Home Run Life
APRIL 24, 2017
Have you ever felt that discouraging sense that you're striking out in life? Perhaps you feel that way in regard to your commitment to God, or in your personal relationships, or even internally as you take stock of your life--what you hoped it would be as compared to what it has become. Wouldn't you love it if someone could point you to a more fulfilling life, like the one that Jesus speaks of in John 10:10, where He says that He has come to give us "life to the full"?
Starting this past Sunday and continuing on for the next three weeks, we're going to be using a baseball metaphor--the "Home Run Life"--to talk about four basic areas in which we need to discover and deploy God's game plan for success in our lives. On Sunday, we began at "home plate," which represents our connection with God. For every single individual who plays the game of life, it all begins and ends at home plate. God calls each of us into relationship with Him, and in the end, we will be judged according to whether or not we knew Him. So, we all are called to step up to home plate and to connect.
Next Sunday, we'll move to "first base" and talk about character, that internal component of self that God is seeking to transform into the image of Jesus Christ. The problem that a lot of folks have these days is that they are more focused on being a character than they are on developing character. Being a character draws attention to the self, which we as humans all crave, but a biblical approach to character focuses on placing self on the cross and humbly receiving from God a new heart and a new mind.
On the third Sunday, we'll cover "second base"--the importance of community, which refers to our relationships. I've often challenged people to read the Bible from a relational perspective--primarily in regard to our relationship with God, but also in regard to our relationships with other people. It's amazing how much of the Bible speaks to how we deal with others! If we're honest with ourselves, however, we'll admit that much of the way we handle our earthly relationships is based on emotion rather than on God's direction. We'll look into Scripture that Sunday to see what God has to say to us about hitting a home run when it comes to dealing with the relationships in our lives.
Finally, on the last Sunday of the series we'll round "third base" and address the issue of competence, which we're going to define as "doing all things with excellence, to the glory of God." We're often quick to depend on our own competence and to give ourselves the credit for our successes, but there is tremendous power for life and for Kingdom success waiting for us if we'll simply learn dependence on God as a primary focus of our life and work. God delights in blessing His children, but we're often too contented with pig slop instead. As we talk about competence, we'll focus on the source of our true competence--God Himself.
I hope you'll engage and enjoy our look at the Home Run Life. As you do, remember that we all have to step up to the plate, run the bases in order and touch every base along the way if we're going to hit a home run!
Grace and peace,
EASTER GRATITUDE AND MUSCLE MEMORY
APRIL 17, 2017
There are times in each of our lives that stand out as key moments for us, occasions when things happen that we know we'll remember and hold onto for years to come. Easter Sunday was such a moment for me and for our staff, as we enjoyed a wonderful time of worship, fellowship and outreach at Liberty Park Middle School.
As I reflect back not only on the day itself but also on the year leading up to it, my heart is grateful on so many levels for what we shared together as a church family and for all that happened to lead us to that day. First, I'm so grateful to God for placing in the hearts and minds of our ministers the idea of taking this big leap in the first place. About a year ago, our ministers took a few days to go on a prayer and planning retreat, and it was during this trip that the seeds of an off-campus Easter worship service were planted in our minds. Since that time, God has opened doors--easily and clearly, I might add--and has guided the planning and execution every step along the way. I look forward with eager expectation to see what He will do with this day, both in us and in the lives of others.
Second, I want to thank the guys who serve alongside of me, our ministers. They are the ones who did most of the heavy lifting (figuratively and literally) to organize, to sweat the details and to bring this special worship service into reality. They are a gifted team. All the rest of our staff members had some level of involvement as well, helping us think through things, organize, communicate, advertise and carry out the work of making it happen. They also are a gifted and dedicated group.
I would also be completely remiss if I failed to thank Mrs. Kacy Pierce, the principal of Liberty Park Middle School. From the first time I approached her in August 2016 about the possibility of us having our Easter worship at the school, she has been completely enthusiastic and incredibly helpful and accommodating. Many of us who have had children in LPMS already had an appreciation for her administrative excellence, but my esteem for her through these months of planning has become immense.
Another person who is due a great debt of gratitude is Marcie Haynie, who gave a tremendous amount of her time over the Easter weekend to make all of this possible for us. Every time we were at the school, she had to be there too as a school staff representative, often for countless hours, and she went beyond the call of duty, even helping us clean up and put things back in order when it was all said and done.
Finally, I want to thank you, my Liberty Park Baptist Church family, for all of your prayers, enthusiasm and hard work in carrying out this Easter celebration. I have just been amazed at how encouraging, how inviting, how prayerful, how hard-working and how hospitable you have been throughout the entire time, from start to finish. So many of you volunteered to serve, in every way from praying to physical labor, and I was glowing with a godly pride over you on Sunday (and really the entire weekend), as you were at your absolute best. What a wonderful family you are!
On another note, however, I want to encourage and ask all of you to remember how Sunday felt to you. I want you to hold onto the excitement, the enthusiasm, the hospitality and the spiritual readiness that went into that day. My reason for saying this is that I think Sunday was not the end of something, but rather the beginning of something that God desires to do in us as a church. I would be out of bounds if I tried to tell you what that something is, but i can already see that He has awakened in us a desire to do more to reach our community and to take big leaps of faith that move us out of our comfort zone.
What I hope is that we'll develop some spiritual "muscle memory," that phenomenon that happens physically when we've repeated an action so often that our body "remembers" and can duplicate the action without us thinking about it. When our reflex as a church is to pray, to reach out, to invite, to be hospitable, to be salt and light, to be a Gospel witness--basically, to obey the Lord--then we've hit a new high-water mark as a church. I believe that this Easter moved us significantly in that direction.
I love and appreciate you,
EASTER IS HERE!
APRIL 10, 2017
For months now, we as a church have been reminding each other that "Easter is coming!" Well, Easter is here! This is the week, beginning with last Sunday--Palm Sunday--that we commemorate the last week of Jesus' earthly life, and there is much to commemorate. Often referred to as Holy Week or Passion Week, this Sunday-to-Sunday eight day period is the most important in the annual calendar and life of the church.
With Palm Sunday comes a reminder of the regal nature of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As He rode into Jerusalem that day on the colt of a donkey, to the cheers and adulation of the crowd, He fulfilled the messianic prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your
king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a
donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
As Holy Week continues on, we celebrate Maundy Thursday, also referred to as Holy Thursday. On this day in the original Easter week, Jesus experienced many things that we would all do well to call to remembrance. First, there was the preparation for the Passover meal, and his teachings at that meal that are highlighted in John 13-17. During this meal, Jesus revealed that He would be betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. He also taught His disciples that the Holy Spirit would be given to them, and He prayed a beautiful prayer over them that is recorded in John 17.
After the meal, the disciples followed Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed and sweat drops of blood as He committed Himself completely to God's will, knowing that it would culminate in His terrible, wonderful sacrifice. Then, in fulfillment of His earlier claim, Judas turned Jesus over to authorities, who carried Him to the house of the High Priest to be questioned. It was during this time that Peter denied Jesus, just as He said He would do.
Good Friday comes next. I always felt that "Good Friday" was a bit of a misnomer, from the standpoint of what Jesus experienced. Although His sacrifice was certainly for our good, He took on Himself all of the punishment for all of our sin, becoming the perfect sacrifice for all of humanity. It was on this day, prior to the crucifixion, that Jesus stood before the High Priest, Annas, was questioned and physically beaten before the Sanhedrin, was dragged before Herod, and then was condemned to death by Pilate, at the demand of "the multitude."
The Good Friday agony and struggle of Jesus on the cross was recorded for us in the Gospels, along with the grace that He showed in taking care of His mother, Mary, and in assuring the thief crucified alongside Him that he would be with Jesus in paradise that day. This day comes to a close with Jesus' death, at which time the veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom, a great earthquake occurs, and the graves of several people come open, as those within them are brought back to life. Finally, the body of Jesus is gathered and placed in a borrowed tomb, sealed up and guarded by soldiers.
And then comes Easter Sunday. What an amazing day of joy! What a wonderful surprise as Jesus--who had prophesied it multiple times--defeats death and is raised to life! The empty tomb declares that death has been conquered, that Jesus is Lord of all and that His death on our behalf is effectual for granting us forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. For these reasons, Easter is a day bursting forth with eternal hope, a day of impassioned rejoicing for all who believe.
As you walk through this week, I hope you'll take time each day--and especially in the days mentioned above--to thank God for the sacrifice of Jesus and for the life that is available to us through His resurrection. I hope you'll remember Jesus' promises regarding the Holy Spirit and the work He does in our lives. And, I hope you'll make much of this coming Sunday, because Easter is here!
Grace and peace,
Prepared for Easter?
April 3, 2017
Every Monday morning, one of my first orders of business is to check my emails that have accumulated over the weekend. Although I'll occasionally glance at emails on my phone between Friday and Sunday, they typically accumulate as I'm busy with other things--especially on Sundays--and don't have an opportunity to address them until I'm at my desk on Monday.
On this particular Monday--April 3rd--I received an email with the following subject line: "Are You Prepared for Easter Services?" The body of the email went on to offer a variety of resources to ministers who, I suppose, had not yet begun to think about Easter. As I read this, I could envision a pastor sitting at his desk, a mere 13 days before Easter, reading the email, then slapping himself on the forehead and yelling out, "Oh no! It's almost Easter!! And I haven't even begun to think about preparation for the biggest day on the Christian calendar and in the life of my church!"
(I would submit that such a pastor might not be cut out for long-term ministry.)
I only offer the above absurd illustration to highlight how ridiculous it would be to think that someone who's life's calling is to minister within the church could somehow forget or have it get past him that Easter was coming and that he should have already been fairly deep into his planning and preparation for that day. We would consider such a minister to be derelict in his duties, either due to ignorance or laziness. I mean, come on, how could you miss Easter?
As all of the above thoughts flooded through my mind, however, another, deeper, question floated to the forefront of my thinking: "How spiritually prepared am I for Easter services?" You see, it's one thing to have the music and the message ready, to have all the volunteers in place, to have the advertising taken care of, to have all the logistical "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed, but it's quite another to have one's heart prepared to celebrate the resurrection of our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. When we look at it that way, the idea of preparing for Easter takes on a whole new meaning--one that I would submit is far more vital and important than the logistical and service planning.
Some Christian traditions address this need for spiritual Easter preparation by observing the season of Lent, which comes with several practices intended to set the heart and mind on the last days of Jesus' physical life here on Earth, leading up to His death, burial and resurrection. For most Baptist and other evangelicals there is no equivalent season of Easter preparation, but we should not take this fact as license to ignore any sort of preparation altogether. With this thought in mind, let me offer a few suggestions for preparing yourself spiritually for Easter:
- Start praying with Easter in focus. Now is a good time to start asking God to get your heart ready for this big day. Perhaps you should ask God to teach you something new this Easter regarding the significance of Christ's resurrection. Or, your focus may need to be on getting your heart right by asking for forgiveness and for the strength to turn away from sinful behaviors and to turn toward doing His will, thus honoring Christ with your obedience. Maybe you need to pray about who you could invite to participate in Easter services with you--perhaps family, friends, neighbors or co-workers who are unchurched or who don't know Christ.
- Read the stories. Each of the four Gospels includes a recounting of the story of Christ's resurrection. Perhaps it's been a long while since you've read them. Easter is a great time to refresh yourself on this story, told from four different perspectives, and to remind yourself of the power of that moment when Jesus defeated death.
- Give sacrificially of yourself. Spend some time praying about a way to honor the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the good news of His resurrection by serving someone in a special, sacrificial way. Or, make a generous Easter donation to your church or to a Christian organization that focuses on sharing the Gospel, like the North American Mission Board (NAMB). By giving generously to NAMB's Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, you ensure that church planters and other missionaries in the U.S. and Canada receive the funding they need to reach others for Christ.
The above are just a few ways to get you spiritually prepared for Easter, but they represent a good start in that direction. So let's get ready!
Grace and peace,
MARCH 27, 2017
As I prepared for my sermon last week, I had the opportunity to do a great deal of thinking about the nature of the church and how we, as its members, should function, biblically speaking. Initially, I spent some time trying to think of metaphors to use in regard to the church--illustrations that would help flesh out in my mind who we are and how we are to operate together. My primary source for such metaphorical illustrations, of course, was the Bible, which as usual proved to be the best and ultimate source of material for my thinking and my preaching.
After some initial thinking and reading, the three major metaphors I homed in on were these:
The church is the Body of Christ. This concept is clearly communicated in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. As the body of Christ, we are given the responsibility of carrying out the ministry of Christ--reconciling the world to God--and of being His representatives here on this earth (see 2 Corinthians 5:20). Because we typically think of our bodies as a single unit, it used to be difficult for me to consider how the various parts of my body might refuse to work together to accomplish what my brain was telling my body to do...until I got older.
Now, it's not unusual for me to say things like, "I wish my back would cooperate with the rest of me," or "I wish my legs would do what my head is telling them to do." As I grow older and various parts of my body fail to operate at peak efficiency like the used to, I've grown to understand in a much better way how the church, as the Body of Christ can get out of sync and out of sorts with itself, thus preventing the whole body from doing what it needs to do. Thankfully, however, we as the church have the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, which can bring all of the Body's members together and empower them to function in perfect cooperation under the guidance from the Head, which is Jesus Christ.
The church is the Army of Christ. Although this metaphor is not as explicitly stated in Scripture as the previous one, it is clearly hinted at in several places. Paul, for example, occasionally refers to his ministry co-workers as his "fellow soldiers" (see Philippians 2:25 and Philemon v.2), and in Ephesians 6:11 he calls on us as believers to "put on the whole armor of God." He also tells Timothy to serve as "a good soldier of Jesus Christ."
Like an army, the church has a mission to carry out, and we fight a deadly enemy in hostile territory. The accomplishment of our mission requires that we all function as a unit, each one doing his/her part, and that we "have each others' back" when engaged in battle with the enemy. Likewise, it's key that we have good leaders and strong morale and that we remain in "fighting shape," properly fed and exercised (spiritually speaking), ready to go at all times. Another key factor of being a strong army is that we care for our "wounded," helping them to get back to health and back into the fray as quickly and strongly as possible.
The church is the Family of God. One of the most commonly-used words in the Bible to denote believers is the word "brothers" (which is used generically and is meant to include all of our "sisters" as well). When it comes to the various biblical metaphors for the church, this one may be my favorite, because it really focuses on the relationships that we are supposed to have with one another. As such, it inherently highlights the bonds of love that we are to have for each other and reminds us of how we are supposed to "be there" for one another.
