Back to Work

It is no secret that businesses in our communities and across the United States are on a desperate search to hire workers. Incentives to go back to work continue to increase, with sign-on bonuses and even pet insurance being offered to lure in new employees.

Both speculation and research abound as to why people are not returning to the workforce in the continuing covid-impacted environment. “The Great Resignation,” as it has been called, may simply be a bump in the road on this unprecedented pandemic journey. Or it may be a cosmic shift in how people view work and what they are willing to sacrifice for their job or career. Either way, the potential exists for individuals to move away from habits of diligent productivity and move toward a lifestyle of idleness.

The term “idleness” does not refer only to the condition of sitting around doing nothing. It is not hard to find agreement that a frenzied work pace is not good for anyone and contradicts the biblical commands to observe a sabbath, a rest. However, idleness goes beyond simply taking an afternoon off to rest. Idleness, as used by the apostle Paul, refers to disorderliness and being busy doing something other than what you are supposed to be doing – hence, the term “busybodies,” found in 2 Thessalonians 3:11. They were busy doing something, but it was not their work. They had time on their hands to meddle in things that weren’t their business. Time to get involved in sinful behaviors or bad relationships. Time to waste being destructive rather than constructive. The warning against idleness is a reminder that when you stop doing what you should be doing it’s not long before you start doing what you shouldn’t be doing.

Paul gives a glimpse into his own work habits. As an itinerate preacher, he did not have a steady source of income. However, he was a skilled leather craftsman and made it his practice to set up shop in the local marketplace when he arrived in a town to preach. He would earn wages that provided for his shelter and food. He did not expect others to take care of his every need, though he had a right to do so. Instead, he provided an example for others to follow to avoid the dangerous trap of idleness.

It is important to note that Paul does not speak harshly of those who cannot work, those who cannot provide for their own needs but rely on the generosity of others for sustenance. The church had a plan in place to provide for orphans, widows, and those unable to help themselves. Paul’s criticism is directed toward those who have the ability to provide for their needs but choose to be idle, a choice that leads to trouble.

But Paul’s discourse on idleness circles back to a place of hope, a place of grace. The ultimate goal of this rebuke is not one of excommunication, as if chasing away an enemy. Rather, the goal is one of restoration, as if bringing a disobedient child back to the family after having a time-out in his room. While it is never okay to disobey God, His grace is always ready to help us no matter what our situation.

* If you do not have a relationship with God, that relationship will begin with His grace. (Ephesians 2:8,9)

* If you are in a relationship with God but struggling to obey His commands, He will answer your prayer for help with His grace. (Hebrews 4:16)

* If you are a follower of God who is weary in well doing, God promises that His grace will be sufficient to keep you “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  (I Corinthians 15:58)

Grace will meet you where you are but it won’t leave you where you are.

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Staying True in Persecution

Yesterday was the annual Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We participated in a special prayer service last evening at Northfield, lifting our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ before the Lord. Yet, because this kind of persecution is not happening right in front of us, we can find it difficult to relate to its realities, because it is not part of our daily lives. Christians do face opposition in America, but it is rare to hear of a believer in our nation being killed for following Jesus.

Yet what is at stake for Christians facing persecution today is the same as what is at stake for every believer who wants to follow Christ. We must resist the urge to place persecuted believers in an elite, unattainable category. These ordinary men and women who believe in Jesus have made important faith decisions. But anyone who wants to faithfully follow Jesus, whether living in Northfield or North Korea, must answer the same two critical yet personal questions.

Question #1: Do I believe the Gospel is true? I am not going to suffer loss or die for something I do not believe is true. Neither are you. So we need to examine this question closely. The believers in Thessalonica were commended by the Apostle Paul for their acceptance of God’s Word, “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (I Thess. 2:13). They accepted the gospel as God’s revelation, not man’s intervention. And they honored the gospel by turning away from their idols to serve the living and true God (2 Thess. 3:1).  

If we do believe the Gospel, that we are sinners in need of God’s provision of salvation through Jesus Christ as our only way to Heaven, then we must also settle the matter of our obedience to the Gospel. Will I reject pressure to deny or be silent because I honor the gospel? Will I refuse to follow false teachings or altered and distorted versions of the gospel because I honor the gospel?  If you and I won’t speak up for Christ when our lives are easy and there is little to lose, we certainly will not stand up for the Gospel when faced with the hardship of persecution.

