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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Danger of Christian Karma during the charitable Season of Christmas

Many of you - as we have recently done at SCC - have just recently completed filling bags for the hungry to receive a Christmas meal, purchased a Christmas gift for a child who has an incarcerated parent, or even assembled your family to collectively "give back" during this holiday season.

Speaking from a wealth of charitable experience, Peter Greer, President/CEO of Hope International gives us in this brief interview a prophetic warning and opens up about his own "buying-in" to Christian Karma (ie. if I do good, God has no choice but to bless me). These lines alone are well worth the read:
The only antidote that enables us to truly sustain our service is to constantly remember that our service is downstream from the gospel. We fight hopelessness and discouragement by constantly returning to the Cross and the empty tomb. Then we get to work loving our neighbors in response to the grace we've already experienced.
YES! "Constantly returning to the cross" - something I have to tell myself about a dozen times a day for my love to last and with pure, God-ward intentions.

May God richly bless your blessing others this Christmas as you return & respond to the greatest blessing of all - the bottomless fuel of the grace of God expressed through the cross of Christ and the empty tomb. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sun AM Follow-Up: How to dish out samples of God's unusual goodness

Yesterday we had opportunity to corporately examine four straight rapid-fire parables about God's Kingdom given by Jesus in Mark 4:21-34 - to which, having heard, some came to Jesus privately and asked for further explanation and understanding. I made the claim: Jesus uses parables like these to offer a sampler of unusual goodness so that those who taste might inquire within. 

Jesus used situations from everyday life to show that just as there is unusual goodness in everyday things like lamps, ingredients for baking, and the family farm - likewise life in Jesus' kingdom is both normal (lived out among marriages, work, schools, etc.) but infused with unusual goodness (eg., marriages are transformed, work becomes purposeful and redemptive, the aim of learning goes God-ward). Jesus' purpose seems to have been to doling out not an exhaustive understanding of life in the Kingdom but just enough unusual goodness that those interested might seek out Jesus afterwards for a better understanding.

As rich as our time in the Word was, I regret not having enough time to get to how those who have already tasted, seen, & taken refuge in King Jesus (Psalm 34:8) might likewise dish out little samplings of God's unusual goodness.

So here are three suggestions for giving others a taste of God's unusual goodness that might lead to further inquiry:

1) One's testimony. A couple weeks ago, we had our annual Testimonies of Thanksgiving Sunday and, per usual, it was so encouraging to hear the saints in our still young church see the pattern of God's plan and equipping in their lives, note how he was moving some of them into a season of trusting in Him alone, give praise for his faithfulness to sustain them with His Word and through Community, and trust Him to do miracles through prayer. 

I went back and re-listened to the testimonies last week. Let me share with you two powerful phrases people used & I want you to try to listen to them as if you were not yet a Christian (and maybe you aren't): "All I really need to be complete is God"; "Having made a hard decision that took some courage, God really opened up the floodgates in our lives."

"Complete in God" - there are all kinds of questions that might emerge. "What does she mean by complete? Family life, inner emotions, sense of purpose? And does this mean God guarantees to tie up all the loose ends in my life?" Those questions are good and can be asked during follow-up, but Lord willing and by the power of the Holy Spirit hopefully the person hears is, "Complete in God" and responds: "Completion sounds really, really good." "Floodgates?! I don't know exactly what that entails, but it sounds really, really good."

So testimonies rarely lead contain full explanations of the gospel - God's plan for salvation - but the Holy Spirit often uses them to give people just enough goodness to cause them to approach you about it later and inquire further.

2) Dole out a "what if" in the face of unbelief. In high school and later as a university student I was highly involved in an organization called Young Life, whose mission is to love unchurched teenagers for Christ. A Young Life club meeting consisted of games, wacky skits, some type of gross food being consumed for entertainment of the masses, fun songs, a short gospel message, and usually one serious or spiritual song. During my years of involvement in Young Life there was one song that I heard more than any other: "What if what they say is true"...

