December 10, 2008

Hope For a Ruined Humanity

The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity—hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory—because at the Father's will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross.

—J. I. Packer, English-Canadian theologian (1926–)

December 9, 2008

Is This Idea Picking Up Steam?

Yesterday I read (watched) Mike's post concerning an Advent Conspiracy. (Sounds subversive...I LOVE the image of undercover agents dressed in Santa suits!) And today I received some snail mail concerning the idea of "redefining Christmas" which has been the topic of some on-line discussion over at the Chicago Tribune. I haven't poked around a whole lot but I'm wondering if this idea is one that is growing. I know it's growing on me.

For any of you planning to buy Yours Truly a gift this year I don't need a new shirt, new pair of pants, new tie, or a new trinket to add to my already overcrowded desk. New tools will simply be misplaced by my well intentioned children or misused by my wife's well intentioned husband ;-). New books...well now, let's not get carried away!

Allow me to make a few suggestions for your gift giving this year.

Make Way Partners is taking on the monstrous problem of human trafficking and forced prostitution. Be sure to check out "Mary's crosses" as a way to donate and give!

Play Pumps International gets my award for the most innovative and creative idea for changing the quality of life for people. Their catch phrase, "Kids play, water pumps" sums it up. Clean water and free time for people to focus on other issues like education, labor, creative endeavors.

Voice of the Martyrs gives voice to otherwise un-reported or under reported abuse, violence, and persecution of Christians throughout the world. Have YOU heard about the incredible attacks in Orissa, India? Probably not. You can read about them here and your donation will help some of these families survive.

1 Way Ministries has a simple mission, "Reach the world, teach the Word." JT and his team are helping churches in the U.S. to engage people down the street and around the world. Give them a look and pray about sharing with them.

Mission Team Inc. has a scholarship program for first time mission trip takers. It would make my day if someone gave to this fund! I LOVE to see people take that first step of obedience with missions; it is a life changing moment!

Let me not forget...

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. I know of no better way to touch more people with the hope of the gospel than this offering. Supporting more than 5000 missionaries who are making a difference in the here and now through medical clinics, water projects, disaster relief efforts, and educational opportunities as well as making a difference in the hereafter with over 600,000 baptisms reported last year. Give so others may hear.

The Alabama Baptist Children's Homes are a constellation of ministries that make me proud to be an Alabama Baptist. Your donation will help transform the life of "throw away" child or an abused youth. The stories of hope and redemption are humbling.

Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief responds to disasters all over the world. Following the 9/11 tragedy, Alabama Baptists, and others like them, became the "preferred" clean up teams because the good people of New York learned they could trust them not to steal the things in their homes (apparently companies for hire had some problems with this...). Southern Baptist disaster relief is the third largest disaster relief organization in the US behind the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Your donation will make a difference the next time disaster strikes.

There's a short wish list. May your Christmas be filled with giving.

December 8, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Heart

Do you have a favorite Christmas decoration? My Beloved and I do; it's a little glass bell with a Santa Claus inside. It's not the most expensive or beautiful ornament we have but it, far and away, has the best story associated with it.

This little bit of decorative joy joined our family during our first year of marriage and it found a place on a low hanging limb on our Christmas tree. Our little mutt dog, Nikki, discovered that when she nosed this little ornament it made a wonderful little sound. Every year the Santa bell was given a place of honor on a low hanging branch and Nikki would always find it and ring it again. We still hang it low even though our beloved pooch is no longer with us.

I asked our church family about their favorite decorations or their most memorable Christmas gift and the responses were touching, engaging, hilarious, and meaningful; from the man who actually got a Red Rider BB gun (and he still has both eyes!) to the lady who choked up as she talked about hanging decorations made by her children years ago. It was a great time of sharing about the external things that make Christmas special for us.

In 1 Samuel 16:7 God reminds Samuel that they don't see things quite the same way. God tells Samuel, "You're looking at the outward appearance, I'm looking deeper. I'm looking at the heart."

God knows our propensity to get caught up in the externals and miss the internal significance.

  • The second of the the Ten Commandments is "No idols!"
  • The Pharisees and other religious types of Jesus' day asked for a sign and He refused telling them the only sign they would get was "the sign of Jonah" as He referred to His pending death and resurrection. They too were looking for some tangible hook on which to hang the intangible fact of faith.
  • The Old Testament prophets make for interesting reading as, time and again, God takes His people to task for their worship. Phrases like "Away with the noise of your music!" or "Oh that you would shut the doors!" or "I will not listen to your prayers!" fill the mouths of the prophets.
Once again God's people had become enamored with the external, secondary issues and missed that which was, and is, most important. They were showing up at the right time in the right place with the right stuff but they were a long way from God. His words through Isaiah speak clearly to us today, "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me." (Isaiah 29:13)

If ever there was a season for us to be aware of this it is Christmas. There is no other time of year that is so "externals" intensive: decorations, shopping, gifts, food, family gatherings, wrapping, bows, ribbons, stockings, Christmas cards, clothing that only gets worn this time of year. The list is long and the effort immense to pull all of the external things together to make it "Christmas."

What if none of it happened?

Let that question hang there a moment....

God is not the least bit concerned with the...

  • Tree
  • Lights
  • Docorations
  • Gifts
  • Food
  • Family visits
  • Shopping trips
  • Christmas caroling
  • Baked goodies
  • Christmas cards
  • Charlie Brown's Christmas (or any other "favorite")
  • Smell of evergreens in your home
  • ____________ (you fill in the blank)
As He told Samuel, "the LORD looks on the heart."

As disinterested as He may be with the externals God is intensely interested in the condition of your heart. As He is looking, and there is nothing hidden from Him, what does He see?

  • Anger?
  • Bitterness?
  • Disillusionment?
  • Lust?
  • Desire for stuff?
  • Dread?
  • Fear?
  • Anxiety?
  • Pride?
  • Envy?
  • Greed?
  • Gluttony?
  • ________ (you fill in the blank)
Is it possible that what we truly need is not a nice tree in the living room but rather a change of heart?

Enjoy this bit of wisdom from Dr. Seuss as you consider the relative importance of the external and internal this season. May I encourage you, faithful blog reader, to pause long enough to read this out loud?

"It was quarter past dawn...All the Whos, still a-bed, All the Whos, still a-snooze When he packed up his sled, Packed it up with their presents! The ribbons! The wrappings! The tags! And the tinsel! The trimmings! The trappings!

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpit, He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it! "Pooh-Pooh to the Whos!" he was grinch-ish-ly humming. "They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!" "They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do!" "Their mouths will hang open a minute or two Then the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry Boo-Hoo!"

"That's a noise," grinned the Grinch, "That I simply MUST hear!" So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear. and he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low. then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all!

He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?" "It came without ribbons! It came without tags!" "It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store." "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

And what happened then...? Who-ville they say That the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!" (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss)

Maybe our hearts need to grow a bit this season. Maybe they need to be set free from the constraints of the externals in order to enjoy the meaning of the heart of the season. Perhaps we need to draw near to God with more than the outward motions of the season and seek Him with the inward movements of the heart.

You see, the joy of Christmas is not found in the externals but in the internal. It is truly a matter of the heart.

December 4, 2008

About the Photo - Agua Volcano, Antigua Guatemala

This cloud shrouded magnificence can be seen from just about anywhere in central Guatemala. It and its sisters, Fuego and Acatenango, dominate the skyline everywhere. Fuego and Acatenango are active volcanoes with ash plumes regularly rising from their peaks and lava visible in the darkness of night. Being in the proximity of volcanoes, especially active ones, is a little - ok, a lot - unsettling! Thankfully they all behaved during our brief visit. This particular photo of Agua was taken from the central market place on the day we visited beautiful Antigua.

The scripture I had posted with this photo is one that is often associated with mountains but is usually terribly misinterpreted. I have Eugene Peterson to thank for peeling back the crust of time and helping me to understand this from the perspective of the one who wrote it.

