Exploration and Discovery

I’ve been reading Undaunted Courage, the book by Stephen Ambrose that tells the story of Lewis and Clark and their expedition to discover unexplored western lands. It’s a fun book that I’d recommend to most anyone. We’ve come to associate the names Lewis and Clark with this great journey, and rightfully so, they are the ones who did it … they are the ones who faced this enormous task and battled all sorts of obstacles, weather, people, etc.

But behind the scenes was President Thomas Jefferson. He was a very well educated man, an inventor, prolific reader and writer, principle author of our Declaration of Independence, skilled in the disciplines of mathematics, architecture, horticulture, mechanics, zoology, and philosophy. But I suspect the argument can be made that Jefferson knew this knowledge was NOT to just keep bottled up and preserved, but rather to be used to explore and discover what was yet unknown. It was Jefferson who commissioned and empowered Lewis and Clark on their expedition out West. Jefferson was passionate about finding a waterway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and had the vision of sending a group out to discover it. Jefferson granted Lewis and Clark the authority and backing of the government to purchase whatever they needed for the journey. Not in any way to diminish the courage and spirit of these two great explorers, but to put it bluntly, there wouldn’t have been a Lewis and Clark apart from the vision, authority, commissioning, and empowerment of Thomas Jefferson. In some ways we could say they were carrying out the desire of his heart.

I’m learning more and more as I press forward in evangelism, that I am carrying out the desire of the Lord’s heart. While the Lord’s ultimate desire is for Himself to be glorified above all things, I do believe that exploration and discovery among unbelievers is right at the center of what He has called us to do as we proclaim His glory. Jesus Himself said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:10). I’m learning that as I go “into the wild” I have the full authority and power of being commissioned by God Himself.

Friends, I assure you that the Lord’s full commission, backing, support, authority, resources, and desire is ours as we move toward our unbelieving friends and neighbors. This work of evangelism to which He has called us isn’t really something we must do for Him as much as it is joyfully participating in the desire of His heart! Will you join the expedition?

Following Jesus

All of us at some point have played “follow the leader,” perhaps on the playground as kids. For the most part it’s a fairly easy game … until the leader starts across some narrow balance beam, or climbs a rope, or scales over a high wall, etc. It’s a fun and satisfying game until we face challenges we can’t do! In some ways this reflects our exact feelings about discipleship or following Jesus …. it’s all fun and satisfying and even relatively easy until He starts across that beam where we have to keep a balance between what we want to say and what actually benefits the listener, or when we have to ascend to holiness when our desire is rather to indulge our sin nature, or when we must scale over the obstacle of forgiving someone who has offended us, etc. Following Jesus sounds like a great thing until we realize He’s going to take us into some very difficult places where we’re going to stumble and fall.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the world loves to see Christians stumble and fall. Not that non-Christians don’t fail at the same things, but the world looks for confirmation of its bias that all Christians are hypocrites. A typical response to that (even though we won’t necessarily verbalize it in this way) is to step up our game and show them that we’re actually really good Christians and NOT hypocrites like the others.

This past Monday at my annual visit to the doctor, I was speaking with a nurse about her church background. She admitted she isn’t really committed to a church, tends to bounce around from church to church when/if she does attend, and doesn’t really trust the church. Why? … because years back the church hurt her family because they didn’t do the “Christian” thing in a certain situation. It’s not only tough following Jesus, but it’s tough knowing that the world is constantly evaluating our performance which is full of stumbles, slip-ups, and downright failure. So should our goal be to never fall again? … to display what a perfect follower of Jesus looks like? … to prove that not all Christians are hypocrites? Do we get concerned that unless the world sees what a perfect follower of Jesus looks like they’ll never be convinced of the Gospel? Let me first be clear that as followers of Jesus we’re called to full and wholehearted obedience - we never have an excuse to sin. But also know that it’s God’s plan to use flawed and imperfect followers like us to introduce others to the perfect leader, Jesus Christ.

