Thursday, December 18, 2008

Barack Obama and Rick Warren

The headline on this morning reads: Obama's Inaugural Choice Ignites Outrage.

The headline is followed by these words: Prominent liberal groups and gay rights proponents are criticizing President-elect Barack Obama for choosing evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration next month. Warren opposes gay marriage and abortion rights, putting him at odds with many in the Democratic Party.

Forget the liberal groups and gay right proponents...I wonder how the Christian right will respond to this. Rick Warren has been a lightning rod among Christians for years. Talk about in-fighting...Warren has been the cause of a lot of fighting among churches, leading ultimately to numerous church splits.

It was partly because of him that my home church lost over 100 people...many of whom had helped build the church with their own hands some 35 years earlier. When the leadership decided that the church needed a massive refocus, they decided to use Warren's Purpose Driven Church as a guide.

You should have seen how many of the older crowd at the church laid eggs and had cows. Fueled by a ridiculously hateful and lie-laden web site, these people consider Warren the anti-Christ. Some even brought in brochures and articles from the web site "proving" their point. Warren just about ruined that church.

Warren is a lightning rod...and that's why I love him! He's a lightning rod because God is using him in some pretty phenomenal ways, and when God moves, people on the left don't like it, and sadly, people on the right don't always like it either.

What God is doing through Rick Warren doesn't fit inside any one's box.

Through Warren's ministry, God is unifying the fractured American church (Warren is a huge proponent of churches breaking through divisive denominational lines and coming together) and bringing help and hope to those devastated around the world by AIDS (this is where much of his money and time are going these days). Warren has sold millions and millions of books over the years, and God is using his elevated status in the world to bring the message of peace, reconciliation, and hope to those who need it most (hardened, crusty Christians and those suffering with AIDS).

And for those who think he compromises the non-negotiables of the gospel, I beg to differ. I saw him a couple of nights ago on Fox's Hannity and Colmes. Hannity was trying to interview him about his new book, The Purpose of Christmas, but Colmes wanted to spar. He asked Warren if he really believed that there is only one way to God, and on national TV, Warren replied by saying, "This is not what I say. This is what Jesus said. He said that no one comes to the Father but through Him, and I have no reason not to believe Him."

Colmes then asked him if he really believes that every person needs to be saved, and Warren replied, "If God says we do, and if He sent His Son, Jesus, to do it, then I believe we all need to be saved." Warren didn't back down at all in the face so some pretty tough and pointed questions.

I - for one - am thrilled that Rick Warren will be participating in Obama's inauguration. In a culture where so many Christians give Christ a bad name, Warren is a breath of fresh air. His humanity, authenticity, love for others, and desire to make Christ known to all people makes him someone I can stand behind.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

10 Things I'm Thankful For (That I Can't Admit at Church)

I'm a pastor, and therefore, I must make sure that I look good at all times. Last week was Thanksgiving, and on that day, everyone at the dinner table told of the three things they're most thankful for. I cleared my throat and said that I am most thankful for my wonderful wife, my four children, and my great job. Don't get me wrong, I am very thankful for these things, but if I'm being truly honest, there are other - less dignified - things that I'm thankful for. These are things that I can't mention at church at the risk of looking shallow or possibly even unspiritual - something a pastor must never give hint of. But I think you'll agree that these are things worthy of my thankfulness.

My DVR did I live without this before? With a DVR, I can digitally record all the TV shows I want to watch, and then I can watch them on my own time without ever having to watch a commercial. Now, watching live TV is like crank-starting a car. Archaic, old school, and completely laborious.

And speaking of did I ever watch any TV before the introduction of high definition television (HDTV) into my home? HD is unbelievable, and it makes watching regular TV look like the digital clock in the middle of the night without my glasses: fuzzy, blurred, and headache-causing. If it's not in HD, I probably won't watch it, even if it's something I want to see.

I love Costco. Walking through the front doors is like walking into a party. HDTV's, iPods, computers, DVDs, and books greet you at the entrance, and friendly faces offering you samples of delicious foods await you at the end of every isle. You go in hungry and sensory deprived, and you walk out with a full belly and your senses satisfied!

My iPod
Speaking of a vinyl record collecting teenager, I never - in a million years - dreamt of such an apparatus. I thought heaven had arrived on earth when technology allowed me to burn 20 songs of my choice onto a CD. Never in my wild dreams did I ever think that I could carry my entire library of 4000+ songs (plus 5000+ pictures and 300+ contacts) in my pocket.

My Swamp Cooler
I love living in the Southwest. Lots of sun and little humidity. Because of the lack of humidity, there is little need for air conditioning. Most homes here have swamp coolers that force cool air throughout the house. The reason why I'm thankful for my swamp cooler is because it is the one "machine" in my home that I actually know how to service and repair. It makes sense to me, and because few machines do, my swamp cooler makes me feel like a man. Arggg!

My Hot Air Popcorn Popper
I told you this list would make me look shallow and perhaps unspiritual, but I gotta tell you that I really love my hot air popcorn popper. Not only does it make perfect popcorn, but any time I turn it on, my kids (and my dogs) come running. It's something that unifies us and often ushers in laughter, joking, and happiness in our home.

Where we I be without Tylenol? Where would any of us be? As I get older, more things hurt, and that's why I keep my trusty Tylenol nearby. From my head to my back to my feet...there's nothing that Tylenol can not beat! I think I missed my calling. I should've gone into marketing!

My Heating Blanket
During the cold desert nights, is there anything better than a heating blanket? It keeps me and Michelle nice and toasty, and it quickly removes the threat of her warming her ice cold feet on me.

The Age of My Kids
I remember celebrating the day that all three of our kids were out of diapers. Then came the day when all three could brush their own teeth, bathe themselves, and put on their own clothes. The older they get, the better it gets! Now, it's legal to leave them home alone, and leaving them home alone is what Michelle and I like do! We love the freedom to date-at-will...popping a frozen pizza in the oven for them and heading out to our favorite restaurant.

The View from My Office
Take a look for yourself! It's a miracle that I get any work done at all. I love the fact that God created the mountains, and I love the fact that my office wall that faces them is one huge window. Whenever I need inspiration; whenever I need a break; whenever I need to be reminded of God's majesty and beauty, all I have to do is look out my window. I am truly blessed!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Faith of Obama (in His Own Words)

"I'm a Christian. So, I have a deep faith. I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people."
Chicago Sun-Times
April 2004

"Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he's also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher. And he's also a wonderful teacher. I think it's important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history."
Chicago Sun-Times
April 2004

"There's the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven't embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they're going to hell. I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell. I can't imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That's just not part of my religious makeup."
Chicago Sun-Times
April 2004

"What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don't presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing. When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I've been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they're kind people and that they're honest people, and they're curious people, that's a little piece of heaven."
Chicago Sun-Times
April 2004

"Let's make clear what the facts are: I am a Christian. I have been sworn in with a Bible. I pledge allegiance [to the American flag] and lead the pledge of allegiance sometimes in the United States Senate when I'm presiding."
Times Online
January 2008

"It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know…I do not believe she went to hell. My particular set of beliefs may not be perfectly consistent with the beliefs of other Christians."
July 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tipping with a Tract

Sometimes, I hate being known as a Christian. It's not that I'm ashamed of Christ; I'm just ashamed of some of His followers. We do some pretty stupid things in the name of Christ, and the world is laughing (not with us but at us). Ranking up there as one of the dumber Christian activities is tipping with a tract. This is where Christians leave a cheesy gospel tract along with (or God forbid - in the place of) their tip at a restaurant.

There are several "tipping" tracts that Christians can choose from, but this is one of the more popular ones. It starts off by saying...

Thanks! I wanted to leave this with you to thank you for the good service you gave me. Since we might not meet again will you take a minute to read this? I bought these little cards to help me tell others about the wonderful new life that is possible in Jesus...

Seriously, how many waiters or waitresses have stopped dead in their tracks while busing their tables in order to drop to their knees and give their hearts and lives to Jesus right there in the restaurant because of these tracts? I would venture to say none. One tract-receiving waitress had this to say about Christians who tip with a tract:

As a waitress for many years, I always hated working the Sunday lunch crowd. Not just because I didn't want to miss church, but because Sunday church customers were the worst. Nothing like cranky folks who left no tip, a sucky tip, or a tract with either no tip or a sucky tip.

