Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Of Grief and Despair. And Hope.

Tragedy struck our town this week. 3 young men were involved in a car accident. One of them, a 16 year old named Kynan Barrett, was killed. I didn't know Kynan. But those who did speak very highly of him. They speak of his friendliness to others, of his infectious smile. Teachers speak of his great attitude, and they joy they took from teaching him. When tragedy strikes, when our hearts break, our minds are flooded with questions. We wonder how this could happen, we wonder why it did happen?

I know those questions well. In August of 2007, Kelly and I moved back to Arkansas after pastoring in Oklahoma for 2 years. We had an incredible time there; the people at First Baptist Church in Wakita were amazing; they were patient with a 25 year old who knew nothing of how to shepherd a flock. They loved us and took care of us and we treasure the memories we made there. At the same time, we were excited about being close to family again. I was especially thrilled to be close to my grandmother again. Grandma practically raised me and I looked forward to being close to her again, and making sure that Lily had a great relationship with her great-grandmother. 2 weeks after coming back to Arkansas Grandma suffered a massive heart attack and died. To make matters worse, she died the night before I was to leave for a 10 day preaching trip to Kenya. There was no way I could attend her funeral. And in the days that followed I wondered, "Why would God do that? Couldn't He have waited until I got back? Couldn't He at least have let me be there for the funeral? Why did I only get 2 weeks with her? After all, I was serving Him the previous 2 years."

None of it made any sense to me. But what sustained me through that time, and what will sustain each of us through the tragedies of life, is knowing that even when things don't make sense to us they still make sense to God. Or said another way, "why?" is the wrong question to ask. The right question is, "Even though this doesn't make sense to me, does it make sense to God?" And please don't misunderstand; I'm not suggesting that we never go to our Father and tell Him we don't understand. I'm suggesting that what will sustain us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not grasping for answers that we could probably never understand anyway. What will sustain us is knowing that even if I can't understand it, I serve a God who can. I serve a God who is able to work all things together for good. I serve a God who is able to use all things--even my times of heartbreak and despair--for His glory.

C.S. Lewis said, "...if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things...What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil." The question in any time of tragedy is this; is God wiser than I? If the answer is no, then we despair without hope. But if the answer is yes then we despair-but with hope. We despair knowing that even in the midst of our heartbreak God is working out all things according to His sovereign goodness. That even if I'm facing something that I would never have chosen for myself, God has chosen it for me. And He is a Great and loving King, a King in whose hands I have placed my very eternity. And I've trusted Him with my future--I can trust Him with my present.

To those who mourn in times of tragedy I say, mourn. But not as those who have no hope. Cry for your loneliness and weep for the emptiness in your heart. But rejoice in a God who is so great that He is able to take unspeakable tragedies and work from them unspeakable goodness. There is no greater example than the cross of Christ. At Calvary, the Creator lay down His life for His creation. He died in their place, killed at their hands. Is there a greater tragedy than this? Morally, philosophically, is there a greater tragedy than a loving and benevolent Creator being murdered by those who created Him? And yet from this great tragedy comes great hope. For when Jesus arose victoriously from the grave, salvation was secured for all who would receive it. And if God is able to take the greatest tragedy and work from it the greatest miracle, the miracle of redemption, how much more can we trust Him to work out these light and momentary afflictions for His everlasting glory?

Father, thank You for being so much greater and wiser than we. Thank You for knowing all things and being surprised by nothing. Thank You for being so great and so amazing that You can take the heartbreak and tragedies we face and somehow work them out for Your eternal glory. Thank You for taking the greatest tragedy-the death of King Jesus-and using it to bring about redemption for all who will receive it. Comfort us when we mourn, strengthen us when we are weak, and help us to look to You for our joy, our comfort, and our peace. Amen.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Fishing Teaches Us About Evangelism

There are lots of descriptions for evangelism; churches today use all sorts of words and phrases to convey the idea of sharing the good news. But perhaps the clearest, most descriptive phrase used is how Jesus described it. In Matthew 4:19 He called Peter and Andrew in this way: "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

In a culture where fishing played a major role, this is was an incredibly descriptive phrase for Jesus to use. It would have brought an image immediately to mind. In the same way, most everyone in our culture is at least somewhat familiar with fishing. And so Jesus' description of evangelism is equally clear to us. When He links evangelism to fishing, the lights come on as it were. We get what He's talking about. In thinking about this illustration, I began to jot down a few of the things that fishing can teach us about evangelism. Jesus said He would make us fishers of men. In other words, there are similarities between fishing and evangelism; there are things we learn about evangelism from fishing. What are they?

