“The Wise Shall Inherit Glory”

[My mom was a remarkable woman.  The Lord took her home this past Easter Sunday evening. The following is the text of the message I delivered at my mom’s funeral Thursday evening. My wife Debbie read the Scriptures and shared some stories and a letter Mom wrote. I post this in her honor and in her memory.]

There is a statement in Proverbs 3:35 that sums up what I want to say today and what I’d like each of you to remember about my mom: “The wise shall inherit glory.” How do you describe a life so well lived, so honoring to God, as that lived by Mom?  That’s what I asked myself as I thought of doing what I am doing today.

When I think of my mom, I think of Proverbs 3.  As you’ve heard tonight, Mom loved the Scriptures and she did all she could to instill that same love in her children. I remember, as an elementary-age child, riding to school with Mom and Dad on the Capital Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C.  Dad was the principal of the Christian school I attended, and Mom was a teacher. Mom had a small pocket version of the book of Proverbs which she would pull out and have one of the children read during our twenty-minute drive. Proverbs 3 was one of the passages we read regularly and over time I memorized most of it.  This was Mom’s way of making the most of our time and helping us hide God’s Word in our hearts.

To me, Proverbs 3 states well Mom’s philosophy of life.  Its words are what Mom taught and what she lived out as a pastor’s wife, mother, and teacher.  To young moms I would say this: these days, everyone has something to say about how you ought to parent your children.  If you take Proverbs 3 to heart and actually put it into practice, my mom would say, “You’ll do just fine.”  I’m not saying it guarantees perfect kids.  I can vouch for that because I know myself and my siblings well.  I am saying, if you follow the wisdom of God’s Word in the grace of God’s enabling power, then you, as a mom, will have done all that God expects of you.

The phrase, “My son,” is repeated numerous times in Proverbs 3. This evening since you’ve all come to celebrate Mom on this occasion, let’s hear “My son,” as speaking to us all, and let’s learn some valuable life lessons from her.

“My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee. Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: so shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (Prov. 3:1-6)

Keep a wise mind.

Mom was the one who remembered everyone’s birthday. She would also tell us, on any given day, which one of her ancestors had been born on that particular day.  Mom remembered special events in people’s lives.  She knew Bible verses, hymns, poems and more, all by heart.  Her mind was sharp until just very recently. Occasionally, in recent years as she struggled with pain, Deb would try to sneak a Tylenol into her pills for that day.  But she knew exactly how many pills she was supposed to have and what color they were supposed to be, and she would ask  what that “other thing” was, and that particular pill had to be removed. Mom always had words of wisdom to share with those around her – whether an aide at Elmcroft, one of her grandchildren, or even a stranger.  I remember her telling me how she had witnessed to the attendant in the back of the ambulance on her ride home from a hospital stay.  Mom was a wonderful example of the importance of keeping a wise mind.

Proverbs speaks of the importance of cultivating a wise mind. Faithful living requires truthful thinking, and my mom understood that.  Wisdom thinks and it thinks well because it thinks according to truth.  Foolishness is just the opposite, and since the Scriptures say that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child,” my mom knew she had her work cut out for her with her children.  Mom taught us that wise living requires truthful thinking; and, therefore, we must keep and treasure a wise mind.

Wisdom, understanding, knowledge – these were really important to Mom, not in the sense of being the smartest person around with the highest IQ, though Mom was intelligent. The keeping of these words, is pretty much why she despised television.  This is also why she wanted to have, what she called, “intelligent conversations” around our table.  For Mom, books were superior to TV hands down with no room for debate.  Reciting poetry, a line from a classic book or a Shakespearean play, remembering God’s Word – all of these were important to her because they helped to cultivate the mind.  And to Mom, once the TV went on, intelligent conversation shut down.

In a culture so confused and shallow in its thinking, where people are so easily satisfied with fleeting stuff, in a culture that is so “unthinking,” Mom teaches us to keep a wise mind.

“My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: for whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.  Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.  For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.  She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.  Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.  Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.  She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.” (Prov. 3:11-18)

Keep a soft heart.

Many things about growing old and weak were hard for Mom. Sometimes the pain took a toll on her and the frustration would be evident in her voice and demeanor.  Yet so often she would say, just a little bit later, that she shouldn’t have spoken in a certain tone, or shouldn’t have said what she did to that person, because they might not know Jesus and she wanted to be a testimony.  It would have been easy for Mom to become a bitter woman as her health declined and the pain increased, which robbed her of many things she once enjoyed.  Yet there were always clear glimpses of her soft heart for Jesus and her desire to please Him

Mom was a tender, gracious woman. Sometimes tenderness and graciousness are not equated with strength, but Mom was a tender, gracious woman of conviction and strength.  She was not domineering, but a steady, faithful companion to my dad; a helper suitable for him.  When I say she had a soft heart, I mean she was not a hardened person, and life afforded Mom many opportunities to become hardened had she chosen to take that course.  But she did not.