What if what they say is true? / What if you walked on water? / What if you healed disease? / Can you heal me?
What if what they say is true? / What if you rose on Easter? / What if you conquered the sea? / Can you conquer me? 
Looking back, this was a perfect song for a group of curious but unconverted people. A series of questions for people who still say: I don't believe in that stuff. But: What if you did? How would that change your life? Most have not thought through the implications to the question: What if Jesus did rise from the dead on Easter? Most haven't considered how their lives would be different if there was a man claiming to be God, offered life-saving news, predicted his body would rise from death, and then - according to all available accounts - DID! 
Asking "What if" in the face of unbelief is something I'm trying to do. I'll tell you why:
Everyone needs a carrot - a reason, reward, a clear motivating difference to invest even in investigating. I recently read the story of how advertising gave rise to the phenomena of brushing one's teeth. In America, for example, the rise of wealth in the early 20th century brought with it a concurrent rise in the consumption of sugary foods. So many American men drafted for WWI military service had rotting teeth, that the government officials declared dental hygiene a national security risk! And, yet, not even a declaration like this caused more than a few hundred people to brush their teeth. Nothing was working. So a company called Pepsodent hired a world-renowned advertising specialist named Claude Hopkins to try and popularize the use of toothpaste. There were all kinds of reasons to use toothpaste - but Hopkins was onto something - he recognized every person needed to immediately identify with a tangible reward in order to create in them a craving for it. So despite all the medical reasons for toothpaste, Hopkins zeroed in on the "mucin plaques on teeth" which he afterward called "the film." This film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on the teeth regardless of how much one eats or how often one brushes. In other words, the film is ultimately harmless. Nevertheless Hopkins pitch over the airwaves: Toothpaste will help get rid of that cloudy film you can feel on your teeth. He then would show people licking their teeth with their tongues and instructed his viewers to do likewise. What happened? People were immediately able to feel the film on their teeth even as they watched the ad. They immediately connected with a reason to buy-in to toothpaste. 

Likewise, if we can help people consider right away some tangible need or some attractive betterment to their life, they might buy-in to at least investigating further. Throwing back to an unbelieving person this question of "What if it was true" causes them to imagine, to visualize for themselves life with a resurrected Lord. The possibility all of sudden seems more possible. The carrot, the reason, the reward has gone from a vague romantic myth to an articulated, shared, "I just said that out loud" possibility of life change.

3) Share thanks for the smallest examples of unusual goodness in regular life. As mentioned before, Jesus used lamps, ingredients for cooking & agriculture because these were items one ran across in during regular life in 1st century Palestine. A parable in fact was, above all, culturally-relevant in its communication of truth. What are such common touch-points in today's culture that express a similar thread of uncommon goodness? This particular method takes some consideration, playfulness, and creativity. Here are just a couple examples that came to mind:
  • GoogleMaps GPS. Recently Katie and I travelled to Costa Rica. We rented a car and about half way through the trip started to wonder if that was an unwise decision. Our directions took us off the paved roads and onto barely beaten paths that overlooked unprotected cliffs. And while I had no overseas data nor wifi access, the GoogleMaps GPS tracked my vehicle anyhow and gave us a way out, preventing our children whom we left at home from becoming orphans. It was a totally free service that costs Google money.
  • University Scholarships. Recently my eldest stumbled onto this notion (kids are great by the way at helping adults rediscover how undeservingly good some things are). "So dad, colleges will actually pay you to go to their school." "Yes," I paused, "That's pretty great, isn't it." (I wanted to add: "And you may want to look into being a genius or a great athlete because your dad isn't loaded" - but refrained).
  • Public Libraries. Books loaned out for free.
  • Interest from a bank account. We will protect and insure your money plus we'll pay you for it.
Especially as we consider how accustomed people are to complaint, the hope might be to express: The King is still present here & showing Himself to us through uncommon goodness - if we would but open our eyes to see. I tested out the GoogleMaps GPS example this morning on a few people in a coffee shop I frequent - one of whom responded: "Never thought about that. That's a pretty positive outlook. Any more good news you can tell me?" Um....yes!!! I mean the Holy Spirit just opened the door to respond to the question: Any more good news you can tell me? 

Final Word. As I've tried encouraging you here with how you might give others a taste of God's goodness, I recognize the questions arise: But shouldn't I also explain about the costliness of following Jesus? Shouldn't I relate to them about how it's not always easy, that I still have doubts? Should we not also present to them a clear understanding of sin and the best news of all that trust in Jesus is the solution for sin against a Holy God? Of course, these essentials need explanation and there will be time for that - but in the knowledge that no one consumes a meal in one bite, let's first give them a taste of the unusual goodness of life in God's Kingdom that they might further inquire about these other essentials and so consume the whole message of the gospel.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Guides for Families & Adults

Advent comes from the Latin adventus and simply means, "coming." It has served the church through the centuries as an intentional way for Christians to try to sense what it was like to anticipate the coming of the world's Savior - as predicted as far back as the Book of Genesis - and to anticipate the time when He will come again to restore all things. 

Advent begins today and culminates on Christmas Day. 

Here are a couple ways to intentionally celebrate the Savior with your kids during the Advent season and one way to go solo: Advent 2013: The coming of the Rescuer is a FREE resource from the Austin Stone Community Church. It can be done alongside your regular Bible but also with The Jesus Storybook Bible, which we have available from the church. It also includes a coloring for each day which can be cut out and transformed into a Christmas Ornament to hang on the tree.  The Expected One Advent Guide will cost you 99 cents in the App Store or alternately you can purchase it for $1.99 at Lifeway publishing. While it may cost you a buck 

Advent for adults:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Relating to my church when I don't have kids

Katie and I recently returned from an amazing vacation during which, for the first time in seven years, we were able to leave our kids behind. One of the nights we were away a single friend in our church body, who is very precious to us, was gracious enough to watch our children. In some ways, it might have been easier to have our boys stay "with a friend" that night - a typical nuclear family. But three factors opened the door: (a) Intentionally broadening our horizons (and conversations and things in common) to befriend our brothers and sisters free of children; (b) That person intentionally broadening their horizons to befriend a family with children. Katie, myself, and our boys were immensely blessed by our friend taking two nights (one to orient herself with their schools and their routines) to serve our family;  (c) Jesus Himself, through whom such possibilities of unlikely friendships become possible (see Ephesians 2:11-22). And so we reached out and asked a favor which she could meet and did...

