to the Reading"
May 4, 2015
In 1 Timothy 4, Paul lays down a series of exhortations to his young ministry protege, Timothy. Among these is a fascinating instruction in verse 13 that, in the original New Testament language of Greek, reads, "Until I come, attend to the reading." On the face of it, this statement alone makes little sense, but in the context of an understanding of the practices of the ancient church, it becomes clear--as is attested to by the vast majority of commentary writers--that this exhortation refers to the reading aloud of the Scriptures in public worship gatherings.
Such a practice would not have been strange or unusual for people in the early church, many of whom were converts from Judaism who had first heard the Gospel from Paul or one of his ministry colleagues, whose practice was to go to a city and begin their work in a local synagogue, the Jewish house of worship. On any given Sabbath, as Jewish worshipers would have gathered in their synagogues, they would have experienced the public reading of the Scriptures, a central aspect of their services due to the dual facts that few (if any) would have had access to a personal copy of the Scriptures that they could read on their own and, even if they did, many of them would not have had the ability to read it regardless.
This synagogue practice of public reading is seen in Jesus' public announcement of the beginning of His ministry in Luke 4:16-21, as He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, rolls it back up, and gives it to an attendant. Doubtlessly, the public reading of Scripture would have easily made the jump from synagogue to church, and even the Gentile believers would have found tremendous value in having the Bible read aloud in the public worship gathering.
Fast-forward to today, and we find that things are much different: the vast, vast majority of people in our churches have access to a personal copy of the Scriptures--multiple copies in multiple versions and even digital copies on computers, phones and iPads--and most everyone is literate enough to read it and to understand it. The internet has given us unparalleled access to Bible translations and to commentaries and to other study tools as well, and anyone who has the desire can easily become a student of the Word with the ability to go deeper than they would have ever imagined just a couple of decades ago.
So--does this mean that the time for the public reading of Scripture has come and gone? Is there no longer anything practical to be gained from this ancient and time-honored practice? Personally, I feel that there is much to be gained from it and that a strong case can be made for the public reading of God's Word in our day and time. Here are three quick reasons:
1. God's Word is effective for accomplishing God's purposes. Whether its purpose is to inform, to convict, to encourage, to admonish or to lead a person to salvation, the Scriptures have power in and of themselves to get the job done. See Isaiah 55:10-11 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
2. God's Word is a powerful tool for bringing revival. When Scripture is applied to hearts that are being convicted by the Holy Spirit, amazing things happen. Read the story in Nehemiah 8:5-12 to see its impact on Israel after a long separation from God's Word while in captivity.
3. God's Word impacts the hearts and souls of people. In Hebrews 4:12, we're told that the Word of God is "living and active" and that it cuts through everything in its way to address "the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."
For the above reasons and many more, I'm a big fan of the public reading of the Scriptures. That's why I want to thank Sheila Wright and Ninfa Austin for their tireless work of creating, growing and carrying out the Birmingham Bible Reading Marathon and also to congratulate them on the fifth anniversary of this awesome event. May the Word of God fall like rain on Birmingham, watering it and bringing forth fruit of many kinds!
Builders and Rebuilders
April 27, 2015
In 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Paul writes that we as Christians are to "encourage each other and build each other up." This is an interesting imperative to me in a number of ways, chief among which is that it goes against our natural inclinations as human beings. The natural self--that part of us that the Bible refers to as "the flesh" (or in the NIV as our "sinful nature")--tends to be less concerned with building others up and more attuned to the tearing down of others.
Now, before you cry "Foul!" and point me to the nearest maternity ward, where mothers are nurturing their newborn babies with the tenderest of love, as an example of how the human heart may be naturally inclined to build others up, let me invite you into conversations held by that same mother as she talks badly about her neighbors, her family members, her co-workers and so on. Let me also invite you to examine the inside of her heart and her mind, where envy and malice abide. You'll quickly find that this tender, caring, sweet little mother is also fully capable of growing fangs and claws for the purpose of shredding others to pieces.
Please don't hear me wrong: I'm not saying that we don't have our moments of altruistic concern for others, and I'm certainly NOT picking on mothers of newborn babies (give me a little credit here--I'm just using the above as an illustration). What I am trying to communicate clearly is that we as human beings are not consistently wired up in our natural state to be benevolent in our thinking, attitudes and actions toward others. On the contrary, we are much more likely to engage in emotional king-of-the-hill struggles in which we do our best to exalt us and ours over them and theirs. Need another example? Go hang out at a little league ball game or two and listen in on conversations in the stands as folks talk about other people, other people's kids and especially the coaches and refs!
Because our natural tendencies bend us more toward such tearing down rather than toward building up, it truly takes a transformative work of God in our hearts, minds and spirits to bend us back the other way. To be reshaped by God in this way is a wonderful thing, because it not only benefits us, but it benefits those who are around us, as we become builders of others. You can tell someone who is a builder, because he or she lives with an eye that can spot a building opportunity a mile away and with a heart that rises to such an occasion, emptying out self and pouring into the life of another for the dual purposes of encouragement and edification.
The builder sees others as God's buildings (see 1 Corinthians 3:9) and can quickly assess whether another is in need of being built or even rebuilt. They see in others what God sees--perhaps an expertly-laid foundation that is surrounded by all the supplies, just waiting on an expert builder to come along and take on the project, or maybe a building that has been damaged or even torn down by life, by circumstances or by other people. In such a case, the builder becomes a restoration specialist, one who rebuilds those who have been wounded and broken.
Such people--builders and rebuilders--are deeply attractive to others, not in the romantic sense, but in the sense that people are drawn to them because of the encouragement and the edification they receive from them. As believers in Christ, we are all called and commanded to be builders and rebuilders of others. What do you think would happen if we all took to heart this calling and command? Would those seeking a spiritual mentor who is willing to pour into their lives be drawn to us? Would the hurting and wounded of this world take notice and come for help and healing? Are we willing to try it and see?
The Church of the Divine Potential
April 20, 2015
I firmly believe that every church that is founded by God's people, under God's direction, for God's purposes is infused with God's Spirit, and is thus filled with divine potential to do "exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20). This doesn't necessarily mean that every church is meant to be a megachurch or to see exponential growth all the time--especially considering that most churches in America not in locations where the size of the population would support explosive multiplication.
