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.

Monday, July 3, 2017

You’re not in this alone

“I want to hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the sake of the gospel.” This encouragement from Paul is a great word picture of the church of Jesus Christ. We stand firm, and we stand together in one spirit. There are no people more unified than those who stand together in the Spirit of the living God. This is not external unity engendered by denominations or by ecumenical councils. No, it comes about by the Spirit of God. That’s why when we meet someone in another state or another country who is a brother or sister in Christ, we may wonder how we can feel such kinship with him so quickly: it is because the Spirit of God has made us one.

Notice also that we are to fight together, “striving side by side,” for the gospel. Remember that old game called Red Rover? Do kids still play that, or has it gone the way of dodge ball, because it’s too rough, and kids are too fragile? Anyway, in this game there are two groups of people, opposite one another, standing in a line with linked arms. One side calls out to the other, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Billy on over!” Billy runs as fast as he can and tries to break through the other side, hitting with all his might between two people he thinks might offer the weakest link. If he can’t break through, he becomes part of that team. If he can break through, he gets to take one of the people he broke through back to his team. This is a picture of the battle we are in, saints. We will have opponents our whole lives who will run at us with all their might, headstrong in their opinions that run counter to the truth of Scripture. We have to stand firm and catch them with the truth; we cannot give in or give over. That’s our job, to know what we believe, and Whom, and to stand firm. God’s job is to open the hearts of those who try to “break through” our faith, should He so choose, so they might believe the good news of the gospel. We can’t open their hearts, but we must be assured in our own.

They stand best who stand together. This is why the local church is so important. We stand side-by-side, arms linked in the faith, standing firm in one spirit on the truth, helping each other stand up and prevail. The picture in Scripture, again, is of a group, not a single individual. You can’t be side-by-side by yourself. We don’t run or ride this race alone. This was illustrated in the Tour of Italy race in May by the actions of a Slovenian cyclist, Luka Pibernik. During stage five of the race, Pibernik was riding alone, 50 meters ahead of the main pack when he approached what he thought was the finish line. It actually was the finish line, but Pibernik had miscounted; he had another lap to go to finish the stage. As he approached the line, he raised his hands in victory and coasted. As the pack of riders thundered past, Pibernik realized his error, but it was too late. His efforts to catch the pack and finish well did not succeed. Instead of first, he finished 148th. What would have happened if this man had been riding with one of his teammates?

Don’t walk alone. Find others with whom you are already united by the Spirit of God, and walk with them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

To live is Christ; to die is gain


Paul stated a colossal truth when he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Most Christians who have been around the Bible for even a short time have heard it or seen it.

I remember as a teenager, when God got hold of me and several other young people at the church I grew up in, this verse took on a whole new meaning for me. Up until then I would say, “For to me, to live is sports. Or fun. Or girls. Or loud music. Or anything that annoys my parents.” But then God opened my heart to who Jesus is, and gave me what I had longed for and didn’t even realize it: a reason to live.

The joy I had in knowing what I was here for also gave me a desire to help my friends find their purpose in living for Christ. Five teens from our church started a Monday night visitation program. We would ask our friends at school on Monday if we could come to their house that night and tell them what had happened to us.

Mostly they said yes, and we would show up with a few guitars, greet these kids and their shocked parents, then sit down in the living room and start singing songs like, “Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation,” by Larry Norman. The chorus goes, “Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation, And let your laughter fill the air, Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation, Tell all the people everywhere. Sing that sweet song of salvation, to every man and every nation, sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation, And let the people know that Jesus cares.”

What can I say? It was the ’70s. The lyrics weren’t deep, but the message certainly was. We wanted our friends to know that Jesus cares, and that Jesus saves, and that the reason we live is Jesus, and our greatest joy is found in Him.

Paul surrounded the colossal truth in Philippians 1 that “life is Christ” with three other powerful truths. See if you can find the other two, but one truth is this: “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” He could say that because he knew that his body was not his own: he had been bought with a price.

Listen, dear readers. If we would honor Christ in our bodies, it has to start with this understanding: This body is not mine. I am not my own.