Question #2:  Do I believe the Gospel is worth my personal sacrifice?  If I believe the Gospel but I do not value the Gospel, then I will not be willing to count the cost for the sake of the Gospel. This question causes us to examine what we truly value in life. The believers in Thessalonica were encouraged by the Apostle Paul when he said “do not be moved by your afflictions because you know that we are destined to this” (I Thess. 3:3). Persecution is part of God’s plan. We must accept this truth. Persecution has been woven throughout the tapestry of the Church’s story from its beginning and will continue to be there until its end.

If we believe that persecution is part of God’s plan, then we must also settle the matter of our willingness to believe that God will meet our needs even if we lose everything because of persecution. One thing that gives persecution power is the fear it generates. Persecution threatens to take away from us what we value most: the closeness of family, the comforts of home, the security of a job, the blessings of freedom. Maybe even life itself. Are we willing to lose these things for the sake of Christ?

Believers around the world-in places like Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, and more-face the reality of these devastating losses. Don’t think for a moment this is easy for them or that they have no fear. They do have fears. It’s just that they have settled this question and have declared that the gospel is worth their personal sacrifice, believing God will sustain them even if they lose everything.

Kyle Idleman, in his book Not a Fan, makes this statement: There is no comfortable way to carry a cross. So as we remember and pray for our fellow believers around the world who are facing persecution, let us also reaffirm our belief in the true Gospel and our willingness to make personal sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel if we are asked to do so.  This call of Jesus requires just such a response:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)

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It May Sting but It Doesn’t Have to Stick

I read the lines a few times to make sure I understood what I was being accused of. Even though I didn’t believe it was true, the accusation still stung. Words can do that whether or not they are true, and sometimes they can hang on you like heavy snow on the branches of a pine tree.

Satan is the master of accusation. He never misses an opportunity to bring full-blown charges, subtle insinuations, or outright slanderous accusations against Jesus’ followers. It’s easy to succumb to Satan’s accusations because, all too often, the sins he points out are true: “Yes, I did that; yes, I said that.” I’m learning I don’t have to run and hide or sink into despair in the face of the accusations because, truth is, even though they are true, the accusations don’t stick.

The reason the accusations don’t stick is tied to the New Testament concepts of being blameless and above reproach. Neither of these virtues refers to a sinless person because being above reproach or blameless is not the same as being perfect, in the way we commonly use that term. The Apostle Paul never claimed such perfection in his earthly life as seen in his personal testimony in Phil. 2:12-14:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul did not attain sinless perfection. It wasn’t his pursuit. Obedience to God’s call was. This blameless, above reproach living I’m describing is not a life that is free of errors, in which a sin is never again committed. The pursuit of that kind of perfection will lead either to pride or utter defeat. As songwriter Andrew Peterson wrote, “You can’t expect to be perfect, it’s a fight you’ve gotta forfeit.”

Yet, because a sinless life is not possible, Satan will continue to point out my sins, leaving me vulnerable to his ongoing accusations. What then is my hope?

Imagine a courtroom scene. I am the defendant on trial. The prosecutor is Satan, the accuser of Christians (Rev. 12:10). The defense attorney is Jesus Christ (1 John 2:2). The presiding Judge is God. I have sinned. Satan levels the devastating charges, accusing me of violating God’s law, thus worthy of condemnation and its accompanying punishment. But when Satan is finished, Jesus rises to my defense, both acknowledging the truth of the accusation, and declaring that the penalty for the sin has already been paid in full through His own sacrifice on the cross. Justice has been served. The defendant is not guilty. There is no double jeopardy in this courtroom. Case dismissed! 

“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:1,33,34).

Satan’s accusations are dirty but they’re not deadly. They sting because they are too often true, but they don’t stick because Jesus is rewriting my story.

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Caught in the Storm

Darkness was setting in as Jesus’ disciples launched their boat onto the open waters of the Sea of Galilee. After miraculously feeding a crowd of more than 5,000 people, Jesus had instructed the disciples to cross the sea and return to their home base in the village of Capernaum. The dark of night was not the ideal time to be navigating a boat across open waters. But these fishermen were not intimidated by this, as they had often worked through the night on these very waters. On this occasion, however, Jesus did not accompany them.

Storm clouds gathered as the disciples attempted to sail to their destination. Storms on the Sea of Galilee were nothing new and the fishermen were not surprised. But the strong winds and fierce waves prevented the disciples from making progress toward Capernaum. As the storm engulfed them, they realized they were stranded at sea with no escape in sight.

In the midst of the darkness, Jesus appeared. He came to the disciples, striding over the fierce waves, unfazed by the force of the wind. Sailing in a storm and rowing against the waves were familiar to them. A man walking on the water was not. And they became terrified. Recognizing their fear, Jesus spoke to his disciples with words of assurance, “It is I, do not be afraid!” Recognizing the voice of their Master, they invited him into their boat. And at the very moment as Jesus stepped into their midst, they found themselves at their destination. This man, their Master, had rescued them.

