Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Simple Spillway Sermon

A few nights ago our family went by Saylorville Dam to see the spillway in action. It had been opened in order to control some of potential flooding in the area, and what a powerful sight it was. We walked back and forth along the railing, often getting up close to the mouth of the opening where the water was rushing in violently. It is hard to describe what we felt; it was one of those “had to be there” kinds of experiences. To be sure, it was loud. Fierce. Scary. Silencing. Humbling. Inspiring. Memorable.
As I stood near the opening, watching massive amounts of water rush in and crash round and round, I commented to Julie in a scream that seemed like a whisper, “If I had to face those torrents and try and survive, I’d be toast.” She nodded and grinned agreeably, raising her eyebrows to indicate she’d rather not dwell on what that experience might be like.

But linger on that picture is exactly what I did. And in those seconds before we headed back to the car, my mind began . . . well, just watch the video and you’ll see what I was thinking.

Funny how a simple visit to the spillway can end up being a moment of worship.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Q & A

As some of you know, we often engage our church in Q & A during the service. Not every week, but periodically. I like that kind of environment and I think it gives people an opportunity to participate (which I believe is biblical value for the weekly gathering). Granted -- we don’t get a boatload of questions. But often just the opportunity is all that is needed to spark some thoughts that get expressed later. Such was the case last week. So I’d thought I’d post this question I received from one of my spiritual siblings.

“As I pondered your message from this past weekend (click here to hear it), I'm burdened with the desire to understand the balance between trusting and trying. When making a major life decision (or even a small one for that matter), how does someone recognize and/or realize if they are handling both correctly? Thank you for your bold and honest Bible teaching.  I'm honored to be involved in a church with leaders like you and our elders.”
A: I’ll make this sweet and simple. When we have to have all the answers before taking even one step, we are trying before trusting. Remember -- excessive analysis leads to faith paralysis. When we disguise our fear (i.e., lack of faith) by pretending we are still “researching” all our options, it’s outright disobedience and nothing short of masked rebellion in the face of our Creator.

If you want to see what balancing these two looks like in “real time,” I encourage you to read the book of Acts in one or two sittings. It’ll prove to be a valuable “picture” of how the early believers trusted and tried, and in that order.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Shack Smack

There’s been no less than a storm of reviews regarding Young’s best-seller, The Shack. Few are ambivalent. The vast majority either love it or hate it. Regardless of how you feel, it has swept the Christian community like a mighty wind – or a ravaging tornado – depending on how you view it.
One thing I find intriguing in many of the blogs and posts about this book is this: Some of the reviewers have never actually read it. Quite frankly, this was even true in a recent group conversation I was part of; we were all talking about the book though none of us had really ever read it. Regardless of your personal opinion, that’s innocently hypocritical and openly egotistical.

Not anymore. I read it last month during a trip to TN. And here’s my thoughts (but keep your penny till you’re done reading).

First, a confession. I must admit that I have not wanted to write this or post this. And granted – no one is making me do either. But so much bickering and branding goes on in Christian circles about various non-essentials that I often tend to avoid topics or issues that are in that vein. Personally, I feel most of it is in vain, and I deeply don’t want to get caught up in unnecessary conversations with other Christians about things that probably aren’t a big deal. But the more I sat on this, the more I realized that, perhaps, this is a bigger deal than I want to admit. Quite honestly, maybe this is more about some essentials after all. On that you may disagree; we’ll see. But perhaps it is now worth the risk to find out. So I write. And I post.

As a fictional story, I enjoyed The Shack. (There. I said it. Whew!) And that is exactly what it is – fiction. (The author clearly states this in his “afterwords” on the audio version.) So from a strictly literary standpoint, it was a decently intriguing piece. Even though the plot line was predictable (I had the end figured out before I got there), and even though it ended way too picture-perfect, I admit I found myself wanting to finish it.

But as a spiritual guide, it cloaked the truth and lacked doctrinal clarity. And make no mistake -- a spiritual guide is exactly what the fictional story seeks to be. This intention is clearly stated by the author as well; in fact, he actually hopes his book will be the beginning of a movement that helps people understand God better. Whether or not he actually does is the centerpiece of the debate. Personally, I don’t think he does. I think he helps us better understand how he sees God. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Therein lies the crux of my distaste: the author seems to presume that his understanding of God should be everyone’s understanding. Yet, he only provides fictional (though representative) characters as his main means of support and credibility.

