Thursday, November 30, 2017

Recreation, Abiding, & True Re-Creation

I am usually a very focused person. I have many goals for myself – both for the short and long terms. If you read my series from earlier this year, you saw how my Vision, Mission, Strategy, and Steps fit together to inform and guide my decisions on what I should be doing. But amidst all that I have planned to do, and all that I want to do, I have come dangerously close to omitting two items from my life – recreation and abiding.

As for recreation, it is not that I do not enjoy life, but I do not take much down time. I am blessed to live within several hundred feet of my office, so I am able to eat lunch with my wife and we often do so while watching a comedy of some sort on television. However, in the evenings, I may sit near her, but I am often doing something like grading assignments for the classes I teach or planning/preparing for PTC (Pastor Training Community). Effectively, I have my full time job as pastor while also serving as an adjunct professor and leading a new organization in addition to personal responsibilities we all have. I know many people who are busier than I am, but, for me, what I have lost for most of this year was being intentional about finding a time for fun. I may be busy, but I must make time to enjoy my life, which includes enjoying my wife and having some time to do things I like – such as reading (without the pressure to meet my reading goal for the year) or playing a video game. But as important as the recreation may be, it is the next item that deserves my attention in the coming years.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph, I have three different roles leading others in ministry-related matters. I pastor a church. I teach future church leaders various aspects of administering the church. And I am organizing an organization to train pastors and church leaders in underprivileged areas around the world to have the knowledge and skills necessary to lead their churches. All of these are very important, and I believe God has called me to each one. But He has also called me to abide. In a recent look at John 15, I have been convicted that I have been so busy working for God that I have not spent as much time with God in 2017. Again, I have met or will meet most of the major goals I set this for this year, but as John 15.4-5 suggest, my work will be fruitless or amount to nothing if I am not abiding in, and with, Jesus. We can all get by for awhile, and may fool ourselves into thinking we are fine over a longer period of time, but the words of John 15 are directly from the mouth of Jesus, so I (we) can either choose to believe Him, or be duped by our own misunderstandings.

Of course, how a person defines abide is important. Truly it means to remain, and I have no intentions of abandoning Jesus in a formal sense. However, if I am not fully engaged with Him then I am not fully abiding (remaining) as I wish to be. Again, if my Vision is to “Become the man God wants me to be” then how can I do that without spending time with Him and know how He is leading me in the moment, not just the bigger picture of the year.

So, I am making a conscious decision today to better abide in the coming year. I have had many good moments with Jesus in 2017, but not as many as I would like to claim. But if I am to be fruitful in 2018 and beyond, I must abide deeply with my Lord. Of course, I must take time for myself, my wife, my family, and my friends as well, but I must take time to be intentional with Jesus so He can be intentional to me. For, if I only focus on working and recreating, then I will miss out on the “re-creation” that He has in mind for me. And, as a child of God, He is far from being finished with me yet.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Being Thankful for "These Things"

Economic disparity is a reality. But its impact is partially perception. I have never been in a position where I was surrounded by people of great wealth, and until last year I had not been surrounded by those with next to nothing. But last year on a visit to Kenya, I began to realize how much some people really have despite having so little.

In Matthew 6, Jesus talked of our focus needing to be on the Kingdom of God. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6.33). What are the the “these things” to which Jesus refers? The previous verses answer that question. Verse 25 says we should not be anxious about what we will eat or drink. Verse 28 says we need not worry about our clothing. And we can imply that shelter could be included because of a mention of barns (for storing food) in verse 26. All of “these” items are mentioned just after Jesus says we cannot serve both God and money (v. 24).

Of course some families are larger and need more food, more clothing, and a larger structure for shelter. But most people have a desire for better food, better clothing, and a better dwelling place whether or not better means bigger. But God does not promise us better – even if we seek it. What God promises us is Himself if we seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness. If we seek God, He will add “these things” to us. If we seek “these things” we may get something, but we will miss God, and will miss out on what He may give us instead.

The previous two sentences are why I say that some of my friends in Kenya have far more than I have even though I may have more physical items in my silverware drawer than some of them have total possessions. As I currently teach on the doctrine of adoption in my current sermon series, I am trying to full embrace the idea of what it means to have God as my Father. Although I may refer to God as Father and believe in the theological truths of Him being Father, it does not mean that I have fully grasped what it means for God to be my father, not just the Father. Teaching on the story of the prodigal son this past week heightened my awareness that I often think, and live, as an orphan rather than as a child of God. (I do not mean to degrade orphans for they do not choose their status, I simply am referring to a mindset that develops over time – a mindset which may be understandable for a true orphan, but one that does not make sense for a child of God. Click here to review my sermon post for clarity.)