What are some things we tend to do if we think that we own our bodies? We eat too much, or not enough. Or we eat poorly. We sleep too much, or not enough. We exercise too little, or not at all. Or “too much?” Yes, that’s possible. Anything can become an idol if we think our body belongs to us.

If we believe we own our bodies, then we can put anything we want in front of our eyes, and we can let anything we want come out of our mouths. Sex with anyone at any time becomes an unquestioned right if we think we own our bodies. Sex is separated from marriage and from producing children, if we think we own our bodies. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

Jesus changes our minds about our bodies for our good and our great joy. “My body, my choice,” is blown away by the knowledge that Jesus made the choice to pay for your body and mine, with his blood.

That’s worth singing about.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Put the gospel first


Do you know what happened after Jim Elliott and four other missionaries were speared to death in Ecuador in 1956? Thousands of young people were emboldened to take the Gospel to the mission field. The suffering and the sacrifice of Christians around the world today should give us courage to put the Gospel first. It’s worth it!

Suppose you had told Elisabeth Elliot when she first met Jim in college that she would one day be a widow with a 10-month-old baby girl, and that she would go with her daughter to the tribe that killed her husband. She would struggle and suffer there, but God would lead that tribe to faith in Jesus. She would have another husband who would leave her a widow. She would become an author and have a radio broadcast and speak at conferences and thousands would come to know Jesus or love Him better because of her. She may have said to that, “I can go through those trials for that kind of fruit.” But Elisabeth Elliot didn’t know any of that when she married Jim, or when Jim was killed trying to take the Gospel to the Waodani people.

When we are in the middle of a trial, we don’t see the fruit that will come. But our job is to trust, to be joyful, and to remain faithful. Because this is the truth: God will give others confidence to trust Him more in their suffering when they see you trusting Him in yours. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, he wrote to the Philippian church, had emboldened his fellow Christians, “to speak the word without fear.”

Francis Chan tells the story about a fellow pastor who was driving down the road and saw a driver in front of him accidentally swerve and hit a man on a bicycle in the bike lane beside him. The man on the bike was OK, but furious. He ran over to the car and opened the man’s door and started beating him! What would you do if you saw this, Chan asked, especially if the man he was beating was 75 years old? The pastor in the car behind him didn’t know what to do, but finally he jumped out and tried to pull the man off the old guy. The cyclist turned and started beating him, instead. The pastor asked himself, do I fight back? He did. He hit the cyclist and knocked him out cold.

The police showed up and asked the pastor what had happened. Pointing to the unconscious cyclist, the policeman asked, “How many times did you hit him?” The pastor said, “Honestly, just once.” “That’s what all the witnesses said, too,” the policeman replied.

When Chan told this story at church, everybody applauded. Then he said, “How many of you would have gotten out of the car to stop the assault, even if the man were bigger than you?” Most nodded or raised their hands. He said, “OK, so you would have the courage to intervene, to save this poor old man.” Then he said, “How many of you would go share the gospel with a 75-year-old man who is sitting alone in a restaurant, if you knew he was not a Christian?” No one nodded or raised his hand. Chan asked, “Why is it easier to be courageous in physical matters and not in spiritual matters? Could it be (because) speaking the Gospel is warfare?”

Hey, I dare you. Ask God to give you courage today to put the gospel first. Then get ready to speak when He opens an opportunity the same day. He will.

Monday, June 12, 2017

See what really matters


There’s a great story in Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Nora Ephron, the late screenwriter known best for her works that included the movies “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally,” said that what helped her the most in learning to capture the essence of a story was her high school journalism class. Charlie O. Simms started the first day of class explaining the concept of a “lead” for an article, that it covers the who, what, when, where, and why of the piece. Then he gave his students the facts of a story and asked them to come up with the lead. “Kenneth L. Peters, the principle of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”

The students clacked away on their manual typewriters, trying to get all the information from the teacher. Then they pounded out leads in the next few minutes and handed them in. Each student tried his best to summarize the information for their lead. One wrote, “Margaret Meade, Maynard Hutchins, and Governor Brown will address the faculty on…” Another wrote, “Next Thursday, the high school faculty will…” Simms read each of the leads and said that they were all wrong. He said, “The lead to the story is, ‘There will be no school Thursday.’”