I remember one rude family in particular. I did everything I could to make sure the large party was happy, but the patriarch left a dollar and a tract (a specially designed one that was just for servers about the 'best tip' ever). I followed them to the door and handed the tract back to them, saying they could save it and use it on someone else, as I was simply waiting tables that morning to help pay for seminary, since I'd been on the mission field for the past two years and had not been able to save much.

I have waited tables with a lot of non Christians. I remember one gal who said that she wondered why Jesus was such a big deal if no one would talk about him, just leave a little piece of paper in old language (King James) that no one could understand.

I agree. If Jesus is as important to us as we say He is - and as important as our tracts say He is - then shouldn't we work hard at building relationships, getting to know people, and loving them (like He would) rather than throwing a corny tract their way and running off?

Jesus is not a product to be sold nor is He an item to be advertised on a cheesy tract left on a messy restaurant table (or worse: in a dirty bathroom stall). Leaving a tract and running off does far more to hurt the cause of Christ than it does to help.

Sniper-like, hit-and-run tract-leaving Christians do more to harm and confuse non-believers than they do to help. It would be best if they'd just mind their own business and keep their tracts at home - or better yet, burn them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Church and the State: Who Should Do What?

On Sunday, I did something I thought I'd never do. I talked about politics from the pulpit. I did it because the Scriptures actually have a lot to say about our current political situation. Regardless of how we voted, the Scriptures make it clear that God is the One who has placed Barack Obama in the position of president-elect. Romans 13:1 says, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. I was sure that the discussion in the Engage Class would be lively, but the direction it took was not what I expected.

I thought my words about Barack Obama would incite a very lively (and maybe even controversial) discussion, but a set of questions were asked about what the role of the church should be and what the role of the government should be. Are we expecting the government to do too much? Are we expecting them to do things that the church should actually be doing? And with those questions, we were off. We spent the rest of our time talking about this.

The consensus was that the church - in fact - should be doing more, and we seemed to all agree that we should not expect so much from the government, but we really didn't come up with any specific answers. Just a lot of brainstorming and thinking out loud. On Monday, I came across the blog of a friend of mine who is serving as a pastor in Indiana. He has been exploring these same questions with his congregation as well. Here's what one of his bloggers had to say, and I hope that his words can get the conversation going on this blog as well.

You mentioned that we should be voting for the candidate that will most likely bring “up there down here”. I keep mulling that over in my head, and I guess (and maybe it’s semantics), but I guess I just don’t think that that’s the job of government—bringing “up there down here”--and I think that if that’s what we’re counting on we’re going to be sorely disappointed. Instead, I think we should vote for the candidate who will most likely keep order (punish evil-doers), and preserve our basic freedoms (things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), so that we, as the church, will have the ability to keep working on bringing “up there down here”.

What do you think? Who should do what? Are we expecting too much of the government, and do those expectations lead us to view the results of elections with undue jubilation and/or sore disappointment? Is the church doing all that God has called it to do, or is it content to allow the government to handle things?

Let's talk.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Oh, What A Night!

I have to admit that I'm a little bit giddy today. Something happened last night that has me really excited today. I sat up and watched the election coverage on Fox News and CNN for about 4 hours last night. I finally turned the TV off after watching Obama's victory speech, and along with millions of other Americans, I let out a loud cheer accompanied with a powerful double-fist pump as our president-elect's speech came to a conclusion. I was - and still am - really excited about what happened last night.

I woke up this morning with a renewed sense of expectancy and anticipation. Today truly does start a "new day" in our country. There's a new president-elect, several new senators, and the congress will look a lot different in the days to come, but this is not what I'm giddy about.

I'm giddy, overjoyed, and excited not about the results of the election necessarily...but that Obama's victory speech last night marked the end of an incredibly long and annoying election season. Let the prognosticating and predicting end. We now know who won, and now we can move forward. The airwaves will no longer be diseased with politicians spewing their rhetoric, mudslinging, and hollow promises. It's safe again to watch television and listen to the radio without having to worry about being politically accosted.

All skepticism aside (which is hard for me to do), last night was also a good night because not only did the people of the United States speak with their votes...but the Lord of the universe spoke with the results. Romans 13:1 says that all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. What happened last night was not the result of millions of people voting for their favorite candidates, but the result of the God of the universe placing men and women into positions of authority in order to accomplish His purposes.

Yesterday, Michelle and I voted. Then we came home, grabbed some good food and drinks, turned on the television and watched the election results with our kids. It was a party atmosphere in our home. We were not partying because the candidates we voted for were winning. That wasn't the point. Most of them lost. We were partying because we knew that no matter what happened last night, the almighty God of the universe was powerfully and perfectly placing the people He wants into positions of authority. So we watched and went to bed fully confident that what the Lord did last night was good and right.

As I was tucking Taylor and Alexis into bed last night, Taylor said something pretty profound. He is a pray-er, and he regularly prays through a long list of requests that he's accumulated over the years. This list includes lots of family members and friends, but it also includes President Bush. Taylor regularly prays for him. As I was preparing to pray with the two of them before turning out the lights, Taylor said, "I guess I'll have to add Barack Obama to my prayer list." What an incredible statement from a 12 year old! In 1 Timothy 2:2, we're told to pray for the people in authority over us, and Taylor takes that verse very seriously.

Regardless of how you feel about the election, remember that it was God who was in charge of the results. We voted, and He decided! The people that He has placed in authority over us as a result of this election are the people that He wants in those positions to accomplish His purposes. Our task as followers of Christ is to pray for them, so let's follow the lead of my son and take some time to add names like Obama and Biden to our prayer lists.

Friday, October 31, 2008

"So Help You God" is Gone

I'm the foreman of the grand jury I serve on, so I have the responsibility of swearing in the witnesses who testify in each case. Twenty to thirty times each day, I recite the oath that each witness must agree to before testifying. I've recited it so much, I can say it in my sleep, and knowing my poor sleeping habits, I probably do!

Maybe it's just me, but I thought that the oath included the words: "so help you God." My understanding was that the oath was designed to solicit the help and accountability of God. By agreeing to the words, "so help you God," a person who is preparing to testify is calling upon God for help in telling "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." But get a load of this...the wording has been changed. I don't know when it happened, but the oath now goes like this:

Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth under penalty of law?

"So help you God" is gone. It's been replaced by the words "under penalty of law." I guess people were lying a lot under oath, and so the powers-that-be decided it might be more effective to threaten witnesses with legal ramifications rather than spiritual ramifications.

Pretty sad. I was actually taken back when I first gave the oath, and I've threatened to throw "so help you God" in one of these times! It's just another sad way in which our society is slowly removing God from its moral fabric.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jury Duty

As you can see, I haven't blogged much lately. It's not that I haven't wanted to; it's because I'm being a good American citizen. After 20 years of flying under the radar, my number finally got called. Out of 257 people, I was one of 36 people to be selected for the grand jury, and so every Monday and Tuesday from now until the end of December, I - along with 11 other fellow citizens - listen to 20-25 criminal cases each day. According to the law, I'm not allowed to speak about anything that goes in the jury room. Evidently, if I do, I become a law breaker much like the very people we deliberate about in that room each day! However, I do want to share with you some of the profound things I've learned in there so far.

First, I've become more aware than ever before that we humans really are messed up. When God warns us about the sinful nature that resides inside of each of us, He's not kidding. The things that I've heard and seen that people do to one another are disturbing to say the least. What's worse is that often people do the most horrific things to the people they claim to love the most: their children, spouses, and other family members. Sitting in that jury room day after day and listening to one horrible case after another has renewed my understanding of the desperate need we have to be helped and healed by the Lord.

Secondly, I've actually regained a bit of confidence in the American judicial system. I know. I know. I'm a self-proclaimed skeptic, and skeptics aren't supposed to be anything other than skeptical. However, this jury duty thing has made a dent in my skepticism. The job of the grand jury is basically to serve as a protection against runaway prosecutors and attorneys. The grand jury hears the charges that are being brought against people and ensures that the charges are legitimate. If they are, then the grand jury allows the attorney or prosecutor to proceed. If the grand jury decides that there is not probable cause to the charges, then they can throw the charges questions asked. And, we've done this. We've heard cases where there has not been enough evidence to move forward, and so we've thrown the charges out, thus saving someone from being falsely accused. That feels good, and it actually is building up my confidence - just a little bit - in our judicial system.

