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For Alice Lakey

My grandmother was called home to be with her Lord on Thursday.  Since I can’t be present at the funeral service today, I’ve asked for this to be read aloud:

Today, I honor the godly grandmother that I was blessed to know.  In 2 Timothy 1:5, the apostle Paul writes, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”  Paul expresses gratitude for the heritage of faith that Timothy received; a heritage passed down from his godly grandmother.  In a similar way, I have received a heritage of faith passed down from my grandmother, who remained steadfast in her heart for the Lord Jesus Christ.

I remember her love of life.  What a delight it was to see her eyes twinkle as she would laugh!  I must confess that I often tried to say something funny just to make her laugh.  Her love for life’s good times was fueled by her love for others, especially her family.

I am grateful for the gentle kindness that my grandmother showed to others.  Just as she gently held many babies over the years in the hospital maternity ward, her caring hands held me as an infant and held my children too.  Over the years, her gentle spirit never faded.  I’ve met many other people who harbor resentment or display a harsh spirit as a result of life’s difficulties.  But my grandmother did not respond this way; her concern for others seemed only to deepen as she weathered the storms of life.

Through many ups and downs, trials and triumphs, victories and disappointments, her faith endured.  The most visible evidence of this was seen during the most difficult season of my life.  During nearly two decades of heartache as my father turned from the Lord, my grandmother persisted in prayer.  She also persisted in love and in kindness.  While many prayed for my father, for family members, and for me during those years, the prayer of my grieving grandmother is something that I will always hold most dear.  Her trust in the Lord, offered from a broken heart, was the sweet fragrance of worship.

Among her answered prayers are that my brother and I have remained followers of Jesus.  Rather than harboring bitterness and allowing resentment to rule over us, our grief has been turned to gratitude and our pain has become blessing as God faithfully worked even these things together for our good.  I am sure that not all of her prayers were answered in the exact way she asked, but her persevering faith endured as God’s faithfulness over time came into view.

My prayer is that I will pass on this heritage of faith to others, especially to my own children and grandchildren.  Her example of love, kindness, and persevering prayer is one that I will always remember and strive to emulate.  I am grateful to have known her in this life, and grateful for the hope to be reunited with her again in the presence of our Lord Jesus one day.

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Formula For Friendship

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Is there a formula for friendship?  I think so.

On the one hand, it seems silly to capture the essence of relational chemistry in rational terms.  It might just reveal that my natural emotional intelligence is a bit on the low side.  But on the other hand, my formula isn’t very formulaic at all: I don’t suggest inserting numerical values into any part of it.  It’s just my way of trying to understand how and why friendships form, endure, or expire.  So here it is:

Friendship = Time Frequency x Time Duration x Common Interest

Let’s push some examples through this formula to explain.  Have you noticed the way close friendships form at camp or college?  When we spend time with someone every day (frequency) for several hours (duration) and share a unique common experience (common interest), a special bond of friendship forms.  That kind of friendship seems to endure even after departure or graduation (no more frequency or duration) because the common interest is so high.  When reunion happens, stories of common interest abound.

What about the classic conversation at a alumni reunion that awkwardly runs out of steam?  That’s probably because there is less common interest now than there was back when you attended school together.  Or what about those special friends that you see far less often (frequency) than you desire, but the friendship just seems to naturally pick up where it left off?  You probably have had a high level of common interest for a long time (duration).

Have you noticed the way friendships form at work?  You spend all day (duration) together every day (frequency) with shared goals (common interest).  But when the conversation ventures outside of work-related topics, the relationship begins to diminish until some other area such as family or a hobby (common interest) is discovered.  And that co-worker you just can’t stand?  The common interest is so low, it functions as a negative value that overpowers everything else.

Do you want to grow closer to someone?  Spend time with them more often (frequency).  Or set aside longer amounts of time (duration).  Or find something that you enjoy doing together (common interest).  I’m sure the friendship will grow.

Jesus was concerned with friendship too.  But his friendship was based on something entirely different:  Himself.  He said that those who obey His commands are his friends and this friendship can’t be based on our own effort because we have failed and will fail.  We betray Him in our sin.  But the obedient love Jesus has for us, having laid aside His life for our sake, enables our obedience to His command; loving others by laying aside our lives for them.  We can’t work that with some formula.  Jesus has chosen us as friends, and our joyful response to His friendship is to live and love after His example.  The commitment and sacrifice needed to love like Jesus is more powerful than any area of common interest.  We love others not because of what we have in common, but because Jesus loves us.

What do you think?  Can friendship be expressed in a formula?  Have you found it difficult to love someone that didn’t share your common interest?

