Theology

8Jul

How to See God’s Grace When it Seems to Disappear

My favorite annual tradition might be my wife’s least favorite, probably because she does all the work.

Every year, she creates a coffee-table photo-book of all of our adventures from the last year. I don’t know about your life but ours at times is somewhat uninteresting. We love to travel but some years we don’t get to do that as much as we would like.

These photo books help us remember good days that would be easy to forget.

One book has a full page dedicated to a day spent in the park with our dogs. Nothing super eventful happened that day but it was a day we celebrated the simple things in life and I remember that day now even though it was rather uneventful and almost five years ago.

Another book has several pages dedicated to a night at my first church where we took our entire youth group of 12 students over to an 80-year old woman’s house and played croquet and grilled hot dogs. A lot has happened ministry-wise in my life since that night but I remember it because it’s in the book. Dozens of other nights just like it happened but I can’t remember them, and they were not that long ago.

Life is busy! Things get hectic and while we remember big vacations and fun road trips, we can easily forget the simple days and good but uneventful nights.

The same is true with faith.

We can remember the big events.

  • A life-changing week at camp, free from normal distractions.
  • A mission trip spent serving someone else.
  • A baptism, a public declaration that we belong to Jesus.

But what about all the other good, but uneventful days?

  • When we needed a friend to reach out and they did.
  • When we didn’t feel like going to church but went anyway and had a real connection with a real, loving God?
  • When what we read from Scripture that day was somehow exactly what we needed to hear.

If we’re not careful, those good but uneventful days are easily forgotten like days in the park or nights playing croquet with a dozen teenagers and an 80 year-old woman.

So then what happens when the good but uneventful days are forgotten and bad days come?

Dark days move in, like a 35 year-old kid who won’t move out of Mom’s basement. They’re here to stay. In those days we find ourselves asking, “Where is God?”

The feeling of doubt must be universal.

If you’re a Christian, you know that God’s grace is present and active but sometimes it feels like it’s at best expired, if it even exists at all.

Like a questionable carton of milk sitting on the refrigerator shelf long past its “best if enjoyed by” date, in times of doubt God’s grace seems like an outdated form of comfort that seems good enough for some people but never quite sufficient enough for others, for those of us with questions.

Real questions. The kind of questions that keep you up at night, wrestling with God in deep thought.

  • Why did ____________ happen?
  • Why does the world have to be this way instead of that way?
  • Why is there so much suffering?

My generation has often been turned away from church and faith because they feel the faith of their childhood and the status of the Church today simply does not allow room for their doubts and questions. We have made an idol out of theological certainty which suffocates any attempts to wrestle with God.

But we do have to arrive at some level of certainty. How?

4 Ways to Remember God’s Grace When it Seems to Disappear

1. Timehop – an app that reminds you what you posted on various social media networks that same day 1, 2, 3, etc. years ago.

I love social media. Roughly 10% of my articles are focused directly on social media. I love how it makes the world small. I love how it connects me with people from church throughout the week. I love how it connects me and my wife to our families that both live out of state.

My favorite thing about social media is the platform it allows people to create to share a message, and I love when people genuinely talk about Jesus on that platform. A few days ago, my Timehop brought up dozens of tweets and Facebook posts from students that I had reposted on my various social media accounts. The posts they shared were from a mountaintop experience, literally, that is still one of the most powerful moments of my spiritual life. I woke up not thinking about that time, about God’s grace on display. Yet Timehop reminded me.

It doesn’t have to be a mountaintop experience. Maybe it’s a quote from a sermon or a verse that you read at just the right time. If you posted it, Timehop reminds you of it.

2. Journaling

I have never been much of a journaler. At times I felt like less of a Christian because of it but there have been seasons of my life where journaling has played a huge role in my walk with Christ. The great think about journaling, especially journaling when you may not feel like it, is that you slowly build this library of personal testimony to the faithfulness of God.

Whenever doubt creeps in, you get to kick it to the curb because you can go back and re-read some of your old journals. You’ll remember trials you had forgotten because God overcame them. You’ll remember triumphs you had forgotten because there’s too much goodness in God’s grace to record.

