Monday, November 18, 2019

Make Your Soul Hungry by Feeding Your Soul

David said to God, “Early will I seek You.” That word can mean early in the day or it can mean early at a task. It can also mean ‘with earnest desire.’ Back in the day when there were children living in my house, if I called upstairs early in the morning with, “Hey, someone dropped off a gift for you during the night!” they would respond in a way that would satisfy both definitions of that word. My children would bound down the steps early and eagerly. The truth is, God says this every day to his people. He whispers into our souls, “Come into the family room with your Bible and listen to me as you read and see what treasures I have prepared for you.” Sadly, many just grunt, turn over on their sheets, and chase a fitful sleep again.

Not David. He said to God, “You are what my soul thirsts for and my flesh longs for.” Some of you men reading this will remember what it was like when you first fell in love with your wife. Your soul thirsted and your flesh longed. You could not wait to be with her, and every minute you were apart seemed like an eternity. We understand that when it comes to loving a person, but can we really learn to love God that way? Yes. In fact, it should be the normal state of the Christian, not the wild-eyed fanatical exception. Ok, you ask, how do I get there? Well, it starts with the obvious: you come to the Father only through the Son. You must have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. But Christians can dry up, too. How can we stay passionate for God?

David wrote, “So I have looked for you in the sanctuary.” David penned this Psalm in the wilderness, and to get his heart into worship mode, he remembered the times he’d enjoyed with his fellow believers in the sanctuary. Don’t get hung up on ‘sanctuary.’ A church can meet under a banyan tree, like some churches in Africa I have preached to, or in the most well-appointed auditorium. The point is not the edifice but the edification, the building up of the people of God, not the building. The aim is the glory given to God when his people come together in his name and hear his Word preached.

Why do we need to be together like this every Sunday? Because when we are in the wilderness, and sometimes we get there by the first coffee break on Monday morning, we need to be able to say, “O God, I remember what you spoke into my heart yesterday in the sermon; O God, I need to praise you now like I praised you in the sanctuary yesterday.” Why is our corporate worship so important? Because it is there every Sunday that we go hard after God as we look for him in the Word and we look at him in the songs and our hearts are trained to trust him and to praise him and to be satisfied in him alone. My dear readers who say, “I don’t need the church,” either do not know what the Bible plainly teaches on this or have rejected it altogether. If you do not long for these times together with the local church on Sundays, then I would exhort you with the authority of God’s Word that you are in danger of your soul drying up altogether. You may not be thirsty because you are beyond dehydration. You may not be hungry because you are beyond starvation. Those who stop eating eventually don’t want to eat and indeed, cannot eat.

Make your soul hungry by feeding your soul.

Monday, November 11, 2019

By Christianity, We See Everything Else

A few years ago, I encouraged some young people in a writing class to send letters to the editor, and gave them free range on topics. On the day they were all published, the editor included a note on the page indicating these were students in a class I taught. A week later, a woman wrote this to the Times-News: “Rev. Fox usually stays away from politics and writes about religion.”

There are at least three things wrong with that statement. The first bone I have to pick is with the title, “Rev. Fox.” I never use that title in correspondence. Most of the adults who know me call me Mark. A few call me Pastor Fox. Mrs. Johnson, the widow who used to live across the street when we were in Graham called me “Preacher Fox.” She would call often and ask me if I could come over and help her with something. One time she called because her TV wasn’t working, and when I got there she looked at me with sad old puppy dog eyes and said, “Preacher Fox, I can’t get my TV to come on, and you know I need to see my stories.” I told her not to worry and started trying to diagnose the problem as she walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “Mrs. Johnson, come in here and I will show you what I found,” I said, after looking behind the TV. As she walked in, I held up the cord which had been unplugged and left lying on the floor. “Here’s your problem,” I said, looking into her eyes and watching her try not to smile as she said, “Oh, is that what it was? My goodness! Well, come into the kitchen and set a while. I poured us a Coke.” The thought of that dear lady, who was not petite by any stretch, crawling under that TV to unplug it so that she could have some company that morning still makes me smile, and a little sad, too. Back to the point. Widows sometimes call me Preacher Fox. My mom calls me her sweet boy. My kids call me Dad. My grandchildren call me Grandad. Only those who write letters to the newspaper to take me to task call me Rev. Fox. I am always a pastor, though not always a good one, but I never want to be known as Rev. Fox.

The second problem I have with the letter is more serious. Despite the obvious point that I actually wrote none of the letters, the dear lady said I usually write about religion. I don’t. “Religion” refers to every system of belief about a “higher power” in which the adherents to that belief try to “bind themselves” to the god whom they believe will somehow be impressed by their good deeds. That definition would cover every known man-made system of religion, but not Christianity. I write about Jesus Christ who is equal with God, came to earth as a man, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, took our sins upon Himself on the cross, and rose from the dead so that we, who have done absolutely nothing to impress God and never could, would by grace and through faith cross over from darkness to light, from death to life, and will one day live in eternity with God the Father and Jesus the Son.

The third problem I see is the idea that we “reverends” need to stick to religion. C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity like I believe in the sun, not only because I see it, but by it, I see everything else.” This is precisely why the followers of Jesus need to speak and write and teach from a biblical worldview on every single subject under the sun. It doesn’t mean that we know more than anyone else.

But we know the One who does.

Monday, November 4, 2019

This Is Our Logical Faith

I have always loved Paul’s logical argument for the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I preached on it last week as we are working our way through 1 Corinthians. Was Jesus bodily raised from the dead? It is not an optional question you can choose to ignore. As Tim Keller says, the resurrection of Christ is “the hinge upon which the story of the world pivots.” Paul would agree, and he starts his argument with a question to the church then, and to the                                                                                                          world now: “How can some of                                                                                                      you say that there is no                                                                                                                resurrection of the dead?” 