“In that instant, Ephron recalls, “I realized journalism was not just about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point. It wasn’t enough to know the who, what, when, and where; you had to understand what it meant. And why it matters.” She added, “He taught me something that works just as well in life as it does in journalism.”

Now there is some news you can use, some truth you can hold up to the light.  More important, there’s truth you can hold up to your life. Let’s face it: we can spend the rest of our days mastering the who, what, when and where of every detail of our lives, and never get to the why. McKeown uses the example from the Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crash of December 29, 1972, to illustrate. Over one hundred passengers were killed even though the investigators found that when the plane crashed it was in perfect working condition. What happened? “The Lockheed jet had been preparing to land when first officer Albert Stockstill noticed the landing gear indicator, a tiny green light that signals the nose gear is locked down, hadn’t lit up. Yet the nose gear was locked; the problem was the indicator light. While the officers hyper-focused on the gear indicator, however, they failed to notice that the autopilot had been deactivated until it was too late. In other words, the nose gear didn’t cause the disaster. The crew’s losing sight of the bigger problem - the altitude of the plane – did.”

When the women came to the tomb on that early Sunday morning many years ago, they clearly saw the who, what, when and where. Jesus was not there. The stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty.

What’s the lead to that story, and indeed, to ours as well? “He is risen, as he said.” No knowledge in the universe is more powerful. No reason for your existence and mine is more satisfying. Jesus Christ is Lord, just as He said.

Why hammer away through the rest of your life trying to write any other ‘lead’?

Monday, June 5, 2017

There is a way to avoid being deceived

Imagine this. A shyster comes through your neighborhood and talks an elderly widow into a new roof, collects $15,000 from her, blows town with her money, and she ends up with no new roof or a shoddy job. What are two things he needs to accomplish his deed? His guile and her gullibility. Imagine this. You read an email from a stranger who is supposedly in Nigeria and has 2 million dollars he wants to give you. All he needs is your bank account information, and he will make the deposit. What two things does he need to accomplish this deed? His guile and your gullibility. He plays on your greed, your desire to take shortcuts.

Paul wrote “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” It is clear from Scripture that “human cunning” works best on children, and on gullible and immature believers who have not grown up on the milk and the meat of God’s Word. Every heresy that has ever been foisted upon the church depends on the ignorance and gullibility of immature believers to be successful. If the man on TV is telling you to put your hands on the TV set and receive a blessing, what does he depend on for you to do that? Ignorance and gullibility. How do I know that the man telling you to put your hands on the TV set does not have your best interests at heart? Because in the next breath, he is asking you to put your hands on your checkbook or your wallet. He is telling you that in order to really get a blessing from God, you need to give him some money. Why are these guys still on television, saying the same things they said 40 years ago? Because it works!

The last phrase Paul used, “craftiness in deceitful scheming,” reminds me of an animal stalking its prey. We have a dog and a cat at the Fox den. And I have never seen our dog stalk anything. Maybe his food bowl as he “lies in wait” for it to be filled up. The cat is a different story. I love to watch her try and catch a bird. The only way an earth-bound cat can catch a healthy bird is with deceitful scheming, with infinite patience, and with a 48-inch vertical leap.

If you don’t believe there are traps being set for you on a daily basis, then you believe denial is just a big ol’ river in Egypt. How many credit card applications did you get in the mail last week? How many creditors sent you checks, made out to you, for large amounts? All you have to do is sign the check and cash it, and you are set! Bass boat, here I come. Trip to the Bahamas, I am there. New 65-inch OLED television, come to Papa! What the creditors do not tell you is that you will end up paying more than double on what they just “gave” you.

The best way to shyster-proof yourself and your family is to follow the principles in the Bible. I am not saying that because I am a preacher. I am saying that because it is the truth. Read the Bible. Get involved in a good church that really believes the Bible and teaches it.