As family, we are by nature "for" each other, cheering one another along, helping, supporting and caring for one another. As family, we love sacrificially, and we forgive liberally, always hoping for the best for each other and always working for the benefit of the overall household. In love, we cheer each other on, hold each other accountable, share generously with each other and deal patiently with each other. We rejoice with each other, and we cry with each other.
Which one of the above illustrations means the most to you right now? Or, are there other biblical metaphors that speak more strongly to you (there are several others in Scripture, by the way)? I'd love to hear back from you!
Grace and peace,
Seeing God at Work
MARCH 20, 2017
"Where have you seen God at work lately?"
This is a question that our Associate Pastor, Nate French, asked of our staff recently at one of our weekly staff meetings. After some thought, each of us was able to name one or more ways that we had seen God at work in our church, our lives or in the lives of others. As a spiritual exercise, thinking about and bearing witness of the work that we've seen God accomplishing was encouraging to us, and it led us to a place of gratitude at the recognition of God's great reconciling purposes and plans in this lost and dying world.
For this reason, I wanted to relate to you some of the things that I have seen God doing as recently as this past weekend through the people of Liberty Park Baptist Church:
First, on Saturday a team of our church family members traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to serve in partnership with the people of Strong Tower Church. Strong Tower, under the leadership of pastor Terrence Jones, is a North American Mission Board church plant in the heart of west Montgomery, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city.
As an intentionally multiracial congregation, Strong Tower seeks to reach out to people of all ethnicities, serving the people of their community through ministering in Christ's name and spreading the Gospel in hopes of seeing transformation come to the lives of individuals and to the heart of their neighborhood. Our team was there to help them carry out their monthly outreach activity for March.
Late in the evening on Saturday, I was texted a group picture that included our team, the Strong Tower folks, and a smattering of volunteers from another church from the Montgomery area. The smiles on everyone's faces told the story of the joy and excitement that everyone had experienced that day as they served the Lord alongside one another.
The second place I saw God at work was in our church parking lot on Sunday afternoon, as a group of our ladies hosted a pre-Easter party for children in the Colonial Grand apartments, just down the road from the church. Fifteen children attended, enjoying the activities that had been prepared for them and listening to the Gospel story that was presented to them.
In addition to serving as a great connecting point for kids and families in the apartments, the party also served as an opportunity to invite those involved to attend our Easter service. Even more importantly for one child, the party served as a particularly powerful day, as that child responded to the Gospel by accepting Christ!
A third place I saw God at work happened Sunday afternoon, starting out in the parking lot of the Liberty Park Middle School, where we'll be holding our Community Easter service this year. Another group of fifteen of our church family members gathered there to receive instruction and encouragement from Jim and Oleta Bruton and then to go out and prayerwalk around the school. As we spread out, we covered the school in prayer, both for the everyday activities that happen there and especially in preparation for Easter.
I'm thankful to see God at work in our church family in such a variety of ways. I'm reminded as I consider all He is doing, that our God is always at work--and it's up to us to discover where he's at work and to join Him there!
Where have you seen God at work lately?
Grace and peace,
MARCH 13, 2017
Every Sunday morning, I meet with a group of men in our church to pray. We've been doing this for a few years now, and it's become an indelible part of our Sunday morning experience. In addition to praying for our families, our church, our nation, for one another and for any of a wide variety of things, we spend time talking together about spiritual matters, having iron-sharpening-iron conversations about our spiritual experiences, our spiritual growth, God's word, and anything else that is on our hearts.
On a recent Sunday morning, our conversation drifted into the issue of our own personal witnessing encounters, but rather than talking about our successes in this area, we began to discuss the times when we had failed. One of the guys mentioned how disappointing it is when you realize that God has put someone in your path to whom you could/should provide a Christian witness, and in the moment you just miss it, only to realize later on that God had opened the door and that you had breezed right past it.
Another told a story about a moment he had experienced of that very nature, an incident that had happened years ago, and how it haunts him to this day. We all agreed that such experiences are hard to stomach, due to the great disappointment that we hold in regard to ourselves in the follow-up. I broke the gloom of the moment a little by mentioning that it's kind of like striking out in slow-pitch softball. It should never happen, but it sometimes does, and it's always hugely upsetting.
As we talked further, however, we all agreed that it's a wonderful thing that we serve a God who is gracious and merciful, one who can take these "near misses" and use them as growth catalysts in our lives. Our common experience in the aftermath of these moments was that we found ourselves, in our disappointment, turning to God and praying all the harder--not only for ourselves, to have more insight, discernment and courage, but also for the individuals to whom we had failed to provide a Gospel witness.
We also found ourselves focusing on the sovereign nature of our God, whose family is numerous and widespread and whose power and reach are without borders. We noted, with great relief, that our God, who could cause the very rocks to cry out if He chose to do so, could also bring another believer into the life of the person we'd whiffed on (that's a baseball/softball term for a complete, not-even-close miss) who would provide the very witness that we had failed to bring.
In the end, we spent some time praying together that God--in spite of His infinite ability to fix our mistakes--would not have to bring someone in to clean up our "misses." Instead, we asked that He would give us such clear discernment and awareness of the Holy Spirit's activity in our lives that we would catch what He was doing in the moment and would have the insight and the spiritual "gumption" to step up and do what God expected of us.
Have you had similar near-miss experiences as well? If not, then you are likely either an amazing witnessing "machine," or you're not paying attention to what God's doing at all. If you have, then I would encourage you first of all to pray and ask God to forgive you for missing the doors He's opened for you. Second, pray for the person who was the object of your near miss, either for God to provide you a second opportunity to talk with that individual or for Him to bring someone else into that person's life who will witness to them. Third, ask God to heighten your spiritual awareness, so you'll be ready and responsive the next time He opens a door to you.
If you pray diligently, watch carefully and speak up courageously, you'll turn that near miss into a home run for God's Kingdom.
Grace and peace,
What Is Your Life Saying?
March 6, 2017
Many years ago, back in my youth minister days, I had a young man in my first-ever youth group who was struggling a bit in his Christian walk. While I was only a few years older than he was, as his youth minister I had the charge of discipling him, even when that meant holding him accountable in regard to his faith. To this day, I remember the conversation he and I had about his life and the direction it had taken, as I sought to obey the biblical mandate to "restore gently" those who had strayed from the path (see Galatians 6:1).
After discussing various behaviors in which he was participating that were outside of the lines for a Christian, I mentioned that he needed to remember that there were several younger kids in our youth group who looked up to him as a leader, example and role model. His instantaneous response was to take a defensive position and to let me know that in no way did he want to be anyone's role model or example. Further, he declared that he had never asked or signed up to be a leader of any sort, and if people thought of him that way, he wanted to make sure and set the record straight.
I calmly explained to him that, like it or not, as an older, outspoken member of our group who by virtue of his personality and school-related accomplishments had come to be regarded by others as someone to look up to, he was a de facto leader, whether he liked it or not. He couldn't choose whether or not people were going to see him in that way; he could only choose how he was going to live his life in view of that fact.
Years later, my thinking was affirmed when I heard a minister say something similar: if you are a believer in Christ, you don't get to choose whether or not you will be an example; you only get to choose what kind of example you will be--a good one or a poor one. I remember how profoundly I was impacted by this pastor's statement, knowing that he was absolutely correct.
As Christians, we must remember that the world is watching us at all times, different people for different reasons. There are some who are looking to question the veracity of our faith, and their most effective tool is to hold up examples of Christian people behaving in decidedly non-Christian ways, claiming that our hypocrisy reveals that we're no different than anyone else. When they can find examples of believers whose lives and behaviors are even less moral and less upstanding than the "good" people they know who are not believers, in their minds our beliefs are invalidated, and they feel justified in their stance in opposition to the Christian faith.
Others, however, are watching us to see if our faith is for real because they are grasping for life and for light in a dark and difficult world. They long to see something that is real, something that is powerful, something that provides answers for this life and hope for eternity. When they see us living our faith before them in a biblical fashion, they see in us something they deeply desire, and doors are opened for conversation and, hopefully, for their conversion.
For these reasons, it's important for us to heed the words of Ephesians 5:15--"Be very careful, then, how you live..." It's very important for us to give serious thought to what our lives are saying to others as we do what we do and say what we say, and as we deal with life situations and with other people. How we act and how we respond will say a lot to the world around us about the reality of what we claim to believe and even (in their eyes) about the reality of the One in which we believe.
So, as you speak, as you act, as you deal with life and deal with others this week, what will your life be saying to those who are observing you? What will it say to your family (especially your children)? What will it say to your co-workers and your neighbors? What will it say to the strangers you encounter throughout the week?
Let's hope that our lives say that Jesus is real, that He loves them, and that His plan is the best plan for their life.
Grace and peace,
Joy, Peace and Contentment
February 27, 2017
If you had to make a list of the top ten greatest experiences of your life, what would they be? For me, I would certainly have to list my salvation experience, my wedding, the births of our two children, the baptisms of both of my children and my kids' graduations. Beyond that, I might struggle to choose from a mix of family experiences, epic vacation trips, mission trips and some tremendous times of worship that I've experienced.
Mountaintop moments like the ones listed above are important to us as human beings. They inspire us, excite us and define us. Perhaps as a result of this, we long for them and sometimes even work to make them happen, ever hoping to lessen the distance between one defining moment and the next.
The problem for us is that we find it impossible to remain perpetually on the mountaintop. Invariably, there tend to be great plains and valleys between these peak experiences, and we often struggle to exist in these lower places. By definition, plains are broad, flat expanses with no major ups and downs in the terrain. Much of life is like this--regular, featureless and dull. Valleys, on the other hand, are even lower places, described geographically as "depressions," which is particularly apt when used as an analogy of the low times of life that we go through occasionally.
Truth be told, it's in these times between the mountains that God teaches us some of the greatest lessons of life, as we struggle in the featureless moments and in the low moments to find joy, peace and contentment. These three states of existence are easily found in abundance on the mountaintop, but they grow increasingly scarcer the farther down we go. The good news is that God knows this about us, which is why He speaks to us clearly in His word regarding the lower moments of life, giving us advice about how to exist in the plains and the valleys with our joy, peace and contentment intact.
Among the great passages of Scripture that address the needs of our lower times and how God meets us in such moments is John 16:33, where Jesus proclaims, "In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." Without any sugar-coating, Jesus lets us know that we will without doubt experience trials, tribulations and difficulties in this life, but He calls us to take heart (some versions say "take courage" or "be of good cheer") in light of the knowledge that He has already conquered all that might seek to conquer us.
In other passages, we are invited to hand off our anxieties to Him (Matthew 6:32-33, Philippians 4:6, 1 Peter 5:7), with the promise that He'll take care of everything for us, as a loving Father would do for His children. For me, one of the passages that most brings me joy, peace and contentment is Romans 8:28-39, a section of Scripture that is packed to the brim with wonderful reminders of what God does for us, how much He loves us and how strong the staying power of His love and provision is for us.
My awareness of messages from God to our hearts found in passages like the ones mentioned above is always a reminder to me that, especially in the plains and valleys of life, it is ever more important that I immerse myself in quiet and constant meditation upon God's word, allowing His Holy Spirit to marinate my mind and my heart with declarations of His loving help and guidance. The next time you find yourself in the lower places of life--be they plains or valleys--I hope you'll take the step of diving deep into the depths of God's word too, communing with Him in prayer as you do. You may just discover a mountaintop of joy, peace and contentment in the plainest plain or even in the lowest valley.
Grace and peace,
The Pursuit of Christ
FEBRUARY 20, 2017
What are you passionately pursuing in this life? Are you chasing with reckless abandon after a successful career? Have you plunged yourself headlong into a good education? Do you find yourself running toward a relationship that you believe will bring you ultimate fulfillment? Are you "living for the weekend"--or for retirement--when you can jettison the cares and responsibilities of work and go after your favorite hobbies or pastimes?
It is important to identify and examine the things that we've dedicated our emotions and our energies to pursuing, because the things we value so highly that we are willing to set aside all else to chase after them reveal a great deal about who we are and where our ultimate values lie. For me, such an understanding cries out for a healthy dose of self-awareness and self-analysis that will help me to take an honest look at what those things are for me.
In Philippians 3, the Apostle Paul gives us a clear and honest window into his own heart in regard to his most passionate of pursuits. After providing us with a list of the reasons for which he could, by the standards of human thinking, have every right to sit back and enjoy his pedigree and his resume of accomplishments, Paul boldly asserts that he has rejected such things so that he might engage in the pursuit of something of "surpassing greatness" (Philippians 3:8). Actually, that "something" is a someone--namely, Jesus Christ.
In Philippians 3:7-11, Paul uses intensely strong language to describe his deep devotion to Christ, proclaiming that his great desire is to "know Christ and the power of His resurrection" (Philippians 3:10). After clarifying for the reader in the next few verses that he has "not already obtained this" and that he has not been "made perfect," he declares that his sole focus is just one thing--to forget what lies behind him and to strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal that God has placed before him--this great goal of knowing Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:12-14).
I remember reading this passage as a young Christian and being profoundly impacted by it. Until that point in my life's journey, I only understood matters of faith in terms of religious devotion and right behavior. When I discovered for myself this great truth that the life of faith is about the pursuit of a relationship with Christ, I was bowled over, and the course of my existence took a new path, as I began a pursuit of Christ rather than of Christianity, of the person rather than the religion.
With this new understanding of my faith, I began to notice how often in Scripture God calls us to seek Him or to seek His face (2 Chronicles 7:14, Jeremiah 29:13 and Acts 17:26-27 are great examples). I also began to note how God's desire is not just that we know about Him but that we come to know Him (John 17:3 is by far my favorite verse in this subject). As I began to put all of these pieces together, I realized that God's great desire for me--His top calling--is not that I merely do things for Him to honor His name, but rather that I dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowing Him above all else.
While some might be alarmed at the thought of setting aside every meaningful thing in life for the pursuit of Christ, such a concern stems from a lack of understanding regarding the richly generous nature of the God who desires to know us and to fill our lives with the very blessings we flail after in our own strength and weakness. Our God is not one who takes the heart of life away from us; indeed, He is the one who seeks to give to us the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19). So, pursue Him passionately and trust Him completely; you won't be disappointed.
"The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him."
Grace and peace,
February 13, 2017
“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to
the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The stories of
believers who have given their lives in obedience to God’s calling are abundant
and varied. Many of the historical accounts of martyrdom—some of them bordering
on the legendary—were preserved for posterity’s sake in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, written back in 1563 by John Foxe
(originally titled Actes and Monuments of
Christian Martyrs) and updated numerous times over the ensuing centuries to
include the stories of people who died for their faith during the tumultuous
religious struggles in Europe from the 17th-19th
Back in 2007, I
received a copy of a version of the book developed by the Voice of the Martyrs organization that had been updated to include Christian martyrs of the 20th
century and even those of the early 21st
. Having read an older
version of the book many years ago and having been deeply affected by the
displays of faith recorded therein, I was profoundly moved by these newer
accounts, considering that they were much closer to home for me chronologically.
