The whole concept of faith is often misunderstood in our spiritually pluralist culture. Faith is not necessarily even a "spiritual" concept, but an expression of whatever it is we trust to bring us what we want or need in life. So the question becomes: What do you put your faith in? Is it your financial security, your spouse, yourself, or something else? And is the object of your faith delivering for you what you thought it would? Christian faith makes the bold declaration that we trust NOT in the things of this world, but the redeeming work of Christ ALONE. Further, faith in God is not our creation. It is God's gift to us as Paul notes above. We didn't simply have a great day a while ago and figure out the redemptive nature of God. What could the finite know of the infinite unless the infinite chooses to be known? It makes no sense to give ourselves credit for faith. Instead, by God's Spirit, our eyes are opened to His redemptive work and, by faith, we receive it and are forgiven, justified before our heavenly Father as one wholly righteous. By faith, we apprehend the work of Christ on our behalf and are then transformed as we appropriate His benefits. By faith, God's words to His son become His words to us: "This is my son (or daughter) whom I love; in him I am well pleased."Read More
In an age where people constantly feel the burden of proving themselves worthy, Sola Gratia – Grace Alone – may well be the sola most needed today. We can often feel crushed at having to constantly earn the love and approval of others by what we do, how we look, who we're with, what we drive, what we make, or where we live. To make matters worse, the perfect lives of our "friends" are constantly before us on social media, whispering the lie that we don't measure up. How refreshing then is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the lavish manner of God's grace. He loves us just as we are – and where we are. He knows our flaws and our pains and all our past actions and still opens His arms wide to receive us. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." All we need do is receive it by faith, but therein lies the problem. We think it too easy, so we quickly fall back into the false notion of needing to appease God by our actions. However, in Christ, we see the truth. We could never hope to earn salvation by our goodness. Such a notion is ludicrous. Every other religious tradition in the world is trying to move up to heaven by their works; in Christianity, God declares such to be impossible, so He comes down to us. God graciously accomplishes salvation for us and then invites us to freely receive it. Stop trying, stop working, and delight in God's gracious love for you.Read More
In 2004, doctors in Michigan created The Checklist Strategy, a simple method to reduce infections by requiring all medical personnel to follow five basic steps, checking them off as they did them. Why? Administrators found that 33% of the time, at least one of the steps was being skipped. For example, step one: wash your hands with soap and water. Once all five were followed and checked, infections dropped 66% in just six months. Over eighteen months, 1500 lives had been saved. It is now a standard in most hospitals. As we move into October and the coming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we need to get back to basics. Our culture has been skipping those essential steps - those core truths - that lead to life, health and wholeness. We are an infected culture, and we need to reclaim those basic steps that bring healing. They are grounded in the Word of God, and through the Reformers, became the five Solas: Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, Christ alone - to the glory of God alone. As Paul said in 2 Tim 3:14-17, the Scriptures are "useful" for "teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness." When we skip steps - when we miss that first box which is the Word - we miss the basic teaching and training we need - as well as the corrections for our human errors. Get back to the basics. Stop skipping steps, and ground your life in the Word!Read More
As Hurricane Irma bore down upon us days ago, I found it sobering to hear Emergency Management Officials say, "If you need help during the storm, you're on your own until it's safe for our people to be out." In other words, for this period of time, you're alone. Certainly, some of us had family members or friends huddled with us, but even then, it was a lonely feeling. We can all experience such seasons in life – periods of time where loneliness is our constant companion – and it's painful. Studies have shown that loneliness is part of the same human systemic reaction as hunger and thirst. When essential food is missing, we get hungry; when essential relationships are missing, we get lonely. Unfortunately, our culture is forcing us into patterns of behavior that increase that loneliness. The New York Times recently called it an epidemic. We are losing the important relational connection of face to face relationship and replacing it with a screen – a smart device – and it's not at all the same. If we want to fight those feelings, or help others, it's time to look up from those screens and pay attention to the PEOPLE around us every day.Read More
Last week, I'm out downtown and I run into someone that I know. I am also convinced her name is Susan. I enthusiastically greet her, "Susan! Hey!" She smiles and greets me in return, then says, "You know my name is Beth, right?" Argh. I hate that. Hate, hate, hate it! I hate it because names matter, and while I try hard to remember, I blow it more than I care to admit. A name is a powerful thing. It is history, identity and reputation all rolled into one. For that reason, understanding the names of God is critical. He is not generic "God", but He has named Himself so that we might more fully understand His being, nature, character, and history. That revelation is seen most fully in God made flesh, Jesus Christ. His is the name that is above all names, the only name given to us by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). And unbelievably, our Creator God knows OUR names. It is the answer to our deepest longing: to be known. He knows us fully, calls us by name, and claims us as His own. He never forgets our names, for we "are graven on the palms of HIs hands." (Packer)Read More
"Home" is one of the most powerful words in the English language. It is an ideal for which we yearn, one that connotes security, peace, love, and relationship. Right about now as the world seems to have lost its mind, things don't feel much like "home." C.S. Lewis wrote, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world."