Life is filled with storms. The winds and waves of adversity create havoc for us, and we feel little progress being made. We find ourselves stuck in the storm. But, like the disciples, the storms can feel familiar to us. We know how these things go in life. We aren’t looking for a rescuer. We are just going to ride it out. But then Jesus enters into the situation in an unexpected way, much like his walking on the water. He appears where we don’t expect him. He takes us into unfamiliar territory. And he asks us to trust Him.

Obedience, the essence of trusting, is like that. In the difficult and uncomfortable circumstances of life, obedience compels us to do difficult and sometimes uncomfortable things. In our minds, the path of obedience becomes more frightening than the storm itself. So we choose to remain stuck in the storm. But Jesus offers us these words of comfort in the midst of the storm, “It is I, be not afraid.” And He offers to get into our boat. When we accept his offer by faith, the fierceness of the storm subsides, and he brings us to the exact place where we are supposed to be.

If you find yourself in the midst of a storm, you can lay down your oars with confidence that whatever Jesus asks you to do is exactly what you need to do to arrive safely home.

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Living by Faith in Uncertain Times

We are living in the midst of a host of uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  People are isolating and hoarding.  Schools and establishments are being closed and events cancelled.  How serious is this?  Well, they’ve cancelled school, college, and professional sports, which in the words of Mr. Holland, marks the “end of western civilization as we know it” (from the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus).  Some are of the opinion that all of this is a massive over-reaction, while others are of the opinion that we haven’t begun to see how bad this is going to be.  Both sides seem certain of their predictions.

What does living by faith look like in times like these?  Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).  Faith operates in the realm of the unseen and the “not yet”, and it acts with both assurance and conviction.  To live by faith is to trust God.  It’s not a blind leap in the dark because it is based upon what God has said.  On the one hand, faith is not reckless; it acts with proper caution that’s based on what God has said, not with presumption based on things He has not promised.  On the other hand, faith is reckless.  It is careless of consequences—if obeying God means risk and vulnerability, living by faith will do it.

Faith and certainty go together.  But is there any room for trusting God while at the same time accepting that we will deal with uncertainties?  The uncertainty I’m referring to is not about God; it’s about us and our world.  God knows everything; we don’t.  God has revealed ultimate events that we can know with certainty, but He has not revealed tomorrow’s events, which leaves us dealing with uncertainty.  We “do not know what tomorrow will bring” (Ja. 4:14).

The CDC says that even if every single American was tested for the coronavirus it would still not be known who has it, and therefore, “an accurate death rate is literally unknowable.”  How many have already died?  No one really knows.  A recent news article raised what it called “three unanswerable questions” about this virus: (1) How long will it last? (2) Will the efforts being made to slow its spread work? (3) What will be the new reality?

The mandates and recommendations that have been made are aimed at preventing the spread of this virus.  Prevention is based on if and might, neither of which are words of certainty: if we do this then here’s what might happen.  The ifs and the mights are what knowledgeable people project based on science, mathematics, and history.  Predictions are not prophecies.  They do not declare what will happen, but what could happen apart from some intervention.  An intervention is an “if we do this,” that is aimed at “we might get this result.” And thus, the orders and recommendations.  When the crisis is over, there can be an evaluation as to whether the interventions worked, but even then, there is no certainty as to what would have happened if those measures hadn’t been taken.  Even for those of us who believe in God’s sovereignty and providence, who do not doubt what He can do, there is still the uncertainty created by not knowing what He will do.

So, in the meantime, we will accept the uncertainties that surround this pandemic.  We will not act as if we know how everything will turn out.  We will not presume upon God’s protection as if we were invincible because our trust is in Him.  What we will do is try to make the best decisions we can, not just for our personal well-being, but even more for the sake of one another.  By faith we will stay on mission and we will adjust our tactics, trusting God every step of the way.  We may not know until eternity what those decisions accomplished.

Living by faith does not mean living without uncertainty.  It means accepting uncertainty, trusting God in it, and seeking to make the best decisions you can for the greater good of all.  Only time may tell whether we are over-reacting or under-reacting in this crisis.  But this we are certain of: God can be trusted to keep and guide us through all the uncertainties of today.

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“We Will Not Quit!”

The parable of Jesus in Luke 18:1-8 has been titled “The Unjust Judge” and “The Persistent Widow. Which is it? Is the parable about an unjust judge or is it about a persistent widow? It’s about both and if we put them together we catch the theme of this story: persistence in the face of injustice.

