Monday, March 2, 2015

Be someone worth imitating

Paul gives strong encouragement for pastors in Titus 2 that all would be wise to heed, whether you are a leader in a local church or not.

First, he is to teach what accords with sound doctrine. In short, he teaches the Bible. That is the first and most important responsibility of a minister of the Gospel, and nothing can replace it or cover up for the lack of it.

He is also to be a model of good works. Good leaders should never show off, but good leaders will always show up. And stand out. And that’s because we all need people to follow. Even people to imitate. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It was Jeff who inspired me to do triathlons, at least a few. I had heard Jeff talk about triathlons a lot, but then I started training with him, and learning from him, and that changed everything. It was Shawn who inspired me to start memorizing books of the Bible. I had heard Shawn and others talk about memorizing chapters and books in the Bible. But then I heard him recite a couple of chapters of Philippians and, several months later, I followed his example. John Calvin said, “Example draws where precept fails.” Do you get that? We can tell others how they are to live, but how much better to show them.

This is why parents who develop good strong relationships with their children are going to be the most palpable persuaders of sound doctrine that results in godly living in their children’s lives. In a recent survey of 9300 millennials who were raised in church-going homes, the most powerful predictor in children of Christian belief and practice as an adult, of satisfaction in life, of civic and community involvement, and many other positive results, was the presence of a strong relationship with their parents as they grew up. It’s just a fact that children grow up to be like their parents, for good or ill. The pastor’s job, then, is to teach the parents how to be godly role models for their children.

Not only must the pastor be a model for good works, but also he must have integrity, dignity, and sound speech in his teaching and preaching. Integrity means “incorruptness,” and it sits in contrast to the message of those who teach for shameful gain and will say whatever draws a crowd, or sells a book or CD. If integrity is your motive, dignity is your manner. Richard Baxter wrote, “Whatever you do, let the people see that you are in good earnest…you cannot break men’s hearts by jesting with them.” There’s a balance here, I know, but teaching the Word must be serious business. I don’t mean dry and boring, but certainly we must be serious about the Word and how we present it. If our manner suggests that we only want to make people feel comfortable or light-hearted all the time, then we may very well be leading them down a comfortable path to destruction.

Finally, if integrity is your motive and dignity is your manner, then sound speech is your message. This does not refer to diction or enunciation but the validity of the message that we are presenting. Again, we who speak for God before His people must preach the Bible.

Is it enough to just do good works and ignore the Scriptures? No. Neither is it enough to teach the Bible and not live out its truths through good works. The church and the world must see both.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"You're Lucky. Your Dad Loves You."

When I was a kid, my grandmother happened to live right next to us. She had a large room on the side of her house that she turned into an apartment to rent out.

I’ll never forget this man who once lived there with his two young sons. Even though I was young, I knew something wasn’t right, and it turned out that he physically abused them. Or so I’m pretty sure. My brother once said that he, through the window, saw the father throw one of the boys across the room, and when they came outside to play they were often garnished with fresh bruises.

One day my dad came home from work and playfully wrestled with me and my siblings in the yard. These two young boys were outside with us when he did this, and once he went inside they said to us:

“You guys are lucky.”

“Why?” we asked.

“Because your dad loves you.”

Remembering the event causes my eyes to well up with tears. What would motivate a grown man to assault two powerless little boys? The entire scene makes me thankful for my dad, but at the same time, brokenhearted for so many who grow up in a fatherless home. And when I say “fatherless,” I mean both physically absent fathers and physically present fathers who give the title a bad name.

I read Donald Miller’s latest book, Scary Close, yesterday, and discovered something interesting about fathers. Miller worked on a government task force studying fatherhood and healthy families, and learned that one of the main causes of the breakdown of the American family is the absence of fathers. He traces this absence back to the Industrial Revolution (IR), when men left their homes and farms to work on assembly lines.