We who believe in Christ accept the bodily resurrection of the dead without question. Most of the world then, and much of the world now, does not believe that physical resurrection is possible. When you’re dead, you’re dead, they say. One atheist explained it this way: He said, “Say I take Legos and build a car. I play with the car for a while, then I disassemble the car and use the same Legos to build a plane. Where did the car go? It ceased to exist. That is the end of our lives, as well.” If that is true, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Paul offers six conditional truths that follow, which can all be found in 1 Corinthians 15.

First, Christ has not been raised. It is simple logic, isn’t it? If resurrection is not possible, then it is not possible that Jesus was raised from the dead, and the whole thing is a hoax. The material of his body was simply disassembled by death and corruption. If that is true, that Christ has not been raised…

Second, preaching and faith are vain. Futile. Useless. What Paul preached in Corinth, and what we who believe in Christ preach is simply not worth believing.

Third, Paul and the other apostles lied about God. Every preacher since then who proclaims the risen Christ is a liar and is misrepresenting God and the truth about Jesus.

Fourth, your faith in Christ is worthless, and you are still in your sins. This takes the greatest news ever and makes it the worst news ever. My favorite Christmas carol would end in tragedy: “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace, Hail the Son of righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.” NO! No light, no life, no healing can come from the Son of God if he is not risen from the dead.

Fifth, those who have already died believing in Christ are lost forever. They have perished, despite the promise that Jesus made repeatedly, that those who believe in him will live again. That great promise he made to Nicodemus is also a lie: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” No! We will all perish, and life will be eternally lost.

Sixth, what we see is all there is, and we Christians are the most pathetic people on earth. If this life is all there is, we are the most deceived who follow Jesus. If this life is all there is, the disciples of Jesus Christ went to their brutal executions for nothing. If this life is all there is, 187,000 Christians are martyred every year…for no good reason.

Those are the conditional truths that logically follow the idea that there is no resurrection of the dead. Then Paul answers those conditional truths by blowing them all away with grounded truth: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to Peter, to the apostles, and to more than 500 people at one time, Paul wrote, most of whom are still alive. In other words, he told the people in Corinth that if they didn’t believe it, they should go talk to someone who saw Christ, who touched him, who ate with him, and who saw the nail scars in his hands.

Yes, the world is securely fastened to its hinge. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and he is Lord of all.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Your Words Can Change Lives

Sometimes on the last day of my Public Speaking class, we do impromptu speeches. When it is their turn to speak, each student will draw two topics out of an envelope. They select the one they want to speak about, and then they have two minutes to prepare a one-minute speech on the topic they chose. I also tell them that after they have all spoken, the class can choose any topic they want me to do (keep it clean! I say),                                                                                                                    and I will speak on it for one                                                                                                        minute, without preparation                                                                                                          and without notes. 

It is always a lot of fun, and I have been given some wild topics to speak on over the years. My favorite topic was in a class last spring, when they asked me to speak on the question, “Who is your favorite student?” This one surprised me, because I am usually asked to speak about, “Your most embarrassing moment,” or, “Your thoughts on safe sex,” or similar topics.

I said a quick prayer as I walked to the front, really not sure at all how I was going to handle this. I smiled and named the young man right in front of me as my “favorite,” and several students yelled, “I knew it!” I spoke for a few seconds about him, telling the class why this guy was the best.

Then I looked at the next student and said that she was my favorite student, and shared some things about why she comes out on top. When I looked at the student beside her and named him my favorite, the whole class burst into laughter. They realized that I was going to go through the whole class, and I watched them all settle into their seats with eager smiles, as they waited until it was their turn to be praised.

I had a blast doing that and got a round of applause and a few “thank-you” comments as they filed out. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that exercise any, until this week, when I got an email from one of the students who was there that day. She gave me permission to use her comments in this column.

She wrote, “I’m not sure if you knew this about me but I am [a leader] in the school of communication. With this position I had to go on a retreat this weekend to the Outer Banks with the rest of the [student government leaders]. On this retreat we had an awesome presentation on how to deal with biases and pre-judgments and we talked about how that has affected our lives. I said how since I’m a girl with blonde hair and my big/hyper personality, people tend to have this idea that I’m not as smart or shallow. We reflected on this and talked about the best affirmation you’ve ever received. I will never forget the last day of class where you looked at me and said, ‘You are so smart.’ That was the first time a teacher has ever said that to me. It clearly stuck with me for a long time and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

“I wanted to let you know how much that small compliment meant to me. I think sometimes people tend to forget how much their words have an impact on someone else positive or negative.”

My former student is right, and we all know it, don’t we? Our words are powerful, and can build up or tear down, and yet we are often much too careless about what we say and how we say it.

The Bible has much to say about our words, but a verse that says it clearly is this one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Lives are changed by grace, and grace-filled speech can bring healing and help. That is powerful truth, and news we can use.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Whatever Fills You Controls You

Once as a teenager I went on a double date with my cousin. Halfway through the date, I found out the girl I was with had an insanely jealous boyfriend named Marty. He was also big, she said. “And,” she added, “he has a nasty temper.” I figured that to be a deadly combination, so I filed that information away, reminding myself to avoid this boyfriend of hers at all costs. We were driving home later that night when all of a sudden my cousin said, “Uh-oh.” 

“What’s the problem?” I asked, thinking maybe we were running out of gas. “Don’t look now,” he said, “but Marty is right on our tail.” I looked anyway and saw a car about two inches from our bumper, and we were doing 60 miles an hour on the interstate.

