What I want you to know about Christmas

As many people I know enjoying a family holiday weekend, I realize that not everyone is working from the same understanding, that Christmas is a celebration of the coming of the Messiah, God’s one and only Son, and that His coming was the fulfillment of a promise that God made to save His people. The point, even more than the miraculous markers of Christ’s birth, is that God fulfilled a promise and that those who believe in that promise have come to possess an amazing hope.

Christmas is about far more than the miraculous birth of Jesus. It is about more than manger scenes or gifts delivered to this young boy from wise men who honored a small child as the king of the Jews.

Christmas is about a dark world that had not heard (prophetically) from God for centuries. It is about a people living in subjection to a government that was not oriented to God, but one that saw itself as a god or one of many gods. Christmas is about people living in darkness, starved for hope, doing the best they could…and God choosing to speak into that darkness with a message of hope. This hope is that you do not have to make up for all your errors. You do not have to correct every offense toward God. It is impossible to do so. But you do have to admit that you are in a mess that you cannot correct on your own.

Christmas is about God speaking hope into darkness. It is about God bringing life to the lifeless.

It is about God doing what no one else could and what He was never obligated to do except for, perhaps, His own self-obligation…His promise to save people from their sins. Christmas is about God’s fulfilled promise.

In a world given to protesting everything it doesn’t like about anything, I find it glorious that God did not protest mankind’s rebellion. He did not shut down the conversation, or ignore us. He did not yell at us or incessantly repeat the occasions of our failures. He came to save us. He loved us when, by all honest assessment, we were unlovely to Him. He did for us what we would never do for another. He did it with a magnified humility that should really give perspective on our boastfulness of life. He did so because, as His Word says, “He so loved us…the world…the people of His creative work.” (John 3:16).

So, Merry Christmas. Hope has come. Light shined into darkness and the darkness could not overwhelm the light.

That’s good news. That’s Christmas.

From Jodi and I, and on behalf of our entire family…Merry Christmas! Hope has come.

Are You a… (part 2)

Church.Image1In the last post, I observed that many in the local church have lost the sense of what it means to be a member of a church. Partial responsibility rests on leaders who have failed to teach on this in an understandable way. To some degree, we may cast blame toward the culture which helps establish the norms of our lives. Still, some responsibility must rest on an audience that “tunes out” uncomfortable or contrary information…regardless of its source. Today I want to expand on the idea that having the different “classes/types” of people (Examiners, Consumers, Participants, and Partners) in the assembly of saints (the church) is actually helpful.

Perhaps you’re asking, “How can unbelievers amid the church be helpful?”

  • First, we must recognize that Paul observed the presence of unbelievers in the church and even argued that some consideration should be given to their presence (1 Corinthians 14). You don’t include such considerations unless their presence is a reality and somehow consistent with godly design. Part of the “helpfulness” is mission. When missionaries engage new people groups, they first seek to learn culture and then establish bridges between the gospel and the new culture so that the gospel can be communicated contextually. If unbelievers are present among the assembled church, a bridge has been identified that facilitates gospel communication.
  • Second, the presence of unbelievers serves to sharpen and equip believers in their missional skillset. Again, a bridge exists and if it is appropriately used, believers gain valuable insight and even empathy toward those who are far from God.
  • Third, the presence of unbelievers makes for a more natural engagement with a gospel witness. If an unbeliever is at a church service, it is not unusual to ask (or be asked) about spiritual condition. In fact, it is expected.

As for believers, having participants in the church is part of the discipleship process. There will be believers who grow in relationship and growth is a process, not an event. One doesn’t become a Christian and suddenly become a “Paul” or “Peter” type instantly. There must be “room” in the church for spiritual immaturity to grow toward maturity. As church planters, Jodi and I recognized years ago that we should engage new people quickly in the life of the church. Some were spiritually immature and others weren’t disciples, but how much spiritual growth is required to open a door, hand out a worship program, adjust sound levels, or set up chairs? Often, the “thin threads” of relationship were strengthened through service, paving the way for more depth of discipleship to occur. This last statement must be an intentional pursuit. It is wrong to reinforce that “you’re ok” to an immature believer or a lost person by giving them a place of service without challenging them to grow as disciples. How tragic it would be for a man to have confidence in his unchallenged spiritual condition simply because he fulfills a role in church life and assumes that since no one has challenged him to grow, he must be “ok.”

There are more “comfortable” scenarios than worshipping in a mixed-company room with unbelievers, the spiritually immature, and those who are growing in faith. What the church is called to though, is not comfort but a mission of making disciples. This is our ONE JOB.

Across the Aisle…

Handshake ImageThere have been several key figures in my life and development as a man and as a follower of Christ. Each one has his own story, but this is the story of a man named George Wyatt.

He stepped across the aisle. Back in that day, we were a church of hundreds. I was a 20-something cop. He was an engineer. I was a high school graduate. He wore a ring from Clemson. Jodi and I were new in the church with a small kid. He had been in the church for a while and was connected, serving, and demonstrating a genuine, fruitful existence. And, he stepped across the aisle.