3. Get together with people.

Was there a time in your life where you know you were close to God? Who was with you then? Who shared those times and places with you? Find them. Call them. Eat with them. Remember with them.

4. Watch/listen.

Do you have some type of media that recorded a time you were close with God? Maybe it’s a baptism video. Watch it. For me, I can remember the cheesy, “contemporary” Christian song that was playing when I finally decided to obey God’s calling on my life to pursue ministry as my vocation.

While you are unable to recreate that experience or time, you can remember what it was like to be close to God. You can use those tools to remind yourself what is really true.

“And when the lies speak louder than the truth, remind me that I belong to you. And when I can’t see past the dark of night, remind me you’re always by my side.” – Bret Stanfill, “Sons and Daughters of God”

29Jun

I Went to Church Anyway

We live in a broken world groaning for redemption (Romans 8:22).

Even though this is always true, it is evident some weeks more than others.

Over the last week or so our country has been engaged in nationwide debate, from inside the walls of the Supreme Court to the virtual walls of Facebook users.

The two arenas of discussion, race and sexuality, are obvious tinder for a digital firestorm because of their universal nature. It makes sense that everyone has an opinion even if some of their opinions do not make much sense.

While I was more pleased with the conversations I had in person last week surrounding these issues, I firmly believe in the purpose and value of engaging in these topics on the mediums we have available. Those mediums have changed and will continue to do so over time but right now, the Internet in general and social media in particular have connected the world in unprecedented ways.

Christians who leverage that opportunity and those mediums to discuss current issues through the lens of a Christian worldview can be missionaries like the apostle Paul, who reasoned with people in the marketplace for days upon entrance into a new city.

While there is definitely wisdom in knowing when to speak and when to be silent (See: Just Stop Talking), Christians should not fear engaging others with their various social media platforms as long as they are focused on getting it right more than being right. It’s true, Sometimes You Need a Facebook Timeout but sometimes you need to speak up.

“Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” – Proverbs 31:8

But what about when Christians cause problems by engaging others in conversations about current issues on social media?

The easy answer is something like, “The diversity of the Christians faith points to a diversity of opinions on various current issues.”

I guess…

But if we’re honest, doesn’t it feel more personal than that?

I wrote about my personal opinions regarding the Confederate Flag last week. The article took off, relatively speaking, as things that are written at the right time around hot button issues do.

I spent most of the next day responding to people’s questions and opinions (both supportive and critical). I didn’t necessarily care much what people felt about my opinions but I did care that people at least listen to the real opinions I gathered from black, Christian friends who are equally proud to be Southerners yet generally had very different experiences than the people I seemed to hear most loudly.

What was most frustrating was not people unwilling to listen to me but people unwilling to listen to them.

Some of these people were not just Christians but Christians in my city, and not just Christians in my city, but Christians at my church.

Most of the conversations went very well, and I was reminded how great the opportunity I have to pastor where I do really is. But some conversations did not go so well…my church might have shrunk last week, and I am okay with that because I honestly believe in what I wrote.

However, like it often does, Saturday night rolled around and my brain switched over to Sunday prep mode. I started running through the morning in my head. Logistics, set list, sermon, volunteers. etc.

One of my favorite parts of Sunday prep is praying for specific people to show up. It gives me chills to see people far from the Church and ever farther from God walk through the doors of our church on a regular basis.

Yet this last week I found myself struggling to want to pray, struggling to want to see some people I sincerely love but who also disagree(d) with me. Honestly, I think I’m right and I think they’re wrong but they feel the same way.

So Sunday morning comes, and I head to church. It would have been an easy weekend for me to miss. I was not scheduled to preach. I could have had a “stomach bug.”

But I went to church anyway. It had nothing to do with my job and everything to do with Jesus.

As I started to pray, even though I didn’t feel like it, a funny thing happened; I started to feel like it. I remembered that, for all the things that can divide us, Jesus is what unites us.

So I went to church. I shook hands and gave hugs and had a tremendous day. I was sincerely glad to see everyone, especially the people who disagreed with me most loudly because I know the list of essentials we must believe to be known and loved by the same God is small:

Jesus came. Jesus died. Jesus rose again.