While the IR served the world in terrific ways, it also devastated the home. Prior to the IR, fathers used to connect their sense of worth to the well-being of their wives and children, but after the IR they began to associate it with efficiency and productivity in manufacturing. By doing this fathers undermined the foundation of the world they so eagerly sought to serve.

Miller calls this a “mild tragedy” (I would call it a “major” one) and asserts that “intimacy in family relationships” dissolved within just a “few generations” (189).

So what does this have to do with my old neighbor? Well, the way I see it, both incidents portray an abusive father, albeit one is physical and the other is emotional, (and perhaps even spiritual). In both cases the family suffers.

The Bible teaches us that children are “like arrows in the hand of a warrior” (Ps 127:4). To be clear, the Psalmist means that the man with the children is the one who has the arrows, but fathers often treat their children like they are arrows in the hand of the enemy, an enemy who is aiming these arrows straight at the heart of the man’s worth and value that he would otherwise have in worldly success. The barbarous truth is that many men (and woman) think children cramp their style, and keep them from achieving true success, and thus devalues their lives.

Don Miller writes,
God doesn’t give us crying, pooping children because he wants to advance our careers. He gives them to us for the same reason he confused language at the Tower of Babel, to create chaos and deter us from investing too much energy in the gluttonous idols of self-absorption (90).
To be perfectly honest, I sometimes find myself trying to find self worth in what I can achieve outside the home rather than in it. But when I come home at night and see my daughter looking up at me with her gorgeous big eyes, waving at me with her backwards wave (it’s the cutest thing, seriously), my priorities are quickly realigned.

If I find my self worth in writing a New York Times Bestseller, and my own children disdain me, then I’ve sacrificed my arrows for shiny, inferior armor. But if I find my honor in raising a loving family, then suddenly, I’m Legolas. And that’s pretty cool.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Let marriage be held in honor

Last Sunday night, 30 couples gathered in our church fellowship hall for a Valentine’s Banquet. It is an annual tradition at Antioch, and every year we laugh, eat, dance and hear encouragement from a few of the couples about love and marriage. The theme this year was “Lasting Love,” and we celebrated the longest marriage among us — 47 years — the two most recent marriages — just 15 months old — and everyone in between. If we added all of the years of marriage together, from their anniversaries coming up this year, there was 655 years of experience in the room that night. That’s a long time to love together, and several thoughts come to my mind about that.

First, every one of those marriages is on solid ground because of their relationships with God. They all have their struggles, but they are all growing in love for Him and for one another. We played a game where we had to match up the 30 couples with their wedding date and their honeymoon location. The ones who just visited the mountains for a few days are as happily married as those who traveled to distant and exotic lands. One couple, married 45 years in 2015, said they honeymooned at their little house. Another, married 37 years, said they spent their honeymoon driving straight through from Florida to Utah, along with a new puppy, and the groom’s brother. OK! One traveled in three states, visiting artists and art museums. Some were sick on their honeymoons the whole time, others had traveling difficulties and at least one of us was just kicking a 10-year nicotine habit. Cindy told me about 30 days before we were married in June of 1982, “I need for you to choose between cigarettes and me.” I chose wisely, to quote from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and went cold turkey in May. However, there were some tense moments on our honeymoon, as I recall. Once we were walking from our hotel in Charleston, S.C. to see some sights or go to dinner and had an argument. She turned around to go back to the hotel and I kept going. Foolish boy. But love prevailed and we survived my selfishness.

The second thing I saw last Sunday is that every one of those marriages is blessed with growing wisdom. One young couple has been married for 12 years and he was a submariner in the Navy for most of that time. All together, he missed two years of their marriage. They learned to not be as sentimental about birthdays and anniversaries, because he missed a lot of them, and even missed the birth of a child. They practiced celebrating the time they did have together, not resenting the time they had to be apart.