Now, up until this point I had only done one thing I regretted, and that was to go out with this girl in the first place. But now I became a willing participant in a series of stupid mistakes. May I say to any teens who happen to be reading this: “Don’t try this at home ... or on the interstate.” My cousin floored the car, a 1972 Camaro Z-28, and we took off like a rocket. We were going over 90 with Marty right on our tail, and it is only by the grace of God, gentle readers, that I am here to tell the story.

We finally reached our exit, careened onto the ramp, and headed for my cousin’s house. Marty was only seconds behind us. My cousin realized we weren’t going to outrun him, so he said something like, “Good luck, Mark,” as we screamed into his driveway on two wheels. I was shaking with adrenalin and fear, and could hear the words “big ... nasty temper ... insanely jealous” reverberating in my skull. My legs felt like jelly, and my mouth was dry as dust.

About that time my cousin slammed on the brakes in his carport, and I managed to fall out of the car to face my attacker, who was leaping from his car as it slid to a stop in the driveway.

Now you have to realize that at this time in my life I had not yet had my growth spurt. In fact, I still haven’t had it, but I was a skinny 16-year-old then, only about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. As I recall it, Marty seemed to tower over me by at least a foot. But what I remember most of all was the purple rage that consumed him. He was so filled with wrath that he had no control of his body. He couldn’t swing his fists because his anger controlled them. He couldn’t speak, but sputtered and spat, because the anger had his tongue. As he stumbled toward me I bent over, and he pounded me on my back. The blows were nothing, dissipated by the rage that shook Marty like a ragdoll.

I saw something that day I will never forget. Whatever fills you controls you, whether it is wine, anger, lust or greed. That’s why the Bible says, “Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man do not go.” And, “Do not get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled with the Spirit.”

After the dust cleared and the rage subsided that day, Marty and I had a friendly exchange. He gave me my life back, and I gave him his girlfriend. Seemed like the right thing at the time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

What Can Be Worse Than Unbelief?

Imagine this scenario. A man has a teenager who, since he was a child, has been subject to violent seizures. His mouth foams and his teeth grind and his body bucks and lurches, raging with convulsion. The young man is deaf and unable to speak. He cannot talk to his father about the terror that he feels, never knowing when the next attack will occur. He cannot hear his father’s cries of anguish as he prays for his son. He can see his face, though, and the lines of worry have grown deeper on his father’s brow. His hair is gray and his shoulders are stooped and his hope is almost gone. The father has to watch his son every second because the attacks have happened frequently near fire or water and dragging his son from the flames or from the deep has taken its toll on both of them. The scars from the burns are testimonies to the torment a father and his son have endured together. How much longer?

You don’t have to imagine this scene. You can read about it in Mark 9. The story is true. The young man was not just under attack; the source was a demon. When his father heard that Jesus was passing through the region, he had hope for the first time, perhaps, in many years. He took his son to see Jesus, only to find that the Master and His three closest disciples were not there. The father turned to Jesus’ other disciples for help. They tried, but they failed. As the religious leaders of the day taunted the nine and argued with them, Jesus showed up on the scene. This is where the story really gets interesting.

As soon as the demon in the young man sees Jesus, he throws his host into a convulsion. The word in the text literally means the demon “tore him from side to side.” The young man fell on the ground at Jesus’ feet, his mouth foaming and his teeth grinding. Jesus asked the father how long this had been happening to his son, and the man replied, “From childhood.” The he said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus responds with the man’s own words: “If you can!” Then He added, “All things are possible for one who believes.” The man cried out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Now, you have to get this picture clear in your mind. This man’s son is possessed and has almost been destroyed many times by a demon. The father is desperate for his son’s deliverance. Jesus sees that. He sees the son writhing at His feet. In perhaps the most astonishing triage in history, Jesus decides that the immediate need is not the son but the father. The greatest evil was not in the boy but in the man. Even the father saw it.

Charles Spurgeon wrote, “It is very noticeable that the man did not say, ‘Lord I believe; help my child!’ Not at all. He perceives that his own unbelief is harder to overcome than the demon. And that to heal him of his spiritual disease was a more needful work than even to heal his child of the sad malady under which he labored.”

Jesus had compassion on the man as He spoke to his unbelief, and compassion on his son as He delivered him to wholeness.

What can be worse than unbelief? Not even a demon. The evil spirit may kill your body, but unbelief will do much worse.

Monday, October 7, 2019

We Are Not Called to the Bench

When I was 13 years old, and weighed about 95 pounds, I joined my junior high school football team. At one of the first practices where contact was involved, we got introduced to what the coach called “the meat grinder.”
The name fit. Two boys lined up facing each other, 10 yards apart. On either side were tackling dummies, laid end to end, to create a narrow channel within which the “meat” could be ground. One boy was designated the runner, and handed a football, the other designated the tackler, and was given jeers and whistles and other forms of encouragement by the rest of the team.

I was called into the meat grinder, and the coach gave me the ball. A 14-year-old named C.D. (who as I recall was already shaving, stood 6 feet tall and weighed in at 165 pounds) crouched on the other end, ready to                                                                              grind me into powder.

If this were a Disney movie, I would have bowled C.D. over, knocking him senseless, and the other boys would have carried me on their shoulders to the locker room, the coach running to catch us, anxious to talk to me about being their star running back that year. This was not a Disney movie.

C.D. hit me like a freight train, driving me back past the point where I had started running, and finished the job by landing with his full weight on my skinny frame. I lay there for a few minutes as the team snickered into their hands, and then I slowly raised my body from the dust, mentally checking to see if I still had all of my body parts. The only thing I can figure is, the coach was trying to get me to quit, but I was too stupid or too proud or both. I stayed on the team ... but not really.

You see, though our team went undefeated that year, I never saw one minute of playing time. It wasn’t because the coach didn’t try to get me in the game. We would be up by 45 points at halftime, usually, and in the second half the coach would start putting in the scrubs. Eventually he made his way to me.

