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!