Monday, July 15, 2019

This Is a Great Summer Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 8, 2019

Let’s Go to Summer Camp

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

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

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

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

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

This was a summer camp experience to remember.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Let’s Elevate Principles Over Preferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2019

He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2019

It’s a Slow Fade When You Give Yourself Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

When you give yourself away.

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 3, 2019

Today I Have Married My Best Friend

They say that marriage as an institution is in trouble. Every time I hear something like that, I have to laugh. That’s like saying, “Gravity is in trouble.” Any day now the reason you won’t be able to find your car keys is not going to be because you don’t remember where you dropped them. It will be because they didn’t stay there. They floated off. Last time I checked, gravity was working just fine with no end in sight to its consistent power to keep our feet firmly planted on the earth.

Marriage is in trouble? That’s like saying that the ocean, as we know it, is in trouble and will disappear any day now. There goes that beach trip you had planned. Hey, look on the bright side. You will never again hear the soundtrack to “Jaws” start playing in your head as you stick your big toe in the water because, uh, the water won’t be there. No more fear of undertow. No more ocean? Hey, that’s like losing your hair: less hair to comb but more face to wash. Less water to swim in (none, actually) but miles and miles and miles of shells to explore.

Some of the same people who gleefully report that marriage as we know it is coming to a grinding halt also claim the church as an institution is dying. Yep, they gloat, fewer and fewer find a need for church in their lives. It will soon disappear with a whimper and we can be done with it. People can feel good about believing in themselves without the confusion about whether there is anything “out there.”

It is precisely because there IS Someone out there that I do not fear either the end of marriage, or the law of gravity, the church, the sun, moon or the stars. He is God. The same one who created the heavens and the earth ordained that a man would leave his father and his mother and be united with his wife and the two would become one flesh. Marriage was God’s idea and he hasn’t changed his mind about it. In this life there will always be marriage that follows God’s design: one man and one woman, for life.

Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” It is the same with the church. That was God’s idea and in fact Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The church, as God defined it in the Bible and as Jesus is building it on the earth, is here to stay, until the very end. Gravity isn’t going anywhere either, just in case you are wondering. You can test that one every day, if you like.

The wedding invitations sometimes say, “Today I am marrying my best friend.” I married my best friend 37 years ago this Wednesday. The world has changed a lot since then, but several things are still the same. The ocean is still crashing on the shore. The church is still alive and strong. Gravity is still working: I fell hard for Cindy then and I am falling in love with her more and more every day. Cindy is still my best friend and we are more committed to loving each other to the very end than we ever dreamed of in our twenties.

Marriage in trouble? Not in my house.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Are You an Owner or Ambassador?

Cindy and I had the chance to get away for a few days of R&R last week, and we loved every minute of it. Besides running together a few times, eating breakfast out twice, soaking up some sun and walking on the beach, we also read. A lot. One of the books I read is entitled, “Parenting,” by Paul Tripp. I have heard Paul speak at conferences before, and he is hilarious. And wise. I still laugh at the story he told about taking two bowls of ice cream up the steps for himself and his wife to enjoy. They had a bowl every night, and every night as he walked up the steps with the ice cream, Tripp said he weighed them in his hands to see which one had the most in it. He would give his wife the other one. He said, “I am taking a bowl of ice cream to the woman who has given birth to our children, who has loved me and put up with me our whole marriage, and I am making sure she gets the bowl with less ice cream in it?!”

Tripp writes and speaks a lot about grace, and how critical it is for marriage and for raising children.

Very early in his book on parenting, Tripp asks the question, “Do you see yourself as an owner or an ambassador?” We know an ambassador has only the authority that has been given to him by another, and that his job is to represent the desires of the one who does have authority. The Bible speaks of Christians as “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

Whether we parents see ourselves as owners or ambassadors is reflected in our identity. Owners find their identity in their children, and live vicariously through their children’s success. Ambassadors find their identity in God. How we see ourselves is also reflected in the work we do as parents. Owners see their job as turning their children into something. Raising children is hard work, and it does require the parents to take a hands-on approach that will include love and instruction and discipline. But when we see ourselves as ambassadors, we can rest in the fact that we represent someone much wiser and greater. He is the one who does the important work of changing the hearts of our children.