When I said those words from stage during our welcome time, I meant them with every fiber of my being. That’s what makes us sons and daughters of God. That’s what unites us.

We don’t need to agree on everything. As much as we all wish everyone thought just like us, we actually don’t need to agree on most things but we must agree on the Jesus things.

Everything else is secondary.

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

1Jun

Reading Proverbs

“The one that speaks much, is much mistaken.”
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
“Do not ask. Do not say. Everything lies in silence.”

All three of these sayings speak to the same virtue: knowing when to speak and when to be silent. All three are proverbial statements yet only one actually comes from the book of Proverbs. Can you tell which one?

The first saying was penned by Benjamin Franklin.
The second saying is Proverbs 10:19.
The third saying is from a fortune cookie.

What is a Proverb?

So what is a proverb? What makes the second saying all that different from the first and third, which say essentially the same thing?

Proverbs are wisdom statements that teach us about life and the way in which we should live it. Proverbs are not universally true like other types of Biblical genres. For example, when God makes a promise, it is universally true. When God said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5) there are no exceptions.

Yet we can all think of exceptions to some Proverbs. Take Proverbs 15:22 for example, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” I know of a few people who have built businesses from the ground up, with little to no help. They make decisions alone, and always seem to make the right one. I also know of a few times when someone got too many opinions and it led them to make the wrong decision.

Even though there are some exceptions, the proverb is generally true. People generally make much better plans when they seek and heed wise advice than when they attempt to make those same decisions alone.

The question remains, what makes the proverb different from the Benjamin Franklin quote or a fortune cookie saying expressing the same sentiment?

Proverbs >

Proverbs are greater than Benjamin Franklin quotes and fortune cookies because they teach us more than simply what life is like. They teach us who God is, the source of all wisdom.

Every proverb should be interpreted through the lens of Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The same sentiment is expressed in 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

While they definitely speak to practical areas of life like appropriate expression of emotions, business ethics, family relationships, guidance/planning, openness to advice and even physical discipline, the reader should not miss the fact that all that practical advice is rooted in the main idea of Proverbs: true wisdom begins with knowing God. Proverbs scholar Tremper Longman III points out the deeply theological nature of the book, “Proverbs is not rightly understood if it is taken as a book of practical advice with an occasional nod of the head to Yahweh. The book is thoroughly and pervasively theological.”

Jesus in the Proverbs

You don’t have to be around our church for long to know that we’re all about Jesus. Everything we do, but especially how we read the Bible, is very Christo-centric. So how do the Proverbs point us to Jesus? Allow me to suggest two ways.

First, Proverbs is a book of sayings firmly in the Wisdom tradition of the Bible. (other books in the Wisdom tradition include Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and James). Since the linchpin to understanding the book of Proverbs lies in our understanding of the nature of God (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10) and our understanding of God hinges on our ability to know Jesus (John 5:23-24, John 17:3,22, Colossians 1:19, Hebrews 1:3) the Proverbs point us to Jesus because Jesus is the ultimate source of wisdom. He is wisdom.

The Proverbs also point us to Jesus because they actually fail in universally leading us to wisdom. Like we saw earlier, there are exceptions to the proverbs. They are not meant to be read as universally binding statements of wisdom. Jesus, however, is meant to be understood as the ultimate, universal, never-failing wisdom in a very futile, foolish world.

22Mar

The Gospel According to March Madness

It’s arguably the most interesting event in sports. It draws the attention of the casual observer, the diehard fanatic, and that one person who fills out their bracket based on uniform color…and beats you every year.

March Madness.

The brackets. The upsets (Baylor…). The Cinderella stories. The heart-breaking losses (ahem, BAYLOR!)

Maybe it’s because I used to own too many Chicken Soup for the Soul books, or maybe it’s because I’m a preacher and I know the power of a good story, but I love the storylines that come out of March Madness, the ones that transcend basketball.

These powerful stories of comebacks, reunions, and destiny take more than X’s and O’s to tell but they might be my favorite part of the tournament.

The relationship between Georgia State (there’s a Georgia State?) head coach Ron Hunter and his son, R.J. was easily the most powerful of these type of stories, at least in the first few rounds of the tourney. R.J. is the star of the team and looks to have a bright future in the NBA.

