What Are You Expecting?

Christmas

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons  (Galatians 4:4-5, ESV)

What do you think of when you think of Christmas?  What words and images most readily spring to your mind?  Chances are, our answers to these questions are as numerous and unique as we are.  But if you’re anything like me- and in this instance, at least, I’m guessing you are– for as long as you can remember, the Christmas season has been a season of unparalleled expectation.

Starting as young children, we spend our December days and nights counting down the days until we experience all the season has to offer.

We look forward with expectation to gathering with family and friends (even the crazy ones!).
We look forward with expectation to great food, festive music, and bright lights and decorations.
We look forward with expectation to revisiting holiday traditions and making new memories too.
We look forward with expectation to unwrapping the gifts that tease us from underneath the tree.

If we trace Christmas back to its biblical origins, what we’ll find is that all this expecting isn’t anything new, but is instead incredibly appropriate to the season.  Indeed, the years- the centuries– that preceded that very first Christmas were defined by expectations of cosmic proportions.

The Christmas story, as told by Gospel writers Matthew and Luke, is embedded in the larger story of God’s relationship with His people, and specifically His plan to rescue His beloved creation from the devastating impacts of sin.  This plan, designed in intricate detail before the creation of the world, began in earnest in Genesis 12 when God called an unlikely man named Abram to leave that he knew to set out on a journey of faith with Him.  From this one man, God would create a family, the nation of Israel, through which He would reveal Himself to the whole world and save us from sin.

The remainder of the Bible’s Old Testament tells the story of God’s relationship with Israel- and to say that it is a rocky one would be quite the understatement!  Time and again, God’s people rebel against Him, running headlong into idolatry and injustice.  Time and again, God judges His people’s disobedience.  Time and again, God’s people repent, and are restored to right fellowship with God.

The cycle continues for centuries, but through it all, God remains steadfast in His promise to raise up- from this unlikely people- a triumphant Deliverer who would deal with the world’s sin problem once and for all and establish a Kingdom of righteousness forever.  This Deliverer, of course, is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, God’s Chosen One to save the world.  The degree of detail included in the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah, Micah, and others regarding His arrival is truly stunning.

But approximately 400 years prior to the birth of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 2, a strange thing happens- God goes silent.  No more prophets.  No more promises.  God’s people are left to wonder- Has God forgotten us?  Has He changed His mind?  Has He forsaken His promises?  It became a time of looking, longing, and wondering.  The first verse of one of my favorite Christmas hymns, written by Charles Wesley, describes the situation powerfully…

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

What is amazing about these words is that over 2,000 years later from the time they describe, they are still as relevant as ever.  Consider- Do you need to be “set free…released” from your “fears and sins” today?  Does your heart long for “rest…strength…consolation…and hope” amidst the turmoil of life?  While the details may differ, the answer for all of us is, unequivocally, yes!  Our desperation for God to reach down and rescue is what makes the story of Christmas such incredible good news for all of us.

So beneath the surface of lights, music, gifts, and gatherings, let me ask you today- What are you expecting from God this Christmas?  What do you long for Him to accomplish in your heart, mind, and body, in your family and other relationships, in our church, community, and world?  What marks your cries and prayers not only in this season, but beyond it too?  Consider the poignant words of Charles Wesley’s second verse…

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

“Born to deliver…born to reign…bring thy Kingdom…raise us to thy throne.”  Hear this well today- Jesus of Nazareth is God’s answer to your expectations this Christmas.  He alone not only provides, but actually embodies, the satisfaction of your deepest longings.  He is joy in your sorrows, peace in your chaos, hope in your despair, restoration in your brokenness.  Just as He was for the Jews in the 1st century, He is ultimately what you’re looking and longing for this holiday season.

This Sunday at Fellowship Church, we begin our Christmas series, Heaven Came Down.  For the next four weeks, we will exploring Christmas from the perspective of heaven.  As we do, let me encourage you in two ways- One, consider how God’s gift of Jesus provides the answer to your expectations, whatever those might be this year.  Make the words of this tremendous hymn recorded above a personal expression of petition and worship.