What it does mean, however, is that every church, regardless of size, can experience the miraculous, life-transforming work of God in the lives of its people, and every church can participate in that divine work through active obedience to God's word and His guidance and direction. It means that every church can adjust its passions, priorities and pursuits to match those revealed to us in God's word, and every church can be fishers of men, ministering to others in Christ's name. It means that every church can become a disciple-making congregation, fulfilling Christ's mandate for us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). As a church becomes these things and does these things, it moves from being a church of divine potential to being a church of divine activity and accomplishment. It moves from being a church that expects and hopes for great things from God to being a church that experiences great things with God.
The problem, however, is that seemingly few churches ever take the steps necessary to make the leap from divine potential to divine activity. To use a biblical metaphor, such churches may march up to the edge of the Jordan River, but they never seem to make it across to the Promised Land. For any of a number of reasons--lack of faith, lack of desire, lack of leadership, lack of follow-ship, congregational confusion, spiritual warfare, spiritual immaturity, congregational acceptance of sinfulness--a congregation may end up stuck in place, gazing over into the Promised Land but not quite able to take the steps to get there.
For some churches, this may result--as it did for the people of Israel--in an elongated stay in the wilderness, as the church just exists and bides its time in blind wandering, until a generation comes along that can muster up the faith and the will to cross the River. Such times are certainly not appealing and can be damaging to a church family's morale, as it becomes internally focused and fails to make the positive strides necessary for completing its God-given mission.
Sometimes, after spending time in the wilderness, a church will wake up, "look across the river" to its intended "Promised Land" and consider what it stands to lose if it remains on the wilderness side. For some churches, an understanding of what they stand to gain combined with a knowledge of what they stand to lose will motivate them to recommit to God's high calling for the church and to take the necessary steps of faith to wade into the river. When they do, they find that the God who infused them with potential and promised a golden future responds to their faith and begins to do amazing things among them.
Brothers and sisters, let's not wait on the edge of the Jordan anymore, looking across and longing for God's land of promise. Instead, let's commit to move together from divine potential to full pursuit of what God has for us as a church. In faith, let's step into the waters of obedience to God's disciple-making call for us. My guess is that when we do, we'll find that God has been waiting there all along to part the waters for us.
Choices of the Heart
April 13, 2015
Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.
I remember growing up as a kid, hearing the lyrics to this old song, and not really appreciating the sentiment behind them. Now, as an adult with some life experience behind me, I can understand the longing for a place of peace and rest, for open spaces in God's creation, and for the absence of--or at least the near absence of--discouraging words. Sadly, we get plenty of just the opposite. How often would you guess that we are exposed not to these pictures of tranquility and peace but rather to the bad stuff, feeling its grip and impact on our lives? Pretty much every day? And what does this constant influx of bad news, badness, negativity, pessimism and the like do to our spirits? to our minds? to those around us?
I'm of the opinion that what we allow to enter into our hearts and our minds makes a vast difference regarding our own character and our own outlook on life and other people in general. I believe it has a huge impact on how we think, how we speak, and how our relationships and our lives play out overall. Sadly, too often we as Christians allow the world to become our primary influence, and when we do, we experience the consequences that come along with a life lived according to the mindset and the "heartset" of worldly thinking. For this reason, I've found it to be a rather important exercise to watch carefully what goes into my heart and what comes out of it as well. Here's what I mean:
I find it very important for me to keep a tight rein on what I allow to go into my heart and mind, in terms of my entertainment, my information gathering and just life in general. If the old saying "Garbage in; garbage out" is true, then I know that what I allow to be poured into my heart and mind will affect both the content of my heart and mind and everything that flows out of my heart and mind. Jesus put it this way: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, the whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, the whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matthew 6:22-23).
In light of Jesus' words, how would you assess the health of your "eye"--the eye here standing for all portals through which you allow the influence around you to enter into your heart and mind? Do you guard the health of your "eyes" carefully, making sure that what is being allowed in and through them is not causing the rest of you to become prone to the darkness and sickness of this world? If not, who is making the decisions about what influences your mindset, your thinking and that state of your heart? If you're not watching your influences carefully, you can be sure that the enemy will get his foot in the door--if the door is not wide open already.
This is important, because it gets to the second point I made earlier--that I am careful to "rein in" what flows out my heart as well. The reason for this is that what flows from my heart--in terms of my thinking and my words--is the major indicator of what is in my heart to begin with. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus said that "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." In other words, what you and I say truly reveals what's deep down inside of us, regardless of what we might try to claim otherwise. For this reason, I watch carefully what comes out of my mouth, because it indicates the state of my heart and what's truly deep down inside of it.
If, for example, my words reflect discouragement, pessimism, negativity, jealousy, anger, malice, impurity, dishonesty, gossip or anything that runs in those circles, then that's what's in my heart. I can blame it on everyone else, like we most often do as human beings, but it's MY heart, and I am responsible for what's in it. Likewise, if what comes from my mouth is encouragement, optimism, positivity, gratitude, peace, blessings, purity, truth, kindness and the like, then that's what's in my heart. This being the case, I choose encouragement over discouragement, optimism over pessimism, positivity over negativity, gratitude over jealousy, peace over anger, blessing over malice, purity over impurity, truth over dishonesty, and kindness over gossip. And I have to make this choice every day--sometimes several times a day. But it's a choice that I'm glad to make, because it matters.
What do you choose?
Live Like We're Alive
April 6, 2015
A few years ago, our culture went through a brief fixation based around the idea of getting people to think about how they would live differently if they knew that they were dying. There were songs written on the subject--Live Like You Were Dying by Tim McGraw and Live Like We're Dying by Kris Allen--and a book and Bible study series entitled One Month to Live: Thirty Days to a No-Regrets Life by Kerry and Chris Shook. The songs and the book spawned numerous articles, news stories and even sermon series (including one by this pastor), all of which, for a moment, got us thinking about how things might be different if we lived our lives knowing that our demise was imminent.
With Easter having just passed, however, I got to thinking about this whole enterprise in a new light, due to the fact that we as Christians are not to be focused on death, but rather on life. You see, our take from Easter should be that our existence is not about waiting around until mortality takes it course; no, our existence is supposed to be about life. If you want to see what I mean, go read the Gospel of John. You'll find there that this idea of life comes up again and again and again. You'll find that Jesus Himself says that He came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Some versions of the Bible translate this phrase as saying that He came that we might have life "to the full" (NIV) or that we might have a "rich and satisfying life" (NLT).
