Do You Know Why I Love My Church?

601C64E3-CC4E-4530-BB06-F7C093F132FF

“No church is perfect!” I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard that statement. My whole life has been in and around church. I grew up in a pastor’s home, serve on the pastoral staff at Mud Creek Baptist Church, and teach at a Bible college training church leaders. Sometimes, that soft dismissal is a nice way of us defending our imperfections. Others use the phrase to cast shade toward another body of believers. By the way–and regardless of why it’s used–the statement is more than true. Every church is imperfect because every church is made up of imperfect people. But that’s not what I’m writing about.

I’ve grown to deeply love my church, even though it’s not perfect. And over the next few weeks, I want to tell you why. In today’s post, I want to start with the most important. From my perspective, we get the big thing right: the gospel takes center stage. In Pastor Greg’s sermons, our curriculum tracks, our local, national or international missions, or even our song selections, Jesus is the focus, and his good news of great mercy extended to sinners gets the lion’s share of our attention.

Just recently, I listened to my wife share in our small group about a mission trip to India (I will share more about our missions in a few weeks). With tears streaming her cheeks, she said, “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever talked to people about Jesus who’ve never heard his name before.” In the room, you could feel the surprise and sadness as we grappled with these great privileges–we know Jesus and we worship him freely.  I personally tried to imagine not knowing about Jesus. I can’t.  

At my church, you can hear his voice every time the Word is read. You can see his joy when we sing together of his greatness. You can sense his power when a sinner repents and receives Christ. Jesus. Everything should be about him. My church gets this right. And that’s one reason I love my church!

 

Advertisements

Grieve. Pray. Long!

Yesterday morning a gunman, for yet unknown reasons, massacred and wounded dozens in a small Baptist Church near San Antonio, TX.  My mind and emotions have swirled with unanswered questions and stinging emotions. How could this happen? Why would someone do such a thing? Did something snap? What are the survivors facing? How will they handle the loss? I saw a brief snapshot of the pastor. He tragically lost his teenage daughter to this horrific act of evil. How will he face today? Tomorrow? My mind jumps back only a few weeks to Las Vegas. Then a few years to Charleston. Other shootings. Acts of unconscionable violence. Moments of grave injustice.  For me, as a Christian, the full effects of sin’s grip on the human heart appear all too visible.  

I grieve. I pray. I weep.

But I also long. I long for the moment when the King, the Judge, the Savior returns to right all wrongs. I long for the day When grave injustice, senseless violence, and unmitigated hate will be once and for all cast away. As C.S. Lewis so beautifully pictured the Christ-figure Aslan in the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe,

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more, When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

One day. Yes, one Day! Today I grieve. Today I pray. But today, I long! Come soon Lord Jesus!

When Do You Pray?

A few weeks ago, I shared with you some prayer habits and practices that I have begun using in my own prayer life. As I’ve listened in on those in the prayer study I have been leading, a number of the practices that they use have challenged me. I was also encouraged to read the feedback here on my blog and social media posts as well.  One commented that he found imagining the presence of God helpful during his prayer time.  Another mentioned that he frequently prayed through the Old Testament tabernacle and the A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) method of praying.  A former student where I teach at Fruitland Baptist Bible College shared how the Book of Common Prayer has been helpful to him and his wife in their prayer time.  Some have committed to pray early in the day, while others have worked on the discipline of “praying continuously” (1 Thess. 5:17).  A few shared how the Scriptures themselves have been integral in shaping and revitalizing their prayer lives.

In each of these comments and reflections, I was truly encouraged to note how God has made us unique even in our seeking Him through prayer.  Not coincidentally, a day after posting “How Do You Pray?,” I read a powerful take on Spurgeon’s prayer life that echoed the diverse ways we can come to God in prayer.