Reading the stories
of Christian martyrs from the last hundred years or so led me to realize that
dying for one’s faith is not something of the past, but rather something that
occurs—and occurs often—even today. David Barrett, in the January 2007 edition
of the International Bulletin of
, related the amazing statistic that more people died
for their Christian faith in the 20th
century than in all other
centuries of Christian history combined!
Living in a nation
that has religious freedom as one of its core values, I believe that we
Americans sometimes forget that our blessing of liberty is not the rule but
rather the exception, both historically and in the present. For this reason, I
think it’s often difficult for us to really grasp passages like Philippians
, which speaks of Jesus being obedient to the point of death and calls
us to an identical type of obedience.
Now, let me be
clear: while this passage does
us to an ultimate kind of obedience, it does
say that we are to go around seeking
ways to die for our faith. The idea of pursuing intentional martyrdom for the
sake of gaining reward—suicide by martyrdom—is not a Christian theological
principle (that’s why you don’t see Christian suicide bombers), but the idea of
being willing to follow God’s calling obediently, regardless of the cost to
one’s self, is
one of the central
theological themes of our faith.
This is where the
difficulty lies for most of us as American believers, especially in our context
where standing for our faith does not result in the loss of freedom or the loss
of life. Existing in the blessings that we do, we sometimes find it hard to be
obedient to the point of inconvenience
let alone obedient to the point of death. For this reason, I’m always amazed
and profoundly moved by those Christian brothers and sisters who have “loved not their lives even unto death”
) and who have lived in humble obedience to God’s commands without
regard for the consequences.
Such a life might
sound like one of misery and anxiety to some, but the testimony of the martyrs
of history has been clear, in that they discovered deep and profound joy and
contentment in humbly obeying God’s direction in their lives. The consequences
of such obedience have been clear as well, as the faithful obedience of the few
has served to encourage and embolden the rest of us and, throughout history,
has often resulted in even the persecutors and tormentors coming to faith in
Christ (for a great example of this phenomenon, read End of the Spear
by Steve Saint—or watch the movie by the same
challenged by the lives of these believers whose humble obedience led them to
give the ultimate sacrifice. The challenge to me personally is to consider the
depth of my own humility toward God and the breadth of my own obedience to
anything that He asks of me, and to grow my faith from one of convenience to
one of humble obedience that says “yes” to God with no holding back.
How about you?
Grace and peace,
Is your life full?
February 6, 2017
How would you answer if someone asked you the question, “How full is your life?” Would your answer be something along the lines of, “My life is so packed right now with work, family, activities, church and other obligations that I can barely breathe”? Or, would your answer be more along the lines of, “I am experiencing wonderful times of connecting with God in prayer, I see His hand at work in and through my life, and I’m excited to see what He’s going to do with my life as I submit myself more fully to Him”?
The first answer reflects a quantitative
view of life—meaning that we determine the value of our life at any given moment based on how much is going on. The danger of such an approach is that, while we can certainly fill up our lives with a never-ending assortment of obligations and adventures, we seldom find that a full life of this sort is truly fulfilling.
The second answer reflects a qualitative
view of life—meaning that we determine the value of our life at any given point not according to how much stuff we’ve crammed into it but rather based on the ultimate meaning that is embedded in what we’re doing.
If you had to sit down and truly evaluate your life at this given moment, would you have to say that your life is fuller in the quantitative sense or in the qualitative sense? Are you busy investing your time and energy in things that have eternal value, or are you just busy?
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would admit that we tend more just to be busy than anything else. As a result, we are more likely to have lives that are full than lives that are fulfilling. If this is the case with you (as is often the case with me too), how do you change things around? How do you move from a life that is merely full to one that is fulfilling?
First, it’s important to evaluate and take inventory of the ways we are investing our resources of time, energy and effort. Consider, for example, the amount of time the average American watches television or spends on social media. While I’m not advocating that you necessarily give up such things entirely, it could be that it’s time for you to rein in your media practices and spend that time in a more eternally valuable fashion.
Second, we should all take stock of how we might inject the eternal into what we’re already doing. Consider, for example, the amount of time we spend with family—especially for parents who are raising young children. A parent who has an eye for eternal things can “redeem the time” by making sure that he or she is making an intentional effort to teach their children to pray, to teach them the great stories of the Bible and, as they get older, to spend time having conversations about eternal matters.
The same can be said for the leisure activities and hobbies that we pursue. These things that we enjoy so much—and that we often enjoy engaging in with other people—can become wonderful bridges for Gospel conversations, and God can use them to bring people into our sphere of influence who may need Christ or may need to be encouraged or strengthened in their faith. When our time and our involvements are given over to the Lord, there’s just no telling what He can and will do with them!
In light of the above, here’s my challenge to you: take some time to do the primary life evaluation that has the potential to transform your busy-ness into your Father’s business. Then, start the hard work of making the changes that will accomplish such a renovation in your life. You’ll be amazed how God Himself will help you once you commit to the process! And, when it’s all said and done, you’ll be pleased to see how faithful He has been to take what you’ve dedicated to Him and make it into something of eternal worth.
So—how full is you
Grace and peace,
This week's article was written by Worship Pastor, Ryan Leffel, and his wife Kelly
A Full Plate
January 30, 2017
At church the leadership has been hitting home the church’s strategy, Worship-Serve-Grow. So in looking at that as a couple, we began to see that we needed to reach out past our reality and begin to consider what life may be like for others. We’re in our thirties and forties, and have a FULL plate. We are busy with jobs, marriage, raising kids (school activities, sports, friends), church activities, family, friends, etc. We live in a wonderful and safe neighborhood, with top rated schools. Basically, our (your) reality and our (your) circumstances are good, possibly enviable. So, how do we do that? How do we Worship - Serve - Grow?
We began to think about our own children and how their reality is vastly different from that of so many. While we feel extremely grateful about where they are growing up, we know it’s our job to expose them to what life is like for others. To give them the opportunity to serve others as Christ would. We thought back over our experiences growing up and especially our times as members in a Youth group. Those years as a teen in a SBC church were filled with so many opportunities to serve. Summers were full of mission trips & projects. We recalled the hard work that was involved, but also the joy, gratitude, and humility that it brought to our young lives. We thought back to the times before we had kids and how we were able to go on some mission trips with the youth from our former church. We realized how we missed those times and how desperately we needed to be serving again. We felt that God was asking us to begin serving again.
Fast forward to today and our FULL plates. As a ministry family it was hard to consider that weren’t serving, because we are serving at church all the time. But we also needed to serve by “being the church” to those with a different reality. How do we make that happen? What is keeping us from serving? We realized that time, schedules and responsibilities aren’t quite as flexible as they used to be. However, that was just an obstacle that needed to be overcome.
Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” –Matthew 25: 35-40. The Bible is clear...we serve Christ by serving others. Our wonderful church offers many opportunities to serve, locally and internationally. We thought about the missional mandate of our church, “Liberty Park Baptist Church exists to glorify God and make disciples by inviting our community to enjoy fulfilling lives in Christ”. We thought about our Bible Study group, we were already GROWING together, so why not SERVE together?
We wanted to provide an opportunity for our Bible Study group, to get out and serve, so we contacted the Jimmie Hale Mission about serving on a Sunday evening. They had a need for help serving dinner at the Shepura Men’s Center. This center is a place where men, “in desperate straits find new direction and hope through Bible-based counseling, education and discipline.” They provide shelter, food, clothing, counseling, and spiritual guidance. They also house overnight guests, most of whom are homeless or transient. Now we had a plan! Eight members from our class, loaded up on the church van to go and serve dinner. While, I’m sure there was some nervousness among the group, the night was great! The men we served were so gracious and we were so encouraged that God was working. It was a blessing to us to put aside our excuses and fears and to step outside our reality and into someone else’s.
Our hope is to find more ways to serve and to find opportunities for our families to serve together. We encourage you to discover a way to step outside your reality and SERVE…God is waiting!
Grace and peace,
Ryan and Kelly Leffel
January 23, 2017
When I was a kid, I used to enjoy going with my Mom or Dad to get gasoline when their vehicles were in need of fuel. We frequented a particular Chevron station in my hometown of Gardendale, and the owner--Mr. George Bailey--or one of his workers would always come out and pump the gas for us, as they did for all of their customers. In addition to filling the gas tank, the gas attendant would check the oil, check the condition of the windshield wipers, check the tire pressure, clean the windshield and give everything a quick once-over. All of that seems very Mayberry-ish today, but I remember how utterly cool the whole experience was and how back in those days the term "service station" truly meant something!
Not too many years removed from that, "self service" became all the rage, and even more so with the advent of being able to pay at the pump. No longer having the patience to wait around for an attendant who might be busy with other customers, we've sacrificed the personal attention of the "service station" days for the sake of speed and convenience. Most days I don't mind the trade-off--honestly, most days I don't even think about it--but there are the occasional moments when I long for the niceties of that long-gone era.
Beyond the gas station industry, the wave of self service has flooded other markets in recent decades as well, so that it's a fairly common occurrence for us to fill our own plates, to refill our own drinks and to ring up our own groceries. Still, the convenience of it all outweighs (for me anyway) the sacrifice of giving up being personally served, so much so that self service has really become my preferred mode of service.
Think about that statement for a second: "...self service has really become my preferred mode of service." While such a sentiment may mean one thing when it comes to how I like to obtain my food or my gasoline, the words and the thoughts behind them take on a whole new meaning when applied to the things of God's Kingdom. After all, we're told that our primary mode of service on a spiritual level is to be service to the Lord rather than self service. In Deuteronomy 11:13, we are told to "love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul." Secondarily, we are tasked with serving others, as commanded in Galatians 5:13--"through love, serve one another."
As human beings, however, our standard approach to life is to serve ourselves first--self service in a different way. Then, if we have anything left, we'll get around to God and maybe others. Sadly, it's this very approach that leaves us dry, empty and unfulfilled in lfe, an ironic situation considering that our intent in being self-serving is primarily to see to our own needs, wants and fulfillment first.
Which reminds me--another thing I recall from my childhood is a remedy to the tendency to serve oneself first, taught to us using the acronym J.O.Y., which stood for Jesus, Others, You. As a young child, I was instructed by my Sunday School teachers and children's church leaders that following the simple plan of serving Jesus primarily, serving others secondarily and then tending to my own concerns last would lead to a life of joy.
And you know what? They were right on target. Not that I've always followed the J.O.Y. pattern in my life, but I've always discovered when I do that joy and fulfillment follow right along with it. And such a discovery motivates me to move away from a life of self service to a life of serving the way that God intends it.
Hey--all of this talk has gotten me a little nostalgic. If anyone knows where I can find a good, full service gas station where the gas attendant will check my oil and my tire pressure and clean my windshield while he fills the tank, would you let me know? Thanks!
Grace and peace,
WORSHIPERS BY NATURE
JANUARY 16, 2017
We human beings are worshipers by nature. It seems, looking
at history and present-day culture, that we are hard-wired down to the core of
our beings to worship something or someone. Among the earliest archaeological
treasures that we have discovered connected with our species are religious
objects that indicate that humanity's propensity has always trended toward
Even in societies that one would deem to be secular,
scientific, atheistic or intellectually "enlightened," we find that
people will always find an object or a person to lift up and venerate as being
worthy of praise, honor and glory. We run the gamut with this tendency too,
idolizing our "heroes" in any field of endeavor, including academics,
business, politics, technology, military conquest, humanitarianism and sports,
among many others. We have even developed a category in recent years of people
who we idolize simply because they are famous for being famous (hello, Hiltons
and Kardashians), and culturally we follow their every move as if our
well-being depended upon their happiness, fawning over them and making much of
them and their goings-on (sounds like worship to me).
In examining things truthfully, I would have to conclude
that for us as human beings, there's no real discussion about whether or not
we'll BE worshipers; no, the real discussion comes down to asking what or who
it is that we'll be worshiping. In tackling this question, the Bible has some
interesting things to say about our choices as they relate to God and to
anything or anyone else that we might worship:
First, there's the simple command found in Exodus
34:14--"You shall worship no other god..." If we
needed something just simple, plain and clear to us, this is it. The Bible is
full of such imperatives regarding the sole worship of the Lord. Second,
however, is the reminder that other gods we may worship are not really gods at
all, as seen in Psalm 86:10--"You alone are
God." Because they are not gods at all--indeed, they have
only been fashioned as "gods" by human hands, hearts or minds--they
carry no real power and no real authority. First Chronicles 12:26 declares
that "all the gods of all the peoples are worthless idols, but the
Lord made the heavens."
The Bible is also clear about the consequences of engaging
in "worthless worship." In speaking of His own people who had begun
to worship the idols of the surrounding nations, God said in 2 Kings
17:15, "They pursued worthless idols and became worthless
themselves." I don't know about you, but "worthless"
is not a description by which I would like to be known, and especially not so
by God Himself!
In contrast to the many, many scriptural prohibitions and
warnings regarding the worship of anything or anyone other than God, there are
numerous calls to worship God and to serve Him only. Space prohibits me listing
all of them here, but a simple search through the Psalms alone
will leave you with a clear understanding that God's unalterable call to us is
to worship Him and to do so with all of our heart and soul. One great example
of such a call is found in one of my personal favorites, Psalm 95,
which says in part, "Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make
a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into His presence with
thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise!...Oh
come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our
Take some time this week to consider what or who you're
really worshiping in this life. What/who gets most of your attention and
affection? What/who have you come to idolize? As worshipers by nature, we're
going to be inclined to worship, so let's worship the Lord and Him alone!
Grace and peace,
More New year's Thinking (A Cautionary Tale)
January 9, 2017
As we continue to plow into this new year, I want to continue to attempt to spark your thinking in a variety of categories. One particular area in which I would like to encourage/challenge you a little is in regard to new commitments that put God's agenda on the front burner in the new year.
In my previous article (which you can read at www.libertypark.org/blog), I challenged you to commit to spending daily time in prayer and Bible study, seeking not only to discover the "new thing" that God desires to do in your life this year but also truly to understand that "why" behind it. The reason for this call for understanding stems from the fact that when we "get it" in regard to God's greater purposes and plans, a whole new world opens up to us in terms of our daily focus and priorities. When this happens to us, we are challenged down to our very core, and we're left with decisions to make that may radically alter our life and the lives of those around us.