And just send a smiley face back to the “Nigerian” crook who has two million he would like to give you.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Being joyful starts with gratitude

Every time Paul prayed for the church in Philippi, he prayed with joy. Here’s a distinguishing characteristic of a Christian: We are the joyful ones. And gratitude plays a huge part in that. I am most joyful when I am most thankful. And I am most thankful and joyful when I live in the right relationship with Jesus and others. You have heard the acronym, kind of cheesy, but true: Joy is Jesus, Others, Yourself. We Christians have a counter-cultural view of joy, not because we are against pleasure and fulfillment. We simply have a different source. Tom Brady said after his third Super Bowl victory, “Is this all there is?” I don’t know what he said after his fifth. Our joy as Christians is in relationships: Jesus first, others second. But everybody has relationships, right? Is there another component to this that makes for the greatest joy? Glad you asked.

In Paul’s writing to the Philippian church about joy, he connected it to partnership in the Gospel. The greatest joy doesn’t come from just friends we have fun with and hang out with. Paul wasn’t filled with joy because of the cookouts he had enjoyed with the church at Philippi, though that was perhaps part of it. He was filled with joy because of the partnership in the Gospel he had with the church there. If you have no relationships with partners in the Gospel, then you don’t have the joy that Paul is talking about here. The greatest joy is found in walking together, side by side, in the fellowship of the Gospel, living and telling the good news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, knowing Him and making Him known to others. Why are so many not finding that joy? Tony Merida writes about four obstacles that can keep people from enjoying deep and enjoyable relationships as followers of Christ:

“Sensationalists don’t find Christian community scintillating enough to participate in it. However the Christian life isn’t about shock and awe, but acts of service and love (because of Christ). Mystics make the Christian life into a series of quiet times. They desire to live the ‘me and Jesus’ kind of Christianity without the church. But Christianity is ‘we and Jesus,’ not ‘me and Jesus.’ Idealists struggle in Christian community because they have, in the words of Bonhoeffer, a ‘wish dream’ of what the church ought to be, and it never lives up to their expectations. Individualists fall prey to culture that only enjoys community online. We have a culture of ‘busy loneliness’: people do a lot of stuff, but they remain extremely lonesome.”

I was thinking about the way I feel when I am on a mission trip. When I am with a team in Colombia or Kenya or South Africa, or anywhere else I have gone with people for the sake of the Gospel, there’s a camaraderie and joyfulness that we sometimes don’t feel in the normal day-to-day here. But maybe it’s simply because we don’t look around at the ways we can serve with one another for the sake of the Gospel here. I realized that I have that same feeling of purpose and joy when I go with one or two brothers to the Piedmont Rescue Mission. Or with a group to serve at Operation Christmas Child. Or when we men get together to study the Bible at a men’s breakfast. And every Sunday when we gather as a church family to worship the Lord who redeemed us.Looking for joy? Start with gratitude. Follow that up by looking for ways to partner with other believers in the fellowship of the Gospel.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Read Between Heaven and the Real World


Many of my readers will remember the tragic story of the death of Steven Curtis Chapman’s adopted daughter, Maria. She was killed in the driveway of their home in 2008 when she ran into the path of a car driven by her brother, Will Franklin. The final third of the book takes the reader through that gut-wrenching event, the grief that followed and continues to this day, and the story of how God brought Steven and his music of hope back to the stage. You will fall in love with this little girl adopted from China, and you will be in wonder over how it seems God prepared her for what was to come.

After a flash forward to Steven’s debut at Carnegie Hall, the story begins in the tiny town of Paducah, Kentucky, in the early 1960’s. Steven’s brother, Herbie, was born in 1960, and Steven Curtis came along two years later. The two boys were raised by a father who was as gifted in music as he was possessed by an uncontrollable temper. Both boys lived in fear of upsetting their father, and Steven recalls the time he was trying to help his dad restore an old Army jeep. His dad asked for a nine-sixteenth wrench, and Steven ran to the toolshed and searched for it until he had just the right part. But when he got back his dad said, “Just lay it down, I don’t need it anymore.” Steven’s face fell, and then his dad asked for a Phillips screwdriver. Again he raced to the toolshed to find one, only to be told when he returned that it wasn’t needed. Several years ago, Steven saw the Bruce Willis movie, “The Kid” (incidentally, my wife’s favorite movie), and there’s a scene where the young boy in the movie finds the missing screw his dad had been looking for in his pocket, and his dad got angry at him. Steven said he cried so uncontrollably during that scene that his oldest son, Caleb, reached over to pat him on the back and console him.

