The Marketing of Generosity

Last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving with family and those in our community, I was once again reminded of the strangeness this week now holds.

  • On Thursday (Thanksgiving) people gather with friends and family and pause to reflect on how blessed we are and offer thanks to God.
  • On "Black Friday" people fight and scrape to get into shopping centers to buy things they otherwise wouldn't just because the deals are so good. In other words, just 24 hours prior we're content and thankful and then...BOOM! WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE!
  • On Saturday, people go shopping at smaller stores for "Small Business Saturday" to encourage them to stay in business even though they struggle competing with the big box stores.  Then, everyone goes back home to watch college football rivalry games that create division among family members and friends.
  • On Sunday, people (well some people) go to church.
  • On "Cyber Monday" people get more great deals online. This is basically Amazon's version of Black Friday.
  • Then, when all disposable income (a term that has never resonated in my home) is gone, it's time for "Giving Tuesday" where charities and non-profits seek to gain donations to help end-of-year expenses.

And some people wonder why Thanksgiving is the forgotten holiday?

As Christians, there are many commentaries on all these marketed, hashtag days. First of all, thanksgiving should never be relegated only to one day a year. Greed should never be celebrated. Worship should never be just during one hour on a weekend day and generosity should be natural for all followers of Christ.

Giving tuesday

Yet, today is #GivingTuesday and every non-profit and ministry out there seems to be taking advantage of the moment. To be honest, I don't blame them and in fact, there are many groups we sponsor as a family and ministries we support as a church family that could use a boost in donations. Yes, this day is a marketing strategy. Yet, when compared to "Black Friday" and the like, this one focuses not on self, but on others (unless you give so you can brag about giving, which then makes it selfish.) While not an extensive list, here are some options (in addition to your local church, which BTW is a non-profit as well) that you may wish to prayerfully consider giving generously to on this day.

There are many others. Before dropping that coin or sending a donation to a non-profit, do some checking. Ensure that the organization is legitimate and if a religious or Christian organization, it would be wise to discern the theology or teaching your donations support.

Happy Giving Tuesday. Oh and if you don't get to donate today, you don't have to wait another year. Generosity isn't bounded by calendared events.


Why We Don't Vote Whether to Advocate for the Orphan

A number of years ago I led our church to move the ministry of "orphan care" to a primary focus. Basically, I read the book of James and knew God desired this of his church.

You have likely read the verse in question...

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27 (ESV)

The reality set in during a pastoral staff meeting as I looked around the room and realized that each pastor on our staff, except me, had adopted children into their homes. I then began thinking about the membership of our church and numerous families came to mind who had gone through the journey of fostering or adoption as well. At this point, it really wasn't rocket science. It was clear - God has been working and was leading our church to engage strategically and intentionally in this area.

Over the years, we have joined CAFO, partnered with the Florida Baptist Children's Homes, provided child sponsorships at our orphanage in Haiti, networked with Lifeline, set up short-term loans for families through Abba Fund, resourced families by offering state-required classes for fostering or adopting and developing a family wrap-around strategy for those on the journey. There is much more to be done and while orphan care is not the only ministry of our church family, it is a vital one. 

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Photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Simply put, we understand that not everyone is called to adopt a child, but we do believe that every Christian is called to advocate for the orphan. In some cases, this does lead to fostering and/or adoption. For the church, this ministry is not new. For centuries, it has been God's church that has led in this area of orphan care. Only recently, in the modern and post-modern world, has the church seemingly stepped back to allow government agencies and non-Christian groups take the lead in these areas.

Five Facts About Orphans

Yesterday (November 19, 2016) was National Adoption Day. In conjunction with this day, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC sent out the following factsheet on orphans. Take note:

Here are five facts you should know about orphans in America and around the world:

  1. A common assumption is that an orphan is a child who has two deceased parents. But the more inclusive definitions used by adoption and relief agencies tend to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care. An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF's  “single orphans,” which is a child with only one parent that has died, or “double orphans,” which is a child who has two parents that are deceased. Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan can also be a foreign-born child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child's basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The majority of the world's orphans have families who are merely unable or unwilling to care for the child.
  2. According to UNICEF estimates, there are 140,000,000 children who have lost one or both parents due to any cause as of 2013. Out of those, 17.7 million were orphaned because one or both parents died of AIDS.
  3. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. families adopted 5,647 children from another country in 2015 (compared to the peak of 22,991 in 2004). Based on the 2012 report (the last on which such data was collected), Americans adopted the highest number of children from China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, and Ukraine. The top adopting states were Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Illinois.
  4. In the United States in 2014 there were 415,129 children in foster care and 107,918 waiting to be adopted. The average age of a child in foster care waiting to be adopted was 7.7 years old. The average age of children in foster care being adopted was 6.2 years old.
  5. A study by the Rand Corporation found that as of 2002, a total of 396,526 embryonic humans have been frozen and placed in storage in the United States. Since then many thousands more have been added, and the vast majority will live and die in an IVF clinic. That is over 400,000 orphans whose names we will never know and whose faces we will never see.

Are we doing enough? No. However, by engaging in the conversation and with the small steps we have taken, God has blessed and continues to do so.

Orphan Care Should Be a Given for the Church

Stepping strategically into the orphan care story is not about adding another ministry to an already busy church calendar. It is about doing that which God has declared to be pure, undefiled, and good. It would be ludicrous for a church to vote on the whether to engage in orphan care. That would be like voting whether to be evangelistic, whether to make disciples, or whether to obey God. Unfortunately, many churches and Christians are still debating obedience. 

No guilt. Just truth. Advocating for the orphan is not up for debate.


firstFAMILY Podcast 020: Cubs Win!

Recorded November 3, 2016

The Cubs won the World Series last night in amazing fashion. Why is it so many of us love the underdog (BTW - it's hard to call a 100+ win team an underdog, but the Cubs have held that title for decades). Maybe it's how we're wired? Maybe it's because we relate? Maybe it has something to do with the nature of man?


"If My People..." 2 Chronicles 7:14 - That Verse May Not Mean What You Think It Means

It's the most popular Bible verse for American Christians during election year. The verse is found in the Old Testament and centered on God's people and the building of his temple by Solomon. While the context is clearly for the people of Israel and related to Solomon's faithfulness, the holiness of worship in the temple, and the fidelity required of those who claim to follow God, the underlying truth revealed in the passage is timeless.

God is faithful.

God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.

God forgives.

God heals.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)

Believing fully in the inerrancy of God's Word, this verse is not unlike others. It is powerful, true, and valuable (2 Timothy 3:16)

As stated earlier, this verse seems to be dusted off and pulled out of storage when Christians (American ones especially) find themselves at a point of despair. This most often occurs when the political machine is in full swing during election year. While it is clear that some Christians do struggle with idol worship when it comes to nationalism, the vast majority, in my opinion, truly are seeking insight and healing from the Lord.

The church must be clear when using this verse as a sermon theme, prayer gathering banner or in an attempt to garner oneness regarding the nature of our nation.

Some things to consider, based on the wording of the English translation of this verse...

"If my people who are called by my name"

While directed at God's chosen people (Israel) in the Old Testament, all believers are now included in this "my people" phrase due to the message of the gospel and the inclusion of grafted branches. Therefore, this is a message for the church, not Washington DC, Tallahasee, or the center of government where you reside. Of course there are believers who live and serve in these offices of government, and to them (as members of the "my people" group) the message is declarative. Yet, the unregenerate will not get this, nor should Christians continue to expect non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. Tweet: Christians must stop expecting non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. @davidtark http://bit.ly/2fAS0Sn

This matters because it is so easy to see the sin in others, but so difficult to see it in ourselves. Maybe this is a bit of the "speck and log" story Christ shared?

"Humble themselves"

This may be the most forgotten section of the verse. Humility is rare and in an election cycle where major candidates garner news coverage, trending stories, and news coverage by being crass, self-centric, and loud, the simple idea of humility seems like a lost art.

While it should be expected to see arrogance as the theme of the day in the world, when it enters into the church and becomes a celebrated characteristic, it is time to wake up and repent.

The humble heart is sought by God.

Here's what we know, self-centric celebrity Christians and arrogant pastors and spiritual leaders, while honored by many, embarrass and break the heart of God.

This passage reminds us that God is seeking for his people to be humble. 

A lost art? Certainly.

A lost cause? Absolutely not.

Oh, and being humble is not something you can brag about. Once you do that...well, you're not humble.

"And pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways"

God's love is unconditional.

God's forgiveness is conditional.

There is an action step required from his pcople (the church). This action step is not sought from the government leaders who are not believers. This is not sought from the community organizers, petitioners, talk show hosts, pundits, or spin masters. This action step is sought by God from his children - his people - his church.

I think of the parent of the small child who is chastising the child for disobeying. The child says "But my friends are doing this. They don't get in trouble." To this the parent responds "I don't care about the other children. You're my child. You know better. This is not acceptable."

That's our loving Father chastising and disciplining us, his children and then providing steps for reconciliation.

"The I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

For the Israelites, it meant that the rains would come, the crops would grow, peace would reign and worship would be as it should be. For us today, it means that God will hear our prayer (just as he says) and will forgive us (conditionally, not unconditionally) and heal our land. How big is this "land" he will heal? Maybe just yours and my small spheres of influence? Maybe collectively the land we call home?

Maybe we're too concerned with God healing our land and then telling God where our surveyed boundaries lay? 

Maybe the healing begins where it must to make the biggest impact. Guess what? That may not be the swampland that was drained so that Washington DC could be built, but is the land of our hearts. In this Old Testament passage, the land of God centered where his temple was built. Since our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, perhaps this is the land that must be healed?

2 Chronicles 7:14 [widescreen]

 


Why Our Prayer Gathering Must Not Be Focused on America

I'm seeing postings on the web and am actually getting postcards and mailings from churches promoting church and community-wide prayer gatherings. Most of these are tagged with "Pray for the USA" or "Pray for Our Nation" and are focused on gathering the church to pray together prior to Election Day on November 8.

Those gatherings are good, so I'm not throwing shade upon the churches or organizers. However, to gather solely for politically-flavored prayer may reveal more than is sought.

We, too have scheduled a time of corporate prayer for this coming Sunday night. Yet, I must share some convictions about our gathering and some things we are NOT doing.

Solemn Assembly

Solemn assembly fb event

We are seeking to have a solemn assembly Sunday evening as a church family. Sadly, I have felt led to schedule this prior, but have not, so now it appears to be just another "Pray for the Election" gathering. 

Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

Joel 1:14 (ESV)

Why Gather?

It's a biblical principle to gather as the people of God for prayer.

Claude V. King shares this about solemn, or sacred assemblies:

Sacred assemblies were occasions for God's people collectively to worship Him, to repent of personal and corporate sin, to remember His special blessings on them, and to anticipate future blessings. 

In a true sense, God may utilize the gathering of his church to ignite revival among his people.

For clarification -  revival is an awakening and therefore, not the typical evangelistic meetings that have been termed "revivals" in American churches for decades. There's no special "pack a pew" night, or youth night with pizza, or a special guest bringing a word needed. While there may be a place for those types of gatherings, to call them revival is a misnomer.

Wake Up

You don't revive the dead.

You resurrect the dead.

You revive the sleeping.

That's what the church in our culture needs. That's what every true New Testament church needs - an awakening.

More Than Politics

If you're praying only because you're candidate of choice (if you even have one) may not win in November, you likely need to revisit your focus in prayer.

God has convicted me as a pastor that if we pray only as a "last resort" and slap 2 Chronicles 7:14 on everything we can  just because the candidate of choice may not be elected, we are playing games.

However, we will gather and we will pray for our elected officials and potential leaders. To be clear, we should have been doing that all along. Yet, we will be praying for so much more.

We will pray that God will guide our people and that His will be done. This is how we should be praying continually. 

We will pray for forgiveness, recognizing that forgiveness is not automatic. 

There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9 (ESV)

So, this Sunday evening at 7pm, we will gather, confess our sins to the Lord as his church, repent of overt and covert sins, and seek his forgiveness and guidance. To God be the glory.

We will rest in the assurance that regardless what happens on November 8 and beyond, God remains on his throne and sovereign over all. 

Then, we will gather again as we must. May we never be the church that only prays every four years prior to an election.

 

 


Why Forgiving Oneself is Unbiblical

I have written about this before (here) but the propagation of therapeutic forgiveness among Christians continues to muddy the waters when it comes to to understanding biblical forgiveness.

Never in Scripture is there indication that "forgiving oneself" is expected, much less possible.

Man-in-despair

Forgiveness requires two people (or God and a person.) In a culture that continues to focus on self, the inevitable centering on self-esteem, self-worth, self-health and ultimately self-worship arises.

Now, if you were to Google "Bible Forgive Self" you would find a variety of sites, blogs, and postings about the subject. While the focus on "Bible" seeks to eliminate the unbiblical aspects of the search, the truth is that many Christians still propagate a self-forgiveness strategy as healthy and right.