Years ago, in my very first pastorate, I saw an example of this in action: Upon my arrival at the church I was serving, I began to guide a group of church leaders through the Experiencing God study. As we delved deeper into the curriculum, the group began to discover deep spiritual truths that put some of the group members in a state of spiritual crisis due to their challenging nature. Sensing that we were on the cusp of a potential revival, I was very excited as a young pastor to see how the group was responding, and I was hoping and praying for a great move of God.
As we reached a high point in the study, I was visited one day by our deacon chairman, who had made an appointment with me, simply saying that he wanted to "talk about the study we're doing." I was elated, thinking that he was coming to me to declare his intent to make significant forward strides in his spiritual walk and to lead the church in doing the same. Instead, I was heartbroken when I heard him say, "Brother Scott, I'm going to have to drop out of our study." When I asked why, he told me that it had gotten to the point where he was going to have to change his thinking and the way he lived if he kept on with the study and was honest with himself and with God.
I tried to explain to him that such transformation was the whole point and that God desired to do some great work in his life and that of the church, if he would just listen and respond to the Holy Spirit. He replied by saying that it was "just too much" for him, and he carried through with his plan to discontinue the class. The chilling effect of his decision on the church was immense, and his choice to drop out of the study led a couple of others to do so as well. Rather than changing to fit God's agenda, they opted for the comfort of the familiar. In about twelve years, a mere decade following this momentous decision to step away from the "new thing" that God sought to do in this congregation, the church, which had been in a thirty-year decline, shut its doors for good.
So why this discouraging story right here at the beginning of the new year? Well, there is a vast wealth throughout human history of stories that have been passed down as "cautionary tales" meant to warn us of the consequences of certain actions--or, as in this case, the dangers of inaction. I also know that the natural stance of the human heart is to maintain the status quo and to rock the boat as little as possible. This truth is especially in force when it comes to spiritual matters, because changes of this sort often require a new way of thinking, being and doing that reverberates deep into every nook and cranny of our heart, mind and life, calling for transformation that may rock us at the deepest levels. More than just calling us to make casual "resolutions," God calls us to make covenants, deep, life-changing commitments that have the capacity to change who we are, to make us into new creations.
So, is there anything that holds you back from such transformational commitment-making? Like the man in my story, is God's agenda "just too much" for you? Or, is this the year that you finally take that huge leap of faith that you know you've needed to make and experience the "new thing" that God has been holding in store just for you?
Grace and peace,
The Understanding Christian
January 3, 2017
"Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
As we roll into the beginnings of a new year, many of us will make resolutions or at least determine that we in some way will try to better ourselves or our situation in the coming twelve months. Some of these commitments may revolve around taking significant steps of maturity and challenge in regard to spiritual matters, and it's these in particular that I would like to address in this week's article:
Often, people who are well-meaning believers will make commitments that aren't necessarily in line with the "new thing" that God has prepared for them. Over the years, for instance, I have seen very highly-committed and well-intentioned Christians determine to engage in a particular area of ministry for which they were not gifted or which they were not capable of fulfilling for some reason, like poor health, lack of time or lack of passion of aptitude. As a result, they experienced a mix of difficulties, including anxiety, disillusionment, confusion and even burnout.
The sad thing about this set of circumstances was that it wasn't necessary at all for them to go through such a struggle, especially when a little insight and understanding applied upfront to the situation could have prevented the problem entirely. Here's what I mean: in the above passage, God informs His people that He is doing something new among them, calling on them to see and acknowledge it ("Behold..."). Immediately thereafter, however, God asks them whether or not they "perceive it."
His question regarding their perception of what He's doing really gets to the heart of what I'm talking about here. God doesn't just want them to see what He's doing: He also wants them to understand it, to "get it." To "perceive" something means to have a mental grasp of it. When it comes to the things of God, however, I would argue that it means to have a "spiritual grasp," by which we catch on not only to what God is doing but also to why He is doing it. It also means that we grasp its greater meaning in terms of God's purposes of redemption, and we comprehend our role in it.
Because God has put the Body of Christ together according to His plans, in order to accomplish His purposes, it's important for us to gain understanding into what His purposes are and what role He has called us to play in them. Thankfully, God is not coy in such matters, openly proclaiming to us that His intent, stated by Christ, is "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). He has called us to join Him this great mission as well, commanding us to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8) and to make disciples as we go through life (Matthew 28:19-20).
While the above gives general information regarding our role in God's saving work (witnesses, disciple-makers), the specifics can sometimes be a little harder to discern. This is where two of our old friends--prayer and Bible study--come into play. Through prayer, we grow to know God relationally, and it's in this knowing of Him that the Holy Spirit gives us wise counsel regarding God's plans for us. We also gain understanding through studying the word, as noted in Psalm 119:130: "The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple."
So, regardless of the initial plans, commitments or resolutions you've made for the coming year, I would like to offer two more--first, that you commit yourself to spending quality time with God in prayer, growing in your knowledge of Him, and second, that you spend time reading and studying the Bible, which God will use to illuminate and enlighten "the eyes of your heart" (Ephesians 1:18). These two great gifts, properly utilized, will bring us the amazing blessing of understanding in 2017!
Grace and peace,
The Trail of God's Handiwork
December 27, 2016
I always find the time between Christmas and New Year's to be an odd time. Christmas has passed, which means that our biggest church events of year's end have come and gone, and the new year is on its way, with a whole slew of things waiting to be done, but everyone's still in a kind of holiday mode, putting everything in limbo for about a week or so.
Knowing that the usual routine is going to be suspended, I usually try to get some "housecleaning" things done, like updating my files (both digital and physical), cleaning off my desk, and tending to open-ended tasks that have been left untouched for a long while. Today, I found myself finally delving into the thousands of emails that have built up over the last few years, as I would save items that I deemed important and valuable for future reference or would just fail to delete them because I forgot and let them build up day after day.
Regardless, it was interesting to go back through a few years of emails, reminiscing over good times and difficult times, noting both the struggles and the triumphs. It was fun to relive some of the lighter moments of life that were referenced in emails and it was hard to walk back through the sadder moments.
Some emails were very encouraging and uplifting, while others were difficult to read, some so much so that, knowing their contents, I deleted them quickly without even reviewing them again. The ones that were sent as notes of encouragement--most of them from you, my church family--I re-read, allowing me once again to draw strength from your words. Some of them I even took time to print out, saving them for a future day when I might need a reminder of a kind word or a prayer offered on my behalf.
Tucked amid the emails that I examined were those written by friends we've lost in recent years, reminders of those relationships and their importance to me. There were even some emails written by my Dad, who passed away back in February, some with links to articles he'd read that he thought I would find interesting, others that were routine in nature.
There were also emails with attached photographs, reminders of church events, family times and mission and ministry efforts. And then there were the routine, day-to-day emails related to the business side of leading a church--and there were lots of lots of those.
As I continued to go through the emails (and I'm not close to being done yet), I noted how reflective they are of life, displaying the trail of God's handiwork along the way. Many of our days and hours are the routine business of life, and yet there are those days and moments when life is much more poignant and memorable, such as the days when we experience the victories of life or when those we love encounter a major breakthrough of some sort.
There are those life moments that we hold onto because they are reminders of loved ones who have gone home, and there are moments we'd just as soon forget because of the pain associated with them. All in all, however, it is the mass accumulation of these moments and days that our God weaves together for our good, and although there are those we would be happy to quickly delete, they have purpose and meaning for us too, as long as we're trusting the Lord in every one of them.
With this in mind, I look back and reminisce, but I also look ahead with excitement and enthusiasm, knowing that they same God who has been there in each moment in the past is guiding every moment to come. And with that in mind, I wish all of you a very happy and prosperous New Year, not knowing what it will bring, but knowing that God's hand will be guiding it all.
Grace and peace,
Waiting with Hope
December 19, 2106
One of my favorite songs of Christmas is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, a hymn whose modern version goes back to the early 1700s and which has roots possibly as far back as the 13th century. In addition to its melody, which moves from dirge-like to majestic and celebratory, I love its message, which speaks powerfully of the expectant longing for the promised Messiah of Israel in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ.
As I think about this song, rolling its tune and lyrics around in my head, I'm reminded of how often we as believers find ourselves waiting on the Lord to move in our lives in fulfillment of the promises we read in Scripture. Such times can be anxiety-inducing and faith-testing, but they also can yield maturity and strength when handled in the proper fashion. For this reason, we find in Scripture numerous encouragements and instructions regarding our waiting on the Lord, and we also find descriptions of the rewards that come to those who wait patiently and faithfully, as seen in these powerful passages:
But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with
wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, "therefore I hope in Him!” The Lord is good to
those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope
and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Lamentations 3:24-26
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14
It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him that
He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and
rejoice in His salvation." Isaiah 25:9
I deeply appreciate and find strength in the above passages, because they remind me that, as I am waiting, God is working all things together for my good, including the timing in which He will reveal His answer to my pleas and concerns.
Like the ancient Israelites, you may be waiting on the Lord this Christmas season as well, longing expectantly to see Him move, work or speak in some significant way in your life. If so, you can take encouragement from the fact that God's timing and His responses are always perfect and completely on target with our deepest needs, which He knows more about than we do ourselves.
And yet, there's the waiting, which is just so hard to do. So, while you wait, hear the words in the chorus of the ancient aforementioned Christmas hymn: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel." Note that these beautiful, powerful lyrics call the hearer to rejoice in what is anticipated, not in that which has already arrived. Let these words likewise encourage you, reminding you that, while you may be waiting on God to move in your life, you can rejoice in the fact that He will indeed act in accordance with His great and precious promises for us who believe.
Merry Christmas to you and to yours in Christ Jesus!
GRATITUDE AND ENCOURAGEMENT
DECEMBER 12, 2016
It's pretty universally known among pastors and ministers
that the Christmas season is unique in the amount of opportunities that it
presents to invite people to church-related activities and to present the
message of Jesus Christ. Unlike any other time of the year, people are more
open to our invitations and overtures, and the giving nature of the season
offers churches and believers in general a wonderful pretext for generosity and
kindness toward others. The very fact that the entire holiday itself is focused
on Jesus Christ (regardless of what secularists say) sets the stage for us to
engage with others in conversations about our Savior and the ministries of His
With the above in mind, it is with great gratitude that I
reflect back on Sunday evening's Christmas in the Park event,
during which I saw my church family take an all-hands-on-deck approach to
meeting the opportunity provided by the season to communicate to others the
love of God and good news of the Gospel. With all that was going on, I wasn't
able to keep track of all of the puzzle pieces that made the evening what it
was, but I certainly took note of how many of our family members were engaged
in being hospitable and inviting and how many used their gifts and abilities to
make a great impact in the lives of others.
I'm sure I'll likely miss someone who was a key part of our
efforts, but I do want to thank our choir and musicians, our welcome team
(consisting of the parking lot team, senior valet, greeters and ushers) our
hospitality team (both those who served our choir and musicians and those who
manned the coffee bar), the live nativity volunteers, our support staff and
ministers, and everyone else who participated. I thank God for your heart and
I also want to encourage you--maybe even challenge
you--about some events we have coming up that will complete our Christmas
season and that may provide you further opportunities to pray, to participate,
and to invite others to hear the Christmas message:
Party at the apartments, Saturday, December 17 - This is one that
I'd like to ask you to pray for specifically. Some ladies in our church
have stepped up and out to plan a party for children who are residents of
the Colonial Grand Apartments adjacent to the church. Pray for them to
make some great connections with families!
in the Park, Sunday, December 18, 5:30pm - Our children's
ministry is sponsoring a showing of Polar Express. Because rain is in the forecast, we are bringing the movie inside to fellowship hall. Hot chocolate and popcorn will be
Eve services, Saturday, December 24, 3:00pm and 5:00pm - This
year, our early service will be an interactive, kid-friendly service.
We'll have glowsticks instead of candles, and the children will help tell
the story of Jesus' birth. Our later service will be a traditional one,
with candles and traditional Christmas carols.
Worship in the Round, Sunday, December 25, 10:30am - "What is
Christmas in the Round," you ask? Come, enjoy this unique and
celebratory time of Christmas worship and find out!
I want to reiterate how grateful I am for you, my church
family, and I want once more to encourage and challenge you to take advantage
of the remaining opportunities we'll have this Christmas season to share our
hope and to shine His light!
Grace and peace,
The First and Greatest Gift of Christmas
December 5, 2016
On Sunday, we began our focus on Christmas in earnest, as we sang our first Christmas song, had Santa in the service to read the Christmas story to the kids, and spent time looking at the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 9 regarding the coming of Christ, the first and greatest gift of Christmas. In this passage, we noted the necessity of the gift due to our darkened, desperate and dead natural state. We also talked about the nearness of the gift, as we are reminded in Matthew 1:23, that Jesus is Emmanuel, which means "God with us." Last, we looked at the nature of the gift, highlighting the statements regarding Jesus' authority, His name and the everlasting peace that He brings to us.
In this article, I wanted to delve further into the names of Jesus presented in Isaiah 9:6, because I believe they are deeply important in helping us understand how "God with us" affects our everyday lives. In this passage, we are told that "His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Let's look at these four names a little more closely:
- Wonderful Counselor - Psalm 1:1 says, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers..." When it comes to the kind of "counsel" we receive from the world at large, it's pretty much filled with all of the above. The "wisdom" that we often receive even from well-meaning people can be completely off-base and send us in a direction that is in total contradiction to what God would have us do. For this reason, it's good to know that we have a "Wonderful Counselor" on whom we can depend, one who will always guide us rightly and whose wisdom will never fail us. Psalm 73:24 sums up well the relationship we can have with the counsel of the Lord: "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory."
- Mighty God - In the Old Testament alone, there are around 350 uses of the terms "Lord Almighty," God Almighty" or "Lord God Almighty." The reason for this is to emphasize the fact that we don't serve a weak, insipid God whose accomplishments are dependent on others or on circumstances falling into His favor. In Isaiah 46:10 God declares, "My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please." It's good to know in a world of shifting sands that there is One who cannot be moved, whose purposes and will cannot be thwarted by enemies or swayed by popular opinion. It's good to know that our God who can and will keep all of His promises and can be counted on never to leave us or forsake us. What an amazing comfort to know a God "who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20)!
- Everlasting Father - When we speak of our God, we speak of the eternal. We don't just speak about it from a hypothetical perspective, but rather from a relational perspective, as the dearly-loved children of a Father in heaven who has granted us everlasting life and who has placed in our hearts the hope of an eternal home in heaven. This year, many of our church families--mine included--will celebrate the holidays minus the presence of a dear loved one who has died in recent months. As we do, it's comforting to know that, having died in Christ, they are truly at home, sharing in the eternal celebration of the saints who are absent from the body and present with the Lord. What a wonderful gift to have this relationship in our lives--children of an Everlasting Father!
