Meditating on Your Meditations

It’s been said that much of Christianity happens between the ears. Well, aside from the historical, once-for-all, finished, good news of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the supernatural working of the Spirit in giving and leading life, I agree. What do we do with this information contained in the Word? What do we think about ourselves in God’s grand scheme? How do we process our sin and suffering? What occupies our silent musings, anxious fears, and those moments of joyful pleasure? The new life birthed in us by the Spirit of God is far more than what we “do”. The Pharisees “did”, religious systems call adherents to “do”, and the near miss, yet entirely different, message of Biblical moralism is also intent on the “doing”. Yet the Psalmist calls us to a different order of living. One far simpler and much deeper. Listen to Psalms 19:14 with fresh ears,

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” 

My Rock and My Redeemer 

Let’s start from the end. The Psalmist, in this case David, knows who God is, and to whom he belongs. He is LORD (Yahweh), the personal-powerful God of All. He is Rock and Redeemer, the solid foundation unmoved by life circumstances, and the active mover engaged in all of life’s circumstances. And … He is MY Rock and Redeemer. David knows God is his, and he is God’s. This is language of acceptance, surety, and salvation. Make no mistake, this man-after-God’s-own-heart sinner knows his purity does not earn him grace any more than his sin removes it. What does this confidence move David to pray?

Being Accepted Motivates Acceptable Living 

The human heart is hard-wired to perform. We do and we get. We prove and we are rewarded. We walk acceptably and we are accepted. The Gospel of Psalm 19:14 says different. David walks in the confidence of his acceptance before his Rock and Redeemer, and prays to now walk acceptably. Because he knows his “acts” don’t earn him favor, he pushes far beyond the surface behaviors where he has experienced both success and failure. He pushes to mediate on his meditations, and the subsequent words that flow from his mind-heart and out his lips.

Meditating on Your Meditations 

Now we’re back to where we started, and the penetrating question of what goes on between your ears. Or speaking more holistically, what rattles around in your thinking and is wrestled with in your inner-being (heart)? When you’re alone and have nothing to think about, what do you think about? When you’re sad, lonely, discouraged, and afraid, what fill your meditations to occupy your soul and insulate your heart from hurt? Dare I say, the Psalmist David has drilled down to the very core of our beings, and forced a “test” as to our deepest desires and true beliefs. That test: What do you mediate on? The call: Slow down and reflect on what you’re reflecting on, meditate on your meditations, let the Spirit of God expose where the inclinations of your soul lead you.

What then? Don’t pretend they aren’t there, God knows they are. Don’t force a “good act” to convince yourself you are fine and in no need of help. And don’t pile up shame and condemnation thinking your acceptance is in jeopardy. Ask for help! The very next verse (Psalm 20:1) reads, “May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!” You mediate on your meditations so you can ask for help from the God who is your Rock and Redeemer … and He answers you! Our gracious God, who has accepted us in Jesus, ever lives to make our meditations, words, and behavior acceptable as we take our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), put a guard over our lips (Proverbs 13:3), and walk in obedience (Romans 6:16). He has done it and He will do it!

Living in Acceptance,

Pastor Mark

All In … The Antidote to Autonomy

Have you ever been stuck on the freeway behind a truck with that follow car waving the banner “Oversized Truck Ahead”? It slows all the traffic. Everyone is afraid to pass. You’re on pins and needles as you edge around it. It’s a lot like that with a Christ-follower who has the “Oversized Self” banner flagging all they do. It just gets hard to see around them … to see around me.

Hearing Pastor Todd’s appeal to “All In” this ministry year from Luke 9:23 called me to consider again my own autonomy (def: independence, a self-governing community). “All in means all out with self” (Todd Smith) … choosing self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-surrender. Is there ever a time in our lives, a day in our lives, where we don’t need to pursue greater death to self? Um, No!

Following Christ in the freedom of redemption is a call to ditch the oversized self-load by laying all your burdens on Him where His load is light (Matthew 11:28-30). The greatest antidote to the autonomy of being the president of your own little country is being All-In following the Shepherd.

All-In is Abiding

It’s funny how we can think we are getting somewhere in our oversized load of self when actually we’re not making any progress. Jesus taught in John 15:5 that “apart from me you can do nothing”. Following the Master is not merely swapping out the banner of self for the banner of Jesus, it’s far deeper than that. It’s dying to self, to live in Him. We’ll never be free of self until our “vine” dies and we abide in the Vine. I wish this were an easier lesson to learn. Self-government is so natural, so … of the flesh. All-in abiding is of the Spirit, and the antidote to autonomy.