Regardless of the translation, the clear idea that Christ communicates is that the life He came to give us, in our temporal existence, is to be characterized as full, meaningful, rich, satisfying--abundant. Now, this doesn't mean that our life is to be fixated on having every kind of cheap thrill or fleshly experience that we can have, seeking always to fulfill our own earthly desires. Quite the opposite, what He's saying is that His desire for our lives is that they be carried out in such a way that we major on the stuff that brings true fulfillment, true accomplishment and true meaning to our lives and to the lives of others.
Additionally, as you read through John's Gospel, you'll see that Jesus has a great deal to say about eternal life. He makes it clear throughout His teachings that this sort of life consists of existing eternally with Him in a place of perfection beyond our imagination that He has prepared for us (John 14:1-3). Jesus clarifies for us--as do many writers multiple times throughout Scripture--that the way to this place and into His presence is through faith in Him. By grace, through faith, we are saved into this eternal life.
When we have this faith, we have life--abundant and eternal. And my thought in all of this is that if we have such life, we should live like it, by living in hope, in expectation of God's blessings and rewards, and in full assurance that God is active in our lives, filling our needs, growing us into the image of Christ and involving us in His activity on this earth. When we live this way--not like we're dying, but like we're living--then we truly live. We begin to experience life and everything about it in ways that had previously been unknown to us. Rather than focusing on death and everything that comes with it, we focus on the good, on the praiseworthy, on the excellent; we watch for the hand of God in every moment of life. The flavor of life changes dramatically.
So--how would your life change if you lived like you're truly alive? Would it be different? I challenge you to give it a try and just see what you discover!
Note: Pastor Scott is on vacation this week with his family. This article was first written last year as we looked forward to celebrating Easter.
Preparing for Easter
March 30, 2015
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 23, 2015
As we move ever closer to Easter, my mind begins to drift toward the happenings in Jesus' life and ministry leading up to the cross and the resurrection. A moment during this time that is very well documented for us one that focuses on Jesus and His disciples that we have come to call the Last Supper. Mentioned in all of the Gospels, the Last Supper is most thoroughly covered in John's Gospel, which dedicates four entire chapters to this special time that Jesus spends with His closest followers, utilizing it to teach them some deeply spiritual lessons, to reveal His betrayer, to foretell Peter's betrayal and to pray for them in a passionately personal and powerful fashion.
On Sunday, we spent time looking together at John 13:1-17, which opens the four chapters on the Last Supper and relates the story of Jesus washing the Disciples' feet as they prepared to share this meal together. Among the things we discovered was the simple fact that Jesus meant for this moment to serve as a precedent for His followers, that they would learn to serve others as He served them and as He would serve all of humanity as He went to the cross on our behalf. Jesus clarified for them (and us) that His example is one that is meant to be actively followed, as He declared in verse 15, "I have set an example for you that you should do as I have done for you." He further clarified this intention in verse 17, stressing, "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."
Note that last part of Jesus' statement: "...you will be blessed IF you do them."
This passage, along with others in Scripture, reminds us that a key indicator of a true child of God is that he or she has a desire to serve others, and to do so from a heart of love, not merely out of a sense of obligation and compulsion. It also reminds us that the blessing that is found in serving others is in the doing of the serving, not in just knowing about it--which may be inspiring or enlightening--but in actually getting one's hands dirty, so to speak, by helping out someone else in need.
Indeed, it was this sort of loving service that brought great acclaim to the Christian faith in the early years of its existence, as a deadly plague raged through the Roman Empire in the third century. As people died by the thousands, it was the Christian community who lovingly cared for the sick, ministered to the dying and even provided proper burials for those who died, even when their own families had abandoned them out of fear of becoming sick themselves. Because of their understanding of their own eternal security, and convinced of their need to make others aware of God's offer of salvation--especially as so many were dying--these early Christians boldly served, risking their own mortality, and changed the attitude of a society that had previously looked upon them in the worst of ways. I think the parallels to today's culture and Christianity are clear!
Taking our cues from our early brothers and sisters, I have thrown out a challenge to our congregation that we're calling the "Three Person Challenge." Between now and Easter, I'm asking each member of our faith family to reach out in loving service to at least three people. Now, I know that for some their entire existence is already presently given to serving others, such as those who are taking care of family members with chronic illnesses. If this describes you, then you have my deepest admiration and my encouragement to keep up your amazing work! For the rest of us, however, the challenge remains, and I would like to see us take it up, to ask God to bring people into our path who we can serve, to open our eyes to the opportunities around us and then to take advantage of those opportunities by serving others.
Will you take the "Three Person Challenge"? If so, I want to hear back from you--and I especially want to hear back when you've served someone in Christ's name!
What Are Your Plans for Easter?
March 16, 2015
With Easter now only three Sundays away, my family is making plans to celebrate that special day, and really, that entire weekend. As with every year, we find ourselves this year having to navigate through the maze of multiple family gatherings and other activities, making sure that we make room to spend time with everyone, preparing all the while for the biggest Sunday of the year and trying to get a little rest along the way. Ultimately, we always seem to have an enjoyable experience, as we participate in multiple Easter egg hunts and wonderful meals with family members throughout the Easter weekend. The icing on the cake, of course, comes with the experience of two dynamic and exciting worship services on Easter Sunday morning.
As I look at the paragraph above, there are a handful of things that stand out to me: first, I note that we are very family-oriented people. Second, I see that the Easter holiday is one of vast importance to us, and that we take time to celebrate it through joyful experiences, both with our flesh-and-blood family and our faith family as well. A third thing that stands out to me, however, is that our Easter seems pretty much to be about us. Now, don't get me wrong--we'll spend a lot of time in spiritual preparation leading up to Easter Sunday, and we will worship the Lord with great enthusiasm and excitement on that day, and we will offer up prayers as we join family members for meals, thanking God with grateful hearts for a risen Savior.
On the one hand, we set aside Easter as a special time of celebration and joy because of the One in whom we believe; on the other hand, however, our focus on the joy of Jesus' resurrection doesn't much extend beyond us to the world around us--a world that really needs to hear about hope, about God's love and grace, about His offer of forgiveness and peace, and about the abundant life and eternal life that come through knowing Him.