“Fox, have you been in the game yet?” he would always ask.

“Yes sir!” I would always squeak, mortified that he would call my bluff and make me play. But the coach knew what was going on, and he didn’t push it.

I was a part of a championship team, but I never got in the game. I was on the sidelines the whole year, cheering on my teammates, thankful to be there, but praying I would not have to actually go on the field and face my opponents.

I am still part of a championship team, the undefeatable church of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” I think he knew something about being in the meat grinder. His response was never to retreat to the bench and the protection of the sideline. Paul, like his Savior, endured the trials, knowing that victory would come to those who put their trust in God.

I have been through a few “meat grinders” since that year in junior high. Not on the football field but in ministry, in marriage, and in the day to day challenges that can leave us all bruised and bewildered. But by God’s grace, I will never retreat to the bench again.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Know Your Spiritual Gift

It is possible that one of the greatest untapped resources on the planet is the wealth of spiritual gifts that have been given to followers of Jesus Christ. Many believers simply do not know what has been given, why it has been given, and how to use the gift. Peter answers those questions succinctly in one sentence: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies-in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

Let’s address the questions by looking at this text. Question 1. How many believers have a spiritual gift? Each one. Every single person who is born again has a spiritual gift. Paul said, “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” You cannot say something like, “Not me, man. I was looking the other way when God handed out the gifts.” Fact is, you had nothing to do with it.

Question 2. How does each believer get a spiritual gift? He or she receives it. It is a gift, not a wage or a tip or anything else earned. God gives it, which means God decides what he wants you to have. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”

Question 3. What is the purpose of the gift you and I have received? It is for the service of others, and for the glory of God.

People at a dinner party were puzzled when the host asked each one of them to hold out their arms at the table. The host then strapped two-foot-long planks onto each guest’s arms. A fork was attached to the end of each plank. The blessing was spoken, and the people were invited to begin eating. But there was no way to eat. They could not get the fork to their own mouths because of the planks. They were frustrated at first, but then one of them started laughing as she realized that though they could not feed themselves, they were each uniquely “gifted” to feed the person across the table. What they had been given was not for them but for others.

Question 4. How do I know what gift I have received? This is where we need to read the Bible, pray, and even experiment a little. The fact is, there are several different spiritual gifts; they are part of “God’s varied grace.” That’s one of the things that makes the church so exciting and so frustrating at the same time. It can be frustrating because everybody is not just like you and does not see things the way you see them. It is exciting for the very same reason. That’s why Paul said, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” Each gift is different and all of them are needed.

Some people attend a church service and all they can see is a need for more organization and leadership when it comes to meals for people, baby showers, work-days, and mission trips. Others come in and see a need for people to be taught the Bible. Others believe the church needs more resources so it can better impact the world with the Gospel. Others say, “I think I could help this church just by coming early and setting up chairs or sweeping the floor.” Each believer is uniquely gifted by God to help build and serve his church.

Are you using your spiritual gift to serve the body of Christ? It is never too late to start!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Don’t Stop Thinking About the Reason

As the story goes, a man was watching TV with his wife when the doorbell rang. He went to see who it was and found his friend on the doorstep. “What are you doing?” the friend asked. He said, “Watching a movie.” The friend said, “Oh, which one?” The man knit his brow and worked on that thought for a moment, then said, “What’s that flower called that smells good but has thorns?” His friend replied, “Rose?” “Yeah, that’s it.” The man then turned and called back into the house, “Hey Rose, what’s the name of that movie we’re watching?” Now there’s a man with a memory problem. His forgetter is working overtime.

It’s important to remember the names of our loved ones, and diseases that strip that ability away are cruel and unusual punishment. But what about those who forget the very reason for their existence simply because they are consumed with lesser things? Why would Paul write to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead”? Surely that is the last thing this young pastor would forget. Not so fast. You might argue that the banner over Israel in the Old Testament was, “They forgot God.” Moses said it this way near the end of his life: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” It is one of the reasons why I believe Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper. “Do this,” He said, “in remembrance of Me.” It is a regular reminder for the body of Christ that employs all of our five senses as we taste, smell, touch and see the elements, and as we hear the words that he spoke, “This is my body, broken for you...this is my blood, poured out for you.”

The Taj Mahal is perhaps the most beautiful structure in the world. It was built in the 1600′s by an Emperor for his favorite wife after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It took twenty thousand men more than twenty years to build this magnificent shrine. The sad irony is that by the time the building was completed, the favorite wife had been gone so long that most in the empire did not know her memory and had no idea why the Taj Mahal had been built. They marveled at the edifice, ignorant of the life it celebrated.

It can be true of a church, can’t it? We build magnificent structures and cathedrals that dazzle the eye. We spare no expense to have the finest architecture, the tallest steeple, the largest sanctuary, or the most ‘cutting-edge’ programs. Then we drift away from center. We forget the reason we started the church in the first place. The stained-glass windows tell the story of the Gospel that we long since quit preaching. “The gospel? It is just too exclusive,” we say. “We need a more tolerant message.” The church bells still play the old hymns through the week, songs that many would be embarrassed to sing on Sunday. Songs like, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right.” Or songs like, “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun does his successive journeys run; his kingdom spread from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.” Those songs speak of the power of a gospel that is able to save in every village, every hamlet, every tribe, every tongue, every nation. They joyfully proclaim a hope that is exclusive and extensive, a hope that is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. We may forget who is enshrined in the Taj Mahal, because she is long gone. Jesus is not. He is risen from the dead. The living Savior is the very reason for our existence.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Does Your Pastor Have the Blues?