Proverbs 3 teaches us to keep a soft heart, even in discipline. Mom was a disciplinarian, but she knew how to do so as to model the discipline of the Lord – it is firm but it’s tender.  Sometimes discipline is associated with harshness or unkindness.  That was never the case when it came to Mom and her kids.  Proverbs speaks of the necessity of discipline and says you cannot achieve wisdom without it, whether that discipline comes from the Lord or from your mom. To withhold discipline is to deny wisdom.  This description of wisdom  helps us understand why we should appreciate and welcome discipline – because of what it does in your life.  My mom understood that clearly.  So she was never an angry disciplinarian, but a wise and tender one.

I remember one time when my brother got in trouble for getting angry and breaking something that belonged to my older sister. The punishment Mom handed down was that he had to memorize Scripture like, “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls” (Prov. 25:28), and also Proverbs 3.  Today, some will think, “What?  She used Scripture memorization as a form of punishment?  That’s no way to generate love for God’s Word, make memorizing it a punishment!”  But you see, Mom understood the difference between punishment and discipline.  She was not punishing my brother, she was disciplining him.  Ask my brother, ask any of us kids today, and you’ll learn that all of us love God’s Word and we do not view memorization as a bad thing, but as a discipline of a healthy spiritual life.  Mom knew what she was doing – hide God’s Word in your heart that you might not sin against him.”

Many who come under the hand of discipline chafe at it and resent it. Mom was gentle and tender.  Mom always had a soft, tender heart and her life challenges us to keep a soft heart.

“My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: so shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble.  When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet.” (Prov. 3:21-24)

Keep your eyes on Jesus.

Mom had a focus to her life until that day she passed: Jesus. The writer of this proverb speaks of not letting wisdom and understanding depart from your eyes.  The eyes are what let light in so we can see and perceive.  Not letting wisdom and understanding depart from our eyes means to see life this way; to look at situations this way; to deal with people this way; to live your life this way.  In other words, it means having a right focus in life.

Of course, Wisdom is ultimately Jesus Christ. To keep your eyes on wisdom and understanding is to keep your eyes on Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) Jesus speaks wisdom; he lived wisdom.  He is wisdom.  Focus on him.  Trust him.  Speak of him.  Don’t love the world; love Jesus.

Mom never had much by way of this world’s goods. She always had a mindset of simplicity and little worldly belongings because her upbringing had been so characterized by that, and the years of ministry she had Dad had together were never marked by an abundance of worldly goods.  Honestly?  She really didn’t want it.  She never asked for a thing.  The beautiful necklace, the string of pearls, the reset diamond ring she had were not because she ever sought those things, but because Dad insisted, wanting to give his “sweetheart” something special.  But according to Proverbs 3, Mom had the greatest treasure anyone could ever hope for, a treasure that surpasses any of the world’s wildest dreams of what “treasure” is:  she had Jesus Christ.

Proverbs 3 ends with these assurances: God blesses the habitation of the just; He gives grace to the lowly, and “the wise shall inherit glory. This glory is not self- glory, but the glory of Jesus Christ.  I can imagine Mom today: she has left this frail, earthly body behind to await resurrection, and she is wrapped in the robes of the glory of Jesus whom she loved and served and praised and spoke of.

Mom has received the next installment of her inheritance of glory. The first installment came the day she trusted Jesus Christ as her personal Savior, and received forgiveness of her sins and the gift of eternal life.  I hope you have done the same.  The second instalment of her inheritance of glory came this past Resurrection Sunday, when she passed from this earthly life into the presence of Jesus. Where there is fullness of joy.  The final installment of this inheritance of glory is still to come when Mom will gather with her loved ones, and with all the saints around the throne of God and worship the Lamb; when all the former things will have passed away and all things will be made new; when we will behold he glory of God and know joy like we have never known it before.  Mom taught us to value that coming day, and not get caught up with this passing world.  Thank you, Mom.  We will keep our eyes on Jesus.

As you have seen at the display in the foyer, Mom was a keeper of memories, of pictures and of treasures. In going through some of Mom’s things, Deb came across letters she and Dad had written to each other during their college years at Bob Jones. Mom wrote this letter to Dad on January 21, 1952, as they began a time of being separated by distance for a while, before getting married that summer. It seems fitting for the occasion today.