Two, consider how you might, during this season, be a bringer of Jesus to others in your life who are overrun by desperation of all different flavors.  Even a quick survey of the situation surrounding us in our nation and world today serves as a reminder of the depth of sin’s ongoing devastation.  Make the most of this prime season to share hope by speaking Jesus, and as you do, expect that God can use you to impact others in ways far deeper and more profound than a $20 gift under the tree ever can.

What are you expecting this Christmas?  I pray that through Jesus Christ, God’s promised Rescuer, you find it and share it with the world.

FOR…What Is It Good For?

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Last month, our son Asa fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams and stepped onto a football field as a player for the first time.   Sure, he may only be five years old, and it may only be flag football (to his slight dismay), but in his mind, when he puts on his orange-and-black Bengals uniform and steps between those white lines, he has made it big.  As a parent, his unhindered, little boy joy out there really is a joy to watch.

Now as you can imagine, one of the greatest challenges of preparing a group of five- and six-year-old, mostly first-time football players is teaching them how to organize and play together as a team.  The basic skills aren’t all that complex or challenging- running, throwing, catching, blocking, pulling flags (with the occasional “accidental” tackle thrown in there), and the like.

But what is incredibly difficult- but inescapably important- is coaching them to line up together in the right places and combine all of those skills together in a reasonably coherent way to actually play the game.  Needless to say, football doesn’t work very well when your quarterback lines up on the defensive line and your offensive linemen think they are playing linebacker!

As I’ve observed and reflected on this honestly hilarious phenomenon, it’s made me think about our current series FOR- and specifically, about why it is so critically important for us as followers of Jesus to identify and operate out of a posture of FOR instead of a posture of AGAINST.  Here’s why- The right start sets the stage for success, while the wrong start can set us up to lose in our God-given mission before we’ve even had an opportunity to “play the game.”

This principle is quite obvious in the game of football.  What happens when a player lines up in the wrong starting position?  Usually nothing good!  This can result in an ineffective play (at best), a penalty for the player’s team, or the complete inability to run any play at all.  On the flip side, though, when everyone knows where they need to be, understands what they need to do, and executes according to the plan given to them by their coach, good things most often result!

Now let’s apply this same principle to the conversation we’re having right now at Fellowship Church about what we are FOR.  As followers of Jesus, we don’t merely have a “coach”; we have a Creator and Lord, an absolute and sovereign authority over our lives and over the entire world.  As the One who spoke this world into being and set it into motion, He has a very specific design and desire for how it ought to operate.  This is based on His unchanging, eternal nature and character.  He doesn’t begin by being against certain things, but rather by being for that which reflects and honors Him.  Among those things, as we’re discovering in this series, are justice, life, family, and freedom.  These are four primary examples of the “divine design” by which our Creator has made this world to operate.

So what is sin, then?  It is anything that deviates from, or falls short, of this “divine design.”  All that God is against, He is against because it somehow “misses the mark” of what He is for.  To use our examples, because God is for justice, He is against any and all forms of injustice; because God is for life, He is against anything that devalues or destroys life; because God is for family (as He defines it), He is against anything that undermines its flourishing; and because God is for freedom, He is against anything that robs His image bearers of the ability to freely relate to Him and to one another in love.

Now what does this have to do with us as God’s church, His representatives and ambassadors in the “here and now” of this world?  Very much!  Often, we start to engage the world around us from a posture of AGAINST- e.g. “We are AGAINST abortion,” “we are AGAINST racism,” “we are AGAINST homosexual marriage,” “we are AGAINST the exploitation of the poor.”  It isn’t that these practices aren’t worth saying “no” to, or standing up to.  But when we choose an AGAINST starting point in the conversation with those who may not share our convictions, we miss a prime opportunity to communicate a richer, more compelling vision of life in this world- life according to our Creator’s design.  To use the football analogy, when we “line up” in the wrong place, we tend to set ourselves up for ineffectiveness before we’ve even begun to play.

Let me say it to you this way- Being AGAINST one thing doesn’t automatically make you FOR something better, but being FOR one thing naturally leads you to be AGAINST anything worse.  If anything, an adversarial or oppositional posture often, in the long term, undermines an individual’s or group’s ability to accomplish much more than just being theatrically offended.  This is true in business (i.e. “we’re not like that company”), in politics (i.e. “I’m not as sorry as that candidate”), and even in the church (i.e. “we’re different than all those other churches”).  To be successful over time, we have to understand who we are and execute what we’re called and designed to do.

