Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Story (in less than 3 minutes)

As promised a few weeks ago, a bottom-line recap of our 31-week series through the whole Bible in less than 3 minutes. Okay, here goes. 

In the very beginning, the eternal God created everything. And he especially created mankind in order to receive glory and worship from him and to have fellowship with him. The first man, Adam, however, sinned against God, and this fellowship was broken. God, however, graciously provided a way for man to still enjoy his fellowship: a sacrifice, such as a lamb.

As God continued to sovereignly and mercifully call people to fellowship with him, sacrifices remained essential. God was holy, and man wasn't. So the death of an animal acted as a sort of "satisfaction" to God for man's sin. But this was only temporary at best, as God's wrath against sin could never be turned away by anything less than holy. So for centuries to come man continued to sacrifice every year in order to be right with God.

But these imperfect sacrifices were actually pointing to something greater that God was providing — the perfect sacrifice of himself. Frankly, that's exactly what God did when he sent Jesus into the world: He gave us himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus, the holy God in the form of a man, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and rose again from the grave so that all who believe in him could forever be made right with God. When Jesus accomplished this, God was satisfied permanently. Why? Because the sacrifice was holy. Perfect. It was the sacrifice of himself.

This was startling and world-changing good news — God had come to man and had given his life for us so that we would not die in our sins. As people heard this message, and saw how glorious God was in his sacrifice for sin and authority over death, people repented of their sins, believed this message and worshiped God for saving them. They, too, were now enjoying forgiveness from sin and fellowship with God, just as many others before them.

Even now, God, just as he has been doing since the beginning of time, is still calling people to himself through this very same message of his sacrifice, what we know as the Gospel. It is the good news that Jesus has come, has lived and died, and has risen as the complete atonement and satisfaction for our sins. And anyone who repents of his or her sin, turns to God in faith, and confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, will be saved by God and made right with him forever. Incredibly, it is in this very act of saving lost sinners that God gets glory from us and has fellowship with us, the very thing he set out to do in the beginning.

Hallelujah for the story, and all glory to the Author!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What to Look for in a Church

A few months ago as I was teaching from Acts 2-4, I, almost in passing, threw out some observations about what people should look for in a church. Not that these qualities are unimportant; rather, it wasn't the bulls-eye target of the text that day. But it warranted a drive-by mentioning, so I generally lobbed these implicit church-trait observations into the laps of our people that day.

Know what I discovered in subsequent emails and conversations? It was one of the main things that stuck.

So, here's the same lob your way. I'm fully aware this isn't exhaustive, and that some will disagree. But I find this textually-based approach refreshing in a day when lots of people use lists that have their basis in everything but Scripture.

Finally, I do see this simple list as prioritized, which not only makes it meaningful when you are looking for a church, but also quite helpful when you are thinking about leaving a church.

So what does Acts 2-4 implicitly teach about how to select a local spiritual family in which to grow strong? There are three main things you need to consider.

1. Content of the message (GOSPEL-CENTERED DOCTRINE) The Apostles were veracious cross-clingers. No amount of cultural pressure could hide their clear and compelling attachment to the work of Jesus, both his crucifixion and resurrection. So when they spoke, there was not even the slightest attempt to make what had just happened -- the Gospel -- palatable or polite. The Gospel is where they started, stayed, and ended. And everything else was built on that.

The point? Any church that seems ashamed or afraid of our core, central message -- Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, and ascension -- isn't going to have the boldness or power to address anything else that matters either. So find out if they got the core right, and if they are unashamedly clinging to it.

2. Character of the leaders (SHEPHERD-LIKE AUTHORITY) Speaking truthfully, living authentically, witnessing boldly, enduring faithfully, giving selflessly ... these were the traits of the leaders. They were the ones who first modeled what God showed us in Jesus -- sacrificial leadership! They cared and they shared. It only makes sense, then, that the rest of assembly, for the most part, followed suit.

The point? If you're not seeing the leaders lead, they're probably not. Leadership leaves no doubt about what is expected, not because of what they say, but because of what they show. And it will be an environment of multiple leaders showing in a unified manner what it means to be part of that specific faith family. So look first at the leaders -- do they model with grace and truth what they are mandating?

Here's why this matters: hypocrisy hurts! You may think you can avoid collateral damage, or that it won't affect you. But nothing is further from the truth. Atmospheres of selfish ambition and hidden hypocrisy end up costing everyone something. Much like a family where mom and dad pretend year after year, the kids aren't at fault, but they usually end up absorbing some of the effects.

3. Conduct of the people (MISSION-DRIVEN BEHAVIOR) As the Gospel took root and the leaders modeled its effects, thousands followed in their footsteps. And they were footsteps molded around the mission of Jesus. And not only in the beginning when this meant sharing their stuff, but more so later when it meant moving their stuff. This "accidental" moving was exactly God's upper-level strategy to get his followers out of Jerusalem and into the other parts of the world, living an on-mission life in a brand new place!

The point? Look for a body of believers characterized as catalysts, not consumers. Those who see themselves as part of a spiritual chain reaction empowered by the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the end of a pseudo-spiritual equation where they are the final product, are the kind of Great Commission people who will serve, relocate, adjust, sacrifice -- even die -- for the sake of the Name.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Not Ashamed: My Test-i-mon-y

So, beyond the name, just who is the author of this blog? For starters, I am a son, husband, father, pastor, and disciple who is not ashamed of the Gospel. And for good reason -- it saved and changed my life. Let me reminisce briefly in testimonial fashion.

I grew up in a very Christian home. I mean very Christian. God blessed me with a mom and dad that were -- and are --  committed believers. So the Bible, God, church, and all that goes with that was a regular part of my life from before I can remember. And I am very thankful for that.