This is also reflected in how we define success as parents. Owners define it as athletic success, academic performance, musical proficiency, or even social likeability. They put pressure on their children to be the best, because their identity, their ‘success’ as parents is integrally tied to their children’s performance. Does this mean we don’t want our children to succeed, and to be the best they can be? Of course not, and every parent who sees himself as an ambassador for Christ wants his children to exceed him or her. But we want that for the child’s sake, and for God’s glory, not for our own.

Finally, this is reflected in how we see our reputation as parents. Owners turn their children into trophies. You can’t have a five-minute conversation with an ‘owner parent’ without hearing about little Johnny’s MVP trophy and Susie’s full-ride to Princeton. Ambassador parents understand the humbling messiness of what they are called to do. They understand that children are God’s trophies.

Tripp writes, “Effective parenting is only possible by God’s grace. His grace is what changes us and changes how we parent. It is what will change our children.”

You know, I often have the thought, though all my children are grown, “I can’t do this! I cannot be a good father for my children!” And I am reminded that no one can, and that each of us is called by God to do the impossible. Tripp writes, “When you’re willing to confess that you’re the biggest problem in your parenting, you are on the road to very good things in you and in your work with your kids.”
That’s me, Lord. Problem-parent number one. Thank you for your grace.

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.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Lay Hold of God’s Willingness in Prayer

Do you make arguments in prayer? Not arguments based on strife or selfishness, but humble appeals built on sound, biblical reasoning? As I read Psalm 143, that’s something I learn from David. He did not just make his requests known in prayer, he also put arguments behind them. He appealed first to the righteousness of God, and really, that’s all we can ever appeal to. We make God laugh if we pray on the basis of our own goodness or because, well, “I really deserve this, Lord!” Imagine the thief on the cross who said, “Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom” instead saying, “Hey, Jesus! I am not as bad as that other guy on the cross over there. So, help me out here, OK?” Or remember the tax collector who was so broken he couldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven but prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus told this parable to show that the prayer of a self-righteous man didn’t even make it past the ceiling, but the God-exalting prayer of the humble publican sent floods of God’s mercy upon him and sent him home justified. The thief and publican did what we must do: flee from God’s justice by fleeing to His righteousness.

Second, David tells God about how bad things are. There is nothing spiritual about denial. There is nothing appealing to God about our pretending with him or anyone else that everything is “fine” when in fact we are almost overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with sickness or busyness. Conflict or financial nightmares. Marriage fights or addictions. There are three choices when we get here. We can take the stiff-upper-lip approach and tell no one. We shrivel up. We can take the whiner approach and tell everyone, twice. We throw up. Or we can take the biblical approach and tell God first and often. We grow up.

Finally, David appeals to God by reminding him of their relationship and God’s promises. I remember the story about the man who was in a big hurry to get his wife and his baby into the car, and as they pulled onto the interstate and got up to speed, he and his wife heard an awful scraping noise on the hood and then in horror, they saw the baby carrier, with their child strapped in, come sliding down the back windshield and hit the pavement on the interstate. An 18-wheeler was behind them, but he saw the whole event happening in enough time to slam on his brakes and come to a stop just before his tires would have crushed the baby. The baby was perfectly fine. The father and mother? You can imagine. They may still be in counseling.
Now, if we could rewind to the moment the father laid his baby on the roof, and the baby could make an argument at that time, here’s what he might have said: “Dad, I am absolutely helpless here. You are my only hope right now. If you forget to put me in the car and I die on the highway in a few minutes, what will that say about you and your character and your commitment to do whatever it takes to protect your son? Dad, I need you to help me. Will you protect me?” What father, hearing that from his son, would turn a deaf ear? How much less will God do that when his children cry out to him?

Make humble arguments in prayer. As Luther said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance but laying hold of His willingness.”

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Church Ignores This at Its Peril

What if a church leader is guilty of persistent sin? He should be “rebuked in the presence of all.” The Bible is as clear on this point as the church is confused on it. Sin happens in every church, large or small. The question is not whether it happens, but how the church should respond when it does, especially when persistent sin is found in the life of a leader. How many times have you heard about a church where the pastor, youth pastor, worship leader, or one of the elders has been discovered in an ongoing pattern of adultery or another sin that disqualifies him from leadership, and he has simply been quietly dismissed? Or worse, he has been given a stern “talking-to” by the other leaders in private; meanwhile, he remains in his position with no public rebuke, no discipline whatsoever. Whatever sin a church ignores, especially in its leaders, it welcomes into the body. A large church in California chose not to discipline sexual sin with a pastor and his secretary, but rather kept it quiet. The next year, seventeen marriages of senior leadership people in the church ended. Why is public discipline necessary? Paul says it clearly in 1 Timothy: “that the rest also may fear.”