Honestly, it wasn't always this way for us. Years ago, when we lived in Prattville, Alabama, Beth and I annually held an Easter egg hunt at our home for the children in our neighborhood. We would have more than twenty kids invade our home and our yard, and they would have a blast as we unleashed them to find the 300 or so prize or candy-filled eggs that we had hidden earlier that morning. Before the craziness of the hunt began, however, we would sit the kids down in our den, and they, along with their parents, would hear the Gospel, as I explained to them why we were doing what we were doing. We never had revival break out or anything, but we planted seeds, and I got to see at least one of those children baptized at his church, having been personally invited by his family to be there.
The point of all of this is that this Easter, I would like to get back to the place where the holiday is less about all the things I have to accomplish and more about using the season as an opportunity to talk with others about why I'm celebrating it in the first place. Would you join me in this different approach to Easter? While we have a few weeks left before it arrives, would you join me in becoming intentional about making Easter less about us, and more about others? Perhaps this means that we have some conversations with others as we're out and about--at school, in the office, as we're shopping, etc.--inviting them to experience Easter with us as we gather for worship that day. Perhaps it means that we come up with a creative ways to share the Gospel with our neighbors and friends.
Regardless, wouldn't it be amazing if we followed the example of our Savior, who made that weekend, two thousand years ago, completely about everyone else? What are your plans for Easter?
The Final Stretch
March 9, 2015
Can you believe that Easter is only four Sundays away? It's almost unthinkable how quickly this year seems to be flying by at breakneck speed! But here we are, mere weeks away from Easter and all of the fun and celebration that comes along with it. To heighten the anticipation this year, our school system also has Spring Break during the week leading up to Easter, so families are making big plans to enjoy some time together in a variety of places, participating in a variety of activities. I was thinking about all of these things this morning, when I began to wonder what the "final stretch" leading up to the first Easter must have been like for Jesus.
Of course, we can get a pretty good idea of how it must have been for Him by looking into Scripture, where the days and weeks leading up to His resurrection day are recorded for us. Among the interesting things we'll discover on such a search is that Jesus never eases His foot up off the gas pedal, so to speak, but rather that He strongly focuses intently on the work at hand. In John 9:4, Jesus reminds His followers that He and they "must do the works of Him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work." Jesus never lets up, never takes a break; knowing the vital importance of the time at hand, He literally gives all of Himself to accomplish God's work.
Another thing we see in Jesus is His compassion for others. Although He knows that He is going to be called upon to suffer and die at the hands of evil men for the sake of our salvation, Jesus never displays any regret or any sense that what must happen to Him is unjust or wrong. Rather, He weeps over Jerusalem because of their lostness, and He goes to the cross willingly, taking our place as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Even as He faces what is doubtless the greatest trial of His thirty-three years on earth, He does so without a hint of anger toward us, whose sins placed Him there.
We also see Jesus at this time investing deeply in others. Particularly in the elongated telling of the last supper which covers chapters 13-17 of the book of John, we see Jesus taking time to teach, challenge and encourage His disciples, knowing that they will be left to carry on His ministry when He is gone. Of course, He later sends them the Holy Spirit, which He tells them is a far better thing than having Him physically present with them, but He nonetheless carefully prepares them for what they will experience when He is no longer physically on the scene with them.
And then there is the cross. Before Jesus experiences the joy of the resurrection, He must experience the cross. As horribly painful and torturous as the cross is, the physical nature of what Jesus experiences does not even begin to approach the terrible emotional and spiritual stress that He endures as He takes upon Himself the sins of us all. In that moment, Jesus experiences something that those who are saved will never have to experience: the awful state of being forsaken by God. He does this for us, the perfect for the sinful, that we might be forgiven and redeemed.
Finally, however, that glorious day of Easter does arrive, and along with it the defeat of sin and death, the declaration that Jesus is Lord of all, and the hope of new life for all who place their trust in Him! But, as we have seen, much had to be done to get there.
Are you looking forward to Easter already as I am? If so, I encourage you to follow Jesus' model by doing God's work--inviting to Easter worship, for instance, those who are unchurched or who don't know Christ. Like Jesus, let's display our compassion for others too and invest in others as we approach this special day. Finally, let's make sure that we reflect on the wonderful cross of Jesus and His sacrifice for us, and let's tell others that He died for them too. And then, when Easter arrives, let's celebrate the new life and the hope it brings!
March 2, 2015
Jesus had a routine habit of blowing away people's misconceptions. Whether it was wrongheaded thoughts about other people, misunderstandings about God, prejudices and biases toward others, or even people's own perceptions about themselves, Jesus just had a knack for pointing out, challenging and correcting what Zig Ziglar calls "stinking thinking."
For example, Jesus was ever challenging the Pharisees' judgmental attitudes toward other people--specifically those they deemed to be sinners who were unworthy of Jesus' time and attention. In moments when Jesus interacted with such people and the Pharisees objected or questioned Him, Jesus was quick to point out to them that it was these very people who needed the grace, mercy, forgiveness and salvation that Jesus offered. He came to call the sinner, not the righteous, to repentance.
In regard to people's misconceptions about God, Jesus clarified to the Pharisees and others who were listening that God's favor could not be gained through legalistic righteousness, but only through a relationship founded in faith. And as Jesus lauded and rewarded the faith of people like the Roman centurion in Luke 7 and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15--both of whom would have been subject to deep prejudice as Gentiles--and as He told the story of the good Samaritan, noting that it was not the Jewish men but rather a member of an ethnic group hated by the Jews who was the good guy in the story, Jesus crushed racial animus and bigotry.
When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, He corrected long-held theological misunderstandings that were in complete opposition to God's true desires, telling the people that hate is identical to murder, that we should not to seek revenge, but rather turn the other cheek, that we are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, and that lusting after another in one's heart is committing adultery. These were not really new teachings, but just reminders to the people of how God has always been. In their own religious pursuits, they had substituted worldly thinking for godly thinking, and Jesus handily destroyed their bad theology and taught them a right way to think about the things of God.
