Tuesday, November 29, 2011

When people in your church move away....

Several of the families that my wife and I consider close friends are being transferred out of state. That means we won't be seeing them much anymore. And that is sad for us. And it is sad for our church not only because we loved them for who they were, but because they brought their gifts and passions to Redeemer. We'll miss them personally, as well as their gifts.

Two nights ago I pondered this "exodus" for a bit. Is it worth getting close to people who may very well move in a year or two? Should we protect ourselves from this potential heartache? Should we be careful to befriend those who are more likely to stay in the area for a while?

Here are some thoughts

1.) Love vs. Self Protection: Much of what passes for love these days is nothing but self-protection. In other words, we say, "Yes" to some people and "No" to others to protect ourselves from their displeasure.  But if love keeps no record of wrongs (I Cor 13), it always opens itself to being wronged or hurt. Sometimes this hurt is not caused by any intentional or even unintentional sin (though this is often the case). Sometimes its caused by a job transfer. And if we let the "well this person could move and then I'd be hurt" mentality to creep in, we've protected ourselves but not loved. And love that Christians have for another ought to appear unique before the world: by this all men will know we are His disciples, if we love one another (John 13:35).

2.) God's love moves toward people. That has to be our definition of love. This quote from Ed Welch's When People are Big, God is Small, offers much to the challenge of befriending people who may move away from us.

In light of Hosea, such a strategy (never allowing oneself to get hurt by someone who could leave) is no longer an option for the Christian. God's love is a costly love. It never takes the easy path away from relationships. Instead, it plots how to move toward other people. It thinks creatively of ways to surprise them with love. 

3.) Losing people?  I hate "losing" people whom I love and who love me, and support and serve the local church. I've "lost" friends time and time again due to moves (I still keep in touch with some, but its obviously a different relationship). But I have to remember that they are not MY sheep. They're not yours either. They're Jesus' sheep. I'm just an "under-shepherd"(I Peter 5). So if He sees fit to shuffle sheep by moving them out of state, He has that right. I don't have to like it, and I can be frustrated and saddened, but I do have to recognize His right. And He seems to know more than I do, so that really helps too.

4.) A mindset of sending, as opposed to hoarding. Naturally we tend to hoard our blessings instead of sharing them, whether it be a good dessert, friends, family, or finances. Pastors and parishioners alike can be guilty of this when it comes to people in the church. But hoarding products or people is really contrary to the purpose of blessing (Gen 12:1-3). After a season of being blessed with good relationships and fellow laborers in the gospel, do we even consider that God may want us to bless others by sending our dear friends out or releasing them? Are we really quick, or even open, to send out families we love to serve as missionaries, or plant churches, or to move?

When people are "sent" in the traditional way missionaries are sent, that's one thing. We have a category for that. Yet often God sends people to serve in different places via a job change. They are still sent, as God determines the exact places where we live (Acts 17:26). And that's how the gospel really went out in the beginning: some were commissioned to go, but others were "sent" or "scattered" by persecution (Acts 8:1-4).

5.) It is always better to have loved/been loved and "lost" than not to have loved/been loved at all. When people love us and we love them, we and they are always better for it. One lad told me the other day that he had a "mini-revival" while at Redeemer. I'm glad for HIS SAKE that he was here. And I'm glad for MY SAKE that somehow I, and the rest of the church family, played a part in that. Despite the sad departure, loving them and being loved by them was worth it. It always is and always will be.

Just some things to think about when friends leave your church family. Simply writing these down has helped me look at people leaving in a different way.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent: Week 1 devotion

There's nothing greater to me than the Christmas season. I love it. I know that some folks have a hard time with Christmas because of the number of bad experiences with previous Christmases. For instance, one of my idols Steve Brown, has a rough time because of an alcoholic father. Others experience the loss of loved ones for the first time, and I can only imagine how hard that is. 

I guess that's why I appreciate advent so much. It's more than just Christmas.

Advent is a celebration and thanksgiving for what Jesus has already done, and yet a longing for him to finish the work He started. It's a time of thankfulness. It's a time of hopeful petition: the very nature of petitions is that you need something!

Advent marks a mixture of celebration, the kind of which John the Baptist experienced in the womb of Elizabeth (Luke 1:44). And its a time of longing, like John must have experienced in prison, when he wondered, "What's the deal with this Messiah?"(Matthew 11:2-3). Jesus responded to him, "I've done enough now that you can wait and trust me to finish it later.

Advent helps us capture and couch our emotions and center them around Christ. I hope our joy would be more robust and grounded, while our longings bust forth more honest and hopeful. Can you tell I'm a advent fan?

Here is a link to week 1's devotions. It comes with 6 daily devotions and one family devotion. Hope you enjoy them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankful for a different kind of present (amended)

A Sunday or two ago I preached a sermon on anxiety (since I'm well qualified to speak about the subject!) from Phil 4:6-7 called "I got a peacful easy feeling." In it I referenced the book A Praying Life by Paul Miller. If you haven't read this book, it's definitely worth checking out. CBD Reformed has it on sale Black Friday for 5 dollars. It is the only book that I've seen on prayer which has really connected prayer to life. That and its one of the better devotional books I've ever read. Check it out. No one has ever returned my recommendation with anything less than praise to God for it.