But it wasn't until I was 14 that God revealed to me that, even though all that "stuff" was good, it would never save me. Frankly, it only left me short, just like everybody else. When I realized that truth — that in God's eyes I was in the same predicament as even the most hated criminal or terrorist — I began to see just how necessary the Gospel was. Without it — the truth that Jesus came, died, rose again, and ascended back to the Father in order that I might be made righteous before God — I was never going to see God. No matter how good I tried to be, or how great my parents actually were, it didn't matter. I needed something way more powerful and perfect than even really good parents and a really good home. I needed God and his gospel.

So on that April day in 1978, when God opened my eyes to my pitifully self-righteous state, I let go of all my goodness that was actually going to damn me and by faith believed the truth about who Jesus was and what he did. After all, he was the only One who could save me. Yes, I repented of my sin, asked God to forgive me, and took my stand on Gospel as the only way to be saved. And that day God did exactly that — he saved me from hell and for heaven, and is living in me today in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Though my testimony isn't very dramatic from a human point of view, I know the torment of hell would have been just as excruciating for me as for any other "really bad" sinner. Maybe worse. After all, Jesus spoke very intensely and pointedly against the self-righteousness of religious people. So I am very grateful that the grace of God and the power of the Gospel has rescued me from myself, and has given me a brand new way of life, a life free from the rage of an uncontrollable temper, the lusts of uncontrollable appetites, and the trap of man's approval at all costs.

Without a doubt I know God has saved me and is changing me, and that's why I'm not ashamed of the Gospel.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections from Our Seder Dinner (2)

*Below is a copy of what I briefly shared with our church at our recent Seder Dinner, which we held for FFC families as a way to bring some meaning and insight to the Jewish Passover meal. My role was to twice highlight the New Testament parallels found in Jesus as the ultimate Passover Lamb, and show how certain elements of the meal were now fulfilled in him.

No doubt the bitter herbs of each Passover meal reminded the Hebrews that, though they were free from Egypt’s penalty – i.e., they wouldn’t die under Pharaoh – they still weren’t completely rid of Egypt’s presence. The effects of their rebellion and wanderings lingered. Their old desires to “go back” at times haunted and hunted them. Life still pressed in on them, and their enemies still sought to “drown” them.

In other words, even in their deliverance, there was still a longing for an even deeper freedom. Not just from the penalty of their oppressors, but also from the presence of their oppressors. This is why the prophets were so important to the Jewish nation – they spoke of a future when God would ultimately fulfill his promise of deliverance and bring about his kingdom in which there would be no unrighteousness.

Sadly, they thought this is what Jesus, in his first coming, came to do. They didn’t understand he came the first time to deal with sin’s penalty. It is in his second coming that he will deal with sin’s presence. This is why the bitter herbs are still an important part of the Passover meal – they remind them – and us – that things still aren't as they will be. Our souls, irritated by the enemy, are engaged in a fight with the flesh, and at times, unfortunately, we sin. Our bodies experience the debilitating effects of the curse brought about by sin. And so we eventually break down. Decay. See what I mean? Things just aren’t what they will be when sin is no longer even around. For sure, at every Passover, as they remembered the bitterness of their past and present, they no doubt looked forward to the future day of final freedom and deliverance – from sin’s very presence.

Not surprising, Jesus fulfills this as well, and he stands is the ultimate end of God’s promises of deliverance. But this specific fulfillment is still yet to come. And not just for them, but us too – we are all waiting for the day when Jesus will forever free us from sin’s presence. And this will occur when he comes again, this time to save us from the very presence and power of the enemy who is deep-down mad that he can’t penalize us!

Again, Hebrews says it like this – “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (9:28)

On that day, Jesus will rescue us, not from a penalty, for that has been accomplished. He will actually deliver us from sin’s very presence. Wow, what a day when we receive a glorified body and no longer battle our sinful flesh, externally or internally.

Till then, we endure through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we work and wait with the comfort of the Holy Spirit. All the while looking for the true Passover Lamb of God to come and fulfill these final promises of deliverance – rescue from the irritating and debilitating presence of our enemy.

Reflections from Our Seder Dinner (1)

*Below is a copy of what I briefly shared with our church at our recent Seder Dinner, which we held for FFC families as a way to bring some meaning and insight to the Jewish Passover meal. My role was to twice highlight the New Testament parallels found in Jesus as the ultimate Passover Lamb, and show how certain elements of the meal were now fulfilled in him.

On the night of the original Passover, when the Israelites left Egypt after slaying the lamb and painting the doorposts with its blood, one thing was clear to all who were ‘exodus-ing’ – they were no longer under the PENALTY of Egypt! And rightly so – God, through the blood of the lamb, had freed them. Delivered them. And Egypt would no longer make them pay through their sweat and tears. They wouldn’t be punished any longer. No more bondage!

Ironically, what they thought was a death trap actually became for them the birthing room of new life. That’s why, in the Passover meal, we take things like salt water and green parsley and remember the toil associated with it, knowing that it was exactly in their salty tears that they were granted new – “green” – life! They were not penalized with death in Egypt under Pharaoh; they were granted new life through Yahweh! Deliverance! Freedom!

Fast forward more than 2000 years to the night Jesus was arrested in the garden. His sweat, blood and tears on that road to, and including, the cross – his death trap – became our birthing room! Supernaturally, we have new life through his death. The result? We don’t have to die! Oh, you may enter eternal life via the door way of physical death, but those in Christ will not die a forever death in hell because Jesus took our hell for us. He drank our salt water, and we burst forth with new "green" life!

This is exactly what he was telling Mary and Martha about their brother Lazarus in John 11 when he said, “He that believes in me shall never die!” Wonderfully, once you are in Christ, you are not under the penalty of sin, which is death (Eph. 2:8). God delivers you from it through Jesus, the ultimate Passover Lamb!