To help clarify, I share some thoughts from others who hold to the veracity of Scripture:

Never does the Bible talk about the idea of “forgiving yourself.” We are told to forgive others when they trespass against us and seek forgiveness. When we ask for God’s forgiveness based upon Christ having already paid for our sins and our having trusted in Him as Savior and Lord, He forgives us. - gotQuestions.org

I have never preached that anybody should forgive themselves. At least, I don’t remember ever saying it. And I have never used it as a way of dealing with my own self-hatred or condemnation or whatever that it is supposed to deal with. I don’t think it is in the Bible, and the reason I don’t think it is in the Bible is that I think it would be intrinsically confusing about the nature of forgiveness if it were. Maybe the reason the Bible doesn’t think in these categories of self-forgiveness is that, to have forgiveness, you need a person who has been wronged and a person who did the wrong. - John Piper

While is a good thing to want to move beyond your mistakes and the consequences they have reaped, there are fundamental problems with even raising this question. As I stress  throughout Unpacking Forgiveness, forgiveness is something that must occur between two parties. In light of that truth, it makes no more sense to talk about forgiving yourself than it does to talk about shaking your own hand. - Chris Brauns

Forgiveness isn’t something you can give yourself. It is something [God] has purchased for you. - Nancy Leigh DeMoss

Forgiveness requires both a victim and an offender, and so to forgive myself means that I am playing both roles. And so a part of me is allowed—even required—to play the victim for something that I did. But I shouldn’t get to play the victim, for I am the offender in this case. If I forgive myself, then I am asserting that I am a victim of my sin. - Justin Taylor

The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may simply be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness. This seems to be the most common explanation behind “self-forgiveness” talk. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us. Or we don’t see our need for forgiveness from God, so we take over the job ourselves. Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness. - Robert D. Jones

To seek forgiveness from yourself would be to ask yourself to forgive you for what you've done against yourself.  But this doesn't make any sense.  We are not the ones who make moral laws that we can break.  Rather, God does that, so forgiving yourself just doesn’t make sense. - Matt Slick

And yet, there are many who would say "But that's just semantics, right?" No. It's not. It's more of a shift to understanding what is biblical and what is not and pushing against the cultural centering of self. BTW - this is nothing new. It's been going on since the Garden of Eden.

Forgiveness requires two people - the sinner and the sinned against. 

Forgiveness is conditional.

"Forgive others as God has forgiven you" is what believers know to be true. It is vital to understand how he has forgiven you (or us.)


You Might Need To Upgrade Your Church's Digital Presence If...

Yesterday I had the opportunity to emcee a panel discussion for the Jacksonville Baptist Association focused on best utilizing technology in the church. To begin the session I shared a list compiled by some of the panel members and attendees in the same vein as Jeff Foxworthy's "You Might Be a Redneck If..." jokes.

So, here are just some indicators for pastors and church leaders who may need to upgrade their digital footprint.

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Photo credit: Nico Kaiser via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

You Might Need A Technology Upgrade In Your Church If...

  • Your church MySpace page is up-to-date.
  • You still have a Friendster account.
  • When you check for email a woman's voice on your computer says "You've Got Mail!"
  • Your email address is @hotmail.com
  • You are waiting for someone to invite you to use Gmail.
  • You just discovered Vine...and now it's gone.
  • You still browse the internet through Netscape.
  • You have AOL CDs in your office with "10 Free Hours"
  • You still pay by the hour for internet.
  • You still think in baud rate when it comes to internet connectivity.
  • You're knocked off the internet when someone in the house picks up the telephone.
  • You still illegally download stock footage from Google Image Search.
  • All the images on your church website are stock photos of models with watermarks on them from the company that actually owns the images.
  • Your church website uses textures like leather, flowers, or stone as a background.
  • You hear someone talking about Snapchat and you think they're referencing a scene from West Side Story.
  • You still call a hashtag a pound or number sign.
  • You still type www in your internet browser before the website name.
  • Your church site automatically plays music when opened.
  • Your church site has a splash page before opening up.
  • Your church site is basically a brochure online (i.e. no video or links).
  • Your church site isn't formatted for mobile devices.
  • Your church app does nothing unique from your website.
  • Your site uses Comic Sans font.
  • You still have a box of 3.5 inch (or even 5.25 inch) floppy disks in your office.
  • You write blogs that are way too long, thinking people actually read them (Ooh, wait...never mind.)
  • Your church's guest WIFI has a password that has so many characters, even Robert Langdon couldn't decipher it.
  • The last time you updated your church website, it was still hosted on a GeoCities page.
  • You upgrade the look of your church website, but choose COPPERPLATE as the font because you think it looks trendy and new.

Oh, there are more, I'm sure. Feel free to leave some additional ones in the comments below.


Could False Humility Simply Be Pride?

Most of us know that humility is a virtue to be sought. Scripture has numerous verses that speak of the humble heart and humility. 

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. - Luke 14:11

But what about false humility? 

What about low self-esteem?

Death_to_stock_Marzocco_Coffee_10

We all know people who cannot take a compliment, right? You tell them "Hey you look really nice today" and their immediate response is "Oh, no I don't." Kind of leaves you wanting to never offer a compliment to them again.

I've been reading Chris Brauns excellent book Unpacking Forgiveness. The focus of the book is forgiveness (duh?) but one section speaks of the dangers of pride and how often we all succumb to this sin, even when we don't realize it. The following is taken from page 81.

Be humble. Pretty simple, right? True, it is an easy point to understand conceptually. But it is a different one to live out. People laughed in the 1970s when Mac Davis sang, "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way. I can't wait to look in the mirror 'cause I get better looking each day." The song was so blatantly arrogant that it was funny. But the reality is, true humility can be very elusive. Granted, most do not sing with Mac Davis that they get better looking each day. More commonly, people complain about their looks. And while it may sound more humble than bragging about their looks, complaining about them is every bit as self-centered.

Therein lies an important point. Pride is  not limited to arrogance or cockiness; it is not just an inflated opinion of oneself. Pride is any way of putting self into the central focus. This distinction is critical because if we understand it, we can identify more subtle, more insidious kinds of pride. In addition to arrogance or conceit, pride might express itself in any of the following ways:

  • ARE YOU OVERLY CRITICAL? Discernment is a good thing (Philippians 1:9-11; Romans 12:1-2). But discerning people sometimes go a step too far in feeling the need to critique everything. Pride is the root problem.
  • ARE YOU INSECURE? Insecurity often betrays a person too narrowly focused on self?
  • ARE YOU SHY? For instance, are you unwilling to pray in front of others? Why is that? Is it because your central concern is how you will appear in front of others?
  • ARE YOU OVERLY SENSITIVE? People who are too sensitive sometimes imagine criticisms when they have not even been given because they center too much on themselves.
  • DO YOU TEND TO PRESUME UPON OTHERS? Are you slow to meet with others or to follow through? Do you do poorly at returning phone calls? Any of those may reflect a tendency to elevate self.
  • ARE YOU IMPATIENT WITH THE SHORTCOMINGS OF OTHERS? Do you ever get frustrated and use the phrase, "I don't have time for this"? Who does not have time?
  • DO YOU FIND YOURSELF EASILY EMBARRASSED BY FRIENDS OR FAMILY?  This may indicate that you are too concerned with how others make you appear. (Of course, it could be your family and friends are embarrassing people and seek to do this to you - DT)
  • ARE YOU GIVEN TO WORRY? Worry may betray self-reliance (or at least relying on someone other than God.).

Some will read this section and immediately go on the defensive, but read carefully and think about what is here. The convictional thoughts that came to my mind centered around the revelation of pride in my own life as it was disguised as something less sinister. 

Perhaps if you're overly negative and continually frustrated about how everyone else behaves, or even how you look when you walk by the mirror, consider the reality that the sin of pride may be disguising itself as humility, self-deprecation, or even personal rights.


When Your Child's Sin Leads To Your Bitterness

Parenting isn't for cowards. That sentence was used in a book title years ago and there's much truth in it. Yet, as challenging as parenting may be, the blessings of God through being allowed to parent His image-bearers are innumerable.

 

 

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Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass via Visualhunt / CC BY

As a pastor I hear many stories from friends and church members related to heartbreak and pain connected to the sins of their children. My wife and I are not immune to these feelings either, so I must say I was pleasantly and uncomfortably jarred this morning while reading a book on biblical parenting. 

The book is The Faithful Parent: A Biblical Guide to Raising a Family by Martha Peace and Stuart Scott. For a good review of the book by The Gospel Coalition, click here.

Uncomfortably Jarred

Knowing the truth and doing what God desires are not always the same thing. After years of struggling with personal angst regarding some family issues with a child, Peace and Scott's writing revealed something I have been holding within. Through the words of Ephesians 4:31-32, God revealed that I had allowed bitterness to solidify within my heart. 

The section I was reading is titled "When Things Don't Go As Planned" and is focused on Christian parents who raise rebellious, unsaved, unrepentant children and wonder "How did this happen?" I share Peace and Scott's words on this here (from pages 180-181):

Instead of being angry and bitter, we are to trust and be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. We are to go the extra mile (Matt. 5:41), return good for evil (Rom. 12:21), and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). If we do not obey these commands we may find ourselves doing ridiculous things such as sharing the gospel in anger or using anger to try to change the heart.

For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. (James 1:20)

Bitterness can be hard to see in ourselves because we're so busy rehearsing why we didn't deserve what has happened to us. Ask yourself these questions to help evaluate whether you're bitter.

  • Am I withdrawing my love and commitment to my child or God?
  • Am I shocked and appalled that my child would sin against me?
  • Do I wonder how God could do/allow this to happen to me?
  • Am I not willing (or finding it very difficult) to do good to my child or for God?
  • Do I feel I deserve to be treated better by God?
  • Do I find myself avoiding my child?
  • Do I secretly delight in his misfortune?
  • Do I see his sin as the "log" and mine as the "speck" before God?

Repent of any bitterness that you have! Make glorifying God your focus instead of dwelling on how you're being treated.

Boom!

Guilty.

Bitterness is a deadly thing. It's like a cancer that seeps in unknown, but infects all areas - especially attitude. Is this just about me? No. I know many parents who have faced the very same feelings. Somewhere in the midst of "log" and "speck" analysis, anger, hurt, frustration, and pain become all that is known. 

And the Enemy wins a small battle.

Nowhere in this section is sin minimized - the sin of the child (speck or log) or the sin of the parent (speck or log), but the strategy of the Enemy is clear. Bitterness leads to sin and ineffective Christian living. Sin hurts. It always does.

Our Perfect Father knows how this feels. Read Isaiah 1:2-4 for details. 

Peace and Scott remind us...

He knows what it is like to be rejected by those whom he has loved and cared for. He knows what it is like to see a loved one headed for disaster. He knows what it is to long for his children to return to their senses (Matt. 23:37). He knows what it is to have anguish over his own, although they may cause it. Rest assured, God the Father is able to sympathize with you and knows how to work with the wayward.

Trust him. Remember, grace is enough. 


The Global Mission of the NFL and the Church

GameDay Church began in 2015 as an effort of our church’s network of campuses to engage and connect with fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to home games. Live music, free BBQ and bottled water, and a brief, encouraging Gospel-centered message are the elements of a GameDay Church gathering. In Jacksonville, we meet under a tent in the parking area west of EverBank Field, near the Baseball Grounds and Old St Andrews Church (a city-owned building that houses the Jacksonville Historical Society.) GameDay Church is part of firstFAMILY and our main campus is First Baptist Church of Orange Park.

THE NFL'S GLOBAL MISSION

One of the unique things about the Jacksonville Jaguars is the annual “home game” at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The NFL has a strong, intentional global mission effort underway. The NFL desires to sell American football to the world. Following efforts of the World League and NFL Europe, it appears the NFL has succeeded in creating a fan-base.

This year, the Jaguars’ home game was set for 2:30pm (London time) on Sunday, October 2. However, the NFL was very present in London the entire weekend. On Saturday, October 1, the NFL took over Regent Street in London. This annual NFL-themed fan festival featured live music, appearances by players and coaches, and even the commissioner. Though it was misty and cool, the street was filled with fans wearing hats, shirts, and jerseys from just about every NFL team. We (Dr. Josh Dryer of the Jacksonville Baptist Association and I) attended the festival and had the opportunity to speak with our local media about GameDay Church.

PARTNERS IN ENGLAND

At first, the concept of taking GameDay Church to London seemed impossible, but the more we discussed it, the option became a realistic goal. Through pastoral and mission connections in the UK developed over the years, we reached out to a network of Baptist pastors in the nation, wondering if any would be interested in partnering for GameDay.

Andrew Jackson, Pastor of Harrow Baptist Church in London responded and dialog began. Pastor Jackson readily admitted that he knew very little about American football, but was intrigued with the idea of GameDay Church and would be interested in working together.

Wembley Stadium is just a fifteen-minute tube ride from Harrow. The setup at Wembley is much different that at EverBank. The most glaring difference is the lack of parking for automobiles. Most fans take the tube. Without being able to secure a spot near the stadium for an outdoor service, we opted to join the congregation of Harrow Baptist this year for worship. The partnership is new, so the membership of Harrow needed to not only meet us, but to understand the vision and goal of our gatherings.

I shared with the congregation the vision of GameDay and attempted to explain American football. While the football references did not always translate well, the sports illustrations did. A brief message from Galatians 1 focusing on the grace of God was shared. Pastor Jackson then brought the day’s sermon.

