Monday, December 28, 2015

Delighting in the Hope of God

Human beings are prone to hope.  However, we do not always place our hope in appropriate ways. I misplace hope when I expect my health to hold out, ego to ease up, children to take kindly to my lessons (I give them many), car to keep running, and sports teams to achieve victory. People, places, and things cannot bear the weight of my hope. Neither can verbs or adjectives, for that matter. Enduring hope requires an eternal, fixed object.

Simply defined, hope is the ability to look beyond present circumstances to a preferred future. When we Christen the term, hope is the ability to look beyond present evil and partial glory to a perfect future brought to us in Christ. Like any Christian virtue, we may develop hope over the years.

Peter Kreeft calls hope “the hidden virtue of our time, for hope means hope for Heaven... Hope means that our heads do not bump against the low ceiling of this world; hope means that the exhilarating, wonderful, terrifying winds of Heaven blow in our ears” (Back to Virtue, 74).

Having grown drunk and dumb by the world’s deluding pleasures (e.g., TV, tanning beds, and around the clock shopping), we have traded in our hope of Heaven and Its Father for hollow persons, places, and things (as well as verbs and adjectives). To regain our hope… yes, verily, to reclaim the clamor of Heaven… indeed, to delight in God’s hope, we must revise a few of our patterns.

Delighting in God’s Hope means resurrecting the hope-bearers…
Hope is the work of the artist and visionary, parent and preacher. They can transform a blank canvas or bleak landscape into something magnificent by the grace of God. Hope-bearers have eyes to see beyond, like Lewis’ Reepicheep who incessantly scans the Eastern Horizon for Alsan’s land. Gifted storytellers must rise up and bear hope.

Hope-bearers have ears to hear, like King David who meditated on the sweet Law of the Lord with a lyre in his hand. Gifted songwriters must rise up and bear hope.

Hope-bearers have skillful hands, like the surgeon who removes the cancer and sews a thin stich; or mother who attends her child’s wounded ego with a warm embrace. Gifted workers must rise up and bear hope.

And hope-bearers have soothing words, like the preacher who mediates God’s presence with a powerful reenactment of His Word; or a teacher who gives instruction with the clarity of a swallow’s song. Pastors and teachers must rise up and bear hope.

How can you bear hope as a parent, artist, student, or employee?

Delighting in God’s Hope means rediscovering the glory of heaven…
Echoes of Eden resound in the Scriptures. From the blessing of Judah and his wine-stained teeth (Gen. 49:12) to the ornamented tabernacle crafted in the desert (Ex. 25:8) to Isaiah’s oracles concerning the New Heavens (Is. 65:17-25) and Prince of Peace (11:1-10) the resurrected Jesus breaking bread and speaking peace to his disciples (Luke 24:13-58), Eden reverberates. And God continues to call us home through a melodious sonnet, stirring film, candlelight dinner, child’s laughter, and seasonal growth of garden produce. All the partial glories are pointers to a greater reality. Our lingering sense of longing would be satisfied by a greater dose of reflection on heaven.

When did you last ponder the echoes of Eden and glories of heaven?

Delighting in God’s Hope means repenting of lesser hopes and rivals…
But heaven has its rivals. Too often we allow the signposts to serve as destinations: We sit on couches for primetime or stand on sidelines for game time, only to amuse ourselves with the fleeting pleasures of this world. Sports and sitcoms have their place, but for too many of us these take up most of our living room and weekend schedules. Of course our recreational habits form an easy target. My lesser hopes include a tasty meal, more income than expense, a good night of sleep, quality family time, a four-mile run, and job satisfaction. These partial glories should serve as reasons to praise God, not to feed my addictions. If keep these matters out of balance, my need for God grows faint.

What lesser hopes curb your appetite for heavenly hope?

Delighting in God’s Hope means restoring a proper perspective of God’s work…
Paul’s ministry aimed to make others complete (full or mature) in Christ.  He wrote, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27-28). The apostle understood this to be the overarching, good work of God, justifying the called and moving them toward glory (Romans 8:28-30). God is making us “little Christs” C.S. Lewis pronounces at the end of Mere Christianity. Thus, the image of Christ should likewise serve as our reference point, toward which we should direct all our activity.

Sometimes God uses suffering to fine tune this image (Romans 5:3-5). Other times he uses personal discipline (Bible study, prayer, fasting). Spiritual community—in the form of corporate worship, accountability, and encouragement—likewise contributes to our hope of glory. Finally, moments of intimate communion with God make His hope personal, making delight in Him second nature.

And so, to all my hope-seeking and hope-bearing readers, I leave you with this prayer:

“Now may the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13, NASB).

Monday, December 21, 2015

Delighting in the Peace of God

“We need to talk.”

These words alarm me every time. I run through a list of offenses I may have caused, possible misunderstandings, or snubs. I wonder if I forgot a birthday, broke trust, or badmouthed their favorite celebrity (Sorry, T-Swizzle). I assume the worst, and warm up my defense mechanisms.

Ironically, these conversations rarely result in confrontation. Usually someone wants advice on how to share Jesus with a gay cousin or my view on handguns. Nevertheless, I always enter “we need to talk” talks with an aim to make peace (see Romans 12:18). For it is a virtue hard to win, high in price, and broken at the slightest violation.

While I know some folks thrive on drama, I tend to agree with St. Augustine’s sentiment about people going to war for the sake of peace. Human nature longs for concord (his word, not mine) with God and nature, self and neighbor. Conflict, whether interpersonal or international, aims for a better outcome. “For every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace,” he wrote in the City of God. “For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace that suits them better.”

While Augustine does not define the peace of God in any certain terms – a peace with the apostle Paul says “surpasses understanding” – he does call peace“a good so great, that even in this earthly and moral life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we desire with such zest, or find to be more thoroughly gratifying.” Peace defines “joyful” and “harmonious” relationships in the “celestial city.” It is a peace God himself enjoys, for peace emanates from the Trinity.

So when I delight in the peace of God, I am delighting in God himself. The perfectly choreographed love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes to imperfect humans. We who have offended God with our rebel hearts and stiff necks, have received from Him mercy and grace, rather than terms of surrender. Jesus did the surrendering, and “made peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

God stopped a war in which I joined from birth as an accomplice. He issued the cease fire in my stead, stretching out his Son’s body on the cross as a tattered, white and crimson flag. Then, in an act of triumph, the risen Jesus took captive the rebel army and turned them into warring saints (see Ephesians 4:7-16). His enemies became allies to stand firm against the schemes of the devil, meanwhile declaring “the mystery hidden for age” of the gospel to the “rulers and authorities in heavenly place” (Eph. 3:10-11).

Indeed, the peace of God goes beyond a cease fire. In a remarkable change of allegiance, Jesus redeems rebels and puts them into service as worshippers. “We need not be at odds with God,” the peace of God proclaims.

