Tuesday, May 21, 2019

No Frontier is Tamed Without Discipline

Cindy and I were blessed to watch our youngest son, Judah, walk across the stage at Liberty University last Saturday and receive his diploma. His discipline and hard work paid off, and it reminded me of something I wrote about Judah years ago...

When our son Judah was 3, he liked to pretend he was Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. He would dress up in his buckskins, don his coonskin cap, take ’Ol Betsy and his powder horn, and head off into the backyard to trap and shoot wild animals. Since we lived in downtown Graham at the time and our backyard consisted of a little bit of grass, a small garden, a swing-set and a few trees, Judah had to use his imagination. The wildest animal we ever encountered in our yard was a family of possums who decided to take up residence under our back deck. So, Judah mainly shot at invisible mountain lions and imaginary bears.

That was hard work, though, and after a while, a frontiersman out in the wild works up a powerful appetite, so Judah Crockett would come in for supper. The problem was, the grub was not always what a pioneer like Judah was expecting.

“Broccoli? Davy Crockett doesn’t eat broccoli!” Judah said when he spied the unholy vegetable on his plate.

“He does if he wants to hunt mountain lions,” his mother replied. “Broccoli gives pioneers energy and strength, and besides, you have to eat it. If you don’t, you will have it for breakfast in the morning. And I don’t think Davy Crockett ever ate broccoli for breakfast. Yuck!”

Judah Crockett was caught on the horns of a dilemma. “Do I eat the broccoli now, so I can hunt lions and bears in the morning after a good breakfast of eggs or cereal?” He pondered that option. “Or do I refuse to eat it and hope that Mom will forget about it by tomorrow?”

Judah refused the broccoli, and was told that it would be saved for him until breakfast. He slept fitfully that night, dreaming that he was Davy Crockett and he was being attacked by a giant broccoli tree that kept trying to eat him up. But when he woke up, the sun was shining, the lions and bears were out there, waiting to be trapped or shot, and Judah hit the floor with a smile, excited about life on the frontier. When he got to the chow hall, drawn by the smell of bacon, he saw the rest of the family sitting down to a scrumptious breakfast, and then the dream he had all night became a nightmare. His plate was there, and all that was on it was last night’s broccoli.

“Where’s my breakfast?” Judah asked, knowing the answer but hoping maybe that this was all a cruel joke.

“Right there,” his mother replied. I added, “Judah, you were told last night what the deal was. If you want to be able to go outside and play this morning, you are going to have to eat your broccoli.”

Judah slumped in his seat, his chin on his chest, his hands hanging at his sides, defeated on the outside but stubborn as the wildcats he hunted on the inside. “I won’t do it,” he thought. “I will not eat my broccoli. Yuck!”

The lions and the bears had the run of our backyard that day because Judah Crockett’s will remained strong — or, was it weak? He finally gave in, and he was reminded of two valuable lessons. First, he was the child, we were the parents, and he would have to obey. Period. Second, he was beginning to learn that “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” We are proud of Judah and the fruit of righteousness we see in him, and thankful to God who loves our son more than we can imagine.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Often the Unplanned is the Most Memorable

I remember, not too many years ago, a weekend camping trip I shared with my five sons that was meticulously planned. Well, let me qualify that. It was about as planned as it could be by my standards. My motto is, “If I get there and I don’t have it, well, that’s what Wal-Mart is for.” My wife’s motto is, “If I am leaving the house and I have forgotten something, then the four checklists, 6 spreadsheets and 4 days of planning that would rival the preparation for D-Day were not enough.” I am kidding about Cindy, but some of you men will recognize this statement as you are backing out of the garage to go on vacation or even just to church: “I just feel like I have forgotten something.” She often looks at me as she says it, and I will say, “Of course you feel that way, darling. But you never do forget anything. And if you did, well, that’s what Wal-Mart is for.”

