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.