The book is so honest and real, just like our prayers should be. Our prayers are not detached from life. In fact, even when we are invited to lay our requests before the Lord (activity), we do this with thanksgiving (lifestyle). I tend to think the command in Phil 4 means more than just saying "thanks" the way we make our kids say "thanks" when the bakery gives them a cookie. It means a regularly thankful heart.

Paul Miller does a fine job of explaining the connection between thanksgiving, asking, and the experience of peace in the life of a believer. I would include a snippet if I could find it in the book-but believe me, it is not for lack of trying. He reminds us that a thankful heart is a life constantly on the lookout for God's hand in the story.

And sometimes the things we should be thankful for are those which we are not usually thankful for. It's not too hard to be thankful for friends, family, food, or football on Thanksgiving. In seminary, one my professors encouraged us to be on the lookout for people who would be hard to deal with, and who may possibly drain or annoy us. He said, "You need those people as well. Look at them as a present from the Lord giftwrapped with a bow on top." He instructed us to consider them presents, not problems, because God would use them to teach us more about our need to grow in grace. God could use them to develop us in special ways where "easier" types of folks would not "grant" us the opportunity. 

Unfortunately, he didn't necessarily take his own advice in one particularly important instance. However, that truth is nevertheless still true and timeless. I'm thankful for his challenge, although I've not done the best job of heeding his council.

We can be on the lookout not just for those obviously thank-able things, but for those "presents" which at first glance don't seem very much like presents. God loves us too much to leave us where we are. He loves us too much to not reveal more of our need for His Son Jesus. Knowing more of Jesus is just too great a gift for Him to withhold from us (Phil 3:8). When we see God really does love us so much he won't deny us such presents, we may find ourselves less burdened and more receptive to what God is teaching us through them. We've then opened the door to real thanksgiving and ultimately a greater experience of a Christ-centered peace.

This thanksgiving season, try not to overlook such "presents," remembering to be thankful for more than family, food, friends, and football on Turkey Day. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gospel-centered social media

This post is intended to be a recap of what we've been doing in Redeemer's Jr High youth group. However, it is quite applicable to all of us insecure generations living in the age of social media.

Social media like Facebook can be very helpful to stay in touch with people that you don't regularly see. The youth were quick to pick up some positives about things like texting/social media, but a little slower to see some of the negatives. However, most of the kids eventually either pointed out or agreed with the fact facebook/texting provides a "great" place to hide from people. Folks will often post or text "bold" words that they will not say in person. 
So we considered the simple question: Why? 

Genesis 3 gives us a pretty good picture of why this happens. As soon as sin entered into the world, Adam and Eve tried in vain to cover themselves and their shame. They hid behind leaves. That's why we have a tendency to hide behind a computer or cell phone screen.

So when we text message or do facebook posts that we would never say in person, it goes back to the fact that we really are not believing the gospel as much as we think. Since our sin is rooted in disbelief-as it always has from the beginning-we need to recognize that hiding behind a screen is tantamount to not believing the gospel: what Jesus has already accomplished. 

Romans 8:31-35 says that we are not condemned and no one can bring a charge against God's chosen ones. The more we believe that, the less we'll hide behind a screen. We can say things that people need to hear even if they don't want to hear them. We can then not write things that we should say in person. We can then not text things we shouldn't say at all. The more we believe the free we are to love each other.

The following Sunday we considered  how to actually use facebook/texting in a positive way. Ephesians 4:25-32 lays out some commands for verbal communication. But since much of our communication is now not verbal (for better or worse-probably latter), but written, the same thing applies to texting and facebook. Things like speaking truth in love, as opposed to responding hastily in anger or with slander, seemed to resonate with the youth. 

We instructed them to NOT EVER respond by facebook or texting while angry. I promised them, they will NEVER say, "I really wish I would have responded right away, because I would have had such great gospel centered things to say to that person that ticked me off." They will always be glad they waited. But few of us ever take the time to not respond right away. It's hard, but not impossible.

Of course the only way to do this behavior, is to go back to the gospel. Ephesians 4:32 reminds us that we forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven us. Regardless of whether the other party has repented or not, we can have compassion because God has first shown us compassion. And when we screw up on facebook and texting, and don't believe the gospel as deeply as we need, we can be rest assured that Jesus never hid behind fig leaves or a computer screen. He never slandered though he was slandered. He did it for us so that need not fear God's retribution. 

In the end, that's really the only way we become motivated to encourage one another through our text messages and facebook posts. We could have spent 30 minutes telling the youth to NOT post/text mean things, but instead TO post nice things. That would have been practical. However, that would have been no different than if they were being taught in a synagogue or a mosque. The gospel is what sets our message apart from the rest, providing forgiveness as well as power. After going back to the gospel, we then discussed some practical implications which stem from belief in it.

If you made it this far, and God bless you if you did, you've probably realized this post is just as applicable for you as it is for youth.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Money and Ministry: the lack of one doesn't necessarily hurt the other

Most churches, church members, pastors would prefer larger budgets, because larger budgets can mean more ministry to others inside and outside the church. Ministry does cost something. It costs time, commitment, and money. So churches need to take in tithes, which in turn fund budgets; a budget is just a bunch of numbers unless there is actually money in the bank. And this article in World Magazine explains that tithing is at its lowest in 41 years. This study was done with mainline churches, which already seem on the decline-so obviously tithing will be declining. Yet as I hear from other evangelical churches, the tithing tragedy probably affects many churches in America. I don't want to get into the "why," but how churches, can do more with less.

