Monday, July 15, 2019

This Is a Great Summer Read

I know we are well into summer, but there are at least a few weeks left. May I suggest a book that I am just about to finish myself? I believe it will be a great encouragement to every follower of Jesus, from the youngest to the most mature. It is Habits of Grace by David Mathis and you can find it most places where Christian books are sold.

Mathis focuses on various “means of grace,” practices and habits of Christians that will sweeten our walk with the Lord, help us grow up in him, and make us more useful for the work he has called us to do for his name’s sake. But the author issues a caution right up front: “The grace of God is gloriously beyond our skill and technique. The means of grace are not about earning God’s favor, twisting his arm, controlling his blessing, but readying ourselves for consistent saturation in the roll of his tides.”

I appreciate Mathis’ clear writing style, which is accessible and not pretentious, and I love that he includes wonderful quotes from some of my favorite authors. John Piper: “The essence of the Christian life is learning to fight for joy in a way that does not replace grace.” CS Lewis: “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.” Donald Whitney: “One of the costs of technological advancement is a greater temptation to avoid quietness,” and so we “need to realize the addiction we have to noise.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Half-eared listening “despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” D.A. Carson: “If it is hard to accept a rebuke, even a private one, it is harder still to administer one in loving humility.” And an author I learned of in this book, John Frame: “We eat only little bits of bread and drink little cups of wine (in communion), for we know that our fellowship with Christ in this life cannot begin to compare with the glory that awaits us in him.”

As you can tell from the quotes, Mathis discusses a number of “habits of grace,” including the Word, prayer, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, fasting, and more. I was challenged in several sections to repent and ask the Lord to help me change. Just being honest, here. The section called “Six Lessons in Good Listening” was worth the price of the book for me. Nothing new in that section, just another reminder of how much work I need to do in this area. The section on the importance of preaching was water to my soul. The chapter entitled “Embracing the Blessing of Rebuke” was another opportunity for me to repent for how poorly I tend to handle criticism, even when it is delivered in the gentlest way. I was reminded of how very much the Lord must love me, because the Word says, “The Lord reproves him whom he loves.”

Mathis outlines what the Bible gives as warnings to those who dismiss brotherly correction, and what the Bible also says are the astounding blessings to those who embrace rebuke. This chapter is a powerful reminder of the responsibility we believers have to help our brothers and sisters in Christ grow up, and that will involve speaking the truth in love.

This is a great read for every believer, or even those curious about what we Christians are so passionate about. Read it by yourself or do as I did, and go through it with someone else. I am meeting with a college student once a week this summer to discuss this book, enjoying great fellowship as we share how God is awakening, challenging, and refreshing us.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Let’s Go to Summer Camp

Two weeks ago, Cindy and I were finishing up a week of camp with about 20 Moldovan families. 100 people gathered for a week in the city of Calarasi to study together, worship together, eat together, and get to know the Lord and each other better. The experience reminded me a lot of the times when, as a teen, I would go to summer camp with my youth group. This place in Moldova had everything a child or teenager could hope for: volleyball, ping pong, tetherball, corn hole, a zip line, and a pool. And everything an adult could hope for: no video games or TVs!

The food was excellent, and included some traditional Moldovan food, like “mamaliga,” which is Romanian cornmeal porridge. But we weren’t there for the food or volleyball. Cindy and I were invited to speak to and spend time with these couples who came from a number of different churches and different towns in Moldova. I got to speak 5 times to the whole group, and 4 times to just the men. Cindy spoke twice with the women and shared at other times in their breakout sessions. We also did two ‘elective’ classes together, where we mainly answered questions about marriage and parenting. Lots and lots of questions. We finally had to stop the session on parenting after 90 minutes, so we could all go eat supper.

