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.

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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!

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.