All-In is Obeying

Autonomy screams like a little kid – “You can’t tell me what to do!” But Jesus does! He says if you want to follow me then deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. What is that other than a call to obedience. Turn from self-love, self-rule, self-preservation, and obey me. In all my years of following Christ, I have realized two simple truths about obedience: (1) I usually know what obedience means, and (2) I most often find it hard to do. But plain and simple, choosing obedience daily in the little things is the antidote to autonomy. It says, “I’m not living by my own executive orders, I love Jesus and will keep His commandments.”

All-In is All Joy

One of the most destructive lies of the enemy is that following Jesus is a bore, a burden, a joy-killer. But the apostle Paul reasoned by Kingdom logic, that following Christ was actually “working for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). Being All-In not only frees us from the super-sized burden of self, but All-In is about All-Joy. Your joy, my joy, the joy of a local church, with joy to spread to neighbors, co-workers, family and friends. As it turns out, All-In following Jesus is the deepest antidote to joy-less living and the path to passionate, lasting joy.

Friend, pursuing self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-surrender is not really depriving yourself of anything, but delighting in all the good gifts of God, here on earth in anticipation of the glory to come. Join me in dropping those oversized loads of performance you were never meant to carry as you walk with an abiding heart!

All In,

Pastor Mark

Billy Graham and Gun Violence

I never met the Reverend Billy Graham and I never heard him preach in person, but I know the message Billy Graham was about – The message that Jesus Christ forgives sin. And for all the controversy in the Church with some of the positions and decisions Billy Graham made in his life and ministry, his message was one that is both greatly needed in the conversation of our day, and one that will not be tolerated.

He Preached Sin

The influential voices of our day are not preachers, because faithful preachers of the Word of God preach sin, and to preach sin in our culture is to preach “intolerance”. To be for the Bible is to be against what God despises, and our culture does not accept such a message. God does not despise people made in His image; He does despise the evil of sin that every man, woman and child was born infected by. Billy Graham would not point merely to external factors as the greatest problem, but the virus of sin in the hearts of every man. He would not rely merely on laws, protests, and politicians to solve the problems of our day, he would herald the only answer for sin – A Savior, Jesus Christ!

He Preached Christ

Though Billy Graham had a place of immense influence with politicians and presidents, he came as an ambassador of a greater leader. His message was not swayed by the wind of cultural acceptability or political correctness, his message came from the Author of Salvation, the Creator of the Universe. Today, town halls and marches to discuss problems and create man-made solutions abound, but hearing from God empties rooms and draws nothing but critique. Religion is considered personal, and Jesus considered a figure of an old-school America (or backwoods America). To preach Christ, as preachers and people, is to choose a path of being marginalized. Never again will America allow a Billy Graham a seat at the table or a position of such influence, because never again will America listen to the voice of God or champion the miracle of salvation accomplished by Jesus.

He Preached Compassion

Though Billy Graham was known as a “fiery preacher”, he exuded the love and compassion of Christ. Conservative, Bible-believing Christians all-to-often just try to talk louder to make their case or win their argument. When Jesus looked upon Jerusalem and saw that the people were confused and hurting, like sheep without a shepherd, He was filled with compassion. It’s a rare word these days, because it means keeping your mouth shut (being slow to speak), putting others before yourself (quick to listen), and not accepting raging rhetoric and emotional outbursts as appropriate behavior (slow to anger). It sees not a moment to be won, but people who need to be cared for, with the greatest care someone can give being the love of Christ through the hands of His people. The answer will never be in laws, protests, town-halls, hashtags, pundits on FOX or CNN, metal-detectors, stricter background checks, better mental health care, active-shooter training, yelling parents or pictures of grieving kids … it will only always be through the compassion of a Savior who left heaven, took on human flesh, paid the ultimate price for our sin, rose from the grave, commissioned a church to make disciples, is seated at the throne of God, is sovereign over the planet He created, and will return to judge the living and the dead.

But God … 

Though from my vantage point of a local church pastor in a small community looking at the national conversation of important people and powerful politicians it all seems headed in the wrong direction … We are never without hope! Great Awakenings have dotted the history of our country; awakenings of people to their greatest need of forgiveness of sin through the power of a Savior. Awakenings brought about not by the plans of men, or programs of governments, but by the breath of God. Unless the Lord builds the house, the people labor in vain; and unless the Spirit moves there is no power. So we pray … and seek the face of God for His gracious help in our time of need. And we preach … and declare the timeless truths of the God of all Creation. Knowing that men’s hearts are the problem, Christ’s death is the answer, and only the Spirit of God can make the change!

Please please please pray with me for this move of God in our day!

