Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sowing All Over Again

January is usually a rainy season in the south. The fields are wet and muddy. The water table is recovering. The hope of spring is still several freezes away. But it is not too early to start getting ready for new growth.

A new year sparks evaluations and resolutions. Many assess the past year and consider their ways. People usually don't go into the year saying, "I am hoping to have the worst year I have ever had." They think about opportunities and challenges and they dream that everything is going to be great. They want success, and happiness, and peace. But how can they help it happen?

Our lives are like fields. They primarily contain weeds. We do not just come up producing strawberries. Sometimes we try to mow the weeds, cutting our problems down on the surface. But if we really want to bear fruit we must go deeper. We need to get under the soil. We must plow the field and sow all over again.

This year, you will bear fruit if you...

1. Plow up the weeds of anger and resentment you have and remove them from your life. Did someone hurt you? Did you get a raw deal at work? Are you unhappy about some circumstance? Are you holding something in your heart? Such weeds will dominate your field and leave little room for growth. Forgiveness is one of the main ingredients to success in life. It is an attribute of God (Psalm 86:5).

2. Plow up the rocks of idleness. Most people bear no fruit because they sow no seed. Christians are supposed to be living stones built upon the foundation of Christ (1 Pet. 2:5). But many are just cold hard rocks taking up space. Jesus explained that people cannot belong to Him of they do not bear fruit for God - "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (John 15:8). We cannot bear fruit alone. We need Christ (John 15:4).

3. Plow up the old, dead ground. You have to cultivate the soil. You have to add nutrients to your field. The best additive to your field comes from above. The farmer knows that nothing is better than good seed and the rain from heaven to water it. The Word of God is the seed (Luke 8:11). The rain that we need will come from God if we patiently and confidently wait (James 5:7).

"Father in heaven, thank you for today. Thank you for a new year. Thank you for hope. Be with us and help us. Help us to grow closer to you. Help us to sow all over again. Help us to glorify your name. In Jesus name, Amen."

"But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." ~ 2 Corinthians 9:6

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Nice List

This past week has been a very nervous one in our home. My two youngest children have been concerned about what Santa might bring. One of them said that Christmas Eve was the most stressful night of the year. When you are a kid you have a lot invested on what may happen on Christmas morning. This is the magic of the holiday - the joy of innocent imagination and the laughter of experiencing the reception of realized dreams.

And then my daughter said something to me, tonight, December 23, that really made me think. She was talking about whether or not she was on the nice list. Her anxiety about it brought her to tears. She knew her cousins were soon arriving and that she had one more day to be good. She said she would be good all day and share her toys and make sure that Santa would know that she was a nice person and that even though she wasn’t always good she surely wanted to be good. Being on the nice list matters to my daughter! It matters enough that she is deeply sorry for anything she might do to remove herself from it.

There was a time for all of us when being on the nice list mattered. It was when there was someone watching over us whom we considered more powerful than us – who held the key to our happiness. We did not want to disappoint him. But when we grew up and our innocence was lost there were many of us who no longer cared about our presence on the list.

A lack of genuine kindness is usually an adult problem. We become cynical, impatient, and we get distracted with things that are not important. One minute we are volunteering at a soup kitchen and the next minute we are cutting people off for a better parking spot at a busy holiday shopping mall. One minute we are delivering a fruit basket to a widow and the next minute we are cross with the waitress who isn’t serving our every whim. Kindness spent on others is often lost on our spouses and children. Patience we extend to a person for whom we have compassion is often shortened for anyone we don’t respect. And the scariest thing from all of it is our general justification for our bad attitude. We just don’t cry at the idea that a nice list might be something on which our name would not be found.

Jesus’ appearance to the earth was not just for salvation, but for peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Titus tells us that the kindness and goodness of God toward man presented itself in the person of Jesus Christ. This is when grace came that taught us how to respond to love of God. Nice should not be a stretch for a people visited by the Son of God who willingly spilled His blood and forgave His murderers while still hanging between heaven and earth.

