Listen, Learn, Love

In the course of my growing work in evangelism I’ve had the opportunity to meet some interesting people. Perhaps none more so than 98 year old local B’ham Blues legend Henry “Gip” Gipson. Gip’s Place, at his home in Bessemer, is one of the only remaining authentic Juke Joints in the country, maybe even the last true one. I’ve actually become pretty good friends with Gip and he’s a regular at my Monday night group discussion of spiritual/Biblical topics targeting unbelievers. Although Gip gets confused on things and very easily gets off track, he loves to talk about the Bible and Jesus. He obviously has been taught a lot of Bible truths over the years and I do believe Gip is a Christian. But again, he’s almost impossible to follow and comprehend when he shares his thoughts in our discussion group.

Gip’s not able to drive but comes with a friend who essentially functions as his handler. Billy (not his real name) isn’t his agent and isn’t involved in Gip’s finances or business, but really is just a friend who cares for him and helps in any way he can, really sort of Gip’s handler. Billy wouldn’t say he’s an unbeliever but he is. Although he believes in Jesus he doesn’t know or profess Jesus in a saving way. But I learned something from Billy the other night, something simple yet profound.

Perhaps you’re aware that Gip has been in the local news the past several days. Two of Gip’s nice guitars are missing and presumably stolen. For a Blues musician, his guitar is almost an extension of his body, it’s that thing that allows him to express his heart and soul in music. And Gip’s two favorite guitars are gone! At the end of every Monday night’s discussion I take a minute or two and ask folks if I can pray for them. Gip wasn’t able to attend this past week, but someone suggested we pray that his guitars get returned. I thought that was a beautiful request and immediately turned to look at Billy. Billy’s response told me a lot about him … he said, “I don’t care about those **** guitars, let’s pray for Gip’s health.” Though not a believer, I saw and heard in him the image of God shining through.

I learned something about my own heart in that moment, too. I tend to be one of those evangelical Christians who love the idea of supporting causes, movements, initiatives, projects, etc. but not necessarily loving the person or people behind those things. It’s easy to love the Pro-life movement, but hard to love a young woman struggling with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s easy to be excited about poverty alleviation, but hard to love the homeless man on the street corner. It’s easy to embrace the idea of racial reconciliation, but hard to actually befriend your neighbor of a different race. It’s easy to champion second amendment rights, but hard to come alongside the victim of a senseless shooting. It’s easy to profess that Christians should love one another, but it’s hard to love the man in the church who just failed in his responsibility. It’s easy to care about the cause of getting Gip’s guitars back to him, but it’s hard to actually love Gip.

As we grow in our faith, let’s make sure we do a couple of things. First, let’s listen and learn even from the unbelievers around us. They often have profound insight into things that challenge and teach us. Secondly, let us enter into the mess of relationships and not just settle for causes, ideas, concepts, or movements. By the way, as I prayed for Gip’s health, I also prayed for him to get his guitar’s back! The causes aren’t bad, but let’s not forget the people in them.

All Things New

A couple of days ago Anita and Seth were riding home from running some errands. Trying to make conversation, Anita asked Seth to name something he was thankful for. Apparently he thought about it just a second and then responded with, “God makes all things new.” She asked him to repeat it and he affirmed that he’s thankful that “God makes all things new.” Of course, I had to test Seth, wondering if he perhaps had just heard someone say that phrase or maybe listened to the song. Again, a few days later I asked him the same question - “What are you thankful for?” His response didn’t change - “God makes all things new.”

Honestly, as a dad that’s something you’d be excited to hear any child say he’s thankful for. But to hear your Down Syndrome son utter those words, to acknowledge and say he’s thankful that “God makes all things new” is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.

To be honest, I have no idea how much of that statement Seth actually comprehends … I’m not even sure I fully understand all the implications of this profound truth. But we do have full confidence that Jesus is coming back, that everything will be made new, that God will dwell with His people and wipe away every tear, that death shall be no more, that crying and mourning and pain will have passed away, that God will completely reverse all the effects of sin and the fall, and that there will be no more chromosomal abnormalities like Down Syndrome. Who can really wrap their minds around all that? Not me … maybe Seth does more than I realize!

One of the projects that my ministry with Evangelize Today will delve into is how faith operates in the lives of mentally disabled folks. How do they come to faith in Christ? How might we best evangelize this population who, just like us “normal” people, bears the image of God?