Thirdly, I've learned that as bad as some people can be, there's still a lot of good people doing good things for others. In many of the horrible testimonies that we've heard about the awful things that people do to others, we also hear of a hero who stepped in and helped. A neighbor. A passerby. A law enforcement officer. A family member. People whose first response was not to do evil or harm but to do good and to help. What a breath of fresh air in the midst of the muck! Even though there are a lot of people doing a lot of bad things, there are many, many more people doing good things and lending a helping hand when called upon.

Finally, I'm learning that people from different racial, economic, religious, and social backgrounds can work well together. The other 11 people on my panel are as different from me and from one another as night is from day. My panel consists of retired people, moms, a grandmother, grandfathers, a young single mom, a Nascar lover, a realtor, a hard-nosed East coaster, a New York Giants fan (boo!), a woman going through a divorce right now, a banker, a Golden Pride manager (who often brings cinnamon rolls and breakfast burritos!), and me, the pastor. In any other scenario, we would not mesh, much less spend any time together. But, we've been brought together to accomplish a task, and we're doing it quite well together. We argue; we laugh; we give each other rides home; we share recipes (lots of good Mexican cooking going on at my house as a result!); we rally around the one who gets sick right in the middle of a case; and we hand each other Kleenexes when the things we're hearing bring tears to our eyes. Some of my ideas and misconceptions about people have been challenged and are changing as a result of this experience.

Never thought I'd learn so much from being a juror. Never thought I'd have to spend two days a week for three months being a juror. But, the way I see it, it's a great way for me to serve my community, a great way for me to get to know people I otherwise wouldn't have, and it's a great way for the Lord to teach me things I otherwise wouldn't have learned.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

God and eHarmony

Michelle and I went to a wedding this past weekend in Detroit. A dear friend of ours who was present at the births of Alexis and Taylor (she was the cinematographer) finally got married. I say "finally" not out of disrespect but out of sheer joy. She is a beautiful, godly woman and has been an eligible bachelorette for years. As a matter of fact, over the years, Michelle and I privately considered many different men for her and actually set her up on a blind date with one of them some years ago. The date didn't go very well, and so we decided to forgo the role of matchmakers in her life. See, we thought the Lord might want to use us to help her find her husband. Instead, the Lord bypassed us and decided to use something that He deemed much more effective than her lifelong friends: the Internet.

Yep. Evidently the Lord prefers eHarmony's scientific screening process over our relational screening process. I'd be pretty angry about all of this if the match wasn't such a good one, but it is. Both are solid believers. She was a church secretary for years, and he is currently a pastor. She spent her growing up years in Detroit, and he currently lives in Detroit. He is known for being fun and social, and she loves to entertain. I could go on and on, but the point is this: God used eHarmony to make a really good match. Dare I say: "A match made in heaven"?!

As Michelle and I lick our matchmaking wounds over the fact that we were trumped by an inanimate dating web site, I think we're both being reminded once again of something pretty profound: God will use anything He wants to accomplish His purposes. Think about it. He's been known to use a hungry whale, a talking donkey, a burning bush, a pink-haired lady, talking vegetables, books with shaky end-time theology, and ridiculously cheesy gospel tracts (more on that coming soon). If He can use these ridiculously bizarre things to accomplish His purposes in this world, then we need to:

1) Stop being so surprised. God is so unbelievably creative. He loves to do things in mysterious and uncanny ways. Awe is good. Shock is not.

2) Stop losing hope. God often allows things to get to the "next to impossible" stage before He takes action. This is how He grows our faith. Hopelessness should be a foreign concept to Christ followers.

3) Stop trying so hard to set up our single friends. We all do it, and sometimes it works. Usually, however, the Lord has something much more unconventional in mind, like a sappy web site. Therefore, save your breath, pray more for your single friends, and secretly sign them up on eHarmony.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How Not To Get Licked By Life - Part 2

If you read my last post, then you know that I've been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual nature of trouble. Trouble has been a not-so-welcome companion of mine lately, and I decided to review the notes from a sermon series I preached a while back on spiritual warfare. What follows is the second half of my one-on-one therapy session with myself. I invite you once again to look on!

A Bit of Review

Paul says that our struggle with trouble in this life is not of this world. He says that our struggle is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Satan’s forces are well organized and ranked, and they are out to wound us...and ultimately defeat us. But, there is hope. The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 tells us about the only armor and weaponry that will work for fighting and winning the spiritual battle we're engaged in. Last time, we explored the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. Here are the other items that the Lord has made available to us...

Gospel of Peace Shoes

Jewish historians had much to say about the shoes of the Roman soldier, because the quality of his shoes directly impacted his ability to fight. His shoes were boot-like and were thickly studded with sharp nails for support and stability. They were like a combination of combat boots and football cleats. Historians tell us that the successes of both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were due to their shoes!

If the purpose of wearing our spiritual armor is to stand firm when Satan attacks, then the importance of good spiritual shoes can not be overstated. Without them, we’re sure to fall. For believers, Paul says that the shoes we are to wear are “gospel of peace” shoes. But what does he mean by this? What do these shoes look like?

The "gospel of peace" is the wonderful, life-changing, life-altering truth that – in Christ – we are now at perfect peace with God. We are one with Him. Therefore, when our feet are fitted with these “gospel of peace” shoes, we are able to stand in confidence because we are sure of God’s love for us; we're sure of His union with us; and we're sure of His commitment to fight for us. When we stand with our “gospel of peace” shoes on, we don’t need to fear our Enemy because when he comes to attack us, our feet will be firmly planted. Our "gospel of peace" shoes will secure our ankles, and the cleats will dig solidly into the ground. We will not fall!

Satan wants nothing more than to shake our confidence in God’s love for us. He wants to shake our confidence in what God accomplished on the cross. If Satan can get us to doubt that, then He can gain an advantage over us. So, we’ve got to put on the “gospel of peace” shoes if we’re going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Shield of Faith

The shield of the Roman soldier that Paul is talking about here was a shield about 2 ½ feet wide and 4 ½ feet high. It was designed to protect the entire body of the soldier and was big enough that he could crouch down and be completely protected by it. It was made of a solid piece of wood and was covered either by metal or heavy, oiled leather. Often, soldiers would stand side by side with their shields together forming a protective wall. And, because their enemies would often light the tips of their arrows right before shooting them, the Roman soldier would often soak their shields in water before going to battle. The leather would absorb the water - making it heavier - but the water would extinguish the flaming arrows of their enemy.

For believers, Satan is continually bombarding us with the flaming arrows of temptation. Temptation to be immoral, to hate, to envy, to sin in our anger, to covet, to doubt, to be proud, to fear, to despair, to dishonor God. Without a shield, we’re doomed. We will be hit, pierced, and burned by his flaming arrows of temptation. The shield of the Roman soldier was made of wood, metal, and leather, but the shield of the believer is made of faith.
The faith that Paul is referring to here is a basic trust in God. It’s the faith that brings about salvation through Christ, and it’s the faith that continues to bring blessing and strength as we trust Him for everything we need. This kind of faith not only believes that Jesus is the Savior, but it believes the promises that God has made to us as well. It also believes in God's love for us, in His mercy toward us, and it believes that He will someday return for us. It believes that whatever comes our way, He is in control and will allow nothing to happen to us – nothing good and nothing bad - without it first being approved by Him.

If you find yourself giving into temptation; if you’re feeling defeated by a pattern of sin in your life, then you have to ask yourself if you are truly placing your trust in God. Hebrews 11:6 says that "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” This is the kind of faith that makes up the shield that we so desperately need in order to extinguish the flaming arrows of the enemy. We’ve got to pick up and use our shield of faith – alone and together - if we’re going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Helmet of Salvation

The Roman helmet is quite different from the helmet worn today by our military. The Roman helmet was not just designed to protect the brain, but it had a sloping edge down the back to protect the neck, because one of the best ways to kill an enemy back then was to approach him from the back and cut off his head. It also had two flaps covering both sides of the face, and sometimes, it had a piece that covered the front of the face, leaving only the eyes exposed.

For believers, the helmet is essential, because Satan likes to hit us in the head with discouragement and doubt. If he can stir up discouragement and doubt in our minds, then he can easily overtake us. He loves to point out our failures, our sins, our unresolved problems, our poor health, or any other negative scenario in our lives. If he can manage to draw our attention to these things, then he knows that discouragement and doubt will set in. A helmet will protect us from these destructive blows aimed at our heads.