When we accept these terms of peace with God, we can carry on… calmly. For when experience harmony with God, we may learn to be at peace with ourselves and others. The battle with our bodies and minds, brothers and sisters, culture and environment need not paralyze us with fear or grip us with despair. 

Rather, we can delight in the peace of God - announced by angels and embodied in Jesus on that first Christmas - and extend it to others, especially those who "need to talk." 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Delighting in God's Joy

At times I’m concerned people don’t take me seriously because I’m quick to punch a line or lighten a mood. But my greater concern is that too many people take themselves too seriously. Self-righteousness is an enemy to joy. Self-centeredness is an enemy to joy. My greatest self-assessment will only-always-ever be a parody of God’s glory.

My joy, however, magnifies His praise.

I’ve talked with friends who deem joy a “personality type.” Some folks are melancholy; others are bubbly. (I must be Seltzer water.) These differences are not the result of choice and discipline, so goes the logic: we have our fathers to blame.

I don’t buy the argument. For once upon a time I was a moody teenager, guilt-ridden young man, and duty-driven husband. I was more inclined to do dishes than give hugs. My thinking cap held my emotions and self-expression in check. Myers-Briggs told me I should be judging people. The DISC test told me to dominate.

Domination, I learned, does not inspire happy friendship. Condemnation rarely provokes a laugh. So I gave my personality a writ of divorce and began to date delight.

To be fair, my kind and compassionate Heavenly Father set me up. He initiated a courtship with Joy by pulling a few strings. He shattered some of my dreams. He loosened some of my chains. He refined me through the love of a wife and blessing of children. He directed me to authors whose wit and wisdom captured my imagination (e.g., G.K. Chesteron, C.S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson). He gave me an opportunity to lead in a church on the fringe of relevance in a land called Honali where I’ve recently preached with my fly down.

And He has yet to release me from being a Browns fan (the ultimate comedy of errors).

The force of these elements over the course of time has begun to carve out my ego like a gorge. The sound of laughter echoes in my mind; the pious voice of self-importance diminishes. I still have my bad days (so I keep blogging), but more and more I bask in the fullness of Joy bequeathed by Jesus.
(How can you not experience Joy when using words like bask and bequeath? The Word became flesh binds us together through the gift of words!)

I know there is a dark side – more real than Lucas Films – that haunts the soul. Sin and suffering plague us all. Some of our pains are self-inflicted. Some of our hurts result from the fallen condition of the world. Sin and sorrow linger.

And yet, light broke through the darkness in dramatic fashion (Luke 1:79; 2:9, 22; John 1:4).
God knit a baby named John in the womb of old and barren Elizabeth.
God conceived Jesus in the womb of a virgin named Mary.
God spread the “good news of great joy” through a game of Telephone between glorious angels and gritty shepherds.
Dying Simeon danced for joy at the sight of the Christ Child.
Widowed Ana wept for joy at His appearing.
The whole gospel story resounds with the angelic proclamation: Nothing is impossible with God! (Luke 1:37)

Joy does not focus on the darkness, my depression or disposition. Joy fixates on the light, watching for God to break through the impossible, or simply to break the dawn. For the same God who sent the Bright Morning Star (Rev. 22:16), rejoices daily in raising the sun. “Do it again,” God says, according to G.K. Chesterton. Every day is an encore of His eternal joy.

“It may be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life… Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony… It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite for infancy. But we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” (Orthodoxy, 52) 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Delighting in the Love of God

I find refuge in the love of God. I don’t speak of this remarkable attribute of God as often as I think of it, fearing cultural misunderstandings of love will pervert “love so amazing, so divine.” Our culture equates love with an emotional state, a gushy feeling, a temperament. Or a sexual act. So husbands and wives (or moody teenagers) fall in and out of love as quickly as seasons can change or the sex drive dries up. Our expressions of love ring hollow like Hallmark cards.

But to remain silent about God’s love only gives the cultural misunderstandings greater footing. “Christ’s love compels us,” wrote the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:14). I include myself in his company. God’s love goes beyond the boundaries of time and space, my hurts and hungers, my sin and shame. He loves eternally, unconditionally, and with the intimacy of a father, bridegroom, brother, and friend.

Below are a few meditations on God’s love.

Love forms the core of God’s self-disclosure and His people’s understanding of Him.
When passing by Moses in the cleft of the rock, God says: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7, ESV). This is the most concise reckoning of God's essence. (Holy, holy, holy comes in second place.)

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s people repeat this short creed in Psalms, prophecies, and prayers. See Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm86:15; 103:8; 108:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 1:2.

In his first letter, the elder John makes the love of God most explicit (1 John 4:7-21). “God is love,” he writes, and proceeds to give the evidence for and ethic of God’s love (Jesus’ sacrifice and our reciprocation).

Love defines the core of God’s law and His people’s response to one another.
When asked to summarize the Law, Jesus preached with precision eluding most pastors. He narrowed the discussion to two imperatives. Love God. Love neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). In the final evening with his disciples, Jesus reiterated this “new commandment. "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV) Love among fellow Christ-followers, the apostle John later says, gives ongoing testimony to the love (and fellowship) of Jesus (1 John 1:1-4).

Love employs powerful metaphors of personal relationships.
While human relationships may be marred by brokenness and betrayal, the pain they are capable of only underscores the power they harness. God was not afraid to use images of human relations, as fragile as they are, to illustrate his exceptional love for His people. He refers to Himself as Father (Hosea 11) and Husband (Isaiah 54:1-10). Jesus is our brother (Hebrews 2) and friend (John 15:13). He adopts us into his family as blessed and glorious heirs (Ephesians 1; Romans 8). He hears our cries, secures our destiny, and lavishes us with every good gift (James 1:17).

Love marks Paul’s prayers as the spiritual reality he longed for God’s people.
The Apostle Paul repeated many key petitions – for open doors and golden opportunities, for spiritual protection and insight, for power and glory to define the church of the living God (Romans 15:13; Ephesians1:17-19; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). Of all his prayers, the request that God’s people know God’s love stands out as my favorite. I pray it every night for my girls. I pray it regularly for my church. And envision Jesus, peeking over the edge of heaven, and praying it for me (Rom. 8:34).

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19, ESV)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Three Tasks of Pastoral Ministry Hashed Out in a Honda Accord

I worked on my magnum opus for pastoral ministry from the back seat of an '97 Honda Accord. On the return trip from Atlanta with two fellow pastors, conversation lulled after ten hours. And since the custom CD, replete with Nineties alternative music and heavy metal only pulled me back to my teenage years of angst, self-loathing, and female-induced depression, I focused my thoughts in a healthier direction: my vocation.