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A group from our church also attended services at Harrow that morning. They had traveled with our partner Exploring Europe with David McGuffin and toured the city and surrounding areas. David is a member of our church and leads groups to Europe throughout the year.

Following services, we traveled to Wembley and joined 83,000 others for the football game. By the end of the game, Pastor Jackson stated that he had been won over as a fan, but also added “Your Jaguars create stress.” Amen to that.

 

GameDay Church London - Post-Game from First Family on Vimeo.

 

FUTURE ENGAGEMENT

The NFL has a global mission. The church has a deeper mission. The intent of GameDay Church is to engage an unreached people group with the life-changing message of the Gospel. That people group gathers weekly in stadiums around our nation (and at times in other nations) to cheer on football teams. While we will never abandon gathering at our main campus for services, GameDay is our intentional outlet to take the Gospel to the crowd.

Winning over people to American football is not the goal of GameDay Church, but winning fans of football over to Christ is. Our vision is to have a GameDay Church gathering at every NFL stadium weekly. Our international goal is to increase our partnerships with churches in London for the sake of engaging fans. Ultimately, we would love to see fans become followers. That’s the power of the Gospel.

For more details, check out our website – gamedaychurch.org.


Pastors, Politics, and Pot - What Should a Pastor Say Regarding Current Issues?

We once again find ourselves just weeks before election day. As with every other election day in our communities, lines of division are drawn regarding candidates, political parties, platforms, and potential laws.

With the first presidential debate now in our rear-view mirror, the collective sense is not one of relief but just the opposite. According to trending social media statements and spin, many are hoping that Doc Brown is near with his flux capacitor so we can all go back and re-boot the primaries. Nevertheless, the option is not viable, so we're left with what we have. I wrote of this previously here.

Pastors and Politics

The presidential debate reached a record crowd, but the debate that matters more to me is one I find myself in by nature of my role as pastor. I have peers in ministry with varying beliefs regarding the role of pastors and churches in politics. Some are strictly laissez-faire in their philosophy and often state that "the pulpit is not the forum for political discussions." 

Others respond with the belief that as citizens we are "obligated to share with our congregations from the pulpit" regarding political stances and policies.

For fear of appearing to be a fence-sitter, both responses are valid. 

Ultimately, the calling of a pastor is to shepherd God's flock with wisdom and love, modeling that shepherd viewed most clearly in Psalm 23. Understanding that to be true, when preaching the Word of God to the congregation, it is vital to remember the holiness and responsibility of such a calling. Therefore, those who view the pulpit as not being the forum for politics are right in the sense that the gospel is the message. To dilute the gospel of Christ by "Americanizing" or attempting to create patriotic church attenders (BTW - there's nothing wrong with being patriotic) rather than fully-devoted disciples of Christ misses the mark.

However...

Since we do not live in a bubble and to have a hands-off approach to the civic responsibility of participating in our democratic republic also seems to miss the mark. There is, in my opinion, a biblical calling for disciples to love God first and serve him well. We are also to love our neighbors as ourselves and while some would struggle to see how the Great Commandment equates to being politically active, I do not. 

I view it loving to give those God has entrusted under my leadership (as His under-shepherd) the very best, biblical insight on current affairs, trends, and cultural shifts. This insight includes insight into political issues. 

I have had the opportunity to meet many candidates during election years. In many cases these men and women are "visiting" our church. While some of my brothers serving in other churches will point out the visiting candidates from the pulpit or even bring them to the stage for a time of prayer or blessing, I do not. I just have not come to grips with using time allotted for the preaching of God's Word and worship for such pauses. 

Speaking on Policies

I will not endorse an individual candidate, but I have and will continue to speak and write on policies (especially platform statements) that either affirm or disavow biblical truths. Cultural shifts such as the those regarding abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, transgender restroom laws, and the legalization of marijuana are just examples of issues that should be addressed.

I believe that each of these issues (and these are just the trending ones now) speak to the value of God's design for life, sexuality, marriage, identity, and wholeness. 

Of the issues listed above, many evangelical conservatives stand together. However, there is that one outlier that causes greater debate. 

The Pot Issue

The legalization of "medical" marijuana has taken the American culture by storm. In my state (Florida) another amendment option is being placed before the citizens this November in an attempt to legalize marijuana. The amendment failed the last time it was presented, but this being Florida and with just a tweak or two of some wording, the amendment is back. If it fails this time, it will be back again, especially as the big money behind the move continues to work for this.

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Photo credit: fsecart via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

The Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, Dr. Tommy Green, recently posted an open letter to all Florida Baptists encouraging us to vote NO on the proposed amendment. This encouragement was endorsed by the State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I serve on this team.)

We all know that a few states, with Colorado being the most recent and prominent, have shifted their marijuana laws. While it may still be too soon to view the long-term results of legalized marijuana, that which we are seeing as results do not bode well for this. I would encourage listening to Dr. Albert Mohler's recent podcasts where he touches on some of the results. The ones tagged "legalization of marijuana" can be found here.

The debate over whether the use of medical marijuana continues, with the danger for those opposed being labeled as uncaring. The issue at hand is not whether you believe it should be legal or not (though I have strong opinions on this issue personally,) but whether you believe your pastor (or you, if you are a pastor) should speak on these issues from the pulpit. By the way, when I say "pulpit" I realize that many churches do not have traditional pieces of furniture with crosses on them for the pastor to stand behind. In fact, I have a table. So, I'm speaking of the time the pastor stands before the congregation to preach.

My post here will likely not sway most of you, but from my perspective, the pulpit should be used for the preaching of the gospel. Since we do not live in a vacuum, and are working out our salvation regularly we are continually praying to the Father for wisdom regarding how to engage well a culture far from God. We are also seeking wisdom and guidance into how to live holy lives and allow God's Word to give us direction. The living Word is not just history, but through the Spirit's guidance gives us answers and insight. Therefore, when it comes to speaking on issues such as those mentioned above, even the marijuana issue, the Bible speaks. 

The Bible was not written in a vacuum and Christians are not called to live in one either. Therefore, wisdom on such issues from a biblical perspective, should be shared with congregants from the one called by God to speak truth and guide. It is what a good shepherd does. 

Oh, and just in case it wasn't clear - I'm voting NO this fall.


Do You Remember When Religious Freedom Was a Right?

Oh, I know it's still in the US Constitution, but as I watch the cultural shift continue, it is clear that this thing we, as Americans, know as religious freedom will be viewed differently in the near future. As a reminder, or as a revelation for those who do not know, the first amendment to our Constitution is listed below:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don't see the amendment being repealed, though that has happened with other ones in our past, but I do see a reinterpretation of the right coming. There are things that have historically been covered under this amendment as religious freedom, but may likely be eliminated. 

Just to be clear, this post is not about tax-exempt status for churches and religious entities (which, in my opinion, I see likely going away as well.) 

I am not seeking to be a "doom and gloom" guy. I'm not on the rooftops screaming at everyone as they drive by. I'm not wearing a sandwich board that states "The End Is Near." Those stereotypes tend to rise to the surface in times like these. I tend to think of myself as a realist and one who can discern the times.

Earlier this month an article by Michael Gryboski was featured on the Christian Press site. The story is titled "LGBT 'Shame List' of Christian Colleges Includes Azusa Pacific, Biola, Liberty, Wheaton." This is a story that others have referenced in recent weeks. Baptist Press ran a similar article, highlighting the great number of colleges, universities and seminaries related to the Southern Baptist Convention (full disclosure - I pastor an SBC church, have graduated from an SBC seminary, and currently attend a different SBC seminary for further study.) 

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Photo credit: UMaineStudentLife via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Shame List

The Shame List is produced by Campus Pride and is advertised as a resource for young people and parents seeking schools that do not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. The site's description of the list is below.

The Shame List identifies the “absolute worst campuses for LGBTQ youth” in the United States. The colleges & universities listed have chosen to openly discriminate against LGBTQ youth and have requested Title IX exemptions to perpetuate the harms of religion-based bigotry.  The criterion to be the “absolute worst” campus includes either of the following: 1) Received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth and/or 2) Demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.

The Title IX exemption is the key element in the creation of the list. For most Americans, Title IX has been celebrated as the rule that created equal athletic opportunities for women in university settings. Parents of young girls have traditionally viewed this rule as a positive as it has pushed colleges and universities to create more women's sports and to push more money toward these "non-revenue" sports. Without Title IX, it is likely that the NCAA would not have the Women's Basketball Tournament, names like Pat Summitt, Diana Turasi, Mia Hamm, and Mary Wise would not be as well known and women athletes likely would have less opportunities.

However, Title IX is also the umbrella that leaves colleges and universities open to having to affirm lifestyles and actions that are polar opposites to their religious groundings, statements of faith, and belief systems.

With the culture blurring greatly the line between male and female, it is only a matter of time before funding for financial aid (FAFSA) to predominantly religious institutions of higher learning becomes the element used to force (or seek to force) the abandonment of religious convictions in the area of gender.

Campus Pride is clear in their desires. I actually appreciate the forthrightness in the organization's leaders. There is no doubt as to their purpose in existing and their modus operandi. However, I disagree greatly with their focus and stated beliefs. That, too is my right.

So, I'm not seeking to shut down their site or discredit their organization. I am disagreeing and seeing the reality that is now and to come. 

The LGBT revolution, which is actually an extension of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, has effectively pushed toward governmental policy and law changes. As the nation collectively watches North Carolina suffer from the loss of funds due to their statewide bathroom policies, it is clear that step-by-step, that which was considered unmovable and an inalienable right to believe a certain way will soon shift in the public forum

The LGBT rights people have effectively equated their suffering to that of people of color who led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Yet, I have many African-American and minority race friends who find that comparison offensive. 

Nevertheless, the "Shame List" is out and most all schools listed are religious in nature and affiliated with Christian denominations. Nearly one-third of the 100 plus schools are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

No Shame In Being On The Shame List

President Jason Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City had this response to having his school placed on the list:

"Regardless of what shaming -- online or otherwise -- may come, our convictions remain unchanged and our calling undeterred: we will winsomely, yet boldly, speak the full complement of Christian truth on this issue and every other issue to which the Bible speaks. And we will humbly point all, including Campus Pride, to Jesus as the only one who saves.

As we train our students, we seek to equip them to minister in a broken world, marred by human sinfulness and its consequences, including those harmed by the false promises of the sexual revolution. The good news is that Jesus Christ came so that whoever believes in Him -- gay or straight -- might be saved, and have their sins forgiven and their life transformed. That is the message Midwestern Seminary preaches and the message to which our students are giving their lives to declare."

The purpose of the shame list is ultimately lead Americans to not only not enroll, but to label and place these schools in a position where the title "haters" is most prominent. As I look over the list, there are schools listed that I would be proud to attend and have my children attend. At the same time, Christian or not, there are some that I would never attend or recommend. Yet, even in the cases of those I would not attend, there seems to be something lost when the right to hold to religious convictions is deemed hateful and evil. 

There are hundreds of colleges and universities that would be on the other end of the spectrum for Campus Pride. In fact, they also publish a list known as the "Best of the Best" for LGBTQ students. The list includes state universities and predominantly liberal-leaning schools, which is not surprising. 

It is a sticky situation. Most Christian students attend state universities. If Christian teenagers are effectively discipled and prepared to contend for the gospel (see Galatians 1) then attending such a university is not only a financially sound decision, but missionally focused one as well. Unfortunately, many students in our churches are not contenders and have and will fall prey to unbiblical teaching and liberal philosophy at the university level. These concerns include but go deeper than LGBT identification.

There are many students who discover their perfect fit for higher education not at the public university, but at a smaller, biblically-focused school. There are varied reasons for this. Sometimes it is academically based. Sometimes it is a chance to play sports at the college level (that was me). Sometimes it is simply the door that God is opening for His glory.

The Shame List will lead many to just shake their heads wondering how we have come so far. For me, it's no surprise. In fact, how did we not see this coming? The days are not only coming, but are here. Religious liberty will be redefined and dumbed down. Some of these schools on the list may not be in existence in ten years. Others will refuse any federal financial aid and their costs will lead to needs for private donations and scholarships and ultimately a decreased student population. Still, others will capitulate and disavow their long-held religious convictions. This will be deemed as progress, but regress is more like it.

As my friend Christopher Yuan said based on this story "This is the beginning of the end of religious freedom."

 


Is God a White Racist?

I heard on the radio as I drove to work this morning that the racial unrest in our nation, most recently in Charlotte and Tulsa, hearkens back to 1968. Many of my contemporaries do not remember that year, but those who lived through the era affirm that great fear and division was the news of the night as Walter Cronkite would remind us "that's the way it is."

Much is being said, written, preached, and tweeted about the state of race relations now. This goes much deeper than protesting the national anthem, though that has become a daily news story as Americans are seemingly creating "Patriotic Scorecards" to keep track of those who stand at attention, those who kneel, and those who hold their fists aloft. 

Yet, with much being said...the truth is more must be said, but more truth cemented in the Gospel. Beyond saying the right things, the gap toward belief and and action must be covered. 

For a lily-white American pastor (that would be me) attempting to write or speak from the perspective of an African-American man comes across as disingenuous. It is not that I cannot speak on the truth of Scripture or the history (both good and bad) of the church. Affirming the veracity and inerrancy of God's Word allows me to speak confidently on the issues, but sometimes having the capacity to speak truth does not equate to being heard.