My child taught me a great lesson this evening. She reminded me I should always want to be on the nice list. She reminded me that the very thought of not making it on the list should reduce me to tears.

“But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” – Titus 3:4-5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jesus and the 21st Century Sabbath


It was a three and a half year sticking point: Jesus and the Sabbath. In John 5 Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath. From then on it was all the unbelieving Jews could think about. The very next week His disciples were found plucking the heads of grain and eating them, again, on the Sabbath. Jesus spoke about the Sabbath on several occasions and expounded on why the Rabbinical teachings on the Sabbath were out of line. Jesus never violated the Sabbath. He simply exposed the Pharisees’ improper interpretation.

Two statements from Mark 2:27-28 basically explain why Jesus acted the way He did from Sabbath to Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” The first statement explains that God set aside the Sabbath to teach man a spiritual lesson. It was not just about the obedient resting, it was about learning what God had done. The second statement is a call to understand that Jesus was involved in creating the material universe, and every holy law. He had the right as having the divine nature in Himself to change any law He created without being questioned.

God ordained the Sabbath as a holy day for the Jews because He wanted them to remember His creative work. The Sabbath was a reminder of the fact that God had ceased from that work. But Jesus explained later (John 5:17) that since day seven the Father and the Son had continued working. Jesus had not taken a day off since day seven. When He came to earth He was doing the work of God seven days a week.

If one were to closely examine everything Jesus did during His human life on the Sabbath, it would be impossible to prove that he had in any way broken the commandment. The Jewish Mishnah, (a Rabbinical commentary on the law), had come up with 39 specific activities that were unlawful to do on the Sabbath. Jesus certainly broke many of them, and in the meantime encouraged others to do so. He knew it did not matter, because the Mishnah was an addition to the Law of Moses. It was therefore not binding, and in fact it was causing people to miss the entire spiritual purpose of the commandment.

We can learn some very important things from Jesus’ treatment of the Sabbath: 1. God’s law is for a purpose, it is divine, and men must do it. 2. We are not supposed to do more or less than has been commanded. 3. It is important for us to see why the law is there as much as it is important for us to follow the law. 4. The only one who has the right to make adjustments to the law or set it aside altogether is God.

Jesus shocked the people by what He did on the Sabbath. But He never broke it. They were just doing it wrong. Which makes me wonder, if Jesus came into our churches each Sunday, what we He do differently? Would we realize it was us, and not Him, doing it wrong? And would we accuse Him?

“For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:8

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Falling in Love all Over Again


Do you remember when you first fell in love? I am not talking about your first schooldays crush. I am not talking about your first infatuation. I am not talking about the time when you saw that person and thought to yourself, “I would be happy if they were mine.” I am not referring to those moments in your life because those moments were not about love at all. Those moments were about you, and genuine love at its very core is not about you. It’s about others.

I am talking, however, about the first time you really fell in love. When you knew that you and the other person truly cared for each other. When you knew the two of you were willing to do anything for one another. When it was a joy to hear their voice on the phone and you anticipated the next time you would hear it as soon as you sadly had to say goodbye. When every song you heard reminded you of them, and when everything you read found a relationship to your relationship with them, and when every thought you had somehow included them, too. And then that love matured when you came to the point that you decided to make a lifetime commitment to this other person and become their spouse.

Marriages go through periods in which the feelings of courtship fade and the relationship needs to be renewed. Couples must keep dating. They must continue to express their feelings and love for each other in a variety of ways. Exciting new things sometimes become everyday regularities. The once unexpected blessings soon become normal and there is a danger of each person in the relationship taking the daily sacrifices of their companion for granted. But a committed relationship also leads to seasons of falling in love all over again. The more things in life you experience together, whether good or bad, the more that you realize your mate loves you. The loyalty of your spouse and their constant support and sacrificial giving will hopefully lead to you falling in love with them over and over again.