For eight years I've vacillated between considering my work in pastoral ministry as a special calling and a specialized career. Public speaking and wedding ceremonies are not for everyone. Marriage counseling and event planning take a unusual skill set. And yet, prayer, Bible study, and conversations about God are not the pastor's exclusive right.

Indeed, every Christ-follower can do the work of the evangelist (2 Tim 4:5) with the aid of the same Holy Spirit dwelling in the pastor and informed by the same Holy Bible read by the pastor. Moreover, many a Christ-follower in a given congregation may do the evangelist's work more naturally and with greater results than the pastor himself.

So what's so special about pastoral ministry?

(Before describing three essential tasks of pastoral ministry, I should note that leadership in the church is not restricted to pastors. Ephesians 4:11-16 describes a variety of gifts (five or four depending on how one parses "pastors and teachers") given by Jesus to the church for the "equipping of the saints for the work of service for the building up of the body of Christ" (4:12). My magnum opus does not hold a candle to the apostle Paul's, which he outlined in this critical text.)

The pastor does three essential tasks to help conform others to the image of Jesus. These are not simply public or pulpit ministrations; his work is part of an ongoing and informal conversation "that leads to godliness" (Titus 1:1).

First, the pastor does theological reflection. In the sermon he speaks of the wonders of God. In the hallway he affirms God's beauty and sovereignty. At mealtime he returns thanks, noting God provides daily bread. When a conversation arises about a challenge or worry, the pastor fights the cultural pressure to say, "You'll make it through. You'll be fine. You got this." Rather, he reinforces a theological worldview and, without sounding campy, says: "God will provide. He will take care of you. He will get you through." Surely, every believer has the responsibility of theological reflection, but good pastoral ministry sets the tone (e.g., Phil. 4:8-9; 1 Tim. 4:15-16; 2 Tim. 3:10-17).

Second, the pastor provides  empathetic connection. He should model the care and patience of Jesus (1 Pet. 5: 1-4). He should take time to listen to people without a cell phone in hand or glances at the watch. Pastors show empathy when they remember previous conversations, family names, and personal struggles. Writing notes of encouragement or sending texts that force a laugh or show concern can communicate empathy. While the incarnation of Jesus was a one-time event (John 1:14), the Lord's nearness is reinforced through the empathy of church leaders (1 John 1:1-4). Again, every believer is called to empathetic connection, emulating the selfless Savior (Phil. 2:5-11), but the pastor is often invited into the most grave and joyous moments (e.g., funerals and weddings) of a believer's life, as well as the daily grind.

Third, the pastor inspires missional exhortation. He helps everyone see the value of his or her life. He ascribes meaning to work in the factory or volunteer service in the public school. He helps people recognize opportunities for ministry within the church and outside of it. He celebrates the way people show Jesus' love in their various spheres of influence. And he identifies ways the church can corporately impact their neighbors, both locally and globally. All believers are co-laborers with Christ and may give missional exhortation to one another, but the pastor gives public attention to God's great commission (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 15:58).

As I pondered these tasks in the backseat of the Honda Accord, I took comfort in how well they aligned with the mission of my church: Every Christ-follower becoming full in Christ, united in love, and strong in service. When I shared my reflections with the other two pastors in the car, they seemed less than impressed. I can't blame them: Bohemian Rhapsody was playing at the time. Again, my magnum opus was no rival.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Evangelical Brothers Rooming with a Runner

I shared a hotel room with three other guys in downtown Atlanta last week. We convened there for the National Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting -- a.k.a., Christian Nerd-fest, replete with bow ties and beards -- to think through a theology of marriage and family, among other topics. My attendance was also spurred on by the discount books and meaningful dialogue.

The four of us crammed into a single Motel 6 room, vying for bathroom time and sharing two full sized beds. I slept terribly and my digestion revolted. Fortunately, our conversations about family, ministry, and the Bible were rich. And I was able to maintain my running routine.

I always pack my running gear when I travel. Not only do I want to make up for the billion calories I consume at restaurants or fast food joints, I also love to experience a new city or landscape while jogging. The view from the street while buzzing past buildings, city parks, and pedestrians only rivals the skyline scene.

In recent years I have run the crowded Washington DC Mall, the industrial Newark (NJ) Airport roadways, scenic Carpinteria (CA) beachfront, and competed in the bustling Chicago Marathon. 

Last Tuesday I set out from my hotel to Olympic Park, making two laps before returning. Although the route was short, I came back drenched in perspiration. I removed my sweaty socks, took off my sweaty shirt, shed my sweaty pants... (Any more details would verge on pornography, so to the point...) These soiled garments couldn't go straight to my bag for fear of making the rest of my clothes musty. Unfortunately, I didn't have a line to hang them on. So I improvised. Sweaty running gear accented door knobs, light fixtures, and the TV screen.

Rooming with a runner has few benefits. The other guys may feel good when I launch out and they lounge around. Or they may feel guilt when I get up early to exercise and they sleep in. They may feel gluttonous when I counter my calories and they keep consuming.  Most likely, they may feel gross when they find my wet boxers briefs dangling from the shower head.

Fortunately, my roommates extended grace when I stunk up the place. That is the benefit of rooming with Christian brothers.

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Wasn't Born for a Beard and Other Emascurities.

I was not born to wear a beard. Every November this reality comes crashing down on me, when I commit to "no shaving" to raise awareness for Prostate Cancer. (Side note: I'm not sure if "No Shave November" really intends to help fight the disease, or simply steal some thunder from the ubiquitous pink in October. However, if breasts and prostates were in a popularity contest, it takes little imagination to crown a winner.)

Any amount of time I give to growing a beard results in no more than a dirty dusting of facial hair. I get scruffy, not hairy. I look gross, not handsome. I fight the feelings of inadequacy because my genetic inheritance boasts more baldness than burliness.

My emascurities (a word I coined for insecurities that make me feel emasculated) extend well beyond facial hair.

When I was in youth choir, the director had me sing with altos. When I answered the phone as a child, callers confused me for my mother. When I reached middle school, I was the last of my friends to grow armpit hair and experience a drop in my voice.

Making matters worse, to date I cannot fix cars, remodel homes, or lift weights. I have never shot a gun, caught a fish, or won a wrestling match (my daughters excluded). I've experienced a growing disinterest in professional football, violent movies, and winning in games.

In place of these stereotypical, testosterone-driven activities, my recent cache of pleasures includes long jogs, a good cry, curling up with a book, and meaningful conversations.

If it weren't for my lovely wife, I might question my manliness all together. She fortunately does not judge masculinity by facial hair and handyman skills. "What a man," she said a week ago when I scrapped iron deposits out of our toilet. "What a man," she exclaimed when I made dinner for the family and cleaned the dishes afterwards. "What a man," she chimed when I called a guy who was angry at me and sought to repair the relationship.