Psalm 121:1-2 reads "I lift up my eyes to the hills-where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

Most often this verse is associated with just this sort of photo, an imposing and enduring mountain. Our culture equates mountains with strength, majesty, and endurance and therefore the natural understanding for us is that in looking to the mountains we see an image of the strong, majestic and enduring God who helps us. That is a nice image but it is dead wrong when it comes to what is being declared in this marvelous Psalm.

Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms of Ascent that would be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship. Undoubtedly one of the sights along the way were the many mountains that surround Jerusalem. Though those mountains and hills may have possessed an intrinsic beauty that is not what would have caught the eye and attention of the pilgrim on their way to worship the one true God. The pilgrim would have seen smoke rising from those mountaintops in worship of many other gods. It is as if this song is asking "Which god is going to help me?"

I can see that pilgrim on their way to worship the one true God looking around at all these other gods and asking, "Is Baal going to help me?" "How about Ashtoreth?" "Molech?" "Chemosh?" "Dagon?" And the answer was "No. No. No. And no." The only help, the only reliable help, the only sure help would come from the LORD.

An interesting, and often overlooked, practice of English translations is the use of the word LORD in all capitals to represent the personal, revealed name of God. Anytime you see this used in scripture the point is being made that its not just any god that is being discussed but this particular God. This specifically named God. This God with a known and revealed character. It is this particular God that the song was, and is, referring to as sojourners make their way to worship.

This holds tremendous truth for us today as we face a world fraught with uncertainty and danger. Just where will our help come from?

Will it be from the recently de-thoned "masters of the universe" who ruled Wall Street?
I don't think so.

Will it be from Barack Obama's promises of hope?
I don't think so.

Will it be from T. Boone Pickens or Sarah Palin with their promises of energy independence?
I don't think so.

Will it be from the bail-out brokers on Capital Hill?
I don't think so.

This list could go on and on and the answer would be the same. There is only one source of genuine hope. Perhaps it's time we lifted our eyes a little higher to see the one that is more powerful, more enduring, more majestic and more reliable than the mountains.

"I lift my eyes to the hills - from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

Here's to looking up!

December 1, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Reason

Joy! We hear it in children's voices. We see it on faces at family gatherings. We hear it sung in the familiar carols "Joy to the World!" and "O Come All Ye Faithful." We will see it broadcast at every commercial break and advertised in every publication. It is a season for joy.

My sermon series for the month of December will center on this joy-full theme with this, perhaps unexpected, verse as the centerpiece. "Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2)

It is easy to find joy in the birth of a baby. Just ask anyone who has experienced such a moment lately. Grandparents will immediately whip out photos and gladly bend your ear ad nauseum about the marvelous happening. Parents will smile with tired eyes and tell you about the latest accomplishment of their unique darling. Even total strangers will stop and coo at small child.

Yes, finding joy in the birth of a child is easy. Looking to a cross and sacrifice and blood and beatings and sin makes it difficult to find joy. Maybe this is why we so readily celebrate the birth of Jesus and so tacitly speak of His death. I find it interesting and instructive that the Bible speaks very little about His birth but testifies at length about His death and resurrection. Could it be that we have the focus out of focus?

The next four weeks I will offer messages designed to refocus our attention in this season of joy.
  • November 30 - "The Reason" Luke 19:10 - The joy of Christmas is not found in the cradle. The joy of Christmas is found at the cross.
  • December 7 - "The Heart" 1 Samuel 16:7 - The joy of Christmas is not found in the externals. The joy of Christmas is found in the internal.
  • December 14 - "The Call" 1 Timothy 6:12 - The joy of Christmas will not be found at the mall. The joy of Christmas will be found in the call.
  • December 21 - "The Coming King" Revelation 22:12-21 - The joy of Christmas is not in the coming of a child. The joy of Christmas is in the coming of the King!
So, with all this celebrating and all this joy and all this singing, what is it all about? It is about the coming of Christ. It is about the birth of a child. But this is no ordinary birth. Three words, three big words, three theological words tell the story.

Incarnation. A Latin word meaning "in the flesh." In Jesus, God becomes one of us. Eugene Peterson beautifully, and memorably, phrases John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." Imagine that! God moving in just down the street from you. In Jesus, that is exactly what happened.

There are some who would say Jesus was just a man who exhibited godly qualities. Others would say He was just God who took on some human qualities. This simply is not an option from the Biblical witness. Scripture is abundantly clear that Jesus was God in the flesh. The creator come to the creation. Or, as W.H. Auden wrestles with this mystery, "How could the Eternal do a temporal act,/ The infinite become a finite fact?" (For the Time Being, W.H. Auden)

Let's be clear, God did not take on human flesh in order to better understand us. He took on human flesh so we could better understand Him! Our understanding of Him is clarified once and for all at the cross, which leads us to another big word...

Substitution. We all understand the concept of substitution. We've experienced substitute teachers or been a sub in a basketball game or accepted a substitute item at a restaurant that was out of what we wanted. A substitute takes the place of another and that is just what Jesus did for us. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "For our sake He [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God." He takes our place. Jesus pays a price He does not owe. The price you and I owe.

Again, let's be clear, Jesus did not take our place because He owed some sort of debt. He took our place because we owed so great a debt we could never pay it. He took our place because He loved us. The incarnation was necessary for Jesus to become our substitute. And in His substitutionary death we discover the third big word....

Salvation. Jesus made it abundantly clear that He was here for one reason, "to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10) In case you are wondering just who the lost are, it's us. Every single one of us.

"We never outgrow the fact that we are sinners still, totally dependent each day on the grace of God to the undeserving. We do not come to offer in the first place; we come to receive...We are the hungry, coming to be fed. We are the undeserving welcomed freely at the Lord's table." (Michael Green, "His sacrifice and ours")

November 27, 2008

All Your Works Shall Give Praise To You, O LORD!

Psalm 145

Great Is the LORD
A Song of Praise. Of David.
1I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
2Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
3Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.

4One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
5On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
7They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

8The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9The LORD is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.

10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your saints shall bless you!
11They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
12to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

[The LORD is faithful in all his words
and kind in all his works.]
14The LORD upholds all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing.
17The LORD is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.
18The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
19He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
he also hears their cry and saves them.
20The LORD preserves all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.

21My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD,
and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.

November 24, 2008

Monday Morning Message - Needing Jeremiah

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." So goes one of the best known opening lines from any novel ever written. Dickens captured the spirit of the age in those now immortal words. Jeremiah would have nodded his head in knowing sympathy with such a sentiment. He was one who had known the best of times under the leadership of a young king named Josiah. He also understood the worst of times as he endured the undoing of his nation. His broken spirit is poured out in ink through the pages of Lamentations.

Jeremiah stood at the gate of the temple as people were coming and going to worship and declared a singularly disturbing word from God. Many passed by with disdain, others simply ignored, but surely some paused to hear what this man had to say. The words he spoke were not, and are not, easy to hear.

People were coming to worship but with wrong headed and wrong hearted intentions. Hear Jeremiah's words...

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God Israel: Amend your wyas and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'"
(Jeremiah 7:3-4)
It seems that in generations past Jerusalem had been miraculously spared and the people began to believe it was because Jehovah dwelt in Jerusalem. The people got caught up in the trappings of worship and missed the whole point of worship. They lost sight of the fact that deliverance does not come through a place or a pattern of worship but through an individual's relationship with the LORD.

In addition to this mistaken notion the people were pairing unacceptable conduct with their religious experience. Hear again these woeful words from Jeremiah...

"Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swwear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other gods that you have not known and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!' only to go on doing all these abominations?...Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 7:8-11)
Sadly this is not a condition limited to Jeremiah's day. The church today is, without question, guilty of the same conduct. David Kinnaman, in his book UN-Christian, states, "among young outsiders, 84 percent say they personally know at least one committed Christian. Yet just 15 percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ followers wer significantly different from the norm." There are other, equally disturbing, statistics but suffice it to say that Jeremiah's words apply here and now. We are guilty of saying one thing and living another.

