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

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.

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.

I’m a Complementarian and Hate Seeing Women Abused

I just finished a two-week preaching series on Domestic Violence and it’s sad to me that most of the helpful material I read coming from any sort of Christian persuasion were either feminist or egalitarian.  The attacks on the Biblical model of gender roles as part of God’s beautiful design not only grieves me … but is true.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally the conservative, Gospel-loving, reformed, expositional preaching church has not held high both God design for male headship and God’s design for women to be treated with honor, dignity, and as full imager-bearers of the Trinity.  Now before you write me off, I’m not a church-basher (or before you start cheering me and joining in on attacking the church).  I love the church and have given myself to see her become all that God designed her to be for the sanctification of His children and for a powerful witness to the world of the glory of God in redeeming sinners.  She hasn’t always done well, but she will always be God’s plan A.  It has been a sad journey for me over the past month in preparation to see both the pitiful way the church has dealt with this issue (long before any Ray Rice video surfaced), and most importantly the awful and devastating ways that women have been treated in the name of God.  Let me offer some core takeaways from my study for the Church moving forward:

Marriage is not our God

It’s been far too long now that the church in an effort to hold high the sanctity of marriage has made keeping couples together our highest aim.  It’s not.  Our highest aim is to glorify God in all the we do (1 Corinthians 10:31), and to point people to love Jesus with all our hearts (Matthew 22:37).  Yet somehow we have managed to make “keep marriages together at all costs” the greatest commandment. Why have we sought to protect the sanctity of marriage (rightly), but not protect the women who are suffering in violent or abusive marriages?  A woman who has been battered, neglected, or verbally abused does not need marriage counseling, she needs to hear of the protective, loving, and redeeming work of Jesus who calls her His own.  She needs her identity shaped by the Sovereign Lord of the Universe, not tips on how to communicate with her husband in more helpful ways.  We must take off our blinders pastors and elders, counselors and disciplers, to what the real issue is here.  I fear that were Ray and Janay Rice in many of our well-taught congregations that he would be told to go to anger-management classes, and she would be taught how to lovingly serve her husband.  That’s just not helpful.  They both need to have their eyes lifted from the momentary marriage they are in to the eternal marriage they need.

Divorce is not what God hates

It’s striking to me how many Christians can quote “God hates divorce”, with no knowledge of where it is in the Scriptures (Malachi 2:16) and not be able to finish the verse (“… and him who covers himself with violence”).  Sadly, I’ve been guilty of that in my pastoral counseling … pointing out the first part of that verse and eliminating the second half.  I know that the topic of divorce is complicated exegetically and controversial within the conservative church, but when will we stop focusing on the actual “legal divorce” event and focus on the breaking of the marriage covenant done long before the counsel to not divorce comes from the church?  I have had to wrestle with this for years now both from a textual perspective (please give Instone-Brewer a good reading), and a practical perspective.  I’m amazed at the responses I’ve gotten from pastors related to the handling of these issues.  The man is abusive, the women pursues divorce … the church does what? Church discipline the woman or ignore it because they say they could never live with that man but don’t want to condone divorce.  This is silliness and not courageous pastoral ministry.  Perhaps you don’t know what to do because you’ve gotten locked into a Biblical interpretation that you know doesn’t reflect the heart of God.  That somehow unless sexual infidelity has occurred you’ve got to fight to save the marriage, when in many cases the marriage has no sanctity in it at all.  I do believe the Bible teaches there are two grounds for divorce: unfaithfulness and abandonment.  And a man doesn’t have to physically leave the home to have abandoned his marriage covenant.  When he regularly controls and manipulates, belittles and attacks verbally, and uses his wife rather than serves his wife … he has forsaken the commitment he made to that woman and before God.  That is what God hates.

It’s all about control

James could’t be clearer – “You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:2).  The seed of violence is in all of us, because we all have unmet desires and unfulfilled expectations.  There is not a one of us that can bear the weight of being anyone’s Savior, or hasn’t been disappointed by the fallenness of those we love not being able to bear that title either.  We don’t get what we want and we fight, we demand, we seek control.  Your tool of manipulation and control may not be hitting, but it’s still there in your heart.  You may use sarcasm, clever speech to persuade, yelling, walking out, withholding money, or any number of other evil devices.  We must move to a far deeper level in our efforts to care for marriages.  We can’t just preach another sermon on headship without preaching a sermon on abuse of headship.  We can’t let the feminists or egalitarians be the only ones who are trying to protect women in the church.  Lest you think after reading this that I am flippant about marriages, marriage counseling, or holding high the sanctity of marriage, you must know that I care deeply about marriages.  But I care more about applying the Gospel well to the depth of our souls.  This isn’t merely an NFL problem, it’s a Church problem.  And we who love the Word of God must grow in our care for the women who are suffering in silence thinking they have no voice, won’t be believed, or really are less important that their husbands to the church.  May our redeeming God write a new story in our churches in the days ahead.