So yes, please address your sin, hate it, repent of it, turn from it, put on the righteousness of Christ, and pursue obedience. But make sure that in your efforts to do this you are not wanting others to see how good you are, but rather see how good Jesus is. We will fall off that beam, we’ll not be able to climb high enough, we’ll not be strong enough to get over certain obstacles, etc. but as we do all this repentantly and point to our Perfect Leader, God’s plan is still intact and He will continue to use flawed followers like us to draw people to Himself. Let’s press on in faith, not be afraid to fail, and watch how the Lord will use us!

Vacation Rest

Well, our week of vacation is almost over but not quite ... still have a day to rest, relax, slow down, read, think, and enjoy before hitting the road back home to Moody. It's been a wonderful and needed week to get away and unwind. 

Here's a fundamental truth that I often need to be reminded of ... pastors need vacations. Stress, fatigue, and anxiety are abundant in the lives of those in ministry and we don't need to pretend that these things don't count against physical limitations simply because work is done under the banner of "ministry." Also, pastors need to be humble enough to realize the church actually needs Jesus more than it needs them and it's a good thing to intentionally trust God and depend on Him. And one more thing ... maybe even the most important ... the pastor's wife need vacations! the stress and fatigue in their life is also very real.

So thank you CPC for allowing my wife and me to take a great vacation. I close with a quote from Jeramie Rinne.

May we not confuse busyness with godliness, or exhaustion with fruitfulness. Be courageous, leave the kingdom in God’s hands, and rest for the good of our soul, the health of the church, and the glory of God.

The Church's Hearing Problem

One of the fundamental principles of Evangelize Today (the ministry I have been and will be working with) is learning to "listen to hear vs. listen to respond." To be honest, most of us Christians have the reputation of merely listening to unbelievers just enough to somehow convince them that we're actually paying attention, but in reality are busily formulating a response and eagerly awaiting the opportunity to share it. After all, we know the truth, they don't, we're called to share it, they need to listen to what we have to say, and if they don't then it's their fault and we can write it off to their unwillingness to believe. But here is what's closer to the truth ... deep down we don't really care what they have to say because it's obviously unenlightened and is not going to be right. 

We must recapture and believe the theology we profess. Each person, believer and unbeliever alike, is created in God's image, thus has dignity and worth and is to be respected. And if we're wiling to show them this respect, patiently wait, and "hear" what they are saying we will eventually see the image of God shine through. And it is there that we can most certainly connect with them, often through a wound or disappointment, and get to the point of speaking Gospel truth into their lives. 

But doing this with non-Christians requires us using certain "hearing" muscles that we're not accustomed to using. It takes practice, discipline, diligence, patience, and utter dependence on God's grace. But once we begin to "listen to hear" we discover a world of opportunities to connect with unbelievers that we never knew existed.

Allow me to give you the opportunity to exercise your "hearing" muscle. On Monday nights I gather with a group of unchurched folks who ask all sorts of questions about life, Bible, and whatever else they can think of! This past Monday night I was asked this question: "When we get to heaven will we be married to our first wife? If not, who will we be married to?" And as that question was being asked and initially discussed a couple of folks in the group literally said, "Well, wherever he/she (first husband/wife) is gonna be after I die, I want to go to the other place." So before you start trying to explore all the theology of answering that question (who will we be married to in heaven?), what did you hear? What's the back narrative in the minds of those who asked the question and responded by saying they want to be anywhere other than their ex-spouse? How might you as a Christian find a way to connect with these folks? They are saying a lot more than just expressing curiosity about a topic. 

This is just a glimpse into the world of evangelism I'm exploring. It's not a strategy of "truthing" unbelievers into the Kingdom, but rather respectfully hearing them and figuring out what's beneath the surface so that when I do speak to them of the Gospel they will know I love them. I believe this is something all of us in the church can do. We've had a hearing problem, but the Lord graciously offers us the aid of His Spirit as He transforms and empowers us to respectfully interact with unbelievers. 

By the way, the topic my group picked for discussion at our next meeting on Sept 10 (we'll skip Labor Day) is, "How are we made acceptable to God?" So don't tell me that the Lord doesn't provide opportunities to share the Gospel! Pray for me ... and for my Monday night group. 