My wife knows I was not born for a beard. Not all men are. The measure of a man must go beyond our grooming to our goodness. Every man was born to honor God, love his wife (if married), shepherd his children (if a parent), work with integrity, and outgrow his insecurities.

A beard is a bonus feature I will never achieve.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Prayers and Pits

Tolerance does not accept all ways of thinking. Religious convictions and practices often get pegged as oppressive and legislated to the margins. Christians should not fear the margins, it is a position where faith has historically thrived. The prophetic voice of critique and hope resounds from the margins. When Christian voices mingle with the mainstream, they're often diluted or drowned out.

Daniel chapter six provides an interesting case study in prophetic action in a godless world. While the Medes and Persians were known for their policy of tolerance (Ezra 1:1-4), Daniel quickly finds out that tolerance has limits. His jealous opponents trick King Darius into making a law that restricts prayer to the king for a thirty day period. They know Daniel will chose the law of God over the law of the land.

And he does. Daniel continues praying - bowed to the ground, facing Jerusalem (1 Ki. 8), three times a day. His religious acts are not a political statement. He is not posturing. Daniel simply maintains piety in the face of scrutiny because he values God's unchanging law over the ever-shifting law of the land. His prayerful resistance results both in persecution (e.g. a night in the lions' den) and God's protection.

While America is not Israel, Christians can certainly relate to the political environment of Daniel's day. Laws morph. Tolerance reigns. That is, except for tolerance of firm morals and upstanding faith. American Christians empathize with Daniel's sense of exile no more than Christians of any time and place understand exile. Christians are not citizens of this world (Phil. 3:20). And as strangers and exiles, Christians are not called to greater politicking, but greater piety (1 Pet. 2:11ff).

Perhaps the best starting point for piety is on one's knees. Praying. Confessing. Resisting the gravitational pull of a godless world to drift into the mainstream. This sermon calls us to such a faith as this. 

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, November 2, 2015

Revivalism and Pious Prayers

Piety is a bad word these days. It sounds officious and religious. It implies higher moral ground and prudish sexual standards. It seems oppressive and disingenuous.

The word has not always received such negative reactions. Its word origin shares roots with "faithful, believing, devout." In the former days of John, Paul and James, belief and action were not divorced. "Faith without works is dead," James wrote (2:14-26). "Love in deed and truth, not simply tongue and intention," John exhorted (1 John 3:18).

In more recent history, preachers of the Great Awakening sought to practice holiness in daily life. Rather than accept the divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, men like John Wesley and Alexander Mack gave themselves to daily confession, Bible study, worship, witness, and humble service. It was Wesley who considered many of his countrymen "Almost Christians," because he noted their profession of faith did not align with their practice.

In a world trending toward godlessness -- not always in deed (for environmentalists and educational reforms have done some good), but certainly in outlook and egoism -- a return to piety is crucial. Revival will not grow from more evangelical politicking or mere "relevant" posturing, but from a return to piety.

In its purest form, piety holds the truth of the gospel (Christ buried, raised, ascended, and alive in His church - 1 Cor. 15) in one hand, and the other hand invests itself in work and worship. The apostle Peter, who understood his audience as a paradoxical blend of exiles and priests, summarized the call to piety well:

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe themglorify God in the day of visitation.

I pray the church return to piety. I pray she humble herself, pray, seek the face of God, and turn from her wicked ways, positioning herself not only to receive the blessings of God's forgiveness (2 Chron. 7:14), but also to direct the world back to God in the process.

It's not too late for a global revival. A return to piety may be its spark.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Sovereignty of God in a Self-Help World

The sovereignty of God is not nearly as sexy a topic as how to lose weight, manage my money, reduce stress, or make friends and influence people. Everywhere I turn I find another blog or book or podcast telling me how to make my life more efficient, effective, and controlled.

David Allen tells me how to Get Things Done. James Clear shows me how to Transform My Habits. John Acuff inspires me to Start being awesome. Kary Oberbrunner emails me to get clarity on who I am and where I'm going to Ignite my Soul. And Oprah is ubiquitous.

I'm no enemy to growth and maturity, but all these resources resound with the message: me, Me, ME!

Maximize MY Potential. Discover MY Purpose. Do It MYself.

Our culture is not unique in its enthronement of the Self. This drive for transcendence is traceable back to the book of Genesis. The original lie from the Garden of Eden still echoes. "We can be like God."

Sadly, when we believe this lie, we not only set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and judgment (e.g., Adam, Gideon, Saul, David, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod), but we neglect our primary calling: to give praise to God (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Our rightful place is not the throne -- that is God's -- but the altar (Romans 12:1-2).

Champions for humility, contentment, sacrifice, and denial will not get much air time in a Self-Help World. G.K. Chesterton noted this form of thinking even back in his day.

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt - the Divine Reason. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 23)

Social Darwinism, Scientific Naturalism, and Self-Helpism are Sirens. They lure the Self only to shipwreck it. But in the call of the Sovereign God there is fullness, joy, purpose, and hope. God's sovereignty is rich, spanning the course of time, assuring His promises, withstanding our pain, including our prayers/deeds, and working for His glorious good (cf., Gen. 50:20; Ps. 115:3; Is. 46:9-10; Acts 2:23-24; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11).

These truths may not be sexy, but they are orthodox. And, according to Chesterton, orthodoxy is more appealing. "There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy."

Now if I could only lose those last three pounds...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Heaven Rules (Daniel 7)

Life has a way of grounding us. Delusions of grandeur come crashing down. King Nebuchadnezzar faces this reality after another nightmare. When he relays the imagery of a glorious tree chopped to pieces, only upstanding Daniel can interpret. He tells the king who the True Sovereign is - God Most High, Ruler of Heaven. And if Nebuchadnezzar does not humble himself, the dream will become reality. It does: God grounds him. The Most High God has a way of humbling people so they respect His sovereignty.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, October 12, 2015

Preaching, Darrell Bock, and Evangelical Worship - Part 2 of 2

After the Let's Know the Bible Conference, our church hosted Dr. Darrell Bock for Sunday morning worship. To be honest, I had some reservations after the three-hour event on Saturday. Fifteen people from Leesburg Grace attended the conference; most of them looked like drowning rats (but beautiful drowning rats) by the end, awash in theological terminology and apologetic arguments.

One of my elders said it was difficult to follow but he likes being stretched.

A lady from my congregation said it mostly went over her head.

I loved it, but I am biased and biblically trained.

So when Sunday morning rolled around, my level of pastoral concern went to threat level orange. Our worship service comprised Dr. Bock's third audience in three days and the only non-academic setting. I could imagine he was tired, and the given topic ("What's in a Name: Jesus' Use of 'Son of Man'") was not suitable for minors.

One of last things I want people to experience following a Sunday morning sermon is confusion. I hope to push people to seek God through His Word. If the sermon comes riding on the clouds, God's people will dismiss it. Believers do not object to critical thinking, but they come to Sunday morning worship to be inspired, not just intellectually stretched.