First of all, instead of an alarmist "sky is falling b/c the church has less money" mentality, we probably need a bit of perspective. As above stated, larger budgets can mean more ministry. They can, but they don't necessarily mean more ministry is actually being done. Like a parent who gives his/her youth 20 dollars for fast food on a one day retreat-and doesn't ask for the change back-we know that money that can be spent, will be often be spent. Because it can. 

But when money is tighter, we have the option to examine what needs to be spent, versus what can be spent. Sometimes it can mean that we are better stewards of God's money. Sometimes it can mean we truly do more with less.

For instance, you might have 500 budgeted dollars for a fellowship event. With that money, you could cater bbq. It would be tasty. Or let's say you had 50 dollars, or even nothing. You could just have the church go potluck. This way, you save money, and the food is probably nearly as good. Plus you involve the congregation. You can involve your family in preparation, and teach them about fellowship and giving to others that which is good and precious to you (its kind of hard for me to share good food).  I would say more ministry has just happened because you had less money.

Don't equate budgeted/spent money with an illusion that more ministry is actually happening or the opposite as well: less money=less ministry.

Much ministry doesn't cost much money.

Think of C.D. groups (community/discipleship) or whatever you call them (small groups, Life Groups, community groups), how much do those things cost? The price of electricity, water/sewer, and a dessert. Not much. Yet I've seen first hand people come to faith, grow in the faith, begin to serve the church, and want to bring those outside the church in. Real life-changing ministry often happens on the cheap. In relationships. In community. 
Most of us do like to pay for ministry more than do ministry ourselves. That way we don't have to enter into the mess, and get messy. But for the price of a cup of a coffee, you can meet with and minister to someone who is going through a tough marriage, dealing with a tough child, a tough illness, has a tough question, tough sin struggle, etc....For the price of a cup of coffee, or a donut (that's what I do every Wed morning) you can meet with and disciple someone who is younger in the faith than you. And then THEY can start ministering to others. Good things happen. Relationships are costly in terms of time and emotion, but they are also cheap in terms of money. And yet the yield is tenfold. 

Ministry still does cost some money.

I don't have a budget for our CD group to purchase materials. So we (my co-leader and I) just buy the materials ourselves. A novel thought-things we can buy, we should buy. I think 10 dollars every 3-4 months is probably not that big of an investment. Other groups do the same thing, and we're seeing the fruit. Ministry doesn't stop when the tithing drops. 

Instead of a traditional VBS (which had nothing really to do with lack of funding), I wanted to try something more outward focused. So we did a "Kids Club" at a local income restricted apartment complex. People were HAPPY to donate to this. We spent very little, and yet were able to share the gospel with a more kids than came to our VBS. Then we turned around and did 2 "Bible Clubs" for kids in our church and neighborhood friends. Some members donated stuff and we spent little. But some folks spent little or nothing, because other folks donated and spent some money, and were glad to do it.

A neighborhood Xmas party, small group Xmas party where you invite unchurched friends to doesn't cost much more than a normal Xmas party you might already throw. I've done several of these out of my house and seen youth step up and lead well. It doesn't show up in the church budget, but it is ministry. And it does cost you some. It cost several involved families money, but I think they were happy to spend some. Isn't the ministry opportunity an eternal investment?

Something that Amy and I will be doing is buying the Jesus Storybook Bible for some of our unchurched friends-who still, thankfully, think Jesus is cool. Lifeway is selling them for 5 dollars on either Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Tim Challies is updating all of the deals on his website. Just scroll down to find the apropos post. This will cost you some money, but it will be worth it. If you don't have one for your toddler-Kindergartener, get it. You'll be hooked and handing them out to neighbors. We already have, and will be doing it some more this Xmas.

Ministry does cost. Sending missionaries cost money. Sunday School material costs money. When someone calls and legitimately needs money, that, obviously costs money. So I hope that people tithe and give generously to the local church, to missions, church planting, and other personal/group ministry opportunities.  Ministry cost some money, but it costs more time than money. It costs YOU. If you find yourself lamenting that your particular church can't do as much as you'd like it to do, consider all of the many cheap (and costly) that are waiting for you. You might have missed them if your budget/tithing was bigger. And in the end, Jesus said we find our life by giving it away (Matthew 10:39). 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Calling without "altar calling"

No one has asked me why I don't do altar calls. However, my step-grandmother (for a few months) several years back, did say she wanted me to speak at her funeral and "do an altar call." I can't remember how I responded, and I'm not sure that she has even remembered that request. But I think that we should at least have a robust reason why we do or don't do them.

I grew up in an evangelical P.C.U.S.A. church which has a tradition of not doing altar calls. Yet I came forward to trust Christ at a revival-although I think they called it a "renewal" we had at that church. I think it was at this time when I was truly "born again." But uncertain of my salvation, I came forward another time at a Methodist church altar call during a youth day camp. These are the first, but not last, "altar call" moments I can remember.

I've also "come forward" for different times of "re-dedication" or commitment to do certain things like commit to missions. I've never noticed any difference in my life after these times.