I remember being fascinated by a guy in the 7th grade named Steve. Even at thirteen, he was a wild child, living on the edge. We were walking down the hall one day, when Steve suddenly stopped, pointed to the ceiling tiles and said, “It would be so easy to put a bomb up there, under one of those tiles.” I looked at him with surprise, thinking he was just kidding around. I laughed, nervously, unsure what to say, but Steve was lost in his thoughts. Just days later, during a whole-school assembly, the principal called Steve down front. He then told the student body that Steve was trouble and warned us to avoid him. Apparently Steve’s bomb talk had been voiced to other students and had made its way back to the principal’s office. I don’t know why the principal handled the situation with public censure, and I am not suggesting it was the right way. Today he would probably be fired. The end result, for me at least, was mortal fear. I stayed away from Steve from then on, and was very careful about my behavior for the rest of the year. The last thing I wanted was to be called to the front of the gym during an assembly.

That is the point of the instructions Paul gives to the New Testament church. If discipline of a sinning church leader is done properly, the result will be a healthy and glorifying fear of God. Why, then, has the church lost its courage to discipline her leaders? Al Mohler writes, “The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.”

What can result when churches lose their courage? John Leadley Dagg wrote in the 1850’s, “It has been remarked that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”

What if the church does have courage and the sinning leader repents? Then restoration is made possible, at least to the fellowship as a member, if not as a leader.

A healthy church has courage to exercise church discipline, especially with its leadership. We ignore this at our own peril.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Finding Hope in Unimaginable Suffering

There may not be a greater pain than the loss of a newborn baby, just one hour old. That is the pain we suffered as a church family last week, and the weeping continues. Where can we find hope at such a time as this? The same place that Mary and Martha found hope, after their brother Lazarus had died.

Read the story in John’s gospel, chapter 11. Three important truths emerge that are helping us deal with our pain.

First, in the midst of intense grief, it is the human response to ask why, and to seek someone to blame. You will see that both Martha and Mary said the same thing to Jesus when he arrived outside of Bethany: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We must be very careful with the “what if” questions at a time of grief. Again, they are the human tendency. We want answers when something like this happens. We want to know what went wrong, and ultimately, we want to know who is at fault.

The sisters in Bethany got it right: Jesus was responsible for Lazarus’ death. If he had been there when Lazarus was sick, he could have healed him. Without question. The Jews got it right when they said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Again, without question, he could. In fact, when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, he could have healed him from right where he was; Jesus did not have to be physically present to heal. That was true of Jesus then, and it is true of Jesus now.

We do not know why this precious baby died. But we know that no one is to blame. It was the sovereign will of a good and holy God. That’s what drives us to the next truth.

Second, in the midst of intense grief, it is the spiritual response to seek the Lord, because he loves us.

Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus when their brother was sick. And they went to meet Jesus after their brother had died. They loved Jesus, but more importantly, they knew Jesus loved them. That’s why they couldn’t understand why it happened. We struggle in the same way, asking why the Lord would do such a thing, when we know that the Lord is good and that he loves us. We know the Lord loves the parents of this little boy who died. We know the Lord loves his church that suffers along with them. That is why the human response is to ask why, or to reject God, when the spiritual response must be to run to him. Mary and Martha did what we must do. When we are tempted to doubt God’s love for us, we go to him.

In this story we see that Jesus was deeply moved by the grief of the family and friends of Lazarus, and he wept. Why did Jesus weep? It was not because he didn’t know what to do, or because he had let them down by not coming. Or because the whole thing had gone wrong and he never intended for all of this to happen. No! To believe any of that is to doubt the absolute loving sovereignty of our God. He wept because he loved them. That is why we have wept, and still weep. The brokenness of this church this week, the weeping we have done together, is because we love this family; they are part of us, the family of God.

Finally, we hold onto one towering truth. Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” He is the resurrection and the life for babies, for they are not at the age where they can trust him. He is the resurrection and life for the rest of us who do trust him alone for our salvation. That is the foundation for our faith, and it is why we gather every week to sing and pray and preach and give and serve. It is why we hold onto one another during times of grief, and it is why we can rejoice even in the midst of unimaginable suffering.