Christmas Gratitude

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[Image Credit]

Yesterday, we had some friends over for breakfast and – of course – we showed them our Christmas tree.  It was fun to talk about some of the decorations and to answer questions they had about some of the more unusual ornaments.  I imagine that our tree is decorated like others in our stage of life; lots of crafty ornaments the kids made over the years, some keepsakes that commemorate milestones like marriage and babies, and some lovely gifted ornaments that remind us family and friends.  Our Christmas tree is full of memories!  The more I thought about this, the more I realized just how grateful I should be.

I am grateful for my family.  I have a beautiful, talented, industrious wife who works hard to meet the needs of her family.  We have built a wonderful life together over the last 14 and a half years.  I’m also blessed with wonderful, talented, healthy kids.  They are a source of joy as well as a means of revealing how much I need to learn and grow.

I am grateful for my extended family and friends.  My biological family helped plant and nurture the seeds of the Gospel in my young heart.  I am rich with friends from every stage of life, including friends who are tried and true though seasons of loss and difficulty.  I’m also glad to live in an era when technology, such as social media, helps me keep in touch with those who live far away.

I am grateful for my ministry.  I work and serve as pastor of a local church.  It’s rich with the joys and heartaches of life, and the people are generous to let me walk through this particular season with them.  We’ve seen many people’s lives changed – amazing stories – and they offer encouragement despite my many weaknesses.

But there is something more for which I must be grateful.  As I reflect on all these blessings, I realize just how undeserving I am.  I’ve been saved completely by God’s Grace; I deserve none of the many ways in which He has blessed me.  But it’s even more than that.  Possessing a nature that loves to rebel (sin) against Him, I am constantly in need of His mercy.  Any desire I have to love others more than myself is the result of His spirit at work in my heart.  Realizing this, I see how God blesses me despite my unfaithfulness.  I’ve been given much, am still faithless on my own despite the mercy given me, and yet am blessed all the more abundantly and daily.  All this is because Jesus came to earth, lived perfectly, and died for me.

So my heart is full this Christmas.  I hope that, as you reflect on the ways in which you have been blessed, your heart will be full too.  Most of all, I hope that you will come to know the Savior who gave His life to give you life.

How have you been blessed?  In what ways do you experience God’s mercy?  How might you express your gratitude?

The Gospel and The Redistribution of Wealth

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

Twenty years after Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign, the phrase lives on.  And for good reason.  The economy was a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign and in the current campaign of 2012.  That’s two full nauseating election cycles!  Even if we disagree on how we got to where we are now, it seems we all agree that the economy needs to improve.  Of course, disagreement about how we arrived here also means disagreement about how to move forward and improve.  A singular point of disagreement centers on the redistribution of wealth and how it relates to economic justice.

Some say that the redistribution of wealth through taxation is necessary for economic justice: Those with wealth have a moral obligation to pay a greater share of society’s tax burden in order to lessen the load on those who have less.  Wealth redistribution emerged as an issue in Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, and has emerged again recently as a core value dressed in biblical imagery – if not based on biblical principles.

But conservative economic policies are also based on a form of wealth redistribution commonly called “supply-side” or “trickle-down economics,” in which wealth used as capital for business expansion creates wealth for other segments of society.  While the “supply-side” label is largely identified with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the concept endures as a cornerstone of contemporary conservative policy.

But the central question for Christians to consider is this: Is either form of wealth redistribution reflective of the Gospel?  After all, the redistribution of wealth is a thoroughly biblical idea.  For example, Deuteronomy 26:12 declares the responsibility of God’s people to care for those in need.  This isn’t a uniquely Old Testament idea, however.  Most notably, Acts 2:44-45 records how the early church redistributed wealth in order to meet needs: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (ESV)

As the earliest Christians trusted in the Gospel – the good news of Jesus – one result was a spontaneous sharing of resources.  This generosity brought about something greater than justice; it brought about a unity only possible through reconciliation. The picture we’re given is one of people, now reconciled to God, able to be reconciled with each other (2 Cor. 5:18-19, Eph. 2:14-22).

Our nation is divided in so many ways and along so many lines, not the least of which are economic divisions.  The current election season, from local all the way to national levels, has been filled with promises and claims about fighting for the “middle class.”  While the rhetoric is filled with promises of justice, the soul of our nation longs for reconciliation.  The generosity of the earliest Christians is a model for economic reconciliation, with three important attributes that reveal why political solutions will always fall short:

It was voluntary.

No one was forced to give.  No one was under compulsion.  They gave freely because it was the desire of their hearts.  Government is incapable of producing this.  Government can only produce giving under compulsion, whether via penalty or incentive.  Samuel Johnson’s famous quote captures this well; “How small of all that human hearts endure that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”  For the redistribution of wealth to bring about reconciliation between people, it must be voluntary.

It was intentional.