Watching their relationship unfold was bittersweet, especially as R.J. hit the game winning 3-pointer from 1.3 miles out to upset my Baylor Bears.

rj

But hearing Coach Ron Hunter’s press conference after they lost in the following round will stop you in your tracks.

If you didn’t watch the video, stop reading and go watch it. Seriously.

Ron Hunter’s no slouch. He got a school most of the country didn’t know existed into the national spotlight. But when he’s given a chance to say whatever he wants as a coach, he chooses instead to talk about his kid.

“I just love this kid”

And then he weeps. Not tears of sadness, but JOY. They joy of a father rejoicing over his kid.

He doesn’t cry polite, quiet sobs. These are loud, heaving, into the microphone, humiliating-but-don’t-care-who’s-watching-because-I-LOVE-THIS-KID tears.

That’s the way God loves his people.

Far too often, at least if you’re like me, you want to leave church on Sunday with a list of stuff to do.

  • Be a better husband this week.
  • Be slower to become angry.
  • Listen more.
  • Talk less more smack to Baylor haters.
  • Be quicker to repent.
  • Spend less money on things that don’t matter so I can give to things that do.

Your list may be different from mine, but most of the Christians I know think we’re doing good if we leave church with a list.

Maybe instead of a list God wants to give us his love.

Coach Hunter was asked the usual questions in his press conference.

  • What does this team mean to you?
  • What can you do to improve for next year?
  • How will you replace your leaders?

Sometimes we ask God lots of questions like that, too.

  • Who should I date?
  • What college should I attend?
  • Should I move my family for this job opportunity?

More often than not, God seems to respond to my questions like Coach Hunter, “I just love this kid.”

He doesn’t always answer our questions like we want because he wants to give us something better: his love!

Lists and questions aren’t bad. They show that we really care about how faith intersects our daily life.

But in all our list-making and question-asking how dare we miss the simple but life-changing divine declaration over every Christian, “I JUST LOVE THIS KID.”

22Jan

Why It Matters How We Think about Heaven

Last week, 16-year old Alex Malarkey made headlines when he publicly retracted his story that he had been to heaven.

Malarkey’s book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven: A True Story details the events of a car crash that left Alex paralyzed at just 6 years old. The book ic co-authored by has father, Kevin.

Last week, Alex released an open letter to Christian publishers and bookstores confessing that the entire account of his journey to heaven was fictional, and implored them to remove the book from their stores.

“Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short. I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.

I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough. In Christ, Alex Malarkey.”

The “heaven tourism” genre has unfortunately taken off in force. Books like Alex’s are innumerable and seem to come from a new, but same, experience every month. And people cannot get enough.

Yet Christians have not been utterly silent. Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You Ministries, wrote a critique of the entire genre of heaven tourism books, including Malarkey’s book, over two years ago.

David Platt completely disarms the entire genre in this 4-minute video from a Secret Church simulcast in August 2013.

Yet while we could discuss our opinions on these books and the publishers that have so handsomely profited from their stories, I am not interested in such a discussion.

I am extremely interested in their effects on others, especially those outside of Christianity.

These books, coupled with Malarkey’s brave and honest confession that it was all a hoax, has fueled a barrage of “I told you so’s” from the atheist community.

Why it Matters

What’s even worse is the effect it has had on agnostics and skeptics alike, pushing those who at times are open to exploring faith in Jesus, further and further from the very faith they so desperately need. That is why it is so important how we think about heaven.

I would love for the Church to have a higher level of discernment when it comes to books and phenomenon such as this. In fact, I have committed my life to serving the Church so I am more than interested in seeing Christians get this right.

However, it is a far greater thing to see those far from God be brought near to God by the blood of the Lamb. And frankly, our team’s response to these books has not helped that in any way and we need to own that. We need to get heaven right because it is a glorious thing that is worth talking about.

I was glad to see Alex Malarkey’s retraction but I initially had no plan to write about it. I was glad to see it but I am not usually in the business of turning other Christian’s shortcomings into blog fodder. That changed yesterday.