The third thing I noticed was that every one of those marriages is filled with joy. There is no one in that group, as far as I know, who is simply enduring a life together. One couple that has been married for nearly 35 years met at Liberty University. He told us last Sunday that he was wearing a green leisure suit and white patent leather shoes when they met. She laughed then and they are still laughing today. She confessed that he is her best friend and she would rather be with him than anyone.

Try as it might, the world can’t improve on God’s plan. He said, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” I know at least 30 couples that would say amen to that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Politically Incorrect Truth ISIS Teaches Us About Islam

In a recent contribution in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood published a piece entitled, “What ISIS Really Wants.” It’s an enriching read, offering a crystalline examination of ISIS. Personally, it wasn’t until I read this particular piece that I truly understood the difference between ISIS and other Islamic terroristic organizations, like Al-Qaeda or Hamas. Before today I lumped such groups into the same radicalistic category, but Wood helped me see that this is like comparing poisonous apples to explosive-laced oranges.

Both are dangerous, but one is objectively more terrible.

(It’s the oranges)

Groups like Al-Qaeda and Hamas are certainly terroristic, but they are, startlingly as it sounds, alleviated versions of Islam, while ISIS is its unsullied counterpart. According to Wood, ISIS is the unblemished embodiment of Islam. When we see a line of black-hooded men beheading twenty-one Egyptian Christians, we ought to think, “This is perfectly Islam.”

“The reality is that the Islamic State [ISIS] is Islamic. Very Islamic.” -Graeme Wood

Wood stresses that ISIS is, at its most fundamental level, a religious organization. Like Roman Catholicism, ISIS has a supreme leader to lead their faith. They call him their “caliph.” His name is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and he is the “first caliph in generations.” Some say the first since 1924, when the Ottoman Caliphate ended. The caliph and his Islamic State “requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it.” And in this territory and under this rule this State revives its “medieval religious nature,” which includes “slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings.” Bernard Haykel, the foremost secular authority on the Islamic State’s ideology, writes that ISIS is “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and [is] bringing it wholesale into the present day.” True Muslims are expected to immigrate to wherever this territory is (in this case Mosul, Iraq) and serve the caliph. Any Muslim that fails to do this is an apostate and is marked for death.

Therefore, to answer Wood’s opening question, which is, “What is the Islamic State?” the answer is, “It’s the epitome of the religion of Islam,” and this is a politically incorrect, yet boldly authentic declaration. Haykel says that Muslims who call the Islamic state “un-Islamic are typically embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion that neglects what their religion has historically and legally required.” “[Haykel] regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance.” “People,” Haykel says, “want to absolve Islam … [with the] ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra.'”

ISIS insists that “they will not–cannot–waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” “Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.” Alongside Muhammad, ISIS has its own version of the Christian Church’s “church fathers,” called Salafism, which means “the pious forefathers.” “These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents.” ISIS “honors and emulates” these individuals “as the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.”

Thus, the warmongering caliphs in Islam’s history are to ISIS what the peacemaking Jesus, Paul, and Augustine are to the Christian Church.

“Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years.” -Wood

This is a striking thought, especially when one considers President Obama’s statements at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, where he suggested that the terrible acts of ISIS are based on a “twisted and distorted” view of Islam. According to Wood and Haykel, however, they aren’t. It’s not that ISIS has gotten Islam wrong. It’s that they have achieved it perfectly. ISIS is Islam, at it finest.

Politically correct? Resoundingly not. Historically and religiously accurate? Unapologetically yes.

The stubborn reality is that ISIS believes that, with their new caliph, their kingdom has come. In some ways, the caliph’s return is to ISIS (and therefore Islam) what Jesus’ return is to the Christian (and therefore Christianity). In the way a Christian would want to journey to Jerusalem if Jesus had returned and was physically reigning there is how ISIS feels about their caliph. Baghdadi is no mere leader. He’s number eight of twelve total caliphs that will lead Islam to world domination, via barbaric murders of apostate infidels. And to be clear, everyone who disagrees with ISIS’ Islam, from the Al-Qaeda Muslim to the American Christian, is marked for death. ISIS has released the beast of the Holocaust, but in this case the Jews are but one kind of infidel. You and I are another.