.In John 4, as Jesus encountered the woman at the well, He challenged her understanding of herself, leading her to salvation as she placed her faith in Him. As Jesus confronted Peter--both before the crucifixion and after the resurrection--He gave Peter insight into Himself and into His ways of dealing with circumstances which spurred a radical transformation in his life. In both cases, Jesus helped these people see the truth about themselves, and each was better for it.
But, it's important for us to acknowledge that misconceptions--about anything really, and especially about ourselves--are pretty difficult to uproot from our lives. Particularly when these misconceptions are deeply held by us, they can take on the air of truth, even though they are not truth. They can take on an air of authoritativeness as well, even though they are completely devoid of it and truly need to have no sway in our lives. For this reason, it is often difficult for us when Christ begins to challenge our misconceptions, and I have personally been witness to some amazing twisting of the Scriptures and of otherwise godly thinking by those who wish to justify their bad thinking and their off-base perceptions of things, of people, of themselves and of God.
It is thus all the more important for us to be open to what the Lord has to say to us and to place ourselves in humble submission before Him, that we might not only hear from Him, but also that we might understand what He's saying to us and make the proper corrections regarding our own stinking thinking. If we listen carefully, we might just hear Jesus saying to us, "You have heard it said...but I say to you..."
Thank you, Lord, for loving us enough to confront and correct our misconceptions. Please give us ear to hear and hearts that respond.
Mud in Your Eye
February 23, 2015
The story that's told in John 9 of Jesus' healing of a man born blind is a wonderful, powerful story of someone whose life is utterly transformed by the hand of Christ. If you've read or heard the story, you know how it goes: Jesus encounters this man who was blind from birth and who now begs to receive what he needs, completely dependent on the generosity of others. Jesus' disciples ask Him whether the cause of his blindness was due to his sin or the sin of his parents, and Jesus replies that neither his sin nor that of his parents caused his handicap, but rather that God allowed it so His work might be displayed in this man's life. Jesus then spits on the ground, makes some mud from the dirt and saliva and rubs it in the man's eyes. He then tells the man to go and wash in the Siloam waters, which we does, and then the man--whose name we're never given--is miraculously healed. What an amazing story!
But, I want you to imagine that you were there that day. Put yourself in that moment and consider how you would have responded as you saw Jesus approach this man, this one you had known for years and who you had seen sitting and begging in the marketplace, on street corners and at the entrance to the synagogue. Perhaps you had even taken pity on him and given him a little something from time to time. How would you have felt as you saw Jesus spit on the ground, smear it around to make some mud and then scoop up the mud and smear it in the man's eyes? Before you answer, remember that you're in the moment, and you don't yet know Jesus' intentions or what the outcome of the story will be. All you know is that you have just seen this man named Jesus do something to this poor blind man that, on the face of it, is completely cruel and sadistic.
With your own eyes, which can see fine, you just watched as Jesus did something so offensive and beyond the pale that you cannot imagine the kind of barbaric cruelty that would even conceive of something so terrible. Who in his right mind would be so callous and indecent that he would humiliate this pitiful beggar by smearing mud--made with spit no less--in his already blind eyes? The word "outraged" would not begin to describe how you might feel. You might experience an indignant, righteous anger that moved you to spring to the blind man's defense to take this Jesus character down a few notches. Without knowing the greater plan of Jesus for this man, your initial response would most likely have been an angry and dumbfounded reaction to this unbelievably outrageous act.
I want you to think about that for a bit, because I believe that we often experience such moments in our lives, when the grace of God initially looks and feels a lot more like spit-based mud smeared in our eyes. Perhaps the mud is the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one; perhaps the mud is a tragedy or trial of some sort; perhaps it's a situation with our health that forces us into a new way of dealing with life--or even perhaps dealing with the reality of death. None of these is appealing, and none of these is anything that anyone would wish on himself or herself. But, there are times when God will allow things in our lives that for all appearances are like mud in a blind man's eyes--cruel, offensive and mean.
But what a blessing it is when we get to see the rest of the story unfold! Mud smeared in a blind man's eyes, followed by the obedient act of washing in the waters of Siloam, brings an unparalleled healing, unlike anything that had ever occurred in all of history. It brings joy and new hope to a man whose life was started in blindness and had remained in blindness. Everything about his life heretofore had been determined by and characterized by his blindness. But now, he could see! In that moment that his eyes are opened, his life is radically transformed--and more than that, his spiritual eyes are opened as he meets Jesus and places his faith in Him.
And to think that it all began with spitty mud smeared in his eyes. My prayer is that, like this man, God will open our eyes, that we might see His grace in our lives, even when it looks and feels like mud smeared in our eyes.
When Doubts Arise
February 16, 2015
Most everyone who is a believer will, at some point, struggle with doubts of some sort. Regardless of the type and the source of the doubts, chronic, prolonged and serious doubt can wreak havoc on a person's faith. Too often, when a brother or sister struggles in this area--and specifically when they give voice to their doubts--the response of fellow believers can be less than helpful for bringing that person back into a place of solid faith.
Our typical response as human beings to the questioning of anything that has to do with us is for us to go into a defensive mode, to ostracize the doubter and even to go on the offense by questioning the questioner's motives, character and objectives. To be sure, sometimes we're correct in our assumptions. Every once in a while, there arises within the church someone who acts from sinful motives, bad character and evil objectives with the intent of damaging the body of Christ. The Bible speaks fairly often and pretty clearly of those who are divisive and disruptive, whose goal is to sow untruth into the church and to pull people away from the faith. In 2 Peter 2:1, the Scriptures refer to false teachers in the church, who "will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them." The strong biblical teaching in regard to such persons is that we are to watch out for them, stay away from them and oppose them (see Romans 16:17-18).
Most people who struggle with doubts, however, are not of this ilk, but rather are regular believers, just like you and me, who are honestly and sincerely walking through a "crisis of faith" moment in their lives. Such people, in moments like these, do not need to be cast aside, maligned or mistreated by their fellow believers, but rather need to be helped and encouraged, that they might make their way through the tangly underbrush of their doubts and find themselves back in a place of peaceful, restful trust. Fortunately for us, the Bible provides a tremendous amount of guidance for in dealing with brothers and sisters who are walking through the deep and dark forest of doubt. While I don't have the room in this article to provide a full treatise on the subject, let me give you with a few tidbits of insight on the subject that I've gained over thirty years of Bible teaching and ministry:
First, don't disconnect from the doubter. Too often, because of our own discomfort with their struggles and doubts and questions--or perhaps out of fears of our own inability to provide answers, or fears that we will be drawn into their spiral of doubt--we pull back and disconnect. Sometimes it happens because that individual also disengages from us, and in response we go into an "out of sight out of mind" mode, just forgetting them and allowing them to fall away quietly into the darkness. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says that we are to "hold on to the weak." This requires humility on our part, as we pursue the one who may be actively rejecting us and everything we stand for, at least to a degree, but it's vital for their sake that we do not let go.