Yesterday NPR ran an op-ed piece entitled, “What if Heaven is Not For Real?” It is a well written, and heart-breaking, article. Here’s the author’s conclusion,

I’m not concerned about the many years of my nonexistence before birth. Why then should I be concerned about the many years of my nonexistence that will follow death?

Granted, the author, Adam Frank, is a staunch agnostic (oxymoron?), especially about matters of the afterlife. He simply does not care. So a solid book on heaven would probably not change his mind regarding the afterlife anyway but the heaven tourism genre of books, movies, and merchandise simply gives people like Frank that much more of a reason not to believe.

Recommended Resources on Heaven:

Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things,  by Anthony C. Thiselton

lifeafterdeath

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright

hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Glory of Heaven (2nd Edition): The Truth about Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life, by John MacArthur

gloryofheaven

25Nov

5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry

Last weekend, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the National Youth Workers Convention for the third year in a row. It is one of the most encouraging parts of my year and I earnestly look forward to it each year.

A few days after I get back from a conference I try and decompress a little. Most conferences are the same in that they’re full of seminars, breakout sessions, speakers, etc. Basically they try and cram as much information in a small window of time, which is a great thing if you take the time afterwards to process and see what might be helpful in your context.

My main takeaway was simple: The Church needs youth ministry.

My heart breaks to see some churches devalue youth ministry. The quotes below are real statements about youth ministry that I have heard from people I know and love:

“I just don’t get it. Youth ministry seems like a waste of time because so many of them just ditch faith afterwards.”

“It just kind of seems pointless because they don’t tithe yet so you’re always investing in someone else’s church.”

Youth ministry is constantly being re-imagined and the Church should be as well. The message of Jesus never changes but the methods we communicate that message to any and all ages should always be able to change.

Not valuing youth ministry because it does not directly contribute to the church’s “bottom line” is a refusal to measure success the way God does and a tragic neglect of the kingdom of God, which is much bigger than your specific local church.

At the conference, Mark Matlock, executive director of Youth Specialties, briefly outlined 5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry (click here to watch the 8-minute video).

I thought they were so perfect I did not change them at all. They’re re-posted here with permission and the comments in between are my own.

5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry

1. Youth ministry is vital to helping teens integrate into the larger intergenerational community of the church.

The Church gets the tremendous honor and responsibility to create spaces for teenagers to transition from childhood to adulthood. The teenage years are choppy waters and can be difficult for students to navigate. Youth ministry gets to be the arm of the church (not a silo – off by itself) that gathers teenagers and their families under the banner of the cross as they seek to live these years well. Students will often hang with the church into adulthood to the level it hung with them through adolescence.

2. Youth ministry resists the status quo, helping a church stay relevant in a changing culture.

Youth ministry is fun, creative, and innovative. The Church as a whole can often look to youth ministry as a microcosm of where culture is and where it is going. When the church values youth ministry, it will see ways to stay fresh and engaging in an ever-changing world.

3. Youth ministry focuses on inviting those who are not already part of the church into the deeper narrative of God’s plan for humankind.

“Invite your friends!” As a student, I used to hate that phrase. It seemed like all of my youth pastors were constantly trying to get me to step out of my comfort zone and invite my friends to church…because they were. Their primary concern was not trying to simply draw a crowd. They all could have done that. Youth ministry is important because it is continually inviting in those who are outside the family of God.

Did you know that 85% of people will not change what they believe about God and eternity after the age of 13? Youth ministry gets to be apart of the most spiritually formative years of life and the invitation is always open.

4. Youth ministry reminds the church that teens are not marginalized members of the body, but are co-creators and conspirators in the divine work of the church, restoring life on earth as it is in heaven.

This might be my favorite. I love the language of “co-creators and conspirators.” Students are not the church of tomorrow; they are the church of today. If the Church refuses to acknowledge them it not only fails to love and lead them well but it tragically misses out on their contributions just waiting to be made.

P.S. This is not a “Hey some old lady needs her yard mowed; let’s call the youth!” This is real participation and real belonging.

5. Youth ministry helps the church focus on the way of Jesus, which goes beyond tradition, dogma, and ritual.

One of the great and terrible aspects of youth ministry is the turnover. Every single year the ministry changes by at least 20%. That can be a lot of fun because even in a declining church there’s always new students cycling in, even if it’s slow.