Here’s my practical encouragement to you as we continue to walk through the remainder of this series and beyond- If you want to be more effective at engaging our culture with the message of Jesus, get to know the God of the Bible, and get to know Him well.  Saturate your heart and mind in His Word, and align yourself more and more each day with His thoughts and ways.  Do more than just rail against everything and everyone that you don’t like; tell the world a better story of God’s vision for a restored life in Him.

Become a man or woman who begins, biblically, with FOR.  This will invariably impact not only what you have to say to the world, but also how you say it and how others hear it.  Remember- The right start sets the stage for success. 

What’s Your Story? Four Questions To Help You Bring People To Jesus

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Sunday was quite an interesting day at Fellowship Church On Airline.  Over our four plus years of gathering, we have learned a lot about how to be adaptable, and this week we got another lesson in our ongoing “master class” of ministry flexibility.

The latest lesson?  What to do when you arrive on a ninety degree Sunday to find that your entire children’s building has no air conditioning!  We pulled our kids into our Worship Gatherings with us and a great- albeit different- day together in worship.  As a pastor, that meant making some last minute adjustments to the message to make it as broadly accessible and understandable as possible.  I think we did that effectively, but that left me with some helpful content that I wasn’t able to share in the moment.

Enter today’s blog.  As we wrap up our Be A Bringer series this week, I want to provide you with another tool to help become the “bringer” that God has called each of us to be.  Remember that bringing people to Jesus is all about applying the unchanging story of God to the unique stories of people.  It requires a willingness to humbly, patiently, and genuinely listen to and learn about others, in an effort to most sensitively and appropriately apply the Gospel to their life.

What follows are four simple questions to help you better discern someone’s story- the framework through which they see themselves and their life in this world, and specifically how God fits into that story (if He does at all).  Let this be a useful tool to you this week and beyond as you seek to be found faithful to God’s Great Commission…

1- What is your greatest need?
What is the greatest problem you face in your life?  Beyond the “crises of the moment” that arise in different forms and fashions, what is the fundamental obstacle that stands between you and the life that you desire?

2- What is your greatest hope?
What are you living for?  In the face of the very real problems that exist in this world, and in each of our lives, what motivates you to keep on keeping on?  What do you think would make you happy, satisfied, and fulfilled for good?

3- Who or what is able to help you?
What can help you move away from your needs and problems and move toward your hopes and dreams?  Can you do it yourself, in your own strength and by your own effort, or is it going to require the assistance of someone or something else?

4- What do you have to do to get that help?
What is it going to cost you to make that move from your needs and problems toward your hopes and dreams?  Do you have what it takes to make that move?

Now let’s take a look at the contrast between someone representing what we might call the “spirit of our age” (i.e. some have called it secular humanism) and someone living with a biblical, Christ centered worldview…

Greatest Need- Change of circumstances VS change of heart
Those holding to a secular worldview commonly see their greatest problems as existing outside of them, in the form of another person or group of people, an unjust system set against them, or simply an unpleasant circumstance robbing them of the ability to be happy.

Those holding to a biblical worldview rightly understand while legitimate problems do exist outside of them,
all of those challenges are symptomatic of the root issue of sin, which has wrecked God’s good world, and most significantly separated them from a right relationship with their Creator God.

Greatest Hope- Temporary happiness VS eternal life
Those holding to a secular worldview commonly see their greatest hope as external circumstances which bring about temporary happiness, e.g. more money and possessions, improved relationships, a more fulfilling career.

Those holding to a biblical worldview understand that temporary circumstances are just that- temporary.  The only thing that can truly satisfy is something that can never be taken away- a right and restored relationship with God, both in their life in this world and in the life to come in heaven.

Greatest Help- Self VS God
Those holding to a secular worldview often believe that if their life is going to take a turn in the right direction, it’s going to be on them to make it happen.  They need to ‘believe in themselves’ and ‘be true to themselves’ if they are going to shake their restlessness and truly be happy.