This is the politically incorrect truth that ISIS teaches us about Islam.

To be clear, this is radically different from other religions, particularly Christianity. President Obama, for whatever reason, feels the need to argue that ISIS’ actions are “not unique” to Islam, citing the Crusades as a parallel example for how Christians terrorized innocent people. But there is a big difference. ISIS is the realization of Islam, while murdering innocent people in the name of Christ is, without question, not the realization of Christianity.

Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God, offers sound thoughts on the divisive effects religion can have on the world, but also clarifies the unique peace of Christ and his followers:

“Religion can certainly be one of the major threats to world peace … [but] at the very heart of [the Christian] view of reality [is] a man who died for his enemies … We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-marking in our troubled world?”

Summarized, Keller is saying that Christianity is not the same as ISIS, or any religion for that matter. I think this is proven with ISIS’ most recent beheading video, (as if it hadn’t already been by the others.)

Are there Islamic Muslims who disagree with ISIS’ interpretation of the religion? Of course. Both Wood and Haykel acknowledge this. But it’s imperative that we understand that any non-ISIS Islam is, in the least, a manipulated version of true Islam, (like what Mormonism is to Christianity), but more likely a mitigated version of it. This means that many Islamic Muslims are apostates to true Islam, (but this is a good thing, in some cases better than others, although all cases are unfortunate).

ISIS believes that they play a crucial role in the finality of all things. “The Islamic State … believes that it is written into God’s script as a central character.” ISIS has special interest in the Syrian city of Dabiq, believing that the armies of Rome” (many ISIS sources interpret this as America) will set up camp there. Here ISIS will prevail (which is why they continue to entice us into war), even receiving help from Jesus, who will return to earth and lead the Muslims to victory.

In my biblically expositional estimation, however, the Islamic State (or at least anyone operating in accordance with it) will be astonishingly surprised by Jesus, like Mace Windu was when Anakin chose Palpatine over him and was subsequently Sith Lightning-ed to death. When Jesus comes back he will not defend the Islamic State. He will establish his kingdom, and he will reign as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

“And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which came from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh” (Rev 19:20-21).

“And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev 19:16).


Picture Credit

Quotes taken from Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants.”

Monday, February 16, 2015

This is Leadership 101

A highly paid consultant in a management seminar was listing the qualifications that should be found in a leader. One listener turned to Paul’s description of church leaders in the scriptures and pointed out to the consultant that they were paying an awful lot of money to hear from him what they could have gotten for nothing from the Bible. Here are a few highlights from that list.

Self-controlled. We start working on this one when our children are a year old, don’t we? Erma Bombeck said once, “When my children are wild and unruly, I use a safe, sturdy playpen. Then when they calm down, I climb out.” That’s funny, but the sad truth is many of the problems we face when our children grow up into teenagers could have been prevented had we settled for nothing less than training them to be self-controlled as toddlers. Read through the book of Titus and see how often it is mentioned in the church as necessary not just for leaders but for everyone. Also, we must be careful of this: if the only time we have self-control is when we have things just the way we want them, that’s not self-control. That’s being controlled by self.

Upright. This has to do with how a person lives and acts and does business with other people. He always seeks to do the right thing, whether it is expedient or comfortable or not. One executive of a Fortune 1,000 company was known for asking his managers when they faced a critical decision, “What is the right thing to do?” Whether it cost the company more money or not, that was his compass point.

Holy. This word almost has a negative connotation today, even in the church. That’s because some would equate being holy with being “holier than thou.” No, this word should describe our relationship with God inasmuch as upright should describe our relationships with one another. To be holy is to be like God. In Charles Spurgeon’s “Lectures to My Students,” he writes of pastors, “To us, self-denial, self-forgetfulness, patience, perseverance, long-suffering must be everyday virtues and who is sufficient for these things? We had need live very near to God if we would approve ourselves in our vocation.”