The greatest struggle of the average pastor in America is with discouragement and sometimes flat-out depression. The source of his discouragement may be the stress of the ministry and the absence of elders who are walking with him in it. Or the feeling that he is not equipped to take care of a flock. Or that he or his wife or children are struggling with their own sins that they believe they have to keep hidden in order to maintain the facade of a “nearly perfect family.” Or the daily struggle of caring for the needs of a church, sometimes going months without hearing a word of encouragement or gratitude from those he is serving. Or the source of his struggle may be financial stress.

Alistair Begg gave a talk at a pastors’ conference years ago entitled, “Dealing With the Blues.” His subject was ministerial depression, and the auditorium was packed with discouraged pastors and elders. After the session, elders from one church asked to talk with Alistair in private. “Our problem is not with the pastor, but his wife,” they said. “She is deeply depressed, and we have tried everything, but nothing has helped. What should we do?” Pastor Begg said, “Increase you pastor’s annual salary by $5000.” The elders were shocked and had no response. Later one of the members of the church who heard about this conversation found Alistair and said, “You don’t know how right on target you were. Our pastor’s wife has never been able to buy new shoes for her children, and the elders wear it as a badge of honor that the pastor’s family has to scrape together pennies to make ends meet. They believe they are helping them trust God. They think they are helping the pastor never to become a lover of money by making sure he doesn’t have any money to love.”

I heard about another pastor who was thrilled when a couple of families in his country church started giving him milk and eggs every week. Until he found out that the cost of the gifts was being deducted from his salary.

Paul addressed this issue of remuneration for pastors a number of times. He said to the church in Corinth, “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?” To the church in Galatia, Paul wrote, “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.”

Part of the problem is disobedience to the Scriptures with regard to providing for pastors. But there is a deeper problem with disobedience to the Word with regard to giving to the church. The average church in America operates on a 10/90 basis. Ten percent of the people give ninety percent of the money so the church can operate, the pastor and the elders can feed and care for the people (one hundred percent of them), the lights can stay on, and the missionaries the church supports can do their work all over the world. Let me ask you something. What percentage of people in American churches make their mortgage payment, or the payment on their car which provides them with physical transportation, in the same way they give to the church? I would guess that most do not. The few who do pay their bills that way end up losing their cars or their homes. Now, if we pay our bills one hundred percent of the time because we feel an obligation to do so and we want to continue to enjoy the material things that money provides, how much more should we cheerfully give to the church where we are loved, cared for, encouraged, and taught spiritual truth?

I thank God for those churches, including the one I serve, who love and provide for the ones who care for and feed the flock. I thank God for the many who encourage me and let me know they are grateful for our family and for my leadership.

What about you? Does your pastor or his wife have the blues?

Monday, September 9, 2019

Life Lessons in an Unexpected Place

If you had asked me five years ago (or at any time in my 37 years of marriage) if I thought I would ever take ballroom dancing lessons, I would have laughed and pointed at the floor while saying, “With these two left feet? Why would I want to do that to my wife?” But here we are, Cindy and I, about to finish up our third class in ballroom dancing, and ready to sign up for the next one. I still can’t believe it. I was the guy in theater productions who would be told by the director, “Mark, you just, uh, stand over there next to the fake tree while everyone is doing this dance number.” Dancing and I have never seen eye to eye, or foot to foot, and probably never will. But I love this ballroom dancing class for a couple of reasons.

First, I love our instructors. Rocky and Mary Lou won the Senior IV International Standard National Championship in 2012, but they don’t sport that bumper sticker on their car. And even though they are national champs, they are also excellent teachers. It is rare for people who have made it to the top to be good at coaching beginners, because their standard for excellence makes it difficult for them to have patience. Rocky and Mary Lou are outliers, in that case. Part of it is their faith: they love God and it shows in how they treat people. Part of it is their humility, which is born out of their faith. They exemplify Paul’s encouragement to, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” They are down to earth, funny, kind, and patient. They are excellent in their craft, but Rocky and Mary Lou love to help others learn. And believe me, if I can learn the basics of waltz, foxtrot, rumba, cha-cha, and swing, anybody can. Any. Body. To find out more about their classes at the Alamance Fine Arts Academy in downtown Burlington, go to https://alamancefinearts.com/

Second, I love the people we are learning with. They are mostly beginners like me and Cindy, and we have fun learning together, and laughing with each other’s mistakes. We also learn more about their lives, their joys and their struggles, how to encourage and pray for them.

Third, I love doing this with my wife. Cindy and I look forward to the time together, doing something we both enjoy. It is good exercise, both for our bodies and for our wills. I have had to learn to lead her in each dance, and she has had to learn to follow me. I honestly love to lead in most settings and situations, but would be perfectly content just to follow when it comes to dancing. But that is not the way it works. Rocky has said it to us over and over, that if the man doesn’t lead, the woman will not know what he is doing and will not be able to follow. He has also told us that if we are leading properly, then we never have to exert our will, we never have to force our partner to make the move she is supposed to make. She will simply follow our lead. One of my favorite parts of each class is watching Rocky and Mary Lou demonstrate a step they are going to teach us. We see him leading and her responding and both of them moving together as one. They put “dance is poetry in motion” on display every week, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

I’m pretty sure that Cindy and I will never enter a ballroom dance competition. But we will keep learning how to dance together, and how to love each other, for the rest of our days.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Stop with the Nonsense, Already

The enemies of Jesus wanted him dead. “And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death...” They wanted him dead so badly that they were willing to do anything to make it happen. It must have been because Jesus was a good teacher. That’s what some say. The last time I drove through the college campus, I didn’t see any teachers being tied to a whipping post. OK, maybe they wanted to kill Jesus because He performed miracles. You mean, like giving blind men their sight and dumb men their speech and deaf men their hearing? You mean like raising dead people to life? I just can’t wrap my brain around the idea that the religious leaders would want to kill a man who was healing people of afflictions and diseases. The last time I walked through the hospital, I didn’t see doctors and nurses being dragged away from patients and carted off to be executed. OK, maybe they wanted to kill Jesus because he was such a good man. Forget “random acts of kindness.” Everything Jesus did was on purpose and for good, and no one could ever accuse him of any sin. So, the religious leaders killed him to make him stop doing good? The last time I went shopping around Christmas time, I don’t remember seeing policemen holding down Salvation Army volunteers, clubbing them senseless because they were collecting money for the poor.

