Why the Jokes About Jenner Have to Stop

This has been a landmark year for advocates of the LGBT community.

In addition to the SCOTUS ruling that changed state recognition of same-sex marriage, a prominent celebrity (Bruce Jenner) slid to the far right of the acronym to announce that he is transgender and will begin living not as the gender he was born, but as a woman.

To be clear, I do not support the shift in gender that Jenner has and is going through. I don't even know the man, but my belief in identity and bestowed gender, founded on what I believe the Word of God to reveal, means that I cannot affirm this lifestyle choice. I wrote about Jenner's announcement here. I also believe that God loves Jenner as he loves all. Love, nevertheless, is not synonymous with affirmation and acceptance of life choices.

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CREDIT: Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images, Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair

Since Jenner's "coming out" as Caitlyn, the entertainment and sports media has pointedly fought to find more details about Jenner and this has effectively pushed him back on the cover of magazines, on the stage at awards shows and as the lead story on many entertainment "news" shows. Some say this was what he desired all along. Perhaps, but I doubt that was the driving force. 

It's Not About Political Correctness

In a culture where political correctness reigns and celebrities, politicians, and athletes spend more apologizing for saying or Tweeting things that have been labeled as insensitive by the self-proclaimed political correctness police, I am not calling for the end of Jenner jokes and other LGBT jokes for this reason.

Like most guys, I love a good joke. Like most jokes that are really funny, there's always a hint of truth in them. Sarcasm is easy for me. Humor that may offend some has always been a default for me as well. While I find no humor in jokes laced with profanity, racial stereotypes or hurtful words, there are times I have told jokes, or at least laughed at some that are hurtful. What's worse than couching hurtful language in a joke that may cause an individual to feel personally ridiculed is the hurt that takes place for God and His Kingdom.

It Is Mission Critical

When missionaries are sent to international lands, they are sent with a mandate - a Commission. This is to love God fully as they love people with the intent of leading people to the rescue that is found only in Jesus Christ. Our missionaries are not taught to "Americanize" the natives. They are not taught to look down on those whom they been sent to serve. They are not led to water-down the Gospel for any reason, just to be accepted either. They are sent equipped to live among the culture that does not know Jesus, or in some cases is loudly opposed to Jesus.

Christians in America are discovering that the mission field is no longer only overseas. It's not just on another continent where a different religion reigns supreme. The mission field is here. In some cases, the mission field is within one's home and family.

Our culture is growing more loudly opposed to Christ and Christians. The marginalization of the church in cultural life is upon us. Yet, rather than lament the reality, we must celebrate that God has seen fit to place us here, now, for "such a time as this." Apparently, he is equipping us to be His ambassadors and His church for a mission field that is very dark.

Love Wins

While #LoveWins has trended recently as a call for unity and celebration by the LGBT community, the truth of the matter is that Love who wins has already won. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of love. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. And. . .lost people do not know that. Sometimes, they have been blinded to that truth because of religion, unfortunately.

So, Why Stop the Jokes?

Maybe you've never told or laughed at "gay jokes" or "transgender jokes." Or ... maybe you're like me. Here's why I feel the conviction to stop. I believe God has given us a unique opportunity to share His love and hope with those in our community who struggle with same-sex attraction and even deeply troubling gender issues. I know that previous statement is a challenging one, especially for those who are LGBT and are not struggling with it, by their own admission. Nevertheless, based on my faith convictions and understanding of Scripture, I would stand by my wording.

That being said, the Great Commission does not have an asterisk by it that eliminates certain people from our love through Christ. 

This is the biggest challenge - loving truly without affirming sin (and I mean any kind of sin - so don't think I'm just saying LGBT lifestyles. I do mean adultery, fornication, thievery, gluttony, etc.) If we can't love people who sin. . .well, we have to eliminate much Scripture.

Humor Is a Gift, But Can Be a Barrier

I believe humor is a gift from God. It's not a spiritual gift. It's not even a primary gift. I just believe that God, in his sovereignty and glory has gifted us with the ability to laugh (at ourselves mostly) and circumstances. Laughter can be healing (Ever see "Patch Adams?")

However, jokes can be hurtful. 

How many times has someone said something hurtful to another and then tagged "just kidding" at the end, thinking that makes it all okay?

Tweet: If we're going to live as missionaries in a culture far from God, we can't continue to make fun of those we are seeking to reach. @davidtarkIf we, as Christians, are going to be living sent, as missionaries in a culture far away from God, we cannot continue to make fun of those we are seeking to reach.

  • It would be like a white Christian missionary being sent to a tribal area in an African nation and telling "black jokes"...
  • It would be like an American moving to Europe and continually making fun of European accents and customs...
  • It would be like moving to Miami and telling jokes that make fun of Cubans...
  • Or living in South Texas and telling Mexican jokes...

It would be like doing all these things and more and then expecting to be able to share the Gospel message with those you have just made fun of, expecting a good response.

Tweet: Christians, we cannot construct walls from within the church by laughing at the lost and expect the lost to respond to our Christians, we cannot construct walls from within the church by laughing at the lost and expect the lost to respond to our "love."

I know, some of you are already poking holes in my premise by stating that the LGBT community is not a racial or cultural people group. I agree. It is different. I do not equate them as the same. I oppose the use of the Civil Rights Movement in our nation as a parallel to the LGBT causal movement of today. They are vastly different.

However, this is what we do know to be a reality. The LGBT community is just that - a community. In most cases, there is unbridled acceptance within the community (unless you are vehemently opposed and then there is no place at the table.) Most are not angry gay men or lesbians. Many just want to live their lives and be left alone. There are some (and they're loud) who advocate pretty harshly. Harshness often attracts harshness.

Love Without Affirmation of Sin

The church is going to have to make a decision in this world where the biblical worldview is being pushed aside and redefined by many (wrongly, I might add.) Some denominations in our culture are already capitulating. In other words, they are wimping out and have sacrificed the authority of Scripture and adherence to such for short-lived applause by those who really don't like them anyway. 

Tweet: The church must decide if people are really worth loving and ultimately worth reaching with the Gospel. @davidtarkThe church that stands firmly on Scripture and does not bend in this area, must decide if those within their membership (and there are quite a few) and those who are seeking God really are worth loving and ultimately worth reaching with the Gospel. 

While some say that's an offensive statement, I say no. If we truly love God then we can truly love people (all people, not just those who live with church approved sins). If we love people, we must show that love so that ultimately LOVE WINS. This is not a bait and switch. This is what we have been called to do.

We are missionaries to a culture that is as dark as any unchurched part of the world. Let's live well, live holy, live uncompromisingly on the Gospel and love well and tell some good jokes along the way, but let's not build unnecessary walls.


How Transparent Should a Pastor Be?

Yesterday I finished up our series on parenting and family aptly titled "The Fam."

While not initially planned on my part, but due to an overwhelming push (or maybe a pull) by God, I felt compelled at the close of my message on "Rites of Passage" to step away from my notes and shared with our church family some struggles and difficulties my wife, children and I have been facing for a few years.

The Elephant in the Room

For some, it was the "elephant in the room" in that most who know us well know that we have been challenged as parents of adult children. For others, mostly new church attenders and members and those who are not as fully engaged in the life of the church - it was totally new information. In fact, for some, it was probably news that I am married and even have children.

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Nonetheless, I confessed that by preaching and teaching on the "rites of passage" that parents should take their children through in order for them to enter into authentic adulthood as God designed, I felt a bit like a hypocrite. 

The frustration and feelings led me to almost shelve the message totally. However, I sensed God imploring me to press on.

My struggle is that I have missed numerous "rites of passage" with my son due to his continued rebellion against our family, the Gospel and God that began a number of years ago. Not to go too deeply here, but to put it plainly, in our lives, the story of the "Prodigal Son" is not just a parable from the Bible that makes for a good Sunday School class lesson. It feels like our biography.

So, I shared this with our church family. 

I felt I had done something dangerous.

I felt I had done something risky.

I felt I had revealed, maybe too much.

I felt vulnerable.

I have never been one to embrace the false "perfect pastor" persona that many have created. I fully understand and receive the role God has called me to fulfill. I feel the heavy responsibility to divide the Word rightly and to preach the Gospel clearly. I know that I am called to make disciples and to equip the saints. I do not minimize any of these realities.

I also know that I am to live out my faith in all areas of my life, at church, in the schools, in the community and especially at home.

And. . .I know I am human and though redeemed by God through the blood of Christ, I still, at times, mess up. Call it what it is - I sin.

Like many parents of adult children, I look back wishing I could do some things differently. I look at old photographs of days gone by and wonder "What if that was a moment where I could have spoken into my child's life in a way that would have changed the present?"

Tweet: Hindsight may be 20/20 but it also can create a negative nostalgia that leads to a life of second-guessing and regret. @davidtark  Hindsight may be 20/20 but it also can create a negative nostalgia that leads to a life of second-guessing and regret.

So, I shared what I shared.

Not too much. . .but clear nonetheless.

Too transparent?

I don't think so. Not this time, at least. Here's why I say that. Following the service I had numerous (and that means more than ten) adults and parents come to me saying things like "I don't know your details, but know this - you're not alone. We've been struggling through this same story as well. We're in the same boat as you." Some say there's comfort in misery, but this is not the case. The comfort here was two-fold: I was affirmed that the majority of our church loves God, loves people and loves my family. Many were affirmed that their pastor really does understand some of the struggles of life. Perhaps, they needed reminding that the myth of the "perfect family" with no difficult chapters is just that - a myth.

The greatest reminder (And why must we always be reminded of this? Oh yeah, because we're uber forgetful) is that God is sovereign. His love endures. He loves our children even more than we do. He loves us in spite of our failings. He has been in this story before. In fact, He is the author and hero of the story. There is hope.

So, pastor, as you study, pray and prepare to bring the sermon God is leading to your church next week, understand that there is a great possibility you may hit a "TMI" moment (Too much information) but don't preach with a fear of saying too much. Trust God to use your transparency to bring Him glory. . .and perhaps even bring you healing.


The Fam - Part 4 - "Rites of Passage"

08-30-2015 - The Fam - Part 4 - Rites of Passage

“When does a child become an adult? When does a boy become a man? When does a girl become a woman?” 

  • Age 13 – Teenager, no longer eating off the kids menu (legally.)
  • Age 15 – Driver’s permit?
  • Age 16 – Driver’s license?
  • Age 18 – Legal to vote?
  • Age 21 – Legal to drink?
  • When puberty hits? (Different for everyone?)
  • When puberty ends? (Somewhere around 25 or maybe 30?)
  • When they get a job?
  • When they have sexual relations?

The culture is confused, in so many ways, but this challenge of growing up is being stunted and causing more problems for families and individuals than ever in the past.

Have you ever heard of the term “adultescent?”

This is the moniker attached to adults who “fail to launch” and choose to remain home, stay unmarried, refuse commitments and continue to live as if they were 16 well up into their 30s. Unfortunately, some of this trend can be traced to parents who, though well-intentioned, have lacked the tools to usher their children into adulthood. In most cases, the parents never had a defining moment of adulthood, so creating one becomes the challenge.

Male and female genders are intentionally and strategically created by God for the individual even before conception. Authentic manhood and womanhood are bestowed. God has intended for parents to lead out in this area. 

But, what about those who grew up in homes where there was no father or mother speaking truth into their lives?

What about parents who don’t know how to do this?

What about the teenagers who are living far outside the boundaries of morality and godliness? 

Many parents just laugh it off and say “Let kids be kids.” While I think kids should be able to have fun and be kids, the frustration is that when adults who have all the trappings of adulthood live as though they are little more than kids in big people clothes.

Rites of passage are essential

Watch this video from our ROPE series. This is one designed for parents of 13 year olds.

7th Grade - First Family Rite of Passage 2 from First Family on Vimeo.

It’s one thing to say “You need to create rites of passage for your kids at different stages and ages” and something totally different to say “Let us help you in this journey.”

Parents, grandparents, kids - We’re here to help you in this journey.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  Deuteronomy 6:4-7 (ESV)

Click the image below to be taken to the Rites of Passage Experiences (ROPE) page.

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Playing Games & Calling It Ministry

I have heard the comments throughout the years, but it seems that over the past few months they have grown with regularity. I wouldn't really file these away as gripes, but they are close. Maybe it's a sign that there's a holy unrest among a generation seeking more? At least, that's how I define it. The common thread is that I am hearing from members of a certain generation who are tired of being a part of a ministry that is content at remaining shallow.

Some of the things said in passing are things like. . .

"I really want to be a part of a ministry that is more than just focused on fun."

"I don't think just getting together to play games constitutes ministry."

"I love being with people, but shouldn't we be doing something for the Lord rather than just talking about it?"

"The trips are fun. It's just that they're only trips. We don't do anything related to God, the church or ministry."

"All we do is eat."

Holy discontent?