Spiritual renewal is very much the same. Inward revival is falling in love with Jesus all over again. We remember the first time the cross brought conviction and tears. We recall the overwhelming weight of our sin coupled with the unconditional love of our Father. Then we add in the suffering of the cross and the yearning of Savior for our souls and we conclude in our minds and hearts that we are in love with Jesus. Because Christianity is also a lifetime commitment, the more time we stay in the relationship the more opportunities we have to fall in love with Jesus. And His blood remains. And His blood cleanses. And we love Him all over again because of it.

Every person wants to be loved the way they were loved in the beginning. It seems natural then to conclude that God also would want the same. Every new day is an opportunity for us to look at our loved ones and be thankful for their presence in our lives. By their simply being there and loving us we can appreciate what they mean to us and fall deeper in love with them - one day at a time.

When you woke up today I hope your first though was Jesus. I hope your second thought was of a very special person here on earth who loves you. And I hope that each day that you live God will grant you the ability to keep falling in love with them over and over again.

“The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.’” – Jeremiah 31:3

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Part of You God Doesn't Have Yet

One hundred percent! We have made an effort for this Sunday to have all of those people in attendance who have made themselves a part of the local congregation here at Willow. This is an impossible task. Some people will be sick or shut-in. Some people will be traveling. Some people will decide not to come. Some people will be at work. Some people will somehow not know about it (they must live on Mars).  So many barriers stand between us and one hundred percent. But does this mean we should not try?

Obstacles in life can remind us that there are things that are keeping us from completely belonging to God. Even if you are a strong and faithful Christian, there is a part of you that God doesn’t have yet. Although you may argue for it, you cannot convince me that you have given God everything. Your effort may be admirable and even worthy of imitation, but your activity gives you away. Be honest with yourself. It may be your thoughts, it may be your time, it may be your love – it really could be just about anything. The most important question deals with whether or not you have been able to identify which part of yourself you have been holding back from the Lord – and whether or not you plan to give it to him.

God knows everything about us. He knows every thought in our mind. He knows what our goals are. He knows what we are doing now and what we did five minutes ago. He knows for certain what part we have been holding back from him. He not only knows about it, but he desires for us to give it to him. This truth has been exemplified throughout human history in God’s interaction with mankind. Why else ask Abraham to offer Isaac? Why else ask for daily sacrifices from Israel? Why else consider the greatest commandment of all to be to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? God wants to know if we truly love him altogether. After all, this is the way he loves us.

The Bible says, “Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!” (Psalm 119:2). The beginning of giving God our all has to do with what we are seeking. If we have no intentions to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus, then we cannot be his disciples. Though we will always fall short of God’s glory, our Lord will be satisfied with our effort to be like him and much as possible. If we run the race with less than our very best we have missed the whole point of even running (1 Cor. 9:24).

There is something extremely exciting about unreached potential. It means we still have a purpose. It means we can still make gains. It means we can do more than we have ever done before. It means the future can be better than the past. God made us people with unlimited spiritual potential because he knew we needed hope. He created us in such a way that in the flesh we would never be perfect. God wants us striving, reaching, trying, so that one day when we have given all we can give and yet we have still failed to be just like him, he can take us home by his grace. In that moment God will know that we loved him because we gave everything we had. In that moment we will know how much he loves us because he accepted us in our weakness. In that moment there will be no more need to try, because God will have accomplished it all. In that moment we will give him all the glory and worship him in joy for eternity.

“I entreated Your favor with my whole heart; Be merciful to me according to Your word.” – Psalm 119:58

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Advice for Younger Preachers


I am amazed that I am writing this article. It means I am getting older. But at 41, I am not in the 20’s and 30’s group anymore. I claim no great knowledge or wisdom. I do have more experience than before. I am just doing the best I can with all of my flaws to serve in my Master’s kingdom. It is a privilege to do so all of the time. Christ is everything. I am nothing. The world does not need me at all. But the world definitely needs Jesus.