The family dynamic changed completely when Steven’s father, Herb Chapman, became a Christian. Instead of sending the boys off to church with their mother every week, now Herb was leading his family. The family started singing together at church, Herb was eventually asked to be the music minister, and the seed of a songwriter was beginning to develop in Steven’s heart. He is today the singer-songwriter who has won more awards in contemporary Christian music than anyone in the industry, including 5 Grammys and 58 Dove Awards. You will read about how God opened the door for Steven in a music career, and how this man of faith has used his enormous talent to promote the good news about Jesus. Since a mutual friend, Larry Warren, first introduced me to his music in the early 90’s, I have been a fan.

I had a hard time getting through the chapter about Maria’s death. The pain is as raw as it gets, and I felt the full gamut of emotions Steven and his family went through in their loss. It is hard. But it is also a story that, I believe, can bring help and healing to any of you who have lost a child. I have never walked that road, but I know many of you have. You will be able to identify with Steven and Mary Beth Chapman, and I trust, you will be helped by their story.

Read this book. You will be glad you did.

Monday, May 15, 2017

There’s nothing like a Mom


A cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post years ago showed a young boy of 5 or 6 years old talking on the phone, saying, “Mom is in the hospital, the twins and Rozie and Billie and Sally and the dog and me and Dad are all home alone.”

That was a time when Moms were still held in high esteem by most in our nation. Mom was the heart of the home, Dad was the head. Moms were the tender-hearted nurturers, Dads the fearless warriors. They made quite a team, Mom and Dad. They were incomplete without each other; his strengths were her weaknesses, her strengths were his weaknesses.  Dad was too harsh sometimes, Mom was too soft. Together they raised children in a safe place. Not a perfect place, mind you. But one that was secure.

There are millions of children in the country today who would give anything to be in a home like that. In his book, Love Must Be Tough, James Dobson tells the story of a sixth grade teacher in California who taught in an affluent area. She gave her students a writing assignment. They were to complete the sentence that began, “I wish…” She expected the boys and girls to wish for bicycles, dogs, laptops and trips to Hawaii. Instead, 20 of the 30 children made reference in their responses to their own disintegrating families. Here’s what some of them wrote:

“I wish my parents wouldn’t fight and my father would come back.”
“I wish my mother didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“I wish I could get straight A’s so my father would love me.”
“I wish I had one mom and dad so the kids wouldn’t make fun of me.”

I am so thankful for the Mom who lives in my house. I couldn’t imagine life without her. She truly is the heart of her household, and as the Proverb says, “The heart of her husband safely trusts her.” That’s why she deserves anything I and the kids give her tomorrow. No gift is too good for the Mom who lives and loves at our house.

I heard a story about a boy talking to a girl who lived next door. “I wonder what my Mother would like for mother’s day,” he said. The girl answered, “Well, you could decide to keep your room clean and orderly. You could go to bed as soon as she calls you. You could brush your teeth without having to be told. You could quit fighting with your brothers and sisters, especially at the dinner table.” The boy looked at her and said, “Naah, I mean something practical.”

Are Moms important? You can change the textbooks and expunge the records and re-write history. But you will never, ever, take Mom out of the hearts of her children. Or out of the very center of the home. Moms, what you are doing matters. Don’t give in or give up. I look at my seven grown children and now our five grandchildren who are all beneficiaries of loving moms, and I thank God for the fruit I see in their hearts and lives. Much of who they are as people is attributed to the love and attention they received from their moms.

Billy Graham wrote, “Only God Himself fully appreciates the influence of a Christian mother in the molding of character in her children.”

Amen, and Happy Mother’s Day!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Bring back the wanderer

Have you ever known someone who used to follow Jesus, but has wandered away? We all do. James finishes his letter with a strong plea for us to bring back the wanderer. Let’s be clear: the wanderer is not gone because the church has a cross or a steeple, or sings hymns, or doesn’t sing hymns. He wandered from the truth, not a particular set of doctrines or beliefs or practices, but as Douglas Moo says, from “all that is involved in the Gospel.” What’s the big deal? If he has wandered off, chances are he will wander back at some point, right? Not necessarily. This is so serious that James says to bring him back saves his soul from death. How does one wander from the truth?