Indeed, we are. Scripture affirms this world is not our home. We are "aliens and strangers" living in a foreign land, but this has actually been the experience of God's people from the beginning. We have often lived as "exiles" - as a minority culture, not majority culture. It was true in Jeremiah 29 as the Israelites were taken into exile in Babylon, and it is true now. Even so, God gives us specific instructions on how to live in such seasons. We don't hide and isolate; we don't angrily complain which embitters our hearts; we don't accommodate to avoid offending. God makes it clear this is going to be home for awhile, so settle in. Build houses - put down roots - and be productive. Use your gifts to offer something that improves the community in which you live – a good or a service. Create Godly marriages and Godly homes that produce Godly children. The family is always God's building block for culture. As Christians, we SEEK the prosperity of the city to which God has carried us, and we pray for that city. It's not our permanent home, but while we're here, we live with Kingdom purpose and Kingdom focus for His greater glory.
One of the primary points I have tried to make in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy is that we cannot wait for others to act or speak. As Christians, we have a responsibility to act now. We can't simply be people who complain about what's wrong, but rather take part in forming the positive side of a solution.
It's similar to the old question: when is the best time to plant a tree? Answer: 20 years ago. We need to take steps today that will bear fruit for many years to come. For example, a group of multi-ethnic pastors that I am part of began meeting after the Trayvon Martin shooting. We recognized we needed to build deeper relationships with each other in order to foster strong bonds and deeper understanding in our community. Events are fine, but we need more than events. We need relational investment and shared partnerships that transform and shape communities. So think about it: what can you do?Read More
At some point, we will all face the reality of a loved one near death, perhaps even suffering to some degree as they approach the end of this life. If we are in the bed, or it's our loved one, how will we make the necessary choices that surely come? If there is pain, do we end that life on purpose? What if they are mentally or physically handicapped? Does the life of a person who has lost their memory no longer have worth or value? The individualism of our culture now demands that each person, or their guardians, be allowed to chose how and when life ends. This, of course, is the result of no longer believing in a Creator God, one Who infuses this life with purpose and meaning beyond ourselves. In the absence of such, the meaning of life is determined only by its "quality", and so we now have groups of people behind closed doors deciding who is worthy of being cared for - or not. As the number of retired people explodes in the next 30 years, the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide will become all the more prevalent. 130,000 were euthanized last year in the UK alone. God declares an emphatic NO to this logic. Genesis 9:5–6 again reveals that we are made in His image and thus possess inherent worth and value. Not only that, but we are to protect the lives of our fellow human beings. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 that those we think are weak - or who have "less honor" – are actually those with "special honor" - for by loving and serving them, we learn about the model and manner of Jesus. We are not merely "individuals" as the culture would have us believe, but we are part of a larger community – the Kingdom of God – through which God is working out HIs plan to redeem the world. Even when we are faced with hard or inexplicable situations, we still value the life that is before us and trusts the Sovereignty of God as He works out HIs good and perfect will, one which is not always known to us.Read More
From this Psalm, George Handel crafted his famous Aria in The Messiah, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" We saw that rage in Charlottesville on Saturday - hatred and anger spewing from a false nation of those who espouse evil. It is the abject denial of Revelation 7:9, that glorious view of heaven containing people from "every tongue, tribe and nation." The gospel calls us to relationships of mutual understanding and love, relationships which Christians must pursue while standing strongly against the violence and bigotry. For that reason, I am grateful for my friendships with men like Bishop Allen T D Wiggins, Pastor Tim Johnson, Pastor William Andrews, and Pastor David DL Outing. Pastor Tim Johnson will preach for me at First Presbyterian on September 10, and I am honored to be Preaching for Bishop Wiggins at the Hope Church on August 27. We stand together, but that started years ago. We meet regularly. It is intentional, and God will use it for just such moments as these. For more on the responsibility we bear, especially in predominantly white churches, here is the link to my sermon on racism from April, 2016. Message: "Racism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ"Read More