Getting Angry

I recently started doctoral classes alongside a couple dozen other pastors. In a discussion we were having on shepherding, I asked a question of the professor about when it honors the Lord to get angry. I felt sort of stupid later as I had to rephrase the question a number of times, and in the end had it mostly passed by. It seemed like a legitimate question to me. I had just received information about good friends and ministry partners who had been devastated by sin. I was angry … righteously angry, I think!

We come to Matthew 21 where Jesus cleanses the Temple and we are uncomfortable with his anger. We find ways to explain it to the glory of God – Zeal for His Father’s house, a passion for holiness, and things like that. Yet it’s almost as if we feel the need to make excuses for Jesus not being the meek and mild guy holding sheep and touching the heads of children. My friends, I think we have t0 get a better grasp on this one. We get angry for all the wrong reasons, and not angry when we should be.

Too Quick to Anger 

The Psalmist repeatedly commends the patient nature of God to us – “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalms 145:8). James correctly warns us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). No doubt the heart of God is full of grace to His own. He is patient with us wayward rascals, and we are to likewise “be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We get angry over all the wrong things. That person doesn’t treat us respectfully and our pride lashes out. The situation spins wildly out of control and we look for someone to blame. Or maybe we just feel afraid, and anger makes it feel easier (and safer) to deal with the things we have no control over. Whatever the case may be, we do choose anger far too quickly … yes you choose it!

Too Slow to Anger 

But back to my classroom question. My concern is how rarely we get angry about the ravishing effects of sin on image-bearers. I’ve been doing ministry long enough to see my share of trauma, abuse, abandonment, hypocrisy and lies. It makes me mad. It makes me want to “flip tables over” when I see the damaging effects of sin on people I care about. So does the Bible have much to say about this? I think it does, but we feel really uncomfortable with this emotion. Take for example the section of Psalms called the imprecatory Psalms. “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them” (Psalms 69:24). We see the honest cries of men who saw the injustice and mistreatment of people and called out for God to judge. They fought taking matters into their own hands, but responded with the holy heart of God. They cared about God’s glory, as well as the destructive evil of personal and corporate sin in those around them. Wasn’t this what fueled the righteous anger of Jesus too?

Switch Up Your Anger 

We seem to have it all backwards. Most people get angry and sin, rather than seeing sin and getting angry. Of course this is dangerous territory because we don’t always see so clearly. It is a hazy line sometimes between being impacted by people’s sin and responding in the flesh, or seeing sin’s effects and righteously responding with a Spirit-filled passion. Solomon provides a helpful warning – “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). What starts as a good compassionate response can lodge in bad places that fuel sinful anger. Be careful, but be bothered. As lovers of God, we need to not only have God’s heart of patience and grace, but God’s heart for those we love who are deeply impacted by the wickedness of sin. I encourage you to wrestle with this one a step further in your own life, friendships, and ministry.

Was Solomon a Pessimist and a Hedonist?

As a boy, I thought Ecclesiastes was weird.  As a college student, I thought it was just too deep for anyone to really understand.  Now, I think I might sorta-kinda be able to maybe-somewhat understand what the wisest man in the world was saying.

For the longest time it just felt to me like Solomon was being so pessimistic –

  • “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3) … “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (1:14) … 
  • Pleasure, wine, great works, gardens, pools, possessions, wealth, wisdom … it is all vanity – Chapter 2
  • The world is just full of oppression, tears, misuse of power, discontentment, evil … and ultimately just death – Chapter 4, 6 , 9

Since Solomon had such a dark and pessimistic view of life it appeared to me his life motto was just “live it up because it’s all pointless” – “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do … enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun” (9:7,9) 

But is this really Solomon’s philosophy of life? Or was I missing something?

After close to 25 years in ministry, and close to 25 years of marriage, with kids now heading off to college, I think I may understand the wisdom of Solomon.  It wasn’t about hopelessness that leads to hedonistic pleasure, but rather about a hopeful dependance that leads to a joyful freedom.  Let me try to explain:

Solomon knew he wasn’t God, so he was free to be human 

Solomon gave himself, quite passionately I might add, to flipping over every possible human invention to see if he could find some purpose and delight in life.  His conclusion was that there was nothing on earth that could provide for him what only God could.  All these human pursuits would never amount to anything disconnected from the heart of a worshipper to the only One worthy of worship. “For apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (2:25). We toil so hard to be in control or to feel like we have accomplished something that will make us feel important.  A wise pastor-mentor of mine used to describe how young men are trying to convince those around them that they have something significant to contribute, and older men are trying to convince those around them that they made some significant contribution in their life.  I think Solomon would say that both are vanity!  The wise Preacher knew that he was no savior, and for as much wisdom and wealth and power as he had, he was simply a created being whose “almond tree  blossoms” (gray hair comes – 12:5), and one day his “golden bowl is broken” (the head goes … dementia,  alzheimers ?? – 12:6). It takes living some years to come to the realization that the next great spiritual awakening in America probably isn’t going to happen through a sermon you preach.  But in that there is immense freedom.  Freedom to trust the only wise God who has given you gifts to use and enjoy during the days of your life.  You and I are free to be weak and needy, frail and faltering, so we can be trusting and true to the God who always gives out of the abundance of His grace.