Stop with the nonsense, already. The enemies of Jesus wanted him dead for one reason alone. He claimed to be God. Isn’t that what steams the clams of the “religious leaders” today? Those who want to silence Jesus and all his followers do not care one whit when you talk about him being a good teacher. Or a great healer. Or a good man. They would even agree with you on those counts. But they get their undershorts all in a wad when you talk about Jesus being “God come in the flesh.” Their necks begin to redden when you suggest that there is no way to forgiveness except through Jesus. They go apoplectic when you say that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. Let them. Ultimately, their argument is with him, not you and me. And if Jesus Christ is God, which the Gospels make clear that he is, then his Word is true, sufficient, and authoritative.

Here’s what C.S. Lewis said about Jesus in his classic, Mere Christianity: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Either Jesus was a lunatic, a liar, or Lord of all. There is no other choice. But don’t take my word for it. Go read the Bible for yourself. Start with the Gospels and read the life of Jesus. I dare you to stop with the nonsense and read the Bible for the plain sense. Double dare you.

Monday, August 26, 2019

You Really Do Need the Light

It was dark outside, but I scoffed at the thought in my mind that said, “You should take a flashlight so you can see what you are doing.” That was the logical side of my brain talking. My testosterone spoke up and said, “You don’t need no stinking light! You know where the cinderblocks are in the back yard, and this will take exactly thirty seconds to do.” I was putting up our Christmas tree and needed a cinderblock to help it stand up. Cheap tree stand, don’t ask. Anyway, my glands won the argument with my brain, and that is never a good thing, so I walked out and picked up the cinderblock. I didn’t bother to wear work gloves, either, for the same reason: “I don’t need no stinkin’...”

I set the block down on the back stoop and was reaching for the doorknob when I saw it. Just inches from my hand was the biggest, healthiest black widow I had ever seen. I screamed and dropped the cinderblock. As far as I know, the spider didn’t make a sound. She didn’t look nearly as surprised as I was, either, but maybe that’s because the black widow thrives in darkness, but you and I were made for the light. My problem that night wasn’t that I had no light, but that I was too proud to use it. I trusted myself, and my abilities. I did not want any help, which describes the most common disease known to man. In fact, the entire human race is dying from it.

It is still dark outside, and there is danger to our souls that makes the black widow look like a cuddly toy. How can we find our way? The psalmist puts it like this: “The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

Michael Billester visited a small hamlet in Poland before World War II. He gave a Bible to a peasant, who was converted by reading it. The new believer then passed the Bible on to others. The cycle of conversions and sharing continued until 200 people had become believers through that one Bible. When Billester returned a few years later, this group of Christians met together for a worship service in which he was to preach the Word. He normally asked for testimonies, but this time he suggested that several in the audience recite verses of Scripture. One man stood and said, “Perhaps we have misunderstood. Did you mean verses or chapters?” These villagers had not memorized a few select verses of the Bible but whole chapters and books. Thirteen people knew Matthew, Luke, and half of Genesis. Another person had committed to memory the Psalms. Combined, these 200 people knew virtually the entire Bible by memory. That single copy of the Bible given by Billester had done its work. The entrance of the words of God had brought light and transformed lives.

There are some who hear that story and say, “Oh, that is wonderful. The Bible is an amazing book.” But the evidence that they don’t really believe what they say is that their Bible is collecting dust. They couldn’t begin to tell you the last time they read it or the last time something in it changed their lives. They couldn’t tell you the last time they went to a Bible Study where real study took place. They have a Bible, but they are no different from those who do not have one.

They keep it in their drawer, right next to the flashlight and the work gloves.

Monday, August 19, 2019

A Congregation Without God

What if there was a new baseball team being formed in the county for those who don’t enjoy baseball but have always wanted to be on a team? The news article might read, “These folks enjoy the experience of being at the park and sitting in the dugout. They like the smell of the concession stand and hearing the roar of the crowd. They can’t stand baseball, though, so they won’t actually play. They will just, uh, you know ... gather.”

Or, what if there was a new birthing class at the hospital for women (and men, for that matter, because we must not discriminate, right?) of all ages. The advertisement might read, “You don’t have to be pregnant to be in the class. In fact, this class is for those who don’t believe in having babies and honestly think the whole world would be better off if nobody had babies.” Why the class, then, you ask? Well, there is a wealth of information in a birthing class that really has nothing to do with birth! I mean, there is the whole nutrition aspect. Un-pregnant women need to watch what they eat, too, don’t they? Then there is the whole breathing thing. Hey, you don’t have to be going through transition to appreciate having healthy breathing techniques. There are lots of applications for this, like when you are stuck in traffic, 15 miles from your next sales appointment, and in exactly ten minutes you will be late. Who couldn’t use some healthy breathing at a time like that? And just think about how much a good coach would help! “OK, go ahead and take an organizing breath — a big sigh as you feel yourself about to scream at the traffic jam. Release all your tension — that’s right, go limp all over — and don’t worry about that guy in the Miata who is staring at you.”