One of the true wonders of having faith in God is the realization that our lives have been crafted by His almighty Hand. Though fallen in nature, each one of us has been known and planned for since the foundations of the world, declared by God to be HIs "image bearers." (Gen. 1). Thus, no matter the circumstances behind any life, it matters. God, in His sovereign nature, is the author, sustainer, redeemer and defender of life. This is the essence of the cross. Therefore, hardwired into each one His "image-bearers" is an inherent instinct to care for and defend others. God actually commands it in Gen 9:6. Our society consistently reveals this ethic. For example, Chesley Sullenberger is hailed as a hero for his selfless actions in saving every passenger on the plane he crash-landed on the Hudson while Franciso Schettino was reviled as "Captian Coward" for quickly abandoning the Costa Concordia after the ship ran aground leaving hundreds injured and 32 dead. We affirm those who care for and defend life; we denounce those who don't – all with one exception: abortion. In that case, we yield to the individualism of our day. We fail to realize that our "right" to choose is never absolute. 1 Cor 6:19 reminds us that we have been bought at a price, and that we are free to honor God with our bodies, for we are His dwelling place. From the moment a life begins, when God sets the miracle in motion, that human life is sacred and purposed by God to thrive in this world. I pray we will reclaim the wonder of God's created order, and choose to value and protect what He has made!Read More
As our community remembers the Pulse tragedy from one year ago today, our hearts yearn to know, "How much longer, O God, will this go on? What can we do?" With each tragedy, we think "maybe that will be the end of it" but it never is – and that is the sad reality. From Revelation 10, the trajectory of our world is not changing anytime soon. Pulse was yet another sign of the broken nature of our human condition, yet that is precisely why Christ came. He came to answer Pulse and Paris and Brussels and all the other pains of this life such that they will NEVER have the final word. While the timing of God's ultimate work is not known to us, it IS KNOWN to Him. In that, we can take solace. It may be a mystery to us, but it is not a mystery to Him. He also gives us His instruction for living in this "in between" season. He tells John in verse 11 that he is to continue his ministry of the Word – telling others "again" about the nature of the world and the reasons we are to hope in Christ. Again and again, we serve. We love. We give. Yes, we weep with those who weep and we mourn with those who mourn, but we know that our tears will one day be taken up in the larger joy of God's redemptive plan. Yes, the world is going to end, but in that day, in the word's of Tolkien, "A great shadow has departed…and everything sad is going to come untrue."Read More
David Brooks began his column yesterday by comparing the ways in which different international leaders view the world. It was fascinating, but the question of "worldview" is not just for world leaders. We all have one. The question is: do we have the right one? This was exactly what the two disciples wrestled with as they walked the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus in Luke 24. Jesus has been killed, there are rumors of resurrection, but they didn't know what to make of it. They didn't "see." When Jesus encounters them, they basically ask, "Are you the only one on the planet that doesn't know what's going on?" We do this often. When we are confused or pained by life, we will often ask God, "Don't you know what's going on down here? Do you not know how bad this is?" We see it through our lens instead of His. It is rich with irony. We who are blind trying to explain life to the only One who can see. What we need is what Jesus did with those two disciples. He moved towards them. He "encountered" them on the road of life. How comforting to know that Almighty God pursues us as His own. Jesus then helps them reframe their worldview - He helps them "see" their world through the right lens. He opened up the Scriptures and said, "Look, this is the story that frames everything, the story in which you find ME" - and when He did, He lit a fire in the hearts of those disciples even as God did on the day of Pentecost. Their hearts "burned" with the reality of God's revealed presence. Such revelation then leads to pure joy. The disciples ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem because of the joy that had been poured into them through the risen Christ. Their circumstances hadn't changed. Persecution and suffering still awaited, but their perspective had changed. They finally understood the story behind the story - the redeeming work of Christ playing out in the whole of life. May God allows us those same eyes that we might see Him at work in all things.Read More
The world – and especially our country – are in a time of upheaval and social change that create numerous challenges for Christians. The primary question is: how do we live as faithful disciples in regard to engaging this chaotic, often painful culture? Some will say the culture is beyond redemption and thus we should reject it altogether. Others say that we should accommodate and assimilate, to essentially give in. Neither of those is the Biblical, faithful answer. Paul shows us the way in 2 Cor 5:17-20 when he reveals our call as "ambassadors", those literally sent to a foreign land bringing a message "from the sovereign" or King. Like it or not, this world is not our true home. We should feel oddly dislocated while living here as "aliens and strangers." (1 Peter 2). However, living as exiles in a foreign land is nothing unusual in Scripture or Christian history. Living in God's story between Easter and the fulfillment of Easter's ultimate promise is our current situation, so we live in this "foreign land" as ambassadors who bring the message of reconciliation, hope, and forgiveness from the Father. How cool is that? Instead of living like aliens, frustrated by the things we miss about home, we live as ambassadors. We live in the foreign land ON PURPOSE. And while there, we enjoy the "embassy" – Christ's Church – where we experience the blessings of home - we share in the common language of Scripture, we enjoy our favorite meal with bread and cup, and we remember the history and traditions of our people as we gather in worship. Plus, unlike earthly embassies, the King is always in residence. So let's stop living like aliens and strangers and embrace our call from the King to live as ambassadors in this chaotic, mixed up world.Read More