Those holding to a biblical worldview, while not denying the reality of personal responsibility, recognize that the fundamental problem of sin against God is beyond our ability to change by our own strength, wisdom, or effort.  Instead of looking in for help, they look up to God, and specifically to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Greatest Cost- Striving VS Surrender
Those holding to a secular worldview fundamentally set their hope in themselves.  Many will spend their lives “selling their souls” to would-be “savior’ after would-be “savior” (e.g. money, relationships, careers, pleasure, etc), only to find that all of those things are necessarily limited in their ability to bring about lasting hope.  It is important to note that there is a viciously deceptive religious version of this too- “If I try really hard to be a good person, then I will be accepted by God.”  This is the same old “self-salvation” project wrapped up in religious clothes- and it is just as empty and futile.

Those holding to a biblical worldview are appropriately pessimistic about their own abilities, but at the same time supremely confident in the promises of God found in the Bible.  Rather than striving, they recognize that the key to hope is trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and total surrender to Him as Lord of their lives.  It is this “upside down” way of seeing the world that ultimately brings about the hope that can face down any challenge or obstacle in this world.

Here’s what I believe- God’s story, which we call the Gospel, is the only story that makes sense of how we all experience the world on a day in, day out basis.  It defines the problem; it identifies the hope; it offers the help; and it makes provision for the cost.  No other competing story in this world can do that!  This is why it is, fundamentally, “Good News” for each of us!  And while that “news” never changes, the way in which it intersects with others’ stories and invades their hearts is quite unique.

Are you willing to humble yourself to listen and learn this week so that you might most effectively bring people to Jesus?  That’s the prayer, the hope, and the challenge.  I’m praying for you- and for myself too- as we seek to meet it in God’s grace and strength!

Four Signs You’re Not Ready For That Hard Conversation (And What You Can Do About It)

Prepared

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”  (Ephesians 4:31-32, ESV)

We’ve all been there before.  There is a difficult conversation- perhaps we’d even call it an outright confrontation– that needs to be had.  Someone is in the wrong, and it has to be addressed.  We know it, and perhaps have known it for some time.  But for all that knowing, we just can’t bring ourselves to start talking; the thought alone is enough to make us sick with awkward discomfort.  And the closer our relationship with the other party in question, the more intense our aversion becomes.

Much like you, I’ve been here before- in marriage, in friendship, in work relationships, and even in relationships within the local church.  And keeping it real, I often haven’t handled such situations very well.  I typically fall into one of two “ditches”- one, the ditch of chronic procrastination, followed by the release of an explosive flood of emotion (i.e. a fancy description for a temper tantrum), and two, the ditch of cowardly equivocation, the proverbial “halfway conversation” that seems easier in the moment, but in the end represented a massively wasted opportunity.  Can you relate?

Very few of us enjoy hard conversations (if you do, you may have your own set of issues to deal with!), but the reality is, sometimes they are necessary.  Sometimes they are even better than necessary; they represent incredible opportunities for healing and growth in maturity.  According to God’s Word, we must make the most of our opportunities to engage them, especially when God’s glory, the health of relationships, and the effectiveness of the church’s mission are at stake.  But what are the signs that you may not be fully prepared to initiate such a conversation- and what you can do about it, presuming that an indefinite delay is neither healthy nor possible?  Read on, and allow the words of Ephesians 4:31-32 guide you…

1- You aren’t ready to forgive.  I’ve long contended that forgiveness- particularly the extreme variety modeled by God in the Gospel, and commanded for His followers- is among the most difficult things that God demands in His Word.  It’s a process, no doubt- and often one that must be repeated over and over (and over) again.  It is, however, a non-negotiable if we’re going to handle confrontation in a God-exalting, life-giving away.  So first step, before we go to someone else, is to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger” from our hearts, positioning ourselves to offer others the gift which God has lavished on us- undeserved grace.

2- You aren’t ready to be kind.  Just speaking from personal experience, I can’t think of a single instance when someone yelling at me, demeaning me, or humiliating me gave birth to deep, long lasting, Jesus honoring transformation.  Especially in difficult conversations, basic kindness goes a long, long way.  So as you put away that first set of barriers to forgiveness, take a cue from Paul’s words in Ephesians and set aside “clamor and slander and all malice” as well.