If you are wondering where I am going with this, you are probably not alone. If you thought, “That would be strange” as you read the what-ifs above, count yourself in the “normal-thinking” category. So, I will go out on a limb and suggest that at least a few of you might have a similar reaction to a real article that ran in the Times-News a few years back entitled, “God-less ‘congregations’ planned for humanists.” The AP story stated that Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, is “building a God-free model of community that he hopes helps humanists increase in numbers and influence.” These humanist centers will “perform many of the community-building functions of a church, only in service of the humanist creed.” Epstein traveled the country back in 2010 to promote his book, “Good Without God.” When answering skeptics as to whether such congregations would find members, Epstein replied, “Salvation is here on earth. We have evolved over 14 billion years without purpose. Now if we want purpose, we need to build it into our own lives.”

A baseball team without baseball? A birthing class without pregnancy? A congregation without God? A search for significance and meaning and purpose that begins with the conviction that there is no God, no uncaused-cause, no Creator, no everlasting Father, no Savior, no cross, no forgiveness for sin?

Let’s give the Bible the final word on this, shall we? And to be clear, the “Word” in this passage refers to Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Now that is truth upon which a congregation can gather, and stand.

Monday, August 12, 2019

God Uses Our Weaknesses

He stood only five feet tall in his socks, and his huge head looked too large for his body. His nose was crooked, his eyes small and piercing, his body frail. Physically there was nothing appealing about him. He fell in love with a young woman and proposed to her, but her insensitive response was, “I like the jewel but not the setting.” He never married.

His name was Isaac Watts, considered the father of the modern hymn. If so, then Mr. Watts had over six hundred children. Watts was born in England in 1674 and his father was a schoolmaster with strong Christian convictions for which he was imprisoned twice during Isaac’s childhood. Often the mother—baby Isaac in her arms—could be found sitting on a stone at the prison gate. Isaac inherited strong convictions and cut his teeth on biblical principles. Family devotions at the Watts home was sacred time and the children were taught to be attentive, but one night during family prayer Isaac opened his eyes to see a mouse running up a bell rope by the fireplace. After the ‘amen,’ the young boy surprised everyone by quoting a rhyme he had just made up:

“A mouse, for want of better stairs, ran up a rope to say his prayers.” Isaac’s parents recognized his talent for verse and when he complained about the church music, his father said, “If you don’t like our songs, why don’t you write some?” As a side note to all of you in the “hymns-only” camp: two hundred years ago you would have been considered a bit radical if not heretical to be singing anything other than the Psalms. Now would you look down your noses at we “radicals” who sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? See Colossians 3:16.

During the two years that followed his father’s challenge, young Watts wrote most of the 210 hymns contained in his “Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” published in 1707, the first real hymnal in English. At 24, Isaac Watts preached his first sermon and a few years later his health began to fail, leaving him a semi-invalid the rest of his life.

Humanly speaking, Watts had many strikes against him: he suffered ridicule for his appearance, was rejected by the woman he loved, and struggled with poor health. In spite of all that, Watts led a richly productive life as a hymn writer, a pastor, an author of textbooks, and a noted theologian. The night before he died he said, “I am a sinner; Christ is my Savior. I can let all else go; the finished work of Christ is all my hope. To depart and be with Christ will be far better.”

Isaac Watts never had children, but his work was used by God to produce countless numbers of believers. One was Fanny Crosby, the famous blind hymn writer. She dated her conversion to the singing of the hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed” on November 20, 1850. She had attended numerous revivals and answered many an altar call, hoping to find the peace of salvation. On this night, as the congregation sang the last stanza of Watts’ hymn, “But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe; here, Lord, I give myself away, ’tis all that I can do,” Miss Crosby realized that all she needed was to yield herself to the Lord Jesus. Later she said, “I surrendered myself to the Savior, and my very soul flooded with celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting Hallelujah!”

As parents, we need not grieve over our children’s flaws and imperfections. In fact, we can rejoice that God uses our weaknesses for His own glory.

Monday, August 5, 2019

As Paul Says, ‘Love bears all things’


Near the end of his magnificent description of what love looks like when it goes to work every day, Paul writes, “Love bears all things.” We would assume that means that love puts up with or endures difficult people or circumstances. Of course, love does that as well. But this phrase could also be translated, “love covers all things.” It means to conceal, to cover over in silence. Love hides the faults of others and covers them up, doing the very opposite of what gossip delights in doing. Solomon wrote, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Peter writes, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” What does it look like to cover sin?

I think about John 8, and the woman who was caught in the act of adultery by the Pharisees. Remember? They dragged her to Jesus to expose her in her sin, but also, they hoped, to expose a weakness in Jesus. Would he do what the Mosaic law required and have this woman put to death by stoning? They were looking for anything they could to bring a charge against the Lord. Jesus bent down and wrote something on the ground. We are not told what he wrote, but I look forward to hearing the full story in heaven. The Pharisees continued to press Jesus about this woman’s sins and what was he going to do about it? He said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bent down and continued to write with his finger on the ground. Then one by one, starting with the oldest, the Pharisees walked away, and Jesus was left alone with the woman. Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

The Pharisees exposed the sin of the woman; Jesus covered it. He loved her, not by dismissing her sin, but by welcoming her into forgiveness, and restoration. By the way, only Jesus can do that for any of us. He alone has authority on the earth to forgive sins and to change lives. He gave her a new start, a new way of living, a new love that she had never experienced before. His love covered her and gave her hope.

Jon Bloom writes, “Every day we hear stories of offenders who have tried to cover their own offenses with lies. And every day we hear (sometimes from our own lips) people repeating a matter. We call this gossip and it fuels whole media industries. All around us are shattered relationships that exploded in the ‘repeating.’ But how many examples can you think of where a friendship was preserved because someone did not repeat gossip about an offense? Not many, I’ll wager. Why is this so rare?”