The Roman soldier’s helmet was made of heavily molded or heavily beaten metal. Our helmet is related to our salvation. Why? Because if we lose hope in the promise of our salvation (both for now and for the future), we’re doomed, and Satan knows this. The helmet of salvation is the great hope of our salvation that gives us the confidence and the assurance that our present struggle with Satan will not last forever. We will be victorious in the end because of what Christ did for us on the cross! We know that the battle is only for this life, and even a long life of 100 years is a split second compared to eternity. We are fighting a battle that is short (intense but short), and we will win!

Satan wants us to forget what Christ did for us on the cross. He wants to make the battle so fierce that we lose sight of the cross, and we lose sight of the hope that lies ahead in Christ. He does this by attacking our messing with our thinking. We've got to place the helmet of salvation firmly on our heads, and we’ve got to always remember the great hope of our salvation that gives us the confidence and the assurance that our present struggle with Satan will not last forever.

The Sword of the Spirit

This is where it gets good. All the items mentioned so far have been defensive in nature, but this one can be used for offensive purposes as well as defensive purposes. The sword of the Spirit is something we can use to inflict pain and suffering on our enemy!
The sword referred to here by Paul was a sword that varied in length from 6 to 18 inches long. It was the common sword carried by the Roman foot soldier and was the principal weapon used in hand-to-hand combat. The sword was not very big. What made it such an effective weapon was not the sword itself, but the skill of the soldier. Roman soldiers were the best swordsmen in the world. They were put through rigorous - and sometimes brutal - training, and their teachers were relentless. The sword was used for both offense (to strike a blow) and defense (to glance off the strikes of their enemies), and they were made out of the most superior metals forged by master blade smiths.

For believers, our sword is made out of the Word of God and is forged by God’s Spirit. As we rigorously read, study, and meditate on God’s Word, the Holy Spirit acts as our tutor, burning the deep truths of His Word on our hearts and bringing it to our minds as we need it. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, what weapon did He use to fend off the strikes of Satan? The sword of the Spirit. The Word of God. In the same way, the sword of the Spirit is the weapon that we must use as well.
The Word of God is the most powerful weapon we have against Satan. I love what Scottish pastor and writer Thomas Guthrie said about the Bible: The Bible is an armory of heavenly weapons, a laboratory of infallible medicines, and mine of exhaustless wealth. It is a guidebook for every road, a chart for every sea, a medicine for every malady, and a balm for every wound. Rob us of our Bible and our sky has lost its sun.

A Word of Caution
Just like the Roman soldier had to diligently learn how to use his sword, so too must we diligently learn how to use ours. Satan will attack us hard, and we must know the Word of God well enough to fight off His strikes and send some powerful strikes his way. Just like the Roman soldier, we need to go through rigorous training in order to know how to skillfully wield our sword.

God has blessed us with gifted preachers and teachers who can explain in a clear way the truths His Word. He’s also blessed the Christian community as a whole with gifted writers who have written helpful Bible studies designed to help us understand the Word. We have no excuse for not knowing God’s Word. Every single one of us has an endless amount of biblical resources at our finger tips. We can learn how to skillfully wield our sword; we just need to do what it takes to learn.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How Not To Get Licked By Life - Part 1

Life is hard. I'm not trying to sound pessimistic; I'm just telling the truth. Jesus said that every single one of his followers would have trouble as long as they live, and it just so happens that this "trouble" seems to be making regular appearances in my life these days. I agree with the words of little orphan Annie: It's a hard knock life. Instead of kisses, I'm getting kicked. Maybe you're getting kicked too. If so, then this post (and the next one too) will help. I've been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual nature of the trouble I'm experiencing, and I decided to review the notes from a sermon series I preached a while back on spiritual warfare. I'm writing this for personal therapeutic purposes, but if you're experiencing hard knocks too, then maybe this will help you as well.

The Truth About the Trouble

Ephesians 6:12 says: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that our struggles in our relationships, in our circumstances, and in doing what is right versus what is wrong is NOT of this world. Our greatest enemy is not the world we see (as wicked as it may be), but it’s the world we can’t see.

How intense is this struggle? The word translated “struggle” here comes from the Greek word which was used in that day for hand-to-hand combat or wrestling. There was a lot of trickery and deception in their wrestling back then. It kinda reminds me of our "professional" wrestling today (you know, the chair-smashing fake stuff). There's a lot of tomfoolery in that too, but the difference is that the wrestling back then was usually real with the winner staying alive and the loser dying. That’s the flavor of the spiritual struggle we face today. To say that the stakes are high would be an understatement.

Paul says that our struggle is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” This seems to imply that Satan’s forces are well organized and ranked, but Paul’s point here is not for us to try to figure out how they’re organized. His point is to give us some idea of their sophistication and power. We are pitted against an incredibly evil and potent enemy.

So, how do we not just survive this battle; how do experience victory? Well, the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 tells us how. He tells us about the only armor and weaponry that will work for fighting and winning the spiritual battle that plagues us. Here are some of the details...

The Belt of Truth

The Roman soldier always wore a tunic as his primary piece of clothing. It was one square piece of material with holes cut out for the head and arms, and it draped loosely over most of the soldier’s body. Anybody familiar with the plight of an NFL lineman knows that anything loose gives the opponent an advantage because the loose clothing can be grabbed and held on to. Often, a lineman will pull-in or roll-up his jersey so that his opponent will be unable to grab hold of him.

This is exactly what the belt of the Roman soldier would do. Since most ancient battles were fought hand-to-hand, a loose tunic was dangerous. Before a battle, the Roman soldier would clinch up and tuck in his tunic using his belt. The belt was also used to hold his sword, allowing him to pull it out and use it at a moment’s notice. So, the Roman soldier’s belt was used to secure his clothing and hold his sword close by, thus readying him for battle.

For believers, Paul says that the belt that secures us and readies us for battle is truth, because two of Satan’s most common and damaging weapons are deceit and deception. If He can get us to buy into lies about God, about ourselves, or about others, then He can easily cause us to stumble and fall.

Truth here refers to 1) knowing the truth about God and 2) being truth tellers ourselves. First, we must know the truth about God, and we do this by knowing, meditating on, and obeying His Word. If we don’t, then our tunic hangs loose, and our enemy can grab hold of us and yank us around. Secondly, we must also be truth tellers. It’s one thing to know the truth about God, but if we don’t practice truthfulness in our lives, then we leave ourselves open and vulnerable to the attacks of our enemy. So, the belt of truth must be buckled around our waists if we're going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Breastplate of Righteousness

No Roman soldier would go into battle without his breastplate. It was a tough, sleeveless piece or armor that covered his full torso from front to back. It was made out of either leather (covered with animal hooves and horns) or metal, and without it, his vital organs - heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys - would be exposed. One stab from the end of a sword into any one of these organs, and death was almost certain. The breastplate covered for a soldier back then much the same area that a bulletproof vest covers our law enforcement officers today. Ask any officer whose been shot in the vest, and they’ll tell you how vital it is.

For believers, Paul says the breastplate that protects us like this spiritually is righteousness. We desperately need a breastplate, because Satan’s ultimate desire is to strike a lethal blow to our hearts in order to destroy us spiritually.

So, what does this kind of righteousness look like? Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you what it's not.

First, it’s not the kind of righteousness that we muster up on our own - commonly referred to as self-righteousness. As a matter of fact, self righteousness is a farce. It’s not real because the Scriptures say that there is NO ONE who is righteous on their own. But we can get caught in the trap of thinking that our own character, our own accomplishments, and our own legalistic behavior can please God and protect us from the attacks of Satan. The opposite is actually true: a cloak of self-righteousness, which is rooted in pride, gives Satan a ready-made weapon to attack and destroy us with. In our own strength, we can NOT produce the breastplate of righteousness.

Secondly, Paul's not talking here about the righteousness we get from Christ the moment we believe. Imputed righteousness for you theologians. Paul's not talking about this. This "imputed" righteousness from God makes it possible for us to have a breastplate, but it's not what makes up our breastplate, because we can not "put on" what God has already clothed us with.

The breastplate that we are to put on is made up of the righteousness that we display when we live in obedience to the Lord. It’s the righteousness we’re instructed to “put on” in Ephesians 4:24-27 where we’re told to put on things like the new self, truth, sinless anger, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, etc. We put on the breastplate that will protect us from the attacks of Satan when we choose to do what is right in the eyes of God. When we choose to disobey Him, we throw the breastplate to the ground and make ourselves incredibly vulnerable to the attacks of Satan.