This is just one of the ways Christ fulfills in the New Testament the promises God gave in the Old Testament. Until Christ, God did this perpetually. He promised new life through the death of the lamb; they got initially at the Exodus, perpetually it at the Passover. He promised no penalty once the blood was applied; they got it initially at the Exodus, perpetually at the Passover. It was an annual thing, you see. No doubt a good thing, but still a perpetual thing.

But when Christ died at that final Passover as the Lamb of God, God fulfilled the promise of deliverance from sin’s penalty permanently. He was the final sacrifice who went through the agony of punishment and death so we could experience the thrill of freedom. This is what his death was all about – deliverance from the penalty of sin (1 John 3:8)

The author of Hebrews says it this way – “…as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (9:26)

Jesus went through sin’s penalty -- death -- so you wouldn’t have to. Jesus endured the cross so you wouldn't have to. Jesus paid the price so you wouldn’t have to. He is our Passover Lamb, and as a result, we have new life!

Friday, February 10, 2012

The "2-2-2" Leader

The things I have learned in the last 7 years through planting this church are too may to list in any “Top 10” or “Best Of” kind of article. I feel I’ve been in school 24-7! Don’t misunderstand me – it’s a good and needed education. And even though I am a naturally curious person who thoroughly enjoys learning and discovering, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So this journey has been an eye-popping trek into the wonderful world of sociology and theology (otherwise known as church ministry)!

If I had to boil things down to a single lesson in these first few years, here’s what has been reaffirmed and confirmed over and over to me: Refusing to expand your leadership base through the development of other people is silent sabotage! And while I knew this, I didn’t really know it. Sure, I acknowledged it, applauded it, and even taught it. But living it has been a different ballgame. Yet, it is the living out of that simple principle that, in my opinion, makes church more than one man’s venture. A “2-2-2” lifestyle must be one of our non-negotiables! (2 Timothy 2:2 will clue you in as to what I mean by “2-2-2.”)

Frankly, it matters not if you’re a volunteer deacon or a vocational pastor – leading effectively through expansion and development is the bedrock of health and growth. But what does that look like? And to what does it compare? I’ll use two contrasting labels/thoughts regarding developing others – Command & Control Leadership vs. Expansion & Development Leadership – to highlight what I think are some good ways to live out a “2-2-2” lifestyle as a leader.

1. Control Leadership centers around behavior; Expansion Leadership revolves around process and development. When events go well, schedules run smoothly, and people show up and do exactly what we say, control leaders are happy. Unfortunately, these things can even happen with unhappy and unhealthy people! Jesus encouraged us to deal with the inside of the cup first. This is what “2-2-2” leaders do – they focus on the inside first.

2. Control Leadership is tied into tasks; Expansion Leadership connects to purpose. Expansion leaders see their purpose as relationally centered (people), not event based (tasks). In fact, this is the heart beat of the “2-2-2” leader – he or she is developing a person, not creating a list.

3. Control Leadership is consumed with details; Expansion Leadership is concerned about direction. Expansion leaders make an intentional decision not to get bogged down by details. They don’t neglect them, they just aren’t consumed with them. Keep the ship on course by focusing on the destination, not by micro-managing every mile.

Frankly, it’s in the details where lots of learning and ownership occurs. And if we rescue every up-and-coming leader from the experience of handling the details, we short-circuit the development process. I’m not suggesting we risk everything for the sake of someone else’s learning, but just that we be willing to risk some things. Knowing where that line is drawn is half the fun!

4. Control Leadership is typically reactive; Expansion Leadership is proactive. Expansion leaders set the agenda and use feedback to modify ailing aspects, unlike control leaders who usually adopt the agenda of the squeakiest wheel and enforce it.

When we are a proactive, “2-2-2” leader, the big-picture comes into focus, and we find that the smaller snapshots don’t drive us crazy. We’re pursuing people, not just trying to fix problems.

5. Control Leadership has to do with fear; Expansion Leadership rests on trust. This is the underlying issue behind it all. Become secure and unthreatened, and help others achieve this as well. Trust works wonders!

6. Control Leadership thinks “no risks, no mistakes;” Expansion Leadership thinks “no risks, no impact.” Expansion leaders understand risk reversal; that the ultimate end of a venture is greater than the initial fear or sacrifice at the beginning. Consequently, expansion leaders act as thermostats and set the temperature; control leaders merely become thermometers, reflecting the state of their environment or comfort zone.

One more thing is sure -- I don't have this 'down pat' yet! So don't assume my observations mean I've mastered this "2-2-2" deal. But as each year passes, my commitment to building this kind of culture and environment deepens. May God's grace set my life on this course more and more.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Best of 2011: My 10 Most-Listened-To Messages (on-line)

Here's a linked list to the 10 most listened-to online messages I preached in 2011. I'm not surprised at what ranked #1; and my guess it would also be the #1 criticism-generating message of 2011. Frankly, it came in all directions that week (Twitter, FB, email, etc) from those who simply don't see the issue of sexuality from a biblical perspective.

Hope the messages are an encouragement!

1. "Pure Living in a Pagan Culture" 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

14 Take-Aways from ER 2

Yesterday I was delighted to attend a simulcast of Elephant Room 2, an event for pastors and leaders sponsored by Harvest Bible Chapel. While this year's version was, unfortunately, a little tamer, it still yielded healthy discussion and good insights. And here are some of those in sentence form, what I call my 14 take-aways. (Yep, some of these need context to be fully unpacked, but that's why they sell the DVDs).