As the years go by participating as a significant member of one's church and you are single without children or married without children, I recognize there exists a distinct possibility of feeling alienated or, at least, just that little amount of distance from those with children - enough to hinder friendship beyond the occasional handshake, hello, and hug.

I've pasted below (was having problems with the url link) a wonderful testimony by a woman named Erin Lane - who is both a significant member of her local church and who has chosen to be married without children. I think she gets somewhere near the heart of the right reasons to choose life without children or, if unable to have children or single, some ideas to connect and be a blessing without children. Both those with and without children might profit from her story...

I am a young Christian women who doesn’t have children. I suppose the more interesting thing to folks is that I am a married woman with no plans on having future children of my own. I have ventured so far as to call this choice not just a lifestyle preference but a sacrifice, and one that serves the common good.

The common good is a concept that is as illusory as it is necessary. I understand what it means and am able to give voice to it on a larger scale only in as much as I can witness it playing out locally. I could spout arguments as others have about how our remaining childless may be good for this reason or that, but the best argument I can give for our choice is that it’s good for my neighbor. This I’ve seen with my own two eyes. I’ve heard it with perked ears.

We were hiking along a leaf-littered path, making our way up to the hermitage. I was on the heels of our pack leaders, two women who looked to be in their early forties. They chatted easily with one another, and I eavesdropped behind them. This, I determined, was less awkward than side winding around them and forging a path to the top of the mountain alone. We were after all on a church women’s retreat. “Community time” was part of the point.

It didn’t matter that they were taking about their kids, and I had none.

The theme of our retreat was celebration. The context was the Sabbath. Jennifer, our speaker for the weekend, told us of her time living in Jerusalem as a Christian single woman and how the city became a ghost town on Friday afternoons as people scurried home to prepare for their weekly day of rest. Sabbath wasn’t just a day of self-care, as it is sometimes practiced today in the West. It was about a community resting in rhythm. Singles and marrieds came together to eat, drink, and bless each other as one family.

“You can join us, you know,” the one in the running jacket said looking back at me. “But you might be bored.”

I laughed, awkwardly, and propelled my pace. “I don’t mind hearing about your kids.” Women are always apologizing to me for talking about their kids. They want to assure me that they’re not “that kind of woman.” I want to assure them that I think motherhood is a vocation to mull over just as much as mine is as a writer.

The other woman with a fleece tied around her waist caught me up. “We were just saying how there’s no way we could take a Sabbath with small children at home.”

Running woman continued. “I can give Dan time off from the kids to relax, but that means I’m taking them to the park or dreaming up an art project or just supervising free play. And then we switch, and I go for a run or grab a glass of wine but there’s no way we can really rest together.”

She tilted her face up to the hills, as if she were talking to herself now. “Those young women talk like it’s easy to rest. But the weekend isn’t restful.”

I strained my neck further so that it stuck out ever so slightly between them. “That’s where I come in.” Even as the words came out of my mouth, it sounded like a strange thing to say to these strange women I had just met. I had only been going to this church a little over a year but, still, I said, “That’s where a woman without children comes in.”

Without kids of our own, we practice the ministry of availability. When the sign-up sheet at church goes around for our night of ministry to the homeless, my husband and I always take the slot no one wants – the overnight guests. We are the ones with back’s strong enough to sleep on couches in the church parlor but old enough to handle a crisis together between either male or female guests. We don’t have to arrange a sitter for the dog we leave at home, and we can catch up on sleep in the quiet of our house come morning.

Without kids of our own, we practice the ministry of flexibility. It is that season of life when many of our female friends either have a belly full of baby or breasts full of milk. Young ones with new names are popping up down the block and across town at rates we’ve never before witnessed. We are learning there are feeding schedules and sleeping schedules and nary a moment for the happy hours and dinner parties of yesteryear. Fine, we say. Let us come to you. Not doing dairy because Malificent has reflux? We’ll thicken our broth with flour. Not sure when Alastair will wake up from his nap? We’re just watching Nashville, so text us when you’re ready. We have time. We’re not going anywhere.

And finally, without kids of our own, we practice the ministry of hospitality. We welcome the stranger in other people’s children. “I don’t want to staff the nursery during worship,” a young mom once lamented to me. “I’m always at the nursery.” Just because I don’t have kids, doesn’t mean I don’t like them—or understand the gifts that they are.