In Jesus we have hope for resurrection, and that hope will not disappoint.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Loving Accountability is Not ‘Micromanagement’

I really like John Rosemond’s column in the Times-News, and generally I agree with him. Every now and then, though, I just have to take issue with his advice. The question from concerned parents several years ago was what to do about their 17-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. The letter said the daughter is an honor student, and is not a risk-taker, “except with boys.” She and her current boyfriend are chafing under her parents’ rule that they cannot be alone together, and she has been caught texting her boyfriend about “sneaking out in cars to be alone.”

Mr. Rosemond started his response by saying, “Your question, however brief, absolutely drips with evidence that the two of you are guilty of world-class micromanagement.” He then went on to define “micromanagement” and its effects, “deceit, disloyalty, conflict and communication problems.” Rosemond said that these young people are engaging in three of the four of those effects and the final one, disloyalty, will surely follow if the parents continue in their destructive behavior of micromanagement.

Mr. Rosemond seemed to ignore the towering clue in the parents’ question, that their daughter tends to be a risk-taker with boys. They know their daughter; Mr. Rosemond does not. He casts that aside and seems to imply that the parents are incompetent because they want to maintain standards of behavior with their daughter for her own protection. Mr. Rosemond admits that young children need tight reins on their behavior, and I agree that as our children grow, those reins need to be loosened, in direct proportion to the wisdom and responsibility our children display. Rosemond even agrees that “some teens, because they have demonstrated a serious inability to make good decisions, may need to be micromanaged.” But then he goes on to say, “the very teen who needs it is not going to submit to it. A teen who does not need it is not going to submit to it, either. Therefore, micromanagement does not work with teens. Period.”

Wow. I know Mark Twain quipped, “When a child turns 12 you should put him in a barrel, nail the lid down and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug the hole.” That view of parenting teens would be on one end of the scale. Mr. Rosemond’s counsel sounds dangerously close to the other extreme, where one might suggest, “Teenagers are going to do what they want to do, no matter what we tell them and no matter how we have trained them. So, let’s take our hands off, let them go, and pray for the best.” I would suggest there is a healthy middle ground between an authoritarian and a laissez-faire style of parenting. I would call it “loving accountability.”

Every teen needs adults, particularly parents, who will hold him accountable, raise the standards, help him grow up “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Every adult needs that as well. I meet with two men weekly, early in the morning before work, and the meeting has one purpose: loving accountability. We ask each other questions like, “Have you led your family consistently in devotions this week?” “Have you been with a woman this week in a way that could be viewed as compromising?” “Have you viewed any sexually explicit material?” “Are you praying with and for your wife regularly?”

Are we men “micromanaging” each other? No, we are acknowledging before God that left to ourselves we cannot be trusted, that our hearts are deceptive, that we desperately need men who will help us with “loving accountability.”

Loving accountability. Even a 17-year-old honor student needs that from her parents.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Do Not Be Ashamed of the Gospel

In his second letter to the young pastor, Paul says to Timothy in so many words, “Do not be ashamed of Jesus’ name. Or of his people. Especially those who are persecuted because of their boldness to proclaim the very truth that you are also to proclaim!” There has always been a temptation to avoid association with Christ if it means we may be persecuted. How many of the disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested? All of them. How many believers stood with Paul in Rome when he was put on trial for his life? Not one. We may have a hard time understanding the context of severe persecution because people in the U.S. are not arrested for preaching the gospel and talking about Jesus. Not yet.

We all rejoiced over the release of Pastor Brunson in Turkey a few months ago. He was imprisoned for two years on charges of terrorism. Brunson had been in Turkey since the mid-1990s to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. I praise God that there was an international outcry over his imprisonment. We also rejoiced over the release of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran several years ago. He was imprisoned for three years, labeled an “apostate,” waiting to die for preaching the name of Jesus. Again, there was an international outcry. Iran released him in 2012, and Christians everywhere gave thanks that his trial was ended. But not for long. Iranian police arrested Pastor Youcef again last year, and brutally beat him in his own home and in front of his terrified family. As before, Youcef was arrested for preaching the name of Jesus, and he remains in prison today.