1. Don't be defensive with the offensive message of the Gospel.

2. Urgency is an inherant part of the Gospel.

3. Don't front-load the gospel, and don't cloud the cross. Urgency demands simplicity with accuracy.

4. Preaching is theology coming out of a man on fire.

5. Capacity or capability doesn't always equal calling.

6. Getting permission to talk to someone candidly doesn't always produce the courage to actually do it. It's still hard!

7. Go beyond your code (area and zip)!

8. Staff that can self-correct are gold!

9. Restoration to fellowship is different than restoration to leadership.

10. Better to confess than to admit.

11. You can teach what you know, but you will reproduce what you are.

12. Don't let your heart write a check that your calendar can't cash.

13. You can't see your own eye.

14. Don't spiritualize your insecurities.

Monday, January 23, 2012

2011: Best Of ... InkLink

Here's a quick list of the top-visited InkLinks from 2011. Remember -- these weren't all written in 2011, but they were the most read in 2011.

1. "Wow, God is a Great Farmer!"

2. "An Old Song, Good Friends, and Sweet Memories"

3. "A Picture of Reconciliation"

4. "Sons of Issachar, Count Me In!"

5. "An10omy"

6. "Both/And, Not Either/Or"

7. "Pure Living in a Pagan Culture"

8. "Q & A from Romans 8:1-17"

9. "A Growing Faith Like Gideon's (#3)"

10. "9 From 9"

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2011: Best Of ... Books

I took some time in the early days of 2012 and compiled a list of the top books I read this past year, what I'm calling my "best of" when it comes to the printed/digitized page.

NOTE: Though these links are all to the "purchase" link at Amazon, some of these books are actually free under their Free Kindle Books link. I just used these links since they seemed to hold the greatest amount of info.

1. Unbroken - The great, true story of Louis Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand.

2. Chosen for Life - Sam Storms is one of my favorite writers, and he handles the subject of election beautifully.

3. Deffinbaugh on Leviticus - This is not a "book" in the sense that you buy it, rather a set of downloadable PDF studies. A tremendously deep yet practical guide to understanding the third book of the Old Testament. Great job, Bob!

4. Read This Before Our Next Meeting - A quick but jolting read. Could turn the way you run meetings around.

5. Concerning Christian Liberty - One of Martin Luther's classics. There's nothing quite like grace!

6. Is Your Church Ready? - Ravi Zacharias and others collaborate on a good project that will help your church defend and declare what it believes.

7. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners - John Bunyan's own story of conversion. Though hard to read. well worth it.

8. Unplanned - Abby Johnson tells this heart-warming story of her own God-led journey from abortion-rights promoter to right-to-life leader.

9. Pastor as Scholar and Scholar as Pastor - Piper and Carson team up for what you'll find to be a quick but effective read on balancing your roles as shepherd and student.

10. A Failure of Nerve - This book by now-deceased Edwin Friedman made my list for one reason: he is spot-on when it comes to why we're in the mess we're in! Great read, but not for the faint of heart.

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Real-izing" Christmas (2)

One of the ways we “real-ize” (yes, that is an intentional hypen) Christmas is through gifts. It’s how we express love tangibly. Yes, physical gifts are a good way to bring meaning to the words we say at Christmas.

In fact, this Christmas Julie already gave me Matthew Wests's new Christmas CD. She knows how much I like the seasonal sounds, so she showed me her love by giving me that gift. (Nice, honey!)

I also recall another gift that is quite a bit older – the watch she gave me 23 years ago (which also served as a wedding gift since we were married the week after Christmas). Both are very different, yet both hold a similar quality in that show me Julie’s love. They help me see how real her love is. In that way her gifts help "real-ize" her words.

The wise men were these kind of men. They real-ized that first Christmas when they made it tangible and physical. How? Through their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10-11)

A few general words about these gifts are in order. Not only were these gifts the physical expression of their worship, I believe these gifts may have also been profitable to them in that may have been used to help Mary and Joseph financially when they fled to Egypt. They were also prophetic. Specifically, gold spoke to Christ’s royalty, the frankincense to his deity, and the myrrh to his humanity, especially his death. For even though myrrh was often used in biblical celebrations, it was also often an embalming spice, ointment, or perfume.

But more importantly, the gifts speak to me principally, teaching me something about "real-izing" Christmas (i.e., making Christmas real, not merely redundant or ridiculous): We must give in a way that is costly and concrete. Truly, that’s what worship is – a costly and concrete giving of all that we are and have to all that God is and does.

Perhaps you're thinking, "Todd, I plan to have a very real Christmas when I give some some costly gifts in a concrete way. Isn’t that making Christmas real?” On a horizontal level and from a chronological perspective, I think so. It’s what we do for those we love each year at this time.

But the worship this passage describes has far more than a horizontal goal. It is vertical in its nature. It’s the costly giving of concrete things to Jesus. Granted – he was right there in human flesh, so it seems they had it easier than us in actually giving something costly and concrete to Jesus. Yet, I think the text lays out a principle that we cannot escape: True worship is both costly and concrete. It was for them, and it should be for us.

Which is why, on this Christmas day, evaluating your love for your family and friends by the gifts you give them on this one day of the year isn’t really the focus of this blog. Rather, I'm here to ask you to evaluate your worship of Jesus and the gifts you give him on all the other days of the year. That’s really the question: Is your worship of Jesus costly and concrete throughout the year?

The answer to that question really can’t be answered without at least one more question, the one most of you are asking right now: How do you give to Jesus in a costly, concrete way? After all, you’re reasoning, he’s not here, and he doesn’t really need anything. So how do you give to God when he isn’t visible or needy? Simply put, you give to his kids who are exactly that – visible and needy! That’s right - you give to God in costly, concrete ways by giving to his people in costly, concrete ways.

Jesus actually taught us this when he said in Matthew 25:40, "And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'”


· When you give to help our Zambian team build, in partnership with the residents, a well in the village Chishiko so the families there can build a sustainable living environment, you are worshiping God in a costly, concrete way.

