Monday, December 24, 2012

The cost of discipleship

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  No one who does not carry his cross and come with me can be my disciple."  - Jesus (Luke 14:26-27)

"Jesus never lured disciples with false advertising."   - Elisabeth Elliot

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to keep God's Law

One of the thorniest theological issues any conscientious Bible reader faces is how to apply the law of God (His commands which are found both in the Old and New Testaments) as New Covenant believers who no longer live in the Old Covenant context of ancient Israel.  One helpful resource is Ernest Reisinger's book The Law and the Gospel.  In it he gives, among other things, the following advice:
Wrong Uses of the Law
1. We use it wrongly when we misinterpret it like the Scribes and Pharisees.
2. We use it wrongly when we oppose it to Christ, oppose it to grace or oppose it to the gospel.
3. We use it wrongly when we look to it for justification - seeking acceptance by God through keeping it.
4. We use it wrongly when we disconnect it from the gospel and use it to discourage brokenhearted sinners. 
5. We use it wrongly when we fail to use it to glorify God's grace and gospel through Christ.
6. We use it wrongly when we disconnect it from the work of the Holy Spirit, focusing harmfully on our own ability to do good works.
7. We use it wrongly when we use it as ammunition in unlawful and unprofitable disputes about secondary matters.  
Right Uses of the Law
1. We rightly use it when we use it to remember the nature and will of God.
2. We rightly use it to remember our duty to God and others.
3. We rightly use it to realize and remember our natural inability to keep it apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. 
4. We rightly use it to remind ourselves of our sinful natures, hearts and lives, thus driving us to Christ for forgiveness.
5. We rightly use it to help others gain a clearer sight of their need of Christ His perfect fulfillment of it in their place.
6. We rightly use it to develop the principles for establishing a culture and society which maximally glorifies God and blesses us. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rightly remembering tragedy

On my drive to work today I found the news to be different.  All the talk was about the Sandy Hook tragedy.  This is not because of any new information, but simply to remember what took place one week ago today.  Remembering has a helpful, healing effect.  

New York City pastor Tim Keller knows that.  So, in 2006 at the five year anniversary of 9/11, he preached a poignant sermon with some very helpful reflections about the tragedy of sin in our world and how we begin to heal from its wounds as we remember it and see it through the lens of God's truth.  His message is reproduced in full below.
As a minister, of course, I've spent countless hours with people who are struggling and wrestling with the biggest question - the WHY question in the face of relentless tragedies and injustices. And like all ministers or any spiritual guides of any sort, I scramble to try to say something to respond and I always come away feeling inadequate and that's not going to be any different today. But we can't shrink from the task of responding to that question. Because the very best way to honor the memories of the ones we've lost and love is to live confident, productive lives. And the only way to do that is to actually be able to face that question. We have to have the strength to face a world filled with constant devastation and loss. So where do we get that strength? How do we deal with that question? I would like to propose that, though we won't get all of what we need, we may get some of what we need 3 ways: by recognizing the problem for what it is, and then by grasping both an empowering hint from the past and an empowering hope from the future. 
First, we have to recognize that the problem of tragedy, injustice and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are. Now, if you believe in God and for the first time experience or see horrendous evil, you rightly believe that that is a problem for your belief in God, and you're right – and you say, "How could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen?"
But it's a mistake (though a very understandable mistake) to think that if you abandon your belief in God it somehow is going to make the problem easier to handle. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail says that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if a particular human law was unjust or not. So think. If there is no God or higher divine Law and the material universe is all there is, then violence is perfectly natural—the strong eating the weak! And yet somehow, we still feel this isn't the way things ought to be. Why not? Now I'm not going to get philosophical at a time like this. I'm just trying to make the point that the problem of injustice and suffering is a problem for belief in God but it is also a problem for disbelief in God---for any set of beliefs. So abandoning belief in God does not really help in the face of it. OK, then what will? 
Second, I believe we need to grasp an empowering hint from the past. Now at this point, I'd like to freely acknowledge that every faith - and we are an interfaith gathering today – every faith has great resources for dealing with suffering and injustice in the world. But as a Christian minister I know my own faith's resources the best, so let me simply share with you what I've got. When people ask the big question, "Why would God allow this or that to happen?" There are almost always two answers. The one answer is: Don't question God! He has reasons beyond your finite little mind. And therefore, just accept everything. Don't question. The other answer is: I don't know what God's up to – I have no idea at all about why these things are happening. There's no way to make any sense of it at all. Now I'd like to respectfully suggest the first of these answers is too hard and the second is too weak. The second is too weak because, though of course we don't have the full answer, we do have an idea, an incredibly powerful idea. 
One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress to me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God's son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in - suffering and death! He didn't come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn. 
But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote: "I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?" Do you see what this means? Yes, we don't know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn't, what it can't be. It can't be that he doesn't love us! It can't be that he doesn't care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore the Cross is an incredibly empowering hint. Ok, it's only a hint, but if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength. 
And lastly, we have to grasp an empowering hope for the future. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and even more explicitly in the Christian Scriptures we have the promise of resurrection. In Daniel 12:2-3 we read: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake….[They]… will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and…like the stars for ever and ever. And in John 11 we hear Jesus say: I am the resurrection and the life! Now this is what the claim is: That God is not preparing for us merely some ethereal, abstract spiritual existence that is just a kind of compensation for the life we lost. Resurrection means the restoration to us of the life we lost. New heavens and new earth means this body, this world! Our bodies, our homes, our loved ones—restored, returned, perfected and beautified! Given back to us! 
In the year after 9-11 I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was treated successfully. But during that whole time I read about the future resurrection and that was my real medicine. In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost and discovering instead that all his friends were around him, he cries out: "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?"
The answer is YES. And the answer of the Bible is YES. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going TO COME UNTRUE 
Oh, I know many of you are saying, "I wish I could believe that." And guess what? This idea is so potent that you can go forward with that. To even want the resurrection, to love the idea of the resurrection, long for the promise of the resurrection even though you are unsure of it, is strengthening. I John 3:2-3. Beloved, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope purify themselves as he is pure." Even to have a hope in this is purifying.
Listen to how Dostoevsky puts it in Brothers Karamazov: "I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they've shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some thoughts about Sandy Hook