It was like I said on that long walk up to the hermitage. Let me watch your kids. Let me help you to be available to your partner. Let me help you be flexible with your friends. Let me help you be hospitable to the stranger in me. It’s not that you can’t practice these ministries as parents, only that it looks different when you are committed to a nuclear family.

We’ve gotten some flack for our decision to remain childless that’s hard to understand. People argue it’s not natural. That it’s selfish. Or that it’s endangering the future of the human race. I don’t think the future of the human race has ever been served by all people making the same choice. It’s the diversity of our choices that allow for us to rest in rhythm as a church community. It’s when the music starts to play and we begin to tap our feet and after listening for a beat, we can say, “That’s where I come in.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sun AM Follow-Up: "Wisdom & Sabbath Rest" by Tim Keller

Hi friends. Yesterday's stop in working through the book of Mark was a bit more devotional and topical in nature looking at the importance of a taking regular Sabbath rest to obtaining a restful satisfaction with work well done. 

The following is a wonderful follow-up by Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC - entitled "Wisdom & Sabbath Rest." I'm especially grateful for his thoughtful point on avocational rest, which I borrowed for yesterday's sermon. There is a lot of practical wisdom here for your personal gain and mine.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Proverb worth Memorizing: 13:12

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs13:12).

How do you know what to do next? How to respond? Whether or not this seemingly good thing headed your way is from God or from the Evil One? Is this God speaking or my heart -- what I want -- deceiving me (Jer. 17:9)? There is no substitute for memorizing verses in Scripture to know to respond to what life throws at you, to discern if a good thing is also a God thing, and to know if God is speaking to you or trying to get your attention (after all, He's given us His written Word - won't his spoken, mysterious, by-the-Spirit words look remarkably similar if not identical to pages you can leaf through everyday?). To be honest, some verses I've memorized come to mind in real-life situations more often than others - one of these is Proverbs 13:12. I'd like to share with you why might also find it helpful to memorize and even pass along to others.

Hope. Andy Dufresne to his friend Red: "Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing every dies" (from the 1994 classic film The Shawshank Redemption). When circumstances are not what we would want or we are yet who we wish to be, Hope is required. Yet, hope in-and-of-itself is an intangible verb that needs a direct object. In other words, nobody just hopes. You must hope in some thing or for some thing - as Andy said: "No good thing ever dies." And since Hope isn't something you currently have but are looking to access, the best object of hope is the guaranteed object hope. We have supreme and absolute confidence that the person will save us a seat or be there to celebrate with us, unwavering confidence that an annual or weekly event/happening will be all that it says it will be providing us the boost we need, total faith that whatever I am purchasing online - upon arrival, will improve my quality of life. Because Hope is so vital to life and such a powerful instrument in helping us keep-on-keeping-on, Scripture warns us about even putting all the eggs in the basket of your hope into anything in this life. God describes our years as are like an exhaling "sigh" (Psalm 90:9), like the passing smoke of a distant bonfire (Psalm 102:3), like the time it takes for a person to put on a new pair of clothes (Psalm 102:26). C.S. Lewis said it so well: Do not let you happiness depend on something you might lose.  

Deferred makes the heart sick. One of the reasons I so appreciate this verse in real-life is the many times my hope doesn't so much do a 180-degree-turn (ie. as if all of a sudden I'm living solely for money, indulging in an adulterous affair or in pornography, habitually lying and manipulating to get my way, etc.) but, rather, gets just slightly deferred. To defer is to "postpone slightly" or "put slightly off." Let me give you two examples of "slightly off" hope - Spiritual Gifts & Friendship/Marriage. 

>>> Spiritual gifts are given to us upon trusting our lives to Jesus because the Holy Spirit has pitched a tent and taken up residence inside of you. One of the radically gracious benny's of fellowship with the Holy Spirit is He gives you unique empowerments or skills by which you might bless others in the church. It's amazing! However, what if one day that gift doesn't seem to be having an impact in someone's life or you are no longer enjoying using it, or it seems to run dry? You will feel this is the case at some point in your walk even if you haven't yet identify the ways you enjoy blessing people as "gifts" per say. You may get sad, melancholy, even depressed - you may get hardened toward God or toward church leadership ("it's the church's fault I can't use my gift") - or you might even try to denigrate the gifts and progress of others through a sarcastic remark or putdown. These are all signs that you're hope has been slightly deferred and, thus, your heart is sick. The apostle Paul reminds us about gifts that they are will not last forever: "Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for [gift of] knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes the partial will pass away" (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We can and should hope in the Christ who is glorified through the use of our gifts.  

