He Needs My Help

Last night I was driving to the store listening to the radio and heard an ad to promote a Toys for Tots campaign somewhere in the B’ham area. It was a rather typical promotion, asking for people to contribute to the cause of helping disadvantaged kids get presents for Christmas … certainly not a bad program. But at the end of the ad was the statement, “Santa needs your help.” My first impulse and response was, “No he doesn’t, he’s Santa.” Of course, after pondering it for a few more seconds I remembered Santa isn’t real … duh! But initially, I literally was dumbfounded that the advertisement would say something so dumb. Yep, I’m a pastor, believe in the Bible and everything, and I still had an initial shock hearing that Santa doesn’t need my help. I mean, who wants to believe in a Santa that needs our help?

But, of course, when it comes to our belief about God we’re not so opposed to believing He needs our help. I would even go far to say that the default view of God in the USA is that He does require our help, that we actually do contribute to our own salvation, that God is a “gentleman” and would not do anything without our invitation, permission, and cooperation. We’ve been told it’s dangerous to believe in a God who does as He pleases, who doesn’t need anything from us, who is completely sovereign and independent.

But consider God’s Word as He speaks about this very matter.

Acts 17:24-25 - The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Psalm 115:3 - Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.

Psalm 135:6 - Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.

These verses give us confidence that God is sovereign, omnipotent, self-sufficient, eternal, infinite, lacking nothing, and doesn’t need our help.

Does this really matter? Who cares what we think about God as long as we’re trying to do the right thing. A.W. Tozer in The Knowledge of the Holy says it well -

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.

For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.

We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.But the same Bible also reminds us that we’re to be obedient and have the privilege to participate in HIs glorious, purposeful, and redemptive plan. It’s not that God needs my help, but that He graciously involves us in His work.

A God who needs me, who lacks something apart from me, that His glory hinges on me, who is dependent on me, isn’t really much of a God. But I sure do need Him, truly lack everything apart from Him, and am completely dependent on Him. So while it’s perfectly acceptable to be Santa’s helper over the next few weeks, let’s not think or live as if God is somehow lacking unless we help Him.

Where's the Joy?

A few nights ago as I asked one of my unbelieving friends how he was doing, he paused and said, “I’m ready for January!” I smiled and replied, “December does tend to be a hectic month; so much stuff going on.” Nodding in agreement, he then affirmed that he’s already tired and exhausted and December has just started.

You surely notice I said this was one of my unbelieving friends … well of course this person wouldn’t know the joy of the Christmas season, the grace that Jesus brings; he would not have experienced the new birth of regeneration and would not have God’s Spirit dwelling in him; he’s operating from a very worldly perspective that doesn’t see Christ as all-sufficient; he has not submitted himself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We can’t expect unbelievers to walk around with joyous expressions, speaking words characterized by hope, living in the excitement that God is making all things new, having positive attitudes that focus more on gratitude than complaining. Of course he’s tired, exhausted, without hope, frustrated, weary, and skeptical of the supposed “joy” that the Christmas season seems to promise.

But how many of us … believers, followers of Christ, disciples, redeemed, adopted, regenerate, born again, Spirit-filled … feel pretty much the same way? So very many of us Christians are tired, weary, live with little joy, act as if we have no hope, complain, and are skeptical of the supposed “joy” that should be present during the Christmas season. And as if this frustration we share with unbelievers wasn’t enough, we have the guilt of knowing we shouldn’t feel this way. And to top it all off, the Christmas season always seems to highlight the normal struggles of life - grieving the loss of a loved one; strained family relationships; financial woes; scheduling needed family time; overeating; anxiety over traveling; etc.

Don’t you wish there was a simple formula to use to capture or recapture the joy of Christmas? Well, there sort of is … it’s called preaching the Gospel to yourself every day. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll have more money to buy gifts, it doesn’t make traveling any safer, it doesn’t automatically restore broken family relationships, it doesn’t make our departed loved ones come back, and it won’t automatically create better eating habits - but it can and will allow us to enjoy the sufficiency and contentment that can only be found in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is real, true, powerful, and beautiful. And though it may not cause our circumstances to be any different than those of the unbeliever, it literally does change our hearts. Our challenge is to believe it. So let’s pray for more faith … ask our Father to pour out His Spirit on us and allow us to see our own sin and need of a Savior … pray fervently to be saturated with His peace and comfort … plead with Him to immerse our hearts in the soul-satisfying grace found only in Him … beg Him to grant us an ever-growing faith in the person and work of Jesus.

And know that this really is something that our unbelieving friends don’t and can’t have. So are we praying for them? Are we sharing the good news with them? Are we inviting them to church so they can hear the Gospel and see it displayed in the lives of God’s people? There’s plenty of God’s grace to go around to everyone … let’s believe it, feed on it, and share it.

The Galleria Shooting

We’ve all heard about the tragedy last Thanksgiving evening at the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover. Here’s what little we know at this point - an 18-year-old and 12-year-old were seriously injured by gunfire and 21-year-old Emantic Bradford Jr, 21, of Hueytown was killed by Hoover police who, at the time, suspected him of shooting the other two. Later investigation concluded that he was not the shooter. But most of the details of this event are unknown to the public despite what some are saying. We don’t know who the actual shooter was; we don’t know the identity of the two gunshot victims; we don’t know the identity of the Hoover policeman involved; we don’t know what security or body cam video shows; we just simply don’t know exactly what happened.