If my study of prayer and reflection on the numerous comments are teaching me anything about strengthening my prayer life, it’s driving home these two observations:

1. The certain wrong way to pray is not to pray.

2. We can pray to God using a variety of habits, patterns, and tools.

These thoughts lead us into the heart of this post. When do you pray? The “how” of praying must the “when.” For myself, I have begun trying to pray three specific times daily: when I get up in the morning, as I drive to work, and before I go to bed. Some of these prayers (and prayer times) are shorter than others. Martin Luther suggested praying at least twice a day: in the morning and before bed (Martin Luther, “A Simple way to Pray,” referenced in Tim Keller, Prayer, p. 89).  We know from Scriptures that Daniel prayed three times a day.

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.

Daniel 6:10

That closing phrase of Daniel 6:10, “As he had done previously,” speaks volumes.  For Daniel, these times of prayer had become habitual and ingrained.  Like well worn paths, the routine times of prayer had shaped Daniel’s prayer life and forged his character into one of dependence upon God, faithfulness in the midst of evil and temptation, and resilient obedience regardless of the consequence.

As I continue to reflect on the lessons I am learning on prayer from the Scriptures and others, I’m interested to hear from you again.  When do you pray?

500

500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, on All Saints Eve, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. I rather doubt he or anyone else would have imagined that the nearly imperceptible quill scratches and nail strikes that fateful day would continue to reverberate so loudly five centuries later.

His initial short term hopes that the Roman Catholic Church would reject the horrendous practice of selling indulgences were soon dashed by a Papal Bull, trial in Germany, and excommunication from Roman Catholicism. Yet even excommunication couldn’t silence the resounding echo that Luther and the other reformers sounded. As these early, tenuous years gave way to greater theological courage and precision, five solas — Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone —would shake generations of Christians loose from the chains of Roman Catholic dogma.

Ironically, what Luther first intended to be corrective and cleansing to Roman Catholicism in part helped spur the greatest segregating of denominationalism history has ever seen. Out from under the hovering religious and political control of the RCC, varieties of theological affiliations and Christian practices grew and spread. As a professor of theology at a Baptist College, I have studied, observed, and benefited from many tremendous and even some forlorn ramifications of Luther’s noble efforts in 1517 and beyond.

Too often, the days since the 95 Theses have been marked by division in Christ’s church. Too often, Lutherans and Presbyterians find themselves against Baptists on infant baptism or the table. Too often, Pentecostals reject the passionlessness of their parent denomination of Methodism. Even non-denominationalism casts itself off from much of the clannish nature of mainline Protestants, conservative Southern Baptists, or Spirit-pursuing Pentecostals. To be sure, doctrinal differences like those above are significant. And they should cause each of us from our respective convictions to firmly hold to them without compromise. But what these differences shouldn’t do is weaken our mutual and unifying grip on essential doctrines that we all agree upon.

While often inacurately credited to Augustine, a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius, actually coined the phrase, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity” (see Ross’ article here).  How fitting that a Lutheran — able to claim that denomination on account of Luther’s relentless pursuit of the essentials — provides us even today with a simple  motto that captures the heart of Jesus himself. His crisp words seem to flow from Jesus’ own prayer for us toward this very end:

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

John 17:11

In the spirit of that unity for which Jesus prayed, when I first discovered the work of those who penned the Reforming Catholic Confession, I immediately warmed. Certainly, a document and signatures, no matter how well-written, do not actually fix any of our disunity.  But they do give us a chance, as Christians at the 500th anniversary of the most visible schism in church history, to reach our hands out to other denominations that perhaps wouldn’t even exist without the likes of Luther.

I am grateful to stand on the shoulders of those who sacrificed much to crystallize the five solas. I am eager to lock arms with those who affirm our theological similarities. I am hopeful that shows of unity like this confession will foster healthier denominational relations. I am expectant that, one day, Jesus’ prayer will be answered as all His children will, in their uniqueness, diversity, and individuality, be made one as the Father, Son and Spirit are one.

If you would like to learn more about the Reforming Catholic Confession or if you would consider adding your name to the list of signatories, you can check it out here.  Soli Deo Gloria!