Pastor Mark

You can read my full note on this subject at:

Or listen at:

What does it really look like to trust in our Sovereign God?

I’m almost finished with pastor Tim Keller’s new book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering … and it’s great on many levels.  This morning a section he wrote was powerful in my thinking and heart.  This is the kind of stuff we MUST have settled in our hearts before we enter the furnace of suffering and confusion.  I just want to give you an extended sample of what he wrote … then go buy the book:

Context – Keller has described the Joseph story and the hideous human event of his brothers sinful choice to sell their brother into slavery, and another Biblical event that happened in that same geographical place (Dothan) a number of years later – that of Elisha praying to God when he and his servant were trapped by Syrian troops and God showed them “Angelic troops and chariots of fire” and later struck the entire Syrian army blind.

Keller writes – ” Now think of these two divine acts of deliverance at Dothan.  In the first incident, Joseph cries out to God for deliverance and rescue.  But instead, God appears to do nothing at all.  In the second incident at Dothan, God answers Elisha’s prayer for deliverance with an immediate massive miracle.  On the surface, it appears that God ignores Joseph and responds to Elisha.  But that is not so. It would turn out that God had been as watchful in his hiddenness as in any miracle.  The two extremes of His methods meet in fact in Dothan, for it was here, where Joseph cried in vain (Genesis 42:21), that Elisha would find himself visibly encircled by Gods’ chariots.  God was just as present and active in the slow answers to Joseph as in the swift answer to Elisha.  He was as lovingly involved in the silence of that cistern as he was in the noisy, spectacular answer to Elisha’s prayer.  And indeed, it could be argued that Joseph’s salvation, while less supernatural and dramatic, was greater in depth and breadth and effect.  The Joseph story tells us that very often God does not give us exactly what we ask for.  Instead he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows.  We must never assume that we know enough to mistrust God’s ways or be bitter against what he has allowed.  We must never think we have really ruined our lives, or have ruined God’s good purposes for us.  The brothers surely must have felt, at one point, that they had permanently ruined their standing with God and their father’s life and their family.  But God worked through it.  This is not inducement to sin.  The pain and misery that resulted in their lives from this action were very great.  Yet God used it redemptively.  You cannot destroy his good purposes for us.  He is too great, and will weave even great sins into a fabric that makes us something useful and valuable.”  Later in the chapter Keller quotes from one of my favorite books of The Letters of John Newton – “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds … when you cannot see your way, be satisfied that he is your leader.  When your spirit is overwhelmed within you, he knows your path: he will not leave you to sink.  He has appointed seasons of refreshment, and you shall find he does not forget you.  Above all, keep close to the throne of grace.  If we seem to get no good by attempting to draw near him, we may be sure we shall get none by keeping away from him (Newton).  Newton’s statement – ‘everything is needful [necessary] that he sends, nothing can be needful [necessary] that he withholds’ – puts an ocean of biblical theology into a thimble.  If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.  And anything you pray for that does not come from him, even if you are sure you cannot live without it, you do not really need … we get God’s saving power in our life only through the weakness of repentance and trust.  And, so often, the grace of God grows more through our difficulties than our triumphs.” (pgs 263-269)

May we learn to really trust that God is for His children … always!

Religion’s Appeal to the Flesh

I’ve heard it said since I was a kind – “Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship.”  And yet in my personal and pastoral experience for many years now I’ve found that most people actually choose religion over relationship.  Why?  For the very same reason the apostle Paul put his confidence in the flesh for so many years before his conversion – It makes me feel in control and brings me to a place where I can boast about what I’ve accomplished (Philippians 3:4ff).  Relationship with the Triune God is hard work … heck relationship with anyone is hard work.  It requires patience, a persevering pursuit, and years of doing the same thing (the Bible calls that faithfulness).  In contrast to religion which can flare up in glorious displays of passion, mighty acts of sacrifice, and no real need to deal with what’s going on inside one’s soul.  Who dare question such spiritual power.  The sad and unfortunate thing is that in my own life and as I watch, counsel, and shepherd the lives of others – those spiritual displays more often than not fade, or worse are found out to be false and man-centered.  The “form of godliness” that Paul speaks of can actually come in the “picture of power” that denies the real power of God (2 Timothy 3:5).