It is not unusual to give primary attention to the first five verses, but without verses 6-8, we will miss Jesus’ point. In those verses Jesus talks about avenging His elect and the coming of the Son of Man, both of which must factor into our understanding of what Jesus was teaching in this parable.

Luke gives a summation of the parable as he begins: we must continually pray and not give up praying. But this continual praying is focused on something bigger than simply an unanswered prayer in our individual personal lives. In verses 6-8, Jesus has a time period in view, namely the intervening time between his earthly ministry and his second coming (“when the Son of Man comes”). While waiting for His return, do not give up on prayer. It is the antidote for not losing heart; it is what keeps faith strong.

That Jesus talks about God avenging His own elect who cry out to Him day and night is a reminder of what this intervening time will be like for God’s elect. Circumstances will be such that the elect will cry out for deliverance and for vengeance (Revelation 6:10). Deliverance may or may not come, but God’s promise is that vengeance will come with the return of Christ. This end must be kept in view throughout this period of redemptive history. No matter how dark things become, no matter how pessimistic the outlook, no matter how difficult it gets, no matter how much Christianity seems to make no advance but is in retreat, no matter how corrupt politicians become, no matter how irreverent, divided and violent society becomes, no matter how faithless preachers become, no matter how far they stray from the gospel, no matter how many professing Christians walk away from the truth, no matter how many churches cave in to cultural pressures, no matter how many times our prayers for unsaved neighbors go answered, we cannot give up on prayer. Why? To give up on prayer is to lose faith, and to lose faith is to give up the hope of the coming of Christ.

During this intervening time, God’s elect will often be treated the way the widow is initially treated in the parable. She was seeking justice from an adversary. Given the characters and the setting, it is likely what she was seeking was something she was owed; perhaps a service or commodity had been provided but she had not received payment. As a widow, she was vulnerable—easily ignored and taken advantage of, with no social status, and no husband to stand up for her. The judge is a jerk who did not fear God or care for people. Who knows, it may have been one of the judge’s cronies who owed the widow because he ignored her plea.

In this period of time court decisions, legislation, executive orders, company policies, and school rules may be discriminatory and unjust against Christians. They certainly are in many places in the world and such actions are popping up increasingly in our society. We rightfully plead our case, we ask for justice, but it often falls on deaf ears. Even as I write, a prayer request is on my mind shared in our prayer group regarding a missionary who is in prison in another country on false charges and awaiting trial. If condemned, he may be looking at being in a foreign prison the rest of his life. “How long, Lord?”

The judge in Jesus’ parable finally relented because he realized he was risking his reputation and gave the widow justice. This sometimes happens for Christians, too; sometimes they win.  For example, after being unjustly treated by the governing authorities in Philippi, Paul charged them with violating his rights and insisted on them making amends, which they did (Acts 16:35-40).  But even it doesn’t work out that way, the point to observe is that this widow got her day in court because she continually asked for justice. She persisted until the judge gave in.

Jesus’ point: be like the widow with regard to prayer. This widow had to deal with an unjust and uncaring judge, but she still got her request because she wouldn’t back down. The elect have a Judge to whom they can appeal – God, who is watching over them and who deeply cares for them. If this woman got action from an unjust judge who cared nothing for her, do not for a moment think the elect will get no action from just God. He will certainly vindicate them in the end, and he will do it suddenly. The crucial question Jesus raises is this: will his elect remain faithful (and therefore prayerful) until He appears? Apparently, continual prayerfulness is a mark of that kind of faithfulness.

We struggle with the immediacy issue. We want justice now. But what if it doesn’t happen now? How many people have gone to their graves as victims of true injustice. What about them? They didn’t get justice before they died. That’s what we want. If someone lies about us, we want vindication in our lifetime. The trajectory of our world leading up to the coming of the Lord continually raises questions among God’s elect like, “When, Lord? Why, Lord? Do you not see? Why do you not answer? Why do you let them get away with that?” Questions like these are so prevalent the temptation (inspired by the Tempter) is to give up, to stop praying because it does no apparent good. “Prayer changes nothing!” he tells us.

In this parable Jesus pushes back against that tempting lie and exhorts us to see the bigger picture and to derive hope and renew faith from it. That bigger picture is the coming of Christ, which will be in power, glory, and justice. But his coming will be preceded by difficult times. In that period of waiting, we cannot become weary, but must persist in prayer. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13), and to the Galatian churches, “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:9). Even if no one responds to our “doing good,” even though harassment for our Christian faith puts us at a disadvantage, don’t lose heart, don’t grow weary, don’t lose faith. Defy every urge, every temptation, every rationalization to give up on prayer.