First, we have to go to where the fish are. If you want to catch a fish, you have to go to where the fish are, right? It's ridiculous to expect the fish to come to you. In the same way, if we want be fishers of men that means we have to go to where the fish are. In Luke 14 Jesus told a story about a man who threw a big party. He invited all the usual folks but they all backed out. His response was to invite the folks who wouldn't normally be invited to a party; the people that society didn't value too highly. And in vs23 he told his servant, "Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled." Point is, he didn't sit back and wait for people to come to him--he went after them. In the same way, to be effective evangelists we have to go to where people are. To catch fish, you go to where the fish are; to catch sinners, you go to where the sinners are. Too many Christians have decided that they would never stoop to go to certain establishments; as a result the people in those establishments--people who are precious to God, people with eternal souls--those people don't hear the gospel. Jesus tells us to go to where the fish are, so to speak. Luke 19:10, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." The Son of Man didn't come to sit in a chair and wait for His subject to come kneel before Him. He came in pursuit of them. To catch fish, we have to go where the fish are.

Second, we have to use the right bait. Now here's where we sort of go off the rails a little bit in the church. When we hear "fishers of men" we think about how we fish today. We think about using the right bait, about using the right kind of lures; we fish over here and wait for a nibble, fish over there, etc. We talk about how to 'set the hook' in evangelistic events, all that good stuff. One problem; in Jesus' day they didn't use a rod and reel (despite the picture above). They used a net. So it's pointless to talk about the right kind of lure; that's not what Jesus is referring to at all. Churches waste all their time trying to figure out the right lure--we've got to have the coolest music, the hippest graphics, the flashiest website--all that is fine and dandy. But it won't save anybody. The bait we use is simple; the gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 1:16 makes a staggering claim; "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God for salvation..." Consider the implications of that. The gospel--not the music, not the building, not the lights, not the cool shirt from Target with the cross on the shoulder that the ultra-relevant Pastor wears--none of that has any bearing on the saving of a soul. All that matters is the gospel. When we preach Jesus, lost people are saved. John 12:32, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself." Jesus promises that when He is lifted up, when He is crucified, He will use that message to draw men to Himself. When Jesus is lifted up, people are drawn to Him. By the way, "drawn to Him" sounds an awful lot like being caught in a net, doesn't it? Now don't misunderstand. I'm not against a church striving for relevance and modernity. I am against a church thinking that those things are necessary for the salvation of a soul. The gospel--the message of a crucified, resurrected, and coming again Jesus--that message is sufficient for the salvation of the lost.

Third, sometimes you won't catch anything. If you've fished very many times you know that there are times when you won't catch anything. Just the way that it works. But one thing I learned while fishing on farm ponds is this: where are they going to go? Think about it, if I go out fishing one afternoon and don't catch anything I don't have to get all upset about it. Where will the fish go? They aren't going to walk to another pond. I just have to be patient and keep fishing. In the same way, we need to understand that in evangelism, sometimes we won't catch anything. There are times when we preach the good news, share the gospel, just do the work of an evangelist--and nothing happens. And that's OK. Because saving them isn't our job, it's God's job. Our job is simply to cast the net of the gospel. It's the work of the Spirit to pull them to Himself. If someone refuses to hear the good news, don't despair. You'll get another chance with them.

Fourth, there's a mystery to catching fish. I love to fish with my dad. Nothing like spending time with him, talking, being encouraged, and catching fish. But at times it can be pretty frustrating fishing with him. He can cast to the exact same spot I did and while I didn't even get a bite, he'll catch the fish. I don't know how that works I just accept that there is a mystery to it. In the same way, we have to accept that there is a mystery to salvation. We can preach the gospel with all the eloquence in the world, present a clear plan of God's love and be completely rejected. Other times we can stumble and stammer, not thinking we're getting out a clear message at all--and God will use that to bring a sinner to repentance. There's a mystery to catching fish. And rather than trying to figure it all out, I choose to rest in the sovereignty of a God who loves me and gave Himself for me. A God who has chosen to set His affection on rebels and traitors and has guaranteed to His gospel will bring them to repentance.

Finally, anybody can catch a fish. Bill Dance can catch him some bass. Sometimes I think that guy could cast into a mud hole and pull out a seven pound bass. But you know what? I can catch a bass too. Maybe not as big, maybe not as frequently; but I can catch a fish. Know what else? Owen can catch a fish. I might have to help him cast, maybe help him reel it in; but if he gets that cricket in the water, the cork is going down. Here's the point; anybody can catch a fish. You don't have to be Bill Dance; and thankfully, you don't have to be Billy Graham either. The power isn't in the presentation or any of that stuff. The power is in the message. If we are faithful to preach the good news, and to live the good news; if we are faithful to take the opportunities God provides for us, we'll catch souls for the kingdom of God. Don't let what you perceive as your lack of abilities hinder you from being a fisher of men. Don't think you need a seminary degree to reach lost sinners. Share the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ and people will be saved.