How Do You Pray?

prayer-2544994_960_720I’ve been leading a small group through a study on prayer at my church. As we’ve discussed what Jesus teaches us about praying the Model Prayer and through his own prayer life, I have been fascinated to learn of the prayer practices that those in the group have been using. It’s reminded me of just how beautifully unique God created each of us human beings. Some in the group pray using daily prayer lists. Others write out their prayers in journals. Some pray on their drive to work. While still others regularly pray the words of Scripture. 

For myself, I have made a regular routine of praying the Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) as an outline during my daily prayer time.

Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.

For instance, as I pray, “Our Father in heaven…” I remind myself that God cares for me, my family, my church, and my needs like the best father. I praise Him for His wisdom and care. I also reflect on His sovereign perspective over the world because of His seat “in heaven.” When I arrive at “your will be done…” I pray for God’s plans and purposes to work out in my life and the world around me. Here, I regularly ask for God to involve Himself in specific ways depending on what I or others I am praying for happen to be facing that day. Yet, I try to always pray my requests “open handed” toward God accomplishing His will.  I ask Him to help me actively obey and follow His will as He chooses to unfold it. I try to follow a similar pattern with each phrase of this prayer Jesus gave his disciples.

You can read more about my digging into this example Jesus gave us to pray here.

Each testimony and practice from those studying with me sparked my curiosity, and I began to wonder about you. What are some of your prayer practices? What important lessons about prayer have you learned along the way? How do you pray?

I look forward to reading your replies in the comments section.

Arachnophobia!

I’m not a fan of spiders.* Watching the movie Arachnophobia as a child didn’t help any.  Seeing that farm overrun with too-many-to-count 8-legged critters kept me up at night. Literally.  Every tiny tingle on my arm in the dark after I watched it caused me to dart for the lights to be sure I wasn’t being hunted by one (or more) of those evil minions.

I was reminded of that spider disdain again recently as I was driving to work. While Brown Garden Spiderattempting to pray during the drive (with my eyes open I might add) I looked out my driver’s side window to notice a large, brown garden spider flailing in the passing air. As I slowed the car coming up on a traffic light, the spider quickly scurried to repair parts of its web. In case you were wondering, the second I saw my mortal enemy on my mirror, I gave up praying and entered into all-out war.  When I sped up again, it tightened its grip on its web, slowly creeping toward the mirror on my driver’s door.  If it didn’t get blown off, which I was valiantly—or should I say violently—attempting, I determined this small, hideous creature would meet a quick exit from the world of the living upon my arrival at work. But as I slowed down again coming up to a stop sign, I felt a rising, “No!” reverberate in my chest as that spider slinked in behind the mirror.  I wouldn’t see it again until the next morning. Again the creature had spun its web and flailed in the air as my car traveled down the road. And again, before I could sling it off or see it met a timely death, the spider snuck behind the mirror.  It wasn’t until the evening of night two that I noticed it out from his hiding place and evicted it once and for all.

In many ways, that tag-along arachnid parallels the hidden sins that fasten themselves onto us. They find deep, dark corners away from the brilliant light of God’s presence. They latch on deeply resisting eviction.  They scurry to build sticky webbings binding themselves to other parts of our lives making it more and more difficult to rid ourselves of them.  Anger sticks closely to bitterness.  Gossip with slander.  Lust with laziness and selfishness.  Dishonesty with theft.  One becomes two, and two becomes ten.  Before we know it, the enmeshed web caused by our sins may even begin to feel like those countless spiders that took over that farm in Arachnophobia. And just like that tiny creature distracted me from praying that morning, each one of these evils seeks to keep us from spending time from God’s presence and obeying His will.

Thankfully, the Bible tells us exactly how to address these fowl, hidden sins.

5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:5-17

What hiding spiders are lurking in your dark closets?  Why don’t you exterminate them before they overrun you?

*I addressed my spider hatred for the first time in my book, The Filling. If you want to find out about the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian life, or just more about the origins of my hatred for 8-legged evil, you can get a copy here.