Many respected people are weighing in with various perspectives in the wake of last Friday's elementary school massacre.  One of the most helpful commentaries may be the following from Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.

The tragedy that shook Newtown, Connecticut, and indeed the entire nation, defies analysis. What must have gone on in the mind of this young man for him to walk into a school of little children and wreak such devastating carnage numbs the soul. At the same time this was happening, I was under the surgeon’s blade for minor surgery. When I left the recovery room and returned home, among the first pieces of news on my phone was the news of this mass killing. Something within me hoped that I was still not clear-headed, but I knew deep inside that I was reading an unfolding story of horror and tragedy. What does one say? What is even appropriate without violating somebody’s sacred space and their right to scream in protest?

I am a father and a grandfather. I simply cannot fathom the unbearable weight within a parent’s or grandparent’s heart at such a personal loss. It has often been said that the loss of a child is the heaviest loss to bear. I have no doubt that those parents and grandparents must wonder if this is real or simply a terrifying nightmare. My heart and my prayers are for them and, indeed, for the family of the assassin. How his father will navigate through this will be a lifelong journey.

When a mass-killer like this ends by taking his own life, there is an even deeper sense of loss. Everyone wants to know, “Why?” Not that the answer would soften the blow but it would at least give some clue, some release to speak, to hear, to try to work through. But all we are left with is twenty-eight funerals and lifelong grief. To all of those who have suffered such loss, may the Lord carry you in His strength and bear you in your grief. You will be in our thoughts and prayers.

My own attempt at saying something here is feeble but carries a hope that somebody listening will make this world a better place. My heart goes back to Angola Prison in Baton Rouge where I met such people whose savagery took them to that destination. It was interesting to see a Bible in every cell and to hear many talk of how it had become their only means of life and hope. Someone with me said, “If we had more Bibles in our schools maybe we would need less of them here.” To the skeptic and the despiser of belief in God, I know what they will respond. I am quite convinced that the one who argues against this ends up playing God and is ultimately unable to defend any absolutes. Hate is the opposite of love and while one breathes death, the other breathes life. That is what we need to be addressing here. The seeds of hate sooner or later bear fruit in murder and destruction. Killers are not born in a moment. Deep beneath brews thinking and the animus that in a moment is uncorked. We are living in a society that nurtures hate on many sides with the result that lawlessness triumphs.

Even in ideal settings, killing can take place. Murder began in the first family when a brother could not stand the success of his sibling. The entire history of the Middle East–five millennia–is a tale of two brothers. Centuries of killing has not settled the score. Maybe in Adam Lanza’s case we will find a deep psychological reason behind what he did. But that does not diminish the reality that there lurks many a killer whose moment will come and the nation will be brought to tears again. We can almost be certain of that. Yes, we can discuss all the symptomatic issues—security, gun control, early detection signs, and so on. These are all worthy of discussion. But it’s always easier to deal with the symptoms rather than with the cause.

I wish to share what I think we must address or we head down the slope to a precipitous edge of brutality. The fiscal cliff is tame by comparison to the moral devastation ahead if we do not recognize the malady for what it is. Hate is the precursor to murder. Jesus made that very clear. Playing God is the dangerous second step where we feel we are the ultimate judge of all things and that we have the right to level the score.

Here, I would like to address our political leaders and media elite: You may personally have the moral strength to restrict your ideas to mere words but many who listen to you do not. To take the most sacred privilege of democracy and transform it into the language of aggression plays right into the hands of hate-mongers. This is not the language of a civil society or of wise leadership. It is not the ethos of a culture of co-existence. It is not the verbal coinage with which we can spend our way into the future. Our political rhetoric is fraught with division, hate, blame, and verbal murder. Our young are listening. Remember that what you win them with is what you win them to.