My new friend, George, invited Jodi and me to join him and his wife, as well as some friends for a new bible study at his house. It was a study on parenting. It was a good study by the way, but the real value of the invite in my life was leadership and love. George and I became friends. His family became special to us. Perhaps most significant…because George took the initiative, I BECAME a better man. He invested in me. Told me tough things while we stood shoulder to shoulder working on a project. He invited me into his world and gave me the “Barnabas gift,” meaning that he affirmed me to his sphere of influence so that I could join in.

George believed in me when I was still trying to figure out who I was. He helped me get into politics. He invited me to join the school board with him for the Christian school our kids attended. He talked about his own life struggles in a transparent manner so I would know that he wasn’t perfect. He made me part of his life. When I sensed the calling to plant a church, he helped us. When I was discouraged, he spoke tough encouragement.

Why do I tell you this? Because there was no manual. No training program. No curriculum. But there was discipleship. George helped me become a disciple, by stepping across the aisle. He made me better by stepping across the aisle. He made me better by inviting me into his world.

As I read the Scriptures and grow in my understanding of the purpose Christ has for his people…this is a big part of what making disciples is all about.

So, look around…

Who is across the aisle from you?

Who is on the outside of your circle of healthy Christian relationships that you can bring in?

Who has God placed in your path to love and lead…to invest in and serve…to speak to and speak for?

Thanks, George. Jodi and I love you, Karen, and your precious girls. Most significantly…I love Jesus more because of you stepping across the aisle.

If you are a George to someone…keep going. Obedience to Christ’s command pays off. If there’s a kid across the aisle…don’t just be available…be intentional. It matters.

Public Speaking v. Preaching

IMG_1123I am a preacher. It is what God called me to do. In my surrender to ministry, He confirmed this calling in the propositional questions Paul asks in Romans 10:13-15 when he makes the definitive statement, “All those who call upon the Lord shall be saved.” He asks, “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? How will they hear unless someone preaches to them? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news (gospel) of good things!”

Honestly though…most non-Christians struggle to grasp the concept. How can they? Understanding such a calling requires a reference point in the gospel itself.

For this reason, when I am speaking to a non-believer, I often explain what I do in some version of public speaking. Most of them have had to give a book report or have taken a public speaking class in college so they can relate to that aspect of speaking; however, in truth, preaching and public speaking are miles apart. Here are a few ways:

  • Public speakers prepare “talks” or speeches to give. In preaching, the man of God is prepared by the message that the Lord gives Him. God works me over in a process of refining and purifying as He prepares me and the message in my heart.
  • Public speakers employ rhetorical devices to manipulate audiences. (Please hear “manipulate” in the most charitable of ways, since my point is that they seek to have their words move the audience.) In preaching, it is not the skill of the preacher that is responsible for moving a congregation. We convictionally believe that God moves His people through the Word but not by the words.
  • Public speakers want to be liked/appreciated/lauded/invited back. This is not wrong…since if you are a speaker, this is how you make a living. Preachers often speak in such a way that if you did not love them, you could never like them. They apply God’s Word as a chisel to hearts of stone and pry into areas of behavior that are barely, at times, socially acceptable. Preachers are like surgeons that use a scalpel to remove a tumor and then tell you the recovery will be painful but necessary.
  • Public speakers choose their own topics based, often times, on some sense of mastery of the subject. While a preacher should demonstrate expertise in handling the Word, He is most typically not one who has mastered the subject or its implications. He is a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
  • Public speakers can walk away. Like any profession, one can choose to retire or semi-retire. Preachers are terminated. The prophet Jeremiah says that the Word of God implanted in a preacher is like a fire in his bones that burdens the man until he lets it out. One day, God terminates his position. Until then, he must preach.
  • Finally, public speakers need skillful rhetoric to accomplish a task; whereas, a preacher has no such need. The object of preaching, that is the Word of God…always accomplishes that for which it was intended. God uses His Word despite (or perhaps through) the preacher’s limitations.

IMG_0313Some may wonder, “Why would anyone be a preacher?” Simply put…because God calls a man to the task and uses the preacher’s efforts, however wondrous or feeble, to confound the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:20-25), and to bring glory to Himself! God chose preaching as His instrument…not a dialogue, a debate, or a lecture, but preaching. God directed that those who desire to serve God as an elder/pastor, always be ready to preach “the Word,” in every season and circumstance (2 Tim 4:2).

Thus, I am a preacher. Nothing more. Nothing less. Without compromise. I lack perfection and I often fail…but I am being fitted and shaped as an instrument of revelation and reconciliation by the One who called me out of darkness and enlisted me in the ranks of the those bearing the calling—to preach.

Trained at the breast

BF art“You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother’s womb.” Psalm 22:9-10 (NASB)

“Just a little bit more.” This was the response of J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) when asked: “how much money do you want?” In modern dollars, Mr. Getty died with a net worth north of 8 billion dollars.

Now before you jump on the “1%” train and start to indignantly define Getty as a greedy miser, consider this: Perhaps everything is an economy of scale and his issue was not greed but fear. Amassing wealth, for many, is not so much about the number of zeroes on a bank statement, but the sense of security that a large nest egg brings. It is about how one can weather the storms of life and still come out on top.