>>> Human friendship/marriage. God made us to love friendships and live in community. But to what extent is even the most intimate friendship - the marriage relationship - eternal? Jesus even hints that marriage is something for "the sons of this age" (see Luke 20:34-36). Indeed, marriage is primarily a picture in this life of Jesus' eternal relationship with His church (Ephesians 5:32). You know the feeling of looking so forward to a weekend with your mates, a special luncheon with a friend whom you always pick up where you left off, or the prospects of what looks like a great new season for your marriage. Yet, though a gift from God and even if you or they are the best of people, continually putting hope in human relationships will disappoint. One of my favorite Singers/Songwriters, Rich Mullins, put it like this: "I think one of the stresses on a lot of friendships is that we require that the people we love take away our lonliness. And they really can't. And so, when we still feel lonely, even in the company of the people we love, we become angry with them because they don't do what we think they're supposed to do...So while you still have life, love everybody you can love. Love them as much as you can love them. Don't try to keep them for yourself. Because when you're gone, they'll just resent you for having left."

>> How this Proverb helps in real-life moments. (1) As a warning. When I find myself starting to look forward to or hoping in the person, experience, object itself, the Holy Spirit reminds me of Prov. 13:12: Look forward to seeing Jesus, experiencing Jesus, becoming more like Jesus, and passing on Jesus to others in the near future encounter with the person, experience, object. OR if I find my mind wandering toward or thinking toward something too much, again: Prov 13:12. Remember: It would be easy to miss. This displaced hope is a deferral not a 180-degree lifestyle turn (though left unchecked you 180-degrees will be the end result). (2) As a diagnosis. When I wonder why I'm feeling down, frustrated, hardened - have I deferred my hope to something that will pass away? ; (3) As a turning point toward getting my longings fulfilled....

But a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. The basis and object of our hope is the Risen
Lesser-known Alternate Ending: Andy's Letter Reads:
"Red, if you are reading this, I've died of dysentery
on the way to Mexico. Read Proverbs 13:12."
Christ. His present promises of nearness (Matthew 28:20), forgiveness (1 John 1:9), His intercession in prayer (Hebrews 7:25), that we can rest from doing work to justifying ourselves and, instead, to do good work to glorify him as we do it with Him (Matthew 11:28-30), that He is working even this hard situation for incredible good (Rom 8:28) and His future promises often called "future grace" - new glorified body (1 Cor. 15:51-57), no more sadness (Revelation 21:4), right all the wrong in this current age (Revelation 11:17), in His tender and awesome presence forever (Revelation 7:15-17)

The Bible begins and ends with a Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9, Revelation 22:2, Revelation 22:19). So it's fitting to end a mediation on hope with the following passage from the prophet Jeremiah who speaks here of Living Water: 
"Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when the heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit" (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
Root your hope in Him who gives Living Water. I believe God will use your memorizing Proverbs 13:12 to help keep those roots headed in the right and most fulfilling direction.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Free Audiobook for October: A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (guest blogger: Pastor B)

My good pal turned partner-in-ministry, Pastor Brett, is a guest blogger for me today. He recently finished reading a larger biography of Jonathan Edwards so I thought you might fancy his introducing a shorter (and FREE!) biography of Jonathan Edwards...
A guest post by Pastor Brett...

I was recently telling somebody that if I could start university over again, instead of studying engineering, I would be strongly tempted to study history.  I love learning how seemingly small people and events can massively shape the direction of nations and future generations (in part because this encourages me that God can use my small acts of obedience to do things I can’t predict and may never know). 

Jonathan Edwards is an underrated titan of British and American history, well-known during his own lifetime but often overlooked today in part because he died tragically several years before the American Revolution (which – let’s be honest – is the point at which most Americans start caring about our own history).  He was a prolific writer, faithful pastor, courageous missionary, and tender family man (together with his wife Sarah he raised 11 children!), and more than 250 years after his death he is still widely regarded as the most important Christian thinker born in America, as well as one of its greatest geniuses. 

George Marsden, an Edwards expert, has written an excellent little introductory biography (less than 200 pages) called A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards, and this month you can get it for free here, courtesy of  Allow me to suggest just a few reasons it’s worth your time to get acquainted with Jonathan Edwards:

Edwards was dazzled by God – The man’s life was built around the glory of God.  In his preaching, in his writing, in his evangelism, he was always trying to help others see what he saw when he read his Bible and looked at the world: a beautiful God full of love and joy, who created the universe and humanity to spread his love and joy to others, and who is constantly beckoning us to turn from sin and idols, receive his mercy through Jesus, and spend eternity (starting now!) praising and enjoying his majesty.  Edwards helps us see the invisible beauties of God and the world as it really is.

Edwards was a wrestler – Not the kind of wrestler who wears a singlet; that would never have gone with his powdered wig.  No, Edwards wrestled with the difficult questions of life and wasn’t content with pat answers.  He wanted to hear from God: How can I be sure I’m a Christian?  How can I know whether the Holy Spirit is really at work in someone’ life?  How can a good God plan a world with such suffering and evil?  How can God be all-powerful and still hold me responsible for what I do?  We can learn from Edwards’ answers, and we can learn from his all-out pursuit of understanding God’s ways.