As for the entertainment world, what does one even say at a time like this? Calling for gun control and then entertaining the masses with bloodshed is only shifting the locus from law to entertainment. Do our entertainers ever pause to ask what debased values emerge from their stories? The death of decency is audible and visible in what passes as movie entertainment and political speech. This is the same culture that wishes to take away Nativity scenes and Christmas carols from our children. God is evicted from our culture and then He is blamed for our carnages. America is lost on the high seas of time, without chart or compass. The storms that await us will sink this nation beyond recognition if we do not awaken to the rapid repudiation of the values that shaped this nation. The handwriting is on the wall. Freedom is not just destroyed by its retraction. It is destroyed even more painfully by its abuse.

There is one more thing. It is so obvious but is seldom ever addressed. All these recent mass murders have been done by men. Many of them young men, yes, even mere boys. Jonesboro, Columbine, Virginia Tech, now Newtown. Is there something within our culture that doesn’t know how to raise strength with dignity and respect? Is this how boys are meant to be? From bloodletting in hockey games while thousands cheer to savagery in school shootings while thousands weep, we must ask ourselves what has gone wrong with us men? Where are the role models in the home? Is knocking somebody down the only test left for strength? Is there no demonstration now of kindness, gentleness, courtesy, and respect for our fellow human beings? One young man on death row in Angola Prison told me that he started his carnage as a teenager. Now in his thirties with the end of the road in sight, he reached his hand out to me and asked me to pray with him. Life was lost at the altar of power and strength.

The Bible only speaks of one remedy for this: the transformation of the heart by making Christ the center. Those who mock the simplicity of the remedy have made evil more complex and unexplainable. Every heart has the potential for murder. Every heart needs a redeemer. That is the message of Christmas. The world took that child and crucified Him. But by his triumph over death He brings life to our dead souls and begins the transformation within. Unto us a child is born and He shall save us from our sins.

Before the first murder was committed, the Lord said to Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” To gain mastery over sin there is only one way. Just as Victoria Soto put herself in the way so that the children in her class might live, Jesus Christ put himself in the way that we all might live. That is the beginning of the cure for us as individuals and as a nation. All the laws in the world will never change the heart. Only God is big enough for that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Loving and leading an unsaved spouse

In less than a week I will have the joy of marrying two young Christians who share a deep love for Jesus.  In a perfect world, Christ's grace would form the glue holding every married couple together.  Sadly, due to sin in various forms, that is often not the case. If unbelieving couples bring God grief, 'unequally yoked' couples (in which one spouse is a Christian and the other is not) invariably bring double pain: to God and the believing spouse.  One question which Christian spouses often ask is, "How can I best love my unbelieving spouse and point them to Jesus?"  Stuart Scott, in his excellent book The Complete Husband, gives men in this area some helpful guidance.  As you will see, the principles he outlines prove equally helpful for believing wives with unsaved husbands:

  • Do not leave her or send her away, but be willing to live with her and love her.
  • Be a godly witness more by your life than your words.  Be careful not to "preach" to your unsaved spouse, but model what a gracious life touched by Jesus looks like.  Do not expect regenerate behavior from an unregenerate spouse.
  • Genuinely love and care for her with humility.  Consider her preferences above you own (barring sinful choices from which you must abstain).  Many unsaved wives have bailed out of their marriages because their believing husbands were selfish, demanding and difficult to live with.
  • When you sin against her, acknowledge it, confess it, ask for her forgiveness and then change your behavior.  Preaching the Cross without demonstrating your need for it will come across as hypocrisy.
  • When she sins against you and shows remorse, be quick to forgive her and lavish her with grace.  Even when she does not show remorse or repent, demonstrate an open, forgiving attitude toward her.  Why should she believe the gospel if you refuse to model it's grace?
  • Do not expect your unsaved wife to understand her need to honor God with her life or to accept her biblical role to submit to your leadership.  When she does make God-honoring choices, praise her and thank God.
  • Remember that it is God Who saves.  Therefore, pray for her earnestly, be patient and stay hopeful.  
- Stuart Scott, The Complete Husband, pp. 138-139

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advice for 'fluid' communication

In his excellent book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman writes,
Quality conversation requires not only sympathetic listening but also self-revelation.  When a wife says, "I wish my husband would talk.  I never know what he's thinking or feeling," she is pleading for intimacy.  In order for her to feel loved, he must learn to reveal himself.  If her primary love language is quality time and her dialect is quality conversation, her emotional love tank will never be filled until he tells her his thoughts and feelings.
Then Chapman offers an analogy which I find particularly helpful:
Not all of us are out of touch with our emotions, but when it comes to talking, all of us are affected by our personalities.  I have observed two basic personality types.  The first I call the "Dead Sea."  In Israel, the Dead Sea catches the water flowing into it from the Jordan River.  The Dead Sea, though, goes nowhere.  It receives but it does not give.  This personality type receives many experiences, emotions and thoughts throughout the day.  They have a large reservoir where they store that information, and they are perfectly happy not to talk.
On the other extreme is the "Babbling Brook."  For this personality, whatever enters into the eye-gate or the ear-gate comes out the mouth-gate and there are seldom sixty seconds between the two.  Whatever they see and hear they tell.  Many times, a Dead Sea marries a Babbling Brook.  
 That happens because when they are dating, it seems like a very attractive match. But five years after marriage, the Babbling Brook wakes up one morning and says, "We've been married five years, and I don't know him."  Meanwhile, the Dead Sea is saying, "I feel like I know her too well.  I wish she would reduce the flow and give me a break."  The good news is that  Dead Seas can learn to talk and Babbling Brooks can learn to listen and give needed space.  The good news is that we are influenced by our personalities, but we don't have to be controlled by them.  We can channel them into becoming conversational blessings to those around us.
Whether you're a Dead Sea or a babbling brook, that's good news.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prayer for Africa