These misguided choices in worship have dire consequences. The lack of an inner moral qulaity flowing from a relationship the LORD destroyed the nation of Judah in Jeremiah's day and it threatens to destroy our nation today. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." God, through Jeremiah, declares the timeless truth, "Were they ashamed when they commited abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush." (Jeremiah 8:12) Blazon that across the news feeds of the day and see if it doesn't have the ring of truth about it.

In seeking to salve the many ailments of our nation we have a tendency to look to the human achievements of wisdom, might, and wealth for answers only to find that all of them, in and of themselves, are wholly inadequate to meet the need of the day. Only as these remarkable human potentialities are brought under the sovreign leadership of God can they be rightly applied to the needs of the day.

"Let not the wise man boast in his widsom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righeousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 9:23-24)
The one, over-ridding, need of our lives is to know God.

You may be thinking, "I need someone to fix my financial woes." May I suggest that they are temporary in light of eternity? More than a financial fix, you and I need a correction of the heart.

You may groan due to a devestating physical ailment. Again, I would point you to the singular need of your life; to know God.

You may be struggling under a burden of guilt or grief and desperately need relief. The one thing you need is not an immediate lifting of the burden but the assurance that there is one who is with you in the midst of it.

I do not say these things to minimize or make light of the situation in which you find yourlself. I simply point out the painfully obvious fact that in most practical matters we have forsaken God for lesser things.

We need a renewal. Not one led by a dynamic celebrity like Josiah resulting is a showy but shallow turning. We need a renewal of the heart. We need Jeremiah.

November 20, 2008

Of Prayer and Coffee

I have shared my journey of glorious ruination concerning coffee. I am no longer content to partake of the long ground and short flavored stuff found in cans and bags of various description. Sure, it's still coffee but it's missing so much. Why settle for a stale scoop when a fresh, fine grind is available?

For those of you enjoying a cup from the house of Max or some ostensibly hand picked by Juan Valdez I can only shake my head in sorrow at all you are missing. For those of you who, like me, are relishing the marvelous complexities of a freshly ground brew (This morning Marquesas de Caseras from Brazil, medium roast) I lift my cup in congratulations. To be sure, in a pinch, I will drink a lesser cup of coffee but it is ALWAYS done in silent protest. You see, I know there is better coffee to be had and though I can endure a lesser version I long for that which I have tasted.

Which brings me to prayer. Through the years I have prayed many prayers both private and public. From time to time I have encountered the great prayers prayed by saints who have gone before and I have wondered at the difference that was, and is, evident in their prayers. I knew I was missing something and, truth be told, I know I am still missing it. I know there are better prayers to be had and though I have endured my lesser versions I long for that which I have tasted. As an example I offer this prayer from the opening of The Whole Armor of God, by John Henry Jowett.

Eternal God, may no distraction draw us away from our communion with Thee. May we come to Thee like children going home, jubilant and glad. We have been in the far country and our garments are stained. May we hasten to the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. If we have been on fields of heavy battle, where the fire of the enemy has been awful and unceasing, may we hasten to Thee for the overhauling of our armor, and for the renewal of our strength. If we have been called upon to walk weary roads of unfamiliar sorrow, may we turn to Thee as to refreshing springs. If we have lapsed from our high calling, may we renew our covenant. If we have missed a gracious opportunity, may we seek another chance. If we have been counted faithful in any service, and have fulfilled our commission by the help of Thy grace, may we hasten to give the glory to Thee. Unite us, we humbly pray Thee, in the holy bonds of Christian sympathy. Deepen our pity so that we may share the sorrows of people far away. May we feel the burden of the burdened and weep with them that weep. May we not add to our sin by ceasing to remember those who are in need. Grant peace in our time, O Lord, the peace which is the fruit of righteousness. Let Thy will be done among all the peoples, so that in common obedience to Thee all the nations may find abiding union. Amen.

Mmmm. That's good prayer. I think I'll have another cup and I'm pretty sure I'll not be satisfied with lesser prayer in my own life.

November 19, 2008

Let's Say Thanks

Here's just one more way to let our guys and gals know they are not forgotten. Take a moment to make a difference in the lives of our soldiers.

November 16, 2008

Away for a Couple of Days

For those of you stopping by to pick up the Monday Morning Message you will find it below. I will be away for a couple of days at the Alabama Baptist State Convention. We will celebrate the good things God is doing through Alabama Baptists as well as our role in the larger life of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I am truly glad to say I am an Alabama Baptist! We recently passed a remarkable milestone as a state convention as we have now given over 1 billion dollars through the Cooperative Program. Currently we are engaged in international partnership agreements with Guatemala and Ukraine as well as a stateside agreement with Michigan Baptists. We have one of the most active and respected disaster relief organizations that has responded to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters this year. As a convention we support three institutions of higher education, Samford University, The University of Mobile, and Judson College. We also have a marvelous children's home system reaching troubled and abused children. And I've not even mentioned the retirement center, leadership training, associational missions support, or our state paper. It is truly remarkable all that we do together as a family of faith.

I'll be checking back in when I return.

Monday Morning Message - Looking for Josiah

Here's the short version of much more involved set of thoughts surrounding this remarkable King of Judah. You can read his story in 2 Kings 21-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-34.

Josiah is commended in 2 Kings 23:25 with these words, "Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his hear and with all his soul and with all his might, according to al the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him."

This young king led a reformation of his nation that was, and is, unparalleled. It was a time of national renewal that, though remarkable, was insufficient. While Josiah was apparently pursuing the reformation with a pure heart it is evident that the people were simply "along for the ride." Josiah made it "hip to be holy" and people joined in with zeal. It is saddening to realize that the people of Judah were "doing all the right things" but their hearts remained far from God.

Sounds painfully familiar. We live in culture that is obsessed with looking good. I assure you that if it became the fashionable thing to be "holy" people would be lining up to be among those counted as "holy." We would love to have a Josiah arise in our day; someone with rock star appeal who genuinely pursued God. We would love to have someone like this champion our pet causes and who would lead our nation to return to its spiritual roots. As much as we would love to have that happen it is not what we need.

Josiah brought about public renewal that did not result in personal renewal. We need personal renewal that will result in public renewal. We are looking for Josiah but we need Jeremiah.

I will explain further next week.

November 12, 2008

Why believe in a god?

The American Humanist Association has launched an ad campaign for the Christmas season.
Here's a quote from their press release concerning the ad campaign,

"Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake," proclaims a new holiday ad from the American Humanist Association. Already appearing today in the New York Times and Washington Post, the message will soon be blazoned on the sides, taillights, and interiors of over 200 Washington DC Metro buses.

It's the first ad campaign of its kind in the United States, and the American Humanist Association predicts it will raise public awareness of humanism as well as controversy over humanist ideas.

"Humanists have always understood that you don't need a god to be good," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "So that's the point we're making with this advertising campaign. Morality doesn't come from religion. It's a set of values embraced by individuals and society based on empathy, fairness, and experience."

Now I know many of my brethren will respond in angry tones about the sorry state of our nation that such a question would even be asked, and, in all fairness, they have a point. However, I think this to be a singular opportunity for the church to speak up in a 1 Peter 3:15-16 kind of way. "Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect..."

Unless I'm missing something here, they are, in fact, asking. I propose we offer an answer. Looking for an open door to discuss matters of faith? The American Humanist Association just gave you one. Mention the ad and get a response. I encourage any of you who blog, as well as others who may drop by from time to time, to make it a point to engage others on this topic.

Might I suggest a Christmas series of blog posts? If you are among the willing just leave a note and I will get back with you. If you happen to be in a city where this ad campaign in actually running I'd love to hear about reactions to it!