Do they have a special antenna? If Seth is any indication, then I’m starting to think maybe they do. I’m looking forward to exploring this ministry and would ask for your help. Please pray for opportunities and let me know if you have any mentally challenged relatives or friends that might want to discuss matters of faith in Christ. And pray that I would catch up to Seth in my faith!

Happy Reformation Day

October 31, 1517 … the day that sparked the Protestant Reformation, the day the Gospel of grace once again broke forth from the chains of darkness, the day that opened the door for Christians to return to God’s Word as the authority for faith and life, the day that pointed the church back to the glorious doctrine of justification through faith alone in Christ alone, the day that brought about not only theological and church transformation but also cultural transformation. Yes, it’s a day that should be remembered and celebrated by believers all over the world.

Luther was greatly troubled and upset about the mass corruption in the church during his time. The selling of indulgences for past, present, and future sins seemed to him absurd. Could it be true that one could buy his way into heaven? Is there any thing man can do to merit eternal life? These concerns consumed Luther and he wrote out his 95 theses and presented them on the door of the Wittenburg church to spark debate. Luther was bold, a man of faith, willing to risk it all for what he believed. A few years later when asked to recant of his radical views against the established church, Luther didn’t budge, he didn’t give in, he didn’t compromise, he refused to put the tradition of the church or the authority of men above the authority of God’s Word.

As much as we adore Luther and appreciate what he sparked by his actions, the real celebrity and focal point of the Reformation is God’s Word. I sense that Luther himself might literally cuss us out if he discovered we spent more time praising him that reading and studying the Scripture. So you want to celebrate Reformation Day? … good … I hope you do. But here’s the best way to celebrate - amid all the costumes and reflection on the actions of Martin Luther just simply grab your Bible, sit down for a while, and prayerfully read a portion of it. It is God’s Word, living and active, totally true and sufficient for us in every way, authoritative over every aspect of our lives, and the very beautiful means of liberating grace for us. In Luther’s own words as #62 of the 95 theses, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

The Treatment

Yesterday Stokes looked at me and asked, “What’s going on with all that on your face?” He was referring to the very noticeable red splotches, especially on and right below the temple areas. These spots are caused by the application of Fluorouracil cream used to treat some pre-cancerous growths that my dermatologist noticed.

Yeah, I know it’s hard to believe that my ultra-white skin has ever been exposed to the sun, and though I’ve never really had anything close to what someone would describe as a “tan,” I’ve still suffered some damage from the harmful affects of the sun. In fact, I’ve already had a few other pre-cancerous spots removed So lesson number one with this is that you don’t have to be a Satan worshipper to be negatively impacted by sin.

But here’s the other lesson … the cure is sometimes more painful that the condition. I didn’t even know these particular places were problems until the highly trained dermatologist found them. I felt just fine! (Sin is just like that, deceiving us into thinking everything is fine.) But now this healing cream is causing irritation, burning, redness, dryness, tenderness, and pain on my face. I know that my hurt and discomfort is negligible compared to those being treated with chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, to those going therapy recovering from surgery, and a host of other more severe treatments. But the point is, the treatment and cure often hurts more than whatever condition is being treated.

The same is true with God’s sanctifying grace. As God works in us, exposing and addressing our sin, sometimes surgically having to cut in some sensitive areas, often without anesthesia, we experience pain. And even though we know His work in us is good, wise, beneficial, purposeful, and healing … it still hurts! It’s compared in Malachi 3 to the refiner’s fire where impurities are melted away from gold and silver. We can’t alway see what God is doing in our pain but we know He is dealing with our sin and impurities in order to make us more like Jesus. And though we tend to avoid any prospect of pain, we know that if we want to grow in holiness we must persevere in God’s refining and purifying grace.

So where is God at work in your life, applying the sanctifying cream of grace that has side effects of tenderness, irritation, burning, dryness, burning, and pain? Don’t despise this grace … it’s necessary … it’s God’s way of producing righteousness in you … even preparing you to comfort others wrestling with their own sin.

Prayer and Hurricanes

I seem to remember several years ago hearing about Pat Robertson, of the Christian Broadcast Network, claiming to have redirected a hurricane away from his Virginia Beach headquarters. I know for sure that earlier this year he claimed to have prayed Hurricane Florence away from doing damage to his CBN and Regent University campus. I also remember on both occasions thinking about those folks who did end up being in the path of these storms, whose homes and property were destroyed by winds and flooding. Though it did avoid a direct hit on Virginia Beach, Hurricane Florence ravaged parts of North Carolina with record floods, bringing devastation to many lives and families. And if I remember correctly, the hurricane he prayed away many years ago ended up doing severe damage to areas in New York and New Jersey.