We explained to Darrell our church's demographics, culture, and the flow of service. We always start late, slog through announcements, sing four or five songs, and open up the microphone for sharing and testimonies before the sermon. "You'll start preaching about eleven," Herb said.

"They have forty-five minutes of introductory stuff?" Darrell asked. It was clear by his question he viewed preaching as the highlight of the morning. Everything else was prescript.

Of course, not all people agree on the purpose of the Sunday morning gathering. Ask twenty pastors and twenty different answers will follow. Ask a hundred church members, and as many variations will arise. People come for social aspects, for encouragement, for food for thought (or just food), for volunteer opportunities, for uplifting music, for prayer, and for guidance.

Preachers are mistaken if they assume people primarily come to listen to them. They act as if the sermon is the apotheosis of Sunday morning. All other elements of the service either revolve around or reinforce the sermon. I can understand this thinking based upon my diligence in sermon-crafting every given week.

But evangelical worship transcends the sermon. It's somewhat errant (and arrogant?) to construct all of Sunday morning around the message. For if the sermon does not serve the purposes of connecting God's people to their Heavenly Father, it may be nothing more than a resounding gong or bloated idea. The same goes for worship music, corporate prayer, tithing, greeting, and, yes, even announcements.

All elements of the worship service must aim at building communion between God and His people.

Darrell's sermon grew my appreciation for Jesus' use of Son of Man. It reminded me that God -- not death, sin, or Satan -- speaks the final word about Jesus: He is vindicated.

And He will return, riding on the clouds, which is exactly where the evangelical mind wanders when preaching is over our heads.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Compromises and Convictions

Daniel took a stand. When taken as a captive to Babylon, he received a new name, language, and education in Babylonian ways. But when the king offered meats and wines from his table, Daniel refused. His reasoning is not stated, but his conviction is clear: Daniel will not let culture shape him. Everyone who follows God must draw lines between cultural values and personal convictions. Daniel shows how personal convictions make public statements, earn favor, get tested, and have profound impact. God's people must not swallow everything the culture offers up, but let their understanding of God's word to form them.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Bible, Darrell Bock, and Evangelical Belief - Part 1 of 2

A year's worth of planning came to fruition last week, as I helped host the second annual "Let's Know the Bible Conference." Dr. Darrell Bock spoke to a crowd of 138, addressing the topic of Jesus and the Gospels.

Bock first encountered Jesus as a skeptic, but after years of inquiry, debate, and nurture from believing friends, he became a Christ-follower. "Since I spent so much time considering Jesus before becoming a follower, once I made a decision, I felt well informed," Bock explained to me on the ride to the airport. I cherished the opportunity to pick what was left of his brain after five sessions in three days.

We talked sports and theology, but avoided the theology of sports. "Someone suggested we discuss that on the [Table] podcast, but I refuse to. I'm afraid sports will be treated as an idol," Bock confessed. Then he returned his focus to the Houston Texans game, streamed live from his iPhone.

Bock's influence as a popular evangelical voice erupted after publishing his response to Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code. "I wrote [Cracking the DaVinci Code] in three days," he recalled. He hashed it out over Thanksgiving weekend, likely between football games and second helpings. When one reporter questioned his frustration over Brown's fictional portrait of Jesus, Bock did not stand down. It was one of five bad interviews he can remember. He shared the other four with me, as well.

Bock has well represented the Evangelical community in country, overseas, in print, and online. His winsome smile, Texas drawl, and quick wit temper his intellectual brilliance. But it is Bock's commitment to the real Jesus that propels him. "I want people to consider Jesus first. I want them to wrestle with his actions and claims. And when they see how Jesus handles the Scriptures, it will help them trust the Bible," he said in response to a question about inspiration.

I found Bock's apologetic refreshing. Session after session, he pointed people to the historically-rooted, culturally-cued activity of Jesus. He referenced Old Testament texts and Second Temple Literature to create a backdrop of Jesus' life. He established the certain events of his ministry -- baptism, temple clearing, forgiveness of sin, synagogue teaching, Sabbath practice, purity practices, crucifixion, and resurrection -- to validate the more phenomenal episodes -- exorcisms, healings, nature miracles, and long discourses.

Most importantly, Bock stressed Jesus' exaltation at the right hand of God. "The resurrection is not about us getting new bodies. It was God's vindication of Jesus. God got the last word: Jesus is who he said he was."

Too often Christians seek to prove the Bible reliable before pointing people to Jesus. We place our theology of the Scriptures above our understanding of Messiah. We assume more authority comes from evidential argument rather than personal encounter. We treat the biblical text more like an ethics manual or doctrinal statement than God's living word.

It's worth noting Jesus did not make this error. When helping his disciples with belief, he asked a personal question. "Who do you say that I am?"

Evangelical belief is fundamentally personal: it is centered on the person of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

God's Hand in Babylon

Daniel stands out as one of the greatest heros of Hebrew faith. His courage, wisdom, and resolve mark his legacy. Daniel's people needed such a hero, too, considering their faithlessness and idolatry finally led to Judah's demise (2 Kings 25; Jeremiah 25). In 605, the first year of King Nebuchadnezzar's reign, the king takes Daniel and companions to Babylon to begin an 18-year period of deportation. He also orders new names and a heavy dose of Babylonian doctrine for his captives. Loss of land and identity is a grave hardship. But Daniel can see God's hand in the hardship, and teaches us to do likewise.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Redundancy of Risk at #FlinchConference - Part 4 of 4

The theme of risk at the annual FGBC Vision Conference was a risky one.

Risk has no guarantees; it may upset our comfort and challenge the status quo. It assumes possible loss and disequilibrium. Risk defines what I am willing to face or brave in the face of a worthy goal. Thus, it is an attribute of healthy people and cultures.

But it took only a single day of speakers and stories about risk to realize it is an errant theme. While the Bible is rich with terms like faith, sacrifice, and surrender, the word risk is absent. Prescribing risk misdiagnoses the problem.

We are not simply too safe, we have missed the calling to a life of daily sacrifice. Risk is a humanistic term. We risk when a greater gain resides on the other side of a decision. We risk when a win lurks around the corner.

Sacrifice is a theologically rich term. We sacrifice when we realize all of ours is not ours at all. Our families and ministries, hours and minutes, health and happiness, securities and savings accounts belong to God. We are steward who serve with open hands. Whether our hands are empty or full, their openness suggests our surrender.

And people who live as a sacrifice, who make surrender a daily habit, know that “risky” decisions are not risky at all. They are obvious. They are inevitable. They are matters of faith undeterred by opposition. Abraham lifted the knife. Joseph fled the house. Moses parted the sea. Joshua circled the city. David slung the stone. Elijah called down fire. Peter walked on water. Paul arrived in Jerusalem. Jesus died on a cross.