 

What Facebook Taught Me about Remembering

Facebook gets it. Every day, I get one or more “On This Day” reminders about what I posted or did on Facebook one year, three years, or ten years ago. These reminders reveal my corny first posts (you know you had them too before you figured out your social media skills).  They call my mind back to who I became friends with and how long we’ve been connected. They let me remember a photo, usually of my son, in his ridiculously adorable toddler or young child days.  Just this week, I saw this picture pop up on my memories.

Joseph hanging on the tub_9.11.2010

That’s my son trying to play in the tub when he was just nearing his first birthday. He toddled over to the bath and tried to dig something out managing to get himself stuck. He was too cute to miss the perfect opportunity to snap this pic. I’m so glad I did and posted it. That was a good day.

You might find this next statement odd, but it’s been true for me—these Facebook memories have helped me grow as a Christian. You see, Facebook gets what the Bible has been emphasizing for thousands of years. We have been created to remember. Moses warned the Israelites to remember God’s deliverance from the slavery of Egypt when they entered the promised land so they would continually obey him (Deuteronomy 6:10-15). Joshua commanded the Israelites to make an altar of stones from the dry river bed of the Jordan River to remind them of this same deliverance into the promised land and the parting of the river as they crossed over (Joshua 4:4-7). Jesus told his disciples to partake of the Lord’s Supper regularly to remember his sacrifice for us (Luke 22:14-21).

But one of my recent favorite Scriptures calling us to remember is one short, simple verse David writes in the Psalms.

I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands.  – Psalm 143:5

I’ve gravitated to this verse because of David’s progression of emphasis: remember, meditate, ponder. He wants us to call back to mind and dwell upon God’s past care for his people and for us specifically.

When was the last time you remembered when God first changed you? When did you last take the time to simply meditate on God’s goodness in your life? Can you recall when you just sat and pondered the ways God has worked around you and through you?

Facebook gets it, but the Scriptures got it first. We need to remember. So the next time Facebook pops up a picture or a post that takes you down memory lane, follow it. Then let it turn you to Jesus. And remember him and his works too.

9/11

I’m not sure any of us could have imagined the life-altering impact a number, a slash, and two more numbers, in that order, would have on American history. Sixteen years ago, I found myself sitting in science lab at North Greenville University when a TV was brought in to show the shock, devastation, and confusion that began at the hands of Islamic terrorists on that fateful day. During our midweek worship at Mud Creek that week, we did what thousands of other churches did — we gathered to pray. Then we responded. Teams left to help put the pieces back together spiritually, emotionally and physically.

Fast forward 16 years. One hurricane just left Houston under water. Another is pounding Florida, Georgia and large parts of the Southeast. Yesterday, we prayed for those caught in its path and the many still reeling from the one that decimated Texas. In the coming weeks, we will respond.

That’s what the church does. We pray. We respond. We seek God’s gracious intervention in the tragedies, disasters, and hurricanes. Then we ask Him to empower our hands and feet to give provision, relief, and aid to those caught under these calamities.

Why? That’s what Jesus did. When the devastating hurricane of evil, the vicious attack of the enemy, and the overwhelming flood of sin sought to bury us under their wake, Jesus prayed for us (see John 17) and the strength to fulfill His Father’s will (see Matthew 26:36-46), and then He responded by defeating Satan, evil, and even death upon the cross. We pray and respond to the hurts, battles, and disasters of others because Jesus did just that for us.

Today, pray. Tomorrow, respond. Like Jesus did for you. And as we do, the 9/11’s and the Hurricane Irma’s become the springboards for God to continue to display His grace and power in this world through us.

Church Clothes

Sometimes, an artist reaches through the speakers down all the way to your soul and pinches a nerve. The first time I heard Kelleigh Bannen’s song, “Church Clothes,” that’s exactly what happened. Her words squeezed and twisted and tore at deep, guttural places because they expose the far-too-real truth that we feel this need to cover up our hurts, struggles, and battles. I get it. Her song stings me because I’ve been there. I’ve covered my sins with a smile. I’ve tucked in my questions and doubts behind a dress shirt and sports coat. I’ve squirreled away my failures and fears underneath a happy disguise so no one else will know or see how broken and confused I felt.