Lead pastors often get the blessing of walking through life multiple generations of life with the same family. Youth mnistry isn’t like that. You have a small window to impact a student’s life. If you do get to have a meaningful impact, don’t get comfortable because that leader will be in college before you know it. That’s heartbreaking, humbling, and exciting…all at the same time.

In youth ministry, we do not have time to waste on focusing too much on tradition, dogma, and ritual because we have a small window of time to focus on what is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We have to focus on what matters most: JESUS.

 

5reasons

Question: Do you think youth ministry is important? Why or why not?

16Nov

My Favorite Word in the Old Testament

The last 2 weeks or so have easily been some of the most stressful and uncertain in my life.

I don’t intend to stack it against your most stressful or uncertain week, though. Many of you have suffered and endured more than I could ever imagine.

  • My wife and I do not have any children yet so we do not know what the loss of a child is like.
  • We have consistently had provision for our basic needs so we know nothing of what it is like to wonder where our next meal would come from or how we would keep the lights on in our house or the heater on in winter.
  • Both of us have been consistently employed in jobs we enjoy so we have never felt like we were giving ourselves to something pointless not do we know the sinking feeling of unemployment and all that often comes with it (depression, identity crisis, self-esteem issues, etc.)

With that said, though…here’s what went down in a matter of days.

  • We discovered a hole in our roof…when it rained. When the roof fella came over to work on it, he put his boot through the ceiling of our dining room. When it rains, it pours. Literally. In our dining room. Upside? We had a skylight for a few weeks!
  • Our oldest dog, Cooper, almost died. We’re kinda dog people so this was maybe a bigger deal for us than it would have been for you, and that’s okay. We discovered he had a huge tumor blocking his digestive tract, and stealing all kinds of nutrients from his body. He stopped being himself and lost tons of weight, rapidly. We took him to the vet and they scheduled surgery the next morning. Sometime the night before the surgery his tumor ruptured, filling his stomach up with blood. Surgery went great! He’s back to his old self and will be great but he was 10 hours away from dying.
  • The engine in my car fried. The ENGINE. You know, the part that makes a car…a car. The engine cost more than my car is worth.
  • My wife’s teeth have apparently been in an open revolt against her for some time now. She went for a check-up and came out with more bling in her mouth than 50 Cent. Then part of that bling didn’t do its job so she had to get a full-on root canal. Lovely.
  • Somewhere in the middle of all of this I attended an out-of-state conference for 3 days.

I’m sure you know what this season is like. Everything seems like it’s about one second from spinning out of control. The other shoe has dropped about 10 times and you’re wondering how many other things could go wrong. You don’t know who Murphy is but his law sucks and if you ever find him you’re gonna punch him right in the jaw.

It’s in moments and seasons like these that I return again and again to my favorite word in all of the Old Testament. I highlight/circle/box/underline it every single time I come across it.

STEADFAST

It can actually be a catch-all word in English because 6 or 7 words in Hebrew are translated as “steadfast” in the Old Testament but we understand the meaning. Steadfast means stable, enduring, patient, constant, never-wavering, long-suffering, etc.

It’s probably the quality I most admire in others.

In the Old Testament, it’s almost always referring to the character and nature of God, his steadfast love. It’s the Hebrew equivalent of “grace” albeit rather roughly translated.

Think about it. God’s grace, his loving kindness, is most often expressed to us in his stability, in his enduring, never-wavering love for people who constantly waver from him.

Even though we far too often “swerve to the right or to the left” (Proverbs 4:27) God never does.

This should give us great encouragement when life kind of hits the fan. If I were to go back through the list I cited earlier of all the things that converged upon us in a stressful time, I could show you all of these situations sort of worked out. Some were more expensive than expected but some weren’t. Our dog could have just as easily died but he didn’t. My wife could have lost her entire tooth but she didn’t.

But none of that has anything to do with God’s steadfastness, not really. To say it does is to promote some type of prosperity gospel which would be a desertion of grace and a “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one.” (Galatians 1:6-7)

Our circumstances could have gone worse but they also could have gone better. Either way, God is steadfast in his love toward us and that was, is, and always will be our greatest hope.