As in so many of these horrific incidents, there are those who wish to politicize it and use it for their personal or group agenda. People are quickly taking sides, dealing in speculation, making assumptions based on preconceived notions of what “they” are like, defending actions of someone without any hard facts. What seems lost in so many conversations that I’m hearing is the fact that a young man’s life has been lost, a family has lost a son, a police officer is wrestling with the trauma of having fatally shot a man, and this officer’s family is likely going to face a lot of turmoil in the coming months and years. While it’s easy to pick sides and justify whatever actions fit your particular favored agenda, it’s somehow hard to remember that these are real people with real lives and real families. We prefer to use them to promote our views rather than grieve with them in their pain, hurt, and loss.

And what are our views on this matter? What “side” are we on? Are we quick to condemn Emantic Bradford because he shouldn’t have been there with a gun in the first place? Are we ready to condemn the policeman because he apparently shot the wrong person? Are we prone to assume that young black men gathered at an athletic shoe store is a sure-fire recipe for trouble? Are we to assume that police officers simply racially profile before taking action? Are we immediately critical of those protesting this incident down in the Galleria area?

While there is certainly corruption in our system, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are brave, responsible, just, moral, trustworthy people who serve us faithfully by putting their very lives on the line every day. They are to be commended, trusted, admired, and respected. And while there are definitely a number of young men who cause trouble (white, black, Asian, Hispanic), the overwhelming majority of them are responsible and pose no threat. It also can’t be denied that the white majority culture has a history of injustice and distrust directed toward people of color. We all know law enforcement officers who are among the finest people in the land, and we may know some who aren’t. We likely also know people of color who have suffered injustice, rejection, and live under constant suspicion.

Does any of this factor in to the Galleria shooting? I have no idea … and I’m not sure anyone else does at this point. But I fear that we too quick to judge, too eager to defend our group, willing to politicize most anything, and do all this without hard evidence or facts. What we know is that a life bearing God’s image has been lost, two families are hurting, unfounded accusations are being made, a community is becoming more divided, and the Lord’s heart is grieved by it all.

So what are we to do as God’s people? Again, I’m not wise enough to offer great solutions to such a complex matter. But I do believe that that the Gospel speaks to the situation. Conversations need to take place, humility must characterize these conversations, forgiveness needs to be extended, justice needs to be relentlessly pursued, mercy is to be practiced, and the glory of Jesus must be pre-eminent; as God has loved us in Christ, so must we love one another.

Micah 6:8 is a good reminder: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Join me in praying for the families involved, for the community to be healed, for wisdom and discernment for investigators and authorities, for police officers to be respected, for justice to be served, for the church to take the lead in community-wide reconciliation, and for Christ to be glorified in the midst of it all.

A Thanksgiving Feast

Many of us will enjoy this Thanksgiving with family around a table full of food … likely more food than we’ll know what to do with! I suppose this tradition is to celebrate the blessing of the harvest and acknowledge the abundant blessings that God has bestowed on us. And while we certainly must be mindful of the multitude of people who will remain homeless, hopeless, and hungry this Thanksgiving it’s not inappropriate for us to enjoy a scrumptious feast together and give thanks to our Father for His lavish grace. This is one reason we have a church-wide Thanksgiving Feast each year. This year’s supper was incredible … one of the larger crowds we’ve ever had and the array of food was spectacular!

Let me explain to you one of the things I love about Community and which makes us unique and distinct from some other churches. At the Session meeting just prior to the Thanksgiving Feast I asked the elders if they wanted some sort of program - music, testimony, message, etc. - right before or during the meal. One elder said, “I’m not opposed to doing something.” Another elder said, “I’m not opposed to not doing something.” The elders then looked at one another, sort of nodded in agreement, and in unanimity essentially said, “let’s just eat together.” Why do I love that so much? Because I think our elders understand that we don’t need to artificially tack on something “spiritual” in order to make the Thanksgiving Feast a spiritual event. The event of God’s people gathering together around the table, engaging in conversation, sharing their lives, laughing, hurting, listening, and simply being physically present with one another is itself a very spiritual thing. As a pastor I enjoyed observing young and old interact with each other, new families being welcomed by long-time members, and unmarried singles interacting with married couples. And though no ecstatic spiritual gifts were displayed and no gold dust fell from the ceiling, I genuinely sensed the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in and among our congregation this past Sunday evening.

I guess the point is that certain things are just spiritual … doesn’t matter whether or not we put our packaging on them. Corporate worship is spiritual whether or not we “feel moved” during the service. Reading God’s Word is spiritual whether or not we “get something” from it (God’s Word never returns to Him without accomplishing its purpose). Prayer is spiritual whether or not we feel our prayers don’t get higher than the ceiling (God is present on this side of the ceiling, too!). Sharing the Gospel with unbelievers is spiritual whether or not we see fruit. Fellowship with believers is spiritual whether or not we tack on something to it trying to make it spiritual. And so on, etc.

There’s a lot at CPC we get wrong, no denying that. But I’m thankful this Thanksgiving for a church that is a spiritual family, who doesn’t so much try to be a spiritual family, but rather operates in the knowledge that we are a family because of the redeeming work of God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

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?