· When you donate to our benevolence fund to help FF families that are going through difficult times and need help from the body, trusting the deacons as they administer these monies, you are worshiping God in a costly, concrete way.

· When you bring in clothes and food every fifth Sunday that go to help local families in need and also aid the clothes closet at our local men’s and women’s prisons, you are worshiping God in a costly, concrete way.

· When you give your Saturday – or any other day – to roof that house of a friend, make that meal for a neighbor, visit that family, help that sick person – you are worshiping God in a costly and concrete way.

The point? One of the best ways to give to God is by giving to his children. That’s how it is costly and concrete.

Incidentally, this is exactly how God gave to us. Consider the costliness and concreteness of John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”

Now that’s a costly, concrete gift – a son!

Paul echoed this in 2 Cor. 9:15 when he said, referring to Jesus, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

And it’s precisely that gift – Jesus – who gave just like his Father. No doubt the cross is the evidence that Jesus gave in a costly, concrete manner as well. And he provides all the reason we need to give just like he and his Father gave: in a costly, concrete manner.

Merry CHRISTmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Real-izing" Christmas (1)

Christmas, at least in America, is a time of great imagination. From flying reindeer to a fat man down a chimney to the magic of mistletoe…it’s a season of make believe. Movies like The Polar Express, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street all highlight this obvious seasonal tendency (which, by the way, is a tendency I like and those are all delightful movies I enjoy.) All that to say this – Christmas is rampant with many items not rooted in reality.

This is why I find some elements in Luke's account of Christ's birth – the time we know as Christmas -- very intriguing, for they are elements rooted in the reality of that time. Look at Luke 2, and notice, for instance,

• Caesar Augustus (sounds like a dressing and a calendar had a crash)

• Quirinius (quite a quirky name)

• Syria (no, not the satellite radio, but the country)

• Bethlehem (yeah, the little town known for it's unhospitality)

The real question is ‘Why?’ Why did Luke feel the need to incorporate so many historical markers – “tags” if you will – into this inspired account of Jesus’ birth? In my opinion, it was to bring credibility to what no doubt could easily have been turned into urban legend. It was so that the mysterious wouldn’t become fictitious. After all, as a doctor, Luke wasn't about to lend his name to superstition. So he wrote, under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, with certain first-century "tags" that credentialed the people and places of this incredible story. Think of how we “tag" people in Facebook. It’s one way of “proving” that you were either there, know the person, and/or saw it happen. You know, supporting evidence. And these ancient “tags” were Luke’s unique way of saying, "This really happened in actual time and space. It's verifiable. True. And here's some ‘tags’ to prove it."

These tags are not to say that the supernatural didn’t occur. Not at all! No doubt some supernatural items accompany Christ's birth. His virgin birth, the incarnation, the dreams, the angelic appearances, and the star in the east are all miraculous things. But the supernatural isn't unreal, just more than real. And it happened – and happens -- in the reality of their normal life. Ah, the supernatural intersecting with the natural! Now that's Christmas.

Though I choose not to take the time to "add up" all these tags in this blog, my opinion is that they all lead to the real time and space date of about 6 or 7 BC as the timeframe for Christ’s birth. That’s right – the natural environment that hosted the supernatural event we have come to know as Christmas.

Personally, thee kinds of tags add a dimension of concreteness to my faith. They “shore up” my beliefs. They don’t comprise the core, but neither do they compromise the core. In fact, I find that that the historical reality surrounding the coming of Jesus always serves to support the spiritual redemption that is the crowning significance of Jesus. Truly, the natural and the supernatural work together to showcase the eternal (Ps. 19, Rom. 1). The result? My hope grows and faith deepens.

It’s not just me, though. This is what happened in the account Luke relays to us as well. Remember the shepherds? Yes, their hope swelled. They weren’t left with disappointment, but rather anticipation. Recall their response? "Let's go see!" (Luke 2:15, Stiles paraphrase)

In current nomenclature, they were saying, "So this is what happens when God shows up! Let's check it out!" And check it out they did when they went to real animal stable in a real town to see a real baby in a real feeding trough. Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? But it’s not, no, not in the least; too many tags scream this must be true. Real. Historical. Believable.

Make no mistake about what we’re believing occurred on this real date while a real man named Quirinius was really governing: God became a man. As a baby, of course, to start; but God nonetheless. This was the ultimate merging of the natural and the supernatural, the human with the holy. Theologically, it's known as the Hypostatic Union – two natures in one body. All of God and all of man in one human, Jesus. Practically, however, it’s known as salvation. For when God came to man – when the supernatural chose to invade the natural – when the ‘more than real’ took on the flesh of ‘real,’ one thing was sure – he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Almost impossible, eh? But its not. It’s real. Believable. True. Possible. Frankly, this is what all the "tags of evidence" are pointing to – the reality of what really happened on that first Christmas: God came to man, and he has a name – Jesus – and Jesus saves.

This means a lot to me personally, for there are times when, perhaps in weeks when I am dealing with my own escalating stress, a family’s severe illness, or heightened conversations with a wayward sheep, I quietly question, What if all this is false? Is everything I'm teaching and preaching really true? It's in those times I come right back to this very passage and truth – the reality of Jesus. For it is his historical reality as attested to by inspired Scripture that emboldens my faith and gives it the footing it needs. Frankly, when the whole of the evidence is seen, it is nonsense to place Jesus anywhere else but squarely on the throne. History, archeology, science, and literature, to name a few, actually pour fuel on the fire of my faith and I see, more than ever that my belief in this God-man isn't misplaced at all, but rather focused perfectly on the only One who has ever brought the supernatural to the natural in a prefect, holy manner.

What about you? Faith dwindling a bit this season? See Jesus “tagged” by many people and places in Scripture and let your confidence grow again.