So, this week, I want to be more thankful for what I do have. I want to be more thankful for the “these things” while knowing that my Father may have much greater things for me. But whether or not He has them for me in this life, I want to seek Him more. I want to thank Him more earnestly for what I do have. It is not that I am not appreciate, but I want my “Thank you” to really be about my gratitude without any hint of “I wish I had a little more.” I am not perfect, and I want more, and will say that I “need” certain items which I may not truly need. But, if I am truly seeking first the Kingdom of God AND His righteousness, then I will learn to more content with what my Father has given me. As I become more content, I will be more grateful, and I will need fewer Thanksgiving holidays to remind me of how thankful I am for what I have been given.

That is truly the essence of what it means to have a happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Child of God

“When you stop learning, you start dying.” That is a phrase I have said many times to many different people. It is for this reason that I struggle with those who have an attitude that God has nothing left to teach them. Whatever the exact words may be, the idea expressed is “I’ve read the Bible and know what it says.” Ok, so have I – that is, I have read the Bible. And I know what parts of it says, but I always come across parts that I have missed or perhaps missed the significance. The reality is that the more we study the Bible, the more we realize we do not know.

Last week, while preparing my sermon, I was struck by a phrase I have probably read 100 times or more. John 1.16 includes three words that just jumped off the page at me for the first time. Those words – “grace upon grace.” Now, I understand that grace is not just a one-time inoculation which allows salvation. I frequently mention Titus 2.11-12 which speaks of grace training us to live righteously. Training, as in an ongoing process. But currently I am exploring a doctrine I certainly believe by inference, but have not really studied deeply before. That doctrine is adoption.

The reality is that if you have ever made the statement “brothers and sisters in Christ” or called another church member “brother Bob” or said the Lord’s Prayer which begins with “Our Father” you infer that you believe in adoption as well for Bob is likely not really your biological brother and, more importantly, the Bible is clear that only be receiving Christ can we be in Christ and have God as our heavenly Father.

This past week I began a sermon series on the doctrine of adoption. As I continue to look into what the Bible teaches, I am becoming more and more convinced that adoption is the next step beyond (dare I say greater than?) salvation. I have long considered the possibility that God’s ultimate gift to us is our resurrected bodies which Christians will have for eternity. Such a body is only possible for those who believe – that is, those who are saved. I had not firmly settled on that idea, but now I am starting to see our resurrected bodies as a great gift, but not as the ultimate gift. The bodies are a gift as a result of our being a child of God. Such a gift is truly grace upon grace.

In my sermon this past week, I used the following metaphor to reveal my understanding of grace upon grace. All people must stand before God as judge. Those who receive Jesus (John 1.12) are declared “not guilty” (justified) during this life; those who do not receive Jesus (John 1.11) will stand before God after they die (Revelation 20.11-15). But for those who are “not guilty” God does not simply act as human judges who declare the verdict and then go about their business. Instead, God invites the person to be one of His children. What a magnificent thought! So, God’s grace is offered to save us from the guilt of our sin, but additional grace is given that we might not just be saved, but that we might be adopted – by God Himself.

So, if you are “saved” then you are a child of God. The question then becomes: How should we respond as one of His children? Next week, I will explore that idea briefly by contrasting the love of our Father with the mentality of the prodigal son from Luke 15.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Asking God, “Why?”

Each time the news reports a mass shooting people respond with a variety of emotions and a slew of questions. Emotions may range from anger, bitterness, and fear on the one hand to concern and compassion on the other – even from the same person. Questions abound from “How could this happen?” to “How could God let this happen?” whether or not the shooting involves a church or “God’s people.” But the question that underlies them all is “Why?”

Over the past few days, details have emerged about the shooter in the recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Likewise in the Las Vegas shooting approximately one month earlier, the investigation seeks to find a credible motive – that is, “Why did this person do what they did?”

The “Why” question is not only valid, it is necessary. Knowing why someone responded in certain manner may help to prevent others from responding in a similar manner in the future. Of course, no attempt can fix all of the issues, but any improvement is better than none.

But one “Why” question often tops all the others, even if the answer remains unknown. In the initial paragraph, I listed a question related to how God could have allowed this, or other shootings, but the question is less a matter of “How?” as it is a matter of “Why?” I do not have an answer. But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I think the question is both valid and necessary. Let me explain.

First, the question, “Why?” is valid, particularly for those who believe in God, because to believe in God means to believe in some aspect of His sovereignty. Many arguments happen each day on how sovereign God is, and events like the shooting in Texas help to stoke the fire of the argument. But the important part is that if someone asks God “Why?” then they believe that God has some measure of control (sovereignty), and thus the question is valid.

Second, the question, “Why?” is necessary because it helps us in the grieving. The five levels of grieving include both anger and bargaining. Much of the anger may be directed at the shooter in a case such as Texas, but he, too, is dead, so being angry at him seems incomplete. Thus, anger may be directed at God. Furthermore, if we can understand “Why?” God allowed such a tragedy, maybe we can bargain with Him to undo the situation or, at the very least, to prevent a similar tragedy elsewhere.