With the EFC of Sudan as our sister church, we at Trinity often have our eyes turned to Africa.  Many of you will remember Kevin Kompelien, the ReachGlobal Africa director who was with us in 2005 and helped us launch our partnership with Sudan.  This week he is in Africa and writes about a traumatic situation in eastern Congo and Rwanda for which we can pray.  After our study of Acts 2:1-13 on Sunday which focused on thinking globally, calling us to pray for the Christians in these countries is especially timely.  He writes,
Over the past several weeks, fighting has broken out in Eastern Congo forcing many of the 700,000 refugees to flee into neighboring Rwanda.  One pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Rwanda states, 'Refugees are now at the homes of anyone who will take them in.  Twenty people spent last night in my father's home.  This is the same in many places.  Bombs were detonating, forcing people to head for safety in nearby Rwanda.'  Just two weeks ago TouchGlobal spearheaded an effort to supply the Congolese refugees with Bibles, but now their needs are both spiritual and physical, as they are fleeing for their lives by the thousands into Rwanda. 
Yesterday as Terri and I sat in our home, we commented on how peaceful it was.  Life is far different for tens of thousands in central Africa.  Among the refugees are many Christians.  Please pray for God to supply His suffering people with His supernatural grace and give the church a unique opportunity to share the hope of eternal life with those whose lives are in jeopardy.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The sin-killing power of thankfulness

For you who weren't able to attend our Thanksgiving Eve service on Wednesday night, I shared five ways in which a God-ward, thankful attitude empowers us to kill temptation and help us avoid sin.  The way I phrased it is that we cannot be thankful and simultaneously commit sin 'X'.  Here are the five for your benefit:

You cannot be thankful to God and simultaneously grouchy and complaining.

You cannot be thankful to God and simultaneously burdensome to others.

You cannot be thankful to God and simultaneously worried and fearful.

You cannot be thankful to God and simultaneously rebellious.

You cannot be thankful to God and simultaneously self-centered.

The next time you sense yourself drifting into one of these sins, ask yourself, "Am I Godwardly grateful right now?  Why not?"  Commit to begin each day focused on the ocean of grace God has surrounded you with and thank Him in response - and discipline yourself to keep thanking Him throughout the day.  As you do that, watch what happens as sins you've long struggled with begin to loosen their grip on your heart.  Few weapons in our holy arsenal are as effective and powerful as a grateful heart.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An open letter to a pastor

Dear Pastor,

Speaking on behalf of the church that called you to serve God, we feel an urgent need to remind you of your high and holy calling so God's true work will not be abandoned for good but lesser things.  We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what the Bible teaches about God, His Kingdom and His gospel.  We believe that everything, especially everything in our world and lives that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life.  We believe all this, but we rarely see or remember it.  We need you to help us see it, and remind us of the unchanging truths of hope we have in Christ.

We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate, and our lives conforming to our beliefs.  We don't trust ourselves - our emotions seduce us into sin.  We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it.  We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of the Word and sacrament, in the middle of this world's life.  Minister with Word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives - in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle.  Yours isn't the only task in the life of faith, but this is your task.  We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks.  This is yours: Word and sacrament.

One more thing: we want you to vow to us that you will stick to your calling.  This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community.  We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are.  We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours.  That is why we are exacting a holy vow from you.  We know that there will be days and months and maybe even years when we won't feel like we are believing anything and won't want to hear it from you.  And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won't feel like saying it.  It doesn't matter.  Do it.  You have vowed yourself to God for our good.  There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else.  Promise right now that you won't give in to what we demand.  You are not the minister of our changing desires or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs or our secularized hopes for a better life.  Today we lash you to the mast of the Word and sacrament so that you will remain deaf to our subjective desires and demands.  Your task is simply to keep telling us - and helping us believe and tell others - the Story of our Redeemer, crucified, risen and coming again.  This is your work.  So help you God.