There is a story from history that powerfully illustrates the overarching lesson Jesus was driving home in the parable. On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches in Parliament. He had been Prime Minister for less than a month, and it was a dark time for his nation. European nations were falling like dominoes to the Nazis, as country after country was either overrun or simply capitulated to Hitler. Everyone around Churchill was telling him to sue for peace. It was the only way, they claimed, that Britain would survive. One research organization reported that civilian morale was low and claimed everyone looked suicidal. The report indicated that only half the population expected Britain to fight, which means the other half expected surrender. This is a description of weary citizens who had lost faith in their ability to survive as a nation.

Churchill disagreed. He did not lose heart and he inspired his fellow leaders, and through them, a whole country to the same hope. On that June day in 1940, he stood before the House of Commons and spoke these rousing words:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Churchill’s lethal weapon against the enemy in those dark days was his oratory. Ours is prayer. As long as we can pray, we can fight.  Continual prayer is our declaration, “We will never give up!” until Jesus returns.

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“Nothing in My Hands I Bring”

The tan colored building is where Luther died on Feb. 18, 1546, Eisleben, Germany.

Martin Luther died a public death.  His death was not public in the same way as his hero John Huss’ death was 131 years earlier.  Huss was condemned a heretic by the Council of Constance, handed over to the civil authorities, and publicly burned at the stake just outside the Konstanz Cathedral.  Like Huss, Luther was a priest whose life was transformed when he discovered the Bible.  Like Huss, Luther was declared to be a heretic.  The Edict of Worms (1521) labeled him an “outlaw,” and no doubt, he would have been handed over to authorities for execution, except for the providential hand of God.  Martin Luther lived twenty-five more years during which he preached thousands of sermons, wrote books and pamphlets, continued his teaching at the University of Wittenburg, and translated the Bible into German.  He lived a full life (by 16th-century standards), dying peacefully in the same town where he had been born sixty-two years earlier.

Accounts of Luther’s death were quickly published and disseminated to the public.  Descriptions of his death are preserved in paintings (see here and here), a death mask (see here), and written reports, all of which testified that he died a “good Christian” death.  Dying such a death was important in his day.  How Luther died would either validate or contradict what he had taught.

Catholic propaganda sought to establish its own death narrative for Luther.  Because he rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church (such as papal infallibility, selling of indulgences, that justification was by faith and works), he was put on trial and told to recant his teachings.  Luther would not recant, and was excommunicated by the Church, cutting him off from all the means of saving grace (according to Catholic doctrine), for he could not receive any of the sacraments.  Catholicism teaches that excommunication is a “medicinal” action and not “vindictive,” a corrective measure to bring the exile back to the path of righteousness.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction.”

Because Luther was declared a heretic, his opponents made many attempts to portray his death as horrible, as opposite of a “good Christian” death as they could.  Eleven months before Luther died, a printed letter in Italian reported his death.  A copy of the letter came into Luther’s possession, which he translated into German and published with his remarks.  According to this supposed eyewitness account, the day after Luther’s corpse was buried, his grave was opened and no body was found, but rather a sulfuric stench arose that made people sick.  As a result, it was claimed, many who had followed him returned to the “holy Christian Church” (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church).  Luther was rather bemused and wrote, “I felt quite tickled on my knee-cap and under my left heel at this evidence how cordially the devil and his minions, the Pope and the papists hate me.  May God turn them from the devil!” (Theo. Hoyer, “How Dr. Martin Luther Died,” Concordia TheologicalMonthly, Vol. XVII, No. 2 (February 1946): 81-88).  Other accounts of Luther’s death reported hearing shrieks, seeing devils flying in the air, and a flock of ravens accompanying the corpse on its journey from Eisleben where he died to Wittenberg where he was buried.  Years later it was reported that Luther committed suicide.  These false narratives never took hold because so many witnesses were there.

In this display case is the shroud that covered the casket of Martin Luther. (Martin Luthers Sterbahaus, Eisleben, Germany)

Some people expected that as Luther lay on his deathbed, he would recant his heresies and end his exile from the Catholic Church.  Surely he would want to make peace with God and the Church before death brought the eternal damnation of his soul.  Within a few hours of Luther’s death, five of the sixteen people who were present at his bedside wrote letters describing the scene.  Luther died without any of the trappings of Medieval Catholocism.  He did not request a priest to administer last rites.  He did not dress himself as a monk as some did in hopes of gaining favor with God.  When asked if he died faithful to the doctrine of Christ which he taught, Luther said, “Yes.”  As death drew nearer, he prayed and recited Scriptures.  It was reported that three times he quoted John 3:16.  So peaceful was his death that those with him thought he swooned and relied on the attending doctor to establish that he had died.  It was reported that when Luther died he was holding no consecrated objects like a rosary.  His hands were empty.

Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, monk, and friar was converted by the gospel truth that “the just shall live by faith.”  There was nothing he could do, nothing he could offer to remedy his guilty conscience and take away his sin.  It was Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.  The powerful message of Luther’s empty hands is expressed in a hymn written by Augustus Toplady, an Anglican cleric and theological descendant of the Reformation (he was an ardent Calvinist).  Luther loved music and was a hymnwriter who taught his church to sing.  Though written 231 years after his death, I can hear Martin Luther singing these words with his last fleeting breath:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee.

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Reflections on Church Attendance

It is no secret that Americans do not attend church as much as they once did.  Whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or Evangelical, attendance patterns overall are down.  Just over a year ago, The Pew Research Center published a report titled “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship.”  One piece of information gleaned from their survey showed that those who go to church less frequently than they used to overwhelmingly said “logistics” was the biggest reason.  The survey indicated that these “logistical” barriers included being too busy, having crazy work schedules, being too lazy, and not caring to attend church as much as they liked doing other things.  The research clearly suggests that people today view attending church as optional in a way it was not viewed in the past.

I grew up in the church tradition of attending Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening service, and Wednesday evening prayer service.  That is four services a week.  Additionally, I remember attending a Bible training hour prior to the Sunday evening service in one church, and in another I attended a Friday evening children’s Bible club.  Many people I know who were raised in the same tradition have cut their services attendance in half, and 4/4 Sunday mornings a month is becoming a rarer occurrence, even among the “faithful.”

A few observations.

  1. Confusing church attendance and disciple making.  The church’s mission is not to get people to attend church but to make mature followers of Jesus Christ.  Some see attending church services as the equivalent of being a disciple though they have never once shared their faith with an unbeliever, or discipled a believer to maturity.  I remember one lady in the church I attended as a teenager who had the longest string of perfect attendance pins for Sunday School (I’m not exaggerating), and was quite proud of it, but had children who had no interest in church at all.  I have noticed a number of my contemporaries who grew up in a church environment like mine, and who have scaled back on their church attendance.  In some cases, it is a reaction against having to be at church every time the doors were open.  But let’s be honest and admit that the problem was not having the church doors open that frequently; the problem was not understanding why they were open.
  2. Fuzzy definitions of church.  This observation goes with the previous one.  In surveys like the one conducted by Pew, church is seen as a place you go on Sunday for a religious service.  That is not the NT definition of church.  The church is a redeemed people, called out of this world to God through faith in Jesus Christ, baptized into union with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and empowered to fulfill the mission of Jesus to the world.  The church is spiritual, but it is also human and visible, gathered in small, medium, large, and extra-large groups around the world in assemblies called local churches.  One of the things these local churches do is meet together to worship, and Sunday has been that special day since the 1st century, a day of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.  A few years back, Ed Stetzer (researcher, author, church planter, college professor, and missiologist) analyzed research on the church and concluded that the church in America is not dying but is in transition, and noted that “transitioning is not the same as dying” (read his article here).  Another church researcher, of a more liberal persuasion, dismissed Stetzer’s conclusion as an excuse and a convenient denial of reality (read that article here).  The fact is, Stetzer’s observation was based on a NT concept of the church.  He identifies three kinds of Christians in America: cultural Christians (Christian in name only by cultural definition), congregational Christians (who have a loose connection to a church), and convictional Christians (what I would see as NT Christians).  Stetzer observes decline in the cultural and congregational categories, but growth in the convictional.  That’s what he means by “transitioning,” and why he says the church isn’t dying.  Rather (and the Pew study supports this), there is something of a religious revival occurring on the devout end of the church-attendance spectrum.  The church is people, not a building, not services, and not programs.  The latter three are relevant to the church, but they do not define what a church is.  If a church has fewer attenders this year than last, but makes more disciples this year than last year, it is fair to ask the question, is that church dying or is it becoming healthier?
  3. Multiplication of options.  The abundance of church brands and alternatives has certainly contributed to the erosion of faithful church attendance among Christians.  Between online church, radio and television preachers, podcasts, and a multitude of parachurch options, the local church is hardly needed.  What does the local church offer that can’t be found through any of those sources?  The ease with which one can find great sermons, sound Bible studies, uplifting worship music, and prayer groups greatly diminishes one’s sense of need to actually gather faithfully with their church.  Even at our church, if you miss a Sunday you can catch the sermon on our YouTube channel.  All that to say, it is easier than ever to miss church but not miss it.
  4. Succumbing to “logistics.”  I want to return to this one because it was cited by the survey respondents as the overwhelming reason for their reduced attendance.  They were too busy, had crazy work schedules, were too lazy, or just liked doing other things instead of going to church.  I’m not going to comment on being too lazy unless the reason is staying out too late the night before.  That’s a problem.  I’m also not going to comment on crazy work schedules, unless that crazy work schedule is not required by the employer but chosen by the employee.  If chosen by the employee, that is a problem.  But I am most interested in the “too busy” and the “other things” reasons for missing.  From my vantage point, going to church has more competition than I ever remember.  It used to be easier to attend church because nothing competed with it.  Culturally, Sunday was a “protected” day.  But that protected status has been systematically eliminated.  Sunday is a free-for-all.  Schedules get filled up with work, sports, family, and leisure.  Other things more attractive than going to church are readily available.  Since salvation doesn’t depend on going to church and sanctification can’t be measured by a mere attendance figure, what’s the big deal to miss?  The “logistics” of getting to church are just more complicated these days.