Dearest Willard,

Today begins another correspondence cycle for us…and added work for Uncle Sam. To him goes the credit that our letters are delivered to each other as soon as they are.  I was just thinking: how could I ever live during this separation were the delivery of mail as irregular as it was a century ago?

Willard, when you leave tomorrow, you can do so with the assurance that I love you with all my heart and that I will always be true to you. Saying good-bye is going to be hard, and I sigh as I think of it now. No more pleasant hours with you, for many long months. But though you will be far away, you will ever be near to me, for distance shall not part us in spirit.  I’ll continue to love you more and more, my dear.  This parting is just a prelude of a great drama yet to come…the time will be June, the setting will be a church in New York, the characters will be you and I.  Thrilling, isn’t it? It’s wonderful to be in love with you!

Another semester’s work is ended, and then I begin my last at BJU. I’ll be much, much happier living with you than in a BJU dorm.  Tell your dad to be sure to eat all those grits up before I come to New York because I don’t want to be served any of them.

Goodbye now, honey. Get rested up from your trip by getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and don’t lose too much weight from running all of those errands for me.

Here’s a goodnight kiss for you —

All my love,


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Follow Me

Follow-me-footsteps“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be My disciple. . . . Every one of you who does not say good-bye to all his possessions cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26, 33).

The bar Jesus set for being his disciple is high, extremely high, inhumanly high.  According to his words, there can be no rivals seated on the throne of our affections if we are going to follow him.  If Jesus does not occupy that seat, you cannot be his disciple.

I wonder if this extreme statement of Jesus is why we’ve created a two-step process in the Christian experience: the first step is to become a Christian (by that, I mean one who has believed the gospel and professed faith in Jesus Christ), and the second step is to become a disciple (one who follows Jesus).  In this arrangement you have Christians, and then you have a subset of Christians called disciples.  As I’ve observed this twofold division, I’ve noticed that it offers a pathway to heaven that avoids actually following Jesus.  In this scenario, Christians can theoretically love their families, possessions, and their own lives more than Jesus on this earth, and yet still be confident of heaven at the end of their journey.  They profess to love Jesus and look forward to being with Jesus one day, but in the meantime they are occupied with other loves.  They never quite make it to the kind of abandon Jesus is talking about, and, well, in the long run, that seems to be okay because though they may not technically be following Jesus, they’re still saved and if you’re saved you’re not going to hell.  Hallelujah, praise the Lord, and pass the offering plate!

There’s a lot of talk these days about “nominal Christianity” here in America.  What is a nominal Christian?  We say it is someone who is a Christian in name only.  But what does that mean?  It seems to me that a nominal Christian is a Christian who doesn’t really follow Jesus.  That’s a problem.  Look at Christendom in our country.  Look at the church in our nation.

As I read the New Testament, I come away believing that when we put faith in Jesus for salvation we become followers of Jesus, and from that day forward we are either obedient faithful followers or disobedient unfaithful followers.  Without a doubt, every true Christian is in the process of growing as a follower (i.e., maturing into the likeness of Jesus).  Self does not automatically disappear from our lives, sin does not leave us alone, and the world still holds some attraction (this is where we live after all).  I am not talking about some golden-haloed walk of perfection.  But I’m pretty sure these words of Jesus mean if you don’t love him with a love that would cause you, if necessary, to abandon all for him, then what’s really true is that you love someone or something more than him, and yes, that includes family.  Such misdirected love is called idolatry.  According to Jesus, you cannot be an idolater and follow him.  This begs the question then, can you be an idolater and be a Christian?

I absolutely believe in grace.  Grace is what enables us to do what is humanly impossible.  Following Jesus is a work of God’s grace.  Abandoning all to follow is the result of grace changing our affections.  As John Newton said, “Grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Perhaps this week as we remember the passion of Jesus Christ, it might be good to reflect on what it means, according to his definition, to follow him.  And then ask yourself whether there is anyone or anything you love more than you love Jesus.