Still holding out that it's really not true at all? Well, are you willing to deny the existence of Bethlehem? Syria? Caesar Augustus? Yeah, even the quirky governor, Quirinius? There are too many “tags” to take time off from reason. Believe, and watch faith ignite in your life.

May we all consider, in this season of advent, not only the scriptural truth of Jesus, but the historical evidence for Jesus. Both are seen and woven in the Bible for this purpose – that in hearing the real message of Christ, our faith in him would really grow (Romans 10:17).

Have a really merry CHRISTmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

36 Christmas Day Services

Every time Christmas falls on a Sunday, it seems there is an increase in the conversation about when to hold church services. For some reason, we question our normal operating procedure when the annual "big day" falls squarely on our weekly "big day."

Don't read that and think I'm about to attack the dialogue that occurs among church staffs every 5-6 years. Not at all! In fact, I think it is a conversation you should have. After all, the normal logistical issues of the holidays are exponentially heightened when Christmas lands directly on a Sunday. And knowing how to adjust to have maximum impact is what any good team does. Still, I have found that asking questions or making suggestions about the corporate services on Christmas Day can breed a lot of various opinions.

Additionally, I have discovered, strictly through personal and very informal surveys, that this seems to be a more concentrated issue for churches that 1) have multiple services, 2) hold Christmas Eve service(s), and 3) aren't located in the southeast. [It seems that more churches in that region don't hold Christmas Eve services than do.]

It is to that issue that I relay the following story, not to suggest that what we did works every time or that this type of idea "suffices" for corporate worship. I share it to simply say that what you think may be a day of negative adjustments could be a day of positive additions if you will think and talk through the possibilities.

This was powerfully brought home to me back in 2005, the last time Christmas was on a Sunday. We were just one year old as a church, and were discussing when to have services that weekend. Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Only one day? We were probably only running around 125 in attendance, but our community was very supportive of Christmas Eve services. So we knew we had a strong potential.

Yet, with many traveling, we wondered how we would staff multiple services, not just on one night, but on the next day. Plus, since we were renting space, there were other logistical issues that needed addressed. It was in the course of that discussion that, almost out of the blue, someone said, “Why don’t we just have a Christmas Eve service, then have all our Lighthouses (i.e., our small groups) hold their own service on Christmas Day by taking a gift to someone who has to work on that day?” I could tell there was a play on words there, but something about that idea took root in our group.

Suddenly, the room was abuzz with even more ways to hold a service, ways to minister to people and in places where traditionally they missed church. The people at convenience stores, the staff at the theaters, the hotel clerks and cleaners – these were all people who would be working on that day and could use the gift of someone and something serving them. Smiles and nods continued, and before long we had worked out a plan.

Let me cut to the chase and simply say that on December 24, 2005, our church held a beautiful, traditional Christmas Eve service. But on the next day, December 25, 2005 - Christmas Day - we held 36 “services.” That’s right – 36 places were adopted by our small groups, and each one got a visit, a gift, and a visible expression of the love of God. No, not in our rented facility or on our current site, but in 36 different places around our city where many of God’s people were working. Yep, people who don't normally get to be in a church service on Sunday were served by the people of God in the power of the Spirit and in the name of the Son. It was quite a Christmas "service" that meant a lot for our city and our church.

We're well past 125 in attendance now, and though we're holding a corporate worship service this year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I hope we're never too far past serving in Gods name on the day of the year that bears his name best - Christmas!

To all my fellow pastors who have adjusted and tweaked their schedule this Sunday, enjoy your Christmas "service," whenever and wherever it is. Merry CHRISTmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Hope

Hope. Even the sound of it rings with promise and expectation. And it’s especially vibrant at Christmas.

Webster’s definition of hope, based on their online dictionary, is “to cherish or desire with anticipation.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that definition. In fact, this kind of hope, what I call Webster hope, abounds at Christmas. “I hope I get an iPod.” Or, “I hope I get some new clothes.” Sometimes Webster hope reveals itself in more serious areas of life. “I hope I keep my job next year.” “I hope I get married.” “I hope I can beat my cancer.” For sure, Webster hope is not trivial. It weaves its way into all areas of our lives.

But the problem with Webster hope is that, at best, it is based on an uncertainty. For instance, let’s say a couple says, “I hope we get pregnant soon.” That kind of hope is a wish, not a certainty. Granted – you can do everything humanly possible to help that hope along; you can do everything in your power to make that wish come true. But at its fundamental level, it is still simply a wish.

And, unfortunately, sometimes these wishes – our Webster hopes – are left unfulfilled. Do you know why? Because Webster hope, that mere human wish or hunch that something better is just around the bend, is based on an uncertainty.

There is something different about biblical hope. Biblical hope has as its foundation a promise. It is a present confidence about the future based on past promises. I take this from Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Believe it or not, the Bible says hope is an anchor. That’s a lot more secure than a wish.

Why is this true? Hebrews 6:18 explains – because this hope rests on an oath made by God. Truly, our hope as believers rests on someone not something. That’s why we can have present confidence about the future – because it is anchored in the past promises of God.

In fact, throughout the New Testament, the early writers referred to Christ as “our hope.” Paul told Titus that “the glorious appearing of our great God and Jesus Christ” is the blessed hope. Paul calls Christ in us “the hope of glory.” And John said, “Anyone who has this hope purifies himself.” On earth, until we see Jesus, our hope is, like it or not, left partially unrealized. But there’s a day coming when we will see Christ face to face. At that moment, our hope will be realized fully. Completed 100%. That’s why the songwriter could write:

It will be worth it all when we see Jesus,
Life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ;
One glimpse of his dear face all sorrow will erase,
So bravely run the race till we see Christ. 