There are Christians all over the world who understand what it means when Paul says, “do not be ashamed of me, His prisoner.” Michael Ramsden, who works with Ravi Zacharias, speaks about Christ in closed countries every year. Ramsden often says, “There is no such thing as a closed country if you are willing to die for the gospel.” Several years ago Ramsden was invited to speak on Christianity in a country hostile to the gospel. The Christian organizers of the event prayed that there would be an opportunity to present the gospel, not just an academic lecture on the tenets of Christianity. While Ramsden was speaking, a young religious leader was standing in the back with his arms crossed, searing a hole into Michael with his eyes. At the end of the lecture this young man raised his hand and said, “There is something that no teacher or scholar in my religion has been able to answer for me. I want to know why you Christians think that Jesus had to die on the cross.”

Michael was ecstatic about the question. It was an answer to the prayer of the organizers. But he was nervous, too. Because he knew that to answer that question, he would have to say that their entire religion is wrong on a fundamental level about who Jesus is and what He did on the cross. As Michael Ramsden was about to answer, his host grabbed his arm and said, “Michael, answer very carefully. It is one thing to die for sharing the gospel. It is another thing to die for sharing it poorly.”

Perhaps some raw honesty is needed here. The vast majority of Christians in this country tend to be embarrassed when they see someone preaching on the sidewalk. Sometimes we are embarrassed, I know, because the person is misrepresenting the good news; they are sharing it poorly. Sometimes we are embarrassed to see someone witnessing to strangers or handing out tracts in the park. Or even bowing their heads at a restaurant to pray before a meal. We are tempted to flee persecution of any kind, even if it means we compromise the truth of the gospel through our shame.

Do not be ashamed of speaking in the name of Jesus, and proclaiming the truth and life that only he can give. Without the gospel, there are no answers.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Missing the Sign is Costly

I know what you’re thinking; there are lots of ways I could go with this column. Missing the “bridge out” sign can ruin your whole day. Missing the sign that your wife wants you to stop thinking about yourself and just listen to her can make for a quiet evening. Missing the sign that says “no shoes, no service” can leave you hungry. And since it’s baseball season, let me toss this one out there as well. Missing the sign your catcher gave you can lead to a passed ball, and a run scored.

I missed a sign, and it cost me a few hours and more than $200. It happened one Saturday in December, when my wife and I were traveling to a southern city in the Old North State to meet relatives for brunch. Cindy had errands to run when we returned and so did I, so we decided to leave a car in Graham and pick it up when we got back into town. I thought of a place right off the interstate where a restaurant used to be years ago, and told her we could leave my car there and drive hers.

We went to the brunch, had a great time, drove back to Graham all fat and happy, only to find that my car was gone. I had noticed when I left it that morning that it was the only car on the lot, but that didn’t register with me that maybe there was a reason for that.

When we discovered it missing, our first thought was that it had been stolen — until I walked out to the street and saw a small sign on a pole, informing all who bothered to read it that parking in this lot is not permitted, and all violators will be towed. Good grief. In all my years, I had never had my car towed, unless it was broken down on the side of the road. I called the number on the sign; the man who answered owns the wrecking company and had personally hooked my car to his truck and hauled it to his fenced-in lot. I noticed he was a bit short with me on the phone — a tad guarded you might say. Of course, I was short with him when he told me the amount of cash I had to give him to ransom my vehicle from bondage. “There’s the fee I charge to pick up the vehicle, and there’s a fee I charge to store it,” he told me, explaining why I had to get two Benjamins and change out of the ATM.

We drove to the wrecking company and waited for him to arrive. While we were waiting, I alternated between thinking about what could have been done with the money I was about to hand over, and fuming about his so-called “storage fee.” I figured the car couldn’t have been in his lot more than a few hours. So when he arrived and was stepping out of his truck, I said to him, “Hi, I’m the one who called you, and what do you charge for storage?” He faced me, having stepped down from the cab, and said, “How much is your life worth?” Well, that question led made me to pause and reflect, but only for a second.

I said, “Well, my life must be worth plenty. Jesus paid for it on the cross.” He then explained that he was a Christian, too, but that there had been numerous occasions when he was hooking up a car at that same lot and the owner approached him ready to fight, sometimes with a weapon. “The people who park there are going into the hotel behind it to get drugs, or something else.” Pause and reflect. I said, “OK, but I was going to eat bacon and eggs with my wife’s father and stepmother!”