The biblical story does not provide emotional details when its heroes face danger. We never see their ledger of gains versus losses. For in the mind of the faithful, loss is not an option. Faith is not a game of risk and rewards. It is a journey of sacrifices met with the aroma of God’s pleasure.

So why do we risk? We risk as a response to our calling and trust in our God. Risk is a means to a greater end. It serves mission, but it cannot be our mission. As many ways as we tried to pitch the theme -- risk of family comfort, risk of political favor, risk of financial security, risk of popular opinion -- it sounded redundant. Risk is a great battle cry and board game, but a terrible anthem.

Perhaps a theology of risk would have bolstered the theme. Rather than twelve rally cries to risk more for Jesus in church-planting, evangelism, and social justice, a thoughtful reflection on the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26, 28) -- God sharing power with His creation -- or Incarnation (John 1:14) -- God invading His creation -- could have fed our imaginations. 

Alas, no such theology of risk came. Instead we clanged the cymbal and pounded the drum. We rallied the troops and deflated the weary. We conflated mission with marker, Newark with New York, and retreated to the Margins until next year's conference... Margins: Ministry in a Post-Christian World, where I am offering (at a reduced price) to present my stunning "Theology of Margins" talk (for a limited time only).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Question & Answer Sunday

In the post-Christian era, Christ-followers must learn how to become critical thinkers without becoming critical. They must model simple faith without seeming simple-minded. One of the ways to the church can develop these virtues is to address difficult questions of the faith.

Following Paul's dialogical model of preaching in Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17), I invited questions from the congregation and gave five minutes to answering each two Sundays ago. People asked about the distinctiveness of Christianity, developing joy in singleness, what happens to aborted babies, what ministry roles women can assume in Ephesians 4:11, and other challenging topics.

Five minutes only scratches the surface. The intent of this time was not to settle every question, but to encourage thoughtful reflection. May it so encourage you.


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Relentless Rush at #FlinchConference - Part 3 of 4

A month has passed since my time at Flinch Conference. The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) has moved on to other events. Focus Retreats and Committee meetings have overtaken the calendar. Time for reflection and experimentation remain fleeting. So it goes.

But I refuse to rush. I plod along, catching my breath and reviewing my notes.

Themes emerge from the various workshops and sessions I attended. For example, the importance and difficulty of partnerships in ministry. Scott Feather, pastor of Gateway Grace Community Church (PA), led an hour-long workshop on the topic. He stressed the need for clear communication among partners (including a written agreement) and win-win situations.

Adam Copenhaver, pastor of Mabton Grace Brethren Church (WA), dedicated two days to building a biblical theology for marriage. On the first day he worked through each book of the Bible and its contribution to a definition (and deviations) of marriage. The second day he entertained various case studies relating to sexual ethics within a church context. On the heels of the Supreme Court ruling for same-sex marriage, Copenhaver's workshop proved invaluable.

Greg Serafino, pastor of Oceola Grace (IN), and I shared the story of our leadership cohort in the Heartland District. In recent years a small group of pastors has met at various churches to provide insight and encouragement to our fellow pastors. Our friendship and commitment to and Equipping Model of ministry (see Ephesians 4:11-16) set the foundation for our cohort.

As I scanned through my notes, I realized most of them came from the workshops, not the main sessions. My personality lends itself to focused discussion better than the shotgun model of the main celebration, where we jump from song to video to game to announcement to speaker to video to speaker to speaker to song to announcement to dismissal. If my church services followed the same relentless pace, few people would depart feeling refreshed.

Fortunately for me, I had eight hours in the airport to regain my energy, review my notes, and consider the takeaways God had for me: the importance of risk (more on that next), the value of new (and old) connections, and the need for focused discussion on theology and praxis.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bedtime and Other #Flinch2015 Reflections - Part 2 of 4

Making new acquaintances is always one of the highlights of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches' (FGBC) National Conference. At Flinch this year I made several new connections. I shared a bedroom with Aaron, bus seat with Mark, pub bench with Brian, and city stroll with Thomas and Brittany.* With each individual or couple, I shared meaningful conversation about marriage, ministry, theology, hops, and following Jesus. Common bonds are not hard to find when you gather with people who share your sense of purpose.

Aaron and I had made contact via text. He was a friend of a friend who knew I had spare space in my hotel room. Aaron and I split the bill, but he took the bulk of the sleep. On the first night, just before I drifted off, I warned Aaron of my reputation for disruptive flatulence. (Who doesn't have this problem?) Aaron apologized in advance for his disruptive snoring. His claim proved truer than mine: I strained to sleep through the cacophony. Fortunately, while both of us were awake, Aaron and I enjoyed many conversations about theology, pastoral ministry to smaller churches, and partnering with others.

On Friday night Mark and I rode the bus into NYC. The "City Stroll" targeted younger leader, which apparently made room for 36-46 year old, bald men. Mark confided about his tough first year of pastoral ministry. Finding a rhythm and building relationships stretched him. Questions about calling and confidence surfaced. He had recently experienced a breakthrough, which included clarity and renewed energy. When I referred to him the book, Running on Empty, he was quick to jot down the title in his notebook. I always respect a man who travels with a pen and paper.

After disembarking from the bus, a group of seven "young adults" wandered to a pub called the Taproom. I sat across from Brian, who, at the ripe age of 21, was a legitimate "young" leader. Brian shared about his first year of marriage, unconventional Bible training, and expanding taste for IPAs. I devoured his energy while picking at a plate of chicken nachos.

Also at the table with our group was a young married couple. They drank water and ate nothing. So after we left the Taproom, their appetites flared. I accompanied Thomas and Brittany to Shake Shack, only to find it closed. Then we located a restaurant serving Philly Cheese Steaks after midnight. On our walk I learned about Thomas's sports career and call to ministry, Brittany's dysfunctional family and social work (hence the water), and the numerous people they develop in their church. I empathized with Brittany's background, knowing that sometimes the black sheep of the family is the only one that is white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

These divine encounters and newly formed friendships underscore the strength of my Fellowship and its National Conference. It is not a clever or quirky theme (e.g., Flinch (or not); Fellowshift)  that draws us together. Biblical relationships unite us. And if they're truly biblical, we make a point to welcome in new people, as well as reconnect with old allies. Sadly, too many of us do far more of the latter than the former. Newcomers sit on the margins... waiting for next years conference... Margins.

We must remember to welcome new people to our table, bus seat, or bedroom (read the context here). For every new acquaintance has a story. But be warned: some of them snore.