Solomon knew life was hard, so he didn’t have to make excuses 

Solomon had both experienced and witnessed enough evil and pain in the world to know that there was no human remedy to such suffering.  Young people often haven’t suffered enough, nor have a firm enough grasp on the sovereignty of God to confidently hold pain and the goodness of God together.  I know I struggled to know how to do that.  I think Solomon had come to understand that you don’t have to conclude that God doesn’t care when you see heartache and trauma around you.  I think Solomon had come to recognize that there is another answer to pain in the world other than God must not exist or isn’t a God of love.  I think Solomon in all his searching finally removed himself from the throne and chose to trust a God He would never fully understand.  He didn’t feel the need to feverishly try to prop God up so He looked better to the fools and folly around him (that never works).  Nor did he give in to the arrogance of human wisdom in being the pot who challenges the Potter.  What freedom there is knowing life is hard, God is God, and He doesn’t need you to come to His aid.  You and I can be honest in tears, joyful in pleasure, and resist being the fool who lives to counsel the LORD.

Solomon knew God was King, so he could enjoy being in the Kingdom 

The lore of King Solomon is great in the Bible.  He sought God for wisdom and got it in spades.  We might say – He was the man!  Therefore, one might think after Solomon concluded his quest for the meaning of life and discovered he actually wasn’t the man that he’d be fatalistic and depressed.  Quite the opposite was true of Solomon.  His diligent pursuit of “everything that is done under the sun” (1:14) led him to conclude he wasn’t God.  His honest reflection on “the oppressions that are done under the sun” (4:1) made him realize life is simply hard and full of pain on this fallen planet.  But those conclusions didn’t sink him, but rather gave him greater focus and freedom in life.  He saw “all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun” (8:17) and rather than waste his time focused on trying to do God’s job, he could focus on delighting in God’s work.  That meant worship through hard work, obedient living, and delighting in the God who gives good gifts to His children.

Our friend Tim Keller and others have elevated the emphasis on “idols of the heart”.  Solomon would certainly resonate with that concept.  Ecclesiastes ought to be an “idol-smashing tool” in our lives to the idol of control, the idol of comfort, and the idol of influence.  Those pesky little idols rob you of job, they steal your freedom, and they make you a slave to vain living.  When you and I, like Solomon, finally gain enough Godly wisdom, we too can simply enjoy being a servant in the household of the King.  It is a really great place to be!

Do You Belong?

I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a particular place (or places) that everyone of us feels like we don’t quite fit, and the places where we think we do we still have a nagging sense that we don’t.  Just the word belonging feels like a nice warm blanket to me … and one I have to be cautious of lest I find my belonging in places of earth rather than places of ultimate rest.  The New Testament writers under the inspiration of the Spirit wrote plenty about not having our hearts fixed here, being citizens of heaven, living as strangers here, and the language of being aliens.  So there’s the theological foundation – God’s children don’t belong here.  But there’s more, isn’t there? He created us for relationship and whether it be marriage, family, or friendship, He wants us to taste of the richness of real community. But why is that so hard?

A Distorted Culture of Belonging 

Simply put, when being a “member” of something is so casual, a true sense of belonging is hard to find.  Reflecting on this last night, my wife insightfully commented about how easy it is for people to be members of just about everything, and as a result it doesn’t mean all that much.  You can join Sam’s Club or Costco, be a rewards member of just about every retail store out there, be a card-carrying Starbucks gold customer, and even your favorite credit card is eager to call you a platinum cardholder.  When we are part of so much, how can that not reduce actually belonging to something?  I mean just because you have your favorite rewards card to one store doesn’t mean you don’t shop at another store, so really what’s the big deal about a covenant commitment anyway? My armchair-quarterback purview of our culture is that we gorge on being “joiners” (in an effort to belong), but run from being “committers” (to avoid being truly known).  Those two provide a tumultuous conflict of interest in our own souls … and for those around us who may truly want to love us, accept us, and make us feel like we really belong.