3- You’re not certain of your convictions.  To use a sports analogy, confrontation is an offensive– not defensive– action.  In other words, it isn’t reactive, but is instead strategic and well planned.  Often, I think our unrestrained emotionalism in tough conversations is a result of a lack of clarity in our own convictions.  The firmer we are in what we want to communicate- and the more that communication is anchored in the timeless, authoritative Word of God- the less prone we will be to slipping into counterproductive, insecurity driven words and actions.

4- You don’t have a clear end game.  Before engaging someone in a hard conversation, always ask yourself this- What’s the point of this?  What do I hope to accomplish here?  Like, if this thing went perfectly, what would be the result?  If the answer to that question isn’t more glory for Jesus, more maturity for the party in question, more healing in relationships, and more health for the church, then settle those things in your heart before opening your mouth.  Obviously you can’t control, or make yourself responsible for, others’ responses to you, but you sure can set everyone up to win by having a well-defined plan for success on the front end.

So let’s say one or more of these “four signs” describe you right now.  You’re not unusual; I’ve found myself in all four of these places before.  But what can we do about it when we do?  Paul answers that question as well, by pointing us back to our “roots” in Jesus Christ.  Look again at the end of Ephesians 4:32, into 5:1-2-

“…Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:32b-5:2, ESV)

Notice what Paul is doing here?  He is tying our relationships with others to our relationship with God in the Gospel.  The New Testament does this all the time, communicating to us constantly, “Remember how God has treated you in Christ?  That’s how you’re to treat one another, even (especially!) when they struggle and stumble and fail and fall.”  That being the case, the single best thing you can do to get ready for a hard conversation is to reflect deeply on the Gospel of God’s amazing grace.  When is that last time you did that?  I challenge you to search the Scriptures this week for all of the (many) texts which address this very thing.

Remember this one thing- God gave you His best, even when you gave Him your worst.  That truth should impact and transform us to the core of our being, and color every single other relationship we have.  How is it impacting you today, and how will it inform the hard conversation that you need to have?

Off My Bookshelf- “Crazy Busy” by Kevin DeYoung

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“It’s not wrong to be tired.  It’s not wrong to feel overwhelmed.  It’s not wrong to go through seasons of complete chaos.  What is wrong- and heartbreakingly foolish and wonderfully avoidable- is to live a life with more craziness than we want because we have less Jesus than we need”…Kevin DeYoung

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an avid reader.  Being completely honest, most of the books I enjoy probably wouldn’t interest you- and as a result, I regularly incur the (loving) mockery of my wife for my choices in “leisure reading.”  True story- I once chose a book called “Death By Meeting” by Patrick Lencioni for my beach reading on a family vacation. Still haven’t lived that one down.  But, to be fair, I am much better than I used to be at running meetings!

That being the case, though, I read what I like, and what I think will most benefit me in my calling as a Jesus follower, husband, father, pastor, and leader in God’s church.  And every now and again, I’ll finish off a book that I think to myself, Man, this one would be great to share.  Crazy Busy, by Kevin DeYoung, is one such work.  The subtitle of the book describes it well- “a (mercifully) short book about a (really) big problem.”  And what is that problem, according to DeYoung?  Unrestrained, out of control busyness that is robbing too many of us of the joy and vibrancy God intends for us in our lives, relationships, and faith.

With giving away the entirety of the work (because I’d love for you to read it yourself- in fact, I’ll loan my copy to the first person who asks me for it!), here are a few nuggets that I found especially helpful, encouraging, and challenging…

“Busyness can ruin our joy…rob our hearts…and cover up the rot in our souls” (26-30).  DeYoung makes clear from the jump that having a full calendar, inbox, or to do list isn’t inherently wrong.  There is much good to do in this world as we follow Jesus and love and serve others!  That said, often we “default” into unrestrained busyness simply because we haven’t taken the time or made the effort to order our lives with any purpose or intentionality.  We’re all busy, but we have no idea why or how.  And the results of this endless, thoughtless hurry are most often destructive to our souls and our relationships.