Edwards knew how to suffer – Though he experienced significant success in his life (hundreds trusting Christ through his preaching, best-selling books, wide influence leading to his appointment as president of Princeton University), he also endured plentiful difficulties – a bitter and painful dismissal from his church after more than 20 years of ministry, the death of a teenage daughter, regular physical danger from hostile Native American tribes, and his own slow death of complications from a smallpox inoculation.  Through it all, Edwards found that he could trust totally in a wise, good, and sovereign God.  Our lives would be so changed if we learned to trust the way Edwards did!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

R.I.P. Chuck Smith (June 25, 1927 - October 2, 2013)

Chuck Smith is best known as the first pastor and founder of Calvary Chapel. 
He died today after a long battle with lung cancer. My best summary of Smith: He had a simple but oh so zealous desire to take the love of God expressed in the Scriptures and communicate that across cultural lines to many whom church had given up on (starting with, yes, "those darn hippies...").

I would encourage any who would read this blog to check out Ed Stetzer's explanation in Christianity Today of Chuck Smith's impact upon evangelicalism and his reach through the Calvary Chapel movement. Those five bullet points alone are representative of who we are and who we hope to become as a church (SCC).

Chuck Smith had significant, if largely indirect, influence on mine and my parents trust and growth in Christ. I was living in Southern California in the mid/late 1990s when I trusted my life to Jesus - my parents zeal for Christ having already been born and was growing there. So many lay ministers and pastors we encountered, including my family's senior pastor, were greatly influenced by Chuck Smith. One of the churches I visited soon after trusting Christ was the one Chuck Smith founded - Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. I hung around there a good bit and remember this being a critical time for me. After trusting Christ, God attracted me to His Word and was compelling me to write outlines, as a high schooler, of books of the New Testament. I didn't know any better! Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (and Chuck Smith's ministry) was the first place I recall receiving any kind of support and confirmation for such a systematic approach and verse-by-verse zeal for the Word of God.

Chuck Smith, may he rest in Peace with Him who is his Peace (Ephesians 2:14).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stages of Grief, Suffering, Mental Illness: Rick & Kay Warren's Interview with Piers Morgan

Two of the larger pastoral concerns I have over the next 20 years relate to premarital cohabitation and mental illness - the former for its pervasiveness and 'acceptability' and the latter because of its complexity and silent devastation. Caring for someone with mental illness in any degree requires a remarkable amount of prayer, love, patience, and discernment.

Earlier this year, Rick Warren, lead pastor of Saddleback Church in California, and his wife Kay lost their adult son Matthew to suicide after a long bout with mental illness and depression, as well as exhaustive attempts at treatment.

In their first interview since Matthew's death, Rick and Kay lay out some courageous truths in how they are wrestling with God in the arena of faith and hope. For any of us struggling with suffering or whose lives intersect with mental illness in some way (I think I just covered everyone), here is a snippet of the interview which you can view, but I would highly recommend reading these long excerpts of the interview.

Here are a few lines I found particular helpful and inspiring:
1. The six stages of grief (as opposed to four)
2. "I wrote in my journal one day...'I'd rather have all my questions unanswered and walk with God than have all my questions answered.'" It's the same dilemma of the Garden and tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Better to know God than everything else there is to know - but this is a choice.
3. On the stigma of mental illness. This is so true and makes me, equally, so deeply sympathetic to those who struggle with some degree of mental illness: 
Piers, any other organ in my body can get broken and there’s no shame, no stigma to it. My liver stops working, my heart stops working, my lungs stop working. Well, I’ll just say, “Hey, I got diabetes. My pancreas or my adrenaline glands, or whatever,” but if my brain is broken, I’m supposed to feel bad about it. I’m supposed to feel shame. And so, a lot of people who should get help don’t.
Lord Jesus, we love you and in our helplessness we ask that You would please help us truly "be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. [5] For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too." (II Corinthians 1:4-5 ESV)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why do we say: "God told me"?

A very helpful article by Nancy Guthrie on the motives behind this phrase and some elaboration on how we can have consistent confidence that we are hearing from him.

Three broad points in response:

1. Prioritizing difference over depth. 
Nancy Guthrie rightly reminds us of a common experience of thinking how various characters in the Bible heard from God and wanting likewise for our own relationship with Him (even though such speaking were part and parcel of God's special outworking of His grander salvation plan across history). She notes that this is often because "many of us want something more, something different." That's a important point worth expanding. As Christians we must recognize we live in a world addicted to prioritizing difference. What's new (and thus different) is automatically assumed to be better, improved, and thus desired. New technology, new ways of learning, new diets that will finally make us feel/look different, new philosophies of parenting, even God doing a "new thing" to use the oft-quoted Isaiah 43:19 (whereas, as Pastor Bill Mills points out, if God does have a plan then He is actually doing old things and working them out in time - indeed there is very little that's truly new...and not heresy). New can be very good - indeed God often calls us as a church to do old things with new 'clothing.' However, it is important to recognize our cultural propensity to idolize the new and different and how that might greatly influence how we would prefer to relate to God. Such that experiencing God to feel something different becomes a higher priority than relating to God to grow something deeper. This is an encouragement to prioritize going to the Scriptures primarily for hearing from God and for growth - indeed He promises growth only here (Isaiah 55:10-11 - note the focus on growth imagery).