Giving didn’t happen accidently or coincidently.  It didn’t trickle down.  Economic systems may be created or adjusted in order to spread wealth, but they cannot replace the relationship-building dynamics of people recognizing the needs of others in contrast to their own abundance.  The early believers gave purposefully and sacrificially for the sake of others.  The wealth didn’t trickle – it flowed to wherever help was needed.  For the redistribution of wealth to bring about reconciliation, it must be intentional.

It was responsible.

It was focused on need.  Our society has become so prosperous, and so infected by entitlement, that we struggle to note the difference between needs and wants.  An increasing number of our “rights” have become detached from the divine providence upon which their existence formed the basis of our independence.  As a consequence, we are increasingly concerned more with what is deemed fair than what is ethical.  The value of work, a principle derived from scripture (2 Thes. 3:10-12), has become secondary to other values.  A system designed to care for those in genuine need has become bloated by those content to avoid work altogether.  We all know it, we just don’t agree on what to do about it.  The early believers gave to meet needs, not to merely increase the wealth of those who had less than others.  In order for them to do this, they had to be willing to discern needs from wants.  For the redistribution of wealth to bring about reconciliation, it must be responsible.

Only the Gospel can create a desire to voluntarily, intentionally, and responsibly give to those in need because only the Gospel can bring about true reconciliation.  So for wealth redistribution to produce reconciliation, far exceeding any justice sought by enforcing law, it must flow from the heart-transforming power of the Gospel.  This is precisely where the Old Testament law came up short; it could change behavior but it could not change the heart.  Only the work of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the Gospel message, can do this.  Wealth redistribution that is compulsory, merely systematized, and avoiding responsibility will not bring reconciliation: It will only spread bitterness.

Recommended for further reading:

http://www.challies.com/quotes/the-redistribution-of-wealth

http://www.thearizonan.com/2012/02/09/fairness-redistribution-of-wealth-and-the-bible/

Mud Happens

Last week was an event for our church youth group simply called “Mud.”  I wanted to make sure we had enough volunteers, so I put on some dirt-worthy clothes to join in.  We hosed down parts of an adjacent field and had dirty-water-relay races, tug-of-war over a mud pit, and ‘steal the bacon’ with a watermelon.  Plus, there was plenty of good, old fashioned mud-slinging and lots of laughter.  I admittedly had as much fun as anyone there, but sore muscles the next day reminded me that I am no longer in my youth.  Still, it was as much good, clean, fun as I’ve ever had covered in mud.

After some hosing down with a garden hose and drying off, the group settled down for a lesson from our associate pastor.  He smartly chose the story from John 9 about Jesus healing a man who was blind from birth.  The method Jesus used was to anoint the man’s eyes with…(wait for it)…mud!

One of the great things about our current youth group, other than the fact that most of them don’t have a church background, is that they really listen to the lesson.  They truly pay attention.  And then they ask questions.  Lots of questions!  Tough questions, too.  One of the tougher questions – or set of questions – was about the suffering of this man prior to his healing.  Why must people be born blind?  Or have terrible things happen to them?  Why did God give us the choice to turn away from Him if He knew we would?  It was the classic problem of evil: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, then how could He let this happen?

Good question.  And probably not the first time you’ve heard it –  you’ve probably asked it too.  So have I.  Tough questions like that can haunt us.  If God is so good and powerful, then why ______________________?  I’ve talked to many people who have locked that question away deep in their heart.  What fills in the blank may vary, but it’s always painful and it usually seems unjust.  We live in a world where terrible things happen, plain and simple.  Mud happens.  And our usual neat-and-tidy attempts at answers are laughably insufficient.

In the healing passage from John 9, those who opposed Jesus were grappling with a tough question: Who was this guy?  If He isn’t from God, how does He heal like this?  If He is from God, what does that mean?  Good questions.  Tough questions.  The usual neat-and-tidy attempts at answers didn’t help.  Then the blind man says something that cuts through to the heart of the matter.  In essence, “I can’t help you answer all your questions.  All I know is I was once blind, but now I see.”  Brilliant.

Have you figured out all the answers to the tough questions that haunt you?  No?  Me either.  Neither did the used-to-be-blind-all-my-life guy.  Neither will the teenagers in our youth group.  Even when we can get a handle on a tough question, there is another one waiting right behind it.  Actually, more than one.  I’m not saying they aren’t worth asking.  I’m saying what we learn from mister-mud-in-the-eyes is that what we need isn’t a question answered.  What we need is Jesus.  The physical blindness thing was only ever temporary anyway.  And so are the terrible, unjust things in this life.  The real story is about Jesus because the real answer is Jesus.  Thinking we need answers – a particular kind of knowledge – prior to having faith is an illusion.  When we chase after other answers, we’ll wind up just as dissatisfied as when we started.  Only what Jesus offers will satisfy.

What about you?  Have you found this to be true?  Is there a question that haunts you?