So, in order not to be licked by life, we must live lives of obedience. And in so doing, we'll enjoy the protection of the breastplate, which is essential if we want any chance of standing firm when the enemy attacks.

This is the first of two posts on how not to get licked by life. In the next post, I'll explore the other pieces of our spiritual armor, including the one weapon that God tells us we can use to inflict pain and suffering! So, if you've ever been so down and overwhelmed by life that you've wanted to hurt someone, stay tuned!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Confessions of a Political Skeptic

I have a Facebook page. I know. I know. It's a bit juvenile to have one at my age, but I enjoy keeping up with old friends from high school and college on it. In order to set up your Facebook page, you have to create a personal profile, and one of the things that you're asked to do is summarize your political views in one word. They give you several options like conservative, liberal, moderate, and so on. I was really struggling with what to choose until I saw the one word that best summarizes my political views: skeptic. And that's what I chose.

Why am I such a skeptic? I'm not sure, but I do know that the current presidential race is only serving to feed my skepticism of the American political system. Michelle and I watched some of the Democratic National Convention this past week, and I felt several times like I was going to puke. And just to be fair, I'll watch the Republican National Convention next week with a barf bag in hand. It's the posturing, positioning, and promising that I can't handle. The sophisticated term for this is rhetoric, and it really turns me off.

The dictionary defines rhetoric as the undue use of exaggeration or display; to bombast. And this is exactly what we are being fed in large doses as the November election approaches. I nauseatingly listened to Barack Obama and Joe Biden make promises I know they can't keep and say things that I know are not true.

For instance, I love how Obama tells stories like the one about the "single mom from Michigan I talked to last week who has been laid off from her automotive job and now can't afford college for her daughter." He says that this is the fault of the Bush administration because George W. doesn't care, but he - Barack O. - does. And if he's elected president, because he cares a whole lot more for this woman that George W. does, he'll make sure things like this will never happen again to anyone. Cut to camera 2 and pan the row where all the Obama-lovers are weeping and cheering at the same time. Yuk!

Then there's Joe Biden unabashedly blaming the deaths of 1,800 people in New Orleans back in 2005 NOT on the natural disaster known as Katrina, but on the commander-in-chief known as Bush. No kidding. He stood before 80,000 people in Denver - and millions of viewers all across the world - and with no shame at all, blamed Hurricane Katrina on President Bush. Cut to camera 3 and zoom in on Hillary clapping firmly and nodding her head in agreement.

Is it any wonder that I - and millions of other Gen Xers just like me - think our political process (that our forefathers bravely risked it all to establish) has turned into a joke? Is it any wonder that millions of Americans won't even vote this November because they don't know who in the world to even believe? Is it any wonder that more and more people are choosing the word skeptic to describe their political views on Facebook?

I know that this is not a popular position to hold as a conservative Christian...much less a pastor of a conservative baptist church, but it's just where I'm at (and where I've been for a long time.) And just to ease some of your concern (godly as it may be), I will vote this November, and I might even wear the "I Voted" sticker on my shirt that day as well. However, I'm not sure who I'll vote for.

A couple of nights ago, Michelle and I caught John McCain on The Tonight Show. He was quite funny and quite quick for a fossil. We quite enjoyed Jay's interview with him, and I actually got kinda excited about the prospect of possibly voting for him. However, he'll get his chance to spew forth his rhetoric this week at the Republican National Convention, and I'll be watching. If he blames Barack Obama for global warming and Hurricane Gustav, I think I'll pack up the family and move to China. I hear deciding who to vote for there is much easier.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Church Membership: I Hate the Idea But Know I Shouldn't

The whole idea of being a member of an organization or club rubs me the wrong way, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm a Gen X'er, and we are known for our cynicism and skepticism.

Or maybe it has something to do with my past membership in the Columbia Record Club and the fact that I seemed to always end up paying for Cd's I didn't want because I forgot to send the reply form back in on time. I'm just not sure, but for some reason, I don't like the idea of "joining" or "becoming a member" of something. But here's the problem: I'm a pastor of a church, and I'm supposed to encourage people to "join" in order to "become members." Thus the dilemma.

I became a member of my home church when I was 12 years old after completing a "membership class" with my pastor. His wife would come pick me up each week and take me to the church where I would be ushered into his dark paneled inner sanctum for an hour-long meeting. That was a long time ago, and the only thing I really remember is that the dark paneling and pea green carpet in his office didn't look very good together.

Anyway, fast forward 22 years. I moved back to my hometown after being away from it for my entire adult life. One of my first Sundays back, I visited my home church. When I got there, I was handed an official ballot and told that - because I was a member - I could cast my vote for the next year's church officers. I didn't know two-thirds of the names on the ballot and had not been active in the church for almost 20 years. But I voted anyway. I voted for the people I thought had the coolest names and wrote in several names like "Bart Simpson" and "Hugh Hefner." Those two didn't get elected to any official church positions, but a few people whose morals rival theirs did. (I'll write a blog someday about the horrors of congregational rule, but I digress.) Obviously, this only served to feed my cynicism regarding church membership.

So, now I'm a pastor of a church, and I'm recognizing that I need to address the issue of membership here. The main problem in most churches is that membership privileges have been reduced merely to voting privileges. "If you want a say in how things are run around here, then you'd better become a member." Church membership has been reduced more to a business position than to a spiritual position, and if we're going to do membership right at The Foothills, then we have to infuse new meaning and a renewed spiritual significance into it.

So, how does a church membership skeptic lead the charge? Well, as the Lord often does, He directed my attention to a resource that has proven to be helpful. I regularly read a blog from a man known as The Internet Monk. His name is Michael Spencer, and he has one of the most widely read Christian blogs on the web. Recently, he interviewed Dr. Nathan Finn, the assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr Finn had this to say about church membership:

Church membership is about more than mere affinity. If it was about like-mindedness alone there would be many viable alternatives to membership. I am like-minded with European Baptists. If affinity alone was the basis of church membership I could become a part of a chat-room with some Croatian Baptists and forget about my local church in Durham.

But church membership is about more than affinity. It is about authentic community, which I still believe primarily occurs in a face-to-face context. How can you covenant with, hold accountable, and share in the everyday lives of people you never see in person? There is a geographic component to church membership.

Church membership is also about more than a particular preacher or teacher. I listen to my share of sermons online, but only my pastors regularly preach to me. Only they understand the particularly needs of our congregation because they are part of our congregation. There is a contextual component to church membership that comes out especially in preaching and teaching.

Online communities and sermons are wonderful aids in our Christian walk, but they do not and cannot take the place of real community as embodied in local church membership.

Obviously, Dr. Finn was talking about why local church membership should be pursued rather than just sitting at your computer and "fellowshipping" with other believers online, but his words about "authentic community" struck a cord with me. If we can help church people understand that becoming members of a church is not about "joining the church" as much as it is about "locking arms" with other fellow believers and creating an authentic community of Christ-following worshippers, then I may be interested.

I'm all for entering into covenantal relationships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and sharing in their faith journey as they share in mine. I'm all for developing "David and Jonathan-like" relationships with some of the men in my church. And I'm all for being held accountable (in love) and holding others accountable. I need it and so do they.

If we could somehow capture the essence of this when we talk about church membership, then I think the skepticism of many like me would fade away. And if we could show that the privileges of church membership are not about casting a "yea or nea" vote but about enjoying purposeful and meaningful spiritual relationships with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, then I think this church membership thing may have a chance with my generation and with the ones to come.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Resolving Conflict with Your Teen

"Conflict is unavoidable in any relationship. However, nowhere is conflict more frustrating or magnified than in the relationship between parents and teens." I wrote these words five years ago before I had any teens in my home, and now that I have three teens under my roof, I have to pat myself on the back. I was right! If our home is fairly typical (which I think it is), then random acts of conflict are breaking out in homes everywhere where teens are present.

Rodney Gage is the founding pastor of Fellowship Orlando and the author of the book, We Can Work It Out: Creative Conflict Resolution with Your Teen. In it, he offers valuable insight into the cause and effect of parent/teen conflict and offers creative, Christ-centered approaches to effective conflict resolution. Back in my Parenting Teenagers days, I interviewed him about the book, and here's a sample of that conversation.


Conflict is going to happen between parents and teens, so parents need to know that they are not alone when they encounter conflict with their teen. It's normal, isn't it?