Ironically-or maybe not ironically-I felt guilty for not raising my hand "to be counted" among those who made decisions at a college retreat. Yet that was the time when my life most changed.

At the Gospel Coalition, they welcome folks to ask them all kinds of questions. This altar call question came up, and here is their response. All I've written is from an experiential perspective, and perhaps from a pragmatic perspective-(it doesn't seem to "work"). There are other reasons why I feel uncomfortable with doing an altar call. But these folks say it just about as well as I could myself. So check it out here.

It's a gracious response (a lot of Christians can be jerks when they disagree), not attacking those who do altar calls, but simply why it can be good or better NOT to do them, and what we can do in their place. Certainly when we preach or teach at any level, we have to continually call people to respond to the gospel, whether it be for the first time or the thousandth. I don't do a very good job at calling people to respond for the first time-to become as a Christians-as well as I do calling Christians to come back to the gospel. Articles like these challenge me to not just say No to the practical application (altar call), but to recognize the correct heart behind it (to call non-Christians to repent and believe). Even though I disagree with this 18th-19th century invention, I am still challenged to intentionally and deliberately call unbelievers to repentance and faith.

Here's on of the articles practical applications from a Baptistic point of view I think is worth thinking about.

Invite people throughout your sermon to "repent and be baptized" like Peter did in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). But when you do, don't just stand there waiting with emotionally charged music playing, staring them down until they relent. Rather, make several suggestions about how and where to discuss the matter further.

Check the rest out here. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Another untraditional QB

Yesterday I commented on how I think God has lifted Tebow up, but has done it in such a way as only God can receive the glory-and then Tebow can bask in that. The polarization of Tebow stems partially from his outspoken Christianity.

But some of his larger critics are in fact professing Christians. Former Buc's QB, Trent Dilfer is certainly one of them. I'm not surprised that "the Dilf" has taken issue with Tebow because he is a fellow brother in the Lord. I'm surprised that "the Dilf" has taken issue with Tebow because "the Dilf" was not a traditional quarterback either. Or at least not a "traditionally" good QB. You don't typically win a Super Bowl and then get cut by your team soon afterwards if you are a good QB. Yet he did. Then he went on to Seattle, to Cleveland, to San Francisco. Traditionally good QB's don't pack their bags that often.

Yet "the Dilf" won a super bowl with the Ravens when his replacement couldn't win games. The replacement the following year just didn't work, and they didn't enjoy the same success as they had with "the Dilf."

"The Dilf" was far from a traditional QB because he wasn't asked to win the game. He was told "to manage" the game. That's it. Don't lose it, just manage it. He was a "non-traditional" QB, who temporarily was lifted up despite his lack of "traditional" QB skills.

He was lifted up, winning the highest honor a QB can have: a super bowl victory. Yet he couldn't boast in how well he played because the defense was clearly the ones who would receive the most glory. Lifted up and then humbly cut just months later. 

So that is why its so surprising that "the Dilf" has become such a Tebow "hater." They are not only brothers in the Lord; they are brothers in the "non-traditional" QB family. 

When we forget that we've been lifted up ONLY because of Jesus' good pleasure (even the good things we do are ultimately produced through His power-Phil 2:11-12), we will not only be prone to arrogance, but prone to disdain the grace and joy of others who've been humbly lifted up as well.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tebow, Israel, and when God "humbly lifts us up"

Yesterday was a crazy football day. Not because the Bucs lost, again, which I think I should be getting used to by now (false hope is terrible!), but because Tim Tebow and his Bronco's won again. He's now 3-1 as a starter. The guy who most analysts pull against because he is not a "traditional" quarterback, is now 3-1 and his team is still in a play-off race. But only because of the weak division that is the AFC West.

He actually completed 2 passes yesterday. He was 0-4 in the first half and eventually finished 2 for 8. Yet his team one again. 

I really don't think God cares that much about football. We see certain places in the scriptures that seem to suggest God does have a "special place in his heart" for widows, orphans, and the oppressed (Psalm 68:5). But it is also true he has a special place in His heart for His children the way any good father does. And he cares about their sanctification even more than their "success" (Romans 8:28). So that includes Tebow, as it does any Christian in the world or in the NFL for that matter.

And isn't it funny how God shows love, how he both lifts up and humbles at the same time? You can't get much worse than 2 for 8. Yet his team won. God lifted Tebow up, but he did it in such a way as he couldn't rest upon his individual stats. God lifted him up in such a way that Tebow would know it wasn't his efforts. And I think today Tebow is just fine with it. 

God has been doing this for some time. He lifted up Israel, and made sure they knew that they were chosen not because of anything IN them, but simply because, well, He chose to love them (Deuteronomy 7:5-7).

So he lifted up Israel, but not in the "traditional" way that He did for opposing nations-by sheer might and power. Remember, he had them shout down the walls of Jericho after marching around it 6 times. How untraditional? Frankly it would have been a quite humbling victory if they were thinking about "individual stats." Shouting? A battering ram would have been much cooler to me. 

God lifted them up in victory and at the same time humbled them.