Some of our favorite times were meals, where we tried to sit with different Moldovan families and have conversation. Since our command of the Romanian language is basically limited to “good morning,” which people get tired of hearing after a while, we depended heavily on their knowledge of English. In most cases, either the husband or the wife (or the children!) could translate for us. We got to know Pavel and Lydia and heard her amazing testimony of how God saved her parents when they were part of the Orthodox church. They left to join an evangelical Christian church and were persecuted for it. Lydia told us that when her mother became a Christian, she started going to the church every morning at 5 a.m. to pray for her children, for their salvation. She also prayed that God would put them in the ministry. All eleven children came to know Jesus, and all of them are either in vocational ministry as pastors or helping with ministry in their churches. Dear reader, if you are not a believer, but your mother or your grandmother is praying for your salvation, you should just give up now and surrender your life to Jesus.

We also got to know Dan and Emily. They left the U.S. more than 18 years ago to go to Moldova and serve the Lord. They planted a church in the city of Hincesti, and God has slowly given them favor with the people. For most of those 18 years, they were treated as outsiders, and the people in the city expected they would not last. Instead, they persisted in loving the people, serving them, and showing hospitality. In the last few years, the people of the city have opened their hearts and allowed Dan and Emily in. But it took nearly 18 years for that to happen! The average stay for a pastor in America is 6 years. That is a good improvement over 20 years ago, when it was 3.6 years. But it is a long way from making an 18-year commitment just to lay a good foundation.

As with my previous 5 trips to this country in eastern Europe, I was thankful again for the team of missionaries God is using there to encourage Moldovan pastors and help build Moldovan churches. World Team Moldova consists of 5 married couples and 2 singles, and they are an amazing group of different talents and spiritual gifts whom God has brought together with one vision. They do what they do so well, and it is a privilege to go and help them do it, for God’s glory.

This was a summer camp experience to remember.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Let’s Elevate Principles Over Preferences

When Llewellyn came to our church in 1998, she had not been in a church before where bass and drums were played. She did not really prefer the choruses, and she let me know about it. I would visit her apartment in the retirement village, where she lived alone, and we would talk about the Word and about Jesus and about prayer. Every now and then she would look at me, eyes sparkling, and say, “Mark, I thank God for bringing me to Antioch. I don’t much care for the music, but that’s OK. I love the church. I love the people.”

When she turned 80, I started telling her that she was my favorite “octogenarian.” Our visits usually included discussions about the church. Many times, she could not come on Sundays because of her health, and she wanted to know what was going on and how everyone was doing. Her eyes would sparkle as she told me almost every time I went to visit, “Mark, I am so thankful that God brought me here.”

And more than once she said, “When I first started coming to this church, I loved that the old were together with the young. The children worship the Lord right there with their parents, and the elderly can take part in the service and be loved by the families. But I have to tell you. When I first came to this church, I couldn’t stand the banging of those drums. It would bother me sometimes, and it is still not my favorite instrument (smile). But now I love to be there and to sing praises with my family, and it doesn’t matter what type of song or what kind of music. I am singing to the One who loves me and who saved my soul!” Llewellyn went home to be with the Lord several years ago, and oh, how I miss her. She was a shining example of a dear saint who would not allow preferences to be elevated over principles.

Sometimes church conflicts arise from convictions or principles, as it has over the biblical definition of marriage in churches and denominations. Sometimes church conflicts arise from preferences, as they have in churches over music styles. Or over whether you have Sunday School or other weekly ‘programs’ for the children and youth.

Whatever the reason, conflict is inevitable. As Job said, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” A church without conflict is a church without people. Which church, by the way, does not exist.

I would submit that we need to allow principles to rule over our preferences. And where the Bible does not clearly speak on an issue, we must give each other freedom. As Paul said, let us not be known for our “disputes over doubtful things.” There is plenty in the Bible that is rock-solid principle that we can agree on, but we must not legislate on issues that are disputable. At the same time, church members must lay down their preferences where they differ with the culture of the church, and not allow those preferences to build divisions. If God calls you to a church body, which he has done if you are a follower of Christ, he has sent you there to serve, to encourage, to give and to work. He has not sent you there to be a gadfly, an irritant, a complainer, a pain in the pew.