This season, I extend to you the hope of God in the pages of Scripture and in the person of Jesus. From things regarding your eternal destiny to how to get along with your spouse to how to spend your money to how to find the right job, God’s Word and God’s Son hold the key to biblical hope, not only at Christmas time, but all year long. Merry CHRISTmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The 12 Days of Christmas (Service Project Style)

Many student groups engage in various Christmas projects each year. In fact, lots of beneficial projects happen annually. Unfortunately, these projects, while they serve a good cause, are typically short-lived and unchallenging. In other words, most are simply too easy. Here's a way to help your students engage in a project that centers on developing a sacrificial spirit for more than a couple of hours. This project targets the development of a sacrificial lifestyle, the formation of servanthood, and the birth of the courage necessary to combat consumerism during the most commercialized season of the year.

1. To start, think of at least 12 ideas/ways your teens can exhibit a sacrificial attitude during the Christmas season. Bring your top teens together for this, letting them brainstorm various possibilities with you. Sending cards, visiting hospitals, delivering food, collecting coats and gloves, baby sitting, and cleaning houses are just a few ideas. Remember -- the more the merrier!

2. With the list before you, encourage your students to select 12, adopting these ideas as their "12 Days Of Christmas" service project. Ideally, the 12 ideas that comprise this project should be the student's choice. However, you may need to help with appointments, transportation, arrangements, etc. if duty calls for it. Of course, let them take the initiative and do the bulk of the work. Otherwise, it's simply your project with their name on it. Additionally, all involved should start on the same day: December 13. Following this format enables everyone to wrap up his or her 12 individual ideas on Christmas Eve.

3. Beginning December 13th, each student participating in this effort works toward this goal: Accomplish one sacrificial project each day, with an eye to finishing all 12 by Christmas Eve.

4. Each student is to try and do three things each day, but in reality the first one is the one that matters most:

a. Accomplish the specified service project/idea.

b. Call another student on the team and share their experience, listening in return for the blessing received by the other student. This also aids in accountability.

c. Chart their progress and impact by journaling. Students who write down meaningful experiences typically benefit from them longer.

A project of this nature does so much to help young people develop sacrificial habits and attitudes that start becoming part of their lifestyle. After all, isn't that we're after -- believers who sacrifice year round, not just during the Yuletide season?

HINT: Make this project a volunteer-based effort; don't force kids to be involved. Because you're trying to instill attitudes and build habits, ask for only the ones willing to work hard at sacrifice. This will take more than the desire to look good in front of the youth pastor and more than the need to gain a holiday "feel-good" before they open up their 19 Christmas gifts worth more than $600. Once the serious have volunteered, meet together and charge!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Gift of Simplicity

Smartphones, with all their flash, features, and advantages, have created dumb people. Yep, I'm one. It seems I have become so dependent on these devices to remember my details that I sometimes can't even recall my parent's home phone number. See what I mean? A smart phone attached to an increasingly dumbed-down man (and a technologically spoiled one at that).

Okay, so I’m being somewhat facetious. But here’s my point. Sometimes flash and image can actually take away something’s original attractiveness: its simplicity. What once was inviting because of its clear focus and simple clarity gets less appealing as it gets "upgraded."

Christmas can get that way sometimes, can’t it? Truth is, life can get that way, eh?

Know what else can get that way? Our relationship with God and our worship of him! It did in Micah’s day, and this is what the final two chapters of the book are about: Simplicity, especially in worship. What should have been a focused response to the character and conduct of God became a complicated and corrupt performance. And it angered Jehovah! In fact, Micah 6:9-16 details the punishment that God brought because they persisted in their corrupt complexity. Their man-made "upgrades" actually become their #1 enemy!

When I read Micah 6, I think about all the "upgrades" that have actually contributed to the erroneous and complicated messages people get about Christianity. About salvation. About God. For instance, be good and you'll get in. Get wet and you'll get in. Get in and you'll get rich.Think positive and you'll get rich (in the name of Jesus, of course). Ad infinitum and ad nauseum.  All of it runs contrary and complicates the real message of the Gospel. 

Fortunately, Micah writes a last chapter of hope as he closes out the book, and in this last stanza of his prophetic song we see Micah personifying simplicity in his third description of Jesus as our Shepherd. This final "refrain" found in Micah 7:7-20 centers again the Shepherding work of Jesus Christ as the only means by which we can escape our corrupt and convoluted idolatry. Yes, the only way out of our complicated mess is the simple salvation provided by Jesus. He simply saves all who repent and believe. Nothing more and nothing less than grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone.

Remember humility? Taking the escalator down! Remember security? Taking a look up! Here's simplicity -- It's taking a trip to the cross. That’s where it all gets simple!

Merry CHRISTmas!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas and Leadership

We all know its Christmas. Just look around and you can easily see its December.

But guess what else is going on right now? I’ll give you one guess: (this is where you say) "Elections!" Just check out your TV, inbox, or radio and you’ll see an infinite number of ads for an incredible amount of candidates, at least on the Republican side. And some of the ads are quite interesting…
  • Rick Perry says he can solve the border problem. 
  • Mitt Romney assures us he can create jobs.
  • Michelle Bachman claims she can get the budget balanced.
  • Ron Paul says he will end the IRS mess and finally simplify the tax structure. 
If you were an average American, you’d think that people really believed a human was the answer to the mess we’re in! (Now that’s funny!)

That’s no different than what the people in Samaria and Jerusalem were experiencing during the time of Micah and the reign of three kings. They were sure the answer to their real needs was wrapped up in a man – a human leader. But that type of thinking is a fallacy, and Micah attacks this fallacy head-on in chapter 3. He shows them that ...
  • The kings were cannibalistic (3:2-3)
  • The priests and false prophets were materialistic (3:5) 
  • The authority was duplistic (3:9-11) 
Undoubtedly, the system was broken (3:11). Oh, the price of poor leadership! Everyone suffered because everyone was surfacy! People were thinking that a man was the answer – and the men were enjoying that type of praise – but nothing could be further from the truth. It was a fallacy to think that their real needs could be met by a mere man.

