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.

Posted in Discipleship | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


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!

Posted in Discipleship | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why Is It So Hard?

Why is it so hard to reach religious people with the gospel?  I’m talking about good, upright, moral, people?  Perhaps you can recall times you engaged one of these individuals in conversation, and the door opened to share the gospel.  But in the end, nothing happened.  They said they have always believed in God all their life, and some even say they believe in Jesus.  They do not express assurance of salvation like that of which I speak, but they seem to have enough to convince them they’re okay.  Why is that?

Yesterday morning I stopped at a convenience store to buy a cup of coffee.  I grabbed some change in the car (so I wouldn’t end up getting more change).  I poured a small-sized coffee and headed to the checkout.  I put my cup of coffee on the counter and reached for my wallet but came up empty since I had forgotten it at home.  No wallet meant no cash or credit cards.  I had a $1.29 cup of coffee and I couldn’t pay for it.  I was embarrassed.  I fumbled a bit and said I would have to go home and get my wallet.  There was the cup of coffee sitting there and I didn’t know what to do with it.  Just as I was going to ask the cashier if she would hold it there while I drove home to get my wallet, she said, “It’s on us.”  I looked at her quizzically and she said, “The coffee is on us.”  What that meant, though it took a moment to sink in, was that I did not have to pay for it.  She was giving me the cup of coffee.  I was pleasantly surprised, but it still left me feeling awkward because I knew the reason she was giving it to me was because I didn’t have enough money.  Then I had this thought: “I wonder if she thinks I’m one of those people trying pulling one over on her, the old ‘I forgot my wallet’ routine to get something free.”  So, I quickly gave her the 45-cents in my hand and said, “Here, take this, and thank you.”  I insisted on doing something to prove I wasn’t a con man.  I left the store, went home and got my wallet.  I thought about returning to pay the remaining 84-cents, mostly to make myself look good.  That is when it hit me — the cashier had said me, “the coffee is on us.”  It was a gift that I was reluctant to accept because I felt like it made me look bad.  But you know what?  You don’t repay gifts, only debts.  When she said, “It’s on us,” she was erasing the debt and giving me a gift.  Yet, my first response wasn’t to accept it because I felt “too good” about myself to do that.

On the cross, Jesus says to sinners, “It’s on me.  You don’t have to pay.” But most people still think they do.  Why? Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31).  Healthy people see no personal need for a doctor.  Jesus went on to say, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).  Those who are righteous have nothing for which to repent.  Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).  If you don’t think you’re lost, you see no need of being found.  That is why it is hard for good, moral, responsible people to be saved.  It is not impossible — look at the example of the Apostle Paul.  It’s just not easy.  A $1.29 gift reminded me of how difficult my own pride made it to accept a simple gift.  Why would I think it would be easy for a good person to acknowledge their sin and need for help?

I am grateful for the kindness of the cashier.  I plan to stop in and purchase a large cup of coffee as a way of showing my appreciation for her kindness to me.

Posted in Discipleship, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Nativity of Imagination or Reality?

afa-p-fuucb2The Gospels provide two nativity scenes. Luke’s gospel tells of humble shepherds heeding the instruction of an angel and worshipping the Christ Child as He lay in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel tells of reputable magi following a star to Bethlehem and worshipping the Child in a house.  But I would like you to imagine a different nativity scene. Picture the brightest, strongest, most creative, most charitable people you can think of who have tried to solve the world’s problems — people like professors, philosophers, religious leaders, composers, authors, artists, scientists, generals, business executives, entrepreneurs, and kings, prime ministers, and presidents; think of Nobel prize winners. Think of the wise, powerful, and noble of this world. Can you picture such an assembly? Now, picture them on their knees encircling the manger, worshipping the newborn king. Wild imagination? Currently yes, but ultimately no. What this assembly of people have valiantly tried but miserably failed to do, this Child will accomplish.

Such a scene reminds me of an incident from the life of Jesus. One day His disciples were arguing over who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you know anything about The Twelve, it is surprising that any of them thought they would be that person. Perhaps they had in mind fleeting glimpses of some of the kinds of individuals listed above — people who do great things. Jesus’ answer showed how unlike the world’s system His system would be. He said, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then to press His point further, “He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (Mark 9:35-36).  A child silences the argument over greatness.

Imagine a nativity scene in that light — a Child placed in the midst of the “great” of this world, each of whom has either fought for or earned a place in the annals of human greatness, yet each having ultimately failed to stop the curse or stem the tide of human misery and depravity with words, armies, or wealth. That is what this Child came to do.

Imagine that collection of brilliant and creative minds, ingenuity, eloquence, and shear power, kneeling before an infant who cannot even speak, but whose unintelligible sounds come from the same voice that said, “Let there be . . . and it was so;” the same voice that cursed the serpent and cursed the ground because of rebellion. The most powerful of this world cannot reverse what this Child has already done. Their only hope is to bow in worship and to believe this Child who is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Surrounded by such human brilliance and greatness, this Child appears weak and insignificant, but “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