I believe if we elevate principle over preference, we will be a much healthier church as a result. And may God bless the octogenarians and all the seasoned saints who make the church a better place.

Monday, June 24, 2019

He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear

Like the true story about a man sitting quietly in church for a wedding when suddenly he erupted with a “Yes!” at full volume, standing part of the way up with one fist raised triumphantly. He sat down sheepishly when he remembered where he was, turning red with embarrassment as the whole church, including the wedding party who was about “mid-vow,” turned to stare. That’s when they noticed the wire and the ear-piece. Seems the man was attending a wedding with his body, but his mind and his emotions were fully engaged with a college football game, coming to him live, through a radio in his coat pocket. His team had just scored the winning touchdown.

If the man’s wife was there, can you imagine the look that she gave him at that point? Some of you have seen that look. Some of us would have to admit, if we were honest, that we have mastered the ability to be physically present in a place, and totally absent in every other way. I have been amazed at students of mine in various classrooms who would hear me give an assignment, see me write it on the board, see it clearly on the syllabus, and then claim, “I never knew we had to do this” on the day that the assignment was due. But then I remember the many times in my marriage that I have told my wife I would do something that she had asked, and even read the email reminder that she sent me, and I still showed up at home that night with an “I forgot” excuse on my lips. The truth? Even if I did forget, it was because I did not take the request seriously enough to remember. What was going on in my own head, in my own life, was more important to me than something my wife had asked of me.

One thing I really love about Jesus is his concern with our ability to hear. He spoke to a deaf mute, saying “Ephphatha, be opened,” and immediately the man’s ears were opened. He also spoke to those who had perfectly good hearing, saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” When Jesus said these words, he wasn’t trying to save people from embarrassment or even from damaged relationships. He spoke this warning, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear,” to wake us up to the fact that our very lives depend on whether we obey that simple command. As his disciples said to Jesus, “You alone have the words of eternal life.”

It is true, is it not, that we tend to remember very clearly what is spoken to us when we are under great stress, or in a life threatening situation. Take any of those students who blew off one of my assignments, put him on the top of a roof that is about to be overcome by raging floodwaters, then speak a word of instruction to him as you lower the rescue rope from a helicopter. Would he not be looking and listening intently to your every word? Would he dare to yawn or brush you aside or say that he would love to take the rope, but he is not sure he heard how to do it, and that’s OK because he is really enjoying the song on his iPhone at the moment? I don’t think so.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear. What are you waiting for? Take the rope. Hearing grows worse with disuse. Oh, and take that plug out of your ear and pay attention.

Monday, June 17, 2019

It’s a Slow Fade When You Give Yourself Away

You have probably heard the “frog in the kettle” illustration. Drop a frog into hot water and it will jump out immediately. Drop a frog into lukewarm water, slowly raise the temperature, and the frog will stay there and cook. There is a parallel here to what Jesus meant when he warned his disciples, “beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” How does leaven work? It is hidden in a lump of dough and spreads quietly, determinedly, until the whole lump is affected. Leaven is persistent and it is not satisfied with the area in which it is first placed: it has a lust for more that drives it to take over the whole lump. How do we fall into alcoholism? One drink at a time. How do we “fall out of love” with our wives or husbands? One unresolved conflict at a time. A carpet not vacuumed will double in weight in five years. How do you find yourself living in a dump? One day at a time of “putting off until tomorrow.” How does a person’s soul become a waste dump? One off-color joke, one pornographic movie, one shady deal at a time.

I’ve heard of an interesting way people used to catch geese. They would hide behind a tree and roll a pumpkin into the lake where the geese were swimming. The geese, alarmed, would fly away instantly. When they came back, their hunters would roll another pumpkin into the water. This time the geese would hesitate a second or two and then fly away. But not for long. When they came back, another pumpkin interrupted their day. And so on. Finally, when the pumpkins were rolled into the water, the geese did not even bother to look. They had been desensitized to pumpkins! One of the hunters would then don a “pumpkin helmet” and, with a reed in his mouth to help him breathe, he would swim toward the unsuspecting geese. When he got close enough, he would grab his supper.