2. I only partially agree with Guthrie's assessment on hearing from God. I had never before considered that nowhere in Scripture do we see God speaking to His people through an inaudible voice - and Nancy is right to point this out especially as such are the terms by which hearing from God is most often couched (eg., "I sense God is saying to me/us"). However, I do think God speaks through people brief messages that are not directly, word-for-word, from Scripture (1 Cor. 12:8-10) but are always reflective of Scripture and are often saturated with Scripture. And so we hear Paul say in the same breath: "

[19] Do not quench the Spirit. [20] Do not despise prophecies, [21] but test everything; hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

Listen and consider but also weigh. Weigh by not only asking: "Does this contradict the Bible?" but more and more so: "Do I hear the Bible in this?"

3. The Most trusted 'prophets' are ones steeped and saturated in the Word of God.

I served in a local church that regularly practiced the use of prophetic giftings and was, at times, blessed by the use of this gift. In my experience, there were only a handful people in the church whose impressions or words consistently applied to my life and/or edified me as a Christian. In each case (and I have saved those words given to me as they were written down), each person was someone I knew to be steeped and saturated in the Word of God. That doesn't mean others didn't "hear from God" occasionally but those experiences were all-over-the-map and seemed to reflect, by-and-large, a lack of regular submission to the Word of God. I once observed in a small group setting someone giving a 'picture' involving a fire hydrant, a red-wagon, and a dalmatian. The impression given was bizarre and uncomfortable - and you can imagine the reaction of the person to whom it was given (they never returned to the small group...and likely never bought a dalmatian). Yet the person kept on going with such 'pictures,' impressions, and 'words.' 

When someone continues to claim to be hearing from God but seems to be slightly (or greatly) missing the mark as they express it, an often overlooked argument from Paul seems applicable:

[36] Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? [37] If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:36-37 ESV)

Someone who claims to semi-regularly "hear from God" will quickly recognize the commandments of the Lord because he or she is steeped in reading, meditating, and cherishing God's Words to them in His Scriptures. You can envision the likely circumstance to which Paul is writing. "I think God is telling me this." Paul: "Really? Good thing you don't have a monopoly on what God is saying. Let's look at the commands of the Lord found in the Scriptures and compare." Not only should any potentially "from God" statements not contradict the Bible, my opinion is that they will more often than not be very reflective of it and in some case even mirror it (containing the very statements/verses of God's Word).

Consider for a moment how one nourishes & grows their spiritual gift: Those I know who are gifted in mercy usually look to the cross of Jesus for mercy and are touched by the mercy of Jesus' ministry. Those like myself who sense God's gifting in teaching, usually are fed by the teaching ministry of others - listening to good sermons of other pastors, etc. Those who are gifted in leading, are good sheep being led by the great Shepherd (1 Corinthians 11:1). Those gifted in making people feel comfortable through hospitality, themselves derive comfort from the ongoing presence of God and so abide in the Vine (John 15:5). In other words, that which God has given you to serve and feed others, you yourself tend to be nourished with from God Himself. Similarly, a dear believer who senses the Spirit does want to speak profitable words through them is himself nourished by the Word of God. Not surprisingly then, in my experience, I haven't found someone whose words consistently speak to me and stir my soul who is not also someone I know to be steeped and saturated in the Word of God.

I should also note: I know I'm much more likely to even trust someone's wise counsel who is steeped in God's Word but doesn't necessarily claim to be having a supernatural experience of "I think God is telling me/us." Their lives, however, are so saturated with God's Word that the outworking of how they live and make plans is wise, profitable, and brings great glory to Christ Jesus.

Two points of potential application:
1. If you want to be someone who hears from God or believe God has given you some degree of prophetic gifting, steep and saturate yourself in the Word of God. Here alone will you find the nourishment needed the grow in depth as opposed to difference. Through feeding on the Word you can consistently step out in faith and with confidence for wise decisions that bring great glory to Jesus.

2. When someone says: "I think (a) I might be hearing from God; (b) I have a 'word' from God; (c) God may be trying to tell us something," it is okay and even recommended to ask: Is this someone I know to be regularly steeped and saturated in the Word of God? Not that God doesn't occasionally speak through a donkey (Numbers 22:28), but that donkey is normally going to speak like...well...a donkey.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Teenager's Sermon Notes - Mark 1:1-13

Sunday proved once again to be the best day of the week. In large part because our humble church packed up a Nature Valley Bar, grabbed a Gatorade (or Vitamin Water...or Green tea??) and embarked on what will be a glorious trek through the Gospel of Mark investigating the life of Jesus. 