 

35 Years

It started at a wine and cheese party during opening orientation in 1978 ... my sophomore year at Oxford College. I was helping work the Coca-Cola table ... I didn't like wine or cheese! Not a lot of traffic at my table and I was getting a little lonely and perturbed watching all my friends interact with other folks, especially the cute girls who were coming in as freshmen.  Finally, when I saw Tim at a nearby table with three girls, I realized I had enough and must take some action. So I left my post at the Coke table and went over to see what was going on.  One of those girls was from the small South south Georgia town of Lyons ... her name was Anita.

So after 5 years of dating and 35 years of marriage here we are with 7 living children, 3 beautiful and gracious daughters-in-law, 2 incredibly cute grandkids, and the best church family in the world. Nobody in attendance that night in the Oxford Student Center would have ever predicted such a full and blessed life for us; I certainly couldn't have! 

Not that it's been all smooth sailing ... life is hard, marriage is hard, raising children is hard, caring for a special needs child is hard, losing a child is hard, ministry is hard, etc. ... but having Anita with me every step of the way is absolutely the best gift apart from Christ I could possibly ask for. In fact, I can't imagine my life apart from her. I thank God for her and realize I am among the most blessed of all men!

It was Sunday afternoon, 21 August 1983, at the First Baptist Church of Lyons, GA where we gathered in God's presence with family and friends to exchange marriage vows and publicly acknowledge the absolute supremacy of Christ in our lives and marriage. I reflect on the covenant God made with us and we made with one another and I realize I'm the weakest of the partners in this relationship. Truly, God has been perfectly faithful in all His promises. And though Anita hasn't been perfect, she's far exceeded me in upholding our vows. Her tireless love and support for me makes my love for her seem feeble and lackluster. Yet I rejoice in God's grace and ask that He would mold me to be more like Jesus, especially as I seek to love my wife as He has loved me.

And to the Community Presbyterian Church family ... thank you! You have cared for us, supported us, loved us, been patient with us, watched us grow, and nourished us in spirit during the overwhelming bulk of our marriage. We are blessed to be a part of this family.

So 35 years down and we're hoping for 35 more!

Glad I'm Not a Betting Man

As I mentioned in my announcement to the church this past Sunday, I don't come across as a huge risk taker. I'm pretty conservative, averse to much risk, and afraid of much change. But here I am at a point in life where I'm either crazy, going through some personal crisis, or actually trusting God to do something amazing in this season of my life and ministry. There's actually some evidence that maybe I'm going crazy or experiencing some personal crisis ... I now own a Toy Poodle! If you would have bet me a million dollars a year ago that I'd have a Toy Poodle I would have taken that bet, and lost! And If a couple of years ago you would have bet me that I would really enjoy doing evangelism with the unchurched, even to the point of being a regular at a local bar (which, btw, I didn't even do in college) I would have taken that bet! And now here I am on the brink of stepping down from what is the best and most desirable job in the entire denomination (Sr. Pastor at Community Presbyterian in Moody) and pushing deeply into the messy, unpredictable, uncomfortable, and vulgar world of unbelievers.  Yes, I'll still be here in Moody and involved at CPC, but my focus will be evangelism and mission ... yet another move I'd have lost money on had I been a betting man.

Let me say I am NOT making this change in ministry focus because I'm weary of ministry nor because I'm wanting to disconnect from CPC. In fact, I'm guessing this new emphasis will be more emotionally and physically exhausting than I can even imagine. And, as I hope is clear, I'll continue to be involved in the life and ministry of CPC for years to come. So why am I wanting to do this? A couple of weeks ago I shared a statistic from 2010 that 52% of people in St. Clair County identity their religious affiliation as "none." That means they don't go to church buildings, they're not really interested in going into church buildings, and if all we do is try to get people in our church buildings then we're effectively saying "the hell with you" to the growing majority of our population. I'm not okay with that and want to be in a position to help not only CPC but other churches and pastors to grasp the joy and excitement of exploring the world of unbelievers, building relationships with them, and seeing some come to know Christ.