In Psalm 22, a messianic psalm, David writes from a low point in his life. He cries out to God because of his circumstances and immediately answers his own cry with a call for praise. It is, as if, the difficulties of David’s life are instruments of God to train him to trust God in all things.

David reminds us in verses 9-10 that our training to trust God is both natural and intentional. It is natural for us as beings because we do not cause our own birth. No person wills himself into being. We cannot choose any part of our beginning. We exist WHOLLY as the result of another person’s choice. (This is a picture of grace). David goes a step further and declares that the ultimate One who makes the choice is God who brought him forth from his mother’s womb.

Not just in origin, but in sustainment, even as an infant, the lessons of trust are inherent. No infant prepares his own breakfast. If the child is to eat, he is to do so at his mother’s breast, by her initiative, and at her pleasure. The infant has no control yet there is rarely a more peaceful picture of trust and contentment than that of a nursing child.

David’s training was also intentional. His mother “cast him” upon the Lord even from birth. (Think of casting him as releasing him wholly to the Lord). She learned to trust the Lord with her child and thus taught her child to look to God rather than her for his daily needs.

Perhaps, the great enemy of our growth in faith is not the difficulties of life, but its excesses. Perhaps our self-sufficiency (or pursuit of it) actually moves us from peace to anxiousness, from potential comfort to perpetual longing.

Is there hope? YES!

Jesus, in the “model prayer,” to His followers to pray in this way: “…give us THIS DAY our DAILY bread.” (Matt 6:11, NASB. eEmphasis added.)

We find peace in the Person of God and in His provision, not in our ability to provide or store up for ourselves that which we anticipate needing. Further, in one of the most arresting proverbs in my life, we are told that this is the way toward true wisdom:

Proverbs 30:8-9 states: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?” or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

Today, do not seek security but God’s sufficiency. He can be trusted. You can trust Him. Don’t let the wisdom of the world draw you away from the peace that surpasses understanding. Return to a daily dependence. This is more than ATTITUDE. It requires ACTION. If there is a point of security for you, a place you turn to for hope and comfort other than God…remember that no man can serve two masters. He must choose today whom he is to serve. As for me and my house…we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15).

child

Build a Bridge to the Gospel

Busy MomRecently, I received a precious note from a mom. I have been preaching on the subject of evangelism lately noting that ALL of God’s people are, by design, proclaimers of the gospel. In fact, I have been encouraging the church I lead to embrace a challenge to identify one person (#MyOne) and share the gospel with them using the “3 Circles” Conversation Guide. Sharing the gospel is more than a statement or conversation about Jesus; which necessarily makes it more than a Christian greeting (God bless you) or a Christian truth (Jesus loves you) but that it connects the brokenness of man with God’s redemptive story and points to the restoration that is possible when we repent and believe the gospel.

This mom shared the challenge of this. In essence, she wanted to know how her sharing with her children fit into this challenge. It is a GREAT QUESTION and, with her permission, I wanted to pass along some of my response because I imagine there are others who are in a similar situation. So, “does sharing the gospel with my children, who have my nearly complete attention every day, fulfill the great commission mandate?”

In short, my answer is Yes, this is the Great Commission, but, ALONE, it is incomplete. This mom is intentional about consistently connecting the gospel to her kids’ lives. This is the premier method of discipleship. In fact, I don’t know of any better outworking of Deuteronomy 6 than what this mom described.

At the same time, Jesus expressed a “going” aspect of the gospel enterprise. He called us to make disciples as we go (Matt 28:19) and to go and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).

These truths are not opposed to but complimentary of one another. We are to constantly rehearse, train and teach the gospel to those who are redeemed and exist within our circles of influence while at the same time, expanding the scope of our circle by building bridges to new people. Here is my response to this mom, in part:

My hope, and I think the biblical admonition, with the #MyOne promotion is to treat honestly the intent of the Lord in evangelizing. Jesus did this in every conversation. Sometimes more overt in some than others…but He always pointed to God’s redemption and man’s required response. The other NT writers did as well. I can hardly think of a teaching in the NT that is not focused on evangelizing or on living out the Gospel. They are never really separated from each other. 

If we are to treat the Scriptures with honesty, we must also see that there is a “going” aspect of the gospel enterprise as well. It is never the intent that we would simply work within our “constant” circles of influence; rather, that we would be continually building bridges to reach new people INTENTIONALLY seeking to see how the Lord is working in those relationships so that we can join Him in His gospel work. Just as with your child, God loves our neighbors and desires their redemption even more than we do. He has, in these cases, commissioned us as instruments of redemption both in telling and applying the gospel in the lives of others. 

So, reach your child and your neighbor. Praise God for that. Encourage other moms with the Gospel. Praise God for that. AND…intentionally grab that wife who is a HOT MESS and have her and her rowdy kid over for a play date…and get to know her and her crazy world. Then, prayerfully, build a gospel bridge. Then do it again! 

There isn’t enough time to do it all, but we must continually press the limits of the circle outward…for Jesus’ sake. 

So, what do you think? Can you relate to this mom? What would you add to what I shared?

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