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Pursuing True Happiness this New Year

happy_new_year_2013-wideI believe the reason so much Bible knowledge yields so little change in so many Christians is because it never gets to the affections.  Affections is the realm of the emotions.  But affections go deeper than momentary feelings that can be both shallow and unpredictable.  Affections act upon us and  influence us to action.  I am convinced that the doorway to the will is the affections.  What we desire, what makes us happy, what we fear, and what makes us angry exert tremendous influence over what we do.  If you want to truly change your ways, you need to change your affections.  Becoming like Jesus means loving what he loves and hating what he hates.  It means joining in with his laughter and sharing his tears.  Those things are not just cognitive; they are affective.  But we can’t just will our affections to change.  That change is forged by God’s Word in the hands of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

I think that’s what we see in God’s new covenant with Israel when he promised to put his law within them and to write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33).  What does that mean?  We usually say something like, “God’s law will be in our heart instead of on stone tablets like the Ten Commandments.”  But we still don’t explain what we mean by “write it on the heart.”  The heart refers to more than the mind and it’s more than our feelings.  It’s the center of our being where thoughts, feelings, and decisions all come together.  It is where truth shapes affections that yield decisions that compel action.  The true walk of righteousness requires all of these working together.  Truth understood in the mind that leads to no action is dead orthodoxy.  Feelings not rooted in truth will lead to unstable emotionalism.  Truth that compels action but apart from engaging the affections yields legalism.  A right walk with Jesus is the result of truth shaping the affections so that the affections capture the will which in turn prompts action.  In other words, the seriousness of the sin revealed in God’s Word begins to grieve us enough that we actually decide to do something about breaking the particular sin habit.  Conversely, the joy of God begins to shape our own joyful affections so that what we most want, in the deepest part of our being, is to do those things that allow us to enter into the experience of God’s joy.

The new covenant is about God’s law being written on the affections.  Israel had it on stone tablets and parchment scrolls.  They heard it and memorized it, so it got into their minds.  The average Jew had far more Scripture memorized than the committed Christian of our day.  Yet, so often, it had no effect on their behavior.  What they knew did not influence what they did.  Why?  What they knew did not capture their affections.  With sin forgiven (Jer. 31:34) the Holy Spirit is free to write God’s law on the secret pages of our desires resulting in actual transformed living.  Paul explained the dynamic this way: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).  God works in us first, by writing his law on our hearts so that not only do we do the work of God, but we do it out of a heart that, more than anything else, desires to do that work.  By writing his law on our hearts, God turns the “have to” of the old covenant into the “want to” of the new.

O that more followers of Jesus would understand the amazing gift God has given in the forgiveness of his Son that frees us from our enslavement to sin, which is really being overly enamored with self, and enables us to love him with our minds and hands, as well as with our every smile and tear.   Don’t settle for just thinking and doing this year.  Rather, let the thinking fan the flames of holy affections, and then see what God will do through you.

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Doing Things the Hard Way

nativity“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7)

The simple nativity scenes that are part of traditional Christmas decorations represent a lot of hard work.  I’m not referring to the work of actually making one, but the scene itself.  Here’s what I mean.

When we say someone is “doing it the hard way” we are usually not complementing them, like a picture I saw of a guy cutting a pizza with a handsaw.  It may be someone who is not doing what they’ve been commanded to do, and thus, they are going to experience the consequences, but they will still have to do what they were told.  There are some people who insist on doing things their own difficult way simply because it’s their own way.

Christmas is about God doing things the hard way.  When it came to saving the world, God didn’t push the easy button.  He could have pushed that button long ago and just annihilated the mess the world became.  How hard would that have been for an omnipotent God who made it all in the first place? Genesis 6:5-7 hints at God feeling that urge with no mention of starting over. In Exodus 32:9-10, God threatened to do that with Israel and start over with Moses.  God certainly didn’t need mankind as God is self-sufficient and the fellowship of the Trinity was eternally perfect.  When mankind rebelled against God, he could have just written it all off as a good idea he had that just didn’t work out as planned. “We don’t need this grief. What we had was already perfect, so let’s just go back to that!” is not what God said.

Luke 2:6-7 is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to give the Woman seed that would crush Satan and rescue fallen mankind. In other words, it would be a Man who would crush Satan. It would not be a creature from outer-space; it would not be some created beast or cosmic weapon; it would not be an animal; nor would it be an angel. It would be a Man, a flesh-and-blood human being, a descendant of Eve who would do this job.

IMG_8454Couldn’t God have pushed the easy button and had Revelation 19:11-21 unfold? Why not make that the First Advent the only Advent with Philippians 2:10-11 happening right now? Why not just have the heavens open and the Son of Man descend in great glory and drop-dead power and be done with it all?  That kind of coming is easy for God.  Instead we have a newborn wrapped in swaddling cloths (a normal newborn) lying in a manger (at least it wasn’t the ground) because there was no room in the inn for a young mother in labor. This scene of Jesus’ birth is one of powerlessness and is the first of many scenes in the story of this baby growing to manhood, only to be rejected, then crucified, before being resurrected and restored to his place of glory at the right hand of his Father.