With love,

God's people under your care

- adapted from Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles, pp. 23-25

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A prayer for our leaders - old and new

Our all holy and powerful God,

  • You are the best of fathers, so we know we can trust that You arranged last night's election for Your own eternal purposes to be set in motion.  
  • Give us grateful hearts that we live in a land in which political contests do not erode into civil war and ethnic cleansing or religious pogroms.  For 225 years You have ordained that our nation have a peaceful balance and frequent transfer of power.  Such a thing is very rare in the history of mankind, and we praise You with awe that we are privileged to experience its benefits ourselves.
  • Just as we teach our children, please give us the grace, in the wake of last night's elections, neither to win in a boastful, condescending way nor lose full of self-pity and unthankful bitterness.
  • We pray for those You sovereignly ordained for public office in our land:
    • That they might exercise their influence and authority for the good of Your church, "that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way." (I Timothy 2:2)
    • That they might give us daily reason to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in everything, knowing that this is Your will for us in Christ Jesus."  (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)
    • That they might prove examples to our nation and the world of common grace which pleases You, loving their spouses in a way which mirrors the truth of the gospel (Ephesians 5:22-33), caring for their children in a way which engenders respect and obedience (Colossians 3:21), doing good to everyone, especially those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10) and  making wise decisions in harmony with your global plan to spread a passion for Your glory and bless all people (Genesis 1:26-28, 12:3).
    • That they might exercise their authority with care and righteousness, calling sin 'sin', exalting justice and bearing the sword in a way which increases security, blesses law-abiders and punishes law-breakers, yielding peace in the land (Romans 13:1-7).  
    • That they might have compassion for those in need of justice and benevolence (Amos 5:24), and require every able person to work hard in supplying for their own needs (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).
    • That, by Your great mercy, You might convict them of personal sin as well as the sins of our land, leading to their own repentance and trust in the grace of Christ as Savior and Lord (Acts 2:37-41, 13:12, 26:28-29).
  • In all things give us joy that "our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases."
In the powerful, matchless name of Christ we praise and thank You.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An election day prayer

Want to be full of hope and joy this election day?  Based on the end of God's great Story, Scotty Smith leads us in a prayerful focus we need:
  The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. Rev. 11:15-17 
     Dear Lord Jesus, it won’t be long before we will stand and sing Handel’s magnificent rendition of the grand affirmation of this text: “And He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings! and Lord of lords! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” It’s hard to believe Advent season is upon us. And yet we don’t really need to wait. Election Day is a perfect day to rise to our feet, or fall to our faces, and worship God with peace-filled and joy-laden hearts.
     Lord Jesus, you are the King of kings and Lord of lords. Your reign has already begun and your reign is coming in fullness. Not a breath will be taken from our lungs, nor a day taken from our lifespan, apart from your decree. No premier or president, emperor or autocrat, dictator or potentate is a threat to you, or necessary to your purposes.
     Demons tremble at your name and stars sing your praise; fierce hurricanes become gentle zephyrs, and placid lakes become roaring oceans at your bidding. Lame legs walk, deaf ears hear, mute mouths shout at your command. Loved ones are taken to heaven and sufficient grace is given, all in keeping with your purposes, timing and glory. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of our Lord.
     On this Election Day, we bow to you and cast our votes. The brokenness in our country, hearts and world leads us to cry out, “How long, Oh, Lord? How long before you return, Lord Jesus, and finish making all things new?” Until that Day, we will seek to “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Pet. 2:7 ). We will seek to live as good citizens of two kingdoms—the city of man and the City of God. We will seek to adorn the gospel and serve you faith-fully, wherever you place us in the community and culture.
     Whatever the results of this Presidential election, (as well as the many, many other offices which will be decided today), we affirm with renewed confidence and in-this-moment gratitude, that you, Lord Jesus, are the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Hallelujah, what a Savior; Hallelujah, what a salvation. And you shall reign for ever and ever! So very Amen we pray, in your loving and triumphant name.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Strange joy

How many people would describe you as 'strangely joyful'?  The world understands joy only on its own terms.  Today is Halloween, and some of my neighbors are finding joy in decking out their houses and yards with images and decorations which glorify fear and death.  Others are simply joyful to be back in their homes, or joyful that their kids are doing well in school, or that they're physically well or prospering financially or have escaped the ravages of Hurricane Sandy.  Those joys are natural.

But uniquely Christian joy is different.  Our joy, found in heavenly realities, strikes the world as altogether strange.  Joseph's positive perspective on his imprisonment (Gen. 50), David's contented trust in spite of 'the shadow of death' (Ps. 23), Daniel's peace in the face of threatening kings and vicious lions (Dan. 6) and persecuted Christians who 'joyfully accepted the plunder of their property' for the sake of Christ because 'they knew they had a better possession and a lasting one' (Heb. 10) - these joys are strange; they're utterly supernatural.  This joy is uniquely Christian.