The news of hurricanes hitting the coast always brings bad news. So many lives are negatively impacted. People lose homes, businesses, possessions, etc. in addition to some probable deaths. But to be honest, I’m typically able to emotionally remove myself from these reports since I don’t live in those areas. But this most recent storm, Hurricane Michael, came and destroyed places from my childhood. I visited the Mexico Beach cottage of my elementary school best friend several times … that whole town is gone. The neighborhood in Panama City where I would frequently visit my aunt and uncle is unrecognizable. My cousin’s home in Liberty County sustained major damage. Even my hometown of Chattahoochee is forever changed by this storm. The list goes on and on of communities, families, businesses, people, etc. that were devastated by Michael. Did no one think to pray as Pat Robertson did? Is there no one in that area with great enough faith? Was God bringing judgment on the land of my childhood?

Of course, people of great faith prayed fervently to be spared, yet God, in HIs wise and good providence, answered those prayers with a “no” and the storm hit hard … very hard.

We know we live in a fallen world, full of brokenness and tragedy. We know hurricanes don’t necessarily represent God’s judgment on a particular location. And we know that one day hurricanes and all tragedy will come to an end. But until that day, we’re stuck with a fallen creation that is full of storms, death, injustice, accidents, cancer, brokenness, sickness, etc. And I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn't change the way we pray. Perhaps instead of begging the Lord to turn the storm away from our path and into the path of others who will suffer, we should rather ask the Lord to be merciful to others and bring the suffering to us. That goes against every natural inclination of my heart! I also know that plenty of suffering is going to come our way without us requesting it, but still I wonder how to best pray about this stuff. I guess the bottom line for me is that I should learn to be less concerned about my own comfort and focus more on others, even asking God to show mercy to others even if it results in my own discomfort, pain, inconvenience, sacrifice, etc. I’m still learning what it means to follow Jesus.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. - Romans 8:18

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all - Psalm 34:19

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison - 2 Corinthians 4:17

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ - Galatians 6:2

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. - Revelation 21:4

Need Help Getting Dressed

This past Sunday as I was getting ready for church, I reached into the drawer to pull out some socks … fairly normal routine for most guys as they’re getting dressed. My shirt had essentially a light / baby blue checked pattern and my pants were a khaki color. Opening the sock drawer I spotted a pair that I thought surely matched the blue of my shirt. So I grabbed them, put them on, slipped on my shoes, and headed out the door. Seth and I drove to the church as usual, but as I was getting out of my car in the church parking lot I noticed that the blue of my socks didn’t even remotely match the blue of my shirt. In fact, they clashed … the combination was actually hideous. But it was too late! I wasn’t about to call Anita and ask her to bring me some different socks. There are many Sunday mornings where she’ll look at something I’m wearing and suggest I change … didn’t want to admit my failure this time.

As I reflect upon this fashion faux pas, I realize where I made my mistake. I didn’t make my choice of socks in good light. All you fashionistas out there know you MUST make color decisions in good light … it can’t be artificial light, or dim, or altered in any way. All I needed to do was to walk over near the window and use the light God gave me via the sun and I could have easily seen my mistake. But instead, in ignorance, I was clothed inappropriately and was self-conscious about it all day.

As a follower of Jesus I know what I’m supposed to be clothed in … the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. And while there are times when I will make an intentional choice to clothe myself in something inappropriate, often I just simply act in ignorance because I have not properly exposed my mind and heart to the light of God’s Word, the Bible. I often think I’m spiritually stylish, attractively covered, following the accepted rules of righteous clothing, but in reality I’ve put on something other than Christ’s righteousness. Perhaps its my own righteousness, pride, self-reliance, good works, religious service, successful record, accolades, popular opinion, etc. but it just doesn’t match my profession of faith in the sufficiency Christ.

My opinion is that we all need help getting spiritually dressed each day. This starts with the light of God’s Word. Are we reading it? Studying it? Being taught it? Memorizing it? Meditating on it? Listening to it? And then we also need the wisdom and discernment of others who can see our mistakes even when we can’t. Are we in the kind of relationships where we allow others to comment on our spiritual health? Where we ask them to evaluate whether or not our lifestyle matches our profession? I definitely need help getting dressed every day … how about you?