My work with Evangelize Today has pushed me into places I'd have never expected yet has also allowed me to see the amazing beauty and power of the Gospel in ways I never expected. I've discovered that unbelievers are not nearly as scary and wicked as I thought. Here's where we have theology on our side ... as image bearers of God these unbelievers actually have great worth and are typically willing to engage in relationship with me, even as a pastor, as I show them respect and treat them with the dignity they deserve as an image bearer. Sure, they're often initially suspicious and curious why I, a pastor, would enter into their world. But when they realize they can trust me, that I genuinely want to hear what they have to say, that I am theirs and they are mine, the doors to ministry and conversations about the Gospel just seem to happen. 

Know that I am scared about all this! I often come across as confident, sure, full of faith, and not worried about anything, but inwardly I'm nervous as a cat about pursuing this new venture. The prospect of leaving something so comfortable, dealing with the messy lives of unbelievers, training other pastors who are much sharper than me, and raising financial support is overwhelming and intimating to say the least! But by God's grace I press on. Please pray for me and my family, for CPC as our church enters a new season, for the number of unbelievers in this community who I'm already in relationship with, for the work of Evangelize Today, and for the glory of Christ to be primary in all of this. I will continue to keep you updated on things as they progress.

 

Why Jude?

This little New Testament book, right before Revelation at the end of the Bible, may seem like an odd choice for a sermon series. But the more I speak with people in the community, both Christian and non-Christian, I sense a similar urgency that Jude (actually Judas, half-brother of Jesus) must have felt. Back in his day Christianity was under severe attack, not just the external attack of Rome, but inwardly from the infiltration of false teachers who sowed abundant seed for a huge harvest of doctrinal error. Jude's letter is a call to arms, a battle cry, an urgent call for the church to deal with apostasy and false teaching, calling for Christians to be discerning and to defend true, Biblical doctrine. 

This is why I find Jude so relevant for us today! While the church is under attack from outside sources, we are also in grave danger of attacks from within ... false teachers and teachings have infiltrated the church and weakened us almost to the point where any teaching is deemed acceptable as long as the name Jesus is sprinkled on it a few times (though perhaps a "Jesus" defined differently than the orthodox teaching of Scripture), a Bible verse or two is referenced (but not exegeted or explained and probably not used in context), it's taught by a gifted communicator with much charisma (though perhaps not adequately trained nor under the authority of church leadership), and it makes us "feel" something (though similar feelings can come from sporting events, watching kitten videos on Facebook, opening a fortune cookie, or eating a bad burrito bowl at Chipotle). Though the evangelical community would be very nervous about "tolerance" when it comes to who goes in what restroom at the local Target, we are incredibly "tolerant" of any and every doctrine that comes our way with a Christian label. We've lowered our commitment to sound theology to the point where we're willing to feel good about our brother or sister in Christ "as long as they're going to church somewhere." While there are lots of really good churches around, there are also a lot of bad ones!

Please DO NOT hear me saying that diversity in the church is a bad thing or that in order to be a true Christian you must be in the PCA tribe. I actually welcome varying perspectives on many theological matters ... I like the fact that different denominations exist and help us see things with a different emphasis ... I'm excited to learn Biblical truth from other cultures and ethnicities. And I'm definitely not saying that we're to be theological snobs, waving our particular theological credentials around in self-righteous ways ... but we must take seriously the responsibility to contend for the faith and rigorously defend orthodox theology.  This is Jude's call to the church in his day and it's the cry to Community Presbyterian Church today!

Let's take this responsibility seriously by doing a few things.

  • Study the Scripture. We're not going to be discerning apart from a knowledge of the Bible. Read it, learn it, come to Sunday School and worship, get involved in a small group study, be discipled by someone mature in their faith.
  • Read good book on theology. Don't let Google decide for you how to pursue true teaching on a particular matter. There are many good resources. If you need help, ask us.
  • Be willing to teach our children and youth. A strong foundation in the early years goes a long way to help guard against heresy taking root. 
  • Pursue your friends who have strayed into false teaching. Again, the church in America has been infiltrated with much heresy and we need to love fellow believers enough to help them discover this error.
  • Pray for the church ... for Community, for the PCA, for the church in America, for the church around the world ... to be discerning and not afraid to exercise discipline when needed. None of us are immune from error and we need God's grace to preserve us. 