Sounds like young adults who grew up in a youth ministry that was built on pizza parties, trips to the beach or amusement park and maybe game nights. As a veteran of student ministry and student of the culture, this is one of the reasons many teenagers leave church when they graduate. They were never invited into ministry, never given significant tasks within the church and eventually they either desire more or see church as frivolous.

The thing is, the comments I'm hearing now are not from the younger, Millennial generation. These comments are coming from senior adults.

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I don't categorize them as gripes, but as honest questions from men and women who have more chapters read in their life stories than I do. Most desire to finish well and do not see empty "ministries" as allowing them to do so.

It's funny, they're not saying they don't want to play games, eat and fellowship together or even take trips together on the big bus somewhere. Their frustration is that these activities alone are called "ministry" and yet, should not be.

In other words, if the church only offers activities for seniors that the local community senior center can, there is a good chance that what is offered is not ministry at all. 

It is offensive to me when pastors and leaders who serve senior adults treat these seasoned saints as if they're little more than old versions of preschoolers.

We live in a culture that does not value the aged. This is evident in how many view senior adults. There is a treasure of wisdom available, but many just walk on by and never experience it, destined to repeat the mistakes of previous generations by ignoring wise counsel.

Now, just because a person has lived long on the earth does not mean that person is living holy, redeemed and wise. These attributes are Spirit-given and often choices of the individual. Nevertheless, the church in the United States that rightly seeks to reach Millennials and young people with the Gospel must also discover ways to not push aside those who still have much to offer the Kingdom.

Intergenerational ministry is key. . .and it's not defined by games, meals and bus trips.


The Fam - Part 3 - "Redeemed Family"

08-23-2015 - The Fam - Part 3 - Redeemed Family

When you hear principles of parenting or marriage and you know the information is right and good, do you ever feel that for you and your family "it's too late"?

"If I knew then what I know now" is heard over and over again.

Knowing that God redeems our past is incredible, but sometimes even that doesn't bring the comfort needed. Why is this? In this message, I share plainly how we, as believers, are often victim to the lies that keep us from living as redeemed children of God in a redeemed family.

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Intentional Parenting

08-16-2015 The Fam - Part 2 - Raising Boys and Girls

Yesterday, we launched our First Family Initiative at our church. We hosted counselors and authors, Sissy Goff and David Thomas of Daystar Counseling in Nashville, Tennessee. They are authors or co-authors of numerous books and have a combined 75 years of experience in family counseling, working primarily with parents and children.

The insights provided yesterday regarding the essentials of godly, healthy parenting were incredible.

The attached audio file is from our Sunday morning gathering and features Sissy & David speaking on the subject of "Intentional Parenting."

Check out our online bookstore here for a full list of available resources from these two and other authors.

Also, go to the Raising Boys and Girls website at raisingboysandgirls.com for resources & updates.

Raising boys and girls app big


The Islamic State & Their Theology of Rape

CAUTION: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS GRAPHIC INFORMATION

Last week, in the midst of "news" stories about the Kardashians and the Jenners, was a story that was most likely skipped by many in our nation, but should be heard.

It is the story of Kayla Mueller. The 26-year-old woman from Prescott, Arizona was a humanitarian aid worker who had gone to Syria to help refugees in that country. She worked with agencies such as Doctors Without Borders.

It was in August 2013 that the Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL) kidnapped her and gave her over to one of their leaders as property - a sex slave.

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Photo: NBC News

In a story by Doug Stanglin of USA Today that ran yesterday, details regarding her experiences as the slave of Abu Sayyaf are troubling at a minimum. The evil barbarism perpetrated in the name of religion is something that many in the west are opposed to acknowledge.

Stanglin reports. . .

Mueller, 26, from Prescott, Ariz., was taken captive in Syria in August 2013 while leaving a Spanish Doctors without Borders hospital in Aleppo.

Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed "caliph" of the Islamic State, brought her "live and in person" to the home of Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian in charge of oil and gas revenue for the group, counterterrorism officials have told ABC News over the past several months.

The details of Mueller's treatment were initially reported by several Yazidi girls who were held at the house, including a 14-year-old and her sister who managed to escape in August 2014, The Independent reported. The teen's version has been corroborated by U.S. officials.

Additional information came from Abu Sayyaf's wife, Umm Sayyaf, who was captured in May by U.S. Special Forces. Abu Sayyaf was killed in the raid, which also yielded a treasure trove of intelligence about the terror group.

According to the accounts by the Yazidi girls, many Yazidi women passed through the Sayyaf house on the way to being given as "presents" to Islamic State fighters. They said rape was a "reward" for military victories. The girls also told interrogators that Umm Sayyaf organized the sex trade.

During lengthy American interrogation in Iraq, Umm Sayyaf confirmed al-Baghdadi had "owned" Kayla, the Muellers said they were told by American officials. Last week, the White House announced that Umm Sayyaf would be prosecuted in Kurdish Iraq and would be “held accountable for her crimes.”

"They told us that he married her, and we all understand what that means," Carl Mueller, Kayla's father, told the AP on Friday, which would have been his daughter's 27th birthday.

Reports are that Mueller died in February of this year when a Jordanian airstrike hit the compound where she was kept. The Islamic State reports this, so there's a strong possibility that the Jordanians had nothing to do with her death.


Click here to read Stanglin's full article.

A Theology of Rape

Last week, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC presented in their newsletter "The Weekly" in harrowing detail, the theology of those in the Islamic State that leads to affirmation of sex slavery and rape. As I read this article, partnered with the report on Mueller. This information is valuable for all to know:

Here are five facts you should about how IS views and justifies the practice of sexual slavery: 

1. IS considers rape of sex slaves to be a form of worship

In The New York Times article, a Yazidi girl was was enslaved by IS claims:

“Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray,” said F, a 15-year-old girl who was captured on the shoulder of Mount Sinjar one year ago and was sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s. Like some others interviewed by The New York Times, she wanted to be identified only by her first initial because of the shame associated with rape.

“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship. 

2. IS has an eschatological justification for sex slavery   

Islamic State publishes a glossy propaganda magazine called Dabiq. In the October 2014 issue, IS included an article titled “The Revival Of Slavery Before The Hour,” which explains the justification for sex slavery.

In Islamic terminology the “hour” refers to the Day of Judgment, a time of reckoning either for an individual upon death or on mankind. According the article, IS asked its own Sharī’ah (Islamic law) scholars to render a verdict on whether the Yazidis (a minority religious group in the Middle East) could be enslaved. They determined that “enslavement of the apostate women” was not only justified by the Quran but was a sign prefiguring the Day of Judgment.

3. IS condones the rape of young girls

Last fall the Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State (ISIS) released a pamphlet on the topic of female captives and slaves:

"Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?

"It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn't reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse."

4. Acquisition of sex slaves is used as a recruiting tool

As The New York Times article notes, the practice of slavery has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden. Capturing sex slaves has become nearly as important for IS’s objectives as capturing territory.

5. IS has about 3,000 girls and women engaged in sexual slavery

According to Human Rights Watch, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in its report on March 13, 2015 that about 3,000 people, mainly Yazidis, allegedly remain in ISIS captivity. However, local officials, service providers, and community activists estimate that the number of Yazidis still held is much higher.

Why Bring This Up?

While stories of the Islamic State have been presented for months with images of beheadings, Christians being killed for not converting to Islam and numerous other atrocious and heart-wrenching activities, the sad reality is that most just see the stories as presented and respond with "That's too bad" or "Someone needs to do something." 

Simply put, dealing with the Islamic State is more than a creation of a trending hashtag or creating 140 character statements about it. This is more than a talking point for political pundits or potential candidates.

This is evil and must be addressed as such.

When World War II ended, General Eisenhower instructed his soldiers to take the residents of nearby cities through the concentration camps that most profited from, but simply ignored. Many Germans intentionally ignored what was happening in those camps. Eisenhower wanted to ensure that passive ignorance was addressed. Some criticized him for this. I applaud him.

In this case, with what is happening globally (and locally, might I add) regarding the slavery of women and girls for sex, the church must not be silent. Regarding the evil that exists in the name of the Islamic State, ignorance and political correctness are not the answers either.

Prayer is the first response

It sounds like a weak response to those who do not fully understand what I'm speaking of, but for those who are walking with God, thinking with the mind of Christ and seeking His will, prayer is the first, best response. 

Prayer for the deliverance of the women and girls being held as slaves throughout the world, especially those held by ISIS.

Prayer for justice to reign in the story.

Prayer for evil to be defeated.

Prayer for those who hold a non-biblical worldview to have their eyes opened to what is truly happening.

Prayer for nations to rise and fight this evil by all means necessary.

Prayer that we will recognize that victory is already won through Christ.

Prayer that those who hold to a worldview that seeks to ignore the reality of evil done in the name of religion for fear of offense will have their eyes opened.

Prayer that the church will awaken.

Prayer for the families of victims. Prayer that the peace that passes understanding will cover them.

God is not silent. He is not unaware. He is not slumbering. He is in control and present.


GUEST BLOGGER: Shari Barbaro - "What I Learned About Prayer From a Little Boy"

Do I Know How to Pray?

by Shari Barbaro

About two months ago when our Pastor, David Tarkington, began a series on prayer, if you asked me if I knew how to pray my answer would have been an indignant “well of course”. After Pastor David began going through the template that Jesus gave in Matthew on the Lord’s Prayer I realized just how little I knew.  I was one of those that could recite the Lord’s prayer with no problem but had really never taken the time to look at the six elements and figure out what they mean.  I began to try to pray through the template and I got hung up on a few things.  This is where a 7 year old taught me how to truly pray.

 

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Drew Wood is now at home.

It was about this time that Drew Wood was put in the hospital and his future hung in the balance.  Pleas were put out on Facebook (even by me) to earnestly pray for this little boy as he was fighting the battle of his life, along with his parents, Jon and Mandi.  On a July Monday morning when I knew that Drew was supposed to have surgery later that day I began to have a discussion with God on the way to work.  I argued with him that I didn’t understand why the doctor didn’t try such and such after all I am a nurse and I know things.  Looking back now I can’t believe I was arguing with God about this.  He very gently said you may be a nurse but I am the Great Physician and I’ve got this covered.  Talk about being put in your place.  I came close to having to pull my car over.  As I prayed that morning I was finally able to pray the one thing I had been having trouble with – Your will be done.  When praying God’s will I had to realize that when I ask for healing it may not come in the form that I expect.  That day as those of us in the church office cried together and prayed together (sorry folks not much work got done) I realized that praying God’s will was really very easy because whether I approve of it or not doesn’t really matter His will is going to be done anyway.  How freeing!

 

Drew, I don’t know if you know it yet but God has used you in so many ways to bring glory to Him.  He certainly used you to teach this more than middle aged woman how to pray as he instructed.  I am sorry that you had to go through what you did but I thank you and your parents for allowing God to work in and through all three of you to teach us some much needed spiritual lessons.

_______________________

Shari Barbaro is a friend of mine. She serves on the staff of First Baptist Church of Orange Park. She is a child of God, deacon's wife, mother to two, choir member, small group leader and mentor to teenage girls. She recently blogged about how God taught her how to prayer. Permission granted to share her post. Here's a link to her blog.


Millennials In the Church

Earlier this week our Leadership Team attended the SEND Conference in Nashville. This conference, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board and International Mission Board, featured challenging messages, vital insights into culture and incredible worship music as well as an opportunity to connect with others focused on pushing back the darkness in a culture prone to wander.

One of the many breakout sessions offered was Thom Rainer's on Millennials and the Future of the Church. His bullet points are available here for now

(BTW - Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s)

I went to this breakout session with a few of our Millennial Leadership Team members. I did notice a few other grey haired guys in the room, so I was not totally out of place.

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When looking at research on generations and the broad strokes of identification that often come with descriptive terms for groups, the data can be overwhelming and more often than not, negative in scope.

Millennials are therefore, often relegated to a descriptor by older generations that ignores who they truly are, what they have to offer and the questions they continue to ask.

Churches that ignore millennials, or who simply relegate them to a satellite ministry in attempts to be relevant are missing perhaps the greatest mission field and potential great awakening in years.

Rainer's research revealed truths that I had not known. 

Here are some facts about this generation with my thoughts in red.