 

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Cameron Triggs

Therefore, I thought I would share the following from my friend, fellow pastor, and church planter Cameron Triggs. Cameron previously served with Pastor H.B. Charles at Shiloh Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He is currently serving in The Summit Network in North Carolina as he prepares to plant a new church in Orlando next year. Cameron is a gifted communicator and strong apologist for the Gospel. He recently published a short book titled Is God a White Racist: An Apologetic Dialogue. This short dialogue featuring two men, Walter and Charles, who are childhood friends and fraternity brothers. After college, they parted ways with Walter becoming the African-American Studies Director at a community college in Chicago and Charles becoming a pastor in Marietta, Georgia. 

The story is fictional, but the conversation is authentic and echoes what has been and is continuing to be a point of division and discussion within the African-American community.

I highly recommend my readers to take the time to read this little e-book. You will likely finish it in about fifteen minutes. 

Here are some things I gained from the read:

  • Contending for the Gospel is vital.
  • We must always be prepared with an answer. Saying "Let me call my pastor" will carry no water, and likely end a conversation with a non-believing friend. 
  • White American Christians need to think deeply about these issues.
  • All Christians need to think deeply about these issues.
  • Gospel thinking leads to Gospel-centric action.
  • No white person can fully grasp the African-American experience and to say "I understand" will likely end productive discussions immediately.
  • The Gospel has not changed, will not change, and is still God's gracious gift to humanity.
  • God is not a white racist, or a black racist, brown racist, tan racist. etc.
  • Behind all division and disunity among believers is the Enemy. 
  • Cliches and bumper sticker theology does not suffice.
  • Real life conversations on such deep issues are rarely resolved over one cup of coffee. 

Here's a portion of Cameron's story. Remember, Walter is a self-proclaimed agnostic and Charles is a pastor...

Walter: This all started about six years ago, Chuck. This is not an overnight metamorphosis. I really reasoned about this. I tried to reconcile how could a loving and powerful God be so unfair to people of color, and how could I, being a black man, follow a religion that enslaved us? A colleague of mine in the Philosophy Department really challenged my thinking. When he found out I was a “Christian”, he blatantly asked how. How could I follow a religion that supported slavery with exegesis from the “good book” itself? How could Jonathan Edwards, the so-called “Greatest American Theologian”, take on difficult philosophical issues, such as total depravity and irresistible grace, but never condemn slavery? Cotton Mather even argued that white people should teach their slaves that God has called them to be servants, and that they serve Jesus Christ while serving their masters. So, cotton-picking slaves served Christ while being beaten, hanged, raped, and whipped by white masters, right? These so-called “Christians” owned slaves as well. George Whitefield enslaved brothers too! Doesn’t that bother you, Chuck? Be real with me, man! It is that attitude of the church that projected books like, “The Negro as a Beast” by Charles Carrol! So, here we have a religion that is in direct opposition to our heritage and dignity.

Charles: Sigh…yea, Walt. I agree. Christians sin, sometimes grievously, against their own law. But what you just proposed is an ad hominem argument that is rather weak. Sure, the character of some Christians is corrupt, but Christianity as a whole can’t be thrown out with the bath water.

Click here or the image below to read the entire book.

Screenshot 2016-09-22 09.26.19

Special thanks to Cameron Triggs for producing such a timely and well-written dialogue.

Cameron Triggs web site - camtriggs.com

Jude3 Project - jude3project.com


firstFAMILY Podcast 019: Are We Asking Too Much?

 

As a pastor of a church in a growing and changing suburban culture, there are numerous things we seek to do to engage the community. As we discussed these things, in addition to all the traditional ministry events and minutia of day-t0-day church life, I was growing frustrated. I found that we were asking the members of our church for much. My question was "Are we asking for too much?"

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This episode of the podcasts addresses this issue and while specific to our church I believe many other churches, of all sizes, find the squeeze of paying bills, offering benevolence, and serving the Lord by serving and loving others that we do.


A Moment That Changed Everything - My Message at @GameDayChurch on 9/11

We launched our second year of GameDay Church on September 11. This church service/event in the parking lot of EverBank Field prior to the Jaguars - Packers game drew a crowd and allowed us to engage in gospel-centric conversations with those walking by and hanging out at our tailgate event. Being that it was September 11, I felt that addressing the fifteenth anniversary of the tragic day of terror that hit our nation was appropriate. 

Here is a transcript of my message on 9/11 with reference to Matthew 9. Thanks to Jon Wood, our campus minister at IslandChurch for the story regarding the Eagles - Redskins football game.

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A few years ago there was an NFL game scheduled on a Sunday, but rather than a 1pm start, this one started at 2pm. That’s strange, but not the strangest thing about this game.

The game was being played between the Redskins and the Eagles. Philadelphia was out of the playoff hunt, but they were looking to play the role of spoiler. The Redskins were sitting at .500 and were in a position to squeak into the playoffs, but needed the win.

The game began with the Eagles taking an early lead.

The Redskins took advantage of a Philly turnover and scored in the second quarter, to tie it up at 7 apiece. Not really an offensive game so far.

 The game continued on and the fans who remained in the stands to watch what became a very sloppy game did so because, they’re well…fans.

The Eagles ended up turning the ball over more and the Redskins won. The game ended as most everyone thought.

And once the game was over, no one cared.

That game was over about 5pm and because of the way news spread at the time, the things happening globally that day became known by the fans and players by the end of the game. The announcer at the game, it’s is said, began asking some of the fans in the stands to report to certain areas immediately.

You see, on that day, December 7, 1941, everything changed. 

America was divided at the time. Can you imagine a divided America? It was severe. Many thought the war was dumb and we shouldn’t bother or get involved. Others thought we must. Then, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happened and there was no longer a valid option of sitting on the sidelines. America was thrust into World War II.

Those men who were called out of the stadium were active-duty military personnel. They were now at war. More would join. The entire nation would engage, even on the home front.

Fifteen years ago, another day began, just like every other day. People got up, had their coffee, went to work and then planes hit towers, a plane hit the Pentagon and one even crashed in Pennsylvania. The news reports were horrendous and clear.

Things had changed.

We now live in a post 9/11 world now and are reminded of that even as we enter EverBank today for the game. The metal detectors and bag searches are now normal.

Going to the airport and flying is different than it used to be.

We have a "new normal" because of these horrendous acts.

Sometimes, a regular day, or at least our plans for a regular day, can end up life-changing.

In these cases, the changes were brought on by attacks and terrorism. But, there are moments in life that are also unexpected, that lead to more positive and encouraging life-change.

In the Bible, there was a man named Matthew. He was a Jewish man, but not liked by his people. He was considered a sell-out. He was working for the occupying nation in his homeland by collecting taxes from his peers.

And, in those days, tax collectors were known to, and even expected to, fleece the people to pad their own pockets. The Roman government (the occupying one) didn’t care how much the native collectors gathered in taxes, as long as they had the amount Rome wanted. So, any extra they could get was for themselves.

So, Matthew goes to work on that day – just another day – nothing special expected, but something special did happen. Something he never saw coming.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matthew 9:9-13 (ESV)  [1]

Look at what happened. Jesus, the Son of God, intentionally went to a guy that the religious people, the neighbors, and others in the community did not like and would avoid if possible. Jesus went to him. He met him at his place of business, in his own comfort zone and offered him a chance at new life.

He said, “Follow me” which seems like the shortest invitation ever, and it was, but coming from Jesus, it was clearly strategic.

Matthew didn’t expect this, but was overwhelmed with the invite. “Me? Follow you? Seriously?” and he did.

Matthew became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, one of his closest friends. He, like the others in Jesus group of close friends, would later be described as one of the men who was turning the world upside down, for good.

Just another day, right?

Nope.

Everything changed and on this day, it changed for the better.

We can all relate to the 9/11 change, especially if you’re old enough to remember it. Some of us may remember Pearl Harbor, but at a minimum, we’ve read about it or watched the videos about it. We understand how those moments can change everything. And some of us here have a Matthew story – we understand how Jesus surprises us and changes everything. When we least expected it.

And maybe some here today will experience this. It’s just another Sunday. It’s another football game. It’s the start of the season. There was a day much like this last season and the season before, etc. But, today, you’re here and maybe, just maybe, Jesus is still doing what he did 2000 years ago. He’s meeting you when you least expected it and saying “Follow me.” Now, you get to decide to follow him or not.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 9:9–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


firstFAMILY Podcast 018: "The Insanity of God" by Nik Ripken

Yesterday, the film "The Insanity of God" had it's one-night-only showing at our local theater, as well as theaters around the nation. The documentary is based on the book of the same title by missionary Nik Ripken. While this podcast is somewhat of a review of the film, I am focusing more on the message of the book and film and the implications for the western church. There's more than could ever be covered in one podcast and we hope to have Nik and Ruth here in the future to share.

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LifeWay Films & Nik Ripken

In the meantime, here are the videos and links referenced in the podcast.

Official Movie Site - insanityofgodmovie.com

Official Trailer on YouTube

Nik speaking at the Sam James Institute on Vimeo

Nik Ripken Ministries


Keep Shuffling Along, Even When Others Mock You

Earlier this year, I attended a chapel service at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. An encouraging, challenging, gospel-centric message was presented and the story shared as an illustration has stuck with me. The speaker told of Cliff Young and his ultra-marathon run. I shared this with pastors and ministry leaders last week:

The Echo Chamber

Sometimes it is easy to fall into an echo chamber. This is true for pastors and leaders and ultimately, for just about anyone. We see these echo chambers develop at times, especially in election years. An echo chamber occurs when you surround yourself with people who only espouse the things you already believe. It is more comfortable to have friends and "amen-ers" echoing everything you already believe. However, it is also helpful to hear different points of view at times. This is not to say that all points of view are on equal footing. This is especially true when it comes to the veracity of Scripture and this little thing called "absolute truth."

Nevertheless, there are times when we (now, I'm talking to pastors and church leaders) do things certain ways because we have either always done them so or just don't see any other alternatives. Since many pastors tend to slide into "right-brain creativity" at times, partnered with a conviction to serve the Lord and reach people, we tend to live with "big picture" ideals. 

That means that there are often times we seek to do something that may seem out of the ordinary or classified as "we never done it that way before" for many in the church. Now, make sure you get this - I'm not referring to unbiblical, immoral, or simply stupid gimmicks that may be out of the ordinary. I'm referring to strategies, ideas, community engagement and other things that come to mind and just seem like they may be worth the effort for the church to consider. 

We all love comfort and familiarity. Many in the church (and just about any organization) push back against change or new ideas or out-of-the-ordinary options because of fear and uncertainty. And thus, many just plod along doing exactly the same things year after year, wondering why nothing seems to be changing. 

In a culture where information is just a click away, experts on everything live on websites and sometimes on our committees and membership rolls. The urgency of the gospel motivates us through the words of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. When we experience push back on community engagement, we wonder if others feel the same urgency for the sake of the gospel.

There are a number of people in the Bible who have had those experiences. Paul is one that comes to mind. He was a missionary, apostle, church starter… and many didn’t understand why he did what he did.

His old friends didn’t understand.

He new friends weren’t sure they could trust him.

Reminds me of another guy who was misunderstood at first.

Cliff Young - An Unlikely Run

In 1983 Australia hosted it’s inaugural ultra-marathon – a 543.7-mile (875-kilometer) endurance race from Sydney to Melbourne. It is considered among the world's most grueling ultra-marathons. The race takes five days to complete and is normally only attempted by world-class athletes who train specially for the event. These athletes are typically less than 30 years old and backed by large companies such as Nike.

On the day of the race, a man named Cliff Young showed up. Cliff was 61 years old and wore overalls and work boots. To everyone's shock, Cliff wasn't a spectator. He picked up his race number and joined the other runners.

Cliff young
Newcastle Herald

The press and other athletes became curious and questioned Cliff. They told him, "You're crazy, there's no way you can finish this race."

He was laughed at by the crowd and other runners.

Then the race began. Everyone else began to run and Cliff was still getting his shoes on (well, his boots.)

He starts running, but his "run" was more of a shuffle. (For you Gen-Xers and Boomers, imagine Tim Conway shuffling along as the old man on The Carol Burnett Show.)

When the race started, the pros quickly left Cliff behind. The crowds and television audience were entertained because Cliff didn't even run properly. Many even feared for the old farmer's safety.

Cliff ran and ran and each day would get closer to the leading pack.

Then, on the final day, to everyone’s surprise, Cliff won the race.

He won by quite a bit.

When Cliff was awarded the winning prize of $10,000, he said he didn't know there was a prize and insisted that he did not enter for the money. He ended up giving all of his winnings to several other runners, an act that endeared him to all of Australia.

All of the professional athletes knew that it took about 5 days to finish the race. In order to compete, one had to run about 18 hours a day and sleep the remaining 6 hours. The thing is, Cliff Young didn't know that!

He ran day and night for five days.

Never stopped.

How?

He just shuffled along.

Kind of like the tortoise and the hare.

They told him, "You're crazy, there's no way you can finish this race." To which he replied, "Yes I can. See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn't afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I'd have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I'd always catch them. I believe I can run this race."