The Characteristics of Religion

The appeal to the flesh in religion is strong … and yet often very subtle (deceptive).  Religion says – “there is more that you can do.”  And that more can take the form of rigid moralism that does all it can to clean the outside of the cup, reducing the Gospel to a set of rules to be followed void of any considerations of the heart.  Or it can take the form of spiritual fervor that does all it can to demonstrate passion, power, and love for God, reducing the Gospel to a spiritual power pill that claims intimacy with God based on the obvious external behaviors.  The problem?  Both are driven by the flesh, preoccupied by activity, and closed to evaluation by others.  Religion produces performers – some look “nice and attractive” and some look “mean and uninviting”, but both feed the flesh making one’s confidence in something other than what Christ has one for all done for needy undeserving sinners.

The Characteristics of Relationship

Relationship says – “I have nothing to offer you, and demand nothing of you, I just want You!”  This is the reason marriage is so hard … if you don’t do what I need and I don’t do what you need there is every reason to retreat in fear.  We all want to be in relationships where the expectation is of two flawed individuals who can embrace each other warts and all (SIN and all).  How does this play out in our relationship with the Lord? Who wants to be a fervent prayer warrior in the closet day after day when Sunday affords me the opportunity to show how spiritual I am?  Who wants to evaluate your own heart with Psalm 139 “Search me Spirit of God” prayers when you can feel good about the things you’ve accomplished and the influence you have?  There is little appeal to the flesh in faithful enduring commitment to relationship.

So …

Recognize that each and every “spiritual activity” can be counterfeited by the deceitfulness of the human heart.  Don’t believe me? Read Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affections.  Ask the harder questions of yourself than merely – “What am I doing for God?” or “why don’t I feel passionate?” Ask – “Where has my sin hurt others?” or “Why don’t I repent more?” or “Who have I invited to point out my blind-spots lately?”  King Saul learned this the hard way when he cared more about his influence and spiritual displays of sacrifice than obeying God (1 Samuel 15). God calls you and I to do the hard work of relationship – pursuing when we feel like retreating, calling out for help when we feel like complaining, and faithfully obeying when our flesh longs for something more gratifying.  Indeed following Christ is about relationship and not religion … He despises your religiousity but is near the humble.

Terminally Casual Relationships

It’s been a crazy bad flu season, and this year they have even referred to it as an epidemic. The threshold for an epidemic is that it causes more than 7.2 percent of deaths, and Reuters reported a few weeks back that influenza had officially reached 7.3 percent of deaths caused by pneumonia and the flu. It’s crazy to me how what feels like a stuffy nose, fuzzy head, and hacking cough, though uncomfortable, can kill people. I mean it’s not cancer or HIV.

It actually has a lot of similarities to another epidemic of even greater proportions. And one every local church must battle – Terminally Casual Relationships. When a marriage disintegrates due to adultery or abuse, usually someone jumps in to confront sin, offer support, and pursue healing. When there is a bully in the class, kids are trained to invite a teacher or administrator to intervene. Those situations make sense, after all that stuff is cancer. But rarely does anyone sound the alarm over too many, “I’m fine thank you’s”. And so no Gospel medicine is applied, no encouragement needed, and certainly no admonitions braved. Just smiles exchanged and the back door after the service eyed with a laser-like focus. This is a nasty flu bug, and can reach epidemic proportions in our spiritual communities. So, what medicine can be applied?

1- Ask a Question

I know that sounds so simplistic, but most fail to do it. They talk, they listen to someone else talk, and then they hope to get out of the conversation without too much delay in getting to lunch. Stop, ask a question: Who are you walking with through what you just shared? What is the hardest part of this circumstance for your heart? Or simply how can I pray for you? I have found that the question, What can I do to help? is rarely helpful because most don’t know what they need or find it hard to ask for what they might really need. It’s much better to be insightful, prayerful, and observant … then offer something

2- Make a Commitment

Salesmen often learn the principle of not ending one meeting with a client before setting up the next meeting, it prevents a potential client from falling off the sales radar. Not a bad principle. Before you say goodbye, commit to a phone call, a coffee meeting, or something you can pursue spiritually together (let’s read through this passage this week, lets go to this Bible Study together). Commit to something that will keep your hearts linked together in the fight against the devices of the enemy.