In his book The Excellency of a Gracious Spirit, Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646), goes to great lengths to describe why and how every Christian should stand out in the world as strangely joyful.  The joy of unbelievers, which vacillates each hour, is predictable because it is based upon the transient joys of the world.  As I think about how my own joy vacillates too much with the winds of earthly change, I've found his book helpful.  For instance, he writes,
The spirit of a true Christian lives upon other, higher comforts.  The life of a dog is maintained by carrion, the life of a swine by swill, but what does a man care for these?  Each source of food is suitable to the creature...Though the men of the world, living by sense and lust, have no other comforts to feed upon but such as are suitable to them, yet the godly, having a life that has higher and more noble principles, feed upon higher and more noble comforts.
The joys of the spirits of the godly are like the light of the sun, fed by heavenly influence; but the joys of other men are as the light of a candle, fed by base and stinking matter....If Christians are often sad, it is because they meddle too much with things below....A Christian can sing in the rain, rejoice in loss and dance in adversity.  A Christian can rejoice when the world cannot, in the same way that a bee can suck honey out of a flower that a fly cannot do.
As Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:16, "Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father Who loves us, has given us eternal consolation."  What?  Did Jesus Christ come into the world, suffer so many sorrows and miseries, die such a painful death and all only to bring us to a more sorrowful estate than before we knew His grace?  May it never be!  (pp. 42-45)
So, I ask you again, are you a strangely joyful person?  If our joys are simply those of the world around us, we will never shine as lights, pointing others toward Christ, the true Source of joy.  Today, on this day of earthly darkness, may He fill us with the light of holy, otherworldly joy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hope in the wake of the storms - all of them

As followers of Jesus, how are we to respond to the news reports of mind-boggling, East coast devastation?  The same way He calls us to respond to the 'small devastations' which take place around us every week.  Scotty Smith guides us well in this regard here.  Read, pray and hope.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ladies of grace and truth

Many Christian women are familiar with what Titus 2:3-5 says about godly womanhood, "Older women are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.  They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled."

One interesting thing about this text is that it is not directed to a woman but to a man: to Titus, the shepherd overseer of the Christians on the island of Crete.  In other words, the Christian discipleship of women starts with pastors who help seasoned women to grow in gospel maturity so they can pour themselves into women who are younger in their faith.

I take Paul's commission to disciple and resource Christian ladies seriously.  That's why I'm always excited when I come across helpful books to place in the hands of our ladies at Trinity, hoping to set off a chain-reaction of greater feminine passion for Christ.  Toward that end, we have recently stocked our church book-table (located in the library) with some of the best spiritual food for feminine hearts and minds.  Let me focus on just two new books I commend to you:

Fierce Women by Kimberly Wagner is a unique book written to Christian woman who are naturally wired with strong, 'can-do' personalities but find themselves married to men who seem less active, less organized, less spiritual or less competent than they are.  The results are sometimes ugly.  Kim tells her own 'ugly marriage' story and how God redeemed it with the gospel and helped her begin down the road to becoming both a joy to her husband and a woman learning to channel her strength in positive ways to build up others and glorify God.

Choosing Gratitude by Nancy Leigh DeMoss is written to help you both locate and root out the tendrils of ungratefulness which often go unseen but end up poisoning your thoughts, words and relationships.  Consider the following quote:
Try to sustain persevering faith without gratitude, and your faith will eventually forget the whole point of its faithfulness, hardening into a practice of religion that's hollow and ineffective.  Try being a person who exudes and exhibits Christian love without gratitude, and over time your love will crash hard on the sharp rocks of disappointment and disillusionment.  Try being a person who sacrificially gives of yourself without gratitude, and you'll find every ounce of joy drained dry by a martyr complex.  As John Henry Jowett once said, 'Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.' (p. 23) 
Perhaps you've listened to Nancy on her Revive Our Hearts radio broadcasts or downloaded her pod-casts.  Her teaching is rich with biblical womanhood.  Some of her other books we've stocked on our book-table include:

  • The Power of Words

  • Becoming God's True Woman

  • Choosing Forgiveness

  • True Woman 101 (co-authored by Mary Kassian)

Two other books for ladies who are serious about their spiritual growth we're featuring right now include:

  • Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild by Mary Kassian

  • Secret Keeper: The Delicate Power of Modesty by Dannah Gresh

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why we need the Holy Spirit

In Galatians 5:16ff. Paul writes to his Christian friends, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do....If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit."

Paul assumes two things in these verses.  First, he assumes that Christians like the Galatians (and like us) truly want to do right.  We want to please God.  We want to live holy lives which glorify Him and bless us and those around us.  But he also assumes that we simply cannot live such lives on our own.  We are desperately in need of the Holy Spirit's empowerment and in-filling.  Though the Spirit indwells us in a permanent way when He regenerates our hearts and makes us Christians (I Cor. 12:13), in a practical sense we need to be daily - even hourly - filled up by the Spirit through our prayerful dependence on Him in our fight for holiness (Eph. 5:18).  This is a daily battle requiring discipline and intentionality.