“Our understanding of busyness must start with the one sin that begets so many of our other sins- pride” (34).  This was my favorite- and if I’m keeping it real, least favorite- chapter in the book.  DeYoung masterfully uncovers the many manifestations of pride that often fuels our busyness.  He calls them “the killer P’s”- people pleasing, pats on the back, possessions, proving ourselves, pity, poor planning, power, perfectionism, position, prestige, and posting (i.e. social media).  And in light of all these, he asks a penetrating question- In all our busyness, are we trying to do good, or are we trying to look good?  So often, the operating principle of our lives is not to do the right thing, but to project the right image of ourselves to others.  I know I’m often guilty as charged on this point.  We must put this sinful compulsion to death.

“It’s taken me several years, a lot of reflection, and a bunch of unnecessary busyness to understand that when it comes to good causes and good deeds, ‘do more or disobey’ is not the best thing we can say” (47).  This quote comes from DeYoung’s chapter on what he calls the “terror of total obligation”- in other words, that creeping feeling that no matter how hard we work (even to the point of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion), we are never “enough” for God or others.  I love his reminder “there is good news” for the weary- We are not the Christ, and were never intended to be.  We can rest in His finished work on our behalf and find freedom to pursue the unique gifts, callings, and opportunities He has placed before each of us.  After all, we were never made to “hold the whole world in our hands!”  God’s already got that!

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m so busy because I’ve come to believe the lie that busyness is the point.  And nothing allows you to be busy- all the time, with anyone anywhere- like having the whole world in a little black rectangle in your pocket” (83).  The book takes a refreshingly balanced approach to its evaluation of technology and its effects on our everyday lives.  It notes the good, but also recognizes the danger inherent to living in an “always on” world.  DeYoung notes wisely that the advent of modern, mobile technology has shrunk our collective attention spans to a dangerously low level; we demonstrate all the characteristics of an addict yearning for his next “hit” as we anxiously, constantly check our screens for the next digital “fix.”  If this tendency is left unquestioned and unchecked, it will invariably leave us everywhere but right here– i.e. fully present with the real people sitting across from us.

“There must be times when I don’t work; otherwise I won’t rest.  And there must be times to sleep, or I will keep borrowing what I can’t repay.  I’m not so important in God’s universe that I can’t afford to rest.  But my God-given limitations are so real that I can’t afford not to” (99).  This was personally very convicting.  I haven’t been getting enough sleep for some time now- and I know it, and I know it’s not good for me (or others who have to be around me!), but I’ve continued to perpetuate the pattern.  I know sleep doesn’t seem very “spiritual,” but the reality is that God made us physical beings with physical limitations, and to persistently deny those limitations is actually a form of God-denying, self-exalting idolatry.  After all, according to Psalm 127:2, God “gives to His beloved sleep.”

“We won’t say no to more craziness until we can say yes to more Jesus.  We will keep choosing dinner rolls over the Bread of Life.  We will choose the fanfare of the world over the feet of Jesus.  We will choose busyness over blessing (118).  DeYoung closes the book with a simple chapter called “The One Thing You Must Do.”  He doesn’t have a ten step plan, or even one particularly profound or remarkable suggestion for overcoming sinful busyness.  He simply calls us- and himself as the author- to place a non-negotiable priority on spending time every day at the feet of Jesus in His Word and prayer.  In a spiritual environment where “habits” often get a bad rap for being too routine or inauthentic, this is an important reminder that the truth is, for most of us, we do what we make time to do.  And of all the thousand things in this world we can make time for, is there anything of a more crucial priority than dedicated time with our Savior and Lord?  The Bible says no, there isn’t.  We would do well to live according to this conviction.

This is obviously only a snapshot of what’s available in this easy-to-read-but-difficult-to-apply little book.  I hope it’s as helpful, encouraging, and challenging for you as it was for me.  And remember, if you want to read more, send me an email at tblount@fellowshipchurch.cc or a personal message on Facebook, and I’ll be glad to share the book, on one condition- that you’ll actually “slow down” enough to take the time to read it! 

I’ll close with a promise from Jesus Himself- one that has long been quite meaningful to me as I seek His rest in a world that constantly tries to rob it…

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (Matthew 11:28-29, ESV)

Keeping Up Appearances

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“Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil”…Proverbs 3:7 (ESV)

It’s been a summer of wisdom at Fellowship Church as we’ve spent the months of June and July exploring the Old Testament’s “wisdom books,” namely Psalms and Proverbs.  As we’ve made the turn to Proverbs this week, we’re zeroing in on the stark contrast at the core of this collection of pithy, memorable sayings- that between (godly) wisdom and (worldly) foolishness.