  1. The Largest Generation – More than 78 Million live births from 1980-2000. This is amazing to me. For years, the Boomers were spoken of as the largest generation. Then, with the development of "the pill" and the legalization of abortion, it has been presumed (by me) that this generation was smaller. 
  2. The Lost Generation – Our best estimate is that just 15% of the Millennials are Christians. This is not surprising. Youth groups are declining in number (though many students attend, there is a tendency to jump from church to church, group to group, and para-church to para-church simply for events) and many are graduating high school and church as well. Church attendance does not equate to relationship with Christ, but there are a vast majority of young people, even within the church, who do not know Christ. This is even more clear as social media has grown and personal theologies have become more exposed.
  3. The Unchurched Generation – About 20% of Millennials attend church at least twice a month. Regular church attendance, with split families and other reasons, is now only twice a month. More attend church than know Christ.
  4. The Relational Generation – Relationships are key to Millennials. It's all about relationships. There's no devotion to an organization, by and large, but there is to friendships and relationships. People matter. This is the social media generation. Numerous follows, likes and "friends" are key to this generation. True friendships, however, may be fewer and farther between.
  5. The Mentee Generation – Mentoring is desired by Millennials. The younger generation actually desires relationships with older people. This, however, must be a two-way street. As with any descriptor, there are exceptions.
  6. The High Expectations Generation – They want to be at a church that makes a difference in its community and the world. The word "missional" may be overused by some, but living missionally as a church in a community is vital if Millennials are to connect. 
  7. The Stewardship Generation – This generation asks “What are we doing with our resources and are they being used in the best way and to God’s glory?” This question must be answered clearly by the church. Just giving to a fund for an organization will not elicit excitement and ultimately will run dry. Millennials will give. . .but they need to know it's for a purpose.
  8. The Committed Generation – They are committed to that about which they are passionate. This one is hard for older people (like me) to fathom, but as Rainer explained it, I see the truth here. In a world where it seems that no one is committed, this generation will commit to a movement, a belief system, a project. . . if it's seen as valuable. Some say that they change jobs every two years (and likely churches, too, if they're involved) and that is a sign they're not committed. However, what is revealed is that the workforce is often seen by business as a resource, not family. Therefore, when people are not viewed as valuable. . .in a relationship. . .there is no commitment to offer. If churches view Millennials as simply a resource, they will not reach this generation.
  9. The Cross-generational Generation – They desire to learn from those who have been there and have experience. Again, this is founded on authentic relationships. The church should take this to heart and ask the hard questions regarding programming. Should every program, ministry and event be "age-divided"? Maybe the Millennials will lead the church back to a first century model?
  10. The Generation of Opportunity – There is a great challenge in reaching Millennials, but the opportunity is greater. Millennials are the largest mission field in American history. It’s up to us to reach them with the gospel. The message here is "Wake Up Church!" We cannot ignore this generation. How tragic to be presented with the largest generation of unchurch people in our nation's history and miss what God is going to do through them.

There is much more to be said about reaching and connecting with this generation. The bottom line is this - we cannot afford to miss that which God intends to do through this generation. I believe we will be held accountable in how we effectively engage and serve alongside those categorized as Millennials.

In a relay race, the baton matters. Crossing the finish line without the baton is a loss. We must pass the baton on to those who will run the next leg of this race.


Why It's Easier to Care About a Lion Than Babies

There are two stories that seem to be trending in the media this week. These are unrelated stories, but show an interesting contrast on cultural views of life, ethics and value.

Cecil the Lion

The story of Cecil the Lion is a tragic one. Walter Palmer, a dentist on a "hunt" in Zimbabwe killed a lion that had been collared and was part of an ongoing study at Oxford University. Details of the story continue to come out and the debate in the public continues to rage.

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His statement of regret is seemingly falling on deaf ears and many have declared it empty.

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt [...] Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt. I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the U.S. about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have."" - Walter Palmer

Those who advocate for animal "rights" and celebrities have joined the story to share their opinions of Palmer. Mia Farrow tweeted Palmer's home address and thus, protesters arrived.

Others have shared what they think should happen to Palmer.

"Anything loose, they should cut off." - Betty White

"I understand that his patients are lining up to cancel their appointments and well-deserved. If he was my dentist I would never set eyes on him again." - Bob Barker

The story is gaining ground and mainstream media outlets as well as entertainment outlets continue to push it on the front page or as the lead story of the day.

Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts

The other story that is working its way through social media and some mainstream outlets focuses on the leaked, undercover videos by a pro-life organization showing doctors and leaders of Planned Parenthood admitting to and expressing how they sell organs of aborted babies for profit.

Planned Parenthood has existed for decades. This non-profit organization declares itself as the primary provider of reproductive health and women's services in the nation. This is a sanitized, politically correct way of stating that they provide more abortions than any other organization in the United States.

The first video released is embedded below. Be warned, it is not easy to watch.

The latest is even more disturbing. . .

 

Amazingly, the Planned Parenthood Clergy Advocacy Board has issued this statement in response to the video, as part of a well-orchestrated dance attempting to diffuse this story in the national media.

“People who work for Planned Parenthood give care and respect to those in need, doing God's work. For this we are grateful.” - PP Clergy Advocacy Board

At first, I was surprised that Planned Parenthood even had a Clergy Advocacy Board. However, there is a clear version of "Christianity" in America that has forsaken the truths of the Gospel and the truth of His Word. Therefore, statements like these should not surprise us, though they are greatly disturbing.

Joe Carter, a blogger for The Gospel Coalition referenced it this way:

That some clergy from denominations such as the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, and American Baptist Churches would turn a blind eye to the sale of body parts from children slaughtered in the womb is not surprising. Almost all mainline denominations officially support unrestricted access to abortion.

But these ministerial shills have the audacity to frame their support for America’s largest abortion provider as a defense of women. Their kneejerk support for Planned Parenthood reveals a willful ignorance of one of the most anti-woman organizations in America.

How These Stories Are Connected

The story of Cecil the Lion and Planned Parenthood actually have nothing to do with each other. One is about a hunting trip in Africa that resulted in one animal being wrongly killed.

The other is about the deception of an organization that I believe does evil work and is responsible for the killing of millions of human beings.

What does connect them is the story of life and the message of ethics and truth.

Why It's Easier to Care for a Lion Than Babies

It is easier to jump on the bandwagon that is attacking Dr. Palmer than show offense to what is being done at Planned Parenthood. 

It's easier because the crowd is louder that speaks against Dr. Palmer.

It's easier because others will celebrate you if you "stand up for Cecil."

It's easier because the platform is wide and welcoming for those who would show anger and frustration toward Dr. Palmer.

It's easier because other than tweeting and posting opposition (other than the few who are organizing protests and other actions) there really is no personal engagement in the Cecil the Lion story. Just tweet your anger and use the appropriate hashtag and go about your life.

However, when you assert your offense at what organizations like Planned Parenthood do, you are labeled. You are placed in a category that isn't celebrated by the masses. You will be on an opposite side of celebrities and those who are often worshipped by the masses.

The politically incorrect will not be celebrated.

You will be declared a hater of women (the enemy loves pulling out the "hater" tag for those who stand up for truth) rather than a lover of life and an advocate for babies.

You will have to stand on a narrow platform.

You will have to do more than state your opposition to abortion.

Christians who state their opposition to abortion must in the same breath state and show their advocacy for helping pregnant women, providing for single moms, standing in the gap for teens who are pregnant, affirm and support foster care and adoption services.

It is hypocritical to be against abortion and ignore the role of the church in these other areas. There's no way to be unengaged and be holy.

That's why it's easier.

But then, who said living holy and grounded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ was supposed to be easy?

What Must Be Done

I affirm the calls for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. I am not convinced this will ever happen, but at least the conversation has begun again, and more earnestly than in the past. To know that we are all guilty by proxy of the trafficking of human body parts through our taxes is offensive and atrocious. It's time for the federal government to do the right thing here and for the people standing upon that narrow platform to stand unwaveringly and push strongly for this.

Praying By Name

Trevin Wax has written an excellent blog post on how we should pray for those who are the names and faces of Planned Parenthood. The God of life is the only one who can transform a heart. Pray for those who do evil, especially those who unknowingly do so. How can they know evil apart from knowing the truth?

Trevin's full post is here.

Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has reminded us of our role clearly.

The church of Jesus Christ should recommit ourselves to speaking out for human dignity. What we see in this instance is what has always been true of Planned Parenthood: Mammon worship in collision with the image of God, and the image is sacrificed on the altar of profiteering. This does not go unnoticed to God. He has said, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice, and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey” (Isa. 10:1-2).

The heart of man is dark. Jesus is the light and has stated that we are His Light of the world. Let's shine this light brightly.

Love God - Love People - Make Disciples


Prayer: Part 6 "Lead Us Not Into Temptation"

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The final portion of the Model Prayer gives us instruction to seek protection from God by asking Him to not lead us into temptation and protect us from evil. This is a prayer seeking moral provision and is needed by all. What may seem confusing and even contradictory at first glance is proven to be neither.

Left to our own devices, we do not land on holiness.

While we pray for God's forgiveness for past sins, as instructed by Christ in the same prayer, the wise Christ follower also understands the need to seek guidance and protection for possible future sins. These are God's guardrails for our lives. 

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MOVIE REVIEW: "Woodlawn" - Will God Do It Again?

Sometimes you need to look back to understand where you are.

The new film Woodlawn, opening October 16 in over 1,500 theaters, appears to be another "based on a true story" football film reminiscent of others like Remember the Titans. However, it does not take long to discover that this story is about more than high school football in the age of bussing.

Woodlawn is a film by the Erwin Brothers (Mom's Night OutOctober Baby) based on the true story of "Touchdown Tony" Nathan, a high school football star in the early 1970s at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama. The film opens with images, some from old newscasts, others made just for the film, that highlight the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  News footage from the late 1960s and early 1970s showing Birmingham churches burning and bombed out, Alabama Governor Wallace's famed speech about never allowing desegregation at the University of Alabama and interviews of those living in a city being called "Bombingham" sets the stage for the depravity and division in our nation from just a few decades ago. Some would say we have come far as a nation. Others, referencing recent acts in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston would say that perhaps we have not progressed as much as previously thought.

Old news footage then shifts to images of Explo '72, an event sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) in Dallas, Texas that was heralded as the most visible event of the "Jesus Movement."

The stage is set for the story of Tony Nathan.

 

The version of the film my wife, Tracy and I saw with other leaders in our city is a pre-edited, or more accurately, a mid-edited version. There are scenes where dialogue will be added, and special effects will replace visible green screens and empty stands during football games.

I imagine some other scene trimming will take place to get the film under the two-hour mark.

Nevertheless, this is a very watchable and engaging film. This is a film that is worthy of an incredible opening weekend. The acting is excellent, beginning with Oscar-winner Jon Voight as Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. 

Sean Astin plays a pivotal character in the film. Astin is Hank Erwin, the Woodlaw High School team chaplain, who also happens to be the father of Andrew and Jon Erwin - the "Erwin Brothers" who brought the film to life.

Of course as soon as Astin appears on the screen in a period-piece football movie, I wanted to yell "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!" but my wife wisely discouraged that.

5300_Woodlawn-Temp_Graphic_lgLesser known actor, but wonderful in this breakout role, is Caleb Castille. He plays Tony Nathan, but didn't get the role until three days prior to shooting. It's clear the Erwins casted the right man. Castille not only carries his scenes with class and skill, even those shared with more seasoned actors like Voight and Astin, but he is a football player - not just an actor pretending to be one.

Castille was a walk-on at the University of Alabama where both of his brothers (Tim and Simeon) and his father (Jeremiah) played football. His father and brothers all played in the NFL as well. After three years of playing and winning two national championships at Alabama, he decided to walk away from football and pursue acting. He was given the go-ahead by his parents as long as he remained in school.

Originally cast as the understudy and body-double for football scenes for the actor originally scheduled to play Nathan, it became clear prior to shooting that Castille was the guy and he received the role. 

Other well-known actors and entertainers appear. C. Thomas Howell steals scenes as the Banks High School coach, Shorty White. Nathan's parents, played by Sherri Shepherd (who offers perhaps the funniest line in the film when she meets Tony's potential new girlfriend) and Lance Nichols are superb.

Also - this is set in the 1970s, so the sideburns on just about all male characters are great. This film may usher in a new retro-facial hair style to replace the ever-popular goatee.

The football scenes in this film are as engaging as any I have seen in movies. 

Sports movies, in my opinion, have often done a poor job of conveying the action on the field or court well. In some cases, the interaction between players, fans and referees is so unreal that any athlete (or former athlete) just cringes when watching the film (remember Teen Wolf?) In more recent years, it seems that directors and writers work to ensure the games on film are more realistic, recognizing that many in their potential audiences will notice flaws.

Woodlawn does a wonderful job at leading the audience to believe actual football games are being played out on screen. Castille and the other actors make this convincing. Of course, there was one moment during the film when my wife leans over and asks "Does anyone other than Nathan ever get the ball for Woodlawn?" I laughed and then, almost like the writers heard us, the next scene showed another Woodlawn Colonel running the ball. 

Making a period-piece sports movie, especially a football one, as an independent filmmaker must be tough. There will be numerous fixes in post-production. Legion Field in Birmingham is old, but the modern Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew advertisements on the scoreboard need to be replaced. This is not a big deal. . .but, I noticed it. Unless these soft drinks have paid for product placement, they will likely be replaced. When actual footage of the Woodlawn and Banks (the rivalry school) game is shown, I was reminded how different football helmets and uniforms looked in the 1970s. The shoulder pads were larger, the face masks and the logos on the helmets were different. This is not a knock on the film. I understand the creative license and the Woodlawn helmet used in the film looks much better than the one in archive footage. These make for cleaner, clearer images in color.