How much do we need to be filled up by the Spirit?  How helpless are we without Him?  As you've read the Bible, have you ever noticed how dependent upon the Spirit Jesus was?  Consider the following which I noted today in my reading of Gospel Transformation (pp. 180-181):

  • Jesus became a man by the Spirit (Lk. 1:35)
  • Jesus was equipped for ministry by the Spirit (Lk. 3:21-22)
  • Jesus was filled with supernatural joy by the Spirit (Lk. 10:21)
  • Jesus resisted temptation by the Spirit (Lk. 4:1-14)
  • Jesus taught others through the Spirit (Acts 1:2)
  • Jesus lived every day in the power of the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2; 61:1, Lk. 4:1, 14, 18)
  • Jesus overcame demons by the power of the Spirit (Mt. 12:28)
  • Jesus performed miracles and did good by the power of the Spirit (Acts 10:38)
  • Jesus was raised again by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 1:4, 8:11, I Pet. 3:18)

Why did Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe, require the Spirit's power for the life He lived on earth?  He did it to prove His submission to the Father in order to demonstrate that His life was completely in harmony with God's great, redemptive plan set in motion in Genesis 3:15 (John 4:34).  But He also lived a Spirit-dependent life in order to model for those He would save (that's us) the kind of life we would need to live.  Jesus could have operated in His own divine power to accomplish His ministry on earth, but in grace He chose to depend on the Spirit's power to show us how we would need to live in order to conquer sin and grow in sanctification.  

Do you want to please God today?  Do you want to win your battles with temptation today?  How are you going to do that?  It won't happen on your own.  It will happen only as you follow Jesus' example and live each moment in humble, desperate, prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit.  Living in confidence of Him, not us, will make the difference.  It will give us the power we need to live holy lives.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Why we don't share the gospel

This week we're studying the God-exalting mission we were made and saved for.  That mission includes evangelism.  How stoked are you to hit the streets to share the gospel or share Christ over the fence with your neighbor?  Not very, if you're like most Christians.  So, why are we so reluctant to be up front about our faith with unbelievers?  Greg Stier gives five reasons worth pondering:

1. Fear

Sharing your faith is a scary prospect. You can lose face and friends as a result of communicating this "narrow-minded" message of the gospel even when you do so in love. When choosing between being accepted by others and sharing the good news with others too often Christians choose silence. Fear is the biggest culprit that keeps most Christians from evangelizing. 
The Cure: "Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should." Ephesians 6:19-20 
2. Ignorance 
There are many Christians who, down deep inside, want to share their faith but they honestly don't know what to say. Sadly, if you were to put a microphone in the face of the average church goer leaving a typical Sunday morning service and asked them to define the gospel message the answers could range from "um" to dumb. To add insult to injury far too many preachers have over-complicated the gospel to the point where even true Christians wonder if they are saved. They've added caveats and small print to John 3:16 and, as a result, many believers are confused by the clear and simple gospel that once they embraced with child-like faith.  
The Cure: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…." 1 Corinthians 15:3,4  
3. Arrogance 
Sadly, there are Christians who think they are above sharing the gospel. After all, isn't that what they pay the pastor, youth leader and missionary to do? These Christians want to sing about Jesus in the sanctuary, exegete his Book in Sunday school but don't want to get their lily white hands defiled with the diseased and dirty "sinners" by having to actually talk to them. 
The Cure: "And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, 'Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.'" Luke 5:30-32 
4. Apathy 
Sadly, there are many who call themselves Christians but they just don't care about the lost. They believe there is a hell. They know that those who don't know Jesus will go there forever. But they, for whatever reason, just don't care. They have lost their first love and, therefore, refuse to do what he commands. And, like the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2, if they don't start letting their little lights shine they could have their candles snuffed out altogether. 
The Cure: "When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Matthew 9:36 
5. Bad Theology 
This brand of bad theology has a range. One extreme defangs hell by making it mythical or instantaneous suffering (as opposed to eternal) therefore removing the urgency to evangelize. The other side of the range misuses the doctrine of election as a way to eradicate urgency. After all, if God is sovereign in salvation why evangelize? Although I believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation I'm also fully convinced that if people don't hear and believe the gospel then they'll be damned forever. I chose not to try to solve the riddle but live in the tension between God's sovereignty and human responsibility. It is in the midst of this tension that God provides us both urgency and assurance, urgency to reach the lost who are headed to hell and assurance that God is the only one who is sovereign in salvation. 
The Cure: "Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." 2 Timothy 2:10

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Praying: even more powerful than going

I was excited to pick up my wife and Greg and Beth Demme last night at the airport, welcoming them back from their mission trip to Toulouse, France.  I'm so glad they were able to go and be our 'hands, feet, eyes and ears', representing our church to the church planting missionaries who serve there year round - discovering ways in which we might better support that missionary work.  During their absence, we encouraged you to pray for their trip and its gospel fruitfulness.  I hope you did pray for them.