The end of the story was laughter, and I met a brother in Christ. I also learned the lesson again that I need to pay attention to the signs. The ones on the road are important, but so are the ones on the faces of the people I love.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Church Membership Matters

A supply preacher for a small town Texas church came in early on Sundays, preached a sermon to the congregation, and then left after lunch. One Sunday he arrived earlier than usual, so he sat down at a local donut shop, opened his Bible and went over his sermon notes. A man sitting down the counter said, “You a preacher or something?” “Yes,” he replied, “I preach at the Christian Church here in town.” The man got excited and said, “Hey, I’m a member of that church.” The church was small and the supply preacher knew all the regulars so he said, “I’ve been preaching there for about three months and I’ve never seen you there.” The other fella gave the preacher a strange look and answered, “I said I was a member of that church. I never said I was fanatical about it!”

Ok, so here’s the question. Would you feel like your hands were fanatics if you woke up every day and they were still attached? How about your feet? Would you think your liver was over-the -edge “too committed” if it stayed in place and did its job, day in and day out? How about your eyeballs?

If you answered no to all of those questions, then you are still in your right mind. It has not left you. So, get this. The church is compared to the human body in the Bible. Paul uses a metaphor to compare each individual member of the church to an individual body part: an eye, a foot, an ear, a hand, even a head. (Which gives us assurance that he is speaking in this chapter, 1 Corinthians 12, about the local church body, not the universal church, for which there is one head: Jesus.) The church is also compared to a flock of sheep. That’s why Peter wrote to the elders of the church and said, “Shepherd the flock which is among you.” No shepherd goes out and just finds random sheep and feeds them, or worse, takes them home as his own. That could get a man arrested. No, the shepherd knows the sheep that belong to him, and they know him as well.

Here’s the point, three of them in fact. One, we need to be connected to one another in the church just like the feet need to be connected to the body. Connected feet stay healthy; disconnected feet die. The body needs the feet, also, to do its work effectively. The body cannot do all that it is designed to do when one of its members is not able to carry its weight, so to speak. In the same way, the church needs its members to be there, be committed, and do what they have been uniquely gifted by God to do, for the sake of the gospel.

Point number two, the body is in this together, for good or for bad. The Bible says, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” Don’t believe it? Smash your thumb with a hammer this afternoon, you know, just as a biblical experiment. See if the whole body doesn’t suffer along with it. See if the whole body doesn’t stay awake half the night with the thumb. It is the same with the church. When one member is suffering, either because of willful and unrepentant sin, or because of trials and tragedy, the whole body is affected. That’s when the body also does some of its most important work, to heal the offending or the suffering member. That’s where point three comes in.

The members of the body care for one another. Just like your right hand acts in kindness toward your left foot by removing a splinter. The local church cares for its own. The church also reaches out to those who are not connected and invites them to meet Jesus, and to join the local body.

Church membership matters. You don’t have to be fanatical about it. But you do need to get connected.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Is That All You’ve Got?

My favorite place at the Myrtle Beach marathon several years ago was the pre-race expo, and especially the bumper stickers that were for sale. One said, “If you find me on the road, please drag me across the finish line.” Or, “If you can read this, I’m not in last place!” Or, “This IS my race pace.” The next morning, I saw people holding some of the same signs, and many others. Some were signs of encouragement for the 6,000 runners who passed by. Some people were just trying to be funny, and they were. Like the guy just a half a mile into the race whose sign read, “One. Lousy. Parade.” Then there was the lady holding up a sign about 10 miles in that said, “My husband knows a shortcut.” Or the one that said, “The Kenyans finished an hour ago.” Some were meant to be funny, but just were not. When I was in the most pain of the race, around mile 24, I passed a guy standing on the side of the road whose sign read, “Is that all you’ve got?” The most encouraging sign I read said, “I am exactly .3 miles from the finish line.” That was a sight for sore legs. The only sign that was better than that was the one I ran under that said, “Finish.”

Paul holds up a sign in his first letter for Timothy, who was a sometimes fragile, sometimes discouraged young pastor, that says, “But you, O man of God.” Man of God! “Timothy,” Paul seems to say, “Remember who you are. You are a man of God.” I wish we could know somehow what effect that had on Timothy. Did he break into a huge grin when he read that? Or did he break down and weep in relief and thanksgiving?