From what we can tell, Israel actually rose to power because there was a power vacuum in the Ancient Near East-similar to the AFC West division. It wasn't Israel's might and power that did it. And I would argue that was by design

The goal of God lifting us up is never simply so that we can be lifted up. It's always His glory. And so when you are lifted up, keep looking in that same direction. There's a reason that God lifts people up, and doesn't allow them to have great "stats." You can then freely bask in God's glory instead of your own. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jerry West and the burden of being thought a hero

You've probably heard about how Penn State hero Joe Paterno has tripped over the wake of destroyed lives of which he has had a large part to play. No longer is he the hero. He's the goat. And a sadder more perverse thing I cannot dream of happening in college sports. I'm truly "speechless" from my computer.

I would guess one of the more currently heroic West Virginia natives would have to be former NBA star Jerry West. Pretty soon it could be Andrew Luck, the Stanford QB, and probable number 1 overall pick in the NFL draft next spring. But for right now, the man who IS the NBA logo (or rather the logo is him), probably takes the cake. 

I listened to a rare impressive local interview with Jerry a month or so ago. Then this article came out a few weeks ago regarding Jerry West and his depression. 

Some people like to be heroes until they are eventually, like Joe Pa, dethroned. Many others simply realize that they are not heroes. Role models for sure, but heroes is much tougher. That's a burden that's quite a bit too heavy to carry. 

Jerry West's new book West by West: My Charmed Tormented Life apparently reveals the darker side of Jerry and his struggle through depression. 

Most people writing memoirs/autobiography want more money. But probably part of the memoir/biography craze is a desire to be known. For people to know the truth about them, that there is more going on inside of them than what everyone else sees. It's hard to be a hero because we weren't meant to be heroes. We were meant to be have dominion over the earth and be "vice-kings/queens" but not heroes (Gen 1:27-28). 

There is one hero to the story and his name is Jesus.

Deep down inside people will suppress that truth, but they can only suppress it so far. The burden becomes too heavy and out comes the junk. I think that's why people like Steve Jobbs can give the OK on books which make them look less than "heroic."It's why I would want my depression story in any biography of me (not quite sure that would sell though...) 

Any book written about you or I would eventually paint us in less "heroic" colors than much of the outside world sees. And that's OK. It doesn't mean we necessarily think less of the person, but instead that we realize that they still need Jesus. A lot. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they still need Jesus. 

The burden of perfect and outwardly respectable performance for the Christian need not be ours to carry. Even though I think we do bear more of the burden than we let on (by refusing to recognize our weaknesses and sins), Jesus regularly speaks to us through His word and says, "Enough is enough. Let ME carry that burden (Matt 11:28-30)."

You can let others know your mess and how much you need Jesus because you don't need to be a hero. You don't need people to think more of you. In fact, in the end, we find it far more enjoyable for people to think less of us and more of Jesus. Deep down inside, even though I don't where West stands with Jesus, I think that's what his heart ultimately wants.

In the end, Jerry West and Tina Turner have a lot in common. One sings, and another one says, "We don't need another hero."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sensitivity training?

While I'm still not comfortable enough to place myself solely within ONE Christian counseling "camp," I've recently been encouraged and become more and more impressed by the work of the CCEF folks. 

Here is an audio clip of Dr. David Powlison and Andrew Ray from their "Help and Hope." It's only 9 minutes long and an easy listen-not to be confused with "easy listening" music of course. You'll have to get past their very quite, soft, and gentle voices that remind me of the ladies from the S.N.L. sketch "Delicious Dish."

These two lads tackle an incredibly practical question from a listener to their show: "How can I stop being over-sensitive?" 

Wouldn't that be nice? I think I can be over-sensitive at times and under-sensitive at others. In this short discussion, you can see that the answer is not to become more "thick skinned," as Jon Gruden told his former player Keyshawn Johnson even though he was being "thin skinned" in his retort. Nor is the answer to let over-sensitivity rule the day and ignore the fact that sensitivity turned inward neglects Jesus. It is the best answer I've heard to date regarding this question.

I told someone the other day that I'm good at diagnosing problems, but not as good at providing the solution. I actually said it in connection to this very question. Now at least I feel more prepared at redeeming and embracing a gospel centered sensitivity. 

Here are a few notes I jotted down while listening to this helpful resource. I hope they will whet your appetite for a 9 minute dinner.
  • sensitivity is one of God's greatest gifts
  • sensitivity turned inward takes God out of the picture and we're left with you and me and what you think of me
  • thick skinned is basically the same as being callous; not a good goal to shoot for
  • Jesus is the High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness
  • We can turn sympathy tables around; because we are so loved, we don't focus our sensitivity inward
  • The goal is to be safer in Christ and more thin skinned toward FOR others 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

No Christian Friends!

Every Christian who has kids wants his/her kids to have Christian friends. That's pretty much a gimme. But I think if we take seriously the fact that our families ARE NOT ends in and of themselves (Gen 12:1-3), we will also pray that they have non-Christian friends who will come to know Jesus through our children and their activities. 

Now how that is applied for each family will differ. Some may need to put strict limits and boundaries and decide how much his/her child is ready to seriously be a friend to others outside Christ. Some may just not be ready yet. But at the very least, we can regularly be praying for our kids' unchurched friends. I do this each night with my 3 year old, praying for several of his pre-school friends to come to church with us.

And still, there is always some parental anxiety that bad behaviors will rub off. Of course, if we are honest, we would recognize that bad behaviors are more than just learned from others; they are produced from within our and our children's sinful hearts. It's not Spongebob's fault. At the same time, Connar my three year old is probably too young to actually filter Spongebob through a Christian grid, so that, including disrespect, is a potential risk when he plays with his unbelieving neighbors.