Over the past several years I have been watching and rooting for our younger crop of ministers. I am doing everything I can to encourage younger men to enter this vocation. I believe preaching is the greatest occupation in the world. It is not easy but the sacrifices and challenges are well worth it. I always do my best to think the best of the younger men and give them the benefit of the doubt (I needed that early on and still need it). With all of this in mind I would like to address a few areas in which I believe younger preachers are struggling. Younger preachers, I love you and I believe in you.

1. Please get out of your office. Younger ministers in the 21st century love blogging and texting and writing and the interchange they can receive over social media. They love being great from the pulpit on Sundays. It builds our confidence, boosts our ego, and helps us to see we are making a difference. Articles and books and our best Sunday morning sermons are great and we need them, but lost people are dying and they need a minister’s personal touch. Rarely is personal evangelism emphasized anymore – door to door work – home Bible studies – hospital visits and phone calls - these are invaluable. Even if this is not your area of expertise it needs to be developed. The book you write with your feet will have more eternal impact than the one you write with your hands.

2. Please respect the past generation. I am reading more and more articles by younger preachers that are full of idealism for the 21st century church. While they may seem full of light, they are at times questionable when it comes to practicing pure Christianity. I know we cannot do things the same way the older generation did them. I know we are restoring the first century church anew in every generation. But some of the folks that have been restoring it for decades are still here. Don’t isolate them by making them feel that they are out of touch. Spend some time with them and learn what mature Christianity is like. It will bless you and also let them know that all they have labored for will not be in vain. Don’t forget that any work you do for the kingdom is done while you stand on their shoulders.

3. Be careful about vanity. Early success in ministry can be both a blessing and a curse. When you are younger people love you. You are Absalom and David is old hat. Everything you do is fairly new because you are new. But eventually you will have been preaching a while and something else and someone else new will come along. If anything, this humbling reminder helps you to refocus and give the glory to God. He must continually increase while you decrease. The greatest preacher in the brotherhood has no individual fame and is probably only known by the lives he has personally touched.

4. Take criticism with grace. Early on in preaching I thought because I loved the Lord that I could not be doing anything wrong. Well guess what, I was wrong. I need help and I need criticism. I need criticism of all kinds from all kinds of people. Jesus was probably criticized more in 3 years than any other preacher in history, and He was perfect. In time, you will see that you can love the Lord and do your best and continue to make improvements along the way. Your best day is still a work in progress. Therefore we need to embrace counsel. While no chastening seems good for the present, in time it will bring the peaceable fruit of righteousness by those who have been trained by it.

5. Preach the Word!  (2 Tim. 4:2). That is all.

6. Don’t quit. Even if you are fired. Even if you are cheated. Even if you are ridiculed. No matter what happens, the Lord needs you. The church needs you. The Lost need you. God chose the preaching of the gospel to save those who would believe. He has no other plan. Love Him always with the same fervor you had when you decided to preach in the first place.

Preachers of all ages, God loves you and I love you. Second to Jesus, you are my heroes. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for preaching the glorious gospel of Christ!

“Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” – 1 Timothy 4:15-16

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Can We Choose When We Die?

Brittany Maynard, age 29, has terminal brain cancer. She says she does not want to die. But she has chosen when. You can read and watch here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/10/08/terminally-ill-brittany-maynard-29-has-scheduled-her-death-for-nov-1/. This link will make you sad. You will empathize with this family. Cancer is a terrible disease. I was diagnosed 10 years ago. I have had many friends and family die from cancer. As a preacher I have been there until the last breath was taken numerous times. I have seen the worst it has to offer. But consider for a minute with me the moral issue at stake with euthanasia. Excuse me, in 2014 the political world prefers to call it, “Dying with dignity.”