Our Sabotaging Efforts in Belonging

But the cards are stacked against us to an even greater degree.  For as much as we want to belong, we fear the intimacy, vulnerability, and exposure we know it brings. Some of us are controllers, and every situation that starts to get a little “sketchy” we quickly try to manage so as to not feel on the “outside”.  We control our environments, managing what we attend, who we talk to, and sometimes even where we sit, so as to not allow the slightest hint of hurt or isolation to effect us.  I mean who wants to feel that stuff? Unfortunately, such controlling behavior to secure belonging only creates more isolation.  Some of us are connectors, and we think belonging is up to us and we have to “work the room” to make it happen.  If I can be outgoing enough, friendly enough, and engaging enough then how could I possibly not feel a part of something?  We are the social butterflies who never are lacking for someone to talk to, but still wrestle with that nagging feeling of never really feeling known.  We love the crowd, but later wonder if they loved me as much as I tried to love them.  Still others of us are complainers, and for as much as we want to belong and feel accepted, the prospect of rejection carries an even greater weight and motivation to stay away.  So we criticize the shallowness or superficiality of others.  We complain about what others are doing (or aren’t doing) in order to feel better about our own fears of “putting ourselves out there”.  We reason that belonging is an illusion, people will always hurt you, and the church will never get it right, so why try?  It’s no surprise then that we bounce around from “community”, to “social setting”, to “worship service” looking for something that both our culture has distorted, and our own hearts have sabotaged, in search for what our soul truly desires.

A Two-Sided Approach to Belonging  

There is a better way in the Gospel.  True belonging has the vocabulary of commitment, forbearance, steadfastness, and covenanting together for mutual care.  In other words, you cannot truly receive what you are unwilling to freely give.  God came near to us (we call that the incarnation) giving freely and drawing us to Himself without respect to our “worthiness”.  He committed Himself to His children, depositing His Spirit within, and making eternal promises to never leave us.  In response, we fasten ourselves to Him, binding our hearts to His promises, and choosing to make Him our only place of rest.  See how that goes both ways? His commitment to us, our commitment to Him.  His calling us out, our calling Him in … His preparing a home, our making Him home … His acceptance of us, our delight in Him.  At least this is how our Gospel-covenant ought to look.  It’s a good model for human belonging.  If we want to create belonging it must involve a mutual binding of ourselves together.  Two parties saying, “I’m in, I’m here, I trust”.  Yes, that’s hard for sinful people to do, but the best chance of it comes within the covenant context of a local church.  The marriage of Christ to His Bride, as expressed and practiced in our little local assemblies until the great consummation of our marriage in glory.  I know this much – my belonging will never come through the membership cards I carry in my wallet, never be untainted by my fallen heart, and never be fully realized until my Groom returns, but I refuse to stop trying … because I was created to belong, and so were you.

Is God Fair?

I recently hit the Mt. Everest of our Isaiah preaching series (Chapter 53) and a woman hunger to learn and grow as a believer sent me the following question that I thought would be worth posting here on my blog for others who may be wrestling with the same difficult question or just want more clarity on the matter.  She asked:

“I understand that through faith we our saved, and Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Through his death, our faith and salvation is how we are made righteous and go to Heaven. My question is what if someone never learns about Jesus? Does that mean they go to hell? It’s hard for me to grasp that someone may go to hell because of where they were born, or because their family did not believe that and they were not exposed to the teachings of Jesus. It’s does not feel like unconditional love. Or are we all held to a different standard based on what we know and what we have been exposed to or taught?”

Here’s how I tried to help her … Perhaps it will be a help to you too:

It’s a good and hard question, and there is some “tension” in the answer. First a few key references: Acts 4:12“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” You are absolutely right in affirming that the Bible clearly teaches that salvation only comes through Jesus and his work on the cross. We call this the exclusivity of Christ … He alone saves. And yes, as you stated that is by faith in Him, not our works, religious acts, or “goodness”. So, first part of the answer – without Christ nobody can be saved, yes even those who have never heard. That’s the hard part … but there is more.