Here’s that same fallacy in today's political terms: “Vote for me, and I’ll make sure your economy is better, wages are high and expenses low, I’ll cut taxes and still increase services, provide perfect healthcare, and keep your social security perfectly safe.” Yeah, right!

In today's church terms, here’s the same fallacy: “As your pastors, we’ll make sure the music is never too loud (or too soft), it’s never too hot (or too cold), you’re never on the spot (but never left out), it’s not too large (or too small)…” Get the picture? Again, yeah, right!  

You see, leaders are men at best; but at best, they’re still men. And because of that, men can never really provide what we really need. They can help us with what we temporarily need, but never with our real needs. In fact, I’ve noticed that man-made leadership and God-ordained leadership is often a contrast between what is temporary and what is permanent; what is short-term and what is long-term; what is immediate and what is eternal. Truly, the test of leadership is this: can we get people thinking beyond today? Make no mistake – that’s what real leaders need to do and how they need to lead! 

The "beyond today" goal is summed in one name: Jesus. Micah does exactly this in chapters 4-5 when he points them to the shepherd from Bethlehem. He was the only one who could provide all they needed. Yep, all

And the Good Shepherd is the only one who can provide all we need. So as leaders, especially at Christmas, let's lead people to see through the fallacy of man-based hope to the finality of Christ-centered contentment. Let's look past the gifts and through the ads to the ultimate Shepherd, Jesus.

Merry CHRISTmas! 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Taking the Escalator Down

Few prophets describe humility better than Micah. In the last part of chapter 2, he essentially says...

1. Humble people submit to God’s provision as their Shepherd (2:12). They enjoy his role as supplier, and gladly say, “He takes care of me.”
2. Humble people submit to God’s authority as their King (2:13). They embrace his role as ruler and gladly say, “He rules over me.”

When these things are our mindset, we don’t have piles of pride blocking our view of God. All the ‘stuff’ and ‘self’ is flattened, and God alone is lifted high. We see clearly that God is all we need and God is all we heed! 

Jesus did exactly this, and no there’s no better picture of it than the one painted for us in Philippians 2. He humbled himself – he flattened himself – and became obedient to life as a mere man and death on a cruel cross. He took the “down escalator” from heaven’s throne and embraced the Father’s authority and provision. Why? So that we could be saved! Have you allowed his humility to take hold in your life?

Once saved, we can then live humbly like Jesus, our prime example of humility. And I can think of no better time than Christmas – or is it Me-mas? – to model his behavior. He took the escalator down. We can, too!

And that’s really what humility is – taking the down escalator! In fact, I thought back to my first memories of escalators – Wow, I thought. A moving staircase! I don’t know how old I was exactly, but I remember stepping toward the edge, wondering if those metal teeth were going to eat me up. Once I get on, can I get off? What about the end – will my shoes get caught and will I be trapped under the escalator? Yet, my dad was already on it, and if I was going to stay with him, I had to take the ride down. So I choose to step towards the descent, even with my questions and fears.

Humility is like our ride on the ‘down’ escalator – we step towards it and embrace the descent, no doubt wondering what might happen, but always trusting and obeying in our Shepherd and King.

Merry CHRISTmas!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas or Me-mas?

The current commercialization of Christmas makes me wonder if we shouldn’t call it “Me-mas.” From many angles, December can be an awfully self-centered time of the year, can’t it? It can produce the very thing God hates – self-centeredness and pride. Let’s be honest – when you spend ...
  • $24,500 on a genuine Lost in SpaceB-9 robot, or 
  • $27,000 on a life-size (6’- 6”) Lego Batman, with only a $2700 shipping charge, or 
  • $98,000 Ferrari Testarossa Two Seater Car for Kids, or 
  • $250,000 on this Dance-On Piano (that’s $2841 per key and it comes with a private one-hour lesson) … 
…well, about the only thing that can result is a false and warped sense of our own importance. In a word, P-R-I-D-E!

(NOTE: These are actual Christmas gifts that can be bought (maybe not by any of us). Check for more outrageous gifts ideas.)

Pride is unpacked rather clearly in Micah 2. After all, it was the pride of his people that God took a stand against (Micah 2:3). It was the fundamental problem in Judah (with Jerusalem as the seed bed), and it was rampant in the northern kingdom as well (Samaria being the heart of the problem). In fact, we see throughout the first two chapters of Micah a clear oracle against the pride of these two capital cities.

But it's especially in chapter two that a more complete description of the proud activities that went on in these cities is given. Things like …
  • Sinister planning and corrupt use of authority/power (2:1) 
  • Wrongful seizure of property and houses (2:2) 
  • Deceptive deals and contracts (2:2) 
  • Blatant robbery (2:8) 
  • Outright lies (2:11) 
For sure, there is some good insight in these verses about pride and how it piles up in our life. Essentially, we need to understand that pride …
  1. Is birthed in selfishness,
  2. Is often heightened with stuff, and
  3. Is usually evidenced by what I say.
The consequence? We’re pulled away from God! Truly, that’s the plague of pride – it piles up in our life and pulls us away from God!

The antidote? Somebody or something needs to flatten the piles of pride around us. That is called humility, and the honor of humility is in this: in the flattening of us and everything around us, we only see God. It loosens our grip. It takes us down. In fact, we should embrace this posture, for we are commanded to “humble ourselves before the Lord” that he may lift us up. Good advice since it is clear that God will if we don’t! Is that scary? Yes. But necessary! So it is “neces-scary!”

This Christmas, embrace humility. Find the flat posture before God. Be content with the escalator down.

Merry CHRISTmas!