Second, engage intentionally with the doubter. In Jude, vv.20-21 (it only has the one chapter), we are instructed to build one another up in our faith. This includes--perhaps especially so--the doubter among us. We are told to accomplish this faith-building through prayer and through love toward struggling brothers and sisters. Conversations are also important for helping doubters work through struggles and questions, and intentionally connecting them with mature and wise believers who can guide them and point them toward valuable resources will be to their benefit as well.
Third, be merciful. Jude, v.22 tells us to "be merciful to those who doubt." As I mentioned before, we sometimes have the tendency to go on the attack when we feel that our faith is threatened--or even questioned. God's word reminds us that we need to be merciful, which is a good stance considering that we don't really know what that person might be going through at the moment. Withholding judgment and seeking reestablishment of the doubter's trust in God is the biblical way to go.
Finally, be patient. While this person may be wandering through a maze of doubting and questioning, God may be using this time in his life to solidify his thinking, his convictions and his faith. Rather than giving up and washing our hands of the struggling brother or sister, our commitment should be that we will not let go of this person, but rather will seek their full restoration to the faith.
It's always disheartening and disconcerting to see another believer walk the path of doubt; but, if we will walk alongside them, God just might work through us to bring them back.
In This World but Not of It
February 9, 2015
This week begins a new era in the history of Alabama, as a federal judge's ruling takes effect allowing same-sex couples to be married in our state, thus making Alabama the 37th state in our nation to allow same-sex marriage. In response to this ruling, the Christian community has had a varied response, some praising it and others vilifying it. Interestingly, the lines along which these responses have been expressed have not necessarily been what people might have expected, as even a number of otherwise conservative evangelicals have accepted, if not celebrated the court's decision.
Others, however, have already begun to think about the greater implications of the decision for our society at large, and especially its impact on the Christian community. For example, in other states where federal courts have invalidated legislation and even state constitutional amendments that were designed to protect biblical marriage as the only legally recognized form, the broader effect on Christian business owners has at times been devastating, as they have been prosecuted in courts for standing up for their principles in not participating in same-sex weddings.
In Oregon, Christian bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple (in spite of the fact that same-sex marriage is not even legal in Oregon!). In Colorado, baker Jack Philips--also a Christian--has been told by a court that he is required to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual couple. Christian photographers Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin were told by New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson that they are "compelled by law" to photograph a same-sex ceremony against their will as "the price of citizenship." In multiple areas around the country, Christian wedding venue owners like Betty and Richard Odgaard are also being legally forced into participating in ceremonies that go against their fundamental beliefs.
As the legal issues surrounding the accommodation of same-sex marriages continue to unfold in our nation, how do we as believers respond? Obviously, we hope to see our right to practice our religious beliefs protected by the powers that be, and we pray in that direction and continue to summon our resources of legal expertise to bear on the matter. But how do we respond internally? What are we to think about all of this? These are pretty broad questions, but let me provide a few quick thoughts:
First, we need to remember that we are in this world but not of it. Christianity started out two thousand years ago as a small sect of Jewish believers, and our history has been one of rejection by the religious authorities (both Jewish and Roman), the civil authorities (Christianity has often been outlawed by a variety of governments throughout its history) and society in general (some Romans taught their children that Christians ate their own babies!). Although we have enjoyed favored status in America from its inception, the world has never been promised to us. We need to get past the shock of rejection and realize that we are in a new reality.
Second, we also need to realize that it has often been in the darkness of disfavor and even in outright persecution that Christianity has shined. Right now, for example, in China--where Christianity had been previously outlawed and condemned by society--the faith is flourishing to the extent that it is estimated that Christians now outnumber communists in that nation, 85 million to 100 million. The Christian faith is also quietly spreading rapidly in many Middle Eastern countries that have wearied of the oppressive and warlike form of Islam practiced there now for generations and have begun to embrace the love of Christ.
There is much, much more to be said on this matter, and I'm sure much will be said in the months and years to come. But just remember, believer, that when the world is at its darkest, God' people shine the brightest.
Confronters and Cheerleaders
February 2, 2015
In my message this past Sunday, I mentioned as a side issue in my second point that there are two kinds of people that we should all seek to have in our lives: 1) we all need a person who we trust to lovingly--but honestly--confront us when we're not being right or doing right, and 2) we all need a person (or persons) who will affirm us and cheer us on when we are being right and doing right. Because I think this is such an important matter, I want to expand on this idea a little in this article.
First, let's deal with the issue of the loving confronter, because this is the person that so few of us care to have in our lives--even though we all desperately need at least one like this. The reason most of us don't have someone like this is that we would rather surround ourselves with "yes" men (or women) who will always affirm us and our thoughts and our actions, regardless of whether they are godly and righteous and pure and constructive or not. No one wants to be told "you're wrong," and we certainly don't want to be told that we have work to do to make ourselves into who we should be. But, that's exactly what we need sometimes.
Ideally, if one were to actually partner with such a person for the sake of accountability and growth, one would need to look for someone who is godly and spiritually mature, who is wise and discerning, who is not afraid of confrontation and who ultimately has your good in mind. Such people are few and far between in our lives, but they are certainly available if we will pray for them and seek them out. When I think of such people I think of Nathan confronting David over his sin (2 Samuel 12) or of Jesus restoring Peter (John 21:15-23). In both instances, the confrontation was not out of judgmental, self-righteous anger, but rather from the heart of one who lovingly desired for the person to get his life back on the track that God had planned for Him. In both cases, the end result was redemption and restoration and growth. The ideal loving confronter will always have such end goals in mind.