Back by popular readership (or viewership), here is a second straight week of a Teenager's sermon notes. 

Highlights for me personally include:
(a) A valiant attempt to depict two amorphous entities - Jello and the Holy Spirit. I thought about poking some fun at the old Adam West Batman looking "Ka-pow"-shaped attempt at the Holy Spirit - but, let's be fair, as a Spirit He's really hard to draw. I've seen some lame attempts too - mostly centered around clouds and leaves rustling to symbolize wind;  

(b) The perfect balance of drawing Jesus as THE man with impressive muscular tone -  versus going Super-Man over-the-top muscular. Impressive because my point in the message was that Jesus did not defeat Satan's desert temptations as some sort of laser-shootin' superman. But neither must he resemble Leonard from The Big Bang Theory. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Teenager's Sermon Notes

Had opportunity yesterday to preach on Isaiah 58 & a paradox walking with Jesus of Receiving Through Giving. In case you don't want to bother listening, one teenager gave me permission to share the notes she took.

That pretty much sums it up!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sun Follow-up - Ben Edwards: A Financial World Example of Work that Lasts & Lasting at Work

Yesterday we explored how Christ's final three words "It is finished" can help us both do work that lasts & last at our work. 

At Sunrise we are blessed with a number of amazingly hard workers in the financial sector. One man's story that might encourage you is Ben Edwards, former CEO of the former securities brokerage company, A.G. Edwards, which was based out of St. Louis and bought out by Wachovia in 2009. 

He did so well, he bought a sword.
I've read up a bit on this bloke. He felt free to take calculated risks in the securities realm because of His security in Christ. Including: (1) Being among the first brokerage firms to go public - in Nov 1971, offering 445,000 shares at $12 per share. But, despite being among the first, he didn't cave in the slightest to shareholder pressures and demands but rather (2) Kept to his established, golden rule of "do unto others" in the financial sector - putting clients first, employees second, and shareholders would glean any benefits left over. 

He lasted at his work staying - happily staying involved with the firm till he died in 2009.

Here's one of the better articles on him, including some lessons we can learn to do better & more lasting work to the glory of God.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mud: A good movie for Men & Boys

I admit I'm partial to movies about boys growing up in the American South. In part, because it constituted most of my upbringing before my big 90210 move to Southern California that made me the pre-madonna I am today. 

The movie Mud (2013, PG-13, 130 mins, now out on DVD and stars Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon) is such a movie based in the American South and explores the ability of men to continue to hope in enduring love versus the alternative of hardening to it. Here's a fuller review and summary from a Christian point-of-view, I just want to mention 3 things that make this movie worth taking in - especially if you are a man and even more especially if you are a man with boys who are 13+. It is PG-13 so that should be fair warning about violence, language, etc.

1. Rural men who are not characterized by being tough & grizzled. This doesn't mean the four key men in the story (Mud, the boy, the father, the sniper) aren't these qualities to some extent - but it's not what characterizes them. In fact, writer/director Jeff Nichols does a brilliant job of characterizing these men primarily by love or, at least, their hope in love without making it come across as effeminate in the eyes of the typical male viewer. This is very refreshing and provides a visual, albeit imperfect (this is still Hollywood), for men in their 20s and 30s as well as boys for the expression of a robust and masculine love. 

2. Rural people who are not characterized by the hypocrisy or emptiness of religion/the church. Every line of Psalm 136 includes the refrain: "His steadfast love endures forever." This movie explores whether or not men can believe this even though their is no meaningful mention of "God" in the film (with the exception of one brutal man who asks his henchmen to pray for the death of man who killed his boy - but he's set apart by Nichols so explicitly as anti-God that his request is almost comical and not a significant commentary on rural religion). But the absence of a meaningful God-mention is refreshing - and I know it sounds strange for a pastor to say this. However, in these movies Southern and rural religion tends to have a role - and that role is typically destructive. Nichols avoids it altogether allowing the symbolism at the movie's final scene to stand out and can cause one to think on God's enduring love without us having to wonder: "Oh yeah, but remember from the earlier church/preacher scene that the writer/director is anti-church, anti-religion, anti-God." 

3. The final scene. Disclaimer: I won't give away anything of the plot in saying this. The movie makes a bold statement that despite years of heartache and disappointment with love, men can still hope that they are loved and have the ability to love. Men can be more than just responsible and hardworking as their highest potential. How? Through the large and small sacrifices of others and the sacrifice a man makes in response. Such that the movie ends how it does - with hope and a sunrise all brought about by sacrifice. All of which should remind us of THE Man who sacrificed it all that we might forever know we are loved.

Give it a watch. Would love to hear what you think.