As a result, two primary problems emerge for me:
      1   It seems to encourage reinvention, not reiteration. In other words, the author indirectly encourages us to imagine God in any way that meets us at our place of deepest need. Personally, that’s a tad scary. Throughout Scripture we are never encouraged to reinvent God as we think would best meet our current needs, but rather to bring our needs to the God of the Bible, the one revealed in Scripture. It is that God that should be reiterated and proclaimed, taught and known. The pragmatic and tragic result of reinvention is that we may start thinking we can begin with our thoughts when it comes to understanding God, or that God can be whatever we need him to be, based on the situation. 
     2.  It seems to prioritize man’s good over God’s glory. Throughout the book, the main character’s condition was the host’s main concern. In fact, it seemed that “Papa” took a back seat at times because of Mac’s wishes or choices. Does God love us unconditionally? Without a doubt. And does he, then, act for our good? Yes. But we are not the end game of God’s love and action. His own desire for maximum glory from all the nations is the final goal (Rev 5).

Essentially, The Shack subtly promotes anthropocentric theology , not theocentric theology. Young paints a picture of mankind emerging as the ultimate centerpiece of divine activity, when, most biblically, man plays second fiddle to something far greater and more important on the stage of redemptive history: God’s own glory!

I must admit that, opposed to something blatantly stated, this is something I covertly, though repeatedly, sensed as I read the book. Nevertheless, it’s like a pebble in the shoe: hard to find but really irritating. And over time, this kind of thinking will cause a bad theological blister.

Would I recommend it? To the right person, perhaps. But with a disclaimer: Enjoy the story, not the theology.

(For two really good reviews [that I read after I finished mine], check out and Both contain many more specific examples of what I reference in my own review.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Gospel and Love

Many people claim to understand love. Some view it as something you fall into, like it’s a great big, surprising pit you tumble into with a pillow-top mattress and a hot chick waiting for you at the bottom. Others see it as something that is in the air – a feeling you catch, almost like a cold that you don’t get over for a really long time. Still others think of it as something you make; so they cook up a string of romantic flings to try and satisfy their sexual appetite.

The error in all of these perspectives – which are the unfortunate but unvoiced opinion of most average people in the world -- is that love starts and ends with them. It can be created by them for their own good. It’s all about their needs and desires. Consequently, love is, to them, a three-letter word: “Get.” Thus, their relationships are, for all practical purposes, fundamentally flawed.

But truly, God understands love best, because, as the Bible points out, he is love (I John 4:8). So to really know love, we need to know God. In fact, this is exactly the point John is making in these verses in 1 John 4 – that loving others correctly starts with knowing God properly.

This matters greatly because when we start with God as the source of love – which he is – we end up in a radically different place than if we start with ourselves. Starting with God means that love is not a three-letter word, but a four-letter word: “Give.” Why? Because giving is exactly what God did to prove his love. This same writer, John, confirmed this when he wrote in another of his letters (John 3:16), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes should never perish but have eternal life.”

You see, God didn’t need anything. He wasn’t lonely or on the rebound. Yet, he gave of himself so that we – sinners who were separated from him – might be saved. In this way God defined love as no one ever has: the sacrifice of who we are and what we have for someone else’s benefit.

That’s the heart of the Gospel. God, in his great love, has redeemed us through Jesus, for no reason other than it was his good pleasure to. He didn’t have to; we didn’t deserve it. But he loved us, and gave himself in the form of the God-Man Jesus to be the sacrificial substitute for our sin. As Paul declared it in Romans 5:8, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

As a result, all who know God can love like God. Sacrificially. Permanently. Selflessly. Radically. And that’s exactly the kind of love it takes in a marriage. Truth is, without God, marriage is nothing more than two people using each other to get their physical, sexual, and emotional needs met. But with God as the centerpiece, marriage is the avenue by which a man gives of himself to satisfy his woman in every human way. And a woman gives of herself to satisfy her man in every human way. It is the spiritual and physical union of two people committed to giving, not getting.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (I John 4:7).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Proximity, Complexity, and Simplicity

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33).


The closer I get to something, the larger it gets. And the larger it gets, the more appreciative I become.  It's almost like proximity leads to a sort of welcomed complexity.