Disciplined. We understand discipline in the athletic arena, but it must apply to every area of a leader’s life if he is to be faithful. Paul wrote, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” How easy it is for church leaders to disqualify themselves from their ministry because they lack discipline. A disciplined person lives a purposeful life, not one dictated by his passions or whims. Discipline means we watch what we consume when we sit down to eat or drink or watch something on TV. It has to do with exercise. Discipline also means you watch your time and use it wisely. It means you keep your appointments and when you tell someone you will be somewhere, you’re there. It means you discipline your spending so that you can save, and so that you can give. And of course it means that you delight in the Word and in prayer, even when it is not a delight, but just plain hard work. Perhaps this quality is mentioned last because it serves as an anchor for all the rest. No great work is ever accomplished without discipline.

Leadership 101 involves getting out of the playpen and into the pursuit of godly character.

Monday, February 9, 2015

She gave more than all the rest

It was Sunday morning, and the ushers passed the offering plates through the congregation.

My great-grandmother, Jessie Hauser, reached for the pocketbook beside her to get her offering envelope. She couldn’t find it. Looking up and seeing the men with the plates getting closer to her pew, Grandma began to get “flustrated,” as she would say. She rifled through the purse and finally began to dump its contents onto her lap while muttering, “Where is that offering? I know I brought it.”

Meanwhile, the lady sitting next to her began to tap her on the arm and whisper, “Jessie! Jessie!” Grandma Hauser paid her a great no mind and continued to search for her offering, finally whispering loudly, “If I live long enough to get home, I am going to clean this out!” That’s when the elderly lady finally broke through Grandma’s concentration and said, “Jessie, that’s my pocketbook.”

I remember that story whenever I read through the scene that presents itself in Luke 21. The setting is the temple. Jesus is sitting opposite the treasury, meaning that he is in the court of the women, where the brass receptacles were placed to receive the offerings of the worshipers.

Some give modest amounts, and their coins make an audible sound as they are dropped into the brass, trumpet-shaped bowls. The rich make a splash with their offerings, and the cascade of coins has its desired effect: All within earshot turn, raising their eyebrows in admiration or envy.

Then a poor widow approaches the treasury, reaching into her pouch for her offering. “Plink, plink.” The sound of her two coins, called lepta (worth about one-fourth of one cent), can barely be heard. She turns to walk away, and Jesus excitedly calls his disciples to himself.

“Hey, guys, come here. See that little woman walking away from the treasury? She just gave more than that rich man who is headed out, the guy stopping to glad-hand and back-slap with all who admire his ponderous gift as they bow and scrape to him.”

The disciples were stunned. “She gave more than the rich man? How much did this woman give and where did it come from?”

“She gave two lepta.”

“Uh, Lord, you got us on this one. I mean, two lepta is a joke. It’s nothing. She gave two lepta, and that is more than the rich?”

“Yes. They gave out of their abundance. She gave out of her poverty. They put in a portion. She put in all.”

What can we learn from Jesus here about giving? First, God looks at proportion, not amount. Jesus did not marvel at how much was given. He marveled at how much was left. The rich could give large amounts and never miss it. The widow gave all that she had. Second, giving does not make us God’s benefactor but reminds us that He alone is our benefactor. The widow acknowledged with her giving that God owned her completely, and that her life was in His hands. Third, in God’s economy, giving is sacrifice. After all, that’s how God himself gave in sending His Son.

The poor widow gave recklessly, with abandon. The rich man could walk away from the temple that day and pat his pocket and find money, and look in his bag and find money, and go to his place of business and find money. The poor widow put in her two cents, and she was done. She walked away from the temple that day completely abandoned to God as her only hope. What would it be like to give like that?