Here’s the point: God’s method for saving the world wasn’t easy.  Redemption required hard work, even for God. When God created the heavens and the earth all it took was his words and breath. But when God set about the work of re-creation, it took humbling incarnation, incredible suffering, bloodshed, and death.  That was hard.  It was physically and emotionally exhausting, and incredibly painful.  The most intense labor happened on the cross as Jesus’ life drained from him drop by bloody drop.  That’s why it’s so insulting for people to act as if God didn’t do enough or somehow left part of the work undone, leaving it up to each of us to finish the job.  What Jesus did was not easy but it was enough.  He finished the work.

The Christmas story tells me that God’s mission takes hard work. Changing the world doesn’t happen through wishes or noble intentions.  It requires the hard work of incarnation, just like Jesus.  It’s not just telling things to people.  It’s being with them and entering into their lives.  The work of evangelism and disciple-making is not easy.  It takes time and lots of it, frustration, tears, disappointments, patience, prayer, and an endless supply of compassionate love.  We don’t finish the job in our lifetime because we’ll never bring ourselves or anyone else to the ultimate end of glorification. That’s God’s work and it won’t happen this side of the grave. Until then, the work continues as the Holy Spirit reshapes us into the image of Jesus and then empowers us to be instruments for the same purpose in other’s lives.  We are his workmanship created for the work of God (Eph. 2:10).

In this Christmas season, don’t be discouraged in the work of the Lord.  And don’t be in a hurry to see things happen in lives that take time.  Don’t take shortcuts in the work of evangelism and discipleship because the end result may be something other than what God is after.  There is nothing too difficult for the Lord, but that doesn’t mean that everything he does is easy for him to do.  The gospel is simple but don’t mistake simple for easy. Just because you don’t work for your salvation doesn’t mean your salvation won’t lead you down a pathway of hard work. God does things the hard way because it’s the only way he gets what he wants and only in God getting what he wants can we get what we really need.

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Let There Be Peace

Peace_PineNeedlesThis is a season of hoping for peace on earth and goodwill among men. And why should we not hope? The angels announced it to be so at the birth of Jesus.  Yet, where do we find ourselves two thousand years later?  In our nation, the anxiety levels are on the rise as one killing event after another is thrust into the 24-hour news cycle leaving one to wonder, “Will it ever stop?”  2015 will not go down in the annals of history as a year of peace.

The New York Times ran a story today, “Fear in the Air, Americans Look over Their Shoulder,” which explores the increasing anxiety, fueled by tragedies like the most recent attacks in California and Paris.  No place seems safe anymore — going to school, eating in a restaurant, watching a movie at the theater, attending a concert, shopping in the mall, going to a Bible study at church, and going to work are all killing grounds. The author of the article wonders, if there’s no safety in those places, is safety even a realistic expectation any more?  A 62-year old grandmother in Austin, Texas was exasperated that her country can’t solve this problem. A 23-year old Cleveland girl said it all makes her “hate this world.” The tangled emotions leave some desensitized, while others are bewildered, angry, and asking, “Why must I feel so helpless? What kind of world must my children live in? Why won’t it stop already?”

Talk of peace lends itself to pious platitudes so often disconnected from reality.  But I’d like to venture a theological explanation for the absence of peace on our streets, in our homes, and in other ordinary venues of life.

The fact is humans simply cannot build the kind of world they want to build. The human race wants a world of peace, pleasure, and prosperity, but their starting point is all wrong because it is Self:  “I want peace, pleasure, and prosperity first and if I get it then I’ll think about getting it for you, too.  But if I don’t get it neither should you.”  The world wants what it wants, but it wants it without God. Without God as the cohesive center, every individual and every group are left to themselves to figure out how to achieve this dream.  Without God, it leaves Self or a collection of Selves at the center. As long as that is true, this world will not experience the peace, pleasure, and prosperity it so desperately longs for. Seven billion people will never unite on their own for the universal good of mankind to the glory of God.

As all pretense of honoring God evaporates from our culture under the constant heat of godlessness, peace vanishes with it. Thousands of years ago, the prophet Jeremiah spoke to his nation which had known the gracious hand of God, but had turned away from Him.  They were experiencing the consequences of their decision and longing for peace.  Our nation needs to take to heart his timely words.

To whom can I speak and give warning?
Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
so they cannot hear.
The word of the Lord is offensive to them;
they find no pleasure in it.
But I am full of the wrath of the Lord,
and I cannot hold it in.