I find this to be a true equation in my marriage. The closer I get to my wife, the more I realize just how little I actually know about her, what a special woman she truly is, and just how much there is about her and our relationship that I still want to discover. Truly, she becomes "larger" in my eyes with every passing day of marriage to her (I hope you hear that well, sweetheart!). Like I said, there's something about proximity that opens up a whole new -- and welcomed -- complexity.


This equation also proves correct in my line of work – pastoral ministry. The turn-around stories of the Jesus-followers I have the privilege of watching, as well as the many passages I study each week, show me the vast sovereignty and surpassing greatness of God’s salvation. Not surprising, the closer I look, the larger God becomes. Again, my proximity seems to lead me to place of welcomed complexity.


It's at this place of welcomed complexity that something else begins to occur: I discover the joyful simplicity of worship. When the ability to describe the "what" escapes me, the supernatural desire to adore the "who" envelopes me, and praise flows from my heart and lips like a bird taking flight! I find myself passionately but simply echoing the words of the Psalmist, "Salvation belongs to the Lord" (Psalm 3:1).


Nothing is truer than those five words. Nothing.


To him be glory forever!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New IA Texting Law is Indicative of Root Problems in Legislature

The way in which I heard that Iowa had a new texting/driving law was quite ironic. And sadly humorous.


Get this – I was travelling on I-235, headed to one of our hospitals on a pastoral visit, when a reporter broke the news on our local talk radio station. Even as he detailed the legislature’s vote, I glanced to my right at the large black truck coming into the lane next to me. No, the driver – a young lady – wasn’t swerving or driving badly; she was operating the vehicle just fine. But she was applying make-up in full force with multiple fingers, and handling the steering wheel with her knee(s). Her head, like a fishing bobber, was bouncing up and down as she rhythmically glanced from visor mirror to windshield, using every other second to finish farding (that’s the official term for the act of applying makeup while driving).


Okay, let me see if I understand correctly: No texting, but facials are okay? Yep, that’s what I thought. Hmm. Does something seem a little screwy here? You bet it does! But I doubt seriously if our legislature will ever have the guts to outlaw last-minute applications of Mary Kay by Mary and Kay. But we can sure vilify texting.


It seems a more prudent and consistent approach – assuming those leaders who put this forward felt they had to encroach in that way upon yet another aspect of a citizen’s life – would have been to deal with distracted and dangerous driving. I mean, have you not seen Aunt Ethel who, at 79, putts around town with her equally old poodle sharing the driver’s seat and hanging out the window while she does her best to stay in the proper lane? At least Ethel isn’t texting! And what about ole’ Chester who is dropping a couple of burgers down the chute in record bites, all while balancing his over-sized Dew on the cup holder and wiping drops of ketchup off his seat and shirt with greased-laced finger tips? But at least he isn’t texting!  


Why does this action by the Iowa legislature not surprise me? Because its par for the course in recent years. It seems that our recent majority has been really good at making laws about things that don’t matter while avoiding weightier matters of life, morality, and justice.


Try this hypocrisy on for size: While some of our elected leaders debated texting while driving, the Iowa House ignored the will of the people in regards to fundamental marriage issues, continued to approve the murder of unborn babies, and lied about its own financial condition. But at least no one will send a quick text over their Blackberry from their car next July. Whew…I feel safer.


Yeah, right.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Wide World of Easter

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it usually turns out to be a double blessing. Curious? Well, I’m talking about the years that Easter falls on the first Sunday of the month, which is also when I conduct the service at one of our local retirement centers, Sunny View. Whenever that happens, it is a wide world of Easter! Such was the case today, so perhaps a little explanation would help.


A quick disclaimer: nothing I write is intended to be superior, egotistical, or in the praise of men. Nor is it meant to be negative, demeaning, or a result of being frustrated with men. These are just factual observations that have come to help me as I work with God in his sanctification of me.