I am not going to pretend to tell you that I think I have all of the answers to such a sensitive subject. One of my best friends and mentors in ministry took his life several years ago. He had suffered from bipolar disorder and chronic depression for years. He had been suicidal on occasions that caused periods of hospitalization. Suicide is not a black and white issue. There are people who take their lives who are so fragile mentally and emotionally that it would be difficult for any human being to say what was happening in the moment they chose to kill themselves.

For any person who is reading this article that has been affected by cancer, or some other terminal disease, or for any person out there who has had someone close to them choose to end their life, I want you to know that I love you. I could never understand how much you have suffered and how difficult it has been to go through such a terrible experience. Please understand that what you are about to read is being expressed for the purpose of pleasing God and promoting mental and physical and spiritual health for all people. Life is very precious. It is God’s greatest gift to man both now and eternally. This is why the issue of ending life is so important. Do we have the right to choose what day we die?

Arguments and discussions about specific situations can go on and on concerning this topic. Without a doubt, I would never think it was morally right to force someone to try to keep themselves alive by unnatural means. But I want to simply address the particular case at hand. Brittany Maynard has chosen doctor-assisted death for November 1, 2014. She moved to Oregon because it is one of 5 states that allow it. She has rejected other forms of medication and treatment. In the meantime she has been traveling and spending the last few months and weeks with the people she loves.

The scenario in which one chooses early termination of life has been thrust upon us recently through the tragic death of actor Robin Williams. So many things were written about that episode, that I chose to write absolutely nothing. In his case, nobody would say he died heroically. Rather, he was a victim of mental illness and he needed help. For many his iconic superstardom swept the morality of the issue aside while people celebrated his achievements. I enjoyed many of the things he brought to the entertainment world, but I also realize that putting people on a pedestal is dangerous and can be spiritually unhealthy. Our determination should be that of allegiance to the one Man who ever lived perfectly. Jesus Christ is not only Lord, but our only ideal example, role model, and hero.

There are several moral questions that trouble my mind in Maynard’s case. Is it ok to be euthanized while refusing forms of treatment, even if we have been told there is no cure? Is it ok to accept defeat and not battle for earthly life as much as is within us when we know this world is not our home anyway? Is it ok to refuse to suffer any pain that may come to us in life or death? Is there a difference between what Maynard is doing and people who choose not to be resuscitated, or cancer patients who accept a morphine-induced coma at the last stages of their illness? I believe so.

The difference is faith. Faith believes in unseen things (Heb. 11:1). Without faith, pleasing God is impossible (Heb. 11:6). What if even though no one has ever survived this disease, Brittany Maynard was the first? What if November 1 rolls around and on that particular day she is feeling healthy and strong? What if the experience of suffering caused her to rely on spiritual things over physical things, and helped her to change her mind about what she really wants to do? What if this suffering changed her future eternally? I have some current relationships with a few very close friends who I love dearly who are dying at this moment from terminal illnesses. They do not know how long they have. Some have days, maybe weeks to live. But they have not chosen the day of their death. Are they not also, “dying with dignity”? I would like to tell you that I believe beyond all others they are. You see, they believe in God, but they will not play God. They trust in God, and they know that we are not supposed to “die on our terms.” After all, are we even supposed to live on our terms (1 Cor. 6:19-20)?

I am afraid that we are living in a world that is progressively devaluing life. I have heard no mention of God in this case at hand. My heart goes out to this young lady and her family. On some level, but admittedly not completely, I understand their dilemma. I was 31 when I found out about my cancer. I had a wife and two small children. I did not know what was going to happen to me. But I chose life, not death. By the grace of God ten years later I am still here. But if I had not lived, I would not have chosen euthanasia. Because God is the giver of life, and God alone has power over death. And whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s. And I accept His will for my life, and also for my death, no matter the suffering.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” – Romans 8:18

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

 
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” – 2 Timothy 4:7-8