God has called us to serve Him in all ways. The right thing to do is often not understood, even by those closest to us. Yet, we must press on. If every pastor abandoned the call when a loved one or friend said "Are you sure? You know, you should probably get a job to make money, just to have something to fall back on," there would be many more gaps in the history of godly church leaders, pastors, and missionaries. Sometimes in life, you do the right thing, the thing you know you must and no one gets it.

No one understands.

No one celebrates you.

Now, if you’re doing the wrong thing, that’s another story, but in Cliff’s case, he was doing what he knew he could and must.

Paul did too.

But many didn’t get it.

Many didn’t like it.

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 (ESV)

Not exactly the life you’d sign up for, right?

Yet, there’s an end to the story that’s worth it.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)

You may not run like the others. That which you do may be mocked by other churches, pastors, or even church members. Don’t be unbiblical, but have ears to hear and eyes to see and keep shuffling along for the glory of God. The best is yet to come.

Gather Your Sheep - There's a Storm Coming

Run well. Finish well. And pastors, you know, we’re a lot like Cliff Young. We’re running, seeking to gather the sheep, because there’s a storm coming.

 


How to Keep the Older Generation in Church While Reaching the Younger

Last week, our Leadership Team attended a conference sponsored by the Jacksonville Baptist Association featuring author and speaker Haydn Shaw. Haydn speaks to corporations, businesses, governments agencies, and churches throughout the nation on the subject of generational connectedness.

For the first time ever, we have four generations in the workforce and five generations in the church.

I highly recommend Haydn's books...

For business leaders - Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart

For church leaders - Generational IQ: Christianity Isn't Dying, Millennials Aren't the Problem, and the Future Is Bright

Following the teaching sessions last week, our association provided links to talking points videos from Haydn. The one here resonates with many in our church and surrounding churches. In fact, for any church over twenty years old, the question of connecting multiple generations is a often ignored. Sometimes churches ignore the reality of multi-generational needs and desires and ultimately wake up one Sunday to notice that there are fifteen people in the congregation. All are now collecting Social Security checks. The order of worship is exactly the same as it has been each week for the past three decades. Most tragically, the realization that there are no "next generation" church members to entrust with the next chapter in the church's legacy.

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Photo credit: Fouquier ॐ via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

This is happening far too often in our denomination, as well as others. 

Presuming that doctrine is sound and desire to honor God is clear, churches are forced to address areas that previous generations never had to deal with at such a level. In this video, Haydn pulls no punches and addresses the issues related to reaching one end of the generational spectrum without missing the other. Watch this video clip...

Video 5: How Do We Keep from Hurting the Older Generations If We Change Things to Reach the Younger Generations? from Haydn Shaw on Vimeo.

 

 

 


Why There Is No Good Option In This Year's Election

I just received another stack of glossy "Me-Monster" political ads in the mail for upcoming elections. It doesn't upset me. It is pretty much a waste of paper, it seems. However, it's part of the game. I get it.

I have enjoyed (I know, it's kind of sick) the election cycles in our nation. Politics has always intrigued me. I read presidential biographies, even when it's clear they are slanted. I will vote in the upcoming election. Like many of you, I feel it is my right and duty. However, this year's options, especially for the highest office, are about as appealing as going to a restaurant for lunch and having only two choices on the menu - boiled sheep eyeball soup and braised gnu intestines. 

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Photo credit: trespotatoes via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Thanks to social media, political posturing and negative bashing hit all time highs over the last eight years. I heard one sociologist claim that he believes Christians have done more harm for the Kingdom through their hateful postings than they realize. I fear he is correct, based especially on the generational divides and shifts in political ideology.

Nevertheless, the vitriol online has seemingly shrunk this year. Oh, it's not good, but compared to the past national elections, it appears to be better. Now, it seems most people on both sides of the party aisle are saying "Your candidate is terrible and so is ours."

We all hear the "lesser of two evils" argument and the "not to vote is to vote for the other party" but those arguments tend to fade away when it comes to personal conviction and actually putting the X in a candidate's box.

One party's platform is now the most pro-abortion one in our nation's history. The other party's leaders are struggling to find ways to shut down their candidate's Twitter feed. Neither option is very palatable for the evangelical, convictional Christian.

I continue to be asked by friends and church members, "Who can we vote for?" I answer "You shouldn't end a sentence in a preposition," but that doesn't seem to help.

Maybe This Is It...

It hit me this week.

Perhaps God has allowed the election options to be what they are this year simply to move those who claim to be children of God from putting their faith in men/women, policies, politics, and governmental agencies to focus on Him as sovereign?

Just a thought.

Now, go vote. Seek the Lord's guidance. Trust Him and stop ending sentences in prepositions.


firstFAMILY Podcast 017: The Sending Church

Jesus clearly said "Come and see..." when questioned by potential disciples. However, the end of the gospel account says "Go and make..." 

Far too many churches park on the "come and see" model and never get to the "go and make" portion of the command. In this episode, Pastor David Tarkington speaks about the command to go and how it is truly not up for debate for the follower of Christ.

Referenced in this episode is Zach Bradley's writing "The Sending Church: Defined" by The Upstream Collective. Check out the work of Upstream at  theupstreamcollective.org.Lightstock_254345_medium_david_tarkington


Identity Is Who You Are, Not What You Do #Rio2016

It is the time when many around the world become fans of sports they never watch at other times, and sometimes didn't even know existed. The Rio Olympics are garnering large viewing audiences and even with all the controversies surrounding Zika, green diving pools, drugged up Russians, jailed Olympic athletes, and NBC's decision to air women's gymnastics after the event actually happened, there have been some really incredible stories. Here are just a few...

First - Michael Phelps

Seriously! I was talking to my mother a couple of weeks ago and she said "Michael Phelps is going back to the Olympics. I wonder if he will be able to compete at his age (the ripe old age of 31) as he did in the last Olympics?" Well, that question has been answered and once everyone figured out why he had circular bruises all over his back (I thought the Salt Vampire from Star Trek got to him) he, at this writing, has earned his 21st Olympic gold medal.

Let that sink in for a moment.

21.

Gold.

Medals.

I remember when Mark Spitz's feat was deemed unmatchable and when Carl Lewis' 9 gold medals seemed amazing! Well, those accomplishments still are, but seriously - 21 gold medals. At this point, Jason Momoa should retire and Phelps should play Aquaman in the new Justice League movie. 

Second - Oksana Chusovitina

Have you heard of this gymnast? She's 41 years old and competing in the Olympics! She is representing Uzbekistan.

41.

Years.

Old.

Yeah, she has competed in seven Olympic games. She has a 17-year-old son. She has a son who is older than US gymnast Laurie "Human Emoji" Hernandez.

I'm not cheering for Uzbekistan, but I can't help but cheer for Oksana.

Third - Katie Ledecky

Another US swimmer. Katie has won 3 medals at this point (2 gold and 1 silver.) This 6', 19-year-old has an infectious smile and is dominating in the pool. 

There will be more stories to hit the headlines and men and women who are basically unknown now who will become nationally and internationally known in just a short time. 

Fourth - Synchronized Diving

Like I said, there are many sports in the Olympics that I never really watch or follow, but every four years find myself becoming a fan. One such sport is men's synchronized diving. These guys are incredible athletes, but honestly, this has never been a sport I've followed. It's definitely not a "money-sport" for local colleges and universities. Yet, a few days ago, I was watching this as two American athletes competed for a medal.

The Chinese team won gold. They tend to dominate in the diving competitions. They are amazing.  They jump off the platform, spin in mid-air and then, go into the pool without even making a splash, it seems. I made bigger splashes throwing pieces of bread into ponds for ducks to eat when I was a kid.

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Reuters

The American duo of David Boudia and Steele Johnson (that may be the best name of any Olympic athlete) earned the silver medal. Their dives were incredible. It is obvious that hours and hours of practice go into perfecting these skills. Yet, it wasn't the diving or even the medal win that made these guys different. It was the post-dive interview. When asked by NBC reporter Kelli Stavast what it meant to medal in the synchronized event, David said...

There's been an enormous amount of pressure. I've felt it. It's just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this [diving], and I'm thinking I'm defined by this, then my mind goes crazy. But we both know that our identity is in Christ, and we're thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil and in front of the United States. It's been an absolutely thrilling moment for us.

Steele agreed and added...

The way David just described it was flawless – the fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace ... and it let me enjoy the contest. If something went great, I was happy. If something didn't go great, I could still find joy because I'm at the Olympics competing with the best person, the best mentor – just one of the best people to be around. God's given us a cool opportunity, and I'm glad I could come away with an Olympic silver medal in my first-ever event.

And that was aired live on NBC. Clear, concise, and not cheesy. Full article on Christian Examiner here.

Boudia has been speaking openly of his faith in Christ for years and even co-authored a book with Tim Ellsworth, Greater Than Gold.

In the midst of an event that places people on the international stage, David and Steele stated a clear reality that every person faces. Identity. When one's identity is founded on what one can do, there will come a day when that activity will end. Even the 41-year-old gymnast will eventually retire from competition (we think.) David and Steele may never compete in an Olympics together again, yet at this moment, David spoke truth that hopefully will resonate with all. 

As followers of Christ, our identity is rooted in him. It is for his glory that we do all we do. It is for his glory that we exist.

I was encouraged by these men's words. This was deeper than just quoting Philippians 4:13.

I am still not really a synchronized diving fan, though I will watch. I must say that I am a fan of these guys, though. Congrats!

 

 


Reflections from a Wedding

The summer is winding down and while there is no "official season" for weddings, we still see more weddings scheduled during the months of May through July here in our area. This year has been significant in my life regarding weddings. I have been to dozens of weddings - in most I have had the honor of serving as pastor (of officiant, to be precise.) Just over two months ago, I once again stood before the bride and groom, but also had the privilege of walking the bride down the aisle as in this very special wedding, the bride was my daughter.

Last night, I stepped in front of the crowd once more and led a man and woman into the covenant relationship of marriage. Once again, it was a beautiful wedding ceremony capped off with a fun reception for family and friends. 

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Photo credit: pixel pro photography via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

While I am not the "wedding expert" (those people tend to be relegated to TLC shows and special wedding blogs) I have been to my fair share of weddings and I have experienced these ceremonies from various perspectives, so here are some random (totally random) thoughts on weddings. Remember, these are from a pastor's perspective...and a man's.