3- Give Your Heart

It can be a delicate balance between self-protection and self-disclosure, both can be rooted in independence, control, and pride. Some have no problem doing the emotional dump on people, and others guard the details of their own heart with militaristic control. Think to yourself: Have I let this person in? Do they know I need help, and the precious remedies of the Gospel as much as they do? Have I given them anything that they would be able to clearly take to God in prayer on my behalf?

Trust God enough to give your heart away rather than contribute to this spiritual epidemic. We have to be people that don’t wait for someone to be admitted to the hospital to care for each others souls. Guess what? We all need it, nobody is immune from this spiritual flu season … and you can’t sanitize your way around it because you have already been exposed. So just jump in and practice soul care together with your brothers and sisters!

Your Spiritual Pharmacist,
Pastor Mark

Thoughts on the Chardon Shooting: Just Who Is Wicked?

I’m a big fan of the Broadway musical Wicked.  The big question the story muses over is whether someone is born wicked or has wickedness thrust upon them.  It’s the age old question of nature or nurture.  And though it gets asked in different ways, it’s the question our community is musing over right now.  Here in Northeast Ohio, and the local communities of Lake and Geauga county, we have faced a tragedy.  Just 72 hours ago a young man walked into his school cafeteria with a concealed handgun and unloaded 10 rounds on his peers, killing 3, hospitalizing 2 others, and injuring an entire community.  Our first response is compassion and grief … we weep and pray for the great loss of precious young life and the families forever changed.  We fight off fear and the paralyzing effect this could have on thousands of other students heading off to their campuses.  Our hearts break for the permanence of such events and our inability to really fix anything.  And the second response has been to consider this troubled young man who did the shooting.  The media digs and uncovers the dysfunction of his parents, being raised by his grandparents, his isolation, violent tendencies, and on and on.  The natural human conclusions pretty quickly go to ‘how could we have prevented this? If only he had a healthier home life, or we need to hug our kids more’.  And as much as I am for human solutions, preventative strategies in our schools, and the building up of the family … make no mistake – Wickedness was not thrust upon him, he was born into it.  And so am I … and so are you.

James 4:2 says, “You desire and do not have, so you murder …” 

As a local pastor in this community I want to inject into this conversation that the same stuff that was in the shooter’s heart is in mine.  It may not result in murder, but it comes from the same place.  I’m wicked!  I was born a sinner to the core, and it is only by the restraining grace of the Spirit of God that my murderous heart doesn’t go to the very same place.  I’m certainly not arguing for justice to be averted or consequences to be avoided.  The Bible  clearly calls for justice, judgment, and punishment for the sinful choices we make.  And this young man will indeed face them.  It will help the victims, the friends, the community to know justice is served … but it won’t change us.  Until every one of us can look inside our own hearts, consider our anger, impatience, harsh words, and selfish behavior as rooted in the very same “stuff” as murder, different only in degree, then we will not truly heal.  Was wickedness thrust upon this young man? Perhaps.  But I guarantee you that for however poor a job his mom and dad did, they didn’t teach him to kill people.  I’m quite sure that grandma and grandpa didn’t give him this plan for acting out his hopelessness.  He got that from much deeper “stuff” that nurture.  He was born in wickedness, born a sinner, and born in need of the work of God in his life.  And so we all are.

Healing comes for the human heart and the heart of a community in the new heart only God gives through the glorious work of His Son Jesus Christ.  The cross is no fairytale, as much as this tragic event is no fairytale.  Sin is real, and at times like this we are painfully aware of the brokenness of not just the world, but our own hearts.  It is because of this that Jesus came to be the Savior of the world.  He came for murderous sinners like me.  He came to do what no one else could do … mercifully change me from a murderer to a worshipper of God.  This isn’t a Sunday sermon … this is a real life answer to the healing that must come to our community.  We need grace.  And that grace that can change us all comes only through our wicked hearts being changed by the righteous heart of Jesus.  After all the news stories stop, schools start back up, and we try to heal … will you please take some time to consider your own wicked heart.  This is the only thing that will change our community.

For the healing of our community,

Pastor Mark

A Quick Quote About Expository Preaching

Presenting expository sermons book by book:

1. Allows God and God’s wisdom to set the agenda, not the preacher’s wisdom.

2. Prevents preachers from indulging their hobbyhorses.

3. Allows the preacher to learn along with the congregation, rather than limiting the congregation to what the preacher already knows.

4. Requires a preacher and a congregation to learn about God as God has revealed Himself, not as they want Him to be revealed.

5. Requires a preacher to preach the easy bits and the difficult bits of the Bible.

Jonathan Leeman

Reverberation, Moody Publishers, 2011, p. 118