Casting Crowns sings a song that speaks to the danger we face when we begin to let down our guard, slip into easy compromises, give in to the leaven of hypocrisy, greed, lust or other sins that will consume us. Here are the verses:

Be careful little eyes what you see; it’s the second glance that ties your hands as darkness pulls the strings.

Be careful little feet where you go; for it’s the little feet behind you that are sure to follow.

Be careful little ears what you hear; when flattery leads to compromise, the end is always near.

Be careful little lips what you say; for empty words and promises lead broken hearts astray.
The journey from your mind to your hand is shorter than you’re thinking.

Be careful if you think you stand; you just might be sinking


And the chorus warns us of the insidiousness of the process:

It’s a slow fade when you give yourself away;

It’s a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray

Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid

When you give yourself away.

People never crumble in a day. Daddies never crumble in a day. Families never crumble in a day.

Are those who follow Christ immune to such self-deception? Certainly not. We can fall and the stakes are very high.

If you realize that you are in the middle, or even near the end of a slow fade, that’s great news. It means it is not too late for you to wake up and cry out to God for help. But don’t wait. Don’t let the sun fade into darkness again before you do.

Monday, June 10, 2019

There’s an Eternal Difference for Those Whom God Has Helped

There was a certain rich man who lived large. He wore the finest clothes, today’s equivalent of a Brioni suit (around $6,000) and Berluti shoes ($1,850 a pair). He held a feast in his house every day, for himself, dining on today’s equivalent of Tartar of Kobe beef with Imperial Beluga caviar and Belons oyster, Lobster Osso Buczco and Supreme of pigeon en croute with crèpes mushroom sauce and cipollotti ($5,000 or more). He lived in a gated, palatial home that was staffed by an army of servants and even boasted its very own beggar. You had to be very rich to have a beggar in front of your house.

Speaking of which, as beggars go, he was one of the most pathetic. If the rich man’s back was covered with white and purple, the beggar’s back was covered with sores. While the rich man dined on lobster and beef, the beggar starved as he wished he could have the crumbs that fell from the table. And when the rich man was entertaining business moguls from all over the world, the beggar was harassed by scavenger dogs that came and licked his sores. Though the rich man knew the beggar’s name, there was not enough evidence to convict him of ever speaking to the man, much less trying to help him through his trial.

That brings to mind one more detail that is important to this story. The beggar had something the rich man did not: a name. Jesus, the story’s author, named the beggar Lazarus. That may not mean anything to you, but it meant something to the hearers in Jesus’ day. Lazarus means, “God has helped.”

Can you imagine the snickering as the rich man and his staff and his countless wealthy visitors walked right past ol’ “God has helped,” lying there being licked by dogs? Jesus, are you sure you have the facts of this account right? I mean, isn’t it clear that the one God has helped is the rich man, living in luxury, and the one whom apparently God has forgotten (if not ‘cursed’) is the poor schmuck lying in the street?

Ah, but dear reader, here is the truth of the story. It happened in two scenes. Scene one took place on earth, when both characters were alive. Then Lazarus died and was escorted to his next and final location by angels. And the rich man died and was buried and ‘woke up’ in his next and final location as well. What these two men had experienced in scene one seems to have been completely reversed in scene two. Lazarus is now in heaven, resting with Abraham and very much at peace, having all that he needs. The rich man is in torment, begging that someone would come and touch the tip of his tongue with even a drop of water. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help him or at least to go and warn his brothers not to make his mistake and end up in the same place.

Don’t misunderstand, friends. This is not a story about rich people going to hell because they are rich and poor people going to heaven because they are poor. The difference between these two men was that one cried out to God in faith and was helped by God and ushered into his presence in eternity. The other lived for himself and died by himself and was ‘welcomed’ into eternal torment and separation from God.
There is an eternal difference for those whom God has helped.