Watch this space for more...

November 11, 2008

Judgement House

This video was used in our celebration service following Judgement House. It was too good to simply let it be seen once. Thanks Barry!

For those of you who may not make it to the end of the video, the results of the week were as follows...

827 people went through JHouse in 4 nights.
30 individuals were counseled for assurance of salvation.
82 believers made decisions to rededicate their lives.
22 people prayed to receive Christ!

To God alone be the glory!

November 7, 2008

For The Want of Seventy Dollars

I could tell he was desperate. Maybe it was just a vibe. Maybe it was the cadence of his speech. Maybe it was the heaviness of his gait. I could tell he was desperate. He needed something and we were his last stop.

I've dealt with these kinds of people before. I know how to handle them. Give them some gas at the corner station and maybe a meal at Mr. Gene's and they'll go away. After all, they are just looking for a handout. It's tough not being callous. Compassion seems remote when so many have abused the kindnesses offered. Either my vision is getting worse or it's just getting harder to see Jesus in them waiting to be served. It's sure not something to get excited about as it usually means another 30 minutes, or more, of my day hearing a tightly crafted and well rehearsed sob-story. But, like I said, I could tell he was desperate.

He had just been released from prison (I'm already reaching for my make believe tissue to wipe my make believe tears) and didn't have any clothes other than the ones on his back. He had court costs due real soon; if they didn't get paid he was headed back to jail. He was looking for a job but there just aren't many around for anybody, much less somebody like him. He just needed $70. He was desperate.

Maybe that was what caught my attention. So often people come through with needs but they are not really desperate, they just want some help. There was something different about this one. He didn't just need help, he was desperate for it. He was willing to do anything for it.

I don't know why I asked it but the question came tumbling out like a baby elephant being born; messy and unavoidable. I asked him, "Are you getting ready to make another bad decision?" The conversation came to an unexpected pause. Usually by now they are out the door on the way to the gas station. He just looked at me. Finally he spoke and said, "You just read my mind. Did God tell you I was about to do something?"

Moments later he was returning from his car with a bandanna and gloves. Laying them on the table in front of me he said, "I had already decided which store I was going to rob. I don't think I need to do that now. I need to take a different road."

With undeniable agreement and unfeigned relief I shared God's plan. We talked about the path he was on and how he could begin making decisions that would lead him down a good road. I heard him talk about injustices suffered as well as punishment earned and paid. I cautioned him about questionable relationships and he readily agreed that things had to change. We looked to scripture for guidance and found truth that made a difference. He prayed and I wept as I listened to this desperate man find grace.

We found him some work. Some honorable work. Hard work. He earned that $70 and came back the next day and earned some more. He walked away in peace. He walked away knowing, that at least this one time, he chose to do the right thing. He walked away a little less desperate and a little more hopeful. He walked away surprised by God's provision. He walked away a little bit different. I am praying he continues to walk with God.

It was all for want of $70 dollars.

October 20, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Strength of Hope

In my former days as a minister to students I had the privilege of working with two outstanding young men; one was built like a dump truck the other like a toy truck. They were an entertaining pair to observe as the smaller of the two was always pestering the larger. I vividly remember one particular day when the dump truck had endured more than any patient person should have been asked to endure and he simply grabbed the toy truck by his ever so slight shoulders, effortlessly picked him up and sat him down with the instructions not to move. Never a raised voice. Nary a show of anger. Nothing to outwardly indicate the inward boil that had peaked. He simply, gently, and directly dealt with the issue confronting him. It stands out as a picture of strength under control.

We, as believers, are called to exhibit this kind of strength as we communicate the message of hope to a desperate world. There is no need for shrill shouting matches or angered protests over the compelling issue of the day. I believe there is a clear and hope filled road map for us to follow in difficult days like these. Take a look at it with me as we continue this brief journey through 1 Peter.

Read 1 Peter 3:8-17

Notice first that this hope is a generous hope. It is a hope that gives. It is a hope that stands in contrast to the ways of the world. In verse 9 Peter gets specific as he speaks of the appropriate response of the believer to being "reviled." Rather than give as good as we get, believers are called to a higher standard. We are to give better than we receive. If spoken evil of we are to bless. If trashed in the media we should speak well of them. If despised we should return admiration. Granted, this strategy probably won't lead immediately to the top of the heap but it is the very strategy God employed in bringing hope to this world through Jesus.

This generous hope offers blessing to a blessing starved world. It offers living water to a people parched by the dessicated wilderness of sin. It is a hope we didn't earn in the first place and therefore, we are able to freely offer to others. Perhaps the greatest problem the church of God faces is our holding too tightly His blessings. God never intended for us to keep them for ourselves but to share them freely with others. We are blessed to be a blessing.

This hope is also a genuine hope. It is the real deal. It is not built on some lofty cloud that will burn off in the heat of the noonday sun. It is not a fantastical notion without any foundation in reality. Indeed, it is a reasonable hope which we communicate to this world. Many will ask how faith in Christ as Lord can be a reasonable proposition. I say, ask those who saw Jesus after his resurrection if it is reasonable to believe. Certainly they are dead and gone but we have their eyewitness accounts marvelously (dare I say miraculously?) preserved for us in the pages of the New Testament.

Some will, no doubt, raise questions about the reliability of the New Testament. Can it be trusted as a document? Note the following facts about this most remarkable ancient document.

  • There are 5300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament
  • There are an additional 10,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Greek)
  • There are 9300 other early versions
  • This give us roughly 24,000 copies of the New Testament
  • The earliest of these dates to within 50 years of the writing of the originals.
Compare this to other ancient documents considered "authoritative"....
  • The 2nd place finisher is Homer's Iliad with 643 copies available. It's earliest copy dates to +/- 500 years from the writing of the original.
  • The 3rd place finisher is Ceasar's Gallic Wars with 10 copies available. Likewise it's earliest manuscript dates to +/- 500 years after the original.
Which of these documents, all considered authoritative by scholars, has the best textual evidence to insure that the document we have is as close as is possible to the original? Kind of a no-brainer don't you think? (For more see this paper.)

When Peter says "be prepared to make a defense...for a reason for the hope that is in you. (v.15)" he is talking about the logical, defensible nature of faith placed in Christ Jesus.

Furthermore, this hope is a grounded hope. It is built upon the solid, immovable, unchanging cornerstone of Jesus Christ. But this is not simply an affirmation of propositions about Jesus it is, first and last, a relationship with Jesus. Note what A.W. Tozer said about this.

"Tens of thousands of believers who pride themselves in their understanding of Romans and Ephesians cannot conceal the sharp spiritual contradiction that exists between their hearts and the heart of Paul.

That difference may be stated this way: Paul was a seeker and a finder and a seeker still. They seek and find and seek no more. After 'accepting' Christ they tend to substitute logic for life and doctrine for experience.

For them truth becomes a veil to hide the face of God: for Paul it was a door into His very presence...Many today stand by Paul's doctrine who will not follow him in his passionate yearning for divine reality."

It is a grounded hope that is based on much more than empty facts. It is built upon the very presence of Christ in the life of the believer.

This leads to an understanding of the strength of hope. Peter makes a most unusual statement in verse 16. He instructs his hearers to express this reason for the hope that is in them with "gentleness and respect." This hope is a gentle hope. But be careful not to confuse gentle with weak. It is a gentle hope born of the great strength of God Himself. Much like the exhibition of strength under control that I witnessed in the lives of those two young men this hope is to be communicated with gentleness and respect.

This should be revisited by many of our Christian brothers and sisters today. Far too many are trying to communicate this marvelous hope in less than marvelous ways. Let us follow the example of the one we claim to follow, divesting ourselves of all claims and rights. Let us simply serve and communicate the message of hope to a world in desperate need of hope.