“20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
    because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you.” – Psalm 33:20-22

26Oct

It Takes Time to Take Heed

Our church is currently preaching through 1 Corinthians. It’s been fascinating seeing how many of our present-day issues and situations are the same things Christians have been wrestling through since the very beginning.

Sometimes when I read the Bible, certain verses just rattle in my head for days, sometimes weeks, after I read them. The following verse has been on my mine since we unpacked it over a week ago now:

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” – 1 Corinthians 10:12

Don’t rush past that. Read it again. Slowly.

Paul is writing to a pretty new group of Christians who had a lot to be proud about in their city. They had unparalleled access to other cultures, knowledge, art, etc. The city of Corinth laid across a pretty major trade route so their world was growing smaller and smaller as they gained more access to the influence of other countries, people groups, and cultures. Sound familiar?

They had a lot of reasons to stand up and be proud. Or so they thought.

Paul’s encouragement to the church at Corinth echoes the encouragement God gives us in the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10.

Paul’s plead with them to take heed can seem hard to understand at first. We defined taking heed as “paying special attention to the condition of your heart before God.”

One of my favorite thing about our church is our home groups. For those who attend, they are rich blessings, a tangible exercise in the often-intangible pursuit of true community. For those who do not belong to a home group, they are missing out on a big part of what it means to belong to a local church.

This verse is rattling around in my heart because of something someone else said in my home group. These two comments from two different people answered two questions I had about this processing of taking heed of our hearts before God.

1.) Why should we take heed?

My wife is brilliant. When we were focusing on the words “take heed” she called us back to the beginning of the verse. She said something incredibly profound like, “Maybe our problem with the whole taking heed thing is we think we’re standing when we should be bowing.” *drops mic*

It’s in these moments that I am a proud husband and a humiliated pastor. I’m incredibly grateful for my wife and am just counting down the days until she “wakes up” and realized she really got the raw end of this whole marriage deal. But she also just saw something in the text I never saw and I preached the dad gum sermon.

But she’s absolutely right: Maybe we refuse to consider the position of our heart toward God simply because we refuse to acknowledge our great need to do so.

2.) How do we practically take heed?

I was proud of our group this last week. When this question came up, they refused to offer the typical “pray, read your Bible, etc. etc.” Those things are fantastic and a huge part of our lives but I’ve learned you’re either doing them or you’re not. Still, taking heed is something different, anyway.

While we were fumbling a bit trying to wrap our heads and hearts around how we actually go about taking heed, one of my friends launched into a really compelling time when he shared his frustration with how busy our culture has become. He had grown weary of the imposed expectation that his kids constantly be involved in 6 different activities at the same time. (His only do one at a time. These people exist, parents. I promise). He talked about how selling some of their extra stuff had recently enhanced their spiritual life and how they were really fighting to be open to God calling them to do anything or go anywhere at any time.

Then he simply said, “You know Steven, it takes time to take heed.” *drops mic*

He’s right. And God has seared that sentence on my heart the last week or so. It takes time to take heed.

Whether through Scripture reading or prayer, quiet contemplation on a run or a trip to the grocery store, it takes time to truly consider the position of our heart toward the One who made it. To place ourselves in a position of bowing instead of a position of standing because I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to try and stand on my own.

Today, take time to take heed of your heart. After all, it is what God is after above all else.

14Oct

Why I Hate Christian Bookstores

I hate Christian bookstores.

Can I say that? Yep.

They are frustrating for so many reasons.

But the $30 wooden angels that looked like they were carved by a blindfolded 4-year old or the t-shirts designed by someone who flunked a community college graphic design class are not what frustrates me most.

The books are the worst, and I LOVE books.

I don’t know what it is that makes Christians gobble up whatever the newest version of shallow theology peddled by some Christian author that may or may not even be a part of the local church. From prosperity “gospel” nonsense to virtue-based teaching steeped behavior modification the lack of solid, Christ-centered resources in a Christan bookstore can be astounding.

So with all these options – all these books from all these pastors writing about all this stuff…where should we start

How does the average Christian know what to buy and what to avoid?