What an imaginary scene this is in our contemporary setting where the collective strength, wisdom and wealth of worldly man defies God and acts like King Herod (Matt. 2:3). But this imaginary scene will happen one day (Phil. 2:9-10; Rev. 21:24). Until then, be comforted by the remembrance that those who actually did gather at that nativity so long ago were not the wise, powerful, and noble. They were people like us — the foolish, weak, insignificant, and despised by the measuring tools of this world. The beauty of that is this — in the nativity of Jesus only One gets the glory because all glory belongs to Him, but we get the benefit.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conscience and the 2016 Election

relligious-freedomThe 2016 presidential election in America is a mess.  I have never witnessed an election where the top two candidates were so thoroughly disliked by the electorate.  Conversations regarding this election, verbal and written, casual and formal, struggle to maintain calmness and civility.  The stakes are high and passions are even higher.  I know people who are voting for Donald Trump; I know people who are voting for Hillary Clinton; and I know others who are giving Gary Johnson a serious look.  I talked with another person who is contemplating writing in a name on their ballot.  Still others I know are seriously thinking about not voting for any candidate for President.  Few people are asking for voting advice in this election; everyone seems to be justifying their choice.  I think I have had one individual ask me, and that was several months ago.  I have struggled with this as a pastor wondering what guidance I should give as a shepherd of God’s people.  I am certain that whatever I might say would have no effect on those whose minds are already made up.  I have reminded the congregation I serve that Christ’s mission always takes priority over any political party’s agenda.  I have also reminded them that our ultimate hope is in Christ, not man, because man cannot solve the real problems in this world.  The promises any candidate offers are nothing more than attempts to mitigate the consequences of human sinfulness.  To some, those statements sound like pious platitudes disconnected from the everyday stuff of life.  “Yeah, Pastor, I get it, but what does that have to do with how to vote?”  I believe those statements very strongly.  However, there is an election coming which we, as Christians, have the right to participate.  The major candidates are seriously flawed individuals.  Some would go so far as to say they are both unqualified to serve as President of the United States.  So, how should a Christian vote in this election?

The answer I have come to, and I’m sticking with it, is this — vote your conscience.  When you mark your ballot, follow your conscience.  The conscience is given by God and every person has one.  It is one of the things that guards humanity against universal moral anarchy.  The conscience is that inner voice that says, “Do it!” or “Don’t!”  When you act consistently with your true beliefs, your conscience commends you.  When you act inconsistently with your true beliefs, your conscience condemns you.  Violating your conscience is like trying to pound a square peg through a round hole.  You can get it through the round hole, but you will have to pound it hard enough to scrape the edges off the square.  In other words, to not violate your conscience you either have to conform your actions to your conscience, or you have to conform your conscience to your actions, which can be done.  Violating your conscience is one way to do that; do it enough times and your conscience won’t condemn you anymore.  Reeducating your conscious is another way.

The Bible affirms the existence and positive role of the conscience.  For example, when Paul makes his case for the universal guilt of mankind, he observes that

“Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.  They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:14-15). 

Another example comes later in Romans, when Paul takes up the subject of disputable issues over which believers disagree (Rom. 14).  He talks about differences of opinion regarding eating or abstaining from certain foods and observing or not observing certain holy days (we call them holidays).  It is not a stretch to apply the principles of this passage to the political quandary of this election.  Christians are going to come to different conclusions.  One may feel strongly about voting for one candidate while another Christian feels just as strongly about voting for the other candidate.  Yet, another may feel strongly about sitting out this presidential election.  All of these Christians may have well-reasoned arguments for their decisions.  Paul admonishes the believers not to pass judgment on each other over these matters.  That does not mean it is wrong to hold a strong position or that it is wrong to debate the issues; it’s just that, in the circumstances cited in this passage, passing judgment on one another is rebuked.  Just because the reasons a person gives to support their choice do not convince me does not mean I have the right to pronounce judgment upon that individual, like accusing them of being godless, unchristian, or an irresponsible Christian.  And certainly no can claim to know how Jesus would vote if he were voting in this election.  Listen to what Paul writes:

 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”  So then each of us will give account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:10-12)

Paul goes on to instruct believers on the importance of acting on the basis of conscience.  He strongly warns against violating one’s conscience and or encouraging others to violate their consciences.

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.  Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.  But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:22-23)

God has not designated me to be anyone’s Jiminy Cricket, nor has he designated any person to be mine.  If, after careful thought guided by biblical truth and prayer, I choose to vote for Clinton in spite of her flaws, or Trump in spite of his flaws, or Johnson in spite of his flaws or the accusation of wasting a vote, or to write in a name knowing the person will not be elected, or to sit it out realizing that voting is a great privilege, and my conscience commends me in my decision, then so be it.  Who should you vote for?  Let your conscience guide you.  Ultimately, as a believer, how you vote is between you and God.

Oh, by way, the conscience is not infallible.  While there is an inherent sense of right and wrong in the human soul embedded by God, the conscience can be deadened and it can be misinformed.  A deadened and desensitized conscience will offer no guidance.  A weak conscience should not be ignored, but a weak conscience does not necessarily offer the best guidance.  One with a weak conscience is wise to be open to instruction because the conscience can be reeducated by Scripture.  What a believer needs is a strong conscience that is shaped by the truth of God’s Word and guided by the Holy Spirit.  Having that kind of conscience, follow it.

It is rightfully said that elections have consequences.  But consequentialism does not nullify the responsibility to act according to personal conscience (read a helpful article on the limits of consequentialism here).  As you make your decision regarding what you will do this election, act according to your conscience, but take some time to evaluate if your conscience is, in fact, “captive to the Word of God” (as Martin Luther put it), or whether it is bound to some other dream.  Ask yourself, “Can I, in good conscience, vote for this person, or not vote at all?”  If you can honestly answer, “Yes,” then you will have fulfilled your Christian responsibility.  And remember, if your Christian brother or sister can say they same, they too will have fulfilled their responsibility whether or not you both agree.

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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,


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Discipleship, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment