Monday, August 14, 2017

Work out, not for, your own salvation

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This command in Paul’s letter to the Philippians has caused many to stumble, to make an argument for works-righteousness, and even to believe that what Jesus did was not enough. That he needs my help to save me. We know that’s nonsense, and the plain meaning of this text makes perfect sense. Paul says work out your salvation. He doesn’t say work in your salvation. Or work up your salvation. Or work for your salvation! No, we are to work it out. In other words, what God has secured in you through His grace given on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, work it out in every way and on every day. It’s what we do in our marriages, right? Were you done when you said, “I do”? No, you were just getting started. And for the rest of your life, you are working out your marriage in fear. And sometimes with trembling!

If you are working out your salvation as a father, it means you are learning to bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. You cannot learn that without starting to do it badly. But you have to start. When my children were very young, they each had trouble learning to ride a bike. They fell. They scraped their knees. They cried. But they kept getting back on the bike until it became second nature to them. Get back on the bike, Dad, and lead your family in the things that are most important. If you are working out your salvation as a student, it means you study. You work hard. If you are working out your salvation as a brother or sister in Christ in your church family, it means that when you are offended, you don’t hold onto that. You let it go quickly, and if you can’t let it go, you go to the one who offended you and you work it out. And yes, it will require work, sacrifice, and discipline. Tim Challies had a good word on this recently:

“I want to have 10 percent body fat. I set that goal a while ago and even managed to get really close to reaching it. But eventually I found out that I want to have 10 percent body fat just a bit less than I want to have 13 percent. There’s a key difference between the two: While 13 percent requires moderate effort to gain and retain, 10 percent requires strict discipline. I soon learned I just didn’t want the goal enough to put in the effort to achieve it. I didn’t meet my desire with discipline.” Then he adds, “I often consider the people I’ve known who set an example of unusual godliness. I think of well-known Christian men who lived godly lives in the public eye and who carried out unblemished ministries. I think of unknown and unnoticed women who lived equally godly lives far outside the public eye. What did they have in common? What was the key to their holiness? I believe it was their discipline. They disciplined themselves for the highest godliness. They were spiritual athletes who ensured their highest desires supplanted their baser desires. They achieved godliness because they aimed at godliness.”

We all have work to do if we are to aim at God’s best for us. Thankfully, we are never alone. Paul adds, “for it is God who works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” That is the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Moldova, men and ministry

You can find an article online that was published last year in The Telegraph entitled, “25 amazing things you probably didn’t know about Moldova.” It’s a good read, and though I have been to the tiny country in Eastern Europe twice, I learned a lot from the article. That being said, my oldest son and I didn’t go there because it is the least visited country in Europe. Or because they have great wine. Or because the people speak two and sometimes three languages. We went because we were invited by World Team Moldova, a missions organization committed to coming alongside churches and their leaders to encourage and equip them.

Micah and I had a great time in Chisinau, the capital city, as we spent five days on the ground meeting with men who were invited to hear us address two topics with them. Our first mission was to encourage men to take up the mantle of spiritual leadership in their homes. In Moldova, as in many other places in the world, men mostly take a passive role in the home. If they lead at all, it is often tyrannical, and sometimes abusive. Micah and I shared from the Scriptures and from personal experience how they could lead in a different way, through love and through service. We encouraged them to study the Bible and to teach their families what they are learning. We challenged them to pray with and for their wives. We pleaded with them to demonstrate in word and deed how much they love their wives and their children. We prodded them to protect their families from false doctrine.

We exhorted them to provide for their families, not just financially, but by preparing their children to be adults. “You are not raising children,” we said to the men, “you are raising adults. More than that, you are raising parents, who will, like you, invest in the next generation. Prepare them well, for the sake of their children, and for the sake of Moldova.” In each session, we had to work through a translator. I was telling the story of a young man in England who years ago wrote in his diary, “Went fishing with my father. Best day of my life.” The man translating into Russian misunderstood diary, and said that the young man had diarrhea. He was quickly corrected by three others in the room who understood English, but it was a reminder that when you don’t know the language, you are absolutely at the mercy of your interpreter. In this case, it ended well and gave us a lighter moment. By the way, the point of the story was that this young man’s father was a diplomat and historians found his diary to see what he had written on that day. It was this: “Went fishing with my son. A day wasted.”

Our second mission was to encourage church leaders and pastors to look again at what the New Testament says about the importance of a plurality of elders in the church. The model in Moldova for church leadership, as in much of the world, is a solo pastor at the top, and a board of people under him who assist in the ministry. We spent time looking at a different way, which is on display clearly in the book of Acts and in the letters Paul, Peter, and others wrote to the churches.

We have been invited back to Moldova, and I look forward to continuing our relationship with the people in this beautiful country.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Get the Leaving Part Right


I was in line at a wedding reception a few years ago when a man asked if I remembered what happened at his big day nearly sixteen years earlier. I started laughing. The picture is etched in my mind of the two of us who were officiating the wedding standing in front of the two being united that day in holy matrimony. The problem was, there was a third party standing there. Right between the bride and groom. You see, the pastor who was supposed to ask, “Who give this woman to be married to this man?” forgot to ask. As a result, the man giving the bride away kept standing there. He didn’t know what to do, and the pastor who forgot to ask the question didn’t know there was anything that needed to be done. This was only the third wedding I had officiated so I didn’t know what to do either. We were all undone.

As I recall, the vows were spoken by the bride and groom as each kind of leaned forward and looked past the man in the middle. He was no small man and the image of those vows being tossed across the bow at each other makes me laugh every time I think of it. An awkward situation, to be sure, but the couple came to the same end that every wedding is supposed to come to: they were married when it was over. That story has been told and re-told for these many years and I am sure it will live on in the lives of their children’s children.

I couldn’t help but think about what that wedding scene represents for so many who never really left home on their wedding day. Though a man in the middle of the wedding ceremony may not change anything, a man (or woman) in the middle of the marriage will spell disaster. You have heard these stories. Young newlyweds decide to remodel their living room. The groom’s mother hears about it, orders paint and wallpaper that she thinks would look best, and shows up on Saturday morning ready to go to work. Or a young couple with their first child decides to go to the lake for a summer vacation. When the maternal grandmother hears about it she insists that the young man not take her daughter and grandchild to that lake “because it is not safe.” Or a young family is visiting grandparents when one of their children acts up and needs to be spanked. The young man’s father tells him he is being rash and begins to teach him, as he says, about the “proper way to discipline your children.”

At most weddings I officiate, I ask the parents of both the bride and groom to stand. Then I say, “You have the privilege and the responsibility to pray for (this couple), to support his leadership in their marriage, to give advice and counsel only when asked, to encourage them and take delight in their life together as husband and wife. Will you pledge to do this?” The two sets of parents will then promise before God and man to let the young couple establish their own household as the Lord requires.

Jesus said it like this: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The picture of a mother or a father sleeping between newlyweds makes us shudder. There’s no room for a third party in the middle of a marriage.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Don’t make God into who you want him to be


 There was an AP story several years ago entitled, “Gone to the dogs: church starts pet service.”  It involved a pastor in Los Angeles who, wanting to add more bottoms in the pews, decided it did not matter how furry those behinds were. He started a service for dogs, “complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers and an offering of dog treats.” Pastor Eggebeen’s, um, support, for this idea came to him through close examination of the Scriptures. I say this with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Here is the pastor’s logical leap: “The Bible says of God only two things in terms of an ‘is’: That God is light and God is love. And wherever there’s love, there’s God in some fashion. And when we love a dog and a dog loves us, that’s a part of God and God is a part of that. So we honor that.”

I shudder at the influence of such men on congregants who simply have no clue what the Bible really says. Many who read this column will have had the same visceral reaction to Eggebeen’s statements that all we know for sure of God is that He is light and love. We also know that He is holy, just, good and glorious. We know that He came to earth in human flesh to “seek and to save that which was lost.” We know that Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” We know that God created all that we see and all that we cannot see and that into man alone He breathed His Spirit.

We also know that humans alone have souls and can therefore be saved from sin. At no time while Jesus was here on earth is it recorded in the Bible that He stopped to bless an animal or heal someone’s pet. He mentioned animals at times in His teaching to show sinful man what it means to trust God. He cares for the ravens, for example, “who neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them.” What is the point? Jesus says, “Of how much more value are you than the birds?” Jesus did not come and give His life for dogs, cats, birds or iguanas, but for the one species that is made in God’s image: mankind.

I understand our love for our pets; we have a dog and a cat and I grew up loving the pets I had as a child. But we must not pretend that our ability to love something brings it into the sacred realm or puts it on the same level as human beings. I admit that I laugh when I read the bumper sticker that says, “My Yorkshire Terrier is smarter than your honor student.” But that honor student was made in the image of God and has a soul that will live forever and was created to know and please and worship the Creator. The Yorkshire Terrier, as cute and as intelligent as it may be, was created by God to serve man, to live to please man, but it cannot know God or understand grace and forgiveness.

Pastor Eggebeen, like many others, may have the very best intentions with his pet-centric services of worship. But I would suggest that letting the church go to the dogs is not the answer to his attendance woes. It will simply prolong the inevitable.

Let’s not make God into what we want Him to be. We desperately need to know Him and love Him as He really is.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Grandchildren are the crown of the aged


One of my favorite passages of Scripture to read at baby dedications is Psalm 128. “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.” Maybe there’s a woman reading right now who bristles at the thought of being compared to vegetation, but believe me that the Psalmist meant it as a compliment.

There was no greater blessing to a Jewish home than children, and there was no greater sadness to a Jewish couple than to be unable to conceive. Children were considered a gift from the Lord, a divine inheritance.

Today in many places, even in many churches, children are considered a burden. The couple who dares to have more than the obligatory 1.2 children is met with sarcasm at best, derision at worst. I heard about one man whose wife had triplets and he decided to name them “Any,” “Minnie,” and “Miney.” When the man was asked why, he responded, “Because there won’t be no Mo.”

The last verse in Psalm 128 proclaims blessing upon blessing, as the psalmist says, “May you see your children’s children.”

I know from studying Scripture that it was the dream of every Jewish man to hold his grandchildren and help teach them about God. I had read in Proverbs many times, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers.”

Each time I read it, I thought about how vital godly grandparents are to the family, and what an important job they have in preparing the next generation for life and service to the Lord.

Until eight years ago, though, my head was only covered with graying hair. I was still crownless.

Cindy and I are thankful to be eight years and five grandchildren into that stage of life known as grandparenthood. We join hands gladly with all of the rest of you “old people” who have held your sons’ and daughters’ children in your arms and bragged that they are just about the best looking baby you have ever seen.

We also empathize with all of you out there who have gone through the trying time of having your grandchildren decide what you will be called from now until the day you die.

I agree with Brad Stine that the one year-old who eats out of the flower pot should not be allowed to name the family patriarch. Will it be PeePaw and MeeMaw? Or Gramps and Grannie?

I put my request in 8 years ago for “O Captain, my Captain,” but it fell on deaf ears. Micah and Kari wanted to wait until Blake was old enough to talk, to see what he came up with as he attempted to say, “Nana and Grandad.”

It seems to be official, now. We are “Nana and Gan-Gan.”

I told Blake, who turned 8 this week, that he is plenty able now to say “Grandad.” He grinned and said, “Sure thing, Gan-Gan!” Of course, his two-year-old sister is way confused; Liza calls me “Dan-Dan.”

Nonetheless, Cindy and I welcome the honor we have been given to love and nurture 5 grandchildren, and all the others who will follow, as the Lord gives His precious gift of children to our children.

OK, grandma and grandpa, what are you going to do with your grandkids? Teach them how to catch a fish? Throw a ball? Drive a car? Work hard and enjoy it? Be polite? Respect other people? Obey their parents? Those are excellent lessons.

While you’re at it, teach them one thing more. Teach them to love the Lord. Better yet, show them how you do it. They will never forget it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Go ahead and move to Humility

I remember those early Saturday mornings in the summertime when the kids were little and we were all loaded up in the car and headed to Holden for a week of vacation. You couldn’t do much more to increase my joy at that moment. But if the kids wanted to just send me over the top in ecstatic utterances of praise, all they had to do was get along with each other on the trip. They would have the same mind, to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the same love, and be in one accord. Even though we were really in one Odyssey. Paul is pointing to a place we all should move to as soon as possible. Humility. It’s not a geographical location but a way of life. What does that look like in our relationships?

It means that we have the same love. Let’s face it, some Christians are like porcupines; they have a lot of good points but they’re hard to get close to. Notice that Paul surrounds having the same love with two phrases about being of the same mind. Every fight between church members starts in the mind. A church split in Dallas started when one of the church elders was served a smaller slice of ham than the child sitting next to him. I’m not making this up. Instead of keeping his big mouth shut, stuffing it with a big slab of apple pie, the church elder expressed his displeasure, and the pork problem led to a church-wide divorce. The whole thing started in his mind, and revealed a lack of love for his fellow church members.

Humility means also that we do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach said, “Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-given; be thankful. Conceit is self-given; be careful.” Paul had just written to the Philippians about the preachers who were proclaiming Christ out of selfish ambition. But Paul didn’t gloat and exalt himself above them. He praised God that Christ was being preached. How could Paul be so lacking in selfish ambition and conceit? Here’s how, and he concludes the verse with it: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” This command pierces our hearts, doesn’t it? This runs so counter to everything in our culture, where self-promotion seems to be the key to success, and ambition and conceit the normal fare. Instead, let’s pull up stakes and move our heart and our life to Humility. John Stott wrote, “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.”
Finally, humility means that you “Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” If our whole life is a series of selfies, interrupted by the occasional detour into serving people at a food pantry or sending a check to a missionary, then we have missed the point, haven’t we? I was in Wal-Mart with my wife recently, and my goal in that store (and any other store) is simple: get in, get it, get out. I had that look on my face, I guess, and Cindy said, “You know, if you look around at the people, it changes your perspective. I see people in here who are hurting, and it causes me to pray for them as we pass by.” Ouch. Suddenly my goals for shopping at Wal-Mart changed, as I moved my heart to Humility for the rest of that trip.

Go to the beach or the mountains, sure! But by all means, move to Humility. Life is better there.