“Pour it out on the children in the street
and on the young men gathered together;
both husband and wife will be caught in it,
and the old, those weighed down with years.
Their houses will be turned over to others,
together with their fields and their wives,
when I stretch out my hand
against those who live in the land,”
declares the Lord.
“From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
they will be brought down when I punish them,”
says the Lord. (Jeremiah 6:10-15)

Where there is no godly shame, there can be no peace.  Where the Word of God is resisted, there can be no peace.  Where preachers give false hope through feel-good sermons, there will be no peace.  I guess that’s as good a theological answer I can give to the mournful question, “why won’t it stop?”  As long as we (Self) are the center there will be no peace.  

The hope for peace inspired by this season does not rest in any of us, but in the birth of a child whose name shall be called “The Prince of Peace.”  O that our world would receive Him!

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Checklist for a Great Worship Service

00a223c1-704c-43c1-8810-b297cd35c881My wife does most of the legwork of planning the Sunday morning worship service orders for our church.  She and I talk through the theme and then she sets to the task of choosing songs and putting them in an order along with the other components of the worship service.  When that task is completed, there is the need to communicate the details to each of the team members that lead on the platform, the sound and video crew, and the ushers.  On any given Sunday the communication loop involves fifteen to twenty people.  At the end of the service, one might measure success in terms of a smooth flow, everyone being where they needed to be when they needed to be there, no technical problems or missed cues in the audio or video, and each component of the service ending relatively close to the targeted times.

Have you ever thought of your checklist for a great worship service?  This past Sunday I proposed two to the congregation, and I offer them up to you.

Checklist #1

  • I sat in “my pew” and it wasn’t too hard or too soft.
  • The temperature was just perfect, not too hot or too cold.
  • No one’s cell phone went  off around me during the service.
  • We sang my favorite songs.
  • The sermon was “deep” and long; or the sermon was short, sweet, and to the point (your preference).
  • We got out on time.

Checklist #2:

  • I prepared my heart to worship before the service started.
  • I sang with my mind engaged, my heart enthralled, and my voice united with those around me.
  • I prayed.
  • I listened attentively to God’s Word.
  • I responded in humble obedience to God’s Word.

The point of a corporate worship service is to encounter God.  The music, prayer, Scripture reading, sermon, and response are all aimed at that one thing.  Which list do you think is most likely to get you there?

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What’s Good about Good Friday?

Jesus-on-the-crossHave you ever wondered what is good about Good Friday? How can the things that happened on that day and the horrors of Christ’s suffering be good?  How can it be good that he was falsely accused and wrongly condemned and unjustly crucified?  What is good about that?  It seems “Horrible Friday” would be a better designation.

Go back to the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. He did so with power and perfection, and the creation account repeats, “God saw that it was good.”  When his creation was finished God saw everything he had made said it was very good.

Then something horrible happened.  The man and woman God created rebelled against him in an act of treachery perpetrated by the deceptive schemes of Satan. The creation God made was marred and scarred with the result that the man and woman were barred from fellowship with God. But God did not abandon his creation; he did not give up and walk away from the man and woman he created.  No.  He promised to fix the problem, even though the fix would be costly and painful.

When God created the heavens and the earth he just spoke it all into existence.  But fixing what was broken would not be that easy.  To do so, God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary.  He was a perfect sinless man who was God.  It was this God-Man who willingly went to the cross, who became sin for sinners, who suffered in the place of sinners, who paid the debt in full.  He did not deserve it, so from a human perspective his suffering was unjust.  But we did deserve it.  So Jesus took on himself what we deserved so we could go free.  From the cross with the last breaths he had within him, Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” Just like God finished his original work of creation and declared it to be good, so now Jesus finished the work of redemption. “It is finished” meant the work was done and the work was good, in fact, it was very good.  Forgiveness for sin, salvation from hell, and reconciliation to God were now available to any and all humble enough to receive these gracious gifts.

That is what is good about Good Friday.

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The Leader, the Witch and the Warning

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe encounter of King Saul with the witch of En Dor in 1 Samuel 28 is one of the most bizarre incidents in Saul’s life, and even more so, in all the Bible. Who was this woman? What kind of powers did she possess? Did this woman actually call Samuel up from the dead as Saul asked her to do, or did Samuel show up because God sent him, and if God sent him, why? Can the dead come back as spirits to communicate with the living? Are the spirits of humans wandering the earth? Are seances for real?