- Prince of Peace - There's an old song that has this line in it: "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." While most people in the world will express a desire for peace, we struggle to keep it--both in our relationships and on a global scale. Our history reflects our struggles: out of the 3400 years of recorded history, only 268 are considered peaceful in terms of international conflict. That's only about 8%! Truthfully, we as human beings are not too good at the whole "peace thing," and we desperately need someone to intervene for us and grant us the peace that we ourselves cannot find or manufacture. The person we need is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who gives us a peace that the world cannot produce--an internal kind of peace that surpasses our ability to understand it. His peace is the kind that exists even when everything else around us is a raging firestorm; His is the kind that truly brings us rest.
As we go deeper into the Christmas season, I hope you'll take some time to reflect on who Jesus is to you and how the above aspects of His nature and character speak to your needs. Pass the word along to someone else too!
Grace and peace,
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!
November 28, 2016
Now that we've gotten past Thanksgiving, most of us are turning our attention toward the Christmas holiday. With "Black Friday" and the newer addition of "Cyber Monday," people are focused on purchasing gifts for Christmas, and the retail industry has furthered our fixation on the upcoming celebration with the addition of all the Christmas decor, along with the mall Santas and the Christmas background music playing just about everywhere.
Into this mix of Yuletide activity comes all of the church celebrations and events, and we are certainly no different than anyone else in this regard, as we make much of the opportunities offered by this time of the year to invite our community to find and to enjoy fulfilling lives in Christ. Here's a quick rundown of some of the big things coming up in December:
- Provence Neighborhood Movie Night, Friday, December 2 - On this night, we're sponsoring an event in the Provence neighborhood that will include food trucks, hot chocolate and cider and a couple of classic Christmas movies shown in the park. It kicks off at 5:00pm (movies will start at 6:00pm), and everyone's invited!
- Sunday with Santa, December 4 - We'll have the "big guy" himself in the service with us, telling the kids the real Christmas story, sharing a "Happy Birthday, Jesus" party with them in Kids Own Worship and remaining after the service for pictures.
- Young at Heart Christmas Lunch, December 4 - Immediately after our worship service, our Senior Adults will enjoy lunch and entertainment as we kick off the season with Randy Overstreet.
- Christmas in the Park, Sunday, December 11 - This year, we're having two performances of our Christmas musical (4:00pm and 7:00pm), with a Live Nativity in between (5:30pm). Plan to attend, and bring some folks with you!
- Polar Express Movie Night in the Amphitheater, Sunday, December 18 - Bring a blanket, a chair and some guests to enjoy an outdoor viewing of Polar Express at 5:30pm in our amphitheater. Popcorn and hot chocolate will be provided!
- Christmas Eve Candlelight Services, Saturday, December 24 - Plan to attend one of our Christmas Eve services with your family in celebration of Christ's birth. This year, we're having a family-friendly version at 3:00pm, followed by a traditional version at 5:00pm.
- Christmas Day Service, Sunday, December 25 - Christmas Day is on Sunday this year, so we'll celebrate with a time of worship at 10:30am (Bible Study Groups will not meet). Come as you are, and join us for a casual, family-friendly time of recognizing the amazing gift of Jesus!
As you consider the above and how you might participate, I want to encourage you to do the following: 1) keep yourself aware of all that's going on by reading our publications and listening for announcements (you can go to www.libertypark.org/christmas for this information as well), 2) invite your friends, neighbors, family members, coworkers and others to attend the events and activities we'll be presenting during this time, and 3) be aware of opportunities that the season offers for you to have Christ-centered conversations with people who God places in your path.
I'm hoping that God will especially bless us this year with the wonderful gift of people coming to know Christ through the life and ministry of Liberty Park Baptist Church!
Grace and peace,
A Thanksgiving Miracle
November 21, 2016
If you're planning on enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday this week, you largely have Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for it. Born in 1788 in New Hampshire, Sarah was educated by her mother and brother, and she later became both an author and the editor of a prestigious women's magazine. Sarah was a writer of poetry and novels, but her most famous work was a children's poem she penned entitled "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (originally "Mary's Lamb"). Perhaps you've heard of it!
By the 1840s, Sarah began a fascinating crusade, lobbying presidents, senators, congressmen and every governor in the United States, sending them letters advocating the development of a national holiday dedicated to giving thanks. She continued this campaign for almost twenty years, through the administrations of five presidents, before finally gaining the attention and the support of Abraham Lincoln.
Sarah's last letter to Lincoln on the subject was sent in September 1863, and on October 3, 1863, he declared that the last Thursday of November would be set aside as a national day for giving thanks--Thanksgiving Day--and every president and congress since that year has continued this tradition of setting aside an annual national Thanksgiving holiday in November as well.
While this is a great story on its own, it made me stop and think about the perseverance of Sarah Hale, campaigning and lobbying year after year, writing letters by the dozens to leaders who gave her little if any notice. Undeterred, she plowed ahead, firm in her conviction that we as a nation needed to set aside a day to express our gratitude for our blessings.
In addition to the perseverance of Mrs. Hale, I'm also impressed--staggered, really--by the fact that it took so long to convince anyone to listen and then to act upon her idea. Truthfully, though, isn't that how we are as human beings--quick to complain, quick to become angry, quick to claim that we are victims of some injustice or that we're not being treated as fairly as the next person?
From the time we're small, we have no trouble learning words like "Mine!" and "Gimme!" but we have to be taught (and sometimes forced) to say "thank you" and to express basic gratitude. Even then, our thanksgiving is not so much heartfelt as it is coerced, and that often under the threat of punishment!
So, here's a good Thanksgiving question for you to ponder over the holiday: How does one go about changing the primal tendency of humanity to be ungrateful and transform the human heart into one that truly feels thankful and overflows with expressions of gratitude?
If you want my quick answer on this, I'd have to say that both personal experience with my own heart and many years of observing others has brought me to the conclusion that we are woefully under-equipped when it comes to having what we need to accomplish such a feat of transformation. My strong feeling is that this sort of transformation can only come about through the work of God in the life of a person. To move the human heart from cynical, complaining and ungrateful to a place of gratitude is truly a Thanksgiving miracle, and one that only our God can accomplish with staying power.
With this in mind, let's spend some time this Thanksgiving holiday praying with gratitude for all that God does for us, and while we're praying such prayers, let's ask God to do a work in our hearts to much us thankful people from the inside out.
Grace and peace,
The Five LEvels of Stewardship
November 14, 2016
The issue of stewardship is a vital one when it comes to our growth as Christians. What exactly is stewardship? In answer to this question, let me first give you my less-than-scholarly definition: stewardship is all about what you do with everything that God gives you. When it comes to your time, energy, spiritual gifts, abilities, finances and even your experiences, the way that you utilize these things in your life is what is meant by stewardship.
At heart, the very idea of stewardship is founded in the understanding that all we have really belongs to God, and even we ourselves are "living sacrifices" (see Romans 12:1), people who have surrendered ourselves to God and who belong completely to Him. As such, we are simply called to be "stewards"--technically defined as the managers of another's property--of these things that belong to God.
With this in mind, we approach our annual stewardship Sunday, when we as a church are asked to make a commitment to giving financially and to serving in ministry in some capacity in the coming year. This Sunday, November 20, we are asking each individual or family to return their 2017 Stewardship Commitment Card and to place it either in the collection boxes that are located both upstairs and downstairs or to place it in the offering plate during the service. Our hope is that we as a church family will make a solid statement regarding our commitments both to give and to serve in 2017.
I'm realistic enough, however, to know that different people and families are not all at the same place in regard to their stewardship, so I'd like to mention the five levels of stewardship that we as a church have studied recently in our Bible Study Groups. As you read these, I hope you'll be inspired to commit to giving and serving, and perhaps even to taking a step into a greater depth of stewardship in the coming year:
- Beginning Giver. This person is new to the idea of stewardship and has a desire to begin giving/serving in some capacity as a step of obedience to Christ. This person's newly-awakened desire requires a big leap of faith and a reorientation of priorities in the right direction as he takes steps to move from desire to action.
- Consistent Giver. The consistent giver has experienced how God uses his willingness to give/serve and has developed a desire to do this on a regular basis. The move from "occasional" to "consistent" requires discipline and commitment, but this person finds great blessing in the doing of it.
- Tither. The tither aims for the ten percent level that is laid down as the scriptural principle for giving in the Old Testament and reiterated in the New Testament. Giving ten percent of one's income requires a readjustment of personal spending habits, but this person finds great joy in giving God a tithe of the "firstfruits" of his income. Likewise, in regard to serving, this person's aim is first to serve God, then to pursue the other things in life that require time, energy and effort.
- Expanding Giver. The expanding giver is already a tither, but now has reached the level of commitment that he is looking for other opportunities to "take it up a notch" and give/serve in special ways beyond the basic tithing commitment. This person has discovered that we cannot outgive God, taking up His challenge in Malachi 3:10 to test God in this matter of giving and to watch as He pours out blessings in response.
- Extravagant Giver. This person has reached a level of reorienting his life and his finances so that he is giving and serving in radical ways, reveling in God's blessings as he does. Typically very quiet and private about his commitments, he silently gives and serves with powerful Kingdom results.
Which of the above best describes you? Which would you like to become? Perhaps God means for you in the coming year to take your stewardship commitment to the next level, and you sense that He is drawing you in that direction. If so, I want to encourage you to take a leap of faith and to test God in this matter of giving and serving. You will be surprised how God will "open the windows of heaven and pour down for you a blessing" (Malachi 3:10)!
Grace and peace,
Fear God. Honor the Emperor.
November 7, 2016
I am writing this article the day before our presidential election, but most of you will read it after the election is over and the votes have been tallied. With this in mind, I want to address what happens after the election, because I know that, divided as we are, when all is said and done we as a nation have the potential to be even more deeply torn asunder by the results, one side exulting in their victory and the other angrily stewing over their loss and the possible future that it represents.
I want to remind all of you first, that we as believers are not ultimately beholden to any president, king, emperor or other human leader. We have one Lord, and one alone. As I write this, however, I also want to clarify that Christians are certainly called to be lawful citizens who submit to legal authorities. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, the Apostle Peter wrote that we are to "be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperors as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him." Peter notes that such civil obedience is "the will of God" for us.
I think it's important to note that Peter did not write this passage as the citizen of a free nation that protected his right to practice his religion freely but rather as the subject of an often-tyrannical Roman government, led by the emperor Nero, who would eventually command Peter's execution. This is noteworthy because, while we as Christians will certainly not declare that any institution of government is our lord, we need to be clear that our Lord has declared that we should submit ourselves to our governmental institutions.
While Peter seems to communicate no caveats or exceptions in this matter, it helps to balance this passage out with the rest of Scripture, especially the stories of Peter and John in the early life of the church as related in the book of Acts. In Acts 4:1-20, and again in Acts 5:17-29, we read about Peter and John being arrested for preaching the Gospel and then being released with the command of the authorities no longer to preach or teach in Jesus' name. The powerful response of Peter and the other apostles was clear and telling: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
In light of the potential that our nation may become a place with leadership that is more and more unfriendly to Christians and that seeks to minimize our impact on society and our voice in matters of public policy, how are we as Christians to respond? Do we follow Peter's words in 1 Peter 2, or do we follow Peter's example in Acts 4-5? While this is a question about which many books and dissertations could be written, let me provide a little biblical perspective on the matter:
First, we need to be clear that, barring unusual circumstances, our basic stance toward governmental authorities is to be that of lawful submission. Now, this does not mean that we never disagree, and it certainly does not mean that we sit back passively, not utilizing our rights as citizens to influence the direction of policy. Living in a participatory system as we do, we should pursue every legal means available to us to seek to bring our country in line with biblical principles and to choose leaders who are godly people with strong moral character and integrity.
Second, we need to understand that the times we choose the path of civil disobedience must only be those in which our civil authorities have commanded us to do things (or not to do things) that go in direct contradiction to the commands of God. There is a vast difference between things that we as believers strongly disagree with that are allowed in our nation versus those things which a government might force upon us. When we disagree, our response may be to seek change through policy, through peaceful protest, through electing leaders friendly to our cause and/or through making legal challenges to existing laws, among other things.
It is only in those moments when we must make the decision--is Caesar our lord, or is Jesus our Lord--that we are given the freedom to act in civil disobedience. Please understand that I am talking about us as individuals; there is a whole other argument to be made in regard to political uprisings such as the revolution that led to the creation of the United States of America (although it did begin with a strong emphasis on religious freedom).
So, as we deal with the aftermath of our national election, regardless of the outcome, let's realize that our greatest priority is the spread of the Gospel, not political success. This being the case, it behooves us to heed and to follow the commands laid down for us in 1 Peter 2:17--"Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor."
Grace and peace,
Opening My Mouth Boldly
October 31, 2016
Over the years, I have heard a great deal said about the lifestyle that we as believers are called to live and how it can be a strong and impactful influence in the lives of others when we live with uprightness and integrity. In Scripture, the commands given to us in that regard are plentiful and clear, and they relate to us in no uncertain terms that it is our responsibility to live such good lives among unbelievers that our righteousness shines like a light in the darkness and inspires others to glorify our Father in heaven (see Matthew 5:14-16).
I would venture to say that most of the Christian people I know truly uphold this responsibility, living lives characterized by moral goodness, treating people with compassionate kindness, giving generously to various charitable causes and seeking to live in a manner that does not bring any shame or stain to the Gospel or to Christ's church. Although we all have our areas of struggle and our moments when our lights don't shine so brightly, it seems to me that most people who are serious about their faith live what most people would describe as pretty good lives.
Our hope, of course, is that the influence of goodness spreads and impacts the society beyond us. In the midst of our present election cycle, a cursory glance at the scandal-ridden campaigns of our two main presidential candidates highlights for us how desperately our societal underpinnings need to be exposed to the light and thoroughly cleansed--or perhaps even replaced altogether! Either way, the need for a strong and godly Christian presence in our society is certainly needed.
In addition to lives lived well that impact our neighbors, communities and culture at large, our nation needs Christians who are prepared and ready to "give an answer" (1 Peter 3:15-16) regarding what we believe and why we believe it. Truth is, a passive influence can only go so far, and people simply observing our good, quiet lives will only benefit to a certain degree, after which they need to hear from us verbally regarding why we live the way we do and how they also can discover the truth of the Gospel and the new life that is found only in Jesus Christ.
Now, I know there are lots of Christians out there who say, "I just live the way God tells me to live, and I let my life speak for itself," but I must confess that I've never seen or heard of anyone coming to Christ as a new believer solely because they watched someone living the Christian life and then just figured it all out through observation. While a godly life might initially intrigue non-Christians and even arouse their curiosity about why the Christian is so different from everyone else and lives in such a way the rises above cultural expectations, the only way that non-Christians will ever know the eternity-altering truth behind the good life of the believer is if someone actually opens their mouth and tells them.