One family unknowingly helped me and several other folks think through this issue.

We had a missionary family come visit the church a few weeks ago. They are going back to Germany in a year to begin tilling the soil for another church plant in Berlin. We asked them, "Who do your kids play with?" Their kids have NO Christian friends. In fact some families don't let their kids play with these missionary kids because they are Christians. How reversed is that?

Ultimately you just have to trust that Jesus is bigger than your kids lack of Christian friends. They can still grow up to know Jesus, rest on Him, and tell others about Him. If He that is in us, is greater than he who is in the world, then we need not fear.

Is that not challenging to us in America? Will my kid have good influences? Enough Christian friends? How often should I let Jimmy the Pagan come over to play? These are questions church-going suburbanites ask.  But I think we need to be reminded of the Christian community overseas, particularly those of missionaries. Perhaps we need a bit more faith in God and less faith in "seemingly" controllable areas.

When these fears or "controls" come up, consider your brothers and sisters in the faith whose kids have NO Christian friends. God is good. He is faithful to us and to our children. He can make up for our lack of faithfulness as parents as well as our kids' lack of Christian friends.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gospel Centered Risk

I've had a heart for church planting for some time now. I can't point to a time or day, but over time I felt convinced of the need for it, that it is the best way for the gospel to go forth and change a city. If you worship at Redeemer, you can't help but recognize the need for church planting. At one point, not too long ago, there was no PCA, or even Reformed work in Teays Valley. Now there is. And there wouldn't have been if God hadn't called a man and his family to come up here. And take that risk. By default, you recognize the need for more gospel centered churches.

Church planting is a risk. Sometimes God calls us into risks that we don't understand. Sometimes those risks work out the way we pray. Sometimes not. But we don't receive a special wisdom from heaven that means we can figure out how to follow Jesus so things just "fall into place."

We have to take risks. We don't have to take risks because God won't like us if we don't take risks. We have to take risks, because if we don't, we really don't believe the gospel all that much. For instance, we really are free to fail-not have the desired outcome from a certain risk. We can try things that may or may not "work." For instance, we can introduce a new ministry opportunity, and experience the frustration of no one or only a few showing up, and still wake up the next day with a smile on our face. We can be thankful for the none or the few. We can present the gospel sloppily, love someone much older/younger, ask a girl out who will possibly say, "No," try our hand at teaching a class we don't feel qualified, lead with some uncomfortable uncertainty when our leadership is needed, because the gospel reminds us that God's love for us doesn't fail us. Ever. Even when we sin.

When we don't take risks, it says, "I believe I can fail, but I'm just not willing to find out if that's actually true."  It reveals an underlying disbelief in the gospel. And to really love a people, a community, a church is ALWAYS a risk. Always. You don't know how your moving toward them will end for you. But taking risks is part of God's design.

We can't follow God without taking risks. And I'm not talking about stock market risk. Gospel-centered risk. Risking something for God's glory that is so great, that without Him blessing it, it will fail. Here's a story of great risk which one family took for the spread of the gospel by means of church planting in New York City. And it didn't "work." It "failed" in the sense that the desired outcome was different than the actual outcome. The church closed. It's sad. But it didn't really fail. The risk takers who partnered through their prayers, pocketbooks, and presence, didn't really fail. 

The true story, as written by a friend and former seminary buddy, is amazing. It is a story of a pastor who loved, who took the risk of planting, pastoring, and then having to move on. 

Read the story. It will do your soul good. Here's an excerpt.

But even as we move forward I don't want to forget Flatbush and I’m grateful that my experience there will make it hard to do that. I’m most grateful that John and Kathy were willing to take the risk. I wouldn’t have done it. But then again I wouldn’t have so eagerly given up a kidney to a fellow parishioner. But John did. I wouldn’t have so easily jumped out of bed at 1 AM to drive the streets of Brooklyn looking for a kid from my church. But John did. I wouldn’t have joyfully tackled the endless laundry list of responsibilities that come with being a solo pastor of a church plant in an urban neighborhood. But John did. And so now maybe I will.

Why God allowed such a church to close, when he allows others to remain on life support because one or two wealthy folks go there, I don't know. But this story challenges me. How much do I believe the gospel? A lack of risk-taking in life reveals a lack of not just faith in WHAT GOD WILL DO, but faith in WHAT GOD HAS ALREADY DONE in the gospel. We can take risks if we are confident in what Jesus has done for us. We can "fail," and yet not fail at the same time.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

When to tell someone, "This may not be the right church for you."

I really appreciate my "facebook friend" (he might not be able to pick me out in a line-up of former Buccaneer quarterbacks Brad Johnson-I've been told I look like him-Rob Johnson and Josh Johnson) Ed Stetzer. Yet I could be wrong, because he is one my few followers on Twitter! Anyhow, he works for Lifeway Research as well as writes, speaks, and promotes church planting. Some church leaders  involved in leading church planting efforts like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll do so from their senior pastor platforms, by writing, speaking, and forming church planting networks. Stetzer frequently speaks at the church planting networks, but is also personally assisting in planting a church now. So he has a special place in my heart, and has had such a place since I met him in a breakout session at the National Outreach Conference in San Diego 2008.