Those questions are intriguing. The problem is the story does not answer those questions because the questions raised are not the purpose for this incident being included in the narrative of Saul’s life. This incident is not intended to be a lesson about life after death. You could spend all your time in this passage trying to answer those questions with in-depth studies that would lead to no absolute conclusions, maybe drawing conclusions that would misdirect you, and in the process cause you to miss the point.

The overarching meta-narrative of the Saul and David stories is about a leader’s heart and God. David was a man after God’s own heart (explicitly stated in 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22).  In contrast, Saul was not a man after God’s heart (repeatedly illustrated throughout his life and set in deliberate contrast to David). Saul trembled greatly In 1 Samuel 28:5 because the Philistine army (his nemesis) came up against him. When he asked the Lord what he should do, the Lord did not answer him. No dream or vision, no answer through the Urim and Thumim (a means of inquiry God gave to the Old Testament priests), no prophetic word. The prophet Samuel was dead. When no answer came, Saul’s solution to the dilemma of discerning the future was to find a witch, someone who engaged in the practice of communicating with the dead. This practice was strictly forbidden by God’s law (Leviticus 19:31) and Saul had cleansed the land earlier of those who practiced it (1 Samuel 28:3).  Now he’s a customer.  These kinds of actions have been the habit of Saul’s leadership. In a prior encounter with the Philistines, Saul made a sacrifice he was not authorized to offer (1 Samuel 13:5-14). On another occasion the Lord commanded Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites, but Saul modified the plan (1 Samuel 15). Saul’s habit as a leader was to obey the Lord as long as it worked out the way he thought it should, and when it did not, he would choose another course.

What is interesting about Saul is that he knew how to mix his religion into his leadership. He consulted with the prophet of the Lord, he made sacrifices to the Lord, and on another occasion when he went up against the Philistines he compelled his troops to fast for a victory over their enemies (1 Samuel 14:24). He knew the techniques of leading under God, but his heart was empty.

So near the end of his life, Saul is found in En Dor consulting with a woman who leads seances and consults with spirits. Apparently he’d been fasting again (1 Sam. 28:20).

Saul comes across as a leader who acted as if methods could get him what he wanted, but he learned that there is no magic in methods when it comes to leading under God. Success with God lies in the heart.  Even godly methods don’t work if the leader’s heart is not right.  The heart that is right is the heart that trusts. The heart that trusts is the heart that obeys. The heart that obeys yields actions that evidence true faith. Those actions may include sacrifices or fasts, but Saul jumped to the latter while ignoring the former.

Leaders risk the same in this age that emphasizes perfecting technique in ministry: offering the glorious sacrifices of programming devoid of true heart surrender; cloaking themselves with spiritual practices without true heart surrender that yields a pseudo-spiritual leadership. There is no magic in methods because the power belongs to God. Sometimes he communicates and works in bizarre ways because he can. The point is not that we adopt that method, otherwise we should be having seances along with our prayer meetings in order to divine the future. In the end what God wants is the heart. He doesn’t want a leader’s creativity, hard work, skills, or well rationalized strategies. He wants the leader’s heart because if God gets the leader’s heart, he will have the leader’s creativity, hard work, skills, and rational abilities, but all of them surrendered to God.

Saul never got that. David did. And so must every leader.

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Adapt or Die

120916burnchurch-340x170A little over a week ago, jihadists executed 21 Christian Egyptian men.  None of the martyrs were wealthy or educated.  They had gone to Libya looking for work and ended up in the hands of ISIS.  In a picture accompanying the article I read, the men were kneeling on a beach with a gray overcast sky in the background.  Each was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and behind each man stood a black-clad, hooded terrorist, knife in hand, ready to do his bloody deed.  These men were targeted because they were “people of the cross.”  According to this report, they were tortured in an effort to persuade them to deny Jesus and save their lives.  Another report said they were whispering the name Jesus as they were executed.  Presented with the choice of denying Christ or dying, they chose death.

Just days later another story hit the news circuit, this one situated in America.  This one involving an author and former pastor heralded as one of the most influential Christians in America. His name is Rob Bell. Clad in hipster skinny jeans, sitting on rattan furniture in a cozy outdoor setting, Bell  was being interviewed by the guru of secular spirituality, Oprah, and they were discussing his endorsement of same-sex marriage (you can read about it here). In that interview, Bell stated he is convinced the Church is just “moments away” from accepting same-sex marriage.  Asserting that churches which don’t embrace same sex-marriage are a dying subculture, Bell makes this audacious claim: “You sort of die or you adapt.”