Let's also take a look at the affirming "cheerleader." People such as these are much easier to obtain in our lives, and they are far more pleasant and enjoyable to us. We should all have multiple encouragers of this sort to affirm us and to spur us on when we're doing well. Like the loving confronter, however, such a person should be godly and spiritually mature, because the last thing any of us needs is to have someone affirming the wrong things or cheering on bad or destructive thinking or behavior in our lives. Instead, we need a person who is spiritually insightful enough to know what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8) and who will affirm such things--and only those things--in us.
Like the loving confronter, a truly effective affirming cheerleader will also have our ultimate good in mind. Although primarily positive and agreeable, this person will be careful not to put a stamp of approval on the things in our lives that are not deserving of acclaim. He or she will only seek to edify us in such a way that what is built up in us is the God kind of stuff--stuff that is spiritually profitable for us and for others and for God's Kingdom. When I think of a person such as this, the relationship of Paul with Timothy comes to mind. Paul was instructive toward Timothy, and while he was certainly not an indiscriminate "yes" man, he was very encouraging and affirming toward Timothy in all the right ways. We all can use people like this in our lives!
If you have people such as these in your life already, consider yourself blessed, and utilize them as God's divine instruments for your spiritual guidance and development. If you do not, now is a good time to pray that God will bring them into your life. Or, perhaps God may desire to use you to be a loving confronter or an affirming cheerleader for someone else. Such a matter is certainly worth your prayers too! Whichever way you find yourself praying, remain open to God's guidance in your life, because His Holy Spirit is the ultimate confronter and cheerleader in the life of every believer!
The Truth about Words
January 26, 2015
Words have power. They mean something, because they represent our ideas, our feelings, our aspirations--our very selves. Words have the power to heal, to comfort, to embolden, to inspire, to enlighten and to encourage. They also have the power to hurt, to crush, to destroy, to discourage and to spread darkness and falsehood. The old saying--"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me"--it's totally untrue. Words can bring life; words can bring death.
Most of us probably wish that our lives could be filled with happy, kind and encouraging words--that we could live in that place "where seldom is heard a discouraging word"--but the truth is that life is just not like that. There are times that we will hear words that are mean, angry, slanderous, hurtful, destructive and discouraging. Sometimes, we may hear words that are challenging and confrontational, and it may be that such words are necessary for getting us back on the right path in life.
On Sunday, we examined a story in Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus, speaking to His home synagogue in Nazareth, brought both good news to the crowd and challenging and confrontational words too. He informed them that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him and that God had anointed Him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned and recovery of sight for the blind, to release those who are oppressed and to proclaim the year of God's gracious favor. Shortly thereafter, however, Jesus challenged this same group, noting that their faith was far insufficient for them to experience a powerful move of God among them.
Their response to Jesus' strong and challenging words? They ran Him out of town with the intent of throwing Him off a cliff to His death! Suffice it to say that sometimes, we human beings don't take too kindly to being confronted or chastised--even when it's the truth. Nevertheless, this same Jesus who challenged them so strongly in regard to their lack of faith--and who was despised for it to the extent that they wanted to kill Him--later went to the cross and, in love, died for them, that their sins might be forgiven and that they might have eternal life--if they would place their faith in Him.
This story brings to my mind two questions that I should ask myself: 1) When I am challenged and confronted with God's truth--especially in such a way that it chastises me and calls me to answer for my lack of faith and obedience--how do I respond? Do I become angry and defensive? Do I want to "kill the messenger"? Do I miss the truth that God is trying to bring to bear in my life? Or, do I respond with an open and humble heart, willing to hear, receive and apply what has been communicated to me?
2) When it falls on me to be the one to deliver a confrontational, challenging truth, how do I go about doing it? What attitude do I hold in my heart toward those I might be confronting and challenging? Is it redemptive, gracious love, or is it something far less--like spiritual arrogance, self-righteousness, or condescending judgment? Is my intent to help, to restore, to bring about God's best, or is my intent just to strike out, to cause hurt and to bring shame? Am I more like a surgeon, cutting with the intent to heal, or am I more like one who cuts to wound or to kill?
Ephesians 4:15 tells us that a spiritually mature approach is to speak the truth, but to do so in love. This is the "sweet spot" that we are to aim for as believers, the perfect balance that will allow us to handle our words in a God-ordained way. Of course, this is not to say that, even then, our truth will be accepted. After all, Jesus' home crowd tried to kill Him after he spoke in such a fashion! Regardless, we can know that when we speak the truth in love, we've done what we're supposed to do in the way we're supposed to do it--and that pleases God.
Tell Me the Story of Jesus
January 19, 2015
There are many, many songs that I remember from my childhood, growing up in Gardendale's First Baptist Church, that we just don't hear anymore. Honestly, some of them I don't really miss, and I love much of the newer music that has come out in the last twenty years or so, but there are many that I do miss and that I will recall from time to time, singing their tunes in my head and recounting what their words now mean to me as an adult who understands them far better than I did in my childhood.
One such song is a hymn written by Fanny Crosby that is entitled Tell Me the Story of Jesus. The second verse of the hymn goes like this:
Fasting alone in the desert, tell of the days that are past;
How for our sins He was tempted, yet was triumphant at last.
Tell of the years of His labor, tell of the sorrow He bore;
He was despised and afflicted, homeless rejected and poor.
Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word;
Tell me the story most precious, sweetest that ever was heard.
I was reminded of this old hymn this past Sunday, as we talked about the temptation of Jesus in the Judean wilderness. What a powerful story! Jesus, led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit specifically to undergo this time of temptation by the devil, responds in such a strong fashion, gaining victory with every temptation that the accuser brings His way. As Jesus deals with each temptation, He answers the devil with passages from Deuteronomy, revealing that, far more than having a mere head knowledge of Scripture, He carried a deep, deep understanding of the principles found within God's word and was able to apply them effectively.
To me, this is one of the more powerful aspects of this story, because it reminds us that it is not enough for us as believers to have just a passing familiarity with the Bible--we need to know it. Additionally, it's not just enough to know the Bible in a head-knowledge kind of way; but rather, as believers, it is imperative that we know God's word in such a way that we are able to make honest and correct application of it to our life's circumstances. We also need to have a deep understanding of the entirety of the witness of God's word, so that we are not guilty of failing to follow the parts of which we are ignorant--whether unintentionally or willfully so.