On one hand, my day at First Family (where I am privileged to serve as Lead Pastor) was a day of intense anticipation. Various dramatic monologues – not only rehearsed in advance but written even earlier –  beautiful songs by both vocalists and musicians, passionate worship among those in attendance, extra communication and personnel to welcome guests, and specially synced emphases for kids were just part of the many ways our church went the extra mile on Resurrection Sunday. And after months of outreach and preparation, a multitude of volunteers and a lot of small groups came together to “pull off” Portraits of the Passion, our multi-media worship event. And what a wonderful two-week emphasis it was. Several same to Christ, many others made decisions about baptism, and even more connected at a deeper level to the body of Christ. All in all, just under 1000 were in attendance on Resurrection Sunday, a humbling experience for a church not yet six years old. Then there’s the residual effect of the day – who really knows how much fruit will be borne in the days and weeks to come?! Hallelujah! I make no apologies for saying that, as a pastor and preacher, it was invigorating to see God at work. And it makes me long for more fruit.


On the other hand, my day at Sunny View was, in human terms, quite the opposite. Leading the simple 45-minute service were me and my three girls, and another family’s mother and her two youngest. That’s all! We sang a capella, the children played flute and piano solos, and I preached a simple message. There are sometimes as many as 25 there, and even if several are sleeping, they are at least there. After all, for many of them, that stroll (or roll) down the hall is quite the effort. This Sunday, though, there were only about 20, for some were picked up by family for a day away. The most intriguing oddity is that while we are conducting the service, buzzers are going off, visitors are walking by, and nurses are checking rooms. It’s quite the circus at times. Yet, the tears I see and the hugs I receive each month are reward enough for this young pastor (at least to them).


See what I mean by a “wide world of Easter”? The two experiences, all within hours of each other, are no doubt at polar ends of the “church service” spectrum. Yet, both focus on the Son of God, are (hopefully) done in the power of the God, contain the presence of God, and bring glory to God. Granted – they each have their enjoyable aspects and frustrating elements. But I must admit that the latter one always brings me the right perspective about the first one. I truly welcome both, but probably need the second one more.


You see, sometimes in the chase for the perfect and seamless production, we miss the contentment of mistake-prone effort wrapped in the purest of motives. Ideally, I’d like both. But when forced to choose, give me the heart first. Frankly, it’s the smell of Sunny View that helps keep me humbly prepared for the lights of the platform.


“Thank you, Father, for a fruitful Resurrection Sunday on both ends of the spectrum.”


Friday, April 2, 2010

The Heartbeat of the Gospel

One of my favorite weekly readings is Dr. Al Mohler’s blog, and today he provides excellent insight into the Gospel, the extra-special focus of Easter weekend in churches all across America. Granted – the Gospel matters every week, but it does garner some even greater and well-deserved focus annually on Easter weekend. Enjoy!


Thursday, April 1, 2010

One of my Favorite (but Strangest) Verses

A strange verse exists in Romans 3 (verse 26 to be exact): “It (God’s acceptance of Christ’s blood as payment for our sins) was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” I have often wondered why Paul makes a point to say that God is just and the justifier. Sounds repetitive, doesn’t it?


But when you understand what he is defining and declaring, and subsequently defeating, it makes more sense. He is defining the righteousness of God (i.e., that God is acting perfectly just to conclude that all men are under sin, regardless of what they have done or who they are) and declaring the Gospel of God (i.e., that through Jesus we can be forgiven of our sin and clothed in God’s righteousness). Essentially, God’s righteousness means no one is justified naturally, and God’s Gospel means all can be justified supernaturally.


As a result, two things are defeated: Legalism and liberalism. They represent two extremes, and neither accomplishes what only God has done through the “good news” of his Son, Jesus.


For instance, legalism (i.e., the law) may look just. “An eye for an eye” and so forth. But it can never justify. Why? Because no human has ever – or can – keep all the law. There’s no way a merciless master like the law can overlook even one infraction. Truly, it has no justifying qualities.


Then there’s liberalism (i.e., no law). Since it removes standards and parameters, it appears to justify by saying everyone’s in, no matter what. But it can never be just. Why? Because all humans have the law of God written on their heart and know that, even if we pretentiously say there is no right or wrong,  there actually is a law that has been broken. There’s nothing just about pretending we’re all okay when we all know we’re not.


But the Gospel? Well, through it God is both just and the justifier! He maintains his just nature (Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice required), and his justifying nature (because of Jesus, God now offers forgiveness to all who believe). That’s something the two extremes of legalism and liberalism, and anything inbetween, can never do.


Ah, thank God for the Gospel!