It's a Great Film, But Now What?

Faith-based, or "Christian" films are trendy now. The quality is much better and getting the church out of the church-house and into the local cinema has been effective. Most Christians understand the value of opening weekend and many churches, mine included, look to help quality independent films like this one do well when it counts. 

However, this time, I sense something different must be done. There was a Q&A time with those in the audience seeking info on creative and new ways to get the right people in the cinemas to see it. In other words, the discussion was focused not on how to get the church into the theater, but to get others into the theater to see the film and then into local churches.

This isn't a "grow your church" campaign disguised as a movie. This is a real effort to see what the next chapter in God's great awakenings will look like and in an age where entertainment and sports reign as the gods of our nation, the question remains "What can we do?"

I heard a number of people share ideas - though, to be honest, they weren't really ideas. One pastor said, "To make a long story short. . ." and I knew what that meant. He would share anything but a "short" story. 

Others echoed ideas that sounded like they had been birthed in the 1970s. 

I wondered if anyone in the room heard the host say "Let's pray and share some creative and out-of-the-box ideas regarding the message of this film."

Alas, the church often fails when it comes to creativity, much to the dismay of people like the Erwin brothers, who obviously live on the edge of creative arts.

Here's What We Will Do

I shared my idea and still believe that this is our best, first-step. Our church is located in a suburb of Jacksonville, FL. Jacksonville and our area have a long history of racial divide. Things are better than in the past, but I don't hear anyone saying that we have arrived and are where we desire to be. Every day on the news there is another story of a shooting. Sometimes it's gang related. Sometimes "black on black" crime." Other times, it's "white on white" and since we're diverse, there are still multi-racial crimes being committed. Our sin is equal opportunity.

There are some amazing God-sized stories happening in our community as well. These are powerful and God is birthing new churches and revitalizing legacy churches. More multi-racial work is being done by churches that in prior generations would not have happened. 

It seems that we are on the precipice of something big. 

The church is ready, but by and large. . .we're still holed up in our buildings.

I believe what we saw acted out in this film is more than just a story about what happened years ago, but a reminder that God does not sleep, is the same yesterday, today and forever. 

What if high school students in a city grabbed hold of the message of the Gospel? What if the Gospel grabbed ahold of these students? Our church will seek to purchase all tickets for a showing or two on opening weekend. This will likely be on Saturday evening, since high school football is king each Friday evening. The tickets will not be for church members but for members of our local high school football teams. Maybe even putting two schools in the same theater . . . rivals, even? Our teams are not segregated (at least not intentionally) as they were in the 1970s, but what is the same is the reality that the vast majority of our students do not know Jesus Christ. They are spiritually void and need to know there is a God who says "It doesn't have to be this way."

Will the players attend?

Many schools and coaches are more afraid than ever of being sued for the breach of the "church/state" issues. Here's what I know. If students decide to go to the movie, it is legal and there is no issue for the school. If the coaches attend, it is legal. This is a public theater and so far, other than guidelines regarding age and ratings, people can attend the movies of their choice.

What would happen if by viewing a true story of spiritual renewal through a high school football team, God decided to do it again?

What if He decided to do it in my neighborhood, in my community, in my schools. . .or in yours?

I'm still dreaming about how to get kids to see the film, but more than that, I'm dreaming about another great awakening.

Will God Do It Again?

Yes. The question is "Will we miss it or be a part of it?"


God Shows His Glory Through a Little Boy

It is amazing how much can change in just one week. This is true for things we watch on the national news, but also in our families and the small circle of friends that we all have.

Last week, the Wood family was at Sea World, braving the Florida heat and enjoying beauty of God's creation, not to mention Clyde and Seamore (bring back the pirate theme, please) and Shamu. Within a matter of days, Orlando was in the rearview mirror and Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville replaced the hotel room.

11737812_1184421944914420_1013288043990846656_nJon Wood serves on the Leadership Team at the church I pastor (First Baptist Church of Orange Park.) He leads our young adult small groups as well as leads in other areas. He and his wife, Mandi are faithful members of our church and precious members of our family. They have three children, Brady, Drew and Grace. 

A couple of years ago, Drew was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. He began treatment at Wolfson Hospital and though there have been some serious ups and downs, he has been no less than a warrior and has done so well. In fact, he is scheduled for his final chemo treatment soon. Over this time, his health has been monitored, even more than a typical child's would be. There have been overnight stays at the hospital on occasion, but through it all, God has strengthened him and his family.

Drew is like many young boys. He loves to play. He loves his friends and siblings and family. He loves coming to church. As many of you know, he loves super heroes. His favorite for quite some time has been Robin, Batman's sidekick. I asked him why he liked Robin so much and he answered, "Because he has an 'R' in his name and so do I." Seemed logical, though I didn't bring up that Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and a few more super heroes also have an "R." He was content that this justified Robin being his favorite, so that was good enough for me. The more we talked, it became clear that all these other heroes were liked as well. 

Last week, while on vacation with his family, a cough that he has had for quite some time (and had been monitored) was growing worse and his breathing became more labored. It was clear that this was getting serious.

Upon arrival at the hospital, X-rays were done. Drew was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) where he has been for the last week. Each day's X-rays showed a progressive worsening in his lungs, but due to his age, size, medical history and current weakness, great concern was shared regarding intubating him. Therefore, the best treatment at the time was to give medication and observe to see if the common treatments would work.

Unfortunately, the treatments were not making headway and Drew was worsening.

Friends and family members began sharing updates on social media. By the way, social media has its detractors and rightfully so. There is much shared through social media outlets that is far from edifying and God-honoring, but this story has shown how God can redeem all things and through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+, thousands of believers throughout the world have joined together in prayer for Drew. The #PrayForDrew has trended locally and among our faith family. I cannot figure out whose Facebook profile I am seeing, in that many have changed their picture to the same "Pray for Drew" icon.

Critical Day

Monday, July 20 was one of the most difficult days for the family. A decision was to be made that day that would be critical. Drew's health was not getting better and Mandi, Drew's mother posted this on her Facebook page. . .

One of the toughest days of my life. This afternoon I bolted to the hospital for what I believed was my last goodbye to my son.

The decision had to be made by Jon and Mandi on this day regarding next steps. Doctors gathered with them and gave them insight into all scenarios. There were basically four options available:

  1. Do nothing other than what was currently being done and hope Drew's body strengthens on it's own.
  2. Do a bronchoscopy to gather fluid from his lungs to determine if its an infection or virus or some other ailment so that treatment could happen.
  3. Do a lung biopsy at some time later, following the bronchoscopy.
  4. Do both the bronchoscopy and biopsy in one procedure.

These may seem like easy options, but none are without risk. The risk intensifies with each one. Jon shared with us that he felt they were in a "Catch-22."

At this time on Monday, a group of family and friends had already gathered at the hospital. By God's providence, there was a PICU room empty right next to Drew's. The hospital staff allowed friends and family to gather there in this makeshift waiting room. It became clear we had been gathered for one purpose - to pray.

We prayed together, interceding in the name of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, seeking from the Father that which we have been invited to seek. We asked God to give Jon and Mandi wisdom and clarity. We asked that God would direct their decision-making and that which was chosen of the available options (or even if a previously unknown option was available) would be clearly God's will.

The decision was made to proceed with option 4 and surgery was to be done Monday afternoon.

The Anointing

I then met with Jon, along with his brother Jeff, and read him a passage from James 5. I asked him if this would be his and Mandi's desire - to have the pastors, elders (in our case, associate pastors) and even deacons present to pray over Drew and anoint him with oil. To be honest, in Baptist life, the anointing of oil is not something we hear much about, but we affirm the veracity of Scripture and know the symbolism of the anointing and power of God to heal.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. James 5:13-16 (ESV)

Jon and Mandi agreed this was right and asked for the men who had been set aside by the church and ordained to lead out in this way. I was honored to lead this time of prayer and anointing. The oil was not poured over Drew, as is the case in some biblical accounts, but we did anoint him with oil and prayed over him. The men of God, along with family in the room, offered to the Great Physician the one before us. We hallowed God's name, declared his Kingdom to be revealed in each of us, confessed our sin and sought the face of God. We even prayed that most frightful part of the prayer - "Your will be done" knowing that sometimes His will is not fully revealed to us in the moment. 

This prayer time was no gimmick.

It was no religious routine.

It was no prewritten, overly scheduled gathering. 

It was fresh, vibrant, humbling, and powerful. The Spirit of the Lord, who is present with Christ-followers always, was . . . well, there's no other way for me to describe it. . . very real and experienced at that moment.

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Then, We Waited

Dozens of family members and friends waited together in the hospital. Literally thousands more waited for word throughout the world. Seriously - just one posting on our church Facebook page had over 44,000 hits. Believe me, we NEVER get 44,000 hits on a post. These hits were from numerous states, not to mention nations as far away as Canada, Wales, South Africa and Germany, just to name a few.

While we waited, anticipating the doctors to wheel Drew out at any moment, Jon came into the room and shared how humbled he was by the grace and mercy of God. He declared how God was revealing such great truths to him through all of this and offered that Romans 8 was where he kept finding himself.

Jon then went back to Drew's room, joining Mandi who perpetually sat with Drew, talking to him and praying over him, leaving us waiting. Jeff, Jon's brother, began to read Romans 8 and everyone pulled out their Bibles to read along (mostly on cell phones - it's a generational thing.) As Jeff read, the Spirit of God affirmed His presence and the power of His inerrant Word.

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When Jeff finished Romans 8:27, I stopped him. I said to the group that the next verse, though very popular was one of the most difficult ones to read. To know that the father of this young boy had been reading and dwelling on this was powerful. I shared that often I will not share this verse to family members in such circumstances. This is not because I feel it to be a bad verse. What Bible verse could be bad? It is just that if this verse is offered apart from the prompting of the Spirit, it can be received wrongly. Timing is vital.

Nevertheless, as Jon and Mandi have been journeying through this, they have been able to go to this verse for comfort and direction. So, we continued on.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (ESV)

God bless the reading and believing of His Word.

Surgery Delayed

We, the friends and extended family members, moved to a larger waiting area. After about an hour, Jon came down to inform us that Drew's surgery had been delayed. This was a surprise in that we were told earlier that it wouldn't be delayed unless something very serious was happening with another child or unforeseen circumstances occurred. In this case, it was apparent that something was happening with another child or with the surgical team. So we waited.

At first, this caused frustration for Jon and others. Then, we focused on the reality. We had asked God to reign supreme throughout this story. He was doing so. Therefore, it is clear that the delay was not man's design, but God's plan.

The delay was then extended to the next day.

Surgery Day - Tuesday

Yesterday, July 21, Drew's surgery happened. Prior to surgery, he recorded this video. Under his breathing mask, and able to just say a few words, he asked for prayer. This little one had told his father that he believed in God, believed in Jesus Christ and asked Him to forgive his sins and save him. This child of God, with child-like faith, believes God loves him and believes prayer is what Christians are supposed to do. His faith may just be stronger than most of us older, seasoned Christians.

 

Surgery took place Tuesday afternoon. It was long - over three hours. The bronchoscope showed "normal" results and the results of the biopsy are pending.

There was concern over the rigidness of Drew's lung tissue and details regarding that were shared with Drew's parents.

Drew is now in the PICU at Wolfson Children's Hospital. It was shared that he will likely feel sick for a few days due to the surgery. He remains on a ventilator.

Prayer Continues

The doctors, nurses and technicians at Wolfson continue to work and they are doing a wonderful job. We continue to work as well, praying for Drew's healing. We pray for Drew and for his entire family during this process.

Look What God Has Already Done

Jon shared with me that through all of this, his prime desire is that God use this to bring people to Himself. I was humbled immediately to hear this. Jon's honesty and vulnerability in this is clear and this desire is not religious God-talk or just saying what others expect to hear from a church leader. Jon believes this and seeks to live this out.

May God be glorified.

We know that God has already answered our prayers. To be at this point IS an answer to prayer. To see how denominational and church lines have been dropped and those who claim the name of Jesus Christ have unified in prayer is amazing. 

In a culture that causes great distress among Christ-followers, He has shown Himself to be sovereign through this.

The faith of those whose Christianity is little more than attending a service every now and then and maybe praying over meals has been challenged. 

Young families who are so busy and seeking to provide multiple opportunities for their children (sports, bands, cheerleading, dance, clubs, etc.) which are all good have been forced to stop and focus upon what is most important. I am seeing parents looking at their own precious children differently. God has reminded and is reminding them of these gifts. 