Because salvation is a work of God and not man, and He is the one who “opens” the heart to faith/belief, then God knows when (He created the when) a person’s heart is open (He opens it) and I believe He is always faithful to bring the truth and teaching of Jesus Christ to them. Romans 1:18-20 … I’ll not record it all here, but open your Bible and read it as I comment. The apostle Paul teaches that men suppress the truth of God – By their sinful nature (v18). He then goes on to say that knowledge of God is available to all men, so they are without excuse (v19-20). How is this knowledge available to all men? Through creation and in their conscience. We call the knowledge of God available to all men in creation – General Revelation. How does that work? Something like this I suppose — “Wow, check out those mountains, and that sun, and the birds … there is no way I could make that, or any man for that matter … there must be an amazing Creator God behind this in some way or another.” But that does NOT save anyone, because remember Acts 4:12 – they still don’t know about Jesus, and the cross, and their need for a substitute to deal with their sin and the judgment they deserve. Now, we call the knowledge of God needed for salvation – Special Revelation. How does that come? Through the Word of God and those who preach it, teach it, share it with others – Romans 10:13-18 deals with this issue very clearly (even quotes our Isaiah 53 passage). I believe that when someone responds to God with a soft heart to General Revelation that God supplies the Special Revelation. He brings a Christian friend across their path, directs them to church, etc.

But what about those who have no Christian witness? The “unreached” parts of the world? The tribes in the remote parts? Well, the same is true, they need more than general revelation, they need a witness to the person and work of Jesus. This is why we care so desperately about missions, and specifically missions to the unreached. People in NE OH have “access” to the Gospel if they choose to listen, ask, want to find out more (through you, me, and Leroy Chapel and other Gospel teaching local churches). But not everyone has that opportunity. So we hear the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:19- 20“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” Nations isn’t actually the geo-politic entities that have their own flags and national anthems, it actually means “peoples” or “people groups” and that is far greater than the nations recognized by the UN. For example Ethiopia alone has more than 70 people groups within its borders. Perhaps now you see why the work of missions is vital to the church, and why it so fills the story of God (“you will be a light to the nations”). Because God, like you, wants everyone to have a “fair shot” at hearing or having the opportunity to hear … and then they either choose to believe or reject.

And one last piece … I believe that this “preaching of the Gospel to all the nations” is why Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Not everyone has had a chance to have a Gospel witness. Matthew 24:14“And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” So, He waits – lovingly and patiently – for the story to spread. We give ourselves to spreading the story … urging those who have an opportunity to hear the Gospel to respond (personal evangelism), and praying/sending/partnering with missionaries to take the Gospel to the unreached peoples of the earth (missions). And one great and glorious day – He returns and judges the living and the dead … those who have believed to life glorious and eternal, and those who have rejected to hell, awful and eternal.

I guess I’ve given you a whole other sermon on the subject. But I do hope it helps!

The Antidotes to Self-Trust

Nobody has to teach you to be mistrusting of others, it comes fairly naturally to the human heart that has been hurt … and who hasn’t been hurt.  No child has perfect parents (if they know their parents), no individual has a perfect spouse (if they are married), no employee has a perfect boss (if they work), no church-goer has perfect leaders (if they attend church) and no friend has perfect companions (if they have some friends) … period.

Just what is the problem that this creates? There are scores of problems arising from these situations – loneliness, abandonment, fear, worry, on and on that list can go.  But what is the problem? I would argue that the default response of the sinful human heart in these situations is self-trust.  Often times that is a conscience choice to push people away who caused hurt, and other times it’s not so deliberate.  Sometimes it’s done with a sinful rejection of those who don’t measure up to your god-like standard, and other times it is actually wisdom to flee violent or abusive situations.  Whatever the specifics of the case may be, in every case the thoughtful child of God needs to do battle against the leanings of their heart to only call yourself (and yourself alone) safe.

In one respect, it’s true – nobody out there is safe.  But the answer is not to push everyone away and opt for selfish isolation, but to stop expecting everyone around you to act like a savior full of endless grace and truth in glorious perfection.  Yet there are ‘safe people’ out there.  People who imperfectly love their Creator and are willing to imperfectly love you.  So, if that’s true how do we do battle against the idols of our heart which are all rooted in self-trust?

Antidote #1: Listen and Remember

The history of the nations of Israel and Judah are cyclical stories of stubbornness and forgetfulness.  God’s power is put on display for they to unmistakably see and yet they choose self, they choose their strategies and tactics for survival and significance.  He brings the firm and loving discipline of a Father who will not let them go, a remnant awakens to his promises and returns to Him.  From the wilderness wanderings, to the conquest of the land, to the period of the judges, to the monarchy, to the divided kingdom, to their captivities and the words of the prophets … it all says the same thing – “Listen to your God you stiff-necked rebels, and remember all that He has done and promised to do … and worship and obey!”  The New Testament writers say the same thing – “Therefore we must pay must closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1).  Do you want to fight the self-trusting nature of your soul? Listen to, and remember, your Creator who says – “This is who I am, and this is what I’ve done … you can trust me!”