RANDOM THOUGHT ON WEDDINGS & RECEPTIONS

  • Watch the groom. When the bride begins to walk down the aisle, you (the crowd) need to stand and look at her, but take a look at the groom. In most cases, this is the first time he has seen her in the dress and in my experience, the look on his face is priceless. Take a picture of him.
  • Flower girls and ring bearers are cute, but once they come down the aisle, they don't need to be the ones everyone is watching. So if they're really young, don't let stand up front with the bridal party unless they can handle standing still for about 45 minutes.
  • Take your pictures of the bride and groom, but if you're told to not use a flash - please turn it off. You may be frustrated that your photos are not as clear and Instagram-worthy, but no worries, in most cases a professional photographer has been paid to get higher resolution and better quality pictures. Don't be a distraction.
  • Uncle Guido needs to stay off the stage. This is a direct reference to one wedding I attended at our church. I was not officiating this one, but had a great seat because I was running the sound system for it. I'm not sure the uncle's name was Guido, but he looked like an Uncle Guido. His metallic, shiny shirt, with the top four buttons undone, hairy chest showing with gold medallion around his neck (for full effect, picture Danny DeVito at a disco) walked up on the stage to get some photographs DURING the ceremony. And, just so the image is complete, his camera was one of the cardboard, throw-away cameras that were popular about twenty years ago. So you hear this "click" then the loud winding of the film. The guy was really nice, but let's just say, he was a bit of a distraction.
  • When a worship service breaks out at the wedding, it is a good thing. In fact, it should be the case at each wedding since the imagery of husband and wife is God's choice for illustrating best Christ's relationship with his church. God-honoring weddings hit the mark. When the wedding centers upon his greatness and grace, everything falls into place. Of course, this means that the husband and wife should both be Christians. This makes that "equally yoked" concept clear. 
  • On that note, Christians should only marry Christians. That's not legalistic. It's not my idea. It's a biblical construct that shows obedience. I am sad to say that far too many weddings I see are built on the foundation of physical attraction, eros love, and "my biological clock is ticking and all my friends are getting married." Nevertheless, poor marriage preparation does keep the marriage counselors in business.
  • The marriage is more important than the wedding. Now, more than ever, this must be declared. When the state gives marriage license discounts for couples who have gone through pre-marital counseling, it's clear that even those who do not affirm God's plan for marriage see preparation as vital. We use SYMBIS (Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts) and it has provided for intense evaluation and open and frank conversations. Of course pre-marital counseling is only as effective as the couple is open and the facilitator is prepared.
  • The perfect wedding is one where a man and woman covenant to stay holy and faithful and to love and respect each other "until death do they part." Young ladies, especially, are inundated with Photoshopped images and finely edited videos of "perfect" weddings. Pinterest is not really a problem, but I have not been to a wedding in the past five years that was not influenced greatly by something the bride saw on Pinterest. Add that to "Say Yes to the Dress" and "I Found the Gown" and a host of other "reality" shows and undue pressure for perfection arises.
  • Godly weddings do not have to be in church buildings. There was a day when weddings held outside of church facilities raised the eyebrows of those in the community. Whispers such as "They're not allowed to be married in the church" would develop and in some cases that was true. Nevertheless, I am seeing many weddings held in facilities and even outdoors that are centered on God and his love. Sometimes, it's just a venue issue and the preference of the family and the bride. Remember, if this is a once-in-a-lifetime event having a beautiful venue in photographs and videos does not remove God from the ceremony. To be honest, I have been to my fair share of weddings in the church building that were less that worshipful.
  • The bride is beautiful! She is and she should be told this by others. In many cases, these women have spent hours getting ready for this moment. The most beautiful bride is the one who truly loves the Lord. I know it sounds cliche´, but it's not. The beauty of a woman devoted to God shines through and when she can actually wear that white dress as a sign of her purity saved for her husband, it is wonderful.
  • Tissues please. Even the strongest will have leaky eyes at times. I have learned to have tissues on hand for the bride, groom (and the father of the bride.) 
  • The bride gets final say. I tell the brides this clearly prior to the rehearsal. This is her wedding (and the groom, too, but he's just rented a tux and stands there waiting for her, so we let her decide all this.) That means this is not the wedding coordinator's wedding. It's really not the mother of the bride's wedding (though she likely paid for it). In most every case decisions are already made and the mother of the bride and the bride collaborated on it. In many cases, the ceremony had been planned since the bride was about eight. Nevertheless, I always ask the bride "Is this what you want?" if there's a change or question. If she doesn't like it, I become the bad guy and just say "No, we're doing it this way." If I make a mother of the bride or groom mad, it's no big deal. I won't be sitting with these folks at Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays for the next few decades and that bride will. So, I figure, let's let the woman have her day.
  • One man to one woman marriage only.  (Yeah, I know there were polygamists in Scripture, but even those instances were not God's holy desire.) This was not an issue when I first began doing wedding ceremonies, but now that same-sex weddings are legal, some heretofore understood ideas are having to be declared clearly. Just to be clear, I will not perform the ceremony for same-sex couples or transgendered individuals. Our church won't host these ceremonies and none of our pastors or ministers will perform these either. While it's easy to declare us as "haters" the reality is that we believe we cannot honor God's plans and His word by playing a role in such events. Even as I led the wedding ceremony last night, I was made aware once more how many "man/woman" and "husband/wife" commands from Scripture are part of my vows and charge to the couple. I know that over 150,000 same-sex weddings have taken place in the US since the Obergefell case led to the legalization of such unions, but just because something is legal does not make it biblical. 
  • Husbands are to love their wives. Wives are to respect their husbands. For the first time, I added this in the ceremony yesterday. After the rings were given, the vows taken and the unity candle lit, the couple stood before me ready for the big "I declare you married, now kiss your bride" moment when I asked the groom plainly "Do you love her?" He answered yes! Then, I looked to the bride and said, "We've talked about this. You know the Bible commands the husband to love his wife, but the command to the wife is different." She remembered and said to me "Respect." I smiled and said, "That's how we men feel loved. So, do you respect him?" She said yes! It was a moment. You know, one of those moments where people in the room go "Oh, that's good." and then, of course the couple kissed and walked back down the aisle as one. Love and respect. Check out Dr. Emerson Eggerichs' book on this. Good stuff.
  • RSVPs matter. To be honest, there have been many times I have forgotten to RSVP for receptions. Once we (my wife and I) began putting together the details for our daughter's wedding and reception (which had limited seating) I began to see the value of the RSVP. So, send that back. Oh, apparently, some don't know what RSVP means. It's French for "SEND BACK YOUR RESPONSE." 
  • Only RSVP the number reserved. Regarding RSVPs, if there is a number pre-printed on your invitation, that means there is limited seating, so don't get mad and say "I'm adding my boyfriend or fourth child or uncle or whomever." If the invitation says "We've reserved 3 seats for you" it means there are only 3 seats, so either say "Yes, we three will be there" or signify a number less than three or just say no.
  • Show up. If you RSVP saying you'll be there and don't show up, especially if it's for the reception and a dinner is provided, you've just rudely cost the parents of the bride money. This wasn't the case really for our daughter's wedding, but I have seen it happen. Okay, here's the deal - I look at the empty chair next to me at the reception last night and wonder why the person said they were coming, had the family pay for that plate and then decided to not show. I'll go with benefit of the doubt and hope the person was sick (that's not really right, is it?) and couldn't make it. Oh yeah, sometimes people just plain forget and they miss an event. That's understandable, too. We're human. But....if you say "YES" and then the wedding day comes and you're at home and laying on the couch and just decided not to come because you, well, just don't want to come...DON'T. Get up, get dressed, put on some deodorant, comb your hair and go to the wedding. It's the right thing to do.
  • Dry receptions can be fun, and you'll remember it the next day sans headache. Drunks at wedding receptions are embarrassing and while funny, become a black mark on an otherwise beautiful ceremony. So, for one night just drink the tea, coffee, and watermelon-infused carbonated beverage (I have no idea what that is, but it was an option last night.)
  • Wedding reception music is important. Here's what I've observed - The Cupid Shuffle allows many people with only ten percent of dancing ability and rhythm to engage in a non-threatening "dance" and it looks fun. Music from the 80s is a must. This allows the 40 and 50-somethings in the crowd (these are often the parents, uncles, aunts, and mentors) to feel young and have flashbacks to high school. Be ready though, once "Footloose" starts playing, someone is going to try to dance like Kevin Bacon but look more like Chris Penn. Now that the "kids" are getting older, some classic pop music from N*Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls tends to bring more people onto the dance floor.
  • Dancing is a misnomer as most of the white, Baptist people weddings I have attended show that clearly. The truth is clear, it's not that Baptists don't dance. It's that most Baptists (of which I am one) cannot dance. And since most Baptists don't drink publicly, these are sober people acting the fool on a dance floor. When these dance moments happen, iPhones appear. I'm always careful.
  • All weddings need drones. This is a new thing. At last night's wedding, the videographer had a drone! Yes, a drone. It was incredible. From my vantage point on stage, as the bride and groom exited the church building, the doors opened and they were greeted with a drone and I imagine the video is incredible. Of course, it's best to warn the wedding party the drone is there, otherwise they may think that Skynet has taken over.
  • Weddings must be holy, but should be fun at the same time. These are not mutually exclusive.
  • Outdoor weddings at 2pm in August in Florida are not best. Done these before. Good thing my suit is black and the sweat isn't noticeable. 
  • A good exit song is a must. Yesterday they played "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." It was fun.

Well, these are just thoughts and worth about what you expect. 

As I look back at over twenty years of officiating weddings, I cannot help but smile that many of the couples remain married, committed to the Lord and to each other. Oh, it's not a perfect record, but in every case, we sought to do the ceremony and the marriage right. It's not easy being married. As stressful as putting together a wedding may be, the real challenge comes once the ceremony ends. Yet, as it says in the Bible regarding all that God created, the marriage union, founded on him and his Word is GOOD.


Pastors and Politics - How To Lead In An Election Year

Every four years, at a minimum, questions are raised within the church regarding politics and political involvement. 

This year is no different and while the national stage has been set for the presidential election with Republican nominee Donald Trump and the Democrat nominee being Hillary Clinton, many Christians are now perplexed as for whom to vote. Of course there are some in both camps who are adamant about their candidate, but something interesting has happened this year. The development of the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary camps within each respective party has created a bit of a conundrum.

A Vote "For" Is Really a Vote "Against"

We have all heard these reasonings. Mostly from friends and family members (and maybe from our own mouths) regarding intentions come November. One group just cannot stomach voting for Trump, so they will vote for Clinton. Another group fears what may happen if Clinton is President, so they will vote for Trump. It's the "lesser of two evils" argument.

Still others, due to convictions and conscience will opt to vote for neither and will either leave that block blank or pick a third-party candidate. 

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Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

In a recent post on The Gospel Coalition site, Justin Taylor addresses this issue head-on. He quotes Matthew Franck, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Radford University and Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute who argues "it is wrong to think of a vote not cast for Leading Contender A as a de facto vote cast for Leading Contender B."

Not everyone agrees with Franck's assessment, but the argument is clear. Click here to read the full posting by Taylor.

All Politics Is Local

I know no pastor who hasn't been inundated with questions and strong opinions regarding elections each cycle. Our local community is not unlike yours, I would bet. 

There have always been, and likely always will be, the local church that candidates attend or join simply for the political push. I was sitting with an elected official at a prayer breakfast two years ago when the local cycle of elections was in full swing (as they are now.) The room for the community prayer breakfast was full. The official leaned over to me and said, "Well, you can tell it's an election year." I laughed because I knew exactly what that meant. This person then said, "I'm a member of _______ Church (not mine and not a church in my denomination) and I get these mailings from candidates that state they are active members of my church, but I know good and well that they joined the church just last week. Happens every year."

That too is true, I'm sure. 

Now, I'm not faulting the churches. We all want people to join our fellowships. We really like it when they are becoming part of our church families due to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the desire to serve God. Yet, sometimes other things motivate members and we still love them and serve them and guide them as best we can as pastors.

Sometimes, however, the politics in the community can be used by the Enemy to not only divide people by political parties, but to create division within the family of God. It happens all the time and in every community, no doubt. 

I lament the loss of church family members due to these issues. 

How Political Should the Church Be?

Pastor - here's a truth I offer you today that you can bank on.

You will never be political enough for some in your church and at the same time, you will be way too political for others.

One friend left our church after months of living frustrated over things that, in my opinion, weren't that vital to the gospel or the mission of the church. When he joined a sister church in the community, he felt "led" to email me one last message. In this one (and there were many prior) he stated, "This other church's pastor is more political than you and speaks from the pulpit all the time about elections, voting and whom we should vote for." He went on about the glory of the politically divisive and yet, I know his pastor and I know he (the pastor) does not do as was stated. Yet, perception is reality, I guess.

Politics is a way of life in our culture. To avoid it is to skip out on a subject that must be addressed from the gospel perspective. I believe Dr. Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission states it well in this short video.

 

What To Do?

Simply put, as Christians, we should be involved in the process of voting. We should speak clearly on the issues that are addressed in Scripture. We must remember that God ordains all that lead and that He alone is our answer and rescuer and no politician or political party can usurp (or should, at least) that role.

Christians should be more evangelistic about Jesus than their candidate of choice.

Can you imagine if the effort to tell people about the Redeemer was as intense as the effort to get people to vote for one's preferred candidate what may happen?

Pastors - regardless where you land regarding how political you are publicly, pray for God's lead and be ready with a biblical, godly, gospel-saturated answer for all you do and say. Remember, you're not called to shepherd people for just the next term, but to lead them into eternity as citizens of the Kingdom of God - faithful and true.

Oh, and please vote. Lead your people to participate not check out and stay home on election day. There's nothing wrong with having voting registration at your church. Don't lead your church to passively ignore their responsibility as citizens, but moreso as followers of Christ. 


What the Dallas Shootings Reveal

This past week has been horrific. Stories flooding social media and airwaves first from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then Minnesota, and finally from Dallas, Texas.

 

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A Dallas police sergeant wears a mourning band on his badge during a prayer vigil in a park following the multiple police shooting in Dallas. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Regarding the Dallas story, Twitter and Facebook erupted with first-person accounts. Some were authentic. Some were likely fabricated. Some were posted too soon (remember the gentleman with the rifle who was peacefully protesting and immediately became the suspect due to an improperly posted image?) It happens all the time. In the midst of the reports (and we now live in a world where "official" reports from reputable news agencies are often too quickly posted just as uninformed tweets and FB postings.) Evil seems to be winning. Maybe evil is winning, but remember, the game is not over and, as in sports, it doesn't matter who's in the lead at half-time.

Everything Is Political

The politicization of every tragedy seems to be the norm now. Maybe this was always the case, but with immediate, as-it-happens news updates, it now seems no public statement can be made without a politically-based leaning. Words are parsed. Spin is set. And the populace continues to shake their collective heads as if to say "Really? Wow! That's all you have?" knowing that tepid statements from leaders and influencers mean little.

Our nation has been divided since...oh, about 1776...along political and relational lines. Even our forefathers weren't exactly best friends (just read about the John Adams and Thomas Jefferson relationship.) The blackest time in our nation's history centers around division where brothers took up arms agains each other. Division has developed over religious, political, racial and even generational differences. The "United" States of America has always struggled to live up to that name. Yet, to be clear, I still believe the great experiment known as the USA is valuable, honorable, and the best option available among a world that has strived since the beginning for meaning, hope, and purpose. While I admit that not every founding father was a Christian, I believe God ordained the founding of this nation and did so for His glory.

Politics Will Not Solve Our Issues

Every generation has likely stated that "It's never been this bad, though," and that could be true. There have been moments of national unity, but often they're fleeting and prefaced by a tragedy (The Alamo, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, etc.) At times of crisis, the populace looks for a word of hope, of encouragement, of direction. At these times, those with an audience, those with influence, must speak and speak well.

In our nation, the President has been the one that most look to for words of hope and strength during times of war, fear, sadness and crisis. This has been the case throughout our limited history.