I am not on a campaign to increase church attendance.  But I am committed to affirming the value of the church gathered.  At the church I pastor, we covenant as members to “sustain” the worship of our church, which means supporting it with our presence.  When the writer of Hebrews exhorted his Christian audience not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25), he meant literally together, which is what we call attending church (there is no figurative meaning in the Greek).  Don’t neglect it, he says, especially in view of the imminent return of Jesus.  Might it be that neglecting this exhortation is symptomatic of being too caught up with this present age?  How else could faithfully attending church become a “logistical” challenge?  As we move closer to the Lord’s return and all that means in our world, one thing seems clear — we don’t need less church.

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The Anger and Anguish of God

Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because he ministered during times that triggered painful emotions.  But Jeremiah was only reflecting the emotions of the God he represented.  Jeremiah’s anger reflected God’s anger.  Jeremiah’s anguish was God’s anguish.  God’s people, Israel and Judah, constantly rebelled against Him.  Their rebellion is pictured as a betrayal of lovers.  In her youth, Israel was like a new bride in love with her husband (Jer. 2:2).  But she had a wandering eye and adopted a seductive lifestyle as she pursued other lovers.  As the betrayed lover, God questioned His people as a perplexed lover would question their unfaithful spouse:  “What do you find wrong with Me?” (Jer. 2:5)  Perhaps more insulting is that, though God was Israel’s Father, they were saying to trees, “You are my father,” and to stones, “You gave birth to me.” (Jer. 2:27)  Think about a young adult saying to his father who conceived him,  loved him, provided for him, and protected him, “You’re not my dad.  That rock is.  It gave me life.  It loved me.  It provided for and protected me.”  How insulting and how sad.

Perhaps what is most amazing about the dynamics of this toxic relationship is that God even cares.  Why would God subject Himself to this?  Why would He waste emotion on people who treated Him this way?  Anger is exhausting.  Sorrow is draining.  Why would God subject Himself to anger and grief over people who just did not care, people who continually insulted Him, and when confronted by Him said, “What did I do?” (Jer. 2:35)

The easy answer to the why question is, “Because God loves.”  His love is unfailing and limitless for all who come under its shade.  His love is fiercely loyal and, therefore, it is protective.  To mess with those whom God loves, as He does Israel, is worse than messing with a mamma bear’s cubs, even if those cubs are misbehaving.  Yes, the easy answer is God’s covenantal love.

But the easy answer is not a simple answer.  It is not a simple matter to contemplate a God who is absolutely sovereign, possessing both the authority and the power to do whatever He chooses to do, with accountability to no one, choosing to subject Himself to the painful emotions provoked by mere POCs (products of creation) like us.  God doe not have to be angry, does He?  God does not have to grieve, does He?  God could simply choose to not care, could He not?  I don’t grieve when I see a dead skunk in the road.  I turn up my nose and think, “Good riddance.”  A smashed spider or a dead snake are reasons to rejoice.  Even on a human level, one human being to another, I find it easy for people’s own self-destruction to not bother me — it’s their own fault.  But these things bother God.  They bother Him enough to stir anger, feel sorrow, and shed tears. (Jer. 8:21-22; 14:17-18)

Does God have to act this way?  Is He held hostage by His own emotions?  Or can He just turn them on and off at will, thus making the whole emotional reaction thing a bit of a sham?  I think the simplest answer is to say that God always thinks, feels, and acts in ways consistent with the totality of who He is.  He does not simply choose to turn on the anger emotion or the grief emotion and then turn it off.  God actually gets angry and He really does grieve.  He is reacting in a manner consistent with all that He is as God.