Willing to be Investigated

Is anyone interested in being nominated for the next Supreme Court vacancy? At this point I’m not sure who would be willing to submit themselves to the grueling process of having every single thing in your life examined under a microscope and put on public display. We all know that with a little digging, whoever may oppose us will find some dirt and will be more than willing to share it with anyone who is willing to listen. While I don’t have any criminal record and have never been accused of any grossly immoral activity, there are plenty of things from my past that could be used against me … words, attitudes, actions, etc. And if folks could actually see the ugliness of my heart … oh my goodness! I suspect we’re all in this same boat. Why would anyone want to undergo the pain and humiliation of having all this exposed?

Please don’t think I’m writing this in defense of or in opposition to Judge Kavanaugh. I’m not remotely qualified to evaluate his credentials based on what the media has presented. Rather I’m writing to remind us all that an even more thorough investigation of our past and present lives is taking place by a Sovereign and omniscient God. As our Creator He is most certainly aware of every action, word, thought, motive, emotion, and expression that we’ve ever had, or will ever have. There is absolutely nothing we have, can, or ever will be able to hide from Him. In the light of His eternal and infinite holiness we stand completely exposed, bare, discovered, and vulnerable. And the minute we say we want to follow Jesus we’re essentially saying we’re willing to have our sinful lives exposed.

Because of this we must keep a few things in mind:

  • Let’s stop pretending we’re better than we are. We’re all sinners and need to confess our sin to one another. Don’t you long for the day when a candidate, nominee, etc. stands before the public and says, “You’re going to dig into my past and find a lot of dirt, but I own up to it and take full responsibility.”? in the same way we long for one another as Christians to simply stand and say, “As you get to know me you’re going to find out how sinful I really am.” Let’s make sure the church is a welcoming and safe place for sinners such as you and me.

  • As enormous as our sin is, the grace of the Lord Jesus is bigger. He already knows our sin, filth, dirt, etc. and has demonstrated His love for us in going to the cross in our place to receive the very wrath of God that we so justly deserved. As His children and with His Spirit, let’s be those who demonstrate love for others just as He has loved us.

  • Because of His saving grace to us vile sinners, shouldn’t our response be one of praise and obedience? God knows every bit of dirt about us and has nevertheless redeemed us. Our desires should be to worship Him, to proclaim Him, and to follow Him. Let’s be those who are known as passionate and obedient disciples of Jesus.

  • Because all this is a work of God’s grace in our lives, we need to be people of prayer. While the idea of being transparent, vulnerable, welcoming, encouraging, passionate, obedient followers of Jesus sounds appealing, it’s just not going to happen apart from God working His grace in our hearts. Let’s be men and women who demonstrate our utter dependence on Him in our commitment to pray with and for one another.

Serving Self or Serving Others?

The evangelical church today makes a big deal of serving … and rightly so, the Scripture clearly instructs us to do so. Paul said, “through love serve one another.” (Gal 5:13). Peter said, “as each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.” (1 Pet 4:10). Even Jesus said, “For even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve …” (Mark 10:45). So the issue isn’t whether or not to serve, but rather who exactly is it that we’re serving? I came across a drawing the other day that epitomizes a common evangelical approach to our service, especially in these days of social media.

IMG_8519.JPG

The image really speaks for itself doesn’t it? Many of us Christians don’t really mind serving in some way but we absolutely want others to know of our sacrificial, giving, serving, generous, loving, helpful, kind, compassionate, faithful actions. This isn’t an indictment against social media … after all, you’re reading this via the means of social media. But it is an indictment of our heart … a heart that prefers self-serving and self-glory over serving Christ and others.

I’m certainly not immune to this! Just last Saturday the deacons hosted a work day at the church. One of the things I helped with makes a very visible difference, not so much a behind-the-scene type deal but rather one in plain view. Sunday morning, after telling the third person about my prior day’s sacrificial act of service to the Lord and His church, I caught myself and realized I was the guy in the picture above. I was more concerned with serving myself than serving the Lord and His church. I had to stop and repent of my self-righteousness and once again turn to Christ and His righteousness for my hope, acceptance, and standing before God.

So how about you? Are you like me and the guy in the illustration … or are you more like Jesus? Let’s continue to serve … and even take pictures while we’re doing it! But let’s be careful and guard our hearts, constantly asking whether or not we’re serving ourselves or serving others.

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!