But, many feel guilty asking God why? Of course, not everyone feels guilty, but particularly pious people may begin to question their authority to question God. After all, God challenged Job for questioning Him (see Job 38-41). But the issue isn’t the question, it is the attitude? Consider that Jesus, while on the cross, asked God the very question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

Thus, if Jesus can ask God “Why?”, we can too. But, if we do, we must do so with the following understandings.

First, God is not obligated to answer us. He can and He may, but again, it is God who is sovereign, not us, so He does not have to answer to us – on this side of eternity or the other.

Second, make sure you want the answer. God may not answer, but if He does, it is up to the questioner to accept the answer. Titus 1.1 says God never lies (ESV, some translations says God “cannot” lie), so if He does answer, it will be the truth. The question then becomes whether or not you and I will accept the answer to our question. Sometimes it seems easier not to know.

So, as you process this, and any tragedy (and we have certainly seen our share in 2017), ask the questions you must, including, and especially, “Why?” And, if you are bold enough to ask that question of God, know that the question is not sinful and God will not automatically smite anyone for asking. But the answer lies within His purpose and His glory, not ours. Thus, ask only if you truly want a response because if He does respond, He will accept you to embrace it as truth – as difficult as that truth might be to receive.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Importance of Luther @ 500

The number five hundred is quite common in our world today – especially in the realm of sports. For instance, the initial gauge of a team is how many games it is above or below .500 (in terms of wins and losses). Many races, including one of the most famous races in motor sports (Indianapolis 500) last 500 miles. Baseball players who hit 500 home runs in their career are in a rather rare club. And on it goes.

But 500 years is quite a milestone. On December 31, 1999, the world held its breath to see if every computer in the world would cease to function as we celebrated the coming of Y2K – just the fourth time that 500 years had passed from the time we recognized the birth of Jesus. Few markers stand the test of time – either in actuality, or in importance – over a period of 500 years. Once such marker is the Reformation, which “officially” began 500 years ago this week on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses (challenges) against the Roman Catholic Church. Many have been introduced or had their understanding expanded by studying/reviewing this over the past few months. I am no exception. As I have considered the importance of the circumstances, and the events and people which followed, I am working toward a conclusion that I outline here.

Over the past couple of months, as I have been preaching on the five solas and other matters related to the Reformation, I have also been listening to various biographies and stories related to the American Revolution. Perhaps, this combination is why I have been considering the importance of Luther (as well as Calvin, Zwingli, and others) in an overall historical context. For the sake of argument, I am going to use Luther as my focus, but I realize others before him (e.g. Hus) and afterward (e.g. Calvin) were instrumental to the Reformation’s success.

But what of Luther’s significance? Is it possible that in the past 2000 years, he could be considered the third most prominent human figure? Jesus is the dominant figure in all of history and certainly that includes the last 2000 years. I would argue Paul’s influence in the first century (taking the gospel to the Gentiles, and writing approximately one-half of the New Testament books) as a case he could be considered the second most important human. So, who is third? To answer this question, let us take a moment to make a few considerations.

First, unless you are a big fan of history (church or otherwise), you can not likely name many individuals from 100 AD to 1500 AD. Some might say, King Arthur, but no proof exists that he was a real person. Augustine, Mohammed, King Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, and Leonardo Da Vinci are possible names that will surface. But otherwise, unless one has a deep understanding of history and/or knows a list of popes, the names will be few. Definitely, much of this period should be considered the Dark Ages. (By comparison, consider how many names are known prior to 1 AD – Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Cleopatra, King Tut, etc. – and that is without mentioning any biblical characters such as Abraham, Moses, or David).

Second, we can look past the Renaissance to a world that includes many well known names from around the world. Americans can look at their money and be reminded of Washington, Lincoln, etc., while Napoleon, Churchill, Hitler, and others are well-known names from Europe. Asia has seen the likes of Stalin, Gandhi, and Mao. Again, we could go on and name others.

But although most of these individuals have names that are better known that Luther’s, it is the impact that matters. For instance, Washington, Lincoln, Napoleon, Churchill, and others in Europe and America would not likely be known at all if Luther had not paved the way for a different form of government, including democracy. The world is certainly smaller due to technology, but without Luther’s influence to empower individuals (particularly with the Word of God), would the West care, or even know about the East?

Again, I have not finalized my thoughts on this, but as I consider the possibilities, I am beginning to conclude that Martin Luther may be the third most important person (let alone Christian) to have lived in the last 2000 years. We must not worship Luther for his actions, but we must be thankful and honor him for taking a stand when and where a stand was needed. Again, not many aspects of history stand the test of time, but I suspect that in another 500 years, Luther’s name will still be recognized whereas some of those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs will be forgotten just as so many from 1500 AD and prior have been lost to us.