When Parishes Collide

We don't use the term parish a whole lot, and though it may technically be defined by geography, it also refers to the people who would identify one man as their pastor. In a sense Community Presbyterian Church could be described as a parish with me as the pastor. But a large part and purpose in my evangelism work is to build a parish of around 200 non-Community folks who would eventually call me pastor. These are those unchurched, non-Christian, non-church-going people who have no intent to set foot in our, or any other, church building ... hopefully some eventually might, but most never will. This is a hard work in a field that has been largely ignored by the church over several generations. We (the evangelical churches in America) have focused our efforts on attracting those who are already converted, who are looking for a church to attend, and trying to convince them that we're the best show in town. But that group is rapidly disappearing. I trust you saw the statistics I distributed last week that even here in St. Clair County Alabama 52% of the population defines themselves as "none" when it comes to religious affiliation. No longer can we self-righteously shake our heads in disgust at ungodly places like Europe, Arabic nations, Indonesia, etc. ... people in our own neighborhoods are not attending church.

My great desire is to see my two parishes collide on a regular basis. By definition, the not-interested-in-church parish isn't going to seek out the church-going crowd, so the challenge is to motivate and facilitate ways for us church-goers to explore the other parish. A couple of days ago I had the privilege and joy with two other CPC guys to get dirty with some from my other parish. We helped clean up an old cemetery owned by one of my friends who's too old to adequately maintain it. We mowed, cut weeds, raked, bagged trash, and whatever else needed doing for several hours. Our being there did not result in any immediate conversions, no one spoke any prophesies, no tongues of fire descended from heaven, nobody gave their life to Christ, and no one asked to be baptized. But there were some new relationships built, some friendships strengthened, some questions asked, some doors opened ... we inched our way into the lives of some men who desperately need the Gospel, and we hope to press in deeper as the Lord allows.

Please pray for my parishes ... for Community Church and for the 200 other non-church folks I'm hoping will call me "pastor" as our friendship grows.  And if you ever want to explore the world of the unbeliever, give me a shout. I truly want CPC to be a church family who loves unbelievers and lives out the Gospel in front of them. It's a beautiful thing when these two parishes collide!

Hard to Make People Happy

I've told people for many years that the hardest thing we do as a church is weekly worship! How do we as sinners rightfully enter into the presence of a holy God and offer Him any sort of suitable worship? It boggles the mind to consider what a privilege this is ... and also the responsibility we have to do it rightly and in accord with God's Word. Surely not something to be taken lightly.

But other than this primary and fundamental difficulty of worship, there are other matters that make it tough! We have to consider the style of music, song selection, elements of liturgy, seating, room temperature, dress, logistics, childcare, opening and closing the building, and a host of other things. How do we manage all these things when folks have so many differing opinions, preferences, likes, dislikes, traditions, and backgrounds? Again, these are nothing when compared to the seriousness of entering into God's presence, but nevertheless are matters we must consider.

Here's another thing that makes Sunday worship hard ... how are we to treat the guests who come and worship with us? I just read an article by church researcher Thom Rainer and he listed the "Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Guests." Want to guess what the top two were? ... the first is essentially the church is trying to be too friendly (specifically he identified the "stand up and greet one another" during worship time). The second reason is the church isn't friendly enough (in his terms "unfriendly church members"). So should we be friendly? How friendly should we be? We'll offend folks if we come on too strong ... we'll offend folks if we don't come on strong enough ... where's the balance? How should we welcome the Sunday morning guest? How can we make everyone happy? Of course, I know that we can be very welcoming without having the awkward "stand and greet" time. Though there are some exceptions and slip ups, I think for the most part Community does a pretty good job with this.