More importantly, would the testimony of God and his word be the same for you? What is your identity? Are you a man or woman of God? Would you be able to say with confidence that you are one of his “peculiar people,” as Peter refers to believers? If you are born again, having been purchased by the peculiar and unique manner of the blood of the Savior on a cross, you are a man of God or a woman of God, no matter your age. You have been made to “stand” because of what Jesus Christ did, not because of anything you have done or ever will do. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

How are we able to stand? By grace. How do we get grace? Through faith. But where does faith come from? Through our Lord Jesus Christ. What is the result of this grace applied to our lives? We have peace with God. How? We have been justified (declared just and righteous, because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us). What can we do as a result? Rejoice in hope of the glory of God!

This is why Christians around the world celebrate the risen Savior every day. Jesus Christ hung on a cross for six hours one Friday, was dead and buried from 3 p.m. Friday until sometime before dawn on Sunday, and then he rose from the dead. He appeared to Peter, to the other disciples, and to more than five hundred at once.

Do you know Him? If you do, then you know what many in the world can only dream about. You know who you are. If that is “all you’ve got,” as the sign declared to my weary soul on a Myrtle Beach street, then that is plenty. It means that you are standing with the One who conquered sin, death, and the grave. There’s no better finish line in all the world.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Attitudes to Avoid, Actions to Adopt

“Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.” Kent Hughes explains Cotton Mather’s quote by saying that when a person comes to Christ by faith and is born again, his life is turned upside down. Old bad habits are replaced with new good habits of faith and love and hard work and gratitude. He becomes a better worker and manager of resources as he lives out the Scriptures, which results, often, in economic prosperity. The tragedy is, in many cases, “new prosperity and material wealth devour the same Christianity that gave them birth — especially in the second and third generations.”

This is why Paul in Scripture gives a stern warning to all who are “rich in this present age.” By the way, if you are tempted to stop reading because you don’t think you are rich, consider this. The average household income in Alamance County is around $43,000 per year. That income is in the top 1.72% worldwide, which means we are richer than more than 98 percent of the world. What should we do about it? According to Paul there are attitudes to avoid and actions to adopt.

Avoid being arrogant. It just goes with the territory that those who have look down on those who don’t have. If you live in a house, you look down on those who live in a trailer. If you live in a trailer on your own land, you look down on those who live in an apartment! And so it goes. But we are commanded in Scripture to put away arrogance and a haughty spirit. After all, “what do we have that we did not receive?”

Avoid trusting in uncertain riches. The more we have, the more we have to fight against finding our security, and even our sense of self-worth, in our possessions. This deadly downward spiral never ends well and can only be corrected through repentance and acknowledging God as the owner of everything, including the very breath in our lungs. He alone is worthy of our trust.

The actions to adopt begin with this simple command: “do good, be rich in good works.” I knew a dear lady who is with the Lord now, but she used her income and her nice home to show hospitality to people she knew who did not know Christ. She would invite several couples over for dinner and a conversation about things of faith. I know a couple here in town who own several properties that they invite people going through difficult trials to live in for a while, as they teach them to manage their money and their lives in a way that is healthy and productive. You know people like that as well. Are you one of those people who lives on less so that you can help others who have legitimate needs?

Paul then says to us we should be “ready to give, willing to share.” It is sad that though Americans have the largest incomes in the world, we also saddle ourselves with the most debt. As Dave Ramsey says with a smile, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like!” Why not put yourself in a position where you are ready to give by getting out of debt as quickly as possible, while at the same time beginning to give to the work of your church, to global missions, and to local needs?

Don’t get devoured by your own prosperity. I believe that those who learn to give will one day be met in heaven by the beneficiaries of their giving. That is worth the sacrifice.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Humility Changes Everything

A man that looked like he could play defensive end for the Panthers approached me after a meeting two weeks ago in Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova. One of the things I had taught that evening (with my son, Caleb) was how important it is for a man to pray with and for his wife, out loud, often. Even daily. We talked about the privilege and the responsibility a husband has to love his wife, and that includes praying for her. I told a story of how God had humbled me years ago, when Cindy was going through a trial. I knew that it was not enough for me just to pray “in my head” or in private, for her. She needed to actually hear me praying for her more often. She needed me, and God wanted me, to speak Scripture over her as I cried out to God for her. It was humbling and at the same time, it was one of the best days of our marriage when I decided to obey the Lord in this.