Wandering from the truth is intentional. Often the one who wanders from convictions has already wandered from moral constraints. He wants to be free, he thinks, to live any way he feels is best for him.

Wandering from the truth is also gradual. You don’t go to Easter service and raise your voice with the saints to proclaim the risen Savior and then wake up the next morning and decide that the whole thing is a hoax. No, it is a gradual decline. That’s why it is vital for us to express our doubts and our questions to those in our circle of influence that are grounded and settled and mature in the faith. Don’t share your questions with skeptics or scoffers, for they will surely encourage you in your wandering, and take you one step further away from the truth. The godly friend, however, will welcome your questions and help you through your doubts.

James writes, “and someone brings him back.” Someone. The work of reclamation is not relegated to spiritual authorities. In fact, it is usually not the pastor or the elders who hear about someone going off the rails first. It is a close friend, a family member, a co-worker. And in fact, by the time the elders hear about it, sometimes the wanderer is so far down the road that apart from a miraculous intervention by God, he will not be brought back. So, if bringing back the wanderer is left to someone, and that’s you, what should you do?

I heard on the radio this week that the Department of Transportation in NC is reminding young people who are going to the prom this year not to take a selfie on railroad tracks. Seriously? Has it really come to this, that teens need to be told not to stand on railroad tracks in sight of an oncoming train and take pictures? But here’s the point. If you saw a young person standing on the tracks, and a train was coming, should you run to your house and call the church leaders? No! You yell at the teen, run towards him, flail your arms and act like a crazy person until he sees you and gets off the tracks. It’s not hard. If your friend has wandered away from the truth, do whatever it takes, as much as you are able, to bring him back. Because you love him.

The plain sense of this text tells me that if someone you love has wandered off, you first have to find him, and understand why he is there. What has he believed that has brought him to this place? Then, you have to risk rejection, or ridicule, or even attack if you are going to bring him back.

It will be worth it.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Learn to pray in your prayers

I remember hearing this phrase from the book of James a lot as a kid: “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I never really knew what that meant, especially effectual and availeth, but I know now that I witnessed it every week. My 80-year-old great-grandmother would go into her bedroom every morning, pull the door to, kneel beside her bed, and pray out loud to the Lord. I sometimes stood at the door and watched her with wonder. I knew it was fervent prayer, and that she was talking to someone she loved dearly. And I came to know that it availed much, and that God heard her prayers, because she was praying for sinners like me to come to know Jesus. What James means in a nutshell is that prayer is a powerful weapon in the hands of the most humble, simple servant of Christ.

Then James goes off the rails when he says that Elijah was just like us, and he prayed great prayers that God heard. What? James, have you forgotten who Elijah was? He was the premier prophet in the Old Testament! When Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration, who appeared with Him to represent the prophets? Elijah. When John the Baptist showed up on the scene to announce the coming of the Savior, he came in the spirit of Elijah, just as Malachi prophesied. Even when Jesus cried out to God on the cross, the crowd thought he was calling for Elijah. How could Elijah have been a man just like us? Well, read his story and you will see he had great triumphs and great failures. He really was an ordinary man whom God chose to use in extraordinary ways to accomplish His purposes.

Warren Wiersbe points out that when James says of Elijah, “he prayed fervently,” that could be translated as, “he prayed in his prayers.” Prayer wasn’t an exercise for Elijah; he really prayed. When we are just exercising prayer, we say all kinds of things. We make announcements in prayer. We correct other people’s theology in prayer. We say “just” a lot. I heard a story about a church member who was “praying around the world” in a meeting. One of the men there got tired of it and finally he said, “Ask Him something! That’s what prayer is. Ask Him something!” I know too well all of these “prayer exercises,” and it is far too easy to fall into that myself, instead of praying in my prayers.