After all, Scripture is clear that "faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Common sense alone tells us that the only way that a person can know about Christ and how to place their faith in Christ is by having it communicated to them by another human being. Let me be clear in this: as the ones entrusted with this truth and knowledge, we are the ones responsible for the telling of it!
So let's be prepared and ready. Being prepared means that we have done our homework; we've familiarized ourselves with the truth of the Gospel, and we've learned how best to communicate it to others in a way that is clear and that leads them to a place of making a decision for Christ. Being ready means that we are in the right place spiritually, attuned to the Holy Spirit through prayer, keenly alert to opportunities we may encounter and strengthened with boldness to share courageously the way to faith in Jesus Christ.
The words of Paul in Romans 10:14 ring loudly in the silence today, crying out, "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are the to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?" In answer, may Paul's request for prayer in Ephesians 6:19-20 be ours also, as we seek to become bold sharers of God's truth: "[Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel...that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak."
Grace and peace,
The Power of Love
October 24, 2016
In the early history of the Christian faith, there was not much love given to the Christian community by the culture at large. Among the Jewish people, Christians were viewed as a new, upstart offshoot of Judaism that had wandered outside of the boundaries of orthodoxy and needed to be eradicated (you may remember the Apostle Paul's previous career when he was Saul, and he was "ravaging the church" --see Acts 8:3).
Within the larger Roman Empire, Christians were seen as a group of people who obstinately held to their religious beliefs, many of which went against the cultural norms of the day--like an absolute opposition to abortion (yes, it was a thing way back then) and infanticide (families would often kill female newborns due to their lack of perceived value), a prohibition of homosexuality, and a strong stance in regard to sexual chastity and purity and fidelity within marriage. In addition, Christians were accused of everything from treason (for refusal to honor Caesar as lord) to cannibalism (some took literally that Christians consumed the body and blood of Christ in communion), and many felt that harsh punishment was just and appropriate.
As a result of the above views of the Christian faith, believers were routinely persecuted in a number of ways, from simple social ostracism to the terrible and torturous deaths in the arena, where they were made a spectacle for the entertainment of the masses. Some of the most horrific stories of Christian persecution are connected with the emperor Nero, who would hold dinner parties where the lighting was supplied by the bodies of Christians who had been impaled on stakes, covered in pitch and set afire.
And yet somehow, in spite of such terrible persecution and punishment, the Christian faith within a few centuries would become the official religion of the Roman Empire, displacing the Roman pantheon of pagan gods by act of emperor Theodosius I in 380 AD. Aside from some of the political maneuverings that went on during the decades leading up to Theodosius' official decision, what in the world could move a religious group from being the persecuted outcasts to becoming the celebrated center of an empire's religious life?
While the details of this transformation are likely many and certainly complex, one of the most recognized elements that led to Christianity's rise in the Roman Empire centered on two great epidemics that occurred in 165 AD and 251 AD. Both of these plagues were well-documented in their time, with physicians of the day describing their symptoms in great detail. The first plague, known as the Antonine Plague, was likely smallpox, and the second, known as the Plague of Cyprian was either smallpox or measles. In both cases, the plagues were devastating, killing around one-third of the population each time.
The typical response among the Romans was to flee from infected people, with families even abandoning their loved ones to escape what was almost certain death. In the first plague, Rome's greatest physician, Galen, fled to his country estate to wait until the danger had passed.
Christians, on the other hand, took seriously the command of Christ--"love your neighbor as yourself"--and ministered to those who were sick, risking their own death in obedience to their Lord. These believers knew that if obedience meant death, they had a better reward waiting for them in heaven. Thus, they cared for one another and for their pagan neighbors as well, with little regard for their own health.
Author Rodney Stark wrote in The Rise of Christianity (1996) that modern medical experts who have studied these plagues believe that Christians' "conscientious nursing without any medications"--providing hydration, nourishment and basic care--cut the potential mortality rate of the plagues by two-thirds or more. While pagans abandoned even their own and left them to die, Christians, in obedience to Christ's command to love, fearlessly helped others at great personal risk, and the sick recovered in large numbers, remembering who had cared for them when no one else would.
Writer Greg Scandlen asks, "What religion could be more appealing?" This, my friends, is the power of radical love carried out in faithful obedience. It transforms a group of hated outcasts into an appealing community, and I believe that it's the one thing that we as believers hold as our greatest weapon in combating a negative societal view of us--both in the past and now in the present.
The question for me is not about the power of such love, but rather whether or not we will hold up to its demands, living it out as we are commanded, even in regard to our enemies. When we do, it's powerful, transformative stuff.
Grace and peace,
Fight or Flight
October 17, 2016
Way back in 1915, Walter Cannon, chairman of the Department of Physiology at the Harvard University School of Medicine, published a book entitled Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage, in which he examined the physiological changes that occur in animals when placed under extreme stress. In this work, he coined the term "fight or flight response" to describe an animal's gut-level, immediate reaction to the aforementioned stimuli that causes it either to go into attack mode (picture a cornered animal that viciously bites and claws) or to run away in a panic.
In the one hundred years since Cannon's revelations concerning animals, other scientists have noted that we as human beings are affected in similar fashion, likewise experiencing physiological changes that provide us with great bursts of energy to be applied either to a fight or to flight. I am personally inclined to believe that we also have a spiritual "fight of flight response" that can occur in us when we as human being encounter a crisis of faith. Let me explain what I mean:
Last Sunday in our Bible Studies and in our worship service, we looked at the story of Jonah. You may remember that Jonah was a prophet, called by God and tasked with the responsibility of communicating God's word to people. In the biblical story, Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, known by history and by the biblical record to be a brutal, warlike people. Jonah's assignment was to go to Nineveh and to preach about the impending judgment of God on the sins of the Ninevites.
Instead of going and preaching, however, Jonah chose to flee from God's presence, traveling about two thousand miles in hopes of shaking God off his trail. Jonah did this because he was both afraid of the Ninevites and because he deeply despised them and desired their destruction. As you may remember, Jonah's plan didn't work out too well, as God redirected him in such an amazing and miraculous way that it became one of the greatest stories of all time.
On the other side of the issue, we also have many stories--biblical and historical--of God's people who have, in moments of crisis, moved headlong into the fray, choosing not to run away but rather to stand and to engage the enemy, with powerful effect. The greatest example of such a person is Jesus, of course, who experienced the emotional stress displayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He sweat drops of blood under tremendous duress, completely aware of the great sacrifice He was destined to make on the cross.
In the end, abandoned by His closest followers, Jesus chose to fight--but not in the way that we would traditionally think of fighting. Jesus did not engage in physical warfare, taking on Roman soldiers hand-to-hand and slashing His way through the jeering crowds with a sword. No--Jesus instead took on our greatest enemy, and through His own sacrifice provided us with the opportunity to receive the great gift of eternal life.
For those of us who are believers, our "fight or flight" moments are often similar--we experience a crisis of faith as we are faced with a decision to follow God in obedience or to run away in cowardly rebellion. Ironically, for us, a "flight" response may simply mean that we do nothing or that we ignore God's assignment for us in the moment. A "fight" response may not involve fighting at all as we normally perceive it, but rather us choosing to engage in the spiritual battle before us, perhaps even doing something counter-intuitive in the moment, such as loving an enemy.
We have learned in our hundred years of studying the physiological fight or flight response that it can be altered through training and conditioning, allowing a person to experience transformation that helps them cope with the stress. For those of us who are believers in Christ, it's good to know as well that our spiritual response is not just something hardwired into us, but rather that God can transform us too such that our gut reaction is is not running away in disobedience but rather running obediently into the fray, directly into the battle for the souls of our fellow human beings.
So--which is your greater inclination when it comes to God's assignments for you--flight or fight?
Grace and peace to you,
Religion and Politics
October 10, 2016
It has been said that in "polite conversation" the two main topics you shouldn't discuss are religion and politics, reason being that both are sure to tap into some of our deepest-held emotions and to elicit overly-passionate responses. Even when we think we might be safe in the confines of people who only think like we do, our opinions in regard to these two subjects can be so varying that we can quickly find ourselves at odds with one another, arguing vehemently for our way of thinking while seeking to utterly demolish the arguments of others.
This presidential election has further complicated matters, as many people across the nation feel that neither of the two candidates we have to choose from are fit to lead our nation, and it's difficult for a person of faith to advocate for either one. On the one hand, we have a candidate whose political career has served up one scandal after the other and who has proven to be less-than-honest in her dealings with the public. In her most recent governmental post, she was regarded by the FBI director as "extremely careless" in handling the most classified of materials and may have even opened up state secrets to hostile actors through her lack of proper diligence.
On the other hand, we have a candidate who has shown himself to be arrogant, insulting and crude, whose greatest claims to fame are his hotels, golf courses, casinos and his reality TV show (and his money, of course). During the campaign--especially recently--we have been served a constant diet of his rudeness and vulgarity, and his response to each new revelation the depths to which he has gone is not true repentance but rather a defensive excuse-making stance that then turns into an attack on the other candidate (or her spouse--and spouses and ex-spouses in this election or a whole other story).
For those of us who hold dear our Christian principles, this election has turned into quite a struggle, as we have sought to wrestle with what a vote for either of these candidates means for us and for our nation. If we vote for the democrat candidate, we vote for someone who holds many positions that are diametrically opposed to our faith, and we risk the development of a Supreme Court that would be stacked with progressive liberals who would potentially take the country down a path that would be even less friendly to conservative Christian people. Additionally, we risk placing someone into office who will support organizations that we deem to be despicable and hostile to our morals and values.
If we vote for the republican candidate, however, we risk placing someone into the role of president who will diminish the character of the office in ways that we might never have anticipated. While we might (and I emphasize "might" because we surely do not know) get Supreme Court justices who would be friendlier to the causes we hold dear, we have to ask ourselves, "At what cost?" In gaining the presidency, would we forfeit any moral high ground we might hold be voting for someone so unrepentantly immoral?
There is, of course, a third option--the independent candidate who has already conceded defeat and who appears to be inadequate for the job based on his lack of competence and knowledge. Not to mention that, historically, a vote for a third party candidate has accomplished nothing politically other than taking votes away from one of the main candidates.
So what is an evangelical Christian to do? We seem to have found ourselves in an unresolvable dilemma. While some Christians have already chosen not to vote at all, others are promoting a third-party vote as a vote of conscience. Yet others are saying to hold your nose and vote issues, not personalities.
I wish I had the answer. I know God has an answer, but I fear that His answer is that we as a country, come January 2017, are going to get what we deserve. So, what I'm going to do, and what I'm asking you to do as well, is to pray that God will do something amazing and miraculous between now and November 8 to rescue us from this mess into which we have gotten ourselves.
And please--pray hard and pray often.
Grace and peace,
October 3, 2016
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." - 1 Peter 2:9
It's abundantly clear from a basic reading of Scripture that we who are believers are called by God to be different from the rest of the world. We are told that even the very beginning of our walk with Him changes the very nature of who we are as we are born again (see 1 Peter 1:3) and created anew (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
As people who have experienced this new birth, our biblical mandate is that we continue on in this same vein, or as Paul puts it in Romans 6:4, that we "walk in newness of life." Walking this path of newness is not easy, however, considering that we live in a world that seeks to pull us back down into the muck and mire at every turn and in every way, always appealing to our lusts and our pride.
We also live with our "flesh" (see Romans 7:21-25, 8:5-8), that natural, internal part of us which wars against God's activity in our hearts and which seeks to focus us on our passions and desires as opposed to obedience to the greater purposes of God's will. To top it off, we have a personal enemy, the devil, whose mission in life is to steal, kill and destroy (see John 10:10), and who will tell us all kinds of lies (see John 8:44) to sidetrack us from God plans in our lives.
And yet, in spite of all that wars against us and within us, God has promised to those who humbly submit to Him that He will cause them to be overcomers, hyper-conquerors (see Romans 8:37) who, through the strength placed in us through God Almighty Himself, are able to overcome the flesh, the world and the devil himself (see James 4:7-8)
This victorious stance and the life that it brings makes us very different from the rest of people who surround us. This is not to say that the average person cannot experience joy, cannot do a selfless act of kindness for another or cannot discover a certain level of peace and tranquility in this life. After all, all human beings are created in the image of God, so we all are capable of acting in ways that reflect God to a degree.
For the Christian who is fully submitted to God, however, the difference is clear, especially in regard to how we handle the difficulties of life, how we interact with and care for others, and how we desire for others to know and experience the hope that we ourselves have found in Jesus Christ. And such has always been the case for people of true and abiding faith.
Last Sunday, we began to discuss how we are different from the rest of this world and how God has called us out as His people to live differently in the world, that we might have an impact for Him in this world. We began by noting the fact that we are forever in a spiritual struggle, and the quicker we realize this fact and prepare ourselves for spiritual warfare by being strengthened by God, by taking up His armor and by learning to wield His weaponry, the more victorious we will be.
In the weeks to come, we will talk about taking a stand as people of faith, about not running away from God's calling, about loving others "ridiculously," and about learning how to give an answer to others about why we believe what we believe and live like we live. And that's just for starters. So, I hope you'll commit to dive in weekly to our topics, and if you can't be in each service, to download each week's message from our sermon archive (www.libertypark.org/sermonaudio) so you can remain current with our studies.
And remember as we continue over these next several weeks that as a believer, God has made you different from the world that you might make a difference in the world for Him.
Grace and peace,
On BEING a friend
September 26, 2016
"If you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend."
I cannot tell you how many times I heard a saying along these lines when I was a kid, but it was certainly a bunch. Such folksy advice is fairly common, communicated to us by parents, teachers and adult leaders of all varieties who seek to inject a little wisdom into our lives as we grow. We also see these sayings printed on kitschy items in collectible stores, sewn into throw pillows and crafted into little cross-stitch pictures that are perfect for hanging up in someone's grandmother's house.
Sometimes, due to the fact that these sayings are so common, accessible and well-worn, we tend to bypass them, along with the wisdom that they contain. In our dismissiveness, however, we stand to lose solid advice for living that often has firm foundations in Scripture itself.
Take, for example, the saying at the beginning of this article. The idea that one's best route to making new friends and keeping existing friends is by being a friend in a proactive, preemptive fashion finds some pretty strong support in Scripture. Consider passages like these:
"A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." - Proverbs 17:17
"Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep." - Roman 12:15
"Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up." - Romans 15:2
"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up..." - 1 Thessalonians 5:11
"Greater love has no one than this, than someone lay down his life for his friends." - John 15:13
Each of the above passages speaks to our calling as believers to be a friend to those who need a friend and also to the expectation that this faith-based friendliness serve as a core aspect of our character, particularly in relation to how we deal with others.