Now, one might protest that such vast knowledge and understanding is quite a tall order, and that to fulfill such a mandate would require years and years of careful study and application of the Bible in one's life. I would say that you are right, and that this mandate means that we need to take this matter seriously and get to work, because temptation will come, and the enemy will pull out every stop available in his arsenal to defeat us, to damage our testimony, to sideline us from the work of God and to use us as pawns in bringing dissension and damage to the body of Christ. He will unleash every type of temptation that he has developed and used for millennia against God's people, with the intent of nullifying God's work in and through us. And when he does, we have but one answer: the Bible, God's holy word.
So, I encourage you to move beyond the basic stories, and to start learning the deeper truths. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. This is serious business. If, however, you are armed with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of the Lord, and you know how to use it properly, you will be victorious over him. God guarantees it.
January 12, 2015
On Sunday night at the beginning of this week, LPBC had the wonderful joy of ordaining three new deacons--Brian Brunson, Jim Ivy, and Bobby Punch. After hearing the testimonies given by each of these new deacons who were chosen by the church to serve for the next three years, our ordained ministers and deacons laid hands on them and prayed for them, setting them aside spiritually for the task before them, in keeping with the ancient traditions practiced in the New Testament church (see Acts 6:6).
As we were in the process of ordaining these new deacons, I had some time to think about what they were being set aside for and what it would require of them to fulfill their new role in a biblical manner. First, I thought about the title of "deacon" and what it truly means. Our English word "deacon" comes from the Greek diakonos, a word that at its root means "servant." In its original conception, the office of deacon was designed for this very purpose, to serve the church so that the Apostles might be freed up to focus on prayer and on the teaching and preaching of the Scriptures.
This serving of the church can take on a variety of forms, represented in a vast array of ministries that deacons may pursue, including administrative service, visiting the sick and elderly, comforting the hurting, caring for the needs of others, resolving disputes in the congregation, or even fixing broken things around the church. As it stands right now, God has blessed us with a group of deacons with broad interests, a variety of gifts, abilities and talents, and a wide range of passions and experience. And He can use every single one of them to do things that we might never have conceived, employing each one's unique mix of all of these to accomplish great things for His Kingdom.
But this is not just true of deacons alone. In fact, the Bible teaches that every believer receives ministry gifts (also called "spiritual gifts") from God, and we are clearly instructed that we are to use our gifts in service of others, both within the church and outside of it as representatives of Christ in the world. Of course, such an assertion with it brings a series of questions: What are my gifts? How does God want me to use them? What can God accomplish through me? And so on.
As I have served churches for almost thirty years now, I have learned that the best way to discover one's spiritual gifts is simply by getting to work. Find something you can do or would like to do, and get going with it. If you don't know how to get started, ask a minister--we'll point you in the right direction and get you in touch with the people you need to know. As you work, you'll discover what you excel at, and you'll receive feedback from others who can help you figure it out as well.
In regard to discovering how God might want to use your gifts, start to pray about the matter, asking Him to reveal it to you. It may be that He opens doors of ministry for you in a very straightforward fashion, or it may be that He answers in a more roundabout way. Look inside of yourself and examine your unique mix of experience, passion, gifts, talents and abilities--along with your temperament--and watch for ministry opportunities that fit who you are. Ask others to help you in this discovery process.
As to the last question (What can God accomplish through me?), who knows what God will accomplish with a willing heart that is passionately committed to serving Him? He might just use you to change the world. At the very least, He will use you to change the world around you!
As we get rolling in this new year, I challenge and encourage you to try biblical service. You might just be amazed at the results!
Living by Faith in 2015
January 5, 2015
Can you believe that it's 2015? I remember as a kid thinking about how I would be in my 50s when 2015 came along, and how I thought that my best days would be past me and I would be all old and washed up by then (my kids think that of me now!). Isn't it interesting how time offers a different perspective? Now that 2015 is actually here, I don't feel as old as I thought I would be at this age, and I believe that my best and most productive days are in front of me, not behind me!
"I believe." That's a key phrase. It's key because the word "believe," scripturally speaking, comes from the same word as "faith." So when I say that I "believe" the above, I mean that I have faith that God is going to use the years ahead to make me more productive and useful for His ends and purposes, and this belief excites me and encourages me.
This is important, because in God's word, we read time and time again that we are to live by faith. But, how does a person do this, especially when we are NOT wired up to live by faith? Let's be honest--mostly, as human beings, we live by sight. That is, what we observe and perceive is what we intellectually base our thinking and our assumptions on, and we act accordingly. We also live by feeling. How often do we say, "I feel like...," and then we base our attitudes and activity on how we have been informed by our emotions.
Other things that drives us as human beings are our passions and desires. The 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote in a letter to a friend that "the heart wants what it wants--or else it does not care." If you take some time to observe where people's decision making comes from, you'd have to conclude that her assertion is correct. Often, for no reason other than "this is what I want," people make decisions that have a broad and lasting impact on others and the world around them.
So, how do we move from the world of observation, emotion and passion and begin to base our lives on faith? Let me give you three quick thoughts from my own experience and reading of Scripture:
First, we acknowledge that faith is not the same as intellect, emotion or passion. Faith is something entirely different, because it is God-driven, as opposed to the other things that emanate from within us. The things of faith are God-produced, and they often are counterintuitive and even contrary to our natural way of thinking, responding and acting.
Second, we make a conscious choice not to be locked into the cage of our own observation and intellectual conclusion, not to be mired in the muck of our own emotions and not to be driven by the stormy winds of our passions, but rather to submit to the dictates of faith. Informed by Scripture and confirmed by the Holy Spirit, we purposefully decide that we will follow God's thinking, God's guidance and God's path, trusting in God to bring about His desired results and ends.
Third, we examine from a heavenly perspective the results of our thinking and doing. In the moment and in hindsight, we constantly evaluate whether or not the reasons and the ways we are doing things are bringing about eternal results, such as the Good News being spread, disciples being made, brothers and sisters being encouraged, the church being strengthened and God being glorified through our lives.If not, the course needs correction, and we honestly assess where and how that needs to happen and make the needed changes. If so, we rejoice, and we continue on, affirmed in the rightness of our path.
This is what I'm shooting for in 2015--living by faith--and I hope you'll join me in this pursuit. Because, as it says in God's word, "The righteous shall live by faith" (Habakkuk 2:4, Galatians 3:11). Happy New Year!