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.

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.