When it comes to planting a church-and I think this applies to most established churches as well but not to same level of necessity-leaders and committed core group members have to be on their guard for what he calls "Issue Christians." Someone camp up to Ed after the service the other day and wondered why more churches don't speak about "prophesy" in the way that John Haggee and Jack Van Impe do. Immediately the "issue" radar went off. Here is a pastoral response that really makes sense to me, and is probably more loving for both the "issue Christian" and the church.

Honestly, if this person were unchurched and told me they thought highly of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer, I would have sought a point of contact and encouraged further discussion. I probably would have tried to get together-- if they were open-- to see what the Bible says about the kinds of things that Wayne Dyer talks about. I would have used the bridge to talk about Jesus. However, in this case, I simply said something like, "We are not one of those churches that you would think talks about prophecy enough-- this would not be the right church for you, but I do hope your search for a church home goes well."

You see, I don't spend a lot of time with "issue Christians." It's not just the issue of prophecy either. I've had similar conversations with "issue Calvinists," "issue political Christians," "issue charismatics," "issue homeschoolers," and many others. These are often good people and those are important issues, but when these are the primary defining issues in the first (and every other) conversation, the correct response is help them move on and do so quickly.  

You can read more of his justification for such response here. But this is just one that stuck out.

3. Some "issue Christians" drift from church to church looking for willing ears--you do not need to let that in your church.
"Issue Christians" love to debate and display their knowledge. It is not good stewardship of your time to have these debates and you are not being a good steward of your church to let them loose inside.

Sensitivity to individuals needs is extremely important. When Jesus describes the people who are invited to his Great Banquet, he describes people in unflattering terms (Luke 14:21). We're spiritually disheveled and dilapidated and desperately still in need of Jesus. As a result we welcome folks who are spiritually and/or physically in a similar condition. 

However when a church comprises folks who expect to come and have their particular issue coddled, preached about, encouraged, or enforced, it will not go well. Division will be next in line and all parties will end up bitter and the focus will be taken off of Christ and His mission. Thankful for the many pastors who care about Jesus' mission so much, that they will boldly love and protect their flock and their mission field.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Sing-Off and the Judges who hear it all

My wife Amy and I love
The Sing Off. My three year old Connar does also does as we found out when he couldn't go to sleep on Monday night. If you've not seen it, The Sing Off, now in its third season, is an a-capella competition. The winner gets some sort of recording contract.

I guess the judges know what they are talking about, or at least act like they do, because the things they say I can't necessarily follow. Sometimes I don't agree with them. Sometimes I don't agree, probably, because I don't understand what they are talking about when they say things I don't understand. Make sense?

Anyhow, one of the things that impresses me with these judges, which include Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Sara Bareilles, is their ability to hear individual singers who I simply can't hear. Each judge has a list of names, and they will regularly heap praises on lads or lasses that I had no idea were doing what the judges said they were doing. 

I can hear the lead singers, and the collective sound, but I can't pick out what EVERY individual is doing. I see the person in front, and then the group as a whole. I can't hear the minor changes, the specific b-box, or tenor, or whatever.

It reminded me of how easy it is for us to see the church like this: a pastor and then everyone else doing their collective thing. Perhaps churches promote this by placing their pastor's name on the church marquee? Not sure, but maybe something to think about?

Regardless, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26, each plays a part. Some parts are more "up front," and noticeable. Some parts are more behind the scenes and blend in with others. But isn't it good to know that your Judge hears all the voices. He notices all the parts. 

He notices the nursery worker, the Sunday School teacher, the greeter, the person inviting people to church without much "success," the sound set-up guy, the lad who sets up the stage in the movie theater and is tired of doing it, etc..... 

And when the church collectively serves together, the sound is beautiful. He is your audience, and because of Jesus and his work in you, he likes what He hears.

If individuals stop doing what they're doing because they don't think they are being heard, we'll have problems. But when the pleasure of the judge clapping and celebrating over you is your focus, you won't feel ignored, passed over, or useless.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


On Sunday afternoon, youth from our church gathered together for the 87th (that joke NEVER gets old-at least to me) annual Teays Valley Rake-a-Thon. We had previously solicited any folks interested to sign up or to let us know of needs in our community. Some folks took us up on the offer and we actually had a few ladies outside the church, as well as several folks from our congregation.

When I gathered the yutes together, I explained that what we were doing that day was actually just as "spiritual" as having a bible study. We gathered together to do this in order to apply what the bible actually says. I quoted them James 1:27 where "true religion" involves such things as this. I told them we would be visiting widows, or folks in distress, though we might not be seeing any orphans. 

The Lord blessed with us absolutely gorgeous weather, and a nice crowd to where we could actually split up into 5 teams. But perhaps even better were the attitudes before and after. Some youth were actually posting on facebook that they were looking forward to it. Crazy.

After we got back and looked at before/after pics to determine the winner, good feedback soon trickled in. One lady, tickled pink someone would come rake her yard, was blown away by the youth response: "thanks for letting us rake your yard!"

Another lady currently experienced a very serious traumatic event and was blown away that people she didn't know would show such love. Jesus was in this for sure.