And while being a friend may be to our benefit in that it gains and maintains friendships for us, it's an even bigger deal when we think of it in relation to our mission of serving as Christ's ambassadors in the world. If we truly believe that it was God's preemptive, proactive love, grace, mercy and kindness that moved Him to send Christ to us (the greatest act of friendship ever) as our example, as our sacrifice and as our Lord and Savior, then it only stands to reason that we, in imitation of our Father, would reach out in like manner to those who are similarly in need of someone to be a friend to them.
Of course, true friends look out for the highest good of their friends, and we happen to believe that the highest and greatest good that another person can discover is in a faith relationship with God in Christ. This means for us that the greatest act of true friendliness is found in introducing another person to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, letting them in on the good news that they can have life eternal through faith in Christ.
With this in mind, how would we evaluate ourselves as biblical friends? Are we simply setting out to make a dent in the epidemic of loneliness in our society, hoping to give someone a friend for a moment, or are we intent on doing the best thing a friend can do--introducing another person to Christ and giving them a friend for eternity?
That's really what friends are for.
September 19, 2016
One of the characteristics of our present-day society is that of transience--meaning that people do not tend to stay in the same place for long periods of time, choosing instead a life of mobility and continual uprooting and replanting. This impermanence in regard to where we live, where we work, where we attend church, etc., has brought with it several consequences, including loneliness and a loss of community among people.
Gone are the days, apparently, when a family settled into an area for multiple generations, all of them graduating from the same schools, attending the same churches and living in the same towns together. Such multi-generational familiarity has given way to this new reality that, while bringing with it the excitement of newness, also leaves individuals and families with the inability to know and to be known by others on a deep level.
Liberty Park, the community in which our church is located, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Created as a planned community in 1994, Liberty Park is only twenty-two years old, which means that if a person was born here the first year that our community existed, that person would just now be a senior in college. What this means functionally for Liberty Park is that, at this point in its life cycle, no one is really from here. Basically, if you live in Liberty Park, you are transplanted from somewhere else.
For people living in our neighborhood, this means that community--not the physical clump of adjacent houses in a geographical area, but rather the relationships that give one a sense of belonging, of support, of knowing others and being known by others--the feeling that this is "home"--is much more difficult to obtain, and this dislocated-ness not only affects the neighborhood, but also the church as well.
Our struggles in regard to finding community in our community mean that we, as a church, must be even more intentional in seeking to build deep and abiding relationships with one another and with people in our neighborhood. As a family of faith, we already have something--someone, really--in common, which means that we should have a leg up in regard to establishing community with each other in a way that hopefully affects our neighborhood in positive ways as well.
As an example of how this can work, let me refer you to the block party event that our church held in the Provence neighborhood of Liberty Park last Sunday afternoon. As an "I love you" to this neighborhood, we hosted a party that included free food and a big, inflatable bouncy-house for the kids. Around forty-five of our own people turned out for the event, and many of the Provence residents enjoyed it as well. As we intentionally built relationships, one of the things I kept hearing from people was something along these lines: "Thanks so much for hosting this event; very seldom do we get to have something like this where we get to hang out with and meet our neighbors."
As I heard this refrain over and over, I was reminded that we--the church--can be a prime influence in helping build community in our community, of providing opportunities for people to establish and grow relationships and to foster a sense of "home" among people who are otherwise dislocated from home. As we do this, we hopefully communicate to our neighbors that we genuinely love them and care for them, and these new lines of relationship hopefully open up for us opportunities to share our faith with our neighbors and encourage the faith of our neighbors who are believers.
One of the unique features of Liberty Park Baptist Church is that we are truly a community church in a day when many churches are seeking to develop regional reach and influence. As God continues to open doors for us in our community, I hope we will pray and watch for God's guidance as He leads us to be a light for Christ here in Liberty Park.
Building Bridges, Burning Bridges
September 12, 2016
Which are you more adept at doing--building bridges or burning them? I'm speaking metaphorically, of course, specifically regarding our relationships with other people and how we handle them. So, understanding the context of my question, how would you answer it? Are you far more skilled at and inclined to be a person who works to extend yourself toward others with an eye toward developing a friendly connection? Or are you rather more like a "relational arsonist" who seems to have a knack for torching your connections, leaving them to go up in the flames of your temper, your desire for control, your petty grievances or your overall negative approach to life and people?
It's really not a difficult question to answer. All you have to do is look around at the relationships in your life and see if most of them are healthy and flourishing or if they are damaged and under duress. In more than three decades of ministry, I've seen a lot of both--people who just seem to be so open and caring that others desire to be around them and know them, and then on the other side those people who just seem to hurt and to drive others away with their bad attitudes, harsh words and selfish agendas.
I've always been in awe of people who are gifted "bridge builders." You can tell these people by their gracious, kind and compassionate way of speaking and dealing with others. You can see in them an honest desire and intentional effort to hear from and learn about others rather than promoting themselves first. Ironically, some of the best bridge builders I've met are very interesting people who have amazing life stories, yet their goal in any given situation is not to highlight themselves but rather to get to know those with whom they are interacting and to speak and act in ways that benefit others.
And then there are the "bridge burners." Typically self-focused, the bridge burner approaches others with a bad attitude and disposition. Although not always evident at first, the attitude will certainly surface in time, often to the surprise and shock of its targets, and the conflagration begins. Bridge burners find it difficult to listen to others, because their agenda is the most important thing in the moment (in their minds, at least). Often cynical, sarcastic (not in the funny way) and bitter, they angrily lash out at others--or go silent and cut them off entirely, which is merely aggressive quietness--when they no longer find them pleasing or useful.
Sadly, many of the bridge burners I've met over the years wonder why their relationships are so difficult and in such shambles, having no idea that they are the ones causing the trouble. In counseling sessions with such people, I have sometimes had to suggest that, if everyone around them seems to have issues with them and vice-versa, perhaps they should consider that they are the common denominator, the one with whom the problem really lies. Sometimes pointing this out has brought help, improvement and transformation; other times, the person has angrily cut me off as well and moved on to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear.
There is another option that I've not mentioned, by the way: there are people who choose not to build bridges at all. Typically lonely, they exist in self-imposed isolation because they refuse to reach out to others for the purpose of growing relationships. While a person might be in such circumstances for a variety of reasons--suffering from past hurts, deeply introverted, too busy/preoccupied, "hiding" due to shame or guilt, etc.--this failure to extend relational overtures to people or to accept the friendly overtures of others can be damaging to the human psyche as well.
Truth is, God created us to be in relationship with Him and with others. When we work at becoming expert relational bridge builders, we come closer to falling in line with God's plan for us and obeying that second greatest command, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
So--how are your bridge-building skills?
The Second Greatest Command
September 2, 2016
The manner in which we are to deal with our human relationships is a central theme of Scripture. Consider this: when Jesus was asked to identify the greatest of God's commands, He replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). Then, without being asked, He offered, "And the second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). What's revealing about this is that Jesus felt so strongly about our human relationships that He took the opportunity afforded by the question to pointedly identify that the second greatest commandment out of everything that God expects of us is focused very clearly on how we deal with one another.
If the second greatest command from God Himself deals with our relationships with other people, we should clearly take from this that God is deeply concerned with how we relate to each other in terms of our attitudes, thoughts, words and behavior. Now, if this Scripture was the only one that dealt with human relationships it would certainly be enough to guide the way that we think about and act toward other people. The truth is, however, that much of Scripture--in both the Old and New Testaments--is dedicated to providing us guidance in fulfilling God's command to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Believers who are inclined to be serious about their obedience to God's commands typically give a great deal of energy and effort to searching the Scriptures to discover how better to relate to God and to practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study to help them develop a deeper walk with God. In light of Jesus' declaration about the second greatest command, however, can it be truly said of us that we put the same amount of energy and effort into studying the scriptures and practicing "relational disciplines" to assist us in developing better relationships with other people?
If we're honest, we'll likely admit that most of us work a lot harder at the first and greatest command than we do at the second greatest. And yet, Jesus remains crystal clear that, while the "love your neighbor" command is secondary to the "love the Lord your God" command, it is by no means something that we can afford to set aside and ignore, only taking it up once we feel that we have gained mastery over the first command. On the contrary, Jesus reveals to us the our human relationships impact our divine relationship. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus offers this instruction:
"So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
In this passage, Jesus appears to be saying to us that God's not interested in dealing with us until we've dealt properly with each other. Such a revelation is in stark contrast to how we usually think about things--that we'll deal with God first, and then, if necessary, we'll deal with other people. Truth is, Jesus reverses that thinking, showing us that God's desire is for us to get right with each other, and then we can get right with Him.
Noting the impact of our human relationships on our relationship with God, we are going to take three Sundays--September 11, 18 and 25--to look at some relationship basics in our Bible Study Groups and in our worship service. I want to encourage you to plan to attend and to invite others, because we all can use some help with it comes to our relationships. Remember--loving others is not an optional thing; it's God's second greatest command!
Created to Grow
August 29, 2016
Growth is a basic characteristic of life. When God created life--microorganisms, plant life, animal life, human life--he encoded all of it with the trait of growth. This is such a well-recognized fact that the world of biological sciences lists "growth" as one of the key identifiers that allows us to differentiate between that which is alive and that which is not.
Likewise, we as believers in Christ have been created anew (2 Corinthians 5:17) with the trait of growth encoded into our "spiritual DNA." In Scripture, we read clear calls regarding God's intention for us to grow in our faith, in our obedience and in our intimacy with Him:
"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." - 2 Peter 3:18
"Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow
up in your salvation." - 1 Peter 2:2
Such clarion calls as these remind us that God does not intend for us just to get saved and then to go about our business as if nothing happened. Neither does He plan for us to climb to the level of the most common denominator and stop there. The biblical evidence, rather, makes it clear to us that God's design is for us to be conformed to the very image of Jesus Christ Himself, which means that perfection in regard to our character, thoughts, attitudes, behavior, speech, interaction with God and treatment of others is the goal that God has set before us.
This is no small thing, and most of us with any sense realize that it is entirely beyond our reach, because we as human beings are inherently sinful and prone to weakness and failure. Nonetheless, God has intentionally set the growth bar high, giving us a lifetime pursuit as we aspire to become more and more like Christ. So, with Christ as our goal, our job, so to speak, is to continue on the upward path, growing throughout our lives, as God reveals more and greater things to us and uses us in higher and deeper Kingdom pursuits.
And the great news is that God does not leave us to make this happen on our own. Rather, as we commit to grow and in submission to His Lordship begin to make efforts in that area, God's promise is that He is there guiding and effecting the process, as is noted in Philippians 2:12-13:
"...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose."
This is why it's so alarming that we as believers often seem to be very settled with complacency in regard to our spiritual growth. To be sure, sometimes it's difficult to maintain our focus on growth, as we get sidetracked by a variety of concerns, including everything from our own sinful rebellion against God to the trials of life that tend to knock us down a few pegs from time to time.
Still, it's imperative that we focus on growing in our understanding of God and His will, on growing in the closeness of our walk with Him and on growing in our obedience to God in every facet of our lives. It's vital because He has important things for us to do, people for us to impact, missions for us to accomplish. And He stands ready to make these things happen for all who are willing to humbly submit to His plan of growth.
This week, I want to challenge you to set aside some time to take an inventory of where you are spiritually. Ask yourself questions like, "Where in my life have I seen God at work lately?" "What new understanding have I gained in regard to God and His will recently?" "How have I been engaged in God's work in the past months?"
As you answer these questions honestly, let God speak to your heart about how He would have you get back on the path of growth. And remember, you were created to grow.
August 22, 2016
Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of Friday nights at Gardendale High School football games. From the time I was a small child and all the way through until I went to college, our family routine was to get to the stadium early--regardless of whether the game was home or away--to stay until after the team left, and then to go out and grab a late, late supper with the coaches. It's not that we were super-fans or anything, but rather that from the first year that Gardendale High School created its football program, my dad was the team doctor, all the way up until he retired and quit practicing medicine.
When I hit my junior high school years, I actually had the fun opportunity to work alongside my dad on the sidelines, taping ankles, making ice packs, doing water-boy duties, and handing supplies to dad as he performed first aid on the players, including the occasional stitching job (remember, this was "back in the day"). My eighth grade year was the last year I served in this capacity, and it just happened also to be my older brother's (Brian) first year playing varsity.
One thing I remember about that year is how desperately Brian longed to get on the field in a game and get his jersey dirty, indicating that he had not only played, but that he had been in on some of the action. I'll never forget the night he finally got some playing time in a regular varsity game; he was proud beyond words to have dirt and grass stains on his uniform and to have some blood (he bragged that it was not his!) on his jersey. I was pretty fired up too.
When I think of my brother's eagerness to get in the game and utilize the meager skills he had at that time, I recall being inspired by his enthusiasm. I also remember being impressed by how hard he worked to prepare himself, working out like mad in the off-season, memorizing the entire playbook, giving 100% in practice to impress the coaches and always hanging right by the coach's side during games so he could be right there if the coach needed someone to go in the game quickly--no matter that he was a third-stringer.
Fast-forward to Brian's senior year in college, and I remember the pride I felt as his younger brother when he received the MVP trophy for Samford University's football team. Here was my brother, who I had seen go from a slow-footed, scrawny kid to a swift, muscular, hard-hitting, college-level wide receiver/defensive back, and I knew it was because he always had an incredible zeal just to get in the game and play. He worked hard just to get to play, and when he played, he gave it his all.
I compare such zeal and determination to what I often see in churches these days, where there are people who are gifted, talented and strong--spiritually speaking--who seem very comfortable just sitting on the sidelines. In an age where most churches are hurting for leaders and workers, it's heartbreaking to know that we have all of the people resources we need--but that they are very comfortable sitting on the bench.
Believe me, I understand the reasons why some folks are there: they've been wounded by other believers, or they're burned out from being called on too often, or they're scared to step up, having seen others do so only to become a target for negative and critical people. Perhaps they are afraid to fail, or they feel inadequate spiritually or training-wise for the tasks before them. I get it, because I've been in all of those places at one time or another too.
At some point, however, your love for the "game"--and more importantly, your love for and loyalty to our "Coach" must kick in and override all of the things that keep us comfortably sidelined. So, here's my challenge in the 2016-17 church year to the folks who've grown comfortable with bench-sitting: It's time to step up, snap on your chin-strap and get into the game. When it's all said and done, God will not reward us for how much energy we conserved on the sidelines but rather by how much of ourselves we expended for Him on the field of play. It's time to get in the game.