The young church has stepped up. There are surveys and statements throughout the culture about the millennial and Gen-Xers who are abandoning their faith. What we have seen is a resurgence of young believers, centered around the need for community and desiring to do something that matters and realizing that prayer and service to their friends (watching the other kids, mowing their lawn, taking care of their home, providing hotel rooms near the hospital, bringing meals, etc.) are vital and important and needed. 

Jon and I texted late last night before I finally told him to get some sleep. Here are some of the words from a father seeking to lead and love well, who is himself being used by God, as well as his wife, for His glory.

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Well Done Church

Jon asked a question I hear in hospitals all the time. He asked, "How do people who don't know Christ and don't have a church family get through times like this?" I answered, "They don't. They just fake it."

We don't have to fake it.

God's church has numerous purposes, but primarily we exist to bring Him glory. By loving Him and loving others, we do so. The Great Commission and Great Commandment have been being fulfilled through this journey. 

Keep praying.

Keep believing. 

Keep the faith.

Be strong enough to pray "Your will be done" and know that God determines that.

For continued updates on Drew's story, "Like" my Facebook page or our church's page.

As you share your prayers and thoughts on social media, use the #PrayForDrew hashtag, please.


We Seek Forgiveness But Have a Hard Time Offering It

07-19-2015 Prayer - Part 5 - Forgive Our Debts

When Jesus gave us permission to come to the Father and seek forgiveness of debts, he was likely referring to financial issues, but as we delve deeper into this model prayer, it is clear that finances were just a sliver of the depth of the prayer.

All is good when Jesus says we can ask God to "forgive our debts" but that next line causes some concern. It's difficult. It's challenging. In fact, it's frustrating at times. We are instructed to seek forgiveness "as we have forgiven others." Does this mean that the level of forgiveness we receive will be in line to that which we offer? That's a scary thought. I mean, how many of us love to carry grudges, falsely believing that our grudge is our "right" and actually serves as retribution to those who have harmed us? What a crazy theory.

Maybe it means we are to offer forgiveness to others in the same way we receive it from the Father?

Nevertheless, we discover that in the midst of the Model Prayer (or Lord's Prayer, if you choose) we are expected to be in relationship with the Father, through the Son, so that forgiveness of our debts (lawlessness and sin) may be forgiven and through that relationship we have the ability we do not own on our own - that to forgive others.

If we fully received and held this as truth. . .it would change everything.

It does change everything.

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The Difference Between Needs and Wants - Our Daily Bread

 

07-12-2015 Prayer - Part 4 - Our Daily Bread

 

When Jesus told us we could ask God for "our daily bread" he was speaking about more than dinner. In fact, the reference to bread hearkens back to an Old Testament story where God provided for the needs of his people while journeying through the wilderness.

Often, we struggle with the difference between needs and wants. Things we often say, and believe, we need are little more than wants. Do I really need the latest smartphone? What about dessert? Do I need that? I want it, sure, but need? That's a different topic.

The message available here goes into this aspect of the model prayer (i.e. The Lord's Prayer) and seeks to discover how we can begin to get this right in our prayer lives.

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In the Shadow of Our Steeple

Like many churches in our area, the summer schedule is a bit challenging. Some call it the "summer slump." We just realize that most families have just about eight weeks a year to schedule vacations and in addition to church-sponsored mission trips, camps and other events, weekly attendance is affected. (This, however, doesn't necessarily mean that those who miss a couple of services are bad Christians.)

Nevertheless, our mid-week gatherings are unique during the summer. We schedule church family BBQ nights, evenings at the local baseball game, movie nights and other such events. 

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Last week, we scheduled a "Community Prayer Walk." Truth be told, the attendance was. . .well, pretty low. Apparently there is truth in the old adage that if you want to guarantee low attendance at a church gathering, just call it a "prayer meeting".

Yet, I was greatly encouraged. 

Seriously.

As we first gathered together, prior to walking throughout the community, we discussed the value of intercessory prayer and the reasoning for doing such a prayer walk. We asked God to open our eyes and ears so that we may see and hear Him clearly. As we walked, we saw neighbors and homes and prayed over each. 

After about an hour, we met together again to share what we had heard from God through the walk. Here are some of the things shared by the church:

  • I saw homes that I drive by weekly and never think about. I realized that each home represents an individual or family in need of God. 
  • The longer we are in a community, the less we see.
  • There are great needs in our community. 
  • We should do this regularly, not just every now and then.
  • We must continue to go on mission elsewhere, but have to view this community, each day, as the mission field. God has placed us here for His glory.
  • Most, if not all great awakenings and times of spiritual renewal in the history of the church began with God calling a small group together for prayer.
  • Evangelism is talking to people about God. Intercession is talking to God about people.
  • Many in our community live in the "shadow of our steeple" and do not know us.
  • Many, if not most of our neighbors do not know Jesus Christ. Eternity hangs in the balance.

This was an encouraging night for me as a pastor and a challenging one as well. Prayer, as we know, is essential for spiritual renewal and growth. God does all the heavy lifting. It is He who does the saving. Yet, he has invited us to join him in this great endeavor and prayer is our first connection with Him. May these prayer gatherings, prayer walks and times of intercession never be viewed as less than vital.


Eliminating Discipleship Outsourcing

The family unit has for centuries been comprised of one husband, one wife and in many cases, children. The changing cultural landscape of the twenty-first century seems to be calling that definition into question. Regardless what is deemed acceptable or normal in the world, the Bible affirms the family unit as described above. In addition to the primary members of what has been termed the “nuclear family,” the Scripture teaches and affirms multi-generational and extended family members serving together, ideally for the glory of God and the propagation of the Gospel. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of parents to pass biblical truth and godly teachings on to their children and subsequent generations. This is God’s desire and yet, there are many families who fall short of that standard. Therefore, throughout the years, the local church has sought to shore up the deficiencies in these areas by creating age-graded ministries and programs. These programs and ministries have been proven helpful and valuable. Yet, over time, a dangerous precedent has been set.

Many individuals and families in our culture have become outsourcers. The age of expertise reigns and while past generations understood the need to be proficient in various skills and tasks, that is not the case today. When simple repair work is needed around one’s home, a contracted carpenter is hired. Many, due to lack of time, desire or skill-set, will outsource yard work to professionals. The same is true for simple automobile maintenance and other tasks that not too long ago were accomplished in-house. While a discussion on the value of outsourcing may be interesting, the danger of such exists when people outsource biblical responsibilities. Simply put, the discipling of one’s children should not be outsourced to “professional Christians” or church program directors. The responsibility for these tasks remains with a child’s parents and while the church plays a major role, it cannot supplant the responsibility of those originally entrusted with such.

Much attention is given to helping children develop physically, intellectually, and even socially and emotionally, but parents are not given a lot of help in knowing how to aid in the moral and spiritual development of their children.[1] Due to the lack of easily identifiable steps and handles upon which to hold, many parents have apparently simply prayed that their children would grow in their faith due to the leadership and ministries offered at their local church.

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When surveyed, Christian parents have revealed their understanding and belief that they are to play the primary role in the spiritual development of their children. Nevertheless, the same surveys show that these parents have failed in making discipleship a priority within their home.[2] Parents believed they were fulfilling their responsibility for their children’s spiritual formation and development simply by involving them in the programs of the local church.[3] While it would be easy to blame these parents for dropping the ball in this vital area, the church must own its responsibility for fueling a failed model that distances itself from biblical examples. The model most often implemented needs an overhaul, as Dave Kinnaman has noted in a 2006 Barna Research Group report, not because churches have failed in drawing crowds but because the results have been an unsustainable faith for many students beyond high school.[4]

Churches have systematically created and replicated programs that seemingly work. If a nearby or popular church has a program that draws numerous children and teenagers, others will seek to copy it. The scorecard for success is built on uneven ground and attendance numbers and yet, the biblical mandate is not to “Go and make attenders” or even “Go and make church members,” but to “Go and make disciples.” The problem is that in a consumer-driven society, disciple-making is hard to gauge and nearly impossible to quantify. Yet, this is the mandate for the church and must be strategically sought and implemented.

The Bible consistently shows the value of family and the expectation of inter-generational ministry and teaching. The Scripture teaches of God’s plan for the family to be primary in the faith development journey of His people. While this truth is studied and known to be true by many who claim to be followers of Christ, due to the fall and the inherent sin nature, the simple reality is that even well intentioned people do not naturally do what they ought to do.[5] Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God does not affirm the delegating the discipleship of one’s child to religious professionals. The responsibility remains within the home, in the context of family.[6] Where there are single-parent households or orphans, the church fills those gaps as the spiritual family.

With numerous family ministry models available, the truth is that no church program has the power to transform lives and make disciples. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can rescue and transform a life. The church must strategically partner with parents and guide them into this truth. This will change the scorecard.

_______________________


[1] Anthony, Michael J., Michelle Anthony and Karen E. Jones. “The Family in Foundational Years.” In A Theology for Family Ministries, 22. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011.

[2] "Making the Transition to Family-Equipping Ministry." In Training In the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones, by Jay Strother, 254. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011. 

[3] Renfro, Paul, Brandon Shields, and Jay Strother. "The Task Too Significant To Hire Someone Else To Do." In Perspectives on Family Ministry: 3 Views, edited by Timothy Paul Jones, 23. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009.

[4] Strother, 254.

[5] "Bring Them Up In the Discipline and Instruction of the Lord." In Training In the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones, by Robert L. Plummer, 47. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011.

[6] Renfro, Paul, Brandon Shields, and Jay Strother, 18.


I Can't Do What I Want. . . And Honor God

07-05-2015 Prayer - Part 3 - Your Will Be Done

Yesterday, I preached this message focusing on the third portion of the Model Prayer where Jesus instructed us to pray "Your will be done" to the Father.

This is available as a free podcast through the iTunes Store as well as on our church app (on multiple platforms) and our church website.

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A Bad Day Fishing Is Better Than. . .

For the past few days, my wife Tracy and I have been camping with family at Bull Shoals State Park on the White River in Arkansas. Each day consists of getting up early, taking the boat out on the river and working to catch the daily limit of rainbow trout. 

Tracy's father is an excellent fisherman and has years of experience on this river as well as other lakes and rivers throughout the state and Texas.

I, on the other hand, have very limited fishing experience. In other words, I don't know what I'm doing. Nevertheless, this has been a great week and we have caught our share of trout (Tracy easily out-fished me. For every one I caught, I think she had three or four.)

A Bad Day Fishing Is Better Than a Good Day at Work

I now understand fully the phrase "A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work."

So, as I sat on a boat for hours, throwing a fishing line into the water, I had quite a bit of time to think. For years, I've heard pastors reference Jesus' fishing illustrations in sermons. Here are some of the random thoughts regarding fishing and faith that came to mind, in no particular order:

  • It is good to be with someone who knows what they're doing while fishing. Mentors are vital. The Bible refers to this as "making disciples." (2 Timothy 2:2)
  • Sometimes, it's time to cast on the other side of the boat. (John 21:6)
  • The river is continually flowing. . .quickly. It's like the culture - changing quickly. The anchors we dropped were essential to allow us to fish effectively. (Hebrews 6:19)
  • Clean, proper bait is needed to catch the desired fish. (1 Corinthians 9:22)
  • We have to move the boat on occasion, otherwise, we're throwing lines out to empty water. (1 Timothy 4:7-10)
  • Sometimes the fish just play around with the bait, but never bite. This can be frustrating, but you just cannot make the fish bite. (Psalm 115:6)
  • If I had just stayed in the camper, read about fishing, talked about fishing and even developed great plans for fishing. . .I never would have caught anything. (Mark 16:15)

Then, I saw this sign posted in the park.

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It is obvious that the Arkansas State Parks are trying to encourage people to not just have life jackets in the boat, but to actually wear them.

I couldn't help but think that many people use Jesus just like they do life jackets. You know, they want to keep him close. . .but not too close. Unfortunately, unless you "wear the name of Christ" the life jacket will do no good. 

You must be born again. (John 3:1-21)

A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work, but here's the reality: There is no such thing as a bad day fishing.

As Christians we cannot worship vicariously. We cannot outsource discipleship. We must not just talk about sharing Christ with those in need of the Gospel (and we are all in need of the Gospel.)

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Matthew 4:19 (ESV)


What's Next Now that Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal?

I'm on vacation this week, but have been emailed, texted and asked by friends and family what I believe is next for the evangelical church in America now that same-sex marriage is legal. Now, I'm not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but you really don't have to be in order to see some possible next steps as the cultural shift becomes even more mainstream.

The Next Battle

CNN has posted a story titled "The Next Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage" and in this article, highlight some of the items that came to my mind initially.

While polls show that a majority of religious Americans now support same-sex marriage, many prominent groups -- such as the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- do not. Leaders from those groups pledged on Friday to seek legal means to shield their beliefs from state interference. (CNN)

The term "battle" is being used more frequently and while there is a battle going on, my concern is that believers will tend to identify the wrong enemy. In truth, a battle has been going on since before the beginning of the human story. This battle is not new. It began before the Garden of Eden and continues with the same goal in mind. 