It is, and I think it's very important to reassure and reaffirm parents that if they are in the process of raising a son or daughter who is a teenager, then whatever challenges that they're facing are absolutely normal. There are some situations obviously where parents feel that things maybe aren't quite as normal as it should be, and that's where I hope that some of the more specifics that we'll be talking about will give some direction and guidance on how to overcome that.

What are some key ways for parents to take a more proactive approach in resolving conflict with their teens?

One of the things that is really important for parents to do is to remain cool, calm, and collected. Don't rush to judgment on certain things. Admit your anger. This goes back to speaking the truth in love and admitting when you have been hurt. There are basic things that parents must do in order to get a true grip or handle on the conflict at hand. It's important for parents to understand that the conflict may seem overwhelming and uncontrollable, but at the same time they can get a handle on it if they're willing to do certain things to diffuse the conflict.

How does defining expectations and responsibilities help contribute to the lessening of parent/teen conflict in the home?

Rules without relationship often lead to rebellion. I think that it's important for us to make sure that the lines of communication are consistent, clear, and open. We must have clear expectations related to everything from responsibilities that we're wanting our children to comply with to respecting authority. I think it's important to help our kids develop the area of responsibility on a consistent basis. They've got to be given enough freedom to exert that responsibility. When we can see a consistent level of trust, then the more freedom we can give our kids and the more responsibility they display, then we can affirm them and reward them.

When is it time for parents to get some help from a pastor or counselor in resolving conflict with their teens?

There should never ever be any stigma that a parent should feel that keeps them from getting the help that they greatly need. For example, a lot of parents think, "If I go talk to my pastor or youth pastor, everybody's going to think I'm a failure." It's amazing how we'll seek counsel and wisdom about a business situation. We think nothing about picking up the phone and saying, "Here's a deal that I'm working on. What advice would you give me?" We think nothing about all of that, but when it comes to our family, why is it that they are the last ones to get the help they so deserve?

We ought to go the extra mile in getting all the help, wisdom, encouragement, and insight that we can possibly get - whether it's reading books, listening to tapes, seeking advice from other peers we highly respect, going to the pastor or youth pastor, or going to a professional counselor.

When a son or daughter is experiencing delinquent behavior (major issues of defiance or rebellion, becoming violent in any way, or using drugs or alcohol) that's when a parent must step in and say, "We have got to get professional help to help us with our son or daughter."

A pastor or a youth pastor can always be an incredible resource in terms of being the first step to getting the right kind of help.


Knowing what I know now, I think it is incredibly important for us to heed Rodney's advice to strive to remain calm when dealing with our kids in conflict. I have not always done that, and in my kids' eyes, I lose all effectiveness for that moment when I fly off the handle. Even if what I am telling them is right and true, if I don't stay calm, they don't hear my wise words...they just see my anger. When I stay calm, it goes a long way in defusing potentially volatile situations, and I'm able to communicate much more effectively the wisdom, discipline, and love my kids need to hear at the time.

So, I stand in the mirror this morning and tell you what I also need to tell myself today. Parents of teens...chill out!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

God's Not Mad At You

I told you in one of my earlier blogs that we pastors are known for stealing. My buddy, Tony, corrected me and said that we pastors don't steal, we "appropriate." That sounds better to me...and much more pastoral too, so I'll go with it. Allow me then to "appropriate" a blog from Jon Bloom, the Executive Director of Desiring God Ministries. He has written an excellent blog that answers the question many of us ask when tough times come our way: "Is God punishing me?" His answer - and mine as well - to this question is a resounding "no!" Here's how he puts it...

As a Christian, when you experience a painful providence like an illness or a rebellious child or a broken marriage or a financial hardship or persecution, do you ever wonder if God is punishing you for some sin you committed?

If you do, there is some very good news from the letter to the Hebrews. The original readers of this letter had been experiencing persecution and affliction for some time. They were tired, discouraged, and confused—why was God allowing such hardships? And some were doubting.

So after some doctrinal clarifications and some firm exhortations and a few sober warnings (so they could examine if their faith was real) the author of the letter brought home a very important point.

He wanted his readers to remember that the difficulty and pain they were experiencing was not God's punishment for their sins or weak faith. Chapters 7-10 beautifully explain that Jesus' sacrifice for sin was once for all believers for all time (10:14). No sacrifice of any kind for sin was ever needed again (10:18).

He followed that up in chapter 11 with example after example of how the life of faith has always been difficult for saints. And then he wrote the tender encouragement and exhortation of chapter 12 where he quoted Proverbs 3:11-12:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,and chastises every son whom he receives.

"It is for discipline that you endure. God is treating you as sons," he said. These saints were not to interpret their painful experiences as God's angry punishment for their sins. That angry punishment was completely spent on Jesus—once for all—on the cross.

Rather, this was the message they were to understand from their hardships: God loves you! He has fatherly affection for you. He cares deeply for you. He is taking great pains so that you will share his holiness (12:10) because he wants you to be as happy as possible and enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness (12:11).

This is why as a father, whenever I discipline my children, I always try to make it clear to them that I am not paying them back for their sins. That's why I don't use the term "punishment." I don't want them to misunderstand and think I am giving them what they deserve. That's God's job. And if they trust in Jesus, all their punishment was taken care of on the cross.

Instead, I always use the terms "discipline" or "correction" and explain that I love them and my intention, even though the discipline is painful, is to correct and train them. I want them to know that their father loves them, cares for them deeply, and is taking great pains to point them toward the way of joy.

It is crucial that we remember that everything God feels toward us as Christians is gracious. When God disciplines us it is a precious form of his favor. It's what a loving father does. He is not giving us what we deserve because he "canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands...nailing it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14). Instead, he is training us in righteousness. Because he loves us so very much.

Couldn't have said it better myself. Christian, God is not mad at you!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thoughts on Worship After A Day Away

Yesterday, Jesse, Peter, and I went away to spend the day in prayer, reflection, reading, and meditation. We try to do this at least once a quarter, and with fall approaching, we decided to steal away for the day. The home of Dan and Kim Arnold was our meeting place, and with their gorgeous pond, beautiful large trees, and the "North Valley" ambiance, it was the perfect place to get away.

I spent most of my day finishing a book I started a while back on worship called, Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship by Ron Man. Ron is the director of worship resources for Greater Europe Mission, and I think this is his doctoral dissertation in book form. It was a daunting read, but the insights I gained from it about the theology of worship are proving to be invaluable. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the elders are on a quest to gain a better understanding of the biblical theology of worship so that we can better lead in this area at The Foothills, and I'm confident that this book will play a major role in our quest. Let me share a couple of insights about worship that I received from the book yesterday.

Worship is to be a true dialog between God and us. Ron refers to this as the rhythm of revelation and response. As God constantly reveals Himself to us through His Word, through the love of other believers, and through His creation, we then are to respond to His revelation. Our response to any of God's revelations in our lives can take the form of a song, a shout, a prayer of thanksgiving, an act of obedience, an act of love, or an act of service. Regardless of the response, the most important thing is that we do in fact respond. As we respond, the dialog of worship between us and God takes place. So, the challenge is to mimic and model this dialog when we gather together on a Sunday morning for "worship." If we are truly going to worship when we gather, then the "relevation and response" rhythm must take place.

The living Christ is present when we gather together for worship. In Hebrews 13:5 we are told that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. Why then do we feel compelled to "invite" Him to join us for worship when we gather together? He's already there! As a matter of fact, He's not just there as a spectator, but He is there as the leader. Hebrews 2:12 records the words of Jesus as He leads His people in worship. He says to God, His Father, "I will proclaim Your name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation, I will sing your praise." Jesus is our worship leader, and He is the One who leads us in worship when we gather together.

Our worship is pleasing and acceptable to God not because of its own excellence, but because of (and only because of) the excellence of His Son. God accepts and delights in our worship, not because of our efforts or artistry or even our spirituality, but because of Jesus' continual offering of worship in our place and on our behalf. It is not the excellence of our worship (quality, quantity, or form) which makes it acceptable and pleasing to God (although those things are important and reveal our heart in the effort), but it is the excellence of His Son that is pleasing to Him. This means that regardless of what you feel or don't feel, you can still worship God. You can still respond to His constant revelation in your life, because when you do, you are joining Christ's worship of the Father - which is 100% pure and acceptable to Him...even if your worship is marred by sin and seems unworthy to the Father.