Let’s learn to talk to God like He is really with us, because He is. There was a man in the last stages of cancer, and a good praying friend visited him often and prayed with him. The man with cancer finally asked him, “How did you learn to pray like that?” His friend said, “I know God is with me, and He loves me and hears my prayers. So, I often pull up a chair, right beside me. I pull it up close and just imagine Him sitting there, and I talk to my Father that way. Like a child who is lying in his father’s lap.” The friend heard a few days later that the man he had prayed for had died. And the nurse said, “Yeah, and one thing was kind of strange. Apparently, just before he died, he pulled the chair beside the bed up close, and we found him lying with his head on that chair.”

I want to learn to pray like that.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

ESV Bible Sale (and Jared nerds out just a bit)

Okay, everybody, you'd better act fast! The last time I posted about a Bible sale over at the Westminster Bookstore, they ran out within 48 hours! Right now you can get up to 70% off premium gift ESV Bibles while supplies last. This is perfect timing if you're looking for a sharp graduation gift for your grads at church. (Plus! Get up to 60% off all other ESV Compact Bibles at the bottom of this post.)

The Westminster Bookstore is a ministry of Westminster Theological Seminary and has been a wonderful partner of the CIC blog for many years now. But they are a particular standout among booksellers in another respect as well, if I may nerd out just a little:

(I know only a few of you will care about this but) Westminster Bookstore has, hands-down, the best packing and shipping process I've ever experienced. All of your books come shrink-wrapped to a sturdy cardboard plank that perfectly fits inside the shipping box. This not only ensures that your books aren't sliding around during transportation, but it literally feels like Christmas every time I get to open a box from Westminster. The presentation and care of your product is first-rate.

It's like opening the box to a new Apple product, but with books. Okay, nerd-rant over.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

It doesn’t get any better than this

It was the winter of 1998, and the four oldest Fox children had walked from our house in Graham over to the Pine Cemetery, pulling their sleds behind them. There’s a great hill in the cemetery that a lot of the kids in the neighborhood would sled on. They had been gone for about an hour when Jesse, then 4 years old, asked his Mom, “When are they going to come back from the grave?”

We celebrated the greatest news the world has ever heard last Sunday, the news that Jesus Christ came back from the grave. We continue to celebrate that news, every day. It is the foundation of what we believe, and a solid foundation it is, indeed. For centuries Christians have lived with hope in the midst of suffering, have read His Word and kept His commandments, have gathered with others who believe and given their lives to telling the story, and have even given up their lives to follow Him. But dear readers, we live in a world that is increasingly skeptical of the absolute truth of the gospel, a world that is willing to believe almost anything except that Jesus Christ is God and died for their sins and rose from the dead and is the only way to the Father.

I read a Barna Research poll last year that revealed fully one-third of those who claim to be born-again Christians do not believe that Jesus came back to physical life after He was crucified. What? That’s like saying, “I believe that Michael Jordan is a businessman, but he was never a basketball player.” Saying you believe in Jesus, but not in His physical resurrection is like saying you believe in Christmas but not in Jesus’ birth.

Some believe the resurrection of Jesus is no more (maybe less) than a fairy tale. I had a good friend in graduate school who went on to get his Ph.D. in English and teaches at UC-Davis. We had lots of discussions about God and Jesus and the Bible, most of which he just would not believe. When we had our first child, my friend, Steve, sent me a copy of Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes and wrote in the margin to Micah that his Dad should read these to him every day. Well, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, then we might as well read Mother Goose for devotions and memorize the rhymes and believe in Humpty Dumpty. Maybe, just maybe, the king’s horses and the king’s men will be able to put him back together again. That could be our only hope, without the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Take a look at Paul’s argument for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, beginning in verse 12. This passage is still being used in some law schools as a classic example of sound reasoning. Paul starts the chapter, however, by delineating four truths that are of first importance. 1. Christ died for our sins. 2. He was buried. No swoon theory where Jesus was later revived in a back alley somewhere and then somehow pulled off the greatest hoax in history. No, he was dead and buried. 3. He was raised on the third day. Without this truth, the first two are meaningless. 4. He appeared to many after His resurrection. Without this truth, the third truth is cast into shadow. His body is gone, but where is He?

Jesus Christ is risen, and has become the first fruits of those who die in Him. That means we who believe in Him will also be raised from the dead.

It really doesn’t get any better than that.