October 15, 2008

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Funny that I intended all along to post about the poverty of the spirit and upon attempting to compose my thoughts on this needful topic I discovered that I am one who is spiritually impoverished. I intended to wag my finger at the busyness that distracts us from truly living. I was prepared to bring to light the shallow substitutes which fail to satisfy. I had decided to comment on the obvious growing hunger for matters of the spirit in our day and age. All this and more but I found the writing too difficult and too personal for I am guilty of busyness, and hunger, and shallow substitutes. Rather than offer my observations I find that I must proffer my confessions.

I am a busy man. I have found myself in recent weeks wondering where the time to spend with my family has gone. But another committee meeting beckons, another visit to the hospital must be made, the sermon must be prepared, the bills paid, the grass cut, the dog washed, and the dryer vent repaired.

I remember these feelings from my days in suburban hell.
The guilt of simply standing still for a few moments.
The paralysis of overwhelming demands.
The feeling of falling ever further behind.

I have filled my belly with the junk food all to readily available in our culture rather than the satisfying spiritual food I know to feed upon.

Looking for the latest scrap of election news until I am sick of hearing about it. Please don't let another automated call come through my phone line! (I have promised dire consequences should my bride EVER make another political contribution! It will be years before we are out of those systems, if ever.)

It's the economy stupid! Watching the roller coaster that has become the Dow Jones Index has become something of a hobby of late.

Sports binges are all the rage right now. All day Saturday football. ALCS and NLCS (and I'm not even a baseball fan!). Collegiate basketball just around the corner. I even accepted the "Free 8 week trial offer" of Sports Illustrated. I already hate to see the thing in my mailbox.

I know the growing hunger for spiritual food to sustain me. I know it because I need it. I know the heart cry of the Psalmist who says, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with Him?" (Psalm 42:2). I understand the wonder on the faces of those who heard Jesus say, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink" (John 7:37). I feel the thrill of the woman at the well when she was told she would never thirst again if she would but drink (John 4:13-15).

I am thirsty.

I am also blessed for I know that my thirst is not imposed upon me by a vindictive God. No, my thirst is of my own making.

To drink I simply return.

Once again I am surprised by the wonder of grace.

On Poverty

"Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing." Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

October 13, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Stones of Hope

A too full plate requires a seriously stripped down version of the message (I'm gonna' have to re-title this thing the Monday Afternoon Message...) Here's the bare bones outline - you flesh it out.

Scripture - 1 Peter 1:22-2:12

Let me remind you this little letter was written to believers. This is critical to the understanding of this letter. (If you are not a believer this message is ultimately not for you. It can be and I pray that it will be.) Peter wrote this to believers that were living in the midst of a culture that severely persecuted them and was openly hostile to their way of life. They, like us, needed to be reminded of hope.

Last week we discovered the stamp of hope has a plan (in place from before the foundation of the world - 1 Peter 1:20), a pattern (it is a living hope - 1 Peter 1:7) and it is transferred to our lives by pressures (1 Peter 1:9). God is still working this hope filled plan into our lives and the lives of those we encounter.

Notice first it is a holy hope. (1 Peter 1:22-2:1) This is not a hope the world has. It is a hope set apart for those who are in Christ. It affects our lives and the way in which we live them. If we are not accurately reflecting the character of God to a watching world we need to examine the quality of the hope that is in us.

This hope is also a wholesome hope ( 1 Peter 2:2-3) Peter talks of the pure spiritual milk. How can we know the truth in spiritual matters? Peter gives the answer in verse 3, "taste and see". If you've ever had spoiled milk you know it doesn't take long to figure out it's not good for you. Much the same with bogus spirituality, both of the "Christian" and "non-Christian" varieties. A little experience with toxic spirituality is enough to convince one of it's deleterious effect. Conversely, a little experience with the truth always leads to a desire for more truth.

This hope has a firm foundation (1 Peter 2:4-8). It is founded upon Christ the cornerstone. Once the cornerstone of a building was set everything else about that building was determined; the angle of the walls, the level of the succeeding courses of stone, etc. God sets the agenda for His people.

This hope is also a functional hope (1 Peter 2:5-12). Worship is the central calling of the church. This is not limited to the hour on Sunday morning. Indeed, every action of the believer is an action of worship performed before a watching world. Church is not just a religious association formed by saved individuals to give united expression to their faith. It is to be a living, breathing body responding to God's direction in our day to day lives.

In Number 6:22-27 God instructs the priests concerning the blessing they were to give. In 1 Peter we are given the astounding news that we are now the priests! We are part of God's plan to bring hope to the world.

October 8, 2008

Centenarian Still Preaching!

W.L. Baker is a man after my own heart! I sometimes get asked the "retirement" question which goes something like this, "So, how long do you think you'll be preaching?" My answer is I can't imagine not having the opportunity to stand and proclaim the marvelous truth of God's word on a regular basis. I get itchy after a couple of weeks out of the pulpit!

W.L. Baker recently had the opportunity to stand before almost 500 who had gathered to hear him deliver a sermon on Deuteronomy 34. The wonderful serendipity of this event was that this particular Sunday just happened to fall on his 100th birthday! You can read the rest of this story here. I wonder how many in attendance pondered the remarkable event in which they were participating?

On a few occasions in my life I have enjoyed the teaching of a sainted senior citizen and have marveled at the depth of their faith. They possess a wisdom and confidence arising from years of consistent reliance on God's presence in their lives which is heard not only in their words but in their lives. I pray that I will finish well and be one of those people. But, until then, I say, "Congratulations W.L.! Thank you for making level paths and straight roads on which we can follow. Here's to your 101st year of service!"

October 6, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Stamp of Hope

"Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die;
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the LORD?"
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God."
Proverbs 30:7-9

The headlines are full of hopeless news. I imagine some of you are losing sleep over the economic crisis facing our nation. I am sure some of you are processing bad news from the Doctor. I know with certainty that many are wrestling with children that have wandered. There is a need for a fresh dose of hope. But not just any hope will do. We need a hope that is certain and secure in these trouble filled days. Where are we to turn? Surely it's not to the government (their mishandling of crisis is well documented.) Surely it's not to the so called "Master's of the Universe" who once proudly prowled Wall Street but seem anything but masterful now.

The apostle Peter penned his first letter to the scattered believers in a time of great difficulty and he writes to them a singularly hope filled letter. I believe we can rediscover the reason those who are in Christ can and should hope even in the most trying of times.

Take a moment to read 1 Peter 1:1-9. Take note of the character of hope Peter describes.

Hope requires a plan. Here is good news! God has a plan! It is not a knee-jerk reaction to the headlines of the day. Rather it is a plan which God has been patiently working out from before the foundation of the earth. Peter speaks of God's foreknowledge and choice in verses 1 and 2. I am not going to enter into a lengthy discussion of the issue of foreknowledge and predestination here. I feel as John Calvin about such matters, that they should not be looked at for too long or with too much intensity as they are matters akin to looking into the sun. Suffice it to say here that God is aware and not taken by surprise by any of the events that have so possessed our minds recently. Peter speaks of Jesus as being known from before the foundations of the world in verse 20. What a profound and moving notion! Dr. Edmund Clowney, of the Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, states, "Foreknowledge means that...His [God's] people were the objects of God's loving concern from all eternity."

Hope requires a plan and God has one. It is not a plan just recently developed. It is a plan in place from all eternity. But hope also requires a pattern. What does this hope look like? Not just any hope will do. It can't be some over generalized characterization without any specifics. It must have a particular shape and character for it to be believable. Peter vividly describes this hope.

1. It is a living hope! (v. 3) This hope is firmly based on the empirical and historic event of the resurrection. Because Jesus rose from the grave we have reason to hope right now! There are some who will quickly ask, "But what if it's not true? What if Christ did not rise?" Some would say that living a "Christian" way of life is it's own reward. The apostle Paul would strongly disagree. He states in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that if Christ is not risen from the grave we are to be pitied above all men. In other words, the simple fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the hinge upon which all our hope swings.