In this stage of the "battle" some of the items that American believers have held dear for centuries are at risk. To believe that gaining the legal right to marry is the end-game in this cultural shift would be short-sighted.

Religious Liberty At Stake

I am not living in fear, but am facing the reality before us. Religious liberty, regardless what was weakly stated by Justice Kennedy . . .

"It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned."

. . .will be affected and likely lost in some cases. There is no way, based on what has been experienced recently, that churches and religious groups who hold to what is now called the "traditional marriage" of one man (born a man) to one woman (born a woman) will not be denounced and challenged legally. This is the next step and will happen.

Tax Exempt Status Will End

When asked what will happen next by a family member, I answered, "The church's tax-exempt status in the US will be removed within five years." This has been the threat of anti-church groups for years and unfortunately, many churches sit idly by when social upheaval and injustice takes place until the tax-exempt status is challenged.

I believe this may well be inevitable.

Amazingly, this op-ed hit Time's website this morning declaring that now is the time to remove the tax-exempt status.

So yes, the logic of gay-marriage rights could lead to a reexamination of conservative churches’ tax exemptions (although, as long as the IRS is afraid of challenging Scientology’s exemption, everyone else is probably safe). But when that day comes, it will be long overdue. I can see keeping some exemptions; hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good. And localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need. But it’s time for most nonprofits, like those of us who faithfully cut checks to them, to pay their fair share. (Time)

LGBT Rights Will Continue to Trend

433540_80103081The rainbow flag is seemingly emblazoned everywhere now and #LoveWins is trending on Twitter (with a rainbow heart automatically added, so be careful to use this hashtag unless you're making a pro-same-sex marriage statement.) Corporations are jumping onboard the trending theme, likely for business purposes rather than simply a statement endorsing so-called equal rights. 

Generational Divide Will Widen

Many parents are discovering that their children hold differing views on this issue than they do. This is not true in all cases, and the point could be made that parents and teenagers have differed on religious, political and social views for decades. Nevertheless, this is the "issue of the day" and the reality is the familial divide here is present.

More Teenagers & Young Adults Will "Come Out"

It's trendy. It's safer. Everyone is doing it.

At least that is how it seems.

Teenagers and college students in my community are celebrating, as the LGBT community among young people and collegians here represents a higher percentage than other communities. It may make news when a professional basketball or football player comes out as gay, but most of our high school athletes know of a teammate who identifies as such. This is not out of the ordinary and is often celebrated.

Some parents are struggling how to relate to a child who now has "come out of the closet." Other parents are not struggling, but celebrating. 

The times, they are a'changing.

Christian parents are working through these issues as well. The presumption that because a child grew up in the church, attended Sunday School and went on mission trips with the youth group does not preclude them from struggling with same-sex attraction and even acting on those urges. Believe me, the church is not immune to these issues.

For pastors to believe that the SSA (same sex attraction) issues are just for people outside their churches is foolish and short-sighted at best. Why would the Enemy spend all his energy and strategy on attacking those already distanced from God and His church? Of course, he seeks to steal, kill and destroy and attempts these things within the family of God.

Churches Will Be Sued Over Weddings

Our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) does not and will not host (as long as I am pastor) same-sex weddings or celebrations. Our pastors will not preside over such ceremonies. 

I believe many churches will find themselves in court over this. In fact, this issue will be the one that removes the tax-exempt status and other religious liberties we have experienced for years.

I also believe that some pastors will preside over weddings, believing them to be heterosexual, only to discover after the fact that one of the spouses was transgender. Mark my words, this will happen. It will change how we direct pre-marital counseling. Pastors will now have to ask, "So, were you born the gender you now are?" before moving forward with wedding plans.

Churches Must Respond, Not React

In no way should a church condone homosexual behavior, nor affirm it as a "third way" or "how God has made some people." Any attempt to affirm that which God has declared unholy is wrong, whether it's homosexuality or any other sin (and there is no grading of sin here - just staying on topic.)

It must be admitted that for years, we (the church) have not responded very well. It appears that fear was a motivator and that led to emotions that were viewed and anger and hatred. Somewhere in the midst of this, young people in the church struggling with this sin heard "We hate you! There's no place for you here! You are an abomination!" and a generation has been lost.

Therefore, the church must be prepared to counsel people and family members with love. This may change how some church events are structured. No longer should churches room four guys together in a hotel on a mission trip. The same is true for girls. These will be addressed as the desire to continue allow students struggling with sin issues to attend camps and events, in that we desire them to hear and experience God in a way that will bring them rescue and clarity. Yet, this will not be easy. It really never has been.

As we lovingly seek to present the unchanging Gospel of Christ to a lost, separated and dying world, we discover that God is not shocked by the latest polling numbers, Supreme Court rulings and corporate and community political correctness. We also discover that God, with his grace and mercy that is overwhelming, continues to draw people to Himself, offering the free gift of salvation and hope.

What About "Gay Christians?"

Whenever an adjective is added as a descriptor to the name "Christian" the title is stripped of it's glory and weakened. When a descriptor is one that is clearly identified as sin (yes, I know some differ with me on that, but I'll stick to that statement) in the Word of God, the name Christian becomes irrelevant. For me, it would be the same as declaring oneself an "Adulterous Christian," or "Thieving Christian" or "Idolatrous Christian" and owning the adjective as a proud descriptor of identity.

So, are there Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction? Absolutely. Are they really saved? No doubt. Just like there are Christians. . .real Christians who struggle with gluttony (the idol of food) or adultery or pornography. It is the blood of Christ and the grace of God that removes our sinful identifiers upon our repentance. 

The battle is real and when the name Christian is weakened, a victory is perceived.

Do Not Fear

Rest assured, fear is one of the greatest tactics of the enemy.

Do not fear what may come, but renew your minds on the things of God. Your children may celebrate and announce their affirmation of this trending lifestyle. Your son or daughter may even come out of the closet. Your co-worker may now introduce you to his/her spouse of the same gender. You will be invited to a same-sex wedding. (My recommendation - do not attend, even if it's family and you love them. Your presence shows affirmation.)

But, do not fear.

Remember Paul's instruction to Timothy and know this is God's for you and me as well. . .

"For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)

Love does win. . .and it's not the world's version.

I love what Curt Hamner has said, "Rescuing a drowning culture is never easy, but if anyone has a foot in the dry shore to send out a lifeline, it is the church."

Amen.

_____________________

For some potentially helpful resources, in this area, check out our LGBT page on our online bookstore


GUEST BLOGGER: Summer Missionary to Canada - Ashley Tarkington

Go to the ends of the earth?

Well I headed north, to Ontario, Canada. Maybe not the far ends of the earth, but definitely a good jaunt for a girl from Florida.

For the next two months I will be hanging out with the people of Starting Point Church. This church plant just celebrated their two-year anniversary in February. The church currently meets in a community center each Sunday morning at 10:30am. They focus on those who do not consider themselves to be “church people.”

What does that look like?

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When you order a refill to your water at Montana's Restaurant, this is what they bring you.

It’s a church, right? Don’t the people know what they are getting into when they show up? Well, maybe. I presume they understand the word "church" and what that all entails, but this strategy is working. Starting Point is reaching the “unchurched.”

The service looks and feels like church as we know it. They have greeters that hand attenders programs as they enter. They have refreshments and coffee in the back. They begin the service with a welcome from staff and a few songs, a video, announcements, offering, a few more songs, and then the pastor stands (or sits) behind a table and talks for about 30 to 45 minutes. There's even time following the service to talk with the pastor or ask him questions.

It looks like church, sounds like church, smells like church, and feels like church. So, how does this church reach unchurched people? It doesn’t make sense.

I mean, that’s how church has always looked to me. Maybe there were a few differences in the past - like the offering being at the close of the service rather than the beginning and there was that historically awkward time at the close of the services where we stood together, held hands and sang a song together. Sometimes we even had prayer together while holding hands and then at the "Amen" we squeezed each others hands as the cue that we were done.

So how do you look like a church and reach people who don’t like church?

Well, here is my answer (just my opinion.)I think it has to all do with the people. As some may know, the church is not a building. The church is (or should that be "are"?) the people of God. News Flash… The Christians!! We are in a world, like it or not, where relationships are key. There are no more Tuesday night visitation nights, no more handing out light bulbs door to door in an attempt to advertise the church programs, going door to door handing out pictures from your churches fall festival photo op.

It’s all about the coffee dates and small groups.

It’s about you.

It’s about me.

We cannot just invite people to church and think that will do the job. Church is church, regardless where you are. We reach the unchurched by going to them. We must love people. We must be friends with others, even others who are not followers of Christ. It sounds so simple, but it's still a challenge. We are to love God and love people. . .and love people enough to introduce them to God.

Regarding church here in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is that if people do go to church, they more than likely attend a Catholic church. There are very few evangelicals or Baptists, particularly. Many here grew up in the Catholic church. There are many Catholic schools in the area as well. So, Starting Point Church is a church for people who do not go to church. Though it may still looks like church to me, it looks very different to those who have never been to church or only have traditional, orthodox religious services in their history. 

Regardless the look of the service and/or the style of music, the church is people coming together as one in Christ, to grow in Christ, to serve Christ, and to engage with others for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.

Please pray for the Starting Point Church family and our leaders (Pastor Mike & Tanya Hauser and  leaders Neil & Kaytee Jimenez.) Though it is an exciting adventure of new beginnings it also can be quite stressful. God is and has been doing amazing things through this church plant in Burlington, Ontario. We know the best is yet to come, eh? 


Another Flag Flies High In Celebration of Today's SCOTUS Ruling. Now What?

Over the past week, in the aftermath of the tragic murders in Charleston, South Carolina, there has been much debate over the public display of a flag that holds much history and essentially creates  division in our nation. Politicians and pundits as well as religious leaders and concerned citizens have made statements and decrees about the flag and what it represents. Intelligent people on both sides of the issue have taken to the blogosphere and the internet to state their case. Businesses have removed any items with the emblem upon it. My thirty-year-old high school yearbooks now seem offensive. (Our mascot was the Rebel and a certain battle flag was displayed throughout our school.)

Eddie Gilley, the Baptist Collegiate Ministries Director at the University of Florida, wrote a poignant article about this. You can read it here.

Another Controversial Flag

543733_19791065There is another flag that also creates division in our nation. This one, however, is not receiving the same level of ire and mandates.

This flag is also being hoisted on flagpoles owned by government entities. The rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT community and the public statement of "pride" during official gatherings and ceremonies is being waved highly today in Washington DC and in other communities throughout our nation. 

Today will be marked as a key date in our nation. For some, it will be a day to celebrate annually. For others, it will be a day of annual lamentation.  

The 5-4 Supreme Court Ruling

For months this day has been anticipated. Futurists stated that it was inevitable. The church has been positioning for a response, while others have prepared celebrations. The court has effectively instituted a redefinition of the 14th amendment with today's ruling that says states must allow same-sex marriage.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in writing for the majority stated, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were."

Each of the four justices opposed to the ruling wrote their own dissents.

Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision a "threat to American democracy."

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent stated, "If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today's decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."

Now What?

Once the ruling was announced, the news media and pseudo-news media began pushing stories out regarding the decision and its ramifications. Those in support of the decision are celebrated as loving and accepting and progressive.

Those in opposition to the ruling are categorized as haters, wrong-minded, sexually prejudiced and "on the wrong side of history." 

This is no surprise and yet, today we live in a different America than we did just 24 hours ago.

I have received numerous text messages, questions on social media and through email and from friends and acquaintances regarding this announcement. 

The first thing we should do is that which we have been doing (or at least should have been doing) - PRAY.

We know that prayer is needed. We know this intellectually, but for many prayer has been anemic for years and when it is little more than a blessing over a meal or a request to heal all the sick people and "be with" everyone we know, there is need for true prayer.

Pray for guidance and discernment. 

Pray for peace in the midst of the cultural shift.

Pray for the love of God to reign within us so that while not affirming sin, we may truly love those with whom we disagree and especially those who live opposed to the Gospel.

The Challenge to Come

While many who self-identify as LGBT have no desire to become a poster-child for same-sex marriage or public fights, there are some who promote the #LoveWins theme but are overwhelmed with hate and hurt. Some will seek to be married in the local church buildings and churches will have to make decisions  that will likely draw legal action.

There will be some churches (and already are) who will gladly open their doors and will even officiate same-sex weddings.

There are also many, like our church and those under my leadership, who will refuse to host such a wedding or perform a ceremony. Whether a church's by-laws declares their right to refusal, the lawsuits will inevitably come. It is in these days that capitulation will happen in many "churches." This is unfortunate.