This weekend trip was just me and my sons, and we were headed for the mountains to camp, cook over the open fire, laugh a lot, and talk about our lives. The campsite was a little over 2 hours away from home, and about 15 miles from our destination the transmission started to give up the ghost. That’s what I forgot to bring, I thought. A spare transmission! All the rental car places were closed, so we limped back toward Burlington, thinking that if the tranny was going to die completely, the closer to home we were, the better.
Four hours later, we arrived at a lake lot owned by a family in the church, just 20 miles from home, and tried to pick the lock to the Dutch barn on their property, with their permission, of course. That’s another thing our spreadsheet failed to include: a lock-pick. We gave up after an hour and decided to pitch our tent in the dark. I wasn’t worried about sleeping; my friend Mark had loaned us their tent and a queen size air mattress. I realized as we were setting up camp that I forgot a pump. The prospect of two hours of blowing up the mattress left me feeling breathless, and there wasn’t a Wal-Mart in sight, so I slept on the queen-size sheets.

We built a fire, ate s’mores, and talked about college, relationships, jobs, and future plans. The next day we had planned to drive north a few miles to play disc golf. That plan was changed when we realized the transmission had not been healed as we slept, so we started toward home. A 20-mile trip took an hour and included some scenes worthy of a sit-com episode as Micah drove while the rest of us jumped out and pushed the van up hills, then made a mad dash to jump back into the moving vehicle. Don’t try this at home or even in Caswell County.

We traded the van in for two worthier vehicles back at the house and still got in three hours of disc golf. Judah said later, “That was the best day of my life.”

This camping trip will go down in the Foxian chronicles and be told for generations. It was not at all what we planned but it was everything we needed, and a powerful reminder that “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” We can trust Him for a camping trip, for a college career, for a marriage decision, and for every other step we take.

It’s often the unplanned that makes the best memories. Still, next time we’re taking Micah’s car.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Are You Seeing Wondrous Things?

David wrote, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Wondrous things? In the Bible? Let’s be honest. Most of the world and a great number in the church do not believe the Bible is anything special. That’s why it sits on their shelves. They have no idea of the riches that are found in here, the wondrous things to behold. You never hear a Super Bowl MVP after the big game say, “Now I want to see the wondrous things in God’s Word!” No, he says, “I’m going to Disney World.”

I have been to Disney World a few times. I honestly don’t remember much about it except for long lines, irritable people (like me), and unbearable heat. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, and don’t think I have anything against the place. I don’t. But not one thing happened at Disney World that was life-changing. However, on many occasions I have heard a word preached or seen a passage in the Bible that changed my life.

As a senior at Carolina I woke up one day thinking, “I’ve got to find a wife!” Seriously, that’s about as deep as the thought process went. I asked someone to marry me not long after that, bought her a ring, she bought a wedding dress, and in five months we would be married. While home one weekend, I went to church with my family. The teacher of the college and career class said, “You need to know who your master is, what your mission is, and who your mate is, in that order.” That’s what I remember, but I am sure he anchored it in the Word, maybe something like, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Then the teacher said, “If you don’t know for sure who your master is, you can’t possibly know what your mission is. And if you don’t know your master and your mission, the biggest mistake of your life is to try to choose a mate. You are courting disaster.”

You know what God did that day? He opened my eyes to see wondrous things in his Word. I had a moment with God in that church classroom that was just as important to me at that time in my life as the Mount of Transfiguration was to Peter, James and John. They saw Jesus, glorified. So did I. They went down the mountain different men because of what they had seen and heard. So did I. I made that drive from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill that afternoon scared to death of what I had to go and do. But I also went back rejoicing because I had seen the Word and met with Jesus, and he changed my direction and my life!

Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law. That last phrase is crucial. The wondrous things are found in the Bible. Notice that David did not ask for new revelation. Or for a miracle or a visitation. He asked to see what God had already written. That means two things. First, we cannot see God’s Word with understanding unless he opens our eyes. Second, we have to look at God’s Word to see it. Asking God to teach you his Word and never reading and studying his Word is like asking someone to hold you accountable for an area in your life and then refusing to answer the phone whenever that person calls. A simple point, but one often ignored, even in the church.