2. It is an inherited hope. (v. 4) I know a bit about inheritance. I have a set of commentaries on my bookshelf that belonged to my grandfather. I did not buy them but they most certainly belong to me. Likewise our hope is not something we can earn because it has been bought and paid for by another, namely Jesus. This hope is an inherited hope!

3. It is an imperishable hope. (v. 4) Unlike the treasures in which we tend to place undue confidence, the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus is one that will not fade, spoil, or be ruined. We are all too familiar with the passing value of the stuff we collect. If you purchase a new car you are sure to get a ding in the door panel. If you put a new roof on the house you can almost count on a hail storm to damage it. If you purchase some new white tennis shoes someone will most surely step on them. Unlike all the "treasures" of this world, the treasure of the hope offered to us in Christ Jesus does not fade.

4. It is a guarded hope. (v. 4-5) Peter says this hope is kept for us. Marvelous word there. 'Kept' is a military term in the Greek carrying the notion of a sentinel, one who watches. This hope is being watched for us. The obvious question is, "Who's doing the watching?" and "Can we trust them to watch it well?" The answer provided in scripture is, "He who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper." It's good to know that God is watching over the hope that is ours.

5. It is a blessed hope. (v. 7-9). That word 'blessed' indicates 'happy.' Mind you this is not some naive pasty smile that is oblivious to the challenges being faced in our lives. Rather it is a deep abiding joy that is able to bring a spring to our step and smile to our face even in the most difficult of days. It is a joy that arises from the confidence we have in the one who plans and patterns our hope.

Finally hope not only needs a plan and a pattern, it also requires pressure. My father-in-law was a printer by trade. We have in our possession numerous drawers of type face that he would use to print the weekly paper. I watched time and again with fascination as he would carefully plan and pattern the print for the paper but it was the final step that brought the result. He would pass a sheet of paper through the press causing the image to be transferred. It required a great amount of pressure as his nine fingered hand grimly attested. Likewise this hope planned and patterned for us by God requires a pressure to be transferred to our lives.

In verses 6 & 7, Peter speaks of "trials" and "testing" of our faith. Peter understood that God's people in his day, and in our day also, faced pressure. This was no ordinary pressure. It was a pressure that brought about the result of God's sure hope being indelibly stamped into the very fabric of our lives.

Our hope is anchored in the past: Jesus rose!
Our hope remains in the present: Jesus lives!
Our hope will be completed in the future: Jesus is coming! To which I say, "Amen! Come Lord Jesus!"

September 30, 2008

John Ortberg on Politics and Preaching

Take a few moments to read John Ortberg's take on the whole preaching and politics issue. It dove-tails pretty nicely with the thoughts I was aiming at in the Monday Morning Message.

September 29, 2008

Monday Morning Message - At The Corner of Church and State

Little did I know just how timely this message would be. This message has been rolling around in my heart and head for several months now and on my preaching schedule since July. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that September 28th had been declared "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" by the Alliance Defense Fund. While I wholeheartedly agree with the principle and notion that the government has no right or authority to dictate what is proclaimed from the pulpits of the churches of this nation, I must disagree in point with the manner in which this is being carried out. It would seem that this was an exercise in tweaking the nose of the government. For more on this just keep reading.

All across this great land of ours, in towns very much like the one in which you live, churches sit on the corner of Church and State street. This visible expression of a salient, if inconspicuous, reality is a cogent reminder that at some point church and state do indeed intersect. What is to be the resultant relationship between the two is the lingering and nagging question? Part lesson in history, part commentary on current events, and part exposition of scripture, this message seeks to grapple with this foundational concept of freedom.

I fear that we, both religious and secular, have forgotten our heritage and have wandered into a most dangerous forest. Unless the path to clarity, the path blazed by those who have gone before, is rediscovered we may all find ourselves in places we have no desire to be.

There are four options when it comes to the relation of Church and State. They are as follows:

1. The Church is above the State, a theory held by those who claim that their ecclesiastical head is the Vicar of Christ on earth.
2. The Church is alongside the State, a theory held by the State Churches of various countries.
3. The State is above the Church, a theory held by the totalitarian governments.
4. The Church is separate from the State, championed by Baptists everywhere, and held by those governments that have written religious liberty into their fundamental laws.

As a Baptist it is of particular importance and interest to me to call to remembrance the heritage of religious freedom that is mine. I have often said that as a child I was a Baptist by convenience but as an adult I am a Baptist by conviction. Men like Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, the "George Washington" and "Thomas Jefferson" of Baptist history, along with Roger Williams, that renegade protestant who dared to found a colony upon the principle of religious freedom for all, have left a legacy we all do well to remember. These men, and many others like them, understood that genuine faith cannot be forced or denied by the state.

Thomas Helwys wrote the following into his personal confession of faith,

"That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to handle only civil transgressions (Rom 13), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience. James 4:12)." Article 84 of Helwys' confession of faith.

This statement seems innocuous enough to those of us who are the inheritors of the freedom of religious expression. Yet for Helwys, and others of his day, these were words to get a man killed. Indeed they ultimately cost Helwys his life as he died in prison for his views. Daring to defy the king and defend religious liberty for all, Helwys struck a flame that continues to burn to this day; a flame that is threatened by those who would unwittingly blur the lines between the role of the church and the state.

The mixing of these two institutions has a long history of being a patently bad idea. One can look to the tales in current events of persecution of Christians in Muslim and totalitarian states (Visit Voice of the Martyrs for current stories) as well as to the heinous history of Christian persecution of others (even other Christians!) in the not so distant past. Tony Campolo famously stated, "Mixing church and state is like combining ice cream and horse manure. It may not do much damage to the manure, but it's sure going to mess up the ice cream."

While this blurring of the lines is of concern on several fronts, the one that concerns me most is the apparent hijacking of faith for other purposes. In much that I see, hear, and read there is a blasphemous form of worship that is arising. I fear that in many places the worship of the One True God is being substituted by a secular religion worshiping God and Country. I know that sounds terribly un-patriotic, I assure you it is not. I am not anti-American, I'm just pro-God. I am incredibly proud to be a citizen of the USA. I am thrilled that my children have the opportunity to grow up in a nation with unparalleled freedoms. I can't think of another nation I would want to call home. However, as a Christian, my first loyalty is not to the Stars and Stripes, my first loyalty is to the one by whose stripes we are healed.

Note the following statements made by prominent politicians from both political parties. See if you discern a disturbing note in what they say.

"The ideals of the America are the hope of mankind. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it." George W. Bush, 2002

"This country is the last great hope of the planet." Barack Obama, 2008

"The global success of liberty is America's greatest strategic interest as well as its most compelling moral argument...In it rests our faith in the greatness of America, the last, best hope of earth." John McCain, 2002

Do you see it? If you are not a believer you may not see anything disagreeable in these statements. If you are a believer these statements should cause you to pause and consider what is being said. Each of these leaders, and many others like them, state, with clear conviction, "The United States of America is the hope of the world." I must forcefully disagree. There is but one hope of the world and it is Jesus Christ. Paul clearly states that he is "not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation." (Romans 1:16) Salvation will not come from Washington, D.C., nor will it flow from the seats of power scattered across the state capitals of this land. Salvation will only be found, for individuals and for nations, in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. And let me be clear, salvation certainly has to do with an eternal destination but it also has to do with our current situation. Salvation gives the believer no reason to be "so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good."

We must regain the power and influence of the early church which, though brutally persecuted, had a profound impact upon the culture in which it found itself. I challenge any and all to demonstrate from the New Testament any instance in which the church focused on getting Rome to pass laws to alleviate problems of any sort. The early church did not see the government as the solution to the problems of the day, they understood the church to be uniquely situated and uniquely called to address the brokenness in the world. A brokenness that is ultimately not one of systems but spirit.