In a word, there is his theology — adapt.  If you’re at all acquainted with Rob Bell you will come away from his books and talks with the distinct impression that Bell’s brand of Christianity isn’t really derived from an honest representation of what the New Testament teaches. In reality, he is more committed to cultural relevance than to actual truth.  I think he would take that observation as a compliment. In his opinion, the Bible is outdated when it comes to establishing timeless norms for things like marriage, and it is horribly misrepresented in traditional Christian belief on the subject of hell.  Rob Bell left the church he founded and pastored due, in part, to a fallout with the congregation over the less than orthodox views he expressed in his book Love Wins, stating he left to “search for a more forgiving faith.”

My purpose in this post isn’t to get into the same-sex marriage issue.  My focus is on this “adapt or die” brand of Christianity promoted by such an influential person.  His adaptable doctrine speaks volumes about the American brand of Christianity that is so popular these days.  Christian martyrs down through the centuries wouldn’t buy Bell’s mantra.  And neither should we.  Those 21 Christians kneeling on that desolate beach demonstrated that Jesus – and what He says – is worth dying for.

Sometimes it is better to die than adapt.

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Praying in the Garden

StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GethsemaneThe night Jesus was betrayed and arrested he went with his disciples to a favorite place, a quiet place at night I’m sure called the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was in this place that the final minutes ticked down to his passion.  Matthew records this garden scene in Matthew 26:31-46. Here are five personal reflections.

We are always at risk of stumbling (vv. 31-32).  Jesus warned his disciples they would stumble.  They didn’t believe him.  They were sure they wouldn’t. And then, they stumbled.  Life is a pathway filled with stumbling stones and slippery, unstable ground.  Jesus says we are vulnerable on the journey.  “You will stumble because of me.”  All it takes is a cross word, a threatening action, a worldly temptation, and down we go.  The disciples swore to high heaven they’d never be offended because of Jesus.  Never.  We are at risk.  Seriously.

We are bent toward thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (vv. 33-35).  Catch Peter’s words as he expresses the feelings of the whole group in response to Jesus’ warning that they would stumble: “I will never…I will not…”  Never! But they did.  They did the very thing they said they would never do, and they did it a short while after declaring they never would.  The flesh is confident in itself.  Very confident. However, bold declarations of faithfulness to Jesus that are made in the flesh will retreat in the face of real threats.

We need companionship (vv. 36-38).  The vulnerability of Jesus in this scene is haunting.  Sorrow and deep distress surrounded him.  Trouble was pressing in on him from every direction.  The weight of what he was about to endure is descending upon him.  What did he want? He wanted human companionship. That’s interesting.  Wasn’t the fellowship of his Father enough?  That’s not the point here.  Jesus was a man and as a man he wanted the companionship of his friends in that dark hour.  He didn’t want to be alone.  Of course he could turn to his Father and he did, but what did his Father tell him?  “This is what you came to do, my Son.  The hour has arrived.  It’s time.”  There would be no deliverance from his Father.  Soon, in fact, his Father would forsake him. The sorrow, anguish, and loneliness were all part of the Father’s will for they were all consequences of sin.  Oh how Jesus longed to have these men be with him and watch with him!

We are weak when it comes to spiritual action (vv. 40-46).  “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” Jesus said.  He asked, “Could you not watch with me one hour?”  No, they couldn’t.  When he came the third time and found them sleeping he asked, “Are you still sleeping and resting?”  Yes, they were still sleeping.  That’s not what they wanted to do.  They wanted to remain and watch with him.  They wanted to pray with him.  But their flesh was stronger.  They were tired and they fell asleep.  When temptation comes, and it will come, the risk is that the flesh will win, and we will fail.  Will-power does not produce effective spirituality.

We must learn to depend on prayer (vv. 36, 39, 42, 44).  Jesus did.  He invited his disciples to be with him, to watch with him, and to pray with him.  They did the exact opposite: they slept.  Danger was lurking in the dark shadows of that garden.  Hell was about to launch its assault and God was the target.  The destiny of the human race was hanging in the balance.  Jesus knew this.  He knew what lay ahead.  This was the most critical hour in human history.  And the disciples slept while Jesus watched and prayed. When the hour arrived, Jesus stood true to the Father’s will while the disciples fled. The flesh wants control (it always wants control), but the flesh will fail. Prayer is a means by which we put the flesh to death for only then can the spirit be strong.  Prayer is how we watch so we won’t be overtaken in temptation.  It’s how we abide in the presence of Jesus.

On the night in which he was betrayed by a friend, Jesus prayed.  His disciples didn’t.  And it made all the difference.

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