As long as our worship is led and mediated by Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, how we do it doesn't matter. Whenever I sit down to talk with people about worship, within the first five minutes, the conversation inevitably plunges into talking about the style of the worship. Hands lifted, knees bent, face up, face down, hymns, praise choruses, loud, soft, with a banjo, without a banjo! In spite of a huge diversity in worship styles and practices in music and dress and architecture and forms and customs, from person to person, church to church, culture to culture, continent to continent, century to century throughout the history of the church - the fact remains that God has been, is, and will be worshipped by true worshippers in countlessly different ways. Every person brings his or her own voice, and every group brings its own voice, but no one person and no one group brings the official voice. We all must understand that style is not the issue. Engaging God in a "revelation and response" dialog through His risen Son, Jesus Christ, is.

It was a good day of reflection for the three of us yesterday, and it seems that understanding the theology of worship is something that God is placing on all of our hearts. That means that there will be more on this topic in the coming days as the three of us - along with the other five elders - continue to wrestle with understanding, believing, living, and then teaching a biblical theology of worship.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Walk in the Clouds

I haven't been this sore in years. Yesterday, Taylor and I went on a colossal hike in the Pecos Mountains. We went with Pat and Jake Smith. Pat grew up hiking and camping, so I don't think this was as rough for him as it was for me, although I know that he was struggling at the end like I was! I - on the other hand - grew up playing baseball in the park and Atari in my living room. I was way out of my league on this one!

We drove up to Jack's Creek campground north of Santa Fe Monday evening and slept in our vans over night. We were on the trail by 7AM yesterday morning with our sights set on the 12,500 feet peak of the East Pecos Baldy mountain. It's 9 miles from the campground to the peak with a 4,100 feet incline over those 9 miles. By the time we hit the Pecos Baldy Lake - which is a natural resting place before ascending to the peak - a storm started brewing in the east. We quickly ate and began our final climb, and as we did, the thunder began to roar in the distance.

When we were about 200 feet from the top, it began to rain. The storm was moving in fast, so much so that a group of hikers who were very close to the top decided to turn back. They passed us heading down, warning us of the high winds above. Pat asked me what I thought we should do. I couldn't tell him what I really wanted to do...die! By that time, I was hurting. The air was thin, the climb was getting steeper and steeper, and the trail was covered with jagged, shifting rocks. The thin air and steep incline forced us to stop to catch our breath about every 20-30 feet that we climbed. As exhausted as I was, we were so close to the top that I didn't want to turn back. So, I told Pat that we should go for it...and we did.

The boys scurried on ahead (oh to be 12 again!), and Pat and I forged on. When we reached the top, we were greeted by a monstrous cloud wall heading right toward us. It was quite surreal. Knowing that we were completely exposed to the storm at 12,500 feet, we quickly slapped high fives, took a few pictures, and promptly began our ascent back down. As we raced off of the peak, the clouds roared in and enveloped us. At times, we could barely see each other. It was truly "a walk in the clouds." Amazingly, we didn't get very wet, and once we were off the summit, the clouds seemed to roll around us but not over us.

I wish I could tell you some deep spiritual truth that I learned while walking in the clouds, but I really can't think of any. It was a bit frightening, but I really was fully aware that God was in control during all of it. I was actually more concerned about how bad I felt, knowing that the climax of conquering the peak meant that we were only half way done with the hike. We had nine more grueling miles to go to get back to the camp!

All in all, it was an awesome experience. Nothing like being with your son and some good friends on top of the world! However, I don't think I'll ever do that hike again! As I write, I'm lying in bed applying an ice / heat regiment to my left knee. I think I really messed it up yesterday, so please pray for me. I don’t know whether this is something that will get better as the rest of my sore body does or not. Please pray that it does.

I'm not opposed to trying to conquer some of New Mexico's other mountain peaks, I just want to find some that I can park a little closer to next time!

Monday, August 4, 2008

God and Apple Pie

My buddy, Tony, is preaching a great series on God's grace at his church. He's the pastor of Grace Community Bible Church in Venice, Florida. Michelle and I started listening to his series while we were on vacation last month. This past weekend, Tony used a metaphor about God that really made sense to me. I'm pretty sure he stole it from someone because it's too profound for him to come up with on his own (I owe you that, Tony!), plus stealing other people's stuff is what we pastors do.

Anyway, he was talking about how God can not simply be just a priority in the life of a believer - even if He's seen as number one. Instead, God must permeate every part of the life of the believer. He likened God to the apple filling inside an apple pie. No matter how you cut the pie, you're always going to get a heaping portion of delicious apple filling inside each piece. In the same way, no matter what relationship we're involved with or what situation we're in, God must permeate it all.

We're so quick to compartmentalize our lives saying, for instance, "God is first, my spouse is second, my kids are third, and my friends are fourth." That sounds good on the surface, but because we're so prone to compartmentalizing our relationships and life-sitautions, I'm not so sure this is really the best way of looking at things.

I like the apple pie analogy. Since there's apple filling all throughout the pie, no matter how you slice it, you'll get some apple in every bite you take. The same should be true when it comes to the way we see the Lord in our lives. Since He should take preminence in every area of our lives, viewing Him like apple pie filling is much better than viewing Him as number one. The Lord should permeate every relationship we're in and every situation we come across in our lives.

So...I like the apple pie analogy. I like it so much that I may use it someday, and when I do, I'll be sure to take credit for coming up with it myself, so don't say anything! While it's true that pastors are known for stealing ideas, it's only the good ones that can do it and convince people that they came up with the ideas themselves. Mum's the word.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Permission To Be Free

I have a mentor that most of you probably don't know. As a matter of fact, he doesn't even know that he's my mentor, but he's been that for me for over twenty years. He's a man who lives his life behind a microphone, and for over twenty years I have listened to his daily 15-minute broadcast. His program used to be broadcast on my local Christian radio station until they decided that he was too "outside the box" for them, so they booted him. When I was working with Trans World Radio in Guam back in 1991, I proposed that they pick up his program on the local island-chain Christian radio station, and they did. He's been on that station now for 17 years. Now days, I have his program on my daily podcast line-up, and I listen to him pretty faithfully that way.

My mentor's name is Steve Brown, and his ministry is called "Key Life." He sums up the purpose of his ministry by saying that it exists to communicate to people everywhere that God is not mad at them. He speaks daily about the freedom that we have in Christ, and he desires to give Christians permission to be free.

2 Corinthians 3:17 says, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." Steve takes this verse to heart and says that since we've been filled with the Spirit of the Lord, we ought to be living in freedom. He says, "Everybody wants to be free in Christ, but very few people realize it. So most of us play a game. We conform to what everybody thinks and what everybody says, and we end up in prison by our own fear."

I used to live in the prison of my own fear, and it nearly ruined me. Then, a couple of years ago, I hit rock bottom. My fear of failure, my fear of regret, and my fear of losing the things that were most precious to me had totally imprisoned me. I felt hopeless, afraid, and depressed. It was then that the Lord convicted me of the sin of my fear, and it was then that I began to realize that because of the work of Christ on the cross, God actually gives me - and you too - permission to be free. My mentor, Steve, had been telling me this for years, but it took me hitting rock bottom before I understood how locked-up I really was and how miserable I was making life for myself and my family.

1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." God, through the work of His Son Jesus (who is perfect love) on the cross, has removed fear from our lives and gives us permission to be free. Hallelujah!

Today I was listening to my mentor, Steve, on my iPod, and he said something to me that was really funny but really profound. He said, "All of Bible theology can be summed up in two statements: Cheer're a lot worse than you think you are! And cheer up...God's grace is a lot bigger than you think it is!" Now that's freeing!

I'm choosing to live in freedom today. Are you?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Today's Sermon Leftovers

In the Engage class this morning, we had an excellent conversation! For those who don't know, the Engage class is a sermon discussion class that follows the Sunday service. Today we discussed my sermon from 1 Samuel 18-20 entitled, David and Jonathan: A Picture of True Community. Allow me to recap the main points of the sermon, recap a couple of nuggets from the Engage class discussion, and then end with a couple of questions that were still left unresolved at the end of class. You'll then be invited to join the conversation and help us find answers to these unresolved questions.

Sermon Main Points:

True community happens when...
1. People love each other as much as they love themselves.
2. People make deep and lasting commitments to one another.
3. People faithfully defend one another.
4. People boldly protect one another.