Such reaction on God’s part is not the same as me saying, after some emotional outburst, “That’s just the way I am,” which is my feeble attempt to justify my reaction.  That statement is more of an excuse than a confession.  It is an admission of being held hostage by my emotions, and thus unable to control myself.  The reason this response is not acceptable for me is because “the way I am,” isn’t necessarily good or right.  “The way I am” is often wrong.  “The way I am” still manifests brokenness.  “The way I am” is still being repaired by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.  This is not true of God.  The way God is, is perfect.  Nothing about Him needs to change because to change perfection is to produce imperfection.  God gets angry, not because anger controls Him, but because anger is His perfect reaction to the filth and degradation of sin.  God grieves, not because grief has taken Him over, but because grief is the perfect reaction flowing from a perfect God over people He loves, who reject Him and choose self-destructive ways instead.  He grieves, knowing what they are missing.  He is angered by that which stands in their way and robs them of Him.

God is not like the human sovereign who dares not express any emotion in public.  He is not emotionally detached from us.  God is passionate: passionately angry, passionately loving, and passionately sorrowing.  Why?  Because He genuinely cares.  But we should not make ourselves the ultimate object of such passionate emotions, as if we hold the power to trigger God’s emotions.  Above all, God is passionate for His own glory.  Anyone who robs that glory from Him will feel the blaze of His anger, but it will be sprinkled with the tears of His grief.  God knows the only place I can be who I was made to be, the only place I can be satisfied, and the only place I can find the delight my soul longs for is in Him.  Whatever keeps me from that will be the object of His anger and the reason for His grief.

What a God!

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Time-Out!

I played basketball in high school.  I remember the conditioning we went through, including stair-laps around the gym and the infamous “killers,” which were sprints that began and ended with jumping.  I remember our coach timing those and making us continue doing them until the whole team came in under a time designated by the coach, and yes, tenths-of-a-second counted.  In those practices we always worked on the basic skills of dribbling, passing, shooting, and moving without the ball.  Every practice ended with us taking foul shots and recording the outcome with the coach.  Practices also consisted of intra-squad scrimmages so we could apply our skills in a setting more like that of a real game.  When practice was done, we hit the showers and headed home.  But practices weren’t what the season was all about.  Practices were about the game.

During the game, coach called time-outs.  He did not call time-outs during practices because coach could interrupt the practice whenever he wanted to instruct or strategize.  However, during a game, he had to use a time-out for that purpose.  Time-outs were on the clock and he only had so many to call during a game.  He called time-outs for various reasons.  Sometimes our opponent had a series of  fast-breaks and piled up some quick scoring, so coach would call a time-out to interrupt their momentum, to allow us to catch our breath, and to regroup.  There were times, he would call a time-out so we could set up an in-bounds play.  I can remember times when he called a time-out to chew us out for a series of bad plays, whether it was not thinking, laziness, or unsportsmanlike conduct.  Other times he called a time-out to encourage us to hang tough and keep our heads in the game.  No matter the reason, when the time-out was over, we headed back into the game.  Though we needed the time-out, the time-out wasn’t the game.

Sunday worship services are like time-outs.  They are a time to regain focus on God; to remind each other of the gospel; to exhort and encourage each other not to drift, but to hang in there.  Any given week, the enemy will run fast-breaks and pile up points against us.  The events of any week can exhaust us emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  We constantly face decisions both large and small.  We make mistakes.  We get lazy and distracted.  We sin.  We lose sight of the goal.  A Sunday worship service is like coach calling, “Time-out!”  In the presence of God we catch our spiritual breath as we think, confess, and recommit.  When the time-out is done, we don’t go sit on the bench.  We get back in the game.  When the worship service is done, the worshipper is not done, because the worship service itself is not the game.  The true worship of God recharges us to get back in the game, hearts ready, hands and mouths prepared to serve God.

It goes without saying that worship is not contained to a worship service.  But it does need to be said that the goal of the believer is not attending worship services.  The goal of the believer is being sent forth as a worshipper to be a witness to the world.  Worship stirs an inward desire to declare God’s glory and tell others about Jesus Christ.  It was Isaiah’s worship encounter that led to his confession, “Here am I, send me!”

The most important thing on a Sunday morning is not whether you get pumped up by the music or stirred by the sermon.  The most important thing is whether your worship sends you forth as a witness, declaring God’s greatness to others.

I hope you’ll take a time-out this weekend, and then get back in the game!

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