Somewhere along the way in our Christian journey, we can easily learn the false notion that one's relationship with God should protect us from hardship or harm. This spills over into the non-Christian world such that when bad things do happen, the non-Christian will ask, "How can you say your God is good? If He was good, He would never allow X to happen." God's goodness is not based on the circumstances of our lives. As Psalm 136 declares, HIs goodness is grounded in the enduring nature of HIs love. He never lets us go, even to the point of personal suffering and death. His goodness is also born of HIs sovereignty. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. As such, He alone knows what is and is not truly good, and we are in no way privy to what He knows. Thus, we trust in His sovereign goodness. That goodness is also revealed in the how He has redeemed us. Romans 5:8 "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." We did not merit his love, yet He gave it anyway. This is the heart of goodness. Too often I hear, "Well if God was good, He would have done something to stop X." People, He ALREADY HAS done something. It's called the cross. He died and rose so that nothing in this world will ever triumph over us. Indeed, the old adage is true: God is good all the time; all the time God is good.Read More
In the wake of Easter, it's empty tomb and it's King revealed, we are left to answer significant questions. If Jesus Christ is King and His Kingdom has come, then what is my response? How does my life change in light of that? The answer, in part, is found in Mark 1 when Jesus calls His first disciples. It is initially a call to repentance. Jesus says the "Kingdom is near", so repent – literally "turn away from" – what we are currently doing and turn towards the living God. Often, we think that means we must turn away from what we enjoy. We have to turn away from the fun. False. We are turning towards LIFE - towards the very thing we are seeking – towards a God of grace and hope and love. What could be better than that? However, in order to do that, what did the disciples have to do? They had to drop their nets. They had to let go of what was in their hands - be willing to give up job and family and comfort and all that it entailed – to follow a man who hadn't even revealed where he was leading them! Even so, they left "without delay" and went "all in." Therein lies the key. You can't learn to swim and get a little bit wet. It's only when we go all in to become fully devoted followers of Jesus that we lay hold of the life He has called us to know. So, what's in your hand? What's impeding you from fully committing yourself to follow Christ? Whatever it is, drop it. Trust the One who calls you, for He has been revealed at Easter as Lord and King of all.Read More
Wedged between the agony of Friday's cross and the glorious hope of Sunday's resurrection is the seldom mentioned in between day: Saturday. It's not something we want to talk about much because it's not a pleasant day. Matthew 27 tells us that soldiers went to guard the tomb and seal it, but that's it. It's a day filled with darkness and fear and unknowns. It's a day of mystery and doubt and deep sadness. No one knows what will happen, so it's long and it's hard, and in the end, I find it's where we tend to live most our lives. We live in between the atoning sacrifice of Christ which reconciles us to the Father and the glorious fulfillment of what the resurrection means. In between lies Saturday where we encounter real life: mysteries and questions and hatred and violence and evil and events we simply do not understand – everything seems dim, shrouded, veiled. Yet it is in the darkness of Saturday that we learn to form words we have never spoken because, on Saturday, nothing else can help us – not our jobs or our money or our address or our appearance or our wine or our friends or even our spouse. The darkness of Saturday teaches us how desperately we need God, and in that darkness, we form the words to express it. God actually created the darkness because we need it. We need it to know we need Him. Thankfully, Psalm 139 reminds us that "the darkness is as light to you." We can't see in the darkness, but He can, and it is His voice that will guide us out. Thus, no matter what we may be enduring today, we need to be drawing close to the Good Shepherd, so that when we find ourselves in the darkness, we will know the Voice that will lead us home (John 10). Don't rush to Sunday. Linger in the reality of Saturday. Those who know the darkness rejoice all the more at the dawning of the light.Read More