Antidote #2: Repent and Pray

My teenage son recently bemoaned the fact that he knows that adults aren’t perfect and that they sin, but that he doesn’t see them express that or own it very often.  Ouch!  Ouch to my own soul.  I want my wife and kids to think I’m perfect, but not expect me to be.  I want them to think I’m humble, but not expect me to repent before them.  Yeah, I know – pretty jacked up.  If I’m listening with a soft heart to my Heavenly Father then I will be the earthly father that repents of his own self-trust.  If I’m remembering the goodness of God to me in forgiveness and grace, then I will be a man who runs to Him for more of it – repentance and prayer.  When you and I aren’t quick to see our own sin and turn from it we are trusting in our own thoughts, words, or merit to deal with where we violated the heart and law of God.  And when we aren’t quick to pray, we are trusting our ability to handle the situation, carry the burden, and manage the fallout better than the Lord.  Do you want to fight the self-trust that comes second-nature to you? Process repentance before the Lord and openly with others, and talk to God about the trustworthy nature of His character to you.

Antidote #3: Doubt and Invite 

For all that can be said of self-trust (and lots can be said), perhaps one of the most foundational realities is that you aren’t trustworthy either.  It’s true.  You think you can trust yourself, your judgement, and your motives … but you can’t.  You are just like the next guy who you don’t trust.  It’s just such a greater draw to trust yourself than the next guy because you are in control.  The burden of success and failure is on you and nobody else … and you’re willing to live with that.  But be certain of one thing – You are made of the same stuff as that person who hurt you last year or last week.  Part of my repentance must be exchanging self-trust for self-doubt.  How’s that for an uplifting self-esteem message?  Actually I find it quite freeing personally.  I’m no savior, no perfect parent or perfect husband, certainly not a perfect preacher or all-wise counselor.  In my doubting of self, I am not doubting God’s work in me, His gifts to me, my identity as valued and loved, or the influence He has entrusted to me.  I am just saying that trusting Him is always the better option than trusting me.  And in that obedient doubting I get to invite the care, wisdom, and resources of Him and others to move me forward.  What a bargain: I’m free of putting all the weight on my shoulders, and I get the “light burden” (Matthew 11:28-30) of trusting Him.

These antidotes aren’t a “one-time” shot given at the travel clinic before boarding your international flight.  Rather they are required in “daily doses” for our spiritual health and vitality.  So take your medicine and enjoy the freedom it brings!


What Target May Have Overlooked

Last week, Target, the “go-to” store for what you need, announced that – “In our stores, we demonstrate our commitment to an inclusive experience in many ways. Most relevant for the conversations currently underway, we welcome transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.” Right now this is a hot topic in our culture and one that surprisingly appears to me to lack the clarity on all sides needed. In turn it has become simply another “divisive issue” to go to war about between liberals and conservatives, organizations representing Christian morality and those championing inclusivity. I don’t think it has to be that way.

Obvious Differences

Let me start be recognizing I don’t expect we will ever bring both sides together to hold hands and sings songs. There are clear and obvious differences as to one’s belief systems, presuppositions, and authority. Behind these actions and the sides we take are both very personal beliefs and strongly held convictions. These don’t get uprooted by social activism or convincing arguments. But honor and dignity for every person created in the image of God, whether stated that way or not, is something we can agree on. We should be able to recognize that both sides hold strong beliefs related to their commitment to the authority of the Bible or the authority of “no discrimination tolerated”. DA Carson in his excellent little book The Intolerance of Tolerance so aptly points out a day when tolerance actually meant we respect each other’s opinions and beliefs even while strongly opposing them. We should be able to interact with opposing ideas and the actions corresponding to those ideas with honor, respect, and yes … tolerance. This does not mean we check or brains at the door, nor our obvious presuppositions based on theology, culture, or family values.

Protection For All

This is probably the point I am most confused about regarding this decision and ones like it. As a pastor of a church that champions the supremacy of the Scriptures I actually don’t have a problem with attempting to honor all people in retail stores through creative solutions that make everyone feel honored and cared for. The problem and obvious oversight appears to be when you make a decision to do that for one person or group that then puts another person or group in danger. How is that inclusivism done well? I don’t think the issue or problem we should be focused on is about whether a transgender person can select which bathroom to use, but those predators that will take advantage of this decision to openly prey on the vulnerable. I suspect that an individual born male who has transitioned to female might already be using the bathroom or fitting room labeled women. Perhaps without issue, controversy, or causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. The decision made by Target may be affirming that they are supportive of this choice and certainly that makes the transgender community feel supported. But what about those predatory individuals who now are given license to enter the bathroom, fitting room (and in some cases locker room) to take advantage of our children? If indeed the goal of Target is, as they stated – “Everyone deserves to feel like they belong. And you’ll always be accepted, respected and welcomed at Target”, then why in fact does that not apply to everyone including the most vulnerable in any culture – the children? Perhaps we can do better at thinking this one through … together.