Below I've listed some reasons why I think these things are so important

1.) Unless you're a Methodist church, your church may not be as good at mercy as you think. That's a caricature of course. But many churches are heading in what I consider the right direction. Our church formed a women's ministry called "Kindness in Action." It's just some ladies showing kindness and mercy to those in and outside the church. How cool is that? 

2.) You learn and teach not simply by "classroom" type study, but by actually doing. We want to teach our youth and families that God is honored with such activity by actually doing those things. As Presbyterians, I think we undervalue the role of "doing" in our teaching. Doing does teach. When you regularly choose to skip church because of sports or sleep or busyness or activities, you ARE teaching something. Equally important in Christian Education is this "doing" component. Even more, Tim Keller points out that as we serve our communities with our "hands," we can really "work the gospel" deeper into our "hearts." As we serve those in need, we begin to grasp the gospel even more.

3.) Regular religious instruction in this area has to start early. Our aim is not simply to keep the kids off the streets but to prepare them to leave the home. The goal in regularly doing things like this is to make service a regular part of their Christian lives from here on out. I can remember how a young Methodist girl involved with our campus ministry at Furman and help us better apply the gospel with our "hands" from the very get-go. As a freshmen she organized a service event for all. Connar and Jude, our 3 and 4 year old workers will only know (ideally) a Christian faith that seeks the good of others, not just a personal experience with God detached from community.

4.) When one's Christian life actually makes a difference in the lives of others, he/she will becomes less burdened with the unscriptural mantra which destroys marriages, friendships, and other commitments: "God ultimately wants me to be happy." Somehow, the whole, "Love God and Love others thing seems to get replaced with a God who promotes love of self and personal fulfillment. Somehow in this new Oprah-esque paradigm, God actually excuses sin because he simply wants us to be happy. Yet the ironic thing is that if we enter into suffering and don't center our lives around self-fulfillment, you'll find more joy. Most don't get past the suffering part because God exists to make them happy and thus forfeit real joy.

5.) Community makes things more fun. I don't have a scripture reference for this; but I don't need one. We know this is true. Community can make a mundane job like raking leaves for others quite fun and fulfilling. Do the same thing in your yard, by yourself, well, not so much fun. Particularly when they are 100% your neighbor's leaves.....

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Luther and Hero worship

Hope that everyone had a good Halloween/Reformation Day. We had some great opportunities to connect with neighbors and find out exactly where those folks we see walking actually live. Everyone was outside so that mad it quite easy.

October 31st, as most folks know, is also the day that that much of the Protestant Reformation got kick-started (however there were pre-cursors to Luther like Jan Huss who actually paid the ultimate sacrifice) and so many rightfully celebrated and still celebrate that fact. We should celebrate that God used folks to "just say no" (not sure that they used that Nancy Reagan-esque slogan though) to Rome and its corruption, and the need to Reform the Church. 

And we should not stop celebrating the fact that God used feeble folks-and still does fortunately-to do just that. In turn, we should also not forget that such men were feeble and probably do not want us putting them up on a pedestal. 

One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes comes from Marc Antony's (the original, not the dude freshly divorced from J-Lo) soliloquy after some lads killed Julius Caesar: "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones..." In other words, people forget the good stuff you do, and remember the bad. We've all experienced that.

The bible has in essence one hero: Jesus. The rest of the characters aren't heroes, and that's why their flaws are presented to us. We do tend to moralize them. We do that with current "celebrity pastors" and speakers. And Reformed folks tend to that with Puritans and Reformers. 

Let me speak regarding the latter.

Martin Luther had a boldness few of us have ever seen. He had a love of Jesus many of us don't regularly see. But he also, like the rest of us, had plenty of flaws. We do both Jesus and Luther a disservice-since he so well has pointed us to our need for Jesus lo these many years-when we ignore his flaws. 

Here are some things we can learn from the mistakes of Martin Luther from scholar Dr. Frank James,  formerly at R.T.S., but now with Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

1.) Demonizing. Luther was confident in the gospel, but he may have placed confidence in other areas so much so, that he demonized his opponents who were ultimately in the same fight with only subtle nuances. In fact he writes positively about Ulrich Zwingli's death in battle, as though it were a just and good thing.

2.) Anti-Semitic. In Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies. We were read an excerpt in seminary. Pretty rough stuff. 

3) Unwillingness to recognize blind spots. There's a reason that Lutherans don't exactly hold to a Lutheran understanding of justification and pre-destination. Philip Melancthon was his golden boy, and didn't hold Luther's view on either. Unfortunately Luther failed to see it. As a result, at least in part,  Presbyterians, some Baptists, and several others take Luther's theology more seriously than Lutherans. Kind of ironic. 

In the end, Luther was and is a saint like you and I. His theology, his life can teach us a lot. And we should learn all we can from this lad. But his theology at times, incorrectly applied or not applied in certain areas, can also teach us we too can be quite inconsistent in applying theology to our lives. The hero of the story is not us, not them, it's Jesus. We can't forget that. I can't forget that, particularly with my pastoral idolatry. And Luther wouldn't want us to forget that, I'm sure. 

We learned very little about John Calvin's "dirt," much to my dismay. So I've got nothing on him. But both he and Luther are now, not just declared righteous, they actually are righteous. So that's why I think neither of them would be upset that I'm writing this. 

The good news is that God uses flawed people to build His Kingdom. So you're in good company when you enlist-or rather "get drafted."