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!