Idol I.D. Guide

In this past Sunday’s message, I focused on John 4 and the woman at the well whom Jesus met.  We looked at the relationship pattern in her life and how it revealed idolatry in her heart.  Along the way, we covered the damaging effects of idol worship and how only Jesus can set us free.

What is an idol? Anything that we elevate to ultimate importance over God.  When God becomes the means to an end, such as happiness or success, that is a clear sign of idolatry.  An idol can be anywhere we place our trust and hope for the future, other than in the living God.  Idols are false gods.  We believe they will deliver on some promise we’ve projected onto them.  I say “projected” because false gods don’t exist; they aren’t alive.  There is only one, true God (Deut. 4).  But that doesn’t stop us from placing our trust elsewhere.  Our sin nature has bent our hearts to resist our Creator and to trust in anything and everything else.  Idols always fail, consume, and destroy us – sooner or later.

To expand on a principle or two that I covered very quickly in Sunday’s message, I’d like to offer this guide for identifying the idols we’ve set up in our hearts:

Follow the lines of time, talent, and treasure in your life.

  • Where are large amounts of my time being spent?  If this isn’t clear, keep a detailed calendar for a few weeks.
  • To what do I commit my abilities, talents, and skills?  What excites and energizes me?  What makes me feel useful or important?
  • How do I spend my money or direct my material wealth?A checkbook register or bank statement are helpful records for this. (Not keeping track of how financial resources are used is poor stewardship and should be noted in the next section below.)

These aren’t necessarily areas of idolatry, but they are areas of vulnerability. They require significant commitment of the resources God has given us, and are themselves usually good things that God has given us, but may or may not be areas of idolatry in our lives.  Examples are work, family, home, and even the church.

Look for clear disobedience, according to scripture, in these areas.

  • Am I doing things that I clearly SHOULD NOT be doing?
  • Am I not doing things that I clearly SHOULD be doing?
  • Is there anything I am not willing to sacrifice in order to rebuild my life around the mission of Jesus Christ?

Look for absence of fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5) in these areas.

  • Love: Am I failing to put the needs of others before my own?
  • Joy: Am I attempting to find happiness somewhere other than in God?
  • Peace: Am I anxious or troubled?  Do I struggle to pray about something?
  • Patience: Do I get angry or impatient when dealing with others?
  • Kindness: Do I seek to actively bless others?  Do I withhold doing good?
  • Goodness: Am I seeking excellence for God’s glory or my own?
  • Faithfulness: Am I keeping commitments toward truly important things?  Am I trusting God or relying on myself?
  • Gentleness: Do I try to control others?  Am I using my strengths to serve?
  • Self-control: Am I exhibiting addictive tendencies or lack of discipline?

These questions are just starting points, but they take us in the right direction.  We also may need the counsel of a trusted friend to help us see ourselves more objectively.  Finally, the Holy Spirit is able to reveal the conditions of our hearts and bring conviction over sin; there is no substitute for seeking His help.

Confess our sin, resting in the completed work of Christ.

Only Jesus can free us from the enslavement of our idols!  We have no hope or future apart from Him.  If you’ve identified idolatry in your heart, ask for God’s forgiveness.  Remember the following:

  • Idols fail:  In Jesus Christ, God keeps his promises.
  • Idols consume without giving satisfaction:  In Jesus Christ, the price of sin has been satisfied.  Only the eternal, living God is able to give satisfaction.
  • Idols destroy:  In Jesus Christ, we receive abundant and eternal life.

Take concrete steps of obedience.

Seek ways to bring these areas into greater obedience.  That might mean leaving certain activities behind, or perhaps making adjustments that bring God’s purposes into greater focus.  Use the accountability of others in the church to move forward and maintain a right perspective.

My hope and prayer is that this guide is helpful for you.  May real life be yours in Jesus!

What do you think about this guide?  Is it helpful for you?  Did I miss anything?

Good Friday & Giving

 

As I prepare my Easter Sunday message today, on Good Friday, the magnitude of God giving His only begotten son weighs heavy on my heart and boggles my mind.  “Only begotten.”  God’s generosity was at the highest possible level to pay for my sin.  That is amazing!  And undeserved.  Thank you, Lord, for the cross of Jesus.  It should have been mine.  Today is a good day, indeed, because Jesus took my sin and shame…and my place.  There is no better day and there is no greater gift.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the gift-giving aspect of Good Friday has prompted a gift of three great ebooks by Francis Chan:
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (This has become a well-loved and very popular book.)
Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (One of my personal favorites.)
Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (Very timely; this doctrine is being debated in evangelical circles right now.)

Remember, these deals are usually for a limited time.  If you use an Amazon Kindle or Kindle App, just click on the link, login, and follow the downloading instructions.  If you don’t have a Kindle e-reader, check out the free Kindle apps (what I use) available from Amazon here.

Happy Easter, but Good Friday too!