I think most of us, myself included, really like the idea of wisdom.  Certainly, if given the choice, most of us would rather be described as wise than foolish.  The problem is, though, that God’s brand of wisdom- in reality, the only true wisdom- often seems quite upside down in our world ruined and wrecked by the deception of sin.  Walking in godly wisdom can be costly in the short term- and indeed, all too ironically, may actually earn us to label “fool” from those bought in and caught up in sin’s web of lies.  Given that as the case, here’s the challenging question I want us to consider as we pursue godly wisdom this month and beyond…

Would you rather look foolish for a while, or live foolish forever?

Don’t be too quick to answer now, because while it seems like a softball of a question, our day to day life in this world often betrays the obvious.  Here are a few examples…

  • It looks foolish to many to walk according to God’s high standard of sexual purity, but in the end, the Bible makes clear that destruction awaits those who indulge their every desire for momentary pleasure.
  • It looks foolish to many to be both disciplined and generous with money and material possessions, but in the end, the Bible teaches us that freedom and joy are found not when we hoard, but instead when we give.
  • It looks foolish to many to humbly “consider others better than yourself,” but in the end, that’s how thriving relationships- be it in marriage, in friendship, in the church (or beyond)- are built and sustained.
  • It looks foolish to take risks for the sake of the advance of the Gospel- for example, in places and among people groups that are hostile to it- but in the end, God gets glory and others are set free to follow Jesus through such “dangerous” obedience.

The truth is, we live in a world that regularly runs hard down paths that the Bible calls “foolish”- and in doing so, actually considers themselves to be “wise…enlightened…and progressive.”  I’m more and more convinced that the most significant problem we face isn’t even the specific choices we make, but the deep rooted spirit of pride that underlies them.  C.S. Lewis wrote about this very thing in his classic work, The Screwtape Letters (written from the perspective of an experienced demon seeking to draw humans away from God)…

“The Enemy (in Screwtape’s language, this refers to God) loves platitudes.  Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; Is it righteous?  Is it prudent?  Is it possible?  Now if we can keep men asking, ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time?  Is it progressive or reactionary?  Is this the way that history is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. 

And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make.  As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.  And great work has already been done…For the descriptive adjective “unchanged,” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant.” (138-39)

Is this not a striking depiction of the age in which we live, and the kind of thinking in which we often find ourselves caught up?  Rather than asking the “simple” questions presented by God in the Bible, we expend our energies navel-gazing and analyzing how our choices- be they about sex, money, family, politics, authority, or anything else- will appear to the observing world around us.  We so desperately want to be perceived as “wise…enlightened…and progressive” that we will often forfeit the ability to actually be these things in the eternal reality of God.

I want to examine yourself humbly and honestly this week, and ask God to show you how many of your words and actions in a given day are subject to what pastor and author John Ortberg terms “impression management.”  Take a long, hard look at your conversations, at your social media posts, and at the choices you make as an individual or as a family.  Ask yourself, “Now where did I get the idea to say or do that?”  And if the honest answer is that it came from anywhere other than God or a trusted, godly source, ask yourself if you’re really walking in wisdom there, or if you are simply acting out of the fear of looking foolish in front of others.

I like the way pastor and author Mark Batterson talks about this- “If you aren’t willing (as a Jesus follower) to look foolish, you’re foolish.  Faith requires a willingness to look foolish.”  I don’t know the specifics of your situation, and where and how God may be leading you to “look foolish” in the world’s eyes to follow Him in trust and obedience.  But I do know this- It would be the pinnacle of foolishness to turn aside from His voice and “go with the flow” of competing voices instead.  The question is- Are you willing to trust, and act in accordance with, the conviction that God’s ways really are the best ways…even when that’s difficult to see in the temporary?

So back to the question we began with- Would you rather look foolish for a while, or live foolish forever?  I challenge you today to abandon the exhausting effort of “keeping up appearances,” and simply listen to the voice of the Father, trusting Him to lead you into wisdom and its benefits.  He may take you some places you never thought you’d go, but in the end, it’s a road- indeed, the only road- that leads to real life.

 

Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death!