I have one rule that helps me wade through the Christian bookstore maze: When it comes to books intended for a Christian audience, I generally only read books written by active pastors of local churches.

I have no interest in reading books from presidents of organizations, professors, or Christian authors in general. I am not saying they write sub-par books, not by any means.

There is just something about reading a book written by a man or woman who is in the trenches of ministry week in and week out. They’re not sleeping in and spending days holed up in their home office writing their books in solitude.

No, these are the people who write sermons by day and books by night. They may not reach their written word count goal for the night because a church member calls in a moment of need. So they give of themselves, their time and energy, to the ones God has entrusted to them and they write double the next night.

They can’t afford to sleep half the day away like other writers because they have staff meetings to conduct and hospital visits to make. They can’t quite seem to wrap up their latest chapter because they performed two funerals and welcomed a new baby into their church family.

After being wrung out for the Gospel all day, they ask God to fill them up on the way home so they can be wrung out yet again ministering to the ones that matter most, their family.

This week I’m at a small conference for church leaders at The Village Church in Dallas where Matt Chandler serves as pastor. He is the only “famous” pastor I really pay much attention to. I have enjoyed listening to his sermons since I was in college but I have gained a new level of respect for him today because I saw him make time for his church people, his family, and a room full of young pastors. His breakout session was filled with story after story of interactions with people in his local church, which will never make it into a book.

Of all the options at your local Christian bookstore, I would suggest reading the words of a humble, hard-working pastor who lives out what it means to love Jesus all the while leading others to do the same.

What are you reading right now?

16Sep

Can You Love Jesus but Not the Church?

Spoiler alert: No, you can’t love Jesus and not the Church.

It’s a popular pursuit, though, and I can understand it, to an extent.

Jesus is radically inclusive and some churches are radically exclusive, painting stark, impossibly narrow lines of faith that are only big enough to include their particular tribe. According to them, to truly belong to Jesus you must look, think, and act just like them.

Jesus is the complete embodiment of truth but some churches are incredibly misleading. Whether by false teaching or false living, the Church is not perfect. But Jesus is. And that’s the issue. You make a mistake if you expect the Church to be something (perfect) that Jesus (who’s actually perfect) never expected it to be.

 

 

Saying you love Jesus but not the church is like saying you love one person of a married couple but don’t really care for their spouse. You might even say you hate their spouse.

Maybe their spouse did something hurtful to you at one point. Maybe you didn’t have the most welcoming experience with their spouse.

No matter the reason, you’re only getting so far in a friendship if you don’t like the person your “friend” is married to…BECAUSE they are crazy about their spouse.

Likewise, you can’t say you truly love Jesus without loving the Church because Jesus is crazy about the church. So crazy about it that he died for it, loving it all the way the grave and back.

The Church will never be perfect. But it will always be something Jesus saw worthy enough to die for, right in the middle of all her brokenness and imperfection.

Ironically, this desire to love Jesus but not the Church actually exposes hypocrisy instead of being sourced by it…

Why do some expect the Church to be perfect, to be void of sin and brokenness when their own lives are like the rest of us, often far from being void of sin and brokenness?

 

 

Maybe it’s because if you can step back from community and keep the messy, broken body of Christ at arm’s length then you can put off truly dealing with your own messy brokenness.

A Way Forward:

  • To the churches: Be legit. Be authentic. Come to grips with your brokenness and imperfection, but then fight for holiness and purity. Strive to be a bride worthy of Christ all the while resting in the knowledge that you already are, but this is never because of your own goodness but because of the fierce love of God.
  • To the skeptics/spiritualists: If you feel you have created a way to love Jesus and not the Church you have created a false Jesus. Your indecisiveness or indifference about Jesus is in fact a decision about Jesus.
  • To the individualists: you cannot privatize your faith into solely an individual pursuit of God that doesn’t inform your public life. Especially in our current culture where  everything is being customized to meet your individual preference, real faith doesn’t work like that. It’s not all about you but it does include you.

Bottom line: If you truly love someone, you love the things they love most. You cherish the things they cherish.

You can’t truly love Jesus and not the Church.

It just gets awkward.

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