William Estep, in his essay, Church and State, says, "Undeniably, the separation of church and state does produce a vacuum in society, or a 'naked public square.' In this fact lies the glory and the challenge of religious freedom." On one corner of that "naked public square," at the intersection of Church and State, sits the church. We, the church, are tasked with declaring a simple message to a listening and watching world, Christ died for sinners and rose again. "If the Christian faith is unequal to the task, no amount of propping up will do the job. Then with Thomas Jefferson, I would say, 'Let it fall,' but with Roger Williams and John Leland, I am convinced it will not, for I am persuaded that 'the gospel is still the power of God to salvation' for mankind and nations." (William Estep, Church and State.)

The apostle Peter, writing to a church under severe persecution by the government, gave the following instruction, "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." (1 Peter 2:13-17) May we follow these goodly and God-ly instructions by...

V - Voicing our concerns to God. In prayer we find the power and perspective to rightly interact with the world in which we live.

O - Opening our Bible and living by it. If this, or any nation, is to be a "Christian nation" it will not happen because of a declaration by those in governance over us but because of the clear conviction of lives changed by the power of God. we will be a "Christian nation" only when we are a nation of Christians.

T- Telling others. Too many believers are content to let their lives do the talking for them. While I readily agree that our walk must match our talk, there must be some talk involved. As Paul stated, "How are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone telling them?" (Romans 10:14)

E- Engaging and Explaining. I have said it once and I will say it again, the "bomb throwing" tactics of engaging our culture will never produce the desired result. In fact, I question whether biblical foundation can be found for this type of "culture war." Those outside the church are keenly aware of what we are against and many bear the scars to prove it. I wonder how many know what we are for? Jesus stated, "Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:12-13) We spend far too much time with the "well" and not nearly enough time with those who are "sick." Something has to change. The church at the corner of Church and State must engage those who think differently, talk differently, and act differently, not to change them into people who look like, talk like, and act like us, but to change them into people who follow Jesus.

"But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." (1 Peter 3:15-16) Does anybody want to know about the hope you have?

September 23, 2008

So Death is Coming...

"This sombre series of portraits taken of people before and after they had died is a challenging and poignant study. The work by German photographer Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta, who recorded interviews with the subjects in their final days, reveals much about dying - and living." Life Before Death, a photo essay by Walter Schels.

Above is a sample of a moving, disturbing, poignant series of photos that my friend Lucy brought to my attention. I have viewed the entire series on several occasions and am captured by the stories of each of the subjects, for indeed they are our stories. (I encourage you to do the same by clicking here or go to and search "Life Before Death & Walter Schels.) We live a myth of immortality which, though disturbed by the inconvenient intrusion of death from time to time, we are surprisingly adept at maintaining. This series of photos causes us to pause not with a morbid voyerism but with an unambiguous acknowledgement that we too will pass this way.

I found the wide variety of responses to death in those facing it squarely engaging. Some worldviews show through clearly (reincarnation, resurrection, anihilation, etc.) while others respond solely to the emotive power of the moment be it anger, great sadness, or ambivalence. In my experience with those facing death or walking this shadowed path with a loved one there is an equally wide ranging set of responses. I am often surprised by this as the vast majority of those I serve in these moments are immersed in a Christian worldview, yet thier responses in these moments are anything but the Christian understanding of this event. (I will address this in a later post...)

Very often when I officiate (what an interesting term...from the Latin, to provide divine service) a funeral I remind those gathered that this is a moment for solemn reflection as they too will someday have their name at the head of an obituary column. What then is to be done with the life we are given to live? Moses put his request before God in these words, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." (Psalm 90:12).

So, death is coming. An unavoidable question arises, are you, am I, living in such a manner as to be fully prepared for this approaching moment?

September 22, 2008

A Most Unpleasant Companion

Death....a great Leveler -- a king before whose tremendous majesty shades & differences in littleness cannot be discerned -- an Alp from whose summit all small things are the same size.
- Mark Twain, Letter to Olivia Clemens, 10/15/1871

Surely as the sun rises in the east and summarily sets in the west, so too we are assured that every birth is, at some time, accompanied by a death. It is perplexing that in the ever present company of so familiar a companion we are intensely restless, ill at ease, on edge, if you will. We do our best to dress it up, cover its stench, and blunt its edge; fruitless efforts all.

Death in nice clothing is still death.

Death doused in the fragrance of roses and carnations still reeks of wrongness.

Death called by other, more genteel names ("a passing," "pushing up daisies," "crossed over," "kicked the bucket," "gave up the ghost," etc.), is still that hated and tireless pursuer who must surely catch us all.

Entire industries have sprung up in this frightful specter's wake. Many seek a futile combat with this foe with only one loss (so far) on its record. Others dream dreams of taming this unruly behemoth. It is a tragic comedy to make the Bard greenly envious of its compelling story line. Witness the endless parade of "anti-aging" and "rejuvenating" products. What a desperate deception we foist upon ourselves! These products simply empower the lie we tell ourselves that there is no such thing as the boogey-man, when we know, all too certainly, that this boogey-man is real and it will catch us.

It is truly no respecter of men, for not only will it catch us, it will also catch those we love and those we hate and all those in between. It will catch the old and catch the young. Some with startling suddenness and others with agonizing, even glacial, patience. Some will be caught with stomach wrenching violence while others are captured in a moment of uncanny, almost beautiful, peace. Yet the destination is the same, all are traveling on the same train, and there is no getting off before the final station.

How then shall we come to terms with this dreadful companion? How are we to cope with the certain grief at an uncertain time? Are there possible answers to this impossible circumstance? Dare we hope in the face of such a daunting adversary? Good questions all and I will seek to address some of them over the next few posts.

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind, therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." John Donne - Meditation XVII

September 17, 2008

Twenty and Counting!

Twenty years ago I said "I do" to this beautiful woman who graces my life with joy and laughter every day. She is a marvelous cook, an unparalleled mother, a natural wit, a well of wisdom, and the one I can't wait to get home to each day. To say I am blessed would fall far short of the mark.

We often laugh out loud at what God must have been thinking when He brought us together.
  • I love solitude and silence, she leaves the television on for "background" noise.
  • I am a constant reader, she reads for survival.
  • I am a "Good morning God!" person, she is a "Good God, it's morning!" person.
  • I am self professed nerd, she is a southern lady.
  • I believe "Gone With the Wind" to be a perfect waste of three hours of film, she thinks it's the greatest movie ever made.
I could go on and on but I'm sure you're developing a picture in your mind. Our lives are rarely dull and our conversations are often punctuated by lively exchanges of ideas. I cannot imagine life any other way!

I am approaching the point at which I will have lived half of my born days with this woman. Funny, but I'm not sure I ever really lived before she came into my life. Sure, I can remember some great moments from my younger years (I had a great childhood!) but they all pale in comparison with the moments I have shared with her. And as I look forward to what lies ahead of us (kids in college, our 2nd honeymoon (aka "empty nest"), daughters and son in law, grandchildren, adventures, etc.) I get that Christmas morning feeling in my stomach. I just can't wait to see what's there for us!

My Beloved, you are truly the treasure of my heart. I thank God for you. Here's to the next twenty and beyond! I can't wait to see what's around the bend!

September 15, 2008

Talking Out of Both Sides of Your Mouth

I found this story in the latest edition of The Alabama Baptist and confirmed it with a simple web search. It seems the king is talking out of both sides of his mouth. On one hand you have good King Abdullah calling for reconciliation among various religions and on the other is the desperate reality of those citizens in his nation that are not followers of Islam. I find it intriguing that a mere two weeks after the King's much ballyhooed leadership toward interfaith cooperation that his surrogates continue an unrelenting campaign of religious intolerance. It seems that dialogue in Spain is fine but arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment are better at home.