It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life. - Abraham Lincoln

We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage—of our resolve—of our wisdom—our essential democracy. If we meet that test—successfully and honorably—we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. - Harry S. Truman

I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace… He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction. - John F. Kennedy

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! - Ronald Reagan

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God." - Ronald Reagan

I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon. - George W. Bush

I believe that I speak for every single American when I say that we are horrified over these events, and that we stand united with the people and the police department in Dallas. - Barack Obama

Yet, even with these words of strength, clarity, and comfort...fear remains.

More Than a Race Problem

Is there a race problem in America? Absolutely. While we have come far, we are continually reminded that we have far to go. There is still a race problem. This became evident to me last week as I was driving through a small town in northern Arkansas and saw a billboard advertising "White Pride Radio." Now, in case you haven't checked...I'm white. Lily white. I've always been white. I identify as white. I don't even tan well. Yet, when I saw the billboard, I was angered. Cloaked in "racial pride" and featuring an image of a young girl holding a puppy along with the word "Love" plastered on the sign, I was angered at the deception. This wasn't love. It was hate disguised as love. I went to the website and immediately it changed to a KKK online radio station. Yeah, I deleted my browser history.

Now, I realize that one billboard does not define an entire town. There are people in every community who are "color blind." There are true Christians of all races and in every neighborhood who value life because we are God's image-bearers.

 

I cannot speak as a black man, brown man, tan man, red man, yellow man, or any other shade of melanin man because, as I stated before, I'm a white man. It's a bit disingenuous to speak on behalf of a person or people group that one does not belong. Yet, here's what I do know to be true - hatred is not reserved for any one race. Well, I take that back. Hatred is something that develops within a particular race all too well - the human race

This is why political statements and posturing will never completely solve the problem. Division is the nature of man. Pride is the default setting. Anger is natural. Evil and depravity need not be taught. 

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 ESV

It's our nature. It's why we have crime. It's why we need laws. It's why we need police officers.

So, as the stories unfold and sadly, another tragedy will hit the news soon, I fear (not because I know any specifics, but because I know the heart of man) we can rest assured that within the storms, within the crises, in the midst of the fear and the anger and the danger known in this world, evil only appears to be winning. Ultimately, love does win. Not the watered down hashtag of #LoveWins that has been used the past few years, but the agape, grace-centered, gospel-founded love that is Jesus Christ! 

In the meantime, we pray. 

Yes - Pray!

Yet, let's be more preemptive in our prayers. Don't wait for the tragedy to create the latest #PrayFor_____ trend (which I've used and will, so I'm not knocking that) but let's pray now for those grieving and mourning, for those seeking to get through today and the next, for those who are sworn to protect us, for the black lives, for the brown lives, for the red lives, for the yellow lives, for the white lives (I just had a flashback to the "Jesus Loves the Little Children" song I learned as a child) and for the mixed races (which at this point in our history includes just about everyone on the planet) and the blue lives (which include all the previous ones listed but whom wear badges and run to danger.)

 

Let's pray for strength, protection, and security, but let's amp it up a bit. Let's pray for salvation and the rescue of the depraved and desperate hearts that Jeremiah mentioned are within us all. Let's pray for those who do not know the rescuer, the ransomer of hearts, the redeemer of souls, the way, truth and life to know and surrender all to him. And let's not just pray for them, but be obedient to tell them of this great salvation.

For you see, apart from Christ...there is no hope.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 ESV

But with Christ, we have true hope. A hope that gives assurance that in all the craziness we experience, God remains sovereign.

 


Why We Plant Churches & New Campuses

Back in 2011 I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix with one of my good friends. It was during this conference we began to pray about the journey of planting churches. The North American Mission Board was unveiling the "Send City" strategy and the impact of reaching people in strategic areas around the US and Canada. Our church had already partnered with a church planter—Chase Delperdang of Tucson, Arizona. The partnership was our first foray into this updated strategy of community engagement.

Over the years, we have partnered with planters in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles. We fund as a sending church a family in Toronto and and another in Washington, DC.

Even as we have continued these relationships and seek to discover ways to support more fully, God continues to call us and challenge us to engage in our own community even more. 

We are an active support and assessing church for our local network and have recently created our own mini-network for the purpose of reaching more people in our community and surrounding towns. We know this is what we must do and yet, some, even within our church wonder why.

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Why Invest in Church Planting?

Some argue that planting churches is nothing more than a trendy movement. I have even heard some declare it to be unbiblical. Even when pointed to the unfolding of the church's expansion in the book of Acts, there are some who protest and do not see these as synonymous. Yet, I deem a church planting movement as not a new idea, but an outgrowth of cultural engagement and affirming, if not fulfilling, the words of Acts 1:8.

Granted, the term "church planting" is not in the Bible. However, disciple-making is and while some scoff that church planting is little more than institutional promotion, the reality is that healthy church plants (i.e. new expressions of local church bodies, grounded upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ) lead to the fulfillment of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. God is honored and loved. People are loved. Disciples are made.

That being said, the varied church plants we sponsor are led by men called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is about Kingdom-growth, plain and simple. When church planting fails in this area, it fails fully.

A few years ago, Ed Stetzer, then of LifeWay Research and himself a church planter wrote an article focused on why established churches should plant new works. Here is an abbreviated list of his reasons (full article may be found here.)

  • Church planting reaches lost people. Now retired Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, John Sullivan stated in a denominational meeting that new churches reach lost people at a better rate than established churches. He stated that we don't know exactly why this is, but the results prove it to be true.
  • Church planting follows a biblical pattern. Church planter, John Worcester gives a good overview of church planting as a function of the New Testament church in the video embedded below. His site is churchplanting.net 
  • Church planting is essential for survival. For any movement to thrive, it must multiply. 
  • Church planting benefits the planting church. When life change occurs within the ministries and plants sponsored by a church, the Lord energizes the "dry bones" for His glory.
  • Church planting is necessary to reach North America. This is the foundation of the Send strategy.
  • There's never a good time to plant - do it anyway.

In addition to planting and supporting new church plants, we are expanding into other regions of our community with satellite campuses. Churches have done this for years and we hosted a couple of campuses in years past. We did much well, but also learned from some 20/20 hindsight as to how to map and strategize better. There are numerous options when it comes to satellite campuses. Our model is to plant these in community schools, focused on reaching families, while serving the community. Each campus will have an on-campus minister and messages will be live, not video presentations. At this time, our new campuses will meet on off-days and times from the traditional Sunday morning. Go to creek.church and island.church to see a brief preview of where we will launch.

Why Put a Campus Where There Are So Many Other Churches?

One question that continues to be raised by friends about these campuses focuses on location and "why?" In each case, there are numerous other churches (of varying flavors) around. Yet, there are some demographic realities that have become clear as we have studied the areas. The truth is that the majority of those in the communities, even with numerous other churches around, do not attend any church of any type.

Some would say, "But if they wanted to attend, there are enough options. Why plant another?"

The simple answer is because we believe God is calling us to do so.

I was talking ton one friend about the Fleming Island area where we hope to plant Island Church next spring. There are numerous churches in this highly populated area. In addition to a young, large Baptist Church there are Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and even a new, fast-growing ARC church. Each is unique and yet, many are not engaged. The lostness in the community is overwhelming, as is the case in most every area in our nation.

In Fleming Island, at the corner of the two major roads are six pharmacies. It seems odd, but at Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Target, Publix, CVS, and Walgreens, residents can get their prescriptions filled as well as purchase other desired and needed items. Six pharmacies! Isn't that too many? Wouldn't one be enough? Well, apparently no. Each one seems to be doing well and apparently there are many, many people in our community purchasing legal drugs. The rumors are that the illegal ones are pretty rampant as well, but because it's a nice community they seem to be mostly designer drugs...but, I digress (too many cop friends, I guess.)

It's not exactly a fair comparison, but if there's a need for six pharmacies for physical ailments, surely there's a need for as many "spiritual pharmacies" that God desires to address the spiritual ailments of the people. 

So, we are planting a new campus, in Fleming Island and near Orange Park South. While these two areas are close, the demographics are vastly different. The barriers (bridges, waterways, divided highways, subdivisions, etc.) clearly create separate communities where the church is needed.

We Plant for the Sake of God's Kingdom

Tim Keller put it well in his article "Why Plant Churches"...

WE PLANT CHURCHES AS AN EXERCISE IN KINGDOM-MINDEDNESS.

All in all, church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. Although there is some pain in seeing good friends and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members.

However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue—the issue of “kingdom-mindedness.” New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80%) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80 percent—the new people the kingdom has gained through this new church—or are we going to bemoan the situation and resent the three families we lost to it?” Our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.

Any church that is more upset by its own small losses than grateful for the kingdom’s large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Even so, as we have seen, the benefits that new church planting offers to older congregations is very great, even if not initially obvious.

A New Metric

As we move forward in our planting and campus launching, we seek to do what every church says they want to do, but few succeed. We seek to reach lost, unchurched people for Christ. While most churches affirm this, many of our traditionally "successful" church starts (and I'm talking about in my denomination and community) reach fewer lost people and more saved, disenfranchised church members from other congregations. 

Just to be clear - moving Christians from "Church A" to "New Church B" is not Kingdom-growth. It may eventually lead to such, but unless Church A is celebrating the renewed heart of these transferred members and these people are fully engaged in big picture engagement (i.e. they're not just marketing their new brand of church, but are actually living their faith and sharing Christ) this is a facade of church growth.

I feel for the pastors and campus ministers who end up with a room full of former members of Church A. What do you do? Tell them to leave? Maybe, but that becomes a distraction as well.

J.D. Payne threw this option out on the Verge website...

We don’t need more flavors

What would happen if we recognized that a wise use of our Father’s resources (e.g., money, people) should be to assist in planting churches from out of the harvest fields, instead of establishing a new work in a community to provide a different style of worship/ministry for the believers who are already there?

We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches.

What would happen if we equipped and commissioned church planters with the task of only going to the lost in the people group/community?

Yes, we say we are advocating these things, but let’s begin to question our results.

Try this.  The next time you hear about a new church planted, a record number of new churches birthed in an area, or church planting goals reached, just ask the question, “What percent of the members of those churches recently came into the Kingdom of God?”

So, we echo the stated intention of every church planter and established church pastor I know when we say "We want to reach lost people!" Pray that we do and that we avoid the easy trap of using an old model that creates a perceived successful church, but no disciples. Pray that we live out our faith in ways that the lost are loved, even if they never come to Christ. Pray that we don't lose focus.

More to come as we continue on this journey. Please pray that much would be made of Jesus and that God alone would be glorified. 


Anxiety, Depression and the Church

I recently preached from Matthew 6:25-33. In this passage Jesus clearly commands his followers to not worry. In the ESV, the verse states "Do not be anxious about your life." It is pretty clear, as indicated in our congregation, when I asked "How many of you worry about things like money, clothing, home, your kids, etc.?" that just about everyone (and it looked like everyone) worries. Hands went up throughout the room. This may have been the most hands in the air in a Baptist church on record.

In reading the passage, Jesus speaks to his followers and basically asks "Why do you worry? God has this!"

It's true, even as Christians we tend to fall into this trap of wondering if God is going to come through. We ask "Did he get my request?" and sometimes, well, to be hones, we act like we have a better handle on what we need than God.

I mentioned that ultimately Jesus was speaking of the sin of unbelief. This is a natural drift based on the Enemy's strategy first revealed in the Garden of Eden. When the Enemy addressed Eve and Adam, he basically presented them with the possibility that God was untrustworthy and was holding out on them. That lie has been perpetuated ever since.

So, when Jesus says "Do not be anxious about your life..." he is addressing this core reality of unbelief. Do we really believe God? Do we really trust him?

To doubt and become anxious in this way is to subtly, and maybe subconsciously agree and affirm that God doesn't really care and will not come through. Jesus reveals the antidote for this sin of unbelief and it is found in verse 33 where he commands us to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Apparently, you cannot actively seek God and not believe God. Therefore, this action is preceded by repentance.

But What About Anxiety?

I have friends who struggle with anxiety and what has been termed a medical disorder. Anxiety, worry, and depression are not all synonyms, but there are some similarities. What about the man or woman who struggles so deeply with anxiety and finds it debilitating? What about those who know the Lord and sincerely pray for release and help? What about when those answers do not seem to arrive?

For years the church has ignored the reality of mental illness. In some cases a response of "Just pray about it" was about all pastors and fellow Christians would offer. Some actually seem to have traveled back to the first century where every physical and mental illness was the direct result of individual sin. While this may be the case at times, ultimately all illness results from the fact we live in a fallen world where sin has infected all of creation. 

So, as I preached Sunday on this passage regarding anxious living, some would rightly wonder if just "praying away" the issues is enough? 

Believe me a superficial prescription is never biblically sound. 

Since 99.9% of the congregation publicly admitted that worry was prevalent in their lives,  prayers of repentance of not believing God needed to happen. It needed to happen in my life.

As for those who have diagnosed anxiety disorders or some other affirmed mental illness (and those two words—"mental illness"—need not be forbidden by Christians) the truth remains that God is ultimately the answer. 

For my friends who ask "I keep praying and God isn't taking this away, so now what?" I cannot help but think of Paul and his "thorn in the flesh." However, I don't pretend to easily equate the two. It just comes to mind and makes me wonder. I also think of Job who suffered much. The physical suffering of God's children is not always removed in a timely fashion. The mental suffering isn't either. 