*Names have been altered to protect the innocent!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Church for THEM

The religious faction gaining ground the fastest in American is the "Nones" - those who do not affiliate with any brand of belief. Many of THEM are not adverse to faith in God or antagonistic toward Christians. They simply do not see the relevance of institutionalized religion (See Pew Survey from May, 2015). Regardless of THEIR affections, the church does exist for THEM. For Jesus does not build His church simply to sustain privatized belief. He empowers His church to make God's glory public good.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, August 3, 2015

Church For WE

Love is no simple task. We cannot manufacture or mechanize love. True love finds its source in Jesus Christ. So the Apostle Paul prays for the Thessalonian church that Jesus would extend and multiply the church's love for one another and all people, just as they learned love from him, Timothy, and Silvanus (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13). This serves as a model prayer for the church of WE, set on seeing its love expand, include, and reciprocate. Love, Jesus taught, must be the uncontested ethic of the church (John 13:35). Fortunately, at Leesburg Grace there is evidence that We love a lot... and a little bit more.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blisters and other Flinch Reflections - Part 1 of 4

I had blisters on my heels and the balls of my feet. I'd traversed five miles of pavement in the Big Apple with no socks or sense of direction. I was alone on a balmy day taking a risk for Jesus.

This was the third day of the Flinch Conference for the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. Our leaders had heavily promoted the Saturday excursions (called Riskursions) to New York City. Initially, I had balked at the idea of going to the metropolis. A nap in my air conditioned hotel room sounded rejuvenating. However, because the theme of conference was risk, I boarded the Staten Island Ferry and immigrated from Newark.

The plan was travel with twenty-five other people to Bowery Mission. We agreed to lead chapel and serve food. I was slated to speak at the Mission, discussing the fear of loss and the relentless love of Jesus. But our plans fell through. The Mission double-booked, so our team dispersed. Most of our members divided into family groups or couples. I had come by myself. And after playing the third (and fifth) wheel enough in recent days (and nothing makes me feel lonelier), I ventured out alone.

Lower Manhattan became my refuge. I watched old men playing chess, protesters protesting, homeless people sleeping, cultists chanting, and tourist taking selfies. I posed for my own shot at the Empire State Building, shopped for souvenirs, and ate a Shakburger in Bryant Park.

During my hike many thoughts circled through  my mind. I considered the scale of the city and its diversity of smells, socio-economic levels, and cultural offerings. I noticed the incessant blare of horns and sirens. I pondered the graffiti and garbage in the streets. I looked for landmarks and celebrities. I lamented the blisters on my feet.

And, of course, I thought of risk and the relentless love of Jesus. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. (John 3:16). I can think of no greater risk than the story of Jesus, who came and bled and died.

My blisters are but a flesh wound. By His wounds we are healed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Church for ME

If we're honest, the "what's in it for ME?" mindset pervades the church. Does the music fit MY style? Does the preaching satisfy MY needs? Are the people like ME and will they take care of My kids?

Our culture doesn't help the Me-mentality: we sell selfie sticks and customized ads on Googles. It's all about me. Me. ME.

So if you're going to be a bit self-interested anyway, what's the best thing you can look for in a church? Truth-telling (program-selling).

Fortunately, we tell the truth at Leesburg Grace. And you'll find the best church for ME (or You or Grandma Shirley) is the kind that tells the truth and holds you to it. That's hard work. Hear about it.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, July 13, 2015

Who's Afraid of God?

It was neither exile nor the threat of loss that caused the elderly John to fall on his face as if dead (Revelation 1:17). Rather, a face-to-face encounter with the risen Jesus siezed John with terror. All other fears melt at the fear of God, whose holy justice and holy love are enough to stop our hearts or keep them beating at His word. Fortunately, God does not wield His power flippantly, but He exercises awesome, loving, and gracious authority over His church. This sermon calls us to bow before the risen Jesus, elevating our awe of Him to eradicate all lesser fears.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, July 6, 2015

Who's Afraid of Loss?

Loss meets us at every tage of loss. We lose teeth and hair, time and money, games and battles, energy and sleep, loved ones and, finally, life. As losses compile, they do not become easier to accept. King David began his life on a violent winning streak. Sadly, the final years of reign were marked with grave losses. His story teaches us about counting armies, confession, and God's character. Most importantly, he teaches us to hold our assets loosely to soften the fear of loss.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Giving My Son a Voice - An Adoption Reflection

I have a son whom I've never met. He lives on the other side of the globe. My wife and I have pieces of his life, patched together through doctor's reports, photos, and video snippets.

He weighs forty-six pounds, stands forty-five inches tall, and goes to the bathroom on his own. He follows rules, plays with others, kicks a ball, and completes puzzles. He waits in line, feeds himself, and takes his medication.

Our son does not speak English. Nor does he speak his native tongue. Our son does not speak much at all. His lost voice grieves me. I didn't know the extent of my sorrow until a recent breakdown in front of my biological daughters. It was bedtime, and I was reading them a story.

E.B. White's classic, The Trumpet of the Swan, tells the tale of a Trumpeter Swan named Louis who was born without a voice. His loquacious father, the cob, tries to assure his "dumb" son:
"Remember that the world is full of youngsters who have some sort of handicap that they must overcome. You apparently have a speech defect. I am sure you will overcome it in time. There may even be some slight advantage, at your age, in not being able to say anything. It compels you to be a good listener... The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens...

Some people go through life chattering and making a lot of noise with their mouth; they never really listen to anything--they are too busy expressing their opinions, which are often unsound or based on bad information. Therefore, my son, be of good cheer! Enjoy life; learn to fly! Eat well; drink well! Use your ears; use your eyes! And I promise that someday I will make it possible for you to use your voice. There are mechanical devices that convert air into beautiful sounds. One such device is called a trumpet. I saw a trumpet once, in my travels. I think you may need a trumpet in order to live a full life. I've never known a Trumpeter Swan to need a trumpet, but your case is different. I intend to get you what you need. I don't know how I will manage this, but in the fullness of time it shall be accomplished."

My reading had stuttered and stalled, coming out in chokes and tears. Claire and Margot laughed at me; they live with a fullness that makes laughter come naturally.

My son whom I've never met, who lives on the other side of the globe, has not experienced such fullness--the kind that comes from having a family and a voice. He may be "frightened" and "scared" like Louis, the "dumb" swan, wondering "why he had come into the world without a voice." Perhaps, like Louis, he thinks "Fate is cruel to me."

Mostly, I hope my son finds the comfort Louis found when "he remembered that his father had promised to help..."

I want to help my son whom I've never met, who lives on the other side of the globe. I want to give him a voice.

See Sprankle Adoption information and financial need at Village to Village International.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Who's Afraid of Success?