Then it happened. I confessed. I confessed to God. And he didn’t cast me away. He didn’t throw me out with the trash. He didn’t run me off. He didn’t turn away in shame.  He showed me the way to reconcile with him. He often gently guided me to confess and seek the forgiveness of others.  He repaired me step by step through the counsel of his words in the Bible. He listened and shaped my prayers to him as he walked me away from my sins, failures, and messes. He let me bask in the kind joy of his loving mercy.

If you feel the need to wear “church clothes” to hide your shame, let me say, I am sorry. Church clothes are the sort of thing well-meaning but often times Pharisee-like church people expect. You don’t show your messes. You put on your Sunday best. You mind your manners.  But at all costs, you don’t show all that’s going on under the surface.

While some church folk need to work on receiving you as you are, remember: Jesus will without hesitation. You don’t have to hide from him. He sees and knows you all the way down anyway. He doesn’t look away. He doesn’t cast sideways glances with raised eyebrows. He doesn’t smugly gloat over you in haughty self righteousness. He’s the one to welcome the long lost son with open arms (Luke 15:20). He’s the type to pray for the forgiveness of his murderers (Luke 23:34). He loved and died for us when we were his enemies (Romans 5:10).

If you haven’t heard Kelleigh’s song, you can watch it here. My guess is, you will probably have a wide range of emotions like me. And that’s ok. Just be sure to remember that Jesus will meet you where you are, how you are, warts and all. Oh and by the way, you can leave the church clothes at home when you meet with Jesus. You’ll never need them with him.

Stealing a Bible?

I am ashamed to admit a few months ago I found myself tempted, for the first time in my life, to steal a Bible (it’s important for you to know I did no ACT on said temptation. It’s also important for you to know that the first confession of said temptation was to the person whose Bible I wanted to take). I’m sure you are needing some more details, so let me explain. 

A friend of mine from college serves in Central Africa as a Bible translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He visited our church recently to give a presentation in one of our small groups of their work overseas. When he left, he mistakenly forgot his Bible and messaged me later to hold onto it for him. 

The moment I found it, I immediately recognized its quality and beauty. As my friend and I messaged back and forth when I let him know I found it, I complimented the excellent craftsmanship of his Bible, jokingly admitting that, for the first time in my life, I was tempted to steal his Bible. He “lol”-ed (that’s laughing out loud via text message) and proceeded to send me a link to the design page for his Bible, Crossway’s Single Column, Heirloom, goatskin leather, hand-bound ESV. 

I thumbed through it, admiring the quality, attention to detail, and durability of its design. After getting the Bible back to him (see, I told you I didn’t steal it), I chuckled when I recounted this story to others, including my wife, about the Bible I wanted to steal.  

Fast forward nearly two months. As a combined wedding anniversary present and birthday gift, my generous and thoughtful wife bought me the same Bible my friend had. Let me just say, it’s nice. The pages are exquisite. The binding is superb. The goatskin cover is supple but noticeably strong. I’ve enjoyed holding my new Bible, admiring it, and showing it off since I received it. I am grateful for such a wonderful and undeserved gift. But my story of wanting such a Bible and receiving it has laid piercingly on my own heart as well. In the book of James, the Bible says,

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. – James 1:22-25

As I reflected on those words, and thought about my new Bible, these truths hit me. How short-sided of me if I love the Bible for its cover but not its conviction. How flawed of me if I value the quality of the pages of this Bible but do not let these same pages pierce my selfishness and sinfulness. How inconsistent of me if I look upon the beautiful craftsmanship of this Bible, but I do not let the Master Craftsman of the very Words of God look back upon me as a mirror to make me a doer of His Word. 

Regardless of whether we read the Bible from and old paperback, a quality leather bound version, or a digital copy on our mobile devices, God’s word means to read us too. He beckons us to dig deeper than simply admiring its surface beauty for a few seconds, then turning away to something else. He pleads with us to take it, ponder it, and most importantly do it. And that’s a truth none of us never need steal.