Are you seeing wondrous things in God’s Word?

Monday, April 29, 2019

Normal is Highly Overrated

The sunrise service a few years ago was long over and it was almost time for the regular service to start. One of the little boys in the church asked me, “Isn’t it about time for the normal people to come?” I laughed as I considered a host of responses to him. There’s the comedienne’s book title that comes to mind: “Normal is just a setting on your dryer.” I thought about saying in response, “Do I not look normal to you?” But the possibility that I might get an unfiltered response deterred me. I finally just laughed and said, “Yes, I think the normal ones will be showing up soon.” He smiled and went to look for them.

This encounter made me think about what it means to be “normal.” The simple dictionary definition is “conforming to the standard or the common type.” A normal softball for play in the church leagues must conform to a standard compression. I get that. Those who have jurisdiction over the sport have chosen that standard. They can change it if they wish. The normal speed limit on the interstate between here and Wilmington is 70mph. I get that. Those who have authority over the traffic laws of North Carolina have set that speed limit. They can change those laws as they so desire. A normal temperature for a healthy human being is 98.6. I get that, too. That temperature was chosen by our Creator, and things really get messed up when it changes drastically in either direction.

A normal response to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to the dictionary definition of “normal,” is yawning indifference. The normal people did not show up at church last Sunday, nor will they this Sunday, precisely because they are normal. They have conformed to the standard. Even many who went to church last Sunday did so, by their own admission, because they wanted to see the fashion parade, or because they knew there would be more music, or because they figured the church would be decorated, or because it’s tradition, or because it’s the least they can do and maintain their “Christian” status, or because they feel guilty. They are part of the holly and lily crowd who goes to church every Christmas and every Easter without fail.

A normal attitude toward the Bible is that it contains some good stories and even some important truths, but at the end of the day it is just a book, written by men, according to most. “Read it every day?” the normal people ask. “The only thing I read every day is Twitter and email.”

A normal attitude toward Christianity itself is that it is one way among many, and that any who would suggest otherwise are narrow-minded bigots who would impose their “standard of morality” upon the rest of the world. A missionary in Turkey was explaining the truth of the resurrection of Christ. He said, “I am traveling, and have reached a place where the road branches off in two ways; I look for a guide, and find two men: one dead, and the other alive. Which of the two must I ask for direction, the dead or the living?” “Oh, the living,” cried the people. “Then,” said the missionary, “why send me to Mohammed, who is dead, instead of to Christ, who is alive!”

The other “abnormal” people did show up last Sunday. Together, we worshiped the One who calls us to be anything but normal, the one who rose from the dead to conquer sin, death, and the grave.

Normal is highly overrated.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Hardest Thing of All

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

This verse, Romans 8:32, is an argument from the greater to the lesser. From the harder to the easier. Let’s suppose I asked one of my sons to come over and pressure wash my house, and he agreed. After six hours, and he is finished, if I asked him to also take the trash out, he wouldn’t hesitate. He had done a much harder thing, so he would certainly do the easier.

God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. That’s the hard thing. The greater thing. The greatest and hardest work ever done in all the universe. To understand this work, this sacrifice, we have to give human terms to it. I know that nothing is impossible with God, but that doesn’t mean that not sparing his own Son was easy. No! It was infinitely hard for an infinite God to sacrifice his only Son. He did so because of his desire to satisfy his wrath against your sin and mine, so that you and I could be saved and forever in his presence, happy and holy and without sin. And since there is absolutely nothing you or I can do to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin, he had to do it for us.

The agony of Christ on the cross was only matched by the agony of the Father who had to watch as his son suffered and died for sin. To watch him being spit on and mocked and beaten. To watch the Roman soldiers driving nails into his hands and feet. To watch this only Son thirst and struggle to breathe and suffer and die.

He did not spare his own Son. He delivered him up for us all. Therefore, what do we know is true? What is God calling us to lean into and stand on and believe with every cell in our body? Because God did the hardest thing, he will do the easier thing, which Paul introduces with a question.