Clearly Other Options

I have been known to go into the women’s bathroom from time to time. It’s true. At Starbucks, and other places, where single bathrooms are used, if the men’s bathroom is occupied and the women’s is not … well, yeah I sneak in and used the bathroom that doesn’t correspond with my gender. Without being crude, yes … there is a difference in the two bathrooms, but it’s not as if a man and women can’t use the same toilet. We need to be careful to not get too “up in arms” over the morality issue with those who clearly hold an opposing position. We might also want to recognize that in many cases stores have created “family bathrooms” for us dads who were alone with our young daughters in the store and needed to help them as they were potty training. It may mean that public establishments need to think more consistently about how to create appropriate options for everyone so that everyone feels safe and dignified. As a Christian, I care about Biblical morality, but I’m not that interested in having that intensely personal and immensely important subject over a urinal.

These are tough subjects, and they aren’t going to get any easier to discuss. But we would all be well served to not try to change people’s hearts by public attack. We must care for the vulnerable in our society. We must do our best to treat everyone with dignity and honor, especially those we disagree with. We must be willing to disagree and clearly make a case for truth. We must do all of that in a way that is salt and light to a world in need of a Savior!

Talking To Your Kids About Gender

It really was the case that from the minute Michelle and I got married we had great Godly people around us modeling marriage and family. By the time we were preparing for our first child to enter the world we had watched moms and dads around us closely, taken a couple parenting classes, and drilled our close friends as to the “keys to successful parenting”. But nothing really prepared me for the conversation I had with a few of my kids the other day.

Friday mornings are Dunkin Donut time with our three middle-schoolers. Some mornings we just hang out, other mornings we read theology for kids, or mom takes the girls and I take the boys and we talk “boy talk” or “girl talk”. This past Friday as my son and I sat in one corner, a young man who I had counseled a number of times in previous years came over and said hello to me. It took me about thirty seconds into the conversation before I realized who I was speaking with. This young man was now identifying himself as a transgender woman. I had heard he had made this decision but hadn’t yet bumped into him since this decision had been made. We chatted briefly and shortly thereafter we left to get the kids to school. Once we got in the car I tried to keep conversation going hoping that my kids wouldn’t press in and ask too many questions about my previous encounter. Of course they did … this is 2016 and my kids go to public school, we have a television in our home, and they are generally pretty observant teenagers. I hadn’t rehearsed this “lesson” in my parenting arsenal. Talking to my kids about transgender issues wasn’t in the parenting class Michelle and I took years ago. But here’s what I said:

God Creates Gender

I reminded my kids that way back in the early pages of Genesis it says that God created gender … “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). We don’t get to choose our gender. Whether someone is a male or a female is in the creative power and wisdom of God. Someone may struggle “feeling” male or female, but that doesn’t make him or her a gender different than God created him or her. In the beginning God determined that two different sexes were the perfect expression of the image of God. That in the man and in the woman God’s image is displayed, both as an individual and in the way they relate to each other as same (human), and as distinct (gender). One is not better than the other, nor did God design a way for mankind to switch between the two genders.

We All Struggle With Identity

I really want my kids to be able to navigate the waters of sexual identity well as this is a watershed issue in our day that is by no means going away. I explained how this young man I was speaking to identified more as a female. We talked about how we all struggle to understand who we are and why God made us the way He did. I reassured them that it’s normal to wrestle with these issues of identity, but that gender identity is determined by God and transgender expressions won’t “fix” what’s going on inside. To think that somehow transitioning at any level will sort out the very human struggle of one’s identity is near-sighted and will only further confuse the struggle someone feels.

Finding The Right Answers Is Crucial

Ultimately I wanted my kids to have empathy for this young man. They could see from his demeanor and physical mannerisms that he wasn’t doing very well. In fact he had told me he recently had a mental breakdown and was having some neurological tests performed to determine what was going on. I want them to fight the natural bent of their hearts to judge and snicker with the grace and compassion that arises from feeling the hurt someone else carries. I want them to deeply understand who they are before the Lord … and even if they don’t get that far, that they at least understand who God created them to be. I want them to understand that without the right answers to these questions you can begin down a path that only leads to greater and greater confusion … and heartache. The gospel-less culture around us champions being who you are, but offers only tips and tools that lead you away from being who God created you to be. I want my kids to be themselves. I want them to look different than my wife and I. I want them to have their own adventures and walk their own paths. I just want them to be equipped to find their worth in Jesus so they can help others navigate these tricky roads we all walk.