I told the men that night that I know most Christian husbands do not pray out loud for their wives. Some are afraid they might say the wrong thing. Some are embarrassed to be that vulnerable. Some are too busy. Some just refuse to do it. We reasoned with the men from Scripture about the position we have in the marriage. If we are to be like Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, and is always interceding for his bride, the church, shouldn’t we enter into this ministry as well?

This man looked down at me and said, “How can I humble myself? I am too proud to pray for my wife out loud.” He was asking how to humble himself while he was in fact humbling himself! I saw in this man two ways that we walk out humility. First, when we voluntarily confess sin, we are humbling ourselves. It is one thing to “be humbled” when your sin is exposed by someone else. It is quite another to own it, confess it, and turn away from it. Second, when we ask for help, we are humbling ourselves. The man said, “Help me.” He was a man who had heard truth from God’s Word that had produced personal knowledge of the Lord that he had not had before. He was broken over his disobedience and he wanted to do the right thing. Now, true humility was proved out that night if he went home and humbled himself before his wife by asking if he could pray with and for her. Only the Lord and that couple know whether that happened. I believe it did, and that their marriage is stronger now than before.

Contrast that example with another listener who approached me after a seminar in the city of Orhei. This woman, a mother and a grandmother, told me through our translator, that she vehemently disagreed with me about training and disciplining children. I reasoned with her from Scripture for several minutes, and got nowhere. Another man who was standing there observing all of this said to me, “There’s no way she will listen to you. She doesn’t listen to anybody.” That would be indictment enough. But after I was pulled away to talk to someone else, this woman continued to bend the ear of the translator. He also pointed her to the Bible. She finally said, as she turned and walked away, “I don’t care what the Bible says.”

It is the same in Moldova as in America as in every place on earth. Those who humble themselves before the truth of God’s Word come to a greater place of joy and freedom than they have ever known. Those who walk away from the truth continue stumbling through the darkness.

Humility changes everything.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Looking For a Less Busy Heart

Let’s say you are looking at the checkbook and there is more month left than money. Been there? You have two weeks to go until your next paycheck, no money, and three bills that have to be paid. What do you do? If you are like most, you start to panic. You immediately go from “heart at rest” to heart palpitations. You start to panic. Then you complain to yourself. “Why is this happening? What am I going to do?” That doesn’t satisfy you at all, so you take the typical next step: you complain to someone else. You get on the phone and ask someone to commiserate with you. Let’s be honest. What you are really doing is asking your friend to enter into unrest with you. Let’s shuck it down even further. You are asking your friend (whom you love?) to enter into unbelief with you.

Everybody who has been there, say “Amen.” In fact, if you have been in this place, stuck between a rock and a hard place without a pickaxe, that’s good. Recognize that God puts us there to teach us that He alone is sufficient to meet our needs. That doesn’t mean we can throw money away or live the life of a king on a pauper’s salary. That’s just foolishness that brings its own punishment. But let’s say you are living within your means and the unexpected happens. Suddenly your means are not enough. As the saying goes, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” This is a great place to trust the Lord.

That’s what the psalmist decided to do as he spoke this word to himself: “Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you!” What a wonderful verse to memorize, to speak to yourself during difficult days, and most of all, to believe. Instead of the panicked phone call to a friend, speak to your soul and to God. Charles Spurgeon said, “Whenever a child of God even for a moment loses his peace of mind, he should be concerned to find it again, not by seeking it in the world or in his own experience, but in the Lord alone. When the believer prays, and the Lord inclines His ear, the road to the old rest is before him; let him not be slow to follow it.”

Has the Lord dealt bountifully with you? Oh, yes. No matter your circumstances at the moment, the fact that there is breath in your lungs is a gift from God. The fact that you can see to read this column is a gift from God. And if God has brought you to knowledge of the faith and you have trusted Christ alone for your salvation, you are indeed blessed. We can all pray without hypocrisy, “Lord, let my soul return to its rest,” no matter the trouble we may be facing.

One final point. Don’t confuse this request with a desire for life to be easy, or stress-free. Let me ask you something. Was Jesus busy? Oh, yes, from before sunup to after sundown, the Lord was working. Was Jesus’ soul always at rest? Oh, yes. In his book, “A Praying Life,” Paul Miller writes, “The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed focus on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.”

Yes, Lord. That’s what I need.