How will he not also, with Christ, graciously give us all things? Paul asks the question, perhaps because he knows this is almost too good and too glorious to be true. But Paul knew, and we must know, that it is too TRUE to be anything but good and glorious! What is the promise? God will give us ALL things with Christ. This is not a promise of material prosperity or perfect health. So, what does this mean for you and for me?

Since God didn’t spare his own Son, the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Since God didn’t spare his own Son, he will work all things together for eternal good in his people. Since God didn’t spare his own Son, we are and will be justified. Since God didn’t spare his own Son, we will be glorified. Since God didn’t spare his own Son, there is therefore now no condemnation for his people. Since God didn’t spare his own Son, we have peace with God through Jesus.

Because God has done the greatest thing of all, removing the sin and shame and judgment that stood against me and you, there is nothing that stands between God and his people now. There is no greater work to be done by God. It has all been done. “It is finished!” Jesus cried from the cross. And it was. It is.

God is for us. Do you believe that? God gave up his Son for us. Do you believe that? God will give us, with Christ, all things. Do you believe that?

Monday, April 15, 2019

This is Better Than Disney World

I took each of my seven children with me to Africa, at least once. I took one to Ghana, five to Kenya, and one to South Africa. This process began in 2002 and my youngest traveled with me (and my wife!) to Africa in 2015. I have been able to take my two oldest sons, both married, with me to Moldova. And almost all of my family has been with me to Colombia, South America. The first time Cindy was able to accompany me to Colombia was January 2011. We had the privilege for 10 days of taking most of our family to serve with Jorge and Karen in Bocachica, an island off the coast of Cartagena. Cindy said as we left for the airport that morning, “This is the first time in 25 years I haven’t had to say goodbye to you as you left the country.” The team of 20 from Antioch Community Church consisted of three sets of parents and at least two children from each family, as well as a father and his daughter, another father, and several young single adults. Each of the parents on the trip agreed: there is nothing like serving the Lord with your family in a cross-cultural context. One father said, “It’s better than a trip to Disney World.”

I can think of at least four reasons why a family mission trip is better than a trip to an amusement park. First, we go to serve, not to be served. I love Disney World, don’t get me wrong. But when I go there, I expect to be catered to and entertained. I am spending a small fortune, after all, so I expect to have a full day, or three, of nonstop pleasure. When I go to the mission field, I expect to sweat in the hot sun pouring concrete or digging latrines. I expect to have to take bucket showers. I expect to flush toilets with salt water. I expect to speak through a translator in church services and encounter language barriers with my very limited understanding of Spanish or Swahili or Romanian or Russian, and to overcome those barriers with smiles and hugs. I expect to serve.

Second, there is no better place to have your heart for the world expanded than the mission field in another culture. My children have all come back from mission trips with a world vision, not just a Burlington vision. Jesus said to his disciples in Samaria, “Lift up your eyes and see the fields, for they are already white for harvest.” A mission trip lifts the gaze.

Third, there is nothing like a trip to another culture to make you appreciate the blessing of your own. “I am ashamed of how much I take for granted” is a typical comment we hear from those who travel to another place where people typically exist on one or two dollars per day. Seeing that motivates you to live more simply and give more freely.

Fourth, serving on the mission field as a family increases our vision for serving God here as a family. Most of the teams that travel to the mission field from America’s churches are comprised of young people and one or two adult leaders. I know, because I see them in the airports with their colorful T-shirts that proclaim where they are going and why. Jorge said to me in 2011, “It is so helpful for our mission and the people we serve to see whole families coming here,” he said. “They watch your marriages and how you interact and work together as a family, and they are blessed by that.”

Oh, not half as much as we are blessed by it, Jorge. My family is involved in church and mission here in the United States in a way that has been informed and broadened by our exposure to church and mission in other cultures. I cannot begin to put a price tag on that blessing.

Here’s my challenge. Take that money you would have spent on yourselves at Disney or in the Bahamas, or on a cruise, and invest in the kingdom of God. Go on a family mission trip. It will change your life. It will change your family. It will be used by God to change others.