Claude Salhani praises the good King's efforts saying, "In addressing the issue of religion as a source and motivation for today's violence, the king is moving in the right direction." King Abdullah's Experiment, Claude Salhani, The International Herald Tribune, July 29, 2008 (emphasis added). With all due respect, Mr. Salhani, I disagree completely. It would seem by his actions that the King is simply perpetuating the religious source and motivation for today's religious violence rather than addressing it.

September 12, 2008

Commission Stories

Let me invite you to take a moment to check out Commission Stories. You can do so by clicking my new widget on the right hand side. Here you will discover moving presentations of the work of taking the gospel to some of the most difficult places in the world. How wonderful to see these stories and be inspired by those who are exercising a bold obedience.

The photos are stunning, the stories stirring and the need overwhelming. "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns." (Isaiah 52:7)

September 2, 2008

Maybe We Should Get Out More...

The percentage of Americans who have never known

  • a Buddhist: 59 percent

  • an undocumented immigrant: 54 percent

  • a Muslim: 46 percent

  • a homeless person: 45 percent

  • an evangelical Christian: 40 percent

  • a political liberal: 25 percent

  • a political conservative: 24 percent

  • a former inmate: 15 percent

  • a wealthy person: 12 percent

Elison Research, Outreach magazine (September/October 2008)

Interesting poll question with equally interesting conclusions which reinforce that well worn adage that "Birds of a feather flock together." We, in America, find it awfully difficult to step outside our comfort zones. Too few are willing to take the adventure of meeting and getting to know someone who has a different life story. Oh, the joys we are missing!

As I look at the list, I am currently only missing the Buddhist. I am smaller for the lack. As William Hazlitt said, "We can scarcely hate any one that we know." Perhaps this is the rub. We are more content to dwell in the shelter of our ignorance (which often breeds hatred and distrust) rather than step into the bright light of relationship. A little civil discourse combined with generous amounts of patient listening would serve us all well.

Meet someone new this week! Who knows what interesting and potentially life changing conversations you might have!

August 26, 2008

Monday Morning Message - Thanked

The Monday Morning Message got hi-jacked this week as my church family held a celebration of 10 years of ministry together in my honor. To say I was surprised falls far short. To say I was humbled doesn't even scratch the surface. To say I am still processing all the events would be correct.

My Sunday began as Sunday's normally do with an early arrival to make a short pot of coffee (currently grinding some Venezuelan beans - yummy!) and meet with a group of men with whom I share life. Alas, the coffee was wasted and never tasted as I was unknowingly kidnapped by these friendly hoodlums for breakfast. I say unknowingly because we had enough time to enjoy the meal together and still return for the 8:30 service. Around 8:05 I became a little agitated and began suggesting that we should be making our way back. The only reply I got was, "Have another cup of coffee." It quickly became evident that more than breakfast was afoot here.

After plying me with generous amounts of coffee they loaded me back into the truck for an hour long tour of back roads with nary a bathroom in sight. They thought it to be great fun. My bladder had other opinions of the situation but the time was passed in pleasant company and good stories, not to mention some beautiful sights. (All my tree-hugging readers should come and visit sometime. I assure you there's no shortage of quality forest land around these parts.)

Upon returning to the church I was placed in my office with instructions not to wander without a chaperone. This is highly unusual for me as I normally stick my head into every Sunday School class to say hello and visit for a moment. So, there I sat while preparations for who knows what were being made. Just before 11 a.m. our minister of music simply said, "Make the announcements like you usually do." and walked away. Yeah, right. How am I to make announcements when it's obvious I have no clue as to what is happening!

To make this long story short, the church had arranged an edition of "This Is Your Life" for me complete with friends and family that I have not seen for quite some time. Letters from others who could not be in attendance were read and every word was gratefully received. It was an overwhelming exhibition of a church family's appreciation and love. Gifts were given and prayers offered even as humility settled upon me like a morning dew. I, and many others, left that time of worship refreshed and renewed by God's presence.

I am thoroughly thanked.

August 21, 2008

Never Underestimate the Power of Barbie!

From the Associate Press...

ELKIN, N.C. — David Hayes' granddaughter just ask him to hold her Barbie rod and reel while she went to the bathroom.

He did. And seconds later he landed the state record channel catfish at 21 pounds, 1 ounce.

Alyssa's father had bought the pink Barbie fishing rod for Christmas and she had caught a few bluegill before her grandfather hauled in the catfish.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported the catch Aug. 5 in eastern Wilkes County has been certified as a record by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Hayes and his granddaughter have been fishing in the pond behind his house since she was big enough to hold a pole.

Hayes says his granddaughter worried he would break her rod. He landed the 21-pound fish on a 6-pound test line. It was 32 inches long, 2 inches longer than the rod.

And all those times I baited my daughter's hook I thought what a waste of time! I love the line that she "worried he would break her rod." Just like a girl! (Tongue firmly in cheek!) What a great little story!

August 19, 2008

When the Medium IS the Message

I received the following news story from two different blogging friends and felt summarily compelled to post it for everyone's enjoyment and comment. My personal reflections follow.

Vacationing pastor lets PowerPoint lead service

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — When Doug Smith went to Bermuda this month, he left preaching duties to his favorite substitute: his PowerPoint program.
Smith says he felt better leaving the sermon to his PowerPoint than to his youth pastor, who has "made controversial remarks" in the main service before, or his associate pastor who will be busy with other important Sunday morning duties like stuffing bulletins.
Smith programmed the PowerPoint to deliver a 25-minute sermon, slide by slide. It included a closing prayer which some staff members found sterile.
"If he can't trust me to sub for him once a year, why do I work here?" said one pastor who asked not to be identified.
After worship time, Smith's PowerPoint presentation began and the congregation sat quietly, reading each new screen and taking notes. The PowerPoint even told a few jokes, spinning in the punchline. Smith says he worked hours to get the timing right and programmed his pauses down to the quarter-second.
"Not to boast, but I have a way with PowerPoint," he says. "It's like an instrument. When you play it well, people notice."
The final slide read, "Go with God! See you next week!" People were mostly surprised that the sermon felt like Smith was actually there.
"Everything he preaches is with PowerPoint anyway," says one member. "The only thing we were missing was him standing up there pressing the button. Maybe we should just hire the PowerPoint."

First a disclaimer. I use PowerPoint sometimes. I usually get positive feedback when I utilize it to emphasize points. Engaging people visually is a part of effective communication whether it is through the use of props (I currently have an old top harrow on the stage of our church to go along with the current series) or through pictures, video, or bullet point emphasis. Different people listen in different ways.

Additionally, as we live in a visually oriented society and the need for visual element in worship is obvious. I have made the statement on several occasions that we live in an literate society that is illiterate. Attention spans have shortened and the ability to process multiple streams of information simultaneously have brought on a generation that finds it difficult to attend to a talking head for very long.

As for this pastor's decision to utilize a PowerPoint presentation rather than ask someone to fill the pulpit for him, I have to take serious issue with his decision. The communication of the truth of Scripture is an intensely person-to-person endeavor. God has made it clear that He intends to communicate His truth through the medium of humanity. A quick flip through the pages of Scripture reveals God, time and again, speaking through, working through, and partnering with imperfect and flawed humans. I am always stunned/amazed/startled/dumbfounded that God chooses this course of action.

If the exercise of a sermon can be boiled down to a well timed and choreographed electronic presentation then let's all just stay home and not bother with gathering together. If the communication of truth is simply affirming some propositions we can all agree on then let's agree on them and go on about our business. But all who know and follow the living Christ understand that it is so much more. Truth must be lived in the context of community. I need brothers and sisters in Christ to challenge me, encourage me, and hold me accountable to the Truth we say we believe. I need the context of others on the journey to properly process the marvel of Christ living in me. I need others to rejoice and weep and shout and sit quietly with along the way.

Oh God, deliver us from dead words and lead us into a living encounter with the Truth.