We Never Were Culturally Accepted

Today's ruling is shocking to many. There is a false belief that Christianity (true biblical Christianity) was at one time culturally accepted as the norm and highly regarded. I do not discount that history affirms a more accepted morality as proposed by the Bible was more common in the past, but the reality is that the world has been opposed to the Gospel since the day that the Enemy tempted Eve and Adam. Today's ruling is a reminder of this truth.

Panic is not the response needed. Knee-jerk reactions are not needed, either. The church may get smaller as the culture slide continues, but we have always known that this is a narrow road we travel and the broader influence for the Gospel always comes from a narrower footprint.

So, we pray. We pray for God's name to be hallowed and for His Kingdom to come, here as well as in heaven. We pray that we will hear his voice and follow His commands. We pray for those far from God to be broken to the point where they respond to the lure of the Gospel. 

That is our hope, not the Judicial, Legislative or Executive branches of our government or any other entity.

So, I'm now a conscientious objector to a ruling put into place today. The 14th Amendment has been redefined and I lament the reality of what this means.

There's Another Flag

So church, stand firm. Stay focused. Remember the mission.

We stand under another flag or banner and it's not the one that is pledged at Vacation Bible School, but one named Jehovah Nissi.

And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner. Exodus 17:15 (ESV)

The Lord is our banner. 

Let's pledge our continued allegiance to Him.


Prayer - No Longer the Last Resort: Part 2 - Thy Kingdom Come

06-21-2015 Prayer - Part 2 - Thy Kingdom Come

Pastor Bob Roberts shared at a conference I attended a few years ago. His global missions network is vast and he interacts with believers who live throughout the world. It has come to his realization that while American believers speak of Kingdom and the Kingship of God, it is a paradigm shift from everything we have been taught as children.

You see, as Americans, we live in a nation that was founded with a rebellion to a king. From our perspective, this is a good thing. It’s a historical milestone and we celebrate the Revolution and the heroes who have become our Founding Fathers.

Our nature, therefore is to celebrate human independence and freedom and to push back against monarchies where there is a ruler or ruling class. Yet, when we come together as believers, we speak of the King of kings and Lord of lords, worshipping God and praying for Kingdom miracles to occur and for His Kingdom to flourish.

We do this – and we should – but, often our nature pushes against this.

In this summer series at First Orange Park, we are focusing on Jesus’ answer to his disciples when asked "Lord, teach us to pray." His response is the model prayer, often called "The Lord's Prayer."

So, Jesus instructs them and gives them a template for their prayer – that if implemented, would change everything.

In this message, we look at the second element given to us by Christ as our model for effectively praying and communicating with God.

Pray then like this:"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come – Matthew 6:9-10a (ESV)

One phrase – just half of a verse – yet, so impactful and powerful.

And often so ignored.

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The Most Amazing Story from the Charleston Shooting #PrayForCharleston

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What happened in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday evening was shocking, terrible, troubling and a reminder to all that evil is real and our Enemy's desire to "steal, kill and destroy" is not just a memory verse, but a strategy still being implemented.

Christ-followers of all backgrounds and skin tones grieve with those of the Emanuel AME Church and the surrounding Charleston community. This local church hurts and so do we.

The stories of what happened that evening have been reported through numerous media outlets. Churches and believers have stated solidarity with the church as they should. The alleged (the word used since the killer has yet to go to trial) murderer, Dylann Roof has been arrested and many stories are now coming out regarding his past, his possible manifesto and his history of racial hatred. He is no doubt a troubled young man and to call the act evil is no overstatement.

Other stories are now flooding the media. Stories regarding the Confederate Battle Flag that flies at the South Carolina statehouse and others about gun control, racial violence and youthful angst fill news sites and are the opening stories on television.

The Most Amazing Story

In the midst of all this, a video of victims family members confronting Roof may be the most amazing. Many have viewed this and have voiced their unbelief. They ask, "How could they say things like that?" They, and many in our nation, just cannot fathom being able to voice that which family members are saying, especially only a few days following the event.

Judge their words for yourself. Watch the video below.

 

This is amazing.

This is what the Gospel does.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV) 

Let's continue praying for those at Emanuel, the families of the victims and the entire community of Charleston. The Enemy will not find victory here.


David Platt's Speech Clarifies Policies & Goals for Global Missions #SBC15

During David Platt's first year as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, there has been a noticeable effort of refocus and clarification of mission and a strategic attempt to partner with our North American Mission Board and local churches for the propagation of the Gospel.

23360-123963At the annual SBC meeting this week in Columbus, Dr. Platt present the annual report for the IMB. In this, he addressed critical remarks and overstated media reports regarding some policy changes within the IMB. What began as a report, became a sermon. For this, I am grateful and when Dr. Platt concluded, there were no questions offered. This is a significant moment, perhaps missed by many, within our family of churches. 

May God continue to bless our missionaries globally and the leadership of our International Mission Board.

Here's Dr. David Platt's "report" in its entirety. Yes, it's worth ten minutes of your time. . .

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Video courtesy of the International Mission Board SBC.


The Southern Baptist Convention - A Family Gathered for a Big Story #SBC15

I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, gathering with thousands of family members (that's what it feels like) at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been to numerous denominational meetings such as this in the past, but this year, there is a different feel.

FAMILY MEETING

I call it a meeting with family members, for that is what it truly is. Baptist brothers and sisters from throughout the land gather together and reconnect with old friends, worship together, make decisions that will impact many through policy affirmations. Like many families, we also grimace at some things said and done by others in the family. It is like being with others over a holiday and then the crazy uncle shows up. We love him, but we never know what he's going to do or say. Every family has that guy. Our SBC has those as well. And, if you can't figure out who he/she may be. . . it may be you.

A "REALITY SHOW" 

Since I categorize our SBC meeting as a family gathering, in some ways it has become like the families featured on television reality shows. There is a sense of trying to just be family, but always knowing that the cameras (or in this case, the national news media as well as bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook posters are in the room as well. . .just watching and waiting.)

Personally, I am glad these guests are in the room, either physically or virtually, in that I believe God uses these avenues to ensure we (Baptists) stay on focus, in "witness-mode" and loving to all, even though we cannot be and will not be affirming to all.

On the heels of headlines that bemoan (or celebrate) the decline of evangelicals in America and statements in op-eds like this one have found places in national media outlets.

As Southern Baptists gather Tuesday for their annual summer meeting, gloom hangs over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, The Washington Post)

While the reality is that numbers in Baptist life, such as membership and baptism, are in decline, I have not sensed an overwhelming sense of gloom in our gathering based on this. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research continually reminds us that "facts are our friends." It's true. The scorecard that has been used for decades in SBC life has been flawed from the outset and while we all know the numbers we have seen in the past were never truly accurate, as Dr. Al Mohler stated at a Baptist21 gathering, "We've never really trusted our numbers, but we bragged on them when they worked for us."

This is true.

Yet, in the midst of facing the facts of these numbers, this convention meeting has become one of purpose - a purpose beyond denominationalism.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd has been touring the nation and using social and traditional media outlets to emphasize the need for prayer among Baptists and all evangelicals in our nation. At the outset, a pastor emphasizing prayer sounds uneventful or, honestly, not impactful. The sad reality is that when a SBC meeting adjusts its schedule and shifts traditional sermons, business and other events to open up a prime, evening session for prayer it becomes newsworthy.

More Than a Meeting About Same-Sex Marriage

The Pastors Conference began on Sunday evening and with winsome truth presented by pastors throughout Sunday and Monday, the Spirit of God was challenging messengers (this is the Baptist term for those from local churches who have been elected by their churches to represent them at this gathering) in ways that was needed and still needed so that we may lovingly engage a culture with the hope of the Gospel without fear or hatred.

The news reports have been focused on Dr. Floyd's message on Tuesday morning where statements regarding the nation's proclivity of endorsing and promoting same-sex unions were addressed. For the average reader of the news, one would think that all Southern Baptists do is talk about LGBT people in our families and cities. While these issues must be addressed, this was not the "Anti-Gay SBC Meeting" so many have stated it to be. To be clear, there has been no waffling on the biblical truths and the religious liberties and pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been discussed in numerous venues throughout the week.

However, what is often not reported are the bigger stories and foundational Gospel elements that our family came together around. What has not been reported is the movement of the Spirit of God in a moment of declared repentance and reconciliation.

Some Notable Moments in This Year's SBC Family Gathering

These are moments that I deem as powerful and focus oriented. To be honest, some were moments where God may have spoken more clearly to me than others simply due to my personal journey of faith and the chapter of life where I nowreside.

  • Authentic unity among our mission boards - For years, our two mission boards (International & North American) have done great work, but  have never truly worked strategically together. One of the first noticeable moments of unity was when I went into the Exhibit Hall and saw both IMB and NAMB exhibit booths next to each other, decorated similarly, one giving away coffee mugs and the other giving away samples of coffee, while missionaries from both agencies wore similar shirts. Now, that may seem superficial to some, but it's a message that was heart loud and clear. Throughout the week as Drs. David Platt & Kevin Ezell spoke to groups together, their camaraderie was apparent and the reality became even more clear - these guys are working together. For those outside the SBC family, this doesn't mean much, but for the family members, this is HUGE. . .and wonderful.
  • Powerful Sermons - I did not hear every sermon presented this weekend at the Pastors Conference and Annual Meeting, but I did hear most. These godly men have obviously prayed for weeks in preparation for their moment to present the Word. None took it lightly. No sermon was bad (in the sense one can grade a sermon) and all were valuable. Of those that "rang the bell" for me regarding challenge and conviction, I must say that my brother from Jacksonville, H.B. Charles, Jr., Dr. Russell Moore and Pastor J.D. Greear's messages resonated loudly. 
  • James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel are now Southern Baptist - There was rumor that James would make an announcement during his sermon on Monday night. I told a friend "He's joining the SBC." Now, I had no idea and do not know James personally, but when he made his announcement, it looked like I was in the know. Ha. Nevertheless, this is a big story. Now, there are some who are not fond of James and Harvest and may not be happy they are now part of the family, but then again, there are Baptist churches who have been in the fold for decades that others aren't too fond of either, so that's irrelevant. What this does show is that a significant church leader in our nation with influence among many churches has stated that the mission and the doctrine of the SBC is valuable and viable and he wants to be a part. So. . . just like that, we now have a new church in the Chicago area (with others throughout the land in the network.) I'm not sure we count that as a new church plant, though Kevin Ezell may try to do so (That's a joke for those who struggle with written sarcasm.)
  • Send Network Luncheon - Over 2,000 people gathered to eat a soggy sandwich and some powerfully powdered BBQ chips at the Send Network Luncheon. This was a huge gathering and yet, it was basically a large crowd seated in a room watching Platt and Ezell talk about reaching the world for the Gospel, and to enjoy seeing Platt squirm when Ezell asked loaded questions and told jokes on his behalf in front of the crowd. It became clear that Platt and Ezell would make a great touring comedy duo, with Platt playing the straight man and Ezell telling the jokes. (BTW - the use of the term "straight man" is a comedy term that has no connection to the current LGBT discussion that many think Baptists cannot stop talking about.)
  • The Cooperative Program Stage - In the Exhibit Hall, there's a small stage set up between the IMB and NAMB booths. This is the Executive Board's CP Stage where interesting interviews and frank discussions about polity, future and mission take place. Hosted by different denominational leaders throughout the day, these discussions are worthy of a small stand-up audience.
  • Free Stuff - Numerous booths throughout the Exhibit Hall offering pens, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and candy means pastors become little kids for a couple of days, holding out their free Guidestone bags and basically "Trick or Treating" from booth to booth. Keep up the free books and coffee mugs. These are a pastor's favorite things.
  • Not Your Traditional SBC - I was impressed and encouraged by the attendance this year, especially in a city that requires most messengers to fly to in order to attend. The racial and generational diversity evident in the room was exciting to see. Ted Traylor told us to wear blue jeans on Tuesday and Russell Moore said we need more tattoos in the SBC. Maybe those were shocking statements, but it's hard to imagine hearing that from the stage a decade or two ago.

The Two Most Impactful Moments

The Prayer Gathering

Tuesday night's prayer gathering was promoted well. Yet, to be honest, I went in like many of my friends (who were honest with me) expecting . . . well, little. Yes, I confess this sin of low expectation. I confess that I was tired and wondered if it would be worth me staying for this event. . . for I sometimes bristle at "Christian events" that seem to exist just for the sake of being an event.

I stayed.

I knew I needed to do so.

The prayer meeting began and we sang. I would say worship began, but that doesn't necessarily begin just because music starts. Worship did begin shortly after I joined in with the singing. I asked God to speak to me, one of thousands in a room that was much more full than I anticipated (again, I repent of my sin of low expectations.) 

One by one, prayers were offered. We followed Dr. Floyd's lead, but it was clear that Dr. Floyd wasn't really the one leading this. God had entered the fray and had taken control.