Breaking chain

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”…Galatians 6:1 (ESV)

“Give me liberty, or give me death!”  What comes to mind when you read or hear this declaration?  Is it not the rallying cry of the American Revolution, expressed famously by Patrick Henry in response to the tyranny of the British crown?  200+ years after the winds of revolution blew through the thirteen colonies to bring about the birth of a nation, there is still something about freedom– not just as a political theory, but as a lived experience- that stirs the spirit, doesn’t it?

As tremendous a thing as it is to celebrate the blessing of American independence today, though, what we find when we read the Bible’s New Testament is that liberty is an idea that far transcends- and long pre-dates- the story of a single nation-state, American or otherwise.  The Apostle Paul’s letters, in particular, contend with stubborn intensity for the primacy of the unique, unmatched freedom that is found only in a right relationship with Jesus Christ.  And nowhere is this argument advanced more forcefully than in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

To provide a bit of backstory, Paul had launched the church at Galatia on one of his missionary journeys across Asia Minor, or what we now know as the Mediterranean rim stretching from the northern Middle East into far eastern Europe.  In the time that lapsed between the church’s birth and the time of Paul’s writing, a group of false teachers known as the “Judaizers” had risen to prominence and began to lead the new Jesus followers astray.

Specifically, they argued that repentance from sin and faith in Jesus weren’t sufficient to make someone right with God, but that instead there must be additional works performed to complete one’s salvation.  These works found their roots in the Old Testament Jewish law, and included ritualistic cleansing laws, strict dietary restrictions, and circumcision (!).  There began to be an “insider/outsider” division in the church between those who submitted to such laws and those who did not.  As you might expect, this led to two major problems- deep seated disunity between supposed Jesus followers along ethnic lines, and doctrinal doubts that threatened to undermine the Galatians’ confidence in the Gospel message itself.

In light of this, Paul goes to great lengths to fight for this church’s freedom in Jesus Christ.  Recognizing that works-based religion is the “default mode” of the human heart (a thought that reformer Martin Luther would revisit over 1500 years later), Paul takes his readers back time and again to the Gospel reality that our standing before God is not- and can never be– based on any work of our own, but solely on the perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus.  As Paul explains, this isn’t just an empty theory, but something meant to be a lived experience each and every day.  So what are some of the practical ways that we experience Gospel freedom in the “ins and outs” of life in this world…

  • Gospel freedom means hope in the face of your struggles. Because Jesus has set us free from the power of sin, we no longer have to resign ourselves to a life void of deep level transformation.  Whatever your unique sin struggle, the power of Jesus Christ within you affords you the ability to overcome it and walk in righteousness.
  • Gospel freedom means grace in the face of your failures. Because of the finished work of Jesus, your failures no longer define you; His victory does!  This means that even when you fall short of God’s standard (and don’t we all?), His grace is available and sufficient to restore you into right fellowship with Him to keep you moving forward.  To experience this, of course, requires honesty, humility, and repentance.
  • Gospel freedom means humility in the face of your successes. We often don’t think of this as much, but it is no less powerful- and no less important.  Pride is such a vicious prison; it requires you to constantly “keep up appearances” to manage the image you want to project to the world around you.  Christ-centered humility frees us from such compulsive impression management and enables to serve God and others without obsessing over what they think of us.
  • Gospel freedom means courage in the face of uncertainty, and even danger. There are times when God will call you, as a part of His family, to say and do things that are well outside your proverbial “comfort zone.”  So how can you muster the courage to trust and obey in these moments?  By recognizing that your calling is not based on your qualifications, but on His; that your obedience is not made possible by your ability, but by His; and that your success is not defined by your visible results, but by your faithfulness to His

So what’s the alternative to Gospel freedom?  As Paul puts it, a “yoke of slavery.”  “Slavery” trades in the hope of the Gospel for a “try harder, do better” message that put all the focus not on Jesus, but on self.  The net effect of this is not a growing love for God and delight in righteousness, but a begrudging spirit that never can seem to measure up.  God quickly becomes a cruel taskmaster to appease, rather than a kind, compassionate Father to love.

On this Independence Day, my hope and prayer for you is that you’ll live in the freedom that Jesus has made possible for you through the Gospel- and that the result will be ever increasing joy for you, and ever increasing glory for God in and through your life!