But know that I'm not writing about a welcoming strategy. I'm actually thinking more of the way we worship ... our mindset, perspective, focus, posture, etc. before and during worship. If our focus is on "how to make everyone happy" then we're going to fail miserably at the whole deal. Both our worship to our Father and our relationship to guests will be seriously hindered and flawed. Perhaps our focus needs to be on Jesus Christ, the King and Head of the church, our Redeemer, Sovereign Lord, and Savior. When our gaze is fully on Him we will most certainly treat others, including our guests, with great respect and love. The more pure our worship to Christ, the better will be our "welcoming" posture toward one another. How can it not? The more enamored we are with God's love for us in Christ the more loving we'll be toward one another.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be intentional and welcome our Sunday morning guests ... we most definitely should ... so please do! But most importantly, fix your eyes on Christ and insure that your encounters with others are the natural outgrowth of a heart saturated with the Gospel. I suspect that when this occurs our guests will neither feel overwhelmed by artificial friendliness nor put off by a lack of friendliness! 

Precious in Life ... Precious in Death

In His infinite wisdom, God chose this past week to call Adria Ellis home to glory. I can't imagine anyone would disagree when I say that she was one of the godliest, kindest, strongest, most faithful, most humble people ever created. When I think of my own life I can fairly easily pick it apart and highlight a myriad of flaws, inadequacies, sins, and inconsistencies. But as I reflect on Adria's I come up pretty empty trying to find some glaring deficiency. Not that she wasn't a sinner ... she was, and in humility would be the first to run to the cross for forgiveness, grace, strength, and life. I would say the same about Joe ... a true man of God, full of faith, humble, godly character. 

So why didn't God answer their many prayers for Adria's healing? And not just their prayers but those of the entire CPC family and of the Ellis family's many friends and relatives. Why didn't God take away the cancer that eventually took her life? That's a question many of us ask, but knowing Adria I suspect we wrestle with it much more than she did. Adria's faith was real and she had total confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God. She knew God had numbered her days and that she was in no position to argue with His perfect and gracious will. Adria's faith was and will continue to be a model for me and so many others. 

Psalm 116:115 says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." It doesn't always seem very precious at first, but as we reflect on this truth perhaps it can begin to make sense. I borrow some thoughts from A.W. Pink as he comments on this verse. We tend to process everything in life from our own perspective rather than God's and most certainly we view death from our own point of view. But this verse gives us a tiny glimpse from God's perspective. He says that the death of His children is precious to Him ... how can this be? How can Adria's death be precious to the Lord when it seems so hideous to us?

First of all, Adria herself was precious to God. She was one on whom His love was set upon even before the foundation of the world. She was one for whom Jesus willingly left heaven for and who lived and died. She was one for whom Jesus shed His precious blood. Thus, everything about Adria, the number of her hairs that eventually fell out, her every breath, her life, and even her death are precious to Him.

Secondly, her death terminates her sorrows and sufferings. Scripture affirms that we will suffer in this life and that we must go through much of it as we move toward glory. Yet God is never unmindful of or indifferent to our sufferings. In fact, Scripture reminds us that Jesus is familiar with our suffering and that Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. So in Adria's death, God brought an end to her pain and suffering. 

The death of His children also gives the Lord the opportunity to display His sufficiency. To quote Pink, "Love is never so happy as when ministering to the needs of its cherished object, and never is the Christian so needy and so helpless as in the hour of death." Our extremity is God's opportunity to display His amazing grace. As our shepherd, He carries us as helpless sheep in His arms. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Adria's untimely death will force us to rest more securely in God's sufficiency.

Lastly, at death His saints enter into God's presence and He delights in having His children with Him. Jesus enjoyed having the disciples accompany Him on His journeys and as He left them He gave the assurance that He was going to prepare a place for them so that they would eventually be with Him forever. 2 Corinthians 5:8 instructs us that being absent from the body means we are present with the Lord. "Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord." As precious as it would be for Joe and the rest of us to enjoy many more years of life with Adria, her presence with the Lord is even more precious. 

None of this makes death easy for any of us. We will still mourn and grieve over Adria's death, and rightly so as death is a hideous enemy. But while we from our perspective experience sorrow, Christ is rejoicing! Remember His prayer in John 17:24 - "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."