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I prayed with a group sitting near me. I had never met them before, but I believe, as I told them, that God had placed us near each other in the room so that we could unite in prayer. 

We prayed with and affirmed the prayers of brothers and sisters around us and on the stage. Prayers of confession were voiced. Prayers of repentance were offered. Prayers of reconciliation between the races were stated - this was more than a resolution. Prayers of pleading - asking for healing of our families, for our children, for our nation, for our culture, etc. were placed before God. Prayers for our leaders, for President Obama (YES! Baptists prayed for the President. We asked forgiveness for not doing so and for ignoring the biblical mandate.) 

We prayed. 

We sang.

We prayed as we sang.

And we believe.

We believe that prayer works and that God hears our prayers.

We contemplated the reality of the "If. . . then" prayers and realized that God may not doing the "then" portions because we have not been obedient in the "if" portions.

Was this just a meeting? Well, it could be for some, but that's their choice. I believe this is not the end-game, but the beginning. 

The Missionary Commissioning Service

Together, IMB and NAMB, under the direction of Dr. Ezell and Dr. Platt, respectively, led out in a commissioning service for missionaries and churches (yes - the local churches) who have said "Yes! We will go!" 

I was sitting alone in the crowd, but with family as the stories of individuals and couples were shared. Details on the lostness of our world were presented. I was challenged by the strong word given by Dr. Platt regarding the reasons we must be sent and be sending.

I was brought to tears as I thought of the stories before me. Missionaries pictured on the screen were sitting in the crowd. When their names and photographs appeared on the screen, they stood up, holding a Lumio book lamp in their hands, and it became clear - these people are doing the hard things and doing so because they must. 

They are the light of the world taking the Light of the world into the darkness and we are sending them. Therefore, we are going with them.

It was powerful. It was amazing. This was more than a simple prayer and a passport. 

At the close, under the direction of Dr. Platt, we were challenged to celebrate these who say "YES" more loudly than we cheer for our favorite football team. How can we cheer louder for those who play a game that doesn't matte for eternity than for the God who is sending out his ambassadors into the darkness for a task that holds eternity in the balance?

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Why Come To These Gatherings?

In the past, people would come to the SBC Annual Meeting to watch or be a part of the latest argument or fight. There are some pretty nasty chapters in our story. Yet, today, even with disagreement from some we find ourselves as Stetzer stated on Monday, experiencing more peace in the family than in recent years.

This is significant, especially in a culture that will continue to marginalize and maybe even criminalize some of the biblical and moral stances we must take.

We are a family (crazy uncle and all) and God has seen fit, in His grace, to let us in on His great story.

That's why I come. This is my family and our Father has much for us.


Identity is Bestowed, Not Manufactured - Jenner, Dolezal & Other Posers Like Me

We all seek validation. There's no one who is immune to this desire. Validation comes from many sources. Unfortunately, many of the sources we often go to for such validation as a man, a woman or even as a good Christian person, are flawed. Because we often seek validation from sources other than the only One who can offer a pure and holy version, we find ourselves performing or behaving in certain ways just to hear "Good job" with the hopes that this form of validation will suffice.

But it never does.

As human beings, both men and women, we have been created in the image of God. This is foundational in understanding the power of identity and validation. Our story starts with God, is about God and ends with God. 

"Identity is not something that falls on us out of the sky. For better or for worse, identity is bestowed. We are who we are in relation to others." - John Eldredge & Brent Curtis

We (humanity) have struggled with our identity and proper validation since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden when the liar offered this thought to Eve and Adam - "The God you love. . .he's holding out on you. You cannot trust him."

That lie has permeated our existence ever since. 

The enemy isn't creative, and therefore, uses the very same strategies over and over and over again. Solomon was right in so many levels when he declared there to be "nothing new under the sun."

Jenner dolezalWhen Bruce Jenner revealed his transformation into Caitlyn a couple of weeks ago, the response was incredible. He is not the first man to declare himself dissatisfied with his gender. He is not the first man to make changes needed to be identified as a woman. He is just the one to do so in this age of the "perfect storm" of gender identification, celebrity worship, sexual "tolerance" and political activism.

Now, in a story that many would say is unrelated, Rachel Dolezal, the President of the NAACP's Spokane chapter has apparently been "outed" as white. The issue is not so much that Dolezal is white, but that she has presented and promoted herself as a mixed-race, black woman for years.

While Jenner's life details have been made available for the public since the 1970s, Dolezal has been known only to a small demographic. No more. Her story is now the lead story on most news and entertainment networks. (I smell a Lifetime movie in the making.)

It Is The Same Story

So, how are Jenner and Dolezal connected? They likely have never met. The Huffington Post and other media outlets are doing all they can to ensure these two stories are not connected. Their personal stories are vastly different. . . yet, the same.

Their stories are stories of identity. They are stories of validation sought. 

How do I know? I know because this is my story, too. No, I'm not a black man living as a white man. Neither am I a woman living as a man (or a man desiring to live like a woman.) I, like these two have sought validation for years. I seek identity.

Just like you do.

Jasmine Holmes recently wrote of this on a blog post for Desiring God She stated:

The gospel shows us not only the root of our dissatisfaction with our place in the world — the sin that separates us from our Father (Isaiah 59:2) — but also the cure for that bitter root (1 Corinthians 15:57). We were created in God’s image, for his glory (Genesis 1:26). That image includes male and female, as well as the beautiful display of diversity that we see in all four corners of the world.

It's an old revival cliche, but it's true. We all have a "God-shaped void within us that can only be filled by Him." Another way to say it is this, "We all seek to hear our Father say 'Well done. You matter to me. I love you.'" The Father has stated this so clearly through the gospel. Jesus is God's validation to us. Yet, we often cannot, or do not, hear that declaration.

The Same Old Lies

The enemy is strategic. He's still throwing the lies toward humanity, "You can't trust God. He's holding out on you." When we believe that, we cannot hear the truth. And we seek to fill the gaps with whatever we can.

We seek validation.

We seek identity.

Since God alone can offer these, when we miss him, we create our own identity. We become satisfied with weak validation. We become posers.

When Mitzi Miller, former editor for Jet & Ebony magazines, was interviewed about the Dolezal story for National Journal, she made this profound statement:

It’s ridiculous and ironic. Again, I go back to the suspicion that something was really messed up in her life and she had to find a way to cope. Adopting another identity and creating a life out of it was her answer.

As you know, most news stories remain front-and-center for about two days, then everyone just goes about their lives, until the next story comes up to create headlines and social media trends. Yet, those who are part of the story will not be able to just turn the page. How this one ends is yet to be determined, but Miller honed in on the real issue, I believe.

It is not about race.

It is not about gender.

It is about identity.

It is about missing the validation from the author of the story.

Your Validation

As the Father spoke of the Son at his baptism - "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," so we long to hear that validation as children of God. We can through Christ. It is not easy to hear that still, small voice in the midst of the screaming culture, but it is there.

God's validation of us is not the same as his affirmation of our actions. Sin grieves the heart of God and we carry that burden, but thanks be to God that we have been redeemed through Christ and no longer are identified by our sin. (Now, that previous statement is for children of God - those who have surrendered to Him and now have the right to call him Father.) So many Christians struggle with this. Even in the world of church and religion, we often pose - seeking validation from pastors, other Christians or church members or maybe denominational leaders. 

We must be careful to remain focused. Christianity is not simply behavior modification. It is heart transformation. 

So, when you hear these stories of confused people seeking to "find themselves" or attempting to change things in their lives to enable them to live as the person their mind identifies them as, pray for them and remember. . .we have all been there.  The poser lives, but doesn't have to.

That's the beauty of the gospel - life in exchange for death. Authentic identity in exchange for the masquerade. Validation in exchange for accusation.

Identity is bestowed. Our true identity is bestowed by the Father. . .and he does not make mistakes.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12 (ESV)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 (ESV)


I Know the Scorecard Has Changed. . .But It's Hard Not to Look at the Old One

The news media has been reporting what they declare to be the decline of Christianity in America. It seems the latest Pew Survey (this is the name of the research group, not a survey of number of pews in your church. . .though that survey probably exists somewhere) reflects this reality by showing the PF_15.05.05_RLS2_1_310pxgrowth of the "Nones" (those with no religious affiliation, and the decline of mainstream Christian denominations and groups with the greatest decline being with Mainline Protestant affiliations.

Is The Sky Falling?

The simple answer is NO. The church will not fail, even if buildings close and denominations lose traction. Some churches should close. Some denominations, based upon unbiblical and ungodly choices will decline. . .and should. And, the reality is that as the culture swings further away from biblical morality, those churches who continue to stand firmly on the Word of God and seek to love Him and others well, will likely be marginalized by a culture that cannot understand.

This is not unique to the United States, nor is it unique to our time in history.

Nevertheless, as Ed Stetzer pointed out in an op-ed for USA Today. . .

While it should be noted that evangelicals' share of the overall U.S. population dropped by 9 percentage points over the last seven years based on denominational affiliation, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as evangelical or born-again rose from 34 to 35% over the same period of time. Don't miss that: More than one-third of Americans call themselves evangelical.

And despite what many are saying, evangelicals are attending church more than ever. The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.

This is part of the growing "evangelicalization" of American Christianity in which the church in the U.S. is increasingly taking on the attributes of evangelicalism. According to Pew, half of all Christians self-identify as an evangelical or born again.

The Old Scorecard

I have read the books on missional movements and engagement. I have led conferences on the paradigm shift that must take place within local churches in order to honor God and engage a lost culture. I get it. The scorecard has changed. Yet, even though I know this. . .it's difficult not to default back to that which I have always known.

I like scorecards.

There, I said it. I actually like scorecards.

When I was a kid going to Cincinnati Reds games, I'd take a pencil and, at least for the first few innings, keep score on the provided scorecard program page. It kept me interested in the game and since baseball seems to be the sport that focuses most on statistics, I felt like I was in the know.

As a kid, I would play baseball, basketball and even soccer (just one season - we lost every game except the one I missed. I figured out then that soccer wasn't my sport.) I have a few trophies from those years, but they were for winning. Even as a kid, the score mattered to me. I know we now live in the "everyone gets a trophy" age where the score isn't even kept in certain situations. I get it. I understand the reasoning, but I also know this - the league may not keep the official score for the kids' sports, but most every parent in the stands knows exactly what the score is.

We like scorecards.

Why? Because we like to win.

That's a message for another day.

Nevertheless, another scorecard of sorts was released today. This one is from Baptist Press and reveals the state of Southern Baptist Churches in our nation, supposedly. I read the article and did what everyone I know does when they see these lists and charts. I went to my state (Florida) to see how we have done financially, church number-wise, number of baptisms and all other indicators. Then, I looked at where were were in relation to other states, which is crazy because Florida Baptists aren't part of a sports league. It's not like we are competing against Georgia (we beat them in baptisms, by the way) or Tennessee (we beat them in baptisms, too) or Texas (that's unfair, they have two conventions and more teams. . . uh, churches). You see, this can be really unhealthy.

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Here's what every Baptist pastor knows about SBC statistics as provided by State Conventions - they're flawed. This is not really anyone's fault. It's the nature of the autonomous church. These statistics are built upon numbers provided by churches, as they choose to provide them, to the state conventions. Some churches keep lousy records. Others are meticulously anal when it comes to numbers. Some provide data. Others do not. Therefore, even with our best working on this, the numbers are never going to be 100 percent accurate.

Do Numbers Matter?

Yes, numbers matter. Sometimes, numbers can be used by God to spur us on to better service. If a community is growing exponentially and the church lives in a silo, the numbers on engagement with the community may show a need to do better. 

The reality is that there are likely many small churches who are better engaged and more missional than comparatively larger churches.

Baptisms are perhaps the best indicator we have of life change, yet that is likely a flawed number as well. 

Biblical Precedence

There's no ignoring the reality that people were counted when the church gathered in the New Testament. Even prior to the institution of the church, when Jesus would enter a town, perform miracles, teach the people, etc. someone was counting the number of those in the crowd. It was apparently so important that the numbers attending were listed in Scripture.

A Better Scorecard

Though the old scorecard will likely remain for years, another element must be added (or used as a replacement for some of the items counted now) and that is the number of "sent" Christ-followers. For years, we have counted the gathered. Yet, I cannot help but remember Christ's instructions for his followers to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out more workers. 

I am encouraged that many of our SBC churches are seeing this and entering into this story intentionally. Now, it's not new. For years, churches have sent missionaries globally. Churches would start "missions" in unreached areas. What must count today is what counted years ago. We are a sending church, part of a sending denomination. We must remain so.

The Win

Scorecards show where we're winning. . .and where we're losing. So, where's the win? The win is that even though the Enemy has called to the bullpen and seems to be throwing his biggest and best at the church, he will not prevail. We know the win is life-change. We know the win is transformation. We know the win is God being glorified. Let's all "live sent" for we have a great task before us.

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:17-19 (ESV)