And...maintaining true community requires a lifelong commitment.

Engage Class Discussion Highlights:

First, we talked about what things keep us from experiencing true Christian community today. We discussed things like our culture, fear, unwillingness to be vulnerable with each other, a lack of a desire to connect with one another, and not recognizing our need for community.

Then, we explored the idea that - as Christians - we are to be loving to everyone, but true community (like David and Jonathan's) will only be experienced with a few people in our lives. Those "few" should include spouses, children, and the close family/friends that God puts in our lives. We recognized that it is not our responsibility to live this way with everyone in the church, but we were hopeful that if each person sought to experience true community with a few people in the church, then the chances that most - if not all - people in the church would experience true community would be greater.

We then decided on a couple of action items for all of us to consider like being willing to take the risk and seek true community with a few people in our lives, evaluating how willing we truly are to connect with people on this level, and recognizing that we must first look inside our own homes to develop this kind of true community.

Daniel Hachez made a great observation. He said that if we're going to even have a chance at being successful in experiencing true Christian community with others, then we must strive to reduce "busy-anity" in our lives! I think I'll start using that word!

Now it's your turn!

After the class, Corrie Girdner came up to me and said she still had a couple more questions about this topic that she wanted to ask. With her permission, allow me to pose these questions to you...and then it's your turn to add to the conversation.

Do you think friendship covenants like David and Jonathan's should be entered into today?

How can we know who to enter into this deep kind of friendship with?

What about deep male/female friendship between non-married people? Is it biblically permissible for Christians to continue to pursue these type of friendships once they're married?

These are great questions! Corrie, Nathan, Michelle, and I talked about them for a bit after class, but we'd all love to hear from you, so it's your turn to take a whack at these questions. What say you?!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Do I Have to Go to Church?

I was thinking today about why people come to church. What motivates them to show up each week? This is something many parents are forced to deal with because the older their kids get, the more they seem to ask, "Do I have to go to church?"

I've been answering this question in our home for years now, but I have an advantage over most people. I just tell my kids that they have to go because I'm a pastor and my pay gets docked every time one of them doesn't show up. This used to work, but lately, this answer has not worked so well. My kids are getting older now and they're buying less and less of my lame answers to their serious questions. So, I now have to wrestle along with other parents with how to answer this question. And to be honest, it's one of those nagging questions that I've always wrestled with myself.

Do I really have to go to church? What's the point? Can't I just stay home, sleep in, and listen to a good preacher on the radio and fulfill my weekly church duty that way?

Well, I've been doing quite a bit of reading lately on the concept of worship. I told you a couple of weeks ago from the pulpit that the elders are wrestling with understanding what true worship is with the goal of reviving the concept of worship churchwide in the near future. Today I spent most of the afternoon reading the book Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel by Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror. I've had this book on my shelf for years. As a matter of fact, I've been interested in reading it for quite some time as Gordon Borror was a professor of Del Walth (our former minister of worship) in seminary. Gordon actually came to Foothills and served on Del's ordination council back in 2000.

Anyway, I came across a quote in the book today that really helped me understand anew why I - and you too! - need to go to church on Sunday. Gordon quoted from another book called Jubilate by Donald Hustad. Here's what Hustad says about the Sunday morning worship service:

The worship service is rehearsal for life. It outlines the dialog which goes on constantly between God and believers, giving God's Word and suggesting the response He wants to hear - response which includes our adoration, our confession, our thanksgiving, our dedication, and our petition. Worship also offers us an opportunity to give ourselves to God in all of life; in token of this, in the worship service we give Him our praise and adoration, we give Him our offerings of money and also of our service in ministry.

Finally, worship is becoming like God in our total personhood - body, emotions, mind, and will. The worship service allows us to exercise every part of ourselves, in order that our bodies might be God's temple, that our spirit might be moved by His spirit, that our mind might be the mind of Christ, and that our will might be one with the will of God.

True worship then is really all there is to being a Christian, and the worship service is important because of what it represents as a microcosm.

Good stuff, huh? So the next time you wrestle with whether or not to get up and go to church on Sunday, remember that going to church is like going to a dress rehearsal for life as a worshipper of the Lord. And the next time your kids ask you if they have to go to church, tell them the same. But, if they're still young and gullible, have some fun and make something up.

See you Sunday!

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Tattoo for My Birthday

Today's my birthday, and I'm thinking about getting a tattoo. I've been thinking about getting one for several years and almost did a couple of years ago when Michelle and I were in Hollywood, CA together. We were walking along the "Walk of Fame" checking out all of the stars when we stumbled upon a tattoo shop. How cool would it be to say that I got a tattoo in Hollywood? Very bold. Very daring. Very cool. Very much unlike me to do so. We didn't get one that day because I couldn't decide what to get, and I couldn't talk Michelle into getting one with me.

Since then, I've been thinking off and on about getting one. My daughter, Emily, swears that I promised her that we would get one together on her 18th birthday (next May), but I have no recollection of ever making that promise.

The first time I ever really considered getting one was back in 1996 when I was at lunch with my friend, Brett Ray. I got to know him because I used to be in charge of a large summer youth conference in Ohio, and he was one of the speakers we regularly brought in. Brett is a phenomenal speaker who now does marriage conferences for Family Life Ministry with his wife, Carol. One day we were having lunch together and Brett informed me (now that we were becoming closer friends) that he had a tattoo. I had never seen it, but knowing him, I wasn't really surprised. I asked him where it was, hoping that it wasn't somewhere on his body that I didn't want to see. He unhooked his watch and revealed some letters tattooed on his wrist; letters that were completely covered by his watch band. Upon closer inspection, I saw that words "bleed grace" had been ornately tattooed on his wrist. He explained that someone once told him that he was a man who bleeds grace, and soon after being told that, he got the tattoo to always remind him to make sure his life is marked by grace. I thought that was pretty cool, and it got me thinking.

What do I need to always remember? What words are so important to me that I would consider having them tattooed on my body? In the years that followed, I really couldn't think of anything. I wouldn't mind having the name "Michelle" tattooed on my body, but I've always told her that if I did, I'd have it tattooed on my rear end. She's not really excited about that idea. And then there's this guy I know who has all the names of his kids tattooed on his neck. I'm not a big fan of that. It looks kind of weird, and it would be hard to cover up. Plus, it's not right to put their names on my neck when right now, I spend most of my time wanting to wring theirs!

And then, God revealed something to me. Something very profound. Something worth writing on my body. I have always been a worrier who struggles to keep everything around me under my control, and when I can't control things, I get frustrated and angry. This has caused a lot of damage to those closest to me: my wife and kids. They've lived with a man who loves them dearly but who is driven by fear. This fear leads to my need to control, and it's taken a toll on them. I used to think that my problem was anger, but the Lord has revealed to me (through some pretty rotten circumstances) that my anger is just a symptom of a deeper problem. Fear.

I'm not afraid of the dark (usually) nor am I afraid of my shadow, but I am afraid of a lot of things. I'm afraid of screwing up. I'm afraid of regret. I'm afraid of losing control. I'm afraid of losing the people and things that I love. I'm afraid to put my complete faith and trust in the Lord. And, I'm even afraid that someone will read this and think I shouldn't be their pastor anymore.

However, God is doing a work in me, and even though I'm afraid of it, it's been life changing, revolutionary, and really good. He's teaching me that He can be trusted, and He's teaching me that He's so trustworthy that I can relinquish my need for control over to Him...and He can handle it. I think I'm starting to get it. You know how I know? I'm not nearly as scared as I used to be, and as a result, I don't try to control things as much, and I'm not nearly as angry as I used to be. I think this is what it means to be free in Christ. It's a freedom I've never really understood nor experienced, but I'm starting to get it, and I like it...a lot.

So, what words do I think just might be worth tattooing on my body? I've thought about this a lot lately, and I think - for me - the words "no fear" would be a good choice. And if I feel really spiritual on the day of my tattooing, I may change it to "fear not" because when Jesus spoke in the King James dialect, these are the words he used.

The other day, I was driving and came upon a car at a stop light. I looked over and saw a very old lady driving. On her left arm was a tattoo. It did not look good at all on her. I'm sure it looked just fine when she was my age, but it kind of frightened me, to be honest. Made me think. I'm not getting any younger. As a matter of fact I just turned another year older today. Maybe getting a tattoo is not such a good idea for me. I guess I'll hold off until Emily forces me to consider the idea again in May.