Serve Out, Serve In
August 15, 2016
From the title of my article, you might be inclined to think that you're about to read a write-up on Olympic tennis. That would be a good guess, but it would be entirely wrong. Instead, what I would like to address in this week's article is the calling that each believer has on his/her life to serve (see 1 Peter 4:10). As we consider this matter of service, it's important to note that God calls us both to serve within the church walls and outside of them as well.
On Sunday morning, we began to address this issue of serving, particularly focusing on "serving out." We looked together at Christ's proclamation in Acts 1:8, in which He let His disciples know that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to become His witnesses beyond the walls of the church. He additionally outlined for them in this passage a common-sense strategy that would guide their "outwardly-focused" efforts in that arena, noting that they would begin in their local area (Jerusalem), broaden their efforts regionally (Judea), reach beyond their region to the historical borders of Israel (Samaria) and then go on to the ends of the earth.
We know from the biblical record and from the history of ancient Christianity that Christ followers through the ages have followed this approach quite literally, and each time believers have adhered to it--empowered of course by the Holy Spirit--they have found success in spreading the Gospel and reaching people for Christ. For this very reason, we as a church have worked to develop a clear "Acts 1:8 Strategy" for the coming church year, with the hope of maximizing our disciple-making efforts locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
In our Sunday worship service, I took the third point of my message to introduce the major projects in these four areas that we will be focusing on as a church in the 2016-17 church year:
- Our Jerusalem (local) = We will be holding multiple prayerwalking emphases and outreach events in the various neighborhoods in and surrounding Liberty Park this church year. Our first will be in the Provence neighborhood, on Sunday, September 18.
- Our Judea (regional) = We have committed to develop a partnership with Strong Tower Church at Washington Park (www.strongtowerawp.com) in Montgomery, AL. As this relationship develops, we will be assisting Pastor (and NAMB church planter) Terrence Jones in his work to reach western Montgomery for Christ.
- Our Samaria (national) = An old, familiar door has reopened for us in Damascus, VA, where we will be traveling once again to minister and witness to Appalachian Trail hikers at the Trail Days event. The dates for this trip will be May 18-20, 2017. In one previous trip, I personally had Gospel conversations with people from 28 different states and 6 different countries!
- Ends of the earth (international) = God has thrown the door open for us in Guatemala as our friend, missionary Garry Eudy, has received an eager invitation from the incoming president of Guatemala to carry out ministry and church planting in that country. We will travel to San Andres, Guatemala, on July 14-22, 2017, but we will be engaged throughout the entire year in a variety of activities to keep our hearts, minds and prayers focused on the task ahead.
This coming Sunday, our focus will remain on serving, but we'll be looking more at our calling and responsibilities in regard to "serving in," that is, serving within the walls of the church. I won't give my message away just yet, but rather I want to encourage you to prepare your heart for Sunday morning as we look at how God calls each of us to consider how He would have us "serve in" and how He equips us for the work to which He calls us.
If you're willing to ask God how He would have you serve, and then if you're willing to listen/watch for His answer and to follow Him obediently as you discern His guidance, you just might end up being amazed at what He does in and through you, and how He blesses you deeply, in the coming church year. I challenge you to give it a try and see what God does with your willingness!
An Olympic Effort
August 8, 2016
It's time for the Olympics again, and I've always been a big fan of the Games. From my earliest years, I remember watching with awe the athletic pursuits of American Olympic legends like Mark Spitz, the swimmer who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Games, or Sugar Ray Leonard, who won gold in boxing in 1976, or the American "Miracle on Ice" hockey team that won gold against all odds in 1980. In 1984, I was enthralled by the amazing prowess of track and field phenom Carl Lewis, the graceful athleticism of gymnast Mary Lou Retton and by the strength and skill of wrestler Bruce Baumgartner (I could go on naming the names of those who've impressed me over the years, but it would pretty much take my entire article).
And then there's the music. I've always enjoyed the song that since 1968 has been widely-recognized as the "theme song" of the Olympics, with its powerful brass and pounding timpani drums (it's actually the fanfare from Leo Arnaud's Bugler's Dream, written in 1958, and not for the Olympics). In 1984, when the Games were held in Los Angeles and American composer John Williams (composer of the themes to Star Wars, Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark) debuted his Olympic Fanfare and Theme, I was blown away. When I actually got to play the song in my college orchestra, I thought the chill bumps would never go away.
Regardless of whether it's the athletics or the music, one thing that I've always appreciated about the Olympics is the tremendous amount of effort and focus that goes into this one, brief period that only occurs once every four years. This year, I was blown away by the story of American swimmer Dana Vollmer, who already held four gold medals from previous Games (2004 and 2012) and has won a silver and a bronze thus far in these Olympics. Just sixteen months ago, Dana gave birth to her first child, and yet she's back, less than a year and a half later, winning medals again. That type of focus, energy, hard work and drive just amaze me.
As I consider such excellence and effort, I often wonder how much of an impact we as believers could make on our world if we gave a true "Olympic Effort" to the causes of God's Kingdom, serving in Christ's name and making disciples. Now, I'm not under any mistaken impression that everyone has in them the ability to be an Olympian; honestly, some people are more genetically inclined to be stronger, faster and more skilled than the rest of us. There's no doubt that they have to work very hard and give up a great deal to be the best of the best, but for most of us, regardless of how much effort and sacrifice we gave it, we would never so much as make the team.
While we could draw a parallel from that spiritually--"Hey, I'm no Billy Graham"--there's a major difference between the world of Olympic-level athletics and Olympic Kingdom efforts that we need to keep in mind: although we are not all on the same, level "playing field" when it comes to our spiritual gifts, our abilities and even our opportunities, every one of us as a believer has the Holy Spirit living within us and empowering us to do what God asks of us. Each of us is accorded a place of service and the ability to serve in keeping with God's grace in our lives (see Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-7), and God's expectation of us is that we will fill the role to which He has assigned us, utilizing the gifts He has given us, and that we will do so for His glory.
As we prepare for the 2016-17 church year, my question for you is this: have you discovered God's gifts that He has given you for ministry, and have you deployed those gifts in service to Him? If not, let this be the year that you make your first "Olympic Effort" in regard to the things of God. If your answer is "yes," then I encourage you to keep up the effort, knowing, as Paul wrote, that our "labor in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Let's go for the gold--not for a gold medal that hangs around our necks, but rather for the prize that goes to all who run the race that the Lord has set before us!
The Pursuit of Pure Worship
August 1, 2016
Most of us who are believers in Christ can point back to powerful worship experiences in our lives, times when we connected deeply with God and were overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, who we
felt in and among us at those moments. For me, one such experience happened in Birmingham in
the early 2000’s as I attended a Michael W. Smith concert that turned into an incredible worship
service, complete with a powerful message delivered by Max Lucado.
You see, as a Pastor, there are few times that I can experience worship and have nothing else on my mind (like preaching, meeting guests, making announcements, troubleshooting, etc.) So that
night, coming in with no other responsibilities and fully prepared for my heart to engage with God, I was able to enjoy one of the most meaningful worship experiences I have ever had in my life. I’ve often looked back on that moment fondly, reminiscing about how amazing it was asking God to help me once again to engage with Him in such moments of pure worship.
Knowing that such distraction for me is a hazard of my job, I have begun to pray in recent years, not that the distractions will go away (I’d have to do something different career-wise for that to happen), but rather that God will teach me the great spiritual lesson of learning to set my heart free in worship of Him in spite of the things that otherwise demand my attention.
As I tell you this, let me confess up front that it is a growth edge for me. Many are the Sundays that I step into the sanctuary, carrying a load of diversions, and I find myself having to work very hard to focus my heart, mind and spirit on the One I’m there to worship. And I know that I’m not alone in this. I know that for many of you, the experience is similar and that you, too, find yourself distracted and your attention diverted by things internal and external, when your true heart’s desire is to focus your mind’s attention and your hearts affection on the only true and living God.
So, I want to encourage you in this pursuit. I want to urge you not to give up or to give in when it comes to pursuing those amazing moments of pure worship, because I believe that God honors such spiritual efforts, and I believe that His desire is to grant us our heart’s desire of worshiping Him in spirit and truth.
And for this reason, I want to make you aware of one of the keys in discovering such moments. One of the most important things we can do in preparing to worship God on Sunday mornings,
is to focus on worshiping Him throughout the week in between Sundays. You see, if our hearts spend six days devoid of interaction with God—not encountering Him in prayer, not engaging with Him through His word, not focusing on glorifying Him through our own thoughts, words and actions—then we’ll be hard-pressed to try in one lone hour on Sunday morning to get our hearts and minds in the right place to experience the kind of pure worship that we desire. If, however, we’ve spent our week taking time each day to intentionally be alone with God, and we’ve kept our focus on Him as we’ve sought to honor Him in all that we do, then the likelihood is much, much greater that we’ll be able to pick up with that same theme and continue along with it through the Sunday morning worship service.
What we as Christians often fail to understand is that each Sunday’s worship experience to a great extent is the culmination of the worship we’ve experienced in the six days prior, just as much as it is a preparation for the six days to come. Keep that in mind this week, and take some time each day to worship God with your thoughts, your time, your words, your deeds and everything else in preparation for Sunday morning. I assure you that it’ll truly make a difference as you pursue that moment of pure worship.
As an undergraduate at Mississippi College, I took my first Greek language class with Dr. G. Roger Greene. On the first day of class, Dr. Greene looked at the 20 of us who sat before him, did some simple calculations in his head, and said, "Only 5 of you will complete all four semesters of Greek." Needless to say, for those of us who had signed up with hopes of learning, reading, and understanding Biblical Greek, we were shocked and a little disheartened.
As the semester began, we quickly learned why Dr. Greene said what he said. He expected a lot from his students. His expectations were not unrealistic, they just required discipline. The discipline required was of a greater level than many of us had ever participated in before. The expectation that sticks out in my memory the most is his expectation of study. Dr. Greene believed that in order to truly learn and grasp the Greek language that you must live in it every day. Therefore, he required his students to study at least an hour every day. You may wonder how he knew whether or not we were meeting this requirement. When the roll was called at the beginning of each class, our response was not "Here" or "Present", but rather the number of hours we had studied since the last class meeting. If our answer was less than an hour, we were in for a long and very uncomfortable class.
As I look back on my experience with Dr. Greene, I see the wisdom of his requirement. Language is not something that can be crammed into your brain. It is something that must become a part of you. To truly master a new language, you must live in and with it day after day until it becomes a part of who you are.
The teachings of the Bible are this way, as well. We cannot just cram them into our brain. In order for them to become a part of who we are, we must dwell in them day after day. We must live in and with them until they become a part of who we are. They must not only guide our thoughts, they must eventually become our thoughts.
As Christ-followers, our lives will be directly impacted by our knowledge of and obedience to Scripture. The people we encounter each and every day will also be impacted. As Christ-followers, you and I serve as examples of Christ for those in our circle of influence. Just as the students in a class expect their teacher to be familiar enough with the topic to lead the class, our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers expect us to be familiar enough with the truths of the Bible that we claim to believe to help someone who is searching to grow in their relationship with Jesus. How do we get there? As Dr. Greene recommended, we get there by investing a little time in study every day. We cannot wait until the night before to cram. We must invest time everyday living with God's Word, so that we will be ready to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ when presented with an opportunity to share.
By the way, I am honored to say that I did complete all four semesters of Dr. Greene's Greek. And, he was right. Only five of us made it to the end. May we, as servants entrusted with the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, be faithful to the end in our study of His Word.
If you're an American with any sense of concern for our nation's unity, safety and security, the events of last week left you wondering, along with millions of other citizens, what will become of our nation if we continue down this path of anger, hatred, discord and disregard for the value of the lives of our fellow Americans. I'm referring, of course, to the deaths of two African American men last week who were shot by police officers--one in Louisiana and the other in Minnesota--along with the ensuing attacks on police in various areas of the country, the most horrific of these being the cowardly sniper shootings of a dozen officers in Dallas, Texas, that left five of them dead.
Regardless of one's thinking in regard to each of the aforementioned killings--and I realize that there is great variety in attitudes across our nation--as fellow human beings, we should grieve the loss of life and the development of any circumstances that lead to the death of another human being. Even if the death of another human being is justified (as in self-defense, the protection of others or in a just war scenario), for anyone who believes that all humans are created in God's image, the loss of someone's life is a serious thing, and it should be viewed with the appropriate gravitas befitting such a occurrence.
In addition, as we consider the impact that these deaths have on the broader community, it should give us pause and move us to pray for families, for friends, for coworkers and for others affected by such tragedies. As we reflect, for example, on the death of Officer Brent Thompson, just married in the last two weeks, or Officers Patrick Zamarripa and Michael Smith--both husbands and fathers --we cannot help but realize that the loss of their lives will permanently alter the lives of their families as well. Basic human compassion should cause us to weep alongside the families of all whose lives were lost last week, as they mourn their sudden, tragic loss and wonder about how life proceeds from here.
On a broader scale, we as Americans should be deeply alarmed at the divide in our nation and at the seemingly un-fixable problems that have brought us to this level of discord. Beyond just disagreeing with each other, we appear to have come to the place as a nation where we no longer even hear each other, seeking instead to shout down, shut out and dismiss as inconsequential the feelings, thoughts, attitudes and arguments of others.
As an American who senses the national feeling of anxiety that seems to be spreading across our nation, let me express some of my thoughts regarding how we begin to respond to what's happening in our nation:
First, let's remember that anger, malice (desire to see another person harmed), and disregard for others are not biblically defensible ways of dealing with fellow human beings. In fact, Ephesians 4:31 says that we are to "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every kind of malice." Our approach to others should rather be that of grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and love.
Second, we should recall Jesus' words regarding our calling as peacemakers in Matthew 5:9--"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called son of God." Where we can impact our society, or even the interactions between groups and individuals, by bringing peace, we should seek to do what we can in that regard. We are not to be stokers of the flames (not even on social media!) but rather seekers of peace.
Third, we must not forget the power of God in all of this. We as humans seem to busy ourselves making a mess of everything, twisting it all into a knot that cannot be untangled. We easily reach the place of impasse and impossibility, where we can no longer undo what we've done. While we are powerless to address and to repair our society, God is not. Last week did not catch Him by surprise, and He is not standing in heaven wringing His hands and wondering what to do. He always has an answer and a plan for redemption. He is the God of the impossible, the Great Untangler of our most interminable of knots. We, therefore, should seek Him with all our hearts, crying out for wisdom and listening and watching carefully for His answers. This really does matter.
The above is just a start, but it's a good start. There is no easy way back from where we've come, but our Father assures us that He will walk all the way with us. We just need to stick with Him.