"So, why do you guys do Lent? I thought that was a Catholic thing." I am asked that question a lot this time of year. Actually, the season of Lent is not just a Catholic thing, but is part of a larger liturgical calendar in which churches can remember the significant, foundational events that ground our theology and doctrine. Lent, for example, mirrors what happens in the gospels. Each gospel slows and elongates during the last week of Jesus' life with those six days making up one third of the gospel's content. Thus, our church spends the six weeks before Easter (Lent) talking about what took place in that one week. Why? Unless you grasp what happened during Lent, Easter will never be more than a nice day to dress up with your family and have brunch. It will never change you. It will never stir joy, because you have not seen the darkness before it. You have not witnessed the suffering and sacrifice nor your cupability in it. However, when you walk through the darkness of Lent and fathom its reality, the innocent man who is tried and falsely accused, the One who takes what we deserved, then the dawning of Easter morning will fill your heart and nourish your soul forever. As I will share this Sunday, we have to know the darkness of Holy Saturday before the glory of Easter morning transforms our hearts, our minds, and our world.Read More
From our earliest days, we learn who is good and who is bad. Batman is good. The Joker is bad. The Cowboys are good. The Giants are bad. The Israelites were good. The Philistines were bad. And right there at the top of the "bad" rankings is the undisputed #1 bad guy: Judas. He provides us nice cover as no matter how messed up we may be, we can always say, "Well, at least I'm not THAT bad." However, as I have studied Matthew 26 and the kiss of betrayal, I find that Judas is actually just like the rest of us. He was not the only disciple to betray Jesus. They all did, and so do we. It's hard to hear, but it's true. The words of Jars of Clay echo in my head: "Can I be the one to grip the spear and watch the blood and water flow?" I can. I do. Like Judas' kiss, I betray my relationship with Jesus and seize authority for myself, neglecting the very nature of the sacrifices He has made to ensure our relationship endures. The only question that remains is this: how will I respond? Judas could not imagine that God's grace could extend even to His betrayal, so he took his own life in the face of his personal darkness. Peter, however, betrayed Jesus just as fiercely, but trusted that God's grace could cover him. Thus, he is asked by Jesus three times, "Do you love me?" And Peter answered, "Yes, Lord" to all three. So Jesus restored him saying, "Feed my sheep." We must honestly confront the nature of our darkened hearts, but the hope of the gospel is that God's grace IS sufficient, and that He can use even broken vessels like us.Read More
The old story about the frog and the kettle (while oddly creepy) is a good analogy for how the enemy tends to move in both our world and our lives. No big announcements. No quick movements. Just a slow, crafty, gradual descent. As Lewis wrote, "the surest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot…" It was that strategy by which the religious leaders plotted to kill Jesus. Mark 14:1 says, "They were looking for a sly way…" And why? Power. Authority. The religious leaders could not keep their power without getting rid of Jesus, and neither can we. We live in an age of individualism and personal freedom, a culture that cannot abide by any authority larger than its own. We have been told we must be free to form our own truth which means there is no higher authority than my own. It is the road descending with a gentle slope, and we are witnessing the grim fruit being born as a result. It's hard to admit, but like the religious leaders, I am also trying to take the life of Jesus in my own heart. I still want to do what I want to do. I plot. I plan. I rationalize. Though God has prescribed a certain order to life, we sometimes disagree with it, and because we think our own way perfectly acceptable, we do what we want. We essentially believe God cannot be any wiser than we are. How foolish and arrogant. We are children who cannot fathom why it is not acceptable to eat candy for dinner. We simply don't know what our Father knows. The path of life is found in yielding our power to the only One worthy to hold it. So, where have the cunning, sly ways of the enemy encroached into your life? As you still struggle to have YOUR way, where might you be plotting to overthrow the life of Jesus in you?Read More
Typically in Florida, the weatherman announces a hurricane is coming and the response is a collective, "Yawn." We just don't do much to get ready, but with few exceptions, that seems to be our approach in life. We live in such a hurry that thoughtful preparation is not high on our list, and that's certainly true spiritually. In Mark 13, before Jesus even leaves the first time, He tells the disciples that there are things they need to prepare for before he comes the SECOND time. He tells us that certain things are on the way well before He comes, so "Get ready. Be on guard. Watch out!" Yet, we live as if we have all the time in the world. The truth is, we don't! Lives are at stake and Kingdom business is at hand. If we don't know when He's coming, then our task is to live with greater spiritual urgency. Such living is not a burden, but a blessing as we live with Kingdom purpose in every dimension of our lives. Further, when things get a little hairy, and they WILL, He says, "Don't be afraid or anxious. The Master is coming." We know the Master is both righteous and good, so when He comes, He will bring all things under HIs rule. Yes, we will have to wait, but we can live now with security and confidence, serving others as we seek to be a foretaste of His coming Kingdom.Read More