Father, thank You for the gospel. Thank You for letting us take part in sharing that gospel with the world. Help us to be faithful to share it, to take every opportunity You give us to tell people about Jesus. Help us to clearly and passionately present Jesus to the world. And glorify Yourself through us. Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book review time!
Albert Pujols is one of the most recognizable names in pro sports. And in their book Pujols: More than the game, authors Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth seek to help the reader gain a better understanding of this sometimes controversial, always electrifying star slugger.
The book is heavy on statistics, all of which are presented with the purpose of illustrating Pujols’ dominance as a hitter. It’s also heavy on quotes, both from Pujols himself and from those who have crossed his path; coaches, teammates, and pastors, for example. However, this reliance on quotes makes the book read less like a biography and more like an extended Sports Illustrated story. Another glaring omission was a lack of photographs in the book. When I read a biography, especially of a current sports star, I enjoy seeing images from his/her life. This book had none. Now this doesn’t make the book unreadable by any means, but it should be noted by those considering it.
All in all, Pujols is an enjoyable read. And the authors do a commendable job of portraying the star as more than just a baseball player. In the words of the man himself, “Baseball is simply my platform to elevate Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.” Albert Pujols is presented as an admirable role model; for both his amazing baseball skills and his unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ. He is presented openly and honestly, with no attempt to cover up or make excuses for his mistakes and sometimes surly reputation. He’s an amazing man-he deserves an equally amazing biography. This is not it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com http://BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Playing School and Playing Christian

This morning after breakfast Lily began to herd her brother and sister into the next room. She had decided that they were going to play school. Now that sounds innocent enough but let me explain something about Lily. When she decides that they're going to play school, they play school. She makes her brother and sister sit still, assigns them work, etc. In fact, this morning she even had a copy of the roll from her classroom and was going down it deciding who was going to charge their lunch, who brought their lunch, and who was eating the school lunch. She gets very serious about playing school-and playing most other games as well. So as she began to bark out orders I reminded her not to lose her cool if Emma and Owen didn't follow every rule. "It's just a game", I said. "Remember that the point is to have fun."

Remembering the reason for what we do is pretty important. If I fail to remember the reason why I'm doing something then I'm liable to do it for the wrong reason; or worse yet, I'm liable to do it the wrong way. And one thing God's word makes plain is that the right thing done the wrong way becomes the wrong thing.

Want proof? Psalm 51:16, "For You do not delight in sacrifice or I would give it; You will not be pleased with a burnt offering." Consider what David is saying. The sacrificial system which was given by God, which was at the very heart of Israel's identity as God's nation is essentially said to be worthless. Why? vs17: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." David's point? The outward action of sacrifices is worthless without the inward reality of remorse over sin and brokenness at having rebelled against the Great King. When the purpose of the action is forgotten, the action becomes worthless.

Here's another example. Remember the Pharisees? If anyone could please God by rule-keeping it was these guys, right? They had scrutinized the law to the point that they could tell you everything you should (or shouldn't) do in every situation. They were fastidious about their rule-keeping. Surely they would earn God's favor, right? Matt. 23:27-28, "“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." What a shot against their self-righteousness! Jesus just blasts them. Why? They forgot the purpose of the law. The purpose wasn't to give one a sense of self-righteousness but to utterly remove all traces of it. Rather than puff you up, the law tears you down. But somehow, they had missed that. When the purpose of the action is forgotten, the action becomes worthless.

What difference does all this make? Simply this: in my daily walk with Christ my eyes must not be on my actions; rather my eyes must be fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith. The purpose of the rules He gives isn't so I can feel self-righteous; it's so I can glorify Him in this world. How tragic that we take things that God has given us--things like reading His word and praying, things that can bring us closer to Him, make us more like Him, help us to glorify Him--and cheapen them putting them on a daily check list of self-righteousness. There's great danger in that. The moment I do that I'm simply playing at being a Christian rather than walking in the righteousness that Jesus has given me and resting in His finished work of redemption. I'm not reflecting the glory of my King, I'm trying to demonstrate my own goodness. And worst of all, I'm no longer enjoying the all-encompassing greatness of God. May we never play Christians-rather, may we be Christians.