The fear of failure likely affects more people than the fear of success. But the dark side of success has touched many. Those who have tasted success, or watch others experience it, have noted themes that emerge from Gideon's life. After gaining confidence from God of certain victory over the Midianites (Judges 6:11-7:23), Gideon gives chase to his enemies. In the following narrative (Judges 7:24-8:35), we find three reasons to fear success: it breeds critics, feeds conceit, and leads to change/corruption. While we cannot control our critics (and we better not be one), we can fight conceit and resist corruption, so that our work retains its virtue. For true success is leveraging our work for God's glory, not ours (Psalm 115:1).

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, June 1, 2015

Overcoming the Fear of Failure by Embracing Imperfection

I used to grade weekly reading response papers for a college professor. He viewed these assignments as a "grade booster." He told me to grade leniently. I awarded most students As and Bs, but rarely gave a student 100%. On almost every paper I found a typo, grammatical error, or incomplete answer.

No one was perfect, not even one.

Their reactions underscored their imperfection. Many of the students complained and wanted justification for a missed point. Some lamented and asked for extra credit. Most labeled me strict.

I was strict: I never backed down.

These students demonstrated a dangerous thought pattern: they equated a minor flaw with failure. Imperfection and failure may be distant cousins, but that doesn't mean they should be married (not even in West Virginia). We do ourselves an injustice when we chaff at failure and imperfections.

Imperfection implies room for improvement. Imperfection gives opportunity for growth. Imperfection suggests a standard to mark future progress by. Imperfection may be the result of cut corners, hasty editing (e.g., this blog), and half-hearted efforts, but it does not spell failure...unless.

If in the face of imperfection one makes excuses, shifts the blame, or quits the task at hand, then failure it births.

Fortunately, many professionals excel at imperfection without resigning as failures. A great baseball player fails to hit the pitch three out of five times.  A great preacher may fail to reach two thirds of his audience on any given Sunday. A great salesman fails to close a deal four out of five times. A great inventor will fail on a new product ninety-nine out of one hundred tries.

What makes these individuals great is not their perfect records, but their persistence in the face of failure. The batter adjusts his stance. The preacher modifies his content. The salesman finds new clients. The inventor constantly tweaks her design. Imperfection is a spur inspiring forward motion.

Perhaps more of us would overcome the fear of failure if we embraced our imperfection. God knows: He accepts all this way. He grades on a curve.

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Philippians 3:12, NIV)

Who's Afraid of Failure

The fear of failure haunts us all. We may fear failing as parents, spouses, workers, or Christ-followers. We may fear failing in a project, task, or commitment. Fortunately, we can overcome the fear of failure.

Gideon serves as our model. He was a Hebrew leader during a dark time in Israel's past. Foreigners routinely attacked them and devoured their harvest (Judges 6:1-10). God uses reluctant Gideon to fight of the Midianites and model courage (6:11-7:23). Like us, Gideon is not a fast learner, but requires a series of tests (smashing altars, shrinking armies) and proofs from God (laying fleece, spying) to march forward. Ultimately, Gideon illustrates a big God, clear goals, and strong group can diffuse the fear of failure

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, May 25, 2015


The resurrection of Jesus is the Christian reason for faith, joy, wonder, and hope. The gospel of John reports the resurrection through the eyes of John, Mary, Thomas, and Peter, who embody these responses. The risen Jesus, who walks through walls, fries up fish, and speaks sweetly to His followers, gives His followers a glimpse into their new, glorified bodies. This sermon is the last in the Our Spiritual World Series. It takes great pains (and fifty minutes) to detail the deeper magic of Jesus' triumph over death and ours.


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, May 11, 2015

Spiritual Knowledge

Followers of Jesus do not need to divorce reason and faith. A good deal of knowledge supports Christian convictions, including evidential, experimental, and experiential forms of knowing. The Bible itself asserts God has revealed Himself (in various forms and times), and we can know Him relationally. Sadly, many have rejected this knowledge of God, exchanging the Creator for the material world and a false sense of autonomy. This sermon encourages Christ-followers to own what they know and know the One who owns them.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hearing God by Organizing Our Prayer Lives - Part 5 of 5

"What is an area of your spiritual life that needs work?" I asked. A forty-plus year old man, rugged and tender, sat opposite me.

"My prayer life," he replied, adding, "I'm not sure I've ever understood prayer."

"Join the club," I said.

As we continued to discuss prayer, it became clear what was lacking in our prayer lives was actual time praying. We could define prayer, explain prayer, model prayer, and validate the centrality of prayer from the pages of Scripture. Unfortunately, our knowledge of prayer did not translate to the practice of prayer.

Praying is a challenge. It is the hard work of turning our anxieties into pleas for dependence and deliverance. It is the difficult task of making others' worries into our concerns, which we present with empathy and zeal before God. And it is the discipline of quieting our fears so we can hear from our heavenly Father.

This last aspect of prayer is critical, because I want more than the assurance of God's ear. I want the encouragement of His voice.

The simple (but not easy) solution to hearing God better results by creating space for conversational prayer. And creating space is not the same as finding space. We can all discover an extra twenty minutes in traffic, on the toilet, or in between meetings. Rather than sinking our faces into mobile devices in these margins, we can turn our eyes to the heavens. Without a doubt, discovering prayerful moments is a great habit. Better, however, is disciplining a prayerful life.

The organized prayer life sets aside times and seasons for deliberate prayer. It creates patterns and liturgies to guard against distractions. Over time the structured prayer life results in spontaneous moments of prayer.

For a more thorough discussion the matter, I suggest purchasing and reading Timothy Keller's recent book entitled Prayer. The final chapter offers detailed steps to crafting healthy prayer patterns. To remain blog-friendly (i.e. concise), I'll suggest a few organizing principles.

  • Daily Prayer: Pray through the Lord's Prayer daily (Matthew 6:9-13). Take time thinking through the various aspects, so its not the mindless repetition Jesus warns against (6:5), but worshipful reflection on God's character, kingdom, our needs, our sins, and our threats. Let the Lord's Prayer start or close your day.
  • Weekly Prayer with Others: Whether your prayer partner is a spouse, mentor, or friend, establishing a time to intercede together weekly is a bonding experience. My wife and I have a Saturday night prayer date.
  • (Bi-)Monthly Prayer Retreat: In my monthly schedule, I devote the first Thursday afternoon to prayer. My routine includes journaling, singing, reading psalms, petition for my family (biological and church), and listening.
  • Dedication Prayers: Mix short prayers of dedication into everyday situations, asking God to bless Bible reading, meals, work day meetings, school day interactions, personal projects, and extracurricular events. These prayers make every moment sacred, and provide a natural window to pray with others.
  • Use Prayer Guides: While my love for novelty has make me skeptical of liturgy, I have come to appreciate prayer guides, such as Kenneth Boa's Drawing Near or the Book of Common Prayer. These works organize Scriptures to serve as prayer prompts for each day of the month.
An organized prayer life lends itself to hearing God. When we create space for conversation with our heavenly Father, He will greet us at the beginning of the day and bless us in our closing hours.