This we know...God is not absent, nor is he ignoring his children.

The crowd that heard Jesus say "Do not be anxious" apparently were much like me and many who were here Sunday. They (we) were sinfully choosing to not fully believe that God was sovereign.

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I Believe, But Still Suffer

I grieve with those who seem overwhelmed by suffering, whether physical or mental. Christians are to grieve with those who grieve and to be honest, there are times when we just cannot understand what another is feeling.

I recently saw a commercial for a medication designed for people who suffer from migraine headaches. My wife suffers from these on occasion and she said that commercial nailed it. It is hard, if not impossible, to explain to another what is being experienced during these headaches. Words do not suffice. Pain is real and those who have never experienced it can be hurtful by simply stating "Just take some ibuprofen and take a nap." 

This is similar to those who suffer from anxiety or depression. They, too, have shared an inability to verbalize exactly what they feel and are experiencing. So, "Just be happy and get over it" is not really a helpful prescription.

So to those who suffer, my prayers for you are offered (comment below if you have specific requests). Repentance of the sin of unbelief is needed in my life, and likely in most every follower of Christ. Repentance of the sin of offering superficial prescriptions rather than true prayer and love for those suffering is needed as well.

An article by Brandon Peach on the Relevant website revealed this...

Anxiety and depression don't look how we often think.

When I've opened up to Christian friends about my own depression and anxiety disorders, they're often surprised. “You seem so happy all the time!” Depressed people become really good at hiding their symptoms, even from doctors, because of the stigma attached to the illness. Churches often don't address mental illness, which gives the worship team guitarist or the elder even more incentive to keep it hidden away. Furthermore, the symptoms of depression often tend to contradict each other, which makes it really difficult for a person suffering from depression to recognize it for what it is—let alone for the Church to recognize it.



“Learning to recognize the signs” then is often a failing strategy. If churches begin responding to mental disorders as a community willing to offer encouragement and support, people suffering from those illnesses may just be able to accept the help. It may just be people you never expected.

Even churches that seek to provide a safe haven for those suffering in their midst might not have a judgment-free place to discuss their struggles. Programs like Celebrate Recovery can provide an invaluable forum for people to interact with others who experience “hurts, habits, and hangups,” and can help deal with some of the self-medication many people with depression and anxiety use to numb themselves. Without a carefully planned strategy to deal with mental illness, though, “all are welcome” might not be enough. Healing comes from a prayerful, loving community that seeks to truly understand major depressive disorder and related conditions, and one that develops a positive response.

Most churches probably have the very best intentions when dealing with issues of mental illness. Like the rest of society, however, the Church may misinterpret these clinical conditions and respond to them in ways that exacerbate them—and as a result, demoralize those suffering. Christ, the Great Physician, came to heal the sick. As His body, it's time the Church leads society in helping to do the same.

A Pastor's Look at Depression

Perhaps one of the most helpful stories regarding these issues comes from Pastor Tommy Nelson of Denton, Texas. Tommy entered into a depression that led to severe changes in his life. Even as a pastor of a Gospel-centric, Bible-believing church, he found the church's readiness to respond lacking. Below is a video of him sharing his story at a chapel service held at Dallas Theological Seminary. It's a long video, but worth the time.

 

 


When Chick-fil-A Opened on Sunday

Full disclosure: I'm a Chick-fil-A apologist.

I worked at Chick-fil-A when I was in high school. Those were the days when the restaurants were pretty much exclusively in malls and the menu included such things as deep-fried apple pies (they need to bring this back,) the Chick-N-Q and meals were served in cardboard boxes that looked like barns.

My children both worked for Chick-fil-A during high school and college.

We still eat at Chick-fil-A regularly. I even recommend students in our church to work for our local restaurants. I keep hoping for a kick-back in free nuggets for that.

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Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

There are many people who love Chick-fil-A.

There are also many people who hate the restaurant. Most of those who declare their hatred for Mr. Cathy's restaurant online and in the news state that it is the "intolerant" beliefs of ownership and the anti-LGBT policies of the business. This stems from CEO Dan Cathy's statements regarding his personal convictions that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. You may remember that firestorm that hit the airwaves a number of years ago. I wrote about that here in a post from 2012. I remember squeezing into our local Chick-fil-A for a "Stand with CFA" grassroots event that drew more customers than in the history of the restaurant. Nevertheless, the cultural barrage continues to this day.

Some cities declared Chick-fil-A was not welcome to open restaurants within their municipalities. The news goes on and on and on. And Chick-fil-A continues to grow and while labeled as hateful for those who disagree with the owners religious and personal convictions, the local restaurants continue to illustrate their openness to hire qualified employees with no regard to race, religion or sexual orientation.

Sundays at Chick-fil-A

One of the most widely known characteristics of the Cathy's restaurants is that they are not open on Sundays. This was founder Truett Cathy's conviction as a Christian and active member of his local church. Though money is to be made by being open seven days a week, he refused to allow this. There are stories of individual operators who lost their restaurants when it was discovered by corporate that they were opening on Sundays. Even the powerful malls of the 1970s and 1980s could not sway Chick-fil-A to open. This is still true today. I remember a few years back as I was leading a mission team back to the US from a two-week project in Europe. We were to land in Philadelphia. We were pretty excited because we knew there was a Chick-fil-A in the Philadelphia airport. Yes! In Philadelphia there is sweet tea! It did not take long for our excitement of having our first American meal in two weeks of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, waffle fries and sweet iced tea wane due to the realization that we landed in Philly on a Sunday. 

Nevertheless, the "closed on Sundays" rule has remained. Apparently, it hasn't hurt Chick-fil-A as a business. They continue to grow and increase influence through leadership training, Winshape Camps and other ventures.

The Story Most Aren't Hearing

There are stories that hit the news and there are some that never make it on television at 6pm. Here's a good news story in the midst of a tragic event that illustrates that loving our neighbor is still the best policy.

Apparently, last Sunday in Orlando, the local Chick-fil-A opened. However, this operator is not likely to be in trouble. In fact, it seems that Chick-fil-A approved of this special Sunday opening. The opening was unique and in response to the terror attack at The Pulse nightclub.

Here's the story by Lairs Johnston:

Chick-fil-A is famous for two things…chicken sandwiches and controversy.

Like last month when the New York City Mayor urged people to boycott the restaurant because he felt they portrayed a hateful message towards the LGBT community. Well, this past Sunday, a day they’re infamously closed, they decided to do something out of character to help the victims.

Upon hearing the news of the Orlando shooting the restaurant opened its doors and fired up the grill, cooking hundreds of chicken burgers and orders of fries. The only thing is, they didn’t sell any. Instead, they donated everything to the local blood drive where people were gathered to donate and help out the victims of the massacre.

According to the DC Gazette, hundreds of people were fed and even posted about it on social media this past Sunday.

The owners of the popular Christian company have shown Christ in a time of tragedy. They didn’t compromise their beliefs, just showed them by extending love, opening their doors on a day they’re known for staying closed.

“They will know we are Christians by our love”–not for our best friends, not for our families or other Christians, but by how we love those who hurt us and disagree with us.

The Orlando shooting was an attack on the LGBT community. Let us not allow it to turn into more attacks – on the LGBT community, on the Muslim community, on each other.

Does This Really Matter?

Well, truthfully, it's just a local restaurant giving away chicken sandwiches. In the larger scheme of things, maybe it is really not that big a deal. Yet, here's why I believe this is significant. Johnston states it well when he says "They didn't compromise their beliefs, just showed them..."

Not every employee at Chick-fil-A is a Christian. Not everyone who works for the company agrees with the CEOs personal convictions. These are facts that are likely true in every corporation. Chick-fil-A is not really a "Christian company" because only people can be Christians. No restaurant goes to heaven when it finally closes. Yet, the people who work at this local restaurant (and I'm sure there were other restaurants and organizations that provided free meals and drinks as well to those in Orlando) did what Christ modeled. They actually did what the church should.

If you're in Orlando or following the reports focusing on the community, you will notice that many churches and followers of Christ have and are serving those who are hurting. Pray for those who wear the name of Jesus as they seek to love those the culture says they hate. Pray for our churches as they seek to minister and reach those who are hurting and scared and need to know that there is a Way to Life and He is Truth.

Love wins. And that's more than a watered-down hashtag.

 


How Christians Must Respond to the Orlando Tragedy

We awakened Sunday morning to the tragic news coming out of Orlando, Florida. A man with apparent self-proclaimed allegiances to ISIS opened fire in a gay nightclub early in the morning, killing at least 50 people and injuring over 50 more.

This is now categorized as the worst mass shooting in American history. Men and women lost their lives. Parents lost children. Brothers and sisters lost their siblings. And a nation mourns.

I confess I did not read the full story until late on Sunday afternoon and therefore, unfortunately, did not mention this tragedy as our church gathered together for worship yesterday morning. When I read the story and subsequently watched some of the video coming from Orlando, emotions swirled within me.

Once again we offer a hashtag "#PrayFor" notification on social media. This time it's not Lahore or Paris or Brussels, but is for the people of a city less than three hours from my home. Maybe "#PrayForOrlando" needs to be replaced with "#ImPrayingForOrlando" to ensure that the hashtag is less a command and more a declaration of action. Yes, prayer is active, not passive.

The terrorist connection is frightening for those in our nation, our state and especially for those in Orlando. Every time a terror connection is revealed, those who can remember are thrust back to September 11, 2001 when Islamic extremist terrorism became a reality to all of us.

Pray for Orlando

 

How We Must Respond

Let's be honest, the church (and I am referring to the conservative, evangelical, Baptist flavor of which I am part) has great potential for really messing up here with response. This is clearly due to the reality that the Islamic terrorist is, well...a Muslim, and those who were killed and injured are most likely lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Oh, and they were in a nightclub.

While posting a "#PrayForParis" or other such statement on social media just seems like the right thing to do, some Christians may initially struggle with offering a "#PrayForOrlando" statement for fear that they will be viewed as affirming things they feel strongly against (in this case, the LGBT lifestyle.)

These are just my thoughts on how Christians and the church should respond.

STOP - Seriously, just stop what you're doing for a moment. Take a pause. As news continues to pour out from Orlando and in news conferences in front of the Pulse Nightclub, stop what you're doing. Stop scrolling through trending stories on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. What has become more common as we move into a more inter-connected, technology-driven world, we find ourselves searching online to see what others are saying. I'm guilty of this and also of what many others find easy to do - vent online. Don't. Guard your hearts and stop for just a moment and think about the reality of what has happened.

PRAY 

Yes, really pray! In my life, I've discovered the intentional pause leads to deeper prayer. People are angry. People are afraid. People are hurting. Pray for the city of Orlando, but more for the people of Orlando and especially those directly touched by the tragedy. You do not have to agree nor affirm a person's lifestyle to grieve over them. Pray for the family members, friends and yes, even lovers of those killed. 

GRIEVE

Weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) Names are now being released of those who were killed. These are not generic "extras" in a film or digital creations in a video game. These are real people. They were killed in a nightclub marketed to the LGBT community. These people are image-bearers of God who had their lives erased in a moment of hatred and terror. 

I read this morning the transcript of text messages sent from a young man to his mother as he and others were hiding in a restroom. The messages are haunting as he stated "He's coming. I'm going to die!" He has been confirmed as one of the victims and his mother is left, as are many others, grieving and questioning and now wondering "What could I have done?" As a parent, my heart goes out to the many who are being notified this morning, grieving the loss of a son or daughter and now thrust into the public spotlight as they mourn and ultimately have to plan a funeral soon.

BE SILENT, BUT SPEAK HOPE AND LOVE WHEN YOU MUST

Okay, this seems contradictory, but hear me out. At times the very best counsel and help a Christian can offer others is the ministry of presence. Just be there. You don't have to go to Orlando to do this. Believe me, as this story unfolds, there are many in your community and church, and even your family, who are shaken by this. Some because of the connection to the LGBT community or their own self-identity as LGBT. Others because of the affinity of age with those murdered. Some because they have friends or coworkers who may be more like the terrorist than they wanted to admit and now political correctness seems way too overrated.

Grief and fear are often bedfellows. So, as one who has hope, just BE THERE. And, when you do speak, go to Scripture, but not as the Pharisaical legalists do. In fact, I'd recommend you live out the Scripture. At this point the #LoveWins hashtag needs to not be about gay marriage, but about Christ-centered, Gospel-focused love for those who need it (and we all need it.) Questions such as "Why?" will come, and simple, man-centered answers never suffice. 

Following the mall shooting in Omaha in 2007, Erik Raymond wrote these words...

First and foremost an event like this is a heart-wrenching reminder of the devastatingly painful and absolutely brutal result of sin. The basic answer to the question as to why the trigger was pulled once, never mind 40 to 50 times, is a rebellion from and a hatred of God. At its must fundamental sense this tragedy is rooted in a rebellion from God. The fact that people had to die today in this mall is a testimony to the vicious recourse of sin. The Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6.23). Death is the sword of sin, it cuts deep and far, and spares none.

How Christians respond to this tragedy should be no different than how we respond to other depraved events where it seems evil is triumphant.

It is at these moments, Christ's love must shine through. We remember clearly that we are His ambassadors. This is a heavy calling. Respond well.