Father, thank You for Your love. Thank You for Your patience. Help me to remember the reason why You call me to serve You. Not so that I can glory in my own righteousness, but so that I can glory in the imputed righteousness of Jesus, that Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. Thank You for Your salvation and help me to rest in it rather than try to add to it. Amen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

In Which I Admit to Liking Opera

I understand that the opening thoughts of this post are fraught with danger. But I'm manly enough to face those dangers. And more than that I can defeat them. So here goes-I like opera. Now let me qualify that. I like it occasionally. And in small doses. And only certain pieces. La Donna e Mobile from Rigoletto, for example (BTW, fellas, that translates to "women are fickle". Now who can't agree with that?). Nessun Dorma from Turandot is another. Beautiful, powerful piece of art.

And so the other day I thought I would be all cultural and what not and added these songs to my playlist on Pandora. Now one might think that this is a great idea. However, I failed to take into account Pandora's rather loose grouping of songs and genres. Since I plugged in these songs that I enjoy I've been bombarded with caterwauling the likes of which one would scarcely believe possible. If that makes me an uncultured Philistine then so be it. There are some things no man can withstand.

It was during one of these sonic assaults that I realized the sin I struggle with and wrestle against behaves very much like these unwanted pieces of music. Let me explain. I wanted a couple specific songs in my playlist. But the specifics of the Pandora program is that you don't just get those specifics; you get other stuff with it. And sin behaves in the same way. When we are tempted to sin, when we are enticed by the wickedness that resides in our fallen flesh, we want that specific desire to be fulfilled; but we don't want any of the other things that accompany sin. Problem is, it doesn't work that way. Galatians 6:7-8 warn us, "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." See how it's a "part and parcel" sort of deal? We can't get the fleshly fulfillment from sin without also receiving the spiritual consequence of it. James says it this way: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and when sin it is fully grown brings forth death. (1:14-15).

So when I plug a sin into my life, when I choose to fulfill that lust, that desire, that act of immorality, there is a time of fulfillment in my flesh. Proverbs 9:17 says, "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant." There is a time of enjoyment, a time when the flesh is fulfilled and all seems OK. But then those acts of immorality begin to germinate; that sowing that we did begins to bring the harvest; a harvest of corruption and death. The lesson for us is very plain; if we would avoid the consequence of sin, we must avoid the action of sin.

Be careful what you plug into your life. Be careful what you allow to reside there. You might think it's just a small sin, just a little thing. But the fact is that the wages of sin-all sin-is death. Rather than find fulfillment in the temporal joys of the flesh run to the cross and find your fulfillment in the all-sufficient savior who loved us and gave Himself for us. Look to Jesus for your hope, your joy and your satisfaction. And if you listen to opera, by all means don't blog about it.

Father, thank You that You love me in spite of my sin. Thank You that You saved me knowing I would continue to struggle with sin, and fall to it. Help me to look to You for all things. And help me be mindful of the dangers of sin. Help me to be so taken with You that nothing in this world appeals to me. Amen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Another book review

Time for another book review: Slave by John MacArthur. From the book jacket, "As followers of Jesus, we call ourselves "Christians." But the fact is this word appears only three times in the New Testament. So the Bible uses a host of other terms to identify the followers of Jesus...but there is one word used more frequently than any of these. Slave." With that, MacArthur begins a detailed and exhaustive study of the Greek word doulos which, according to him, has been mistranslated in almost every English version. The word is most often translated as "servant." The premise of the book is that that translation misses the point; and more importantly, influences our entire theology about both God and Christianity.

Regular readers of MacArthur's work will once again be engaged by his exhaustive and scrupulous attention to detail, as well as his in depth overview of the slave culture at the time the New Testament was written. Readers who are new to his work might be a bit overwhelmed at first but the information is presented clearly. This isn't a book that is written just for pastors or theologians; it's a book that is written for every Christian. MacArthur labors to help his readers understand the implications of being a slave of Christ rather than simply His servant.

I found this book very informative and very challenging. His premise is a simple one: "To be a Christian is to be a slave to Christ." He understands the controversial nature of this term in our culture but in his direct style, he confronts this head on. He contends that in order to properly understand our relationship with Christ, and our relationship to the Father, we must take on the mantle of a slave. However, I felt that this book could have been several chapters shorter and made the point more clearly. Some chapters feel like they were tacked on at the end, perhaps in an attempt to lengthen the manuscript. They're informative and enjoyable to read, but at times I struggled to see how they fit with the overall theme of the book.

Slave is a challenging book. The truth it contains is as vital as MacArthur presents it to be, and it should benefit anyone who would read it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255