May it be less rare with you and me. When we bear with one another, we don’t agree with them in their sin, or encourage them in it. We cover them and help them to grow from that place. A husband and a wife who love each other are careful to cover the other in the way they speak. That means they speak well of their spouse in front of them, and they speak well of their spouse behind their back. They don’t put the sins of their spouse on display for others to hear and wag their heads and condemn. Their love covers.

It’s an amazing gift, this love that God gives his people.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Love is not Irritable


We have been taking our time the last several Sundays going through the 15 verbs that “love does” in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul peels the onion and makes us cry as we look at how often we fall so short of love. Someone told me recently that he was looking forward, kind of, to when we got to “Love is not irritable. That’s the one that gets me,” he said. Well, I got a little irritated with him and told him to get in line behind me and all the rest of us who struggle with being irritable. But the truth is, this list of verbs that describes love in action is not meant to shame us or condemn us. Quite the opposite, it is a wonderful promise of what Jesus is doing in his church, washing us with the water of the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she should be holy and without blemish.

J.B. Phillips translates this verse, “Love is not touchy.” I like that. Let’s say this right up front. No one is immune to moments of irritation. We will be provoked, no matter how mature, no matter how humble. You just have to read your Bible to see the evidence of this. Moses was the humblest man on earth; that’s what God inspired him to write about himself in Numbers 12. Then a few chapters later you hear Moses say to the children of Israel, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses struck the rock in anger, twice, disobeying God in the process. The humblest man on earth was provoked to anger and his irritable display cost him a trip to the Promised Land.

We see the Apostle Paul getting stirred up a few times, but one example where the same word is used is in Acts 17. Paul walked into Athens and saw that the city was filled with idols, and “his spirit was provoked within him.” He was irritated, angered even, by the idolatry, but in that anger he did not sin. Instead, Paul took the occasion to tell the people of Athens that the unknown God they had an altar for was the God who could be known, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who does not live in temples made by man, the one who gives all mankind life and breath and everything. And that this God, the true God, has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. And he gave us assurance of this by raising this man from the dead! Some believed the Gospel that day and were saved. But it started because Paul was irritated, even provoked, for the sake of God. We should be greatly irritated and want to speak out because we know that unborn babies are not protected in this nation. But only mildly irritated because they got our drive-through order wrong at Chick-fil-a. We should be provoked when we hear that there are still millions who have never heard the Gospel. But not provoked when we hear that our favorite TV show is being cancelled. Or when a co-worker doesn’t do what he promised you he would do. Or when our spouse doesn’t meet our expectations.

Love is not irritable. If you are an irritable person, you have developed a habit of responding to provocations in a sinful way. You either get angry and blow up, or you get quiet and close up. Either way puts roadblocks in the way of healthy relationships.

What to do? I believe a great hedge against irritability is to develop a grateful heart. Get in the habit of giving thanks every day for the blessings God has given, including the people in your life who tend to provoke you. It is hard to be irritated with someone when you are thinking of all the reasons why you are profoundly grateful for them.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Enter the Public Forum Boldly

Every now and then someone will write a letter to the Times-News complaining that guest columns or the Open Forum are being used as platforms to discuss religious beliefs. It happened again this week as a reader took issue with a column about the President, and asked, “What happened to the concept of separation of church and state?”

First of all, the newspaper is not the state. And a page in a local newspaper dedicated to opinion columns and letters to the editor is intended for the purpose of open debate on important issues. Second, the concept of “separation of church and state” cannot be found in our Constitution. Indeed, the First Amendment protects the church from the state, not the other way around. A few years ago, a reader suggested that the editor “set some limits for this section to local matters that concern all.” I was frankly amazed at the brazen request, on several levels. First, that the “Open” Forum be restricted at all. It reminded me of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, and his tireless fight to abolish slavery when he served in Congress after leaving the White House. Certain members of the Congress, weary of hearing Adams’ petitions each week on slavery, finally got the votes necessary to pass a “gag rule,” which automatically tabled petitions against slavery. John Quincy Adams tried various ways to bypass the order, but it was eight years before Congress came to its senses and reopened the forum.

Second, I am surprised that someone would petition the editor to limit the Open Forum to matters that “concern all.” Who would decide which issues concern all and which concern only some? Do letters about the local school board concern all? No, not the 2,500 students and their families who are enrolled in private or home schools. I read those letters with interest, however, because the education of children in this county affects all of us. Do letters about the Burlington police and their services concern all? No, not those who live outside the city limits, as I do. I read those letters with interest, however, because the safety of our city dwellers affects us all. Do letters about faith and religion concern all? Some would say no. The truth is, however, there are no more important matters that affect the well-being of every citizen of Alamance County than those of faith and religion. Francis Schaeffer said that Christianity is not merely religious truth, it is total truth — truth about the whole of reality. Kent Hughes said the most important thing about a person is what he or she believes about God. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

In her book, “Total Truth,” Nancy Pearcey writes, “Most secularists are too politically savvy to attack religion directly or to debunk it as false. So what do they do? They consign religion to the value sphere — which takes it out of the realm of true and false altogether. Secularists can then assure us that of course they ‘respect’ religion, while at the same time denying that it has any relevance to the public realm.”

The letter to the editor a few years ago stated, “I understand the issue of freedom of speech but, as a reader, I am weary of reading what other people believe, and frankly, could care less. Your religion should be a private matter between you and your God.” May I state her opinion in another way? She might as well have said, “It is my opinion that matters of belief not be printed in the public forum... except, of course, this matter of belief that I wrote and I hope is printed.” I am thankful that the Times-News printed her letter. Her opinion is valuable and should have its place in the forum. So should yours.

The Open Forum in any newspaper is always one of the most-read sections. I always read the letters to the editor, and most of the columns. I especially appreciate the ones that are carefully crafted, well-reasoned and respectful. I am thankful for those who are willing to enter the public forum boldly!

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.