If I asked you, "Which activity, going to the mission field as Terri and the Demmes just did or staying home and praying for them, is more powerful for the advancement of Christ's Kingdom?" how would you respond?  Most would instinctively think that going is more powerful.  After all, in going we are able to actually see the missions work in action; we're able to lend a hand in practical ways toward its fulfillment; we're able to speak the gospel to the lost in that foreign land, etc.  All those things are true.  I don't want to diminish the great importance of going.  It is vital.  Still, prayer, at the end of the day, proves just as important and even more spiritually powerful.  Consider a quote from the missionary/preacher SD Gordon (1859-1936):
The greatest thing each one of us can do is to pray.  If we can go personally to some distant land, still we have gone to only one place.  Prayer puts us into direct dynamic touch with an [entire] world.  A man may go aside today, shut his door and really spend a half hour of his life in India for God as though he were there in person.  Surely you and I must get more half hours in for this secret service.
In light of what Gordon says, it wasn't only three from Trinity who went to France last week to help advance the Kingdom of Christ, many of us did.  In terms of the spiritual reality of eternity and the movement of the Holy Spirit, we who prayed were in Toulouse just as much as the friends we sent.  And today through our prayers we can take missions trips to Russia, Nigeria, Argentina or Turkey.  Nothing replaces going to the mission field, for the lost need to hear the gospel from our lips, but our missionary prayers at home are no less powerful.  Where in the world will your prayers take you today?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sometimes helping still hurts

Many of you will remember our adult Sunday School class from two years ago based on the excellent book When Helping Hurts.  Inviting the 'needy' around us to join us in true community and through the community become equipped for a healthier, sustainable lifestyle, as well as learning to lend a contribution of their own to the vibrancy of the community was a refreshing and revolutionary concept for us.  It has significantly affected how we approach our relationship with our Christian friends in Sudan and the needy around us in Minot.  The Chalmers Center which sponsored the book has released a short video reminding us of the basic concept.  You can watch it here.  I'd encourage your small groups to watch it together and discuss how it has shaped your thinking and what strides we still need to take to make truly helping others in the name of Christ more of a living reality.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Encouragement through our union with Christ

"It was several years after I became a Christian that I began to understand the significance of our union with Christ and consciously experience the reality of that union in my daily life.  I knew Christ as my Savior, and I also knew how to practice the basic essentials of the Christian life.  I had a regular quiet time, led a Bible study, memorized Scripture, shared the gospel with others and sought to live an obedient Christian life.  I even memorized many verses of Scripture containing the phrase 'in Christ,' yet I did not realize the significance of that marvelous expression.  My concept of praying for the power to live the Christian life was somewhat akin to a college student writing home for more money.  I might get it and I might not.  I felt destitute, like a spiritual pauper.

Then one day I grasped the significance of what Paul meant when he said that we are 'in Christ.'  The Holy Spirit helped me realize that I was a branch intimately and vitally joined to the vine - not just tacked to the vine but actually a part of it.  I understood that just as the life of that vine flows naturally into the branch, so the life of Jesus Christ flows supernaturally into me.

I later realized that every expression of the Christian life in and through me since the day of my conversion was the result of my union with Christ and, consequently, of His life at work in me.  Every desire to read the Bible and to do God's will, every manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, be it ever so small, was the living result of my being 'in Christ.'

Our union with Christ is an objective fact that is true whether we realize it or not.  It is also true that, to a degree, we experience the fruit of that union apart from any conscious effort on our part.  For example, at conversion we begin to experience a degree of spiritual enlightenment and understanding of the Scriptures, a degree of change in our desires and affections and some inclination of our wills to live lives pleasing to God.  It is true that just as the life of the vine flows naturally into the branch, so the life of Jesus Christ flows naturally into you and me, causing these changes in our lives."

- Jerry Bridges, True Community, pp. 24-25

Thursday, September 20, 2012

True Community

This week I'm preaching on true Christian community.  One of my frustrations is that (as usual) I have far more to say about this important topic than I have time.  The topic really deserves a book.  Providentially, Jerry Bridges just released a new book called (can you believe it?) True Community.  We already have one copy for our church library and more are on their way for sale on our book table.  But don't wait.  I'd encourage you to click over to Amazon and pick up your own copy soon.  Here is a list of the book's chapters:

  1. Sharing a common life
  2. Union with God
  3. Communion with God
  4. Fellowship and Community
  5. Spiritual fellowship
  6. Partnership in the gospel
  7. Spiritual gifts within the community
  8. Sharing your possessions
  9. Supporting your local ministry
  10. The fellowship of suffering
  11. The fellowship of serving
  12. Social fellowship
I can't wait to read it.  Join me!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

One mark of true Christianity

Two weeks ago in church we explored the two chief marks of true Christianity: faith in Christ alone and a life which is increasingly transformed by Christ's grace.  Part of that transformation which signals true new birth in Christ is biblical repentance.  When many Christians think of repentance, they often either think of the moment of initial repentance when they first heard the gospel, felt sorrow for their sin and turned in faith to Christ, or they think of the sorrow they feel when they commit 'big' sins, like adultery or murder.  Regular, daily, hourly repentance is often very rare in our lives.  Yet, when John the Baptist declared in Matthew 3:8, "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance," he wasn't just talking about large-scale repentance.  The fact that he followed his statement up by speaking of repentance in the midst of very mundane, daily activities like not being greedy in the face of others in need and being content with what God gives us and treating others with kindness (Luke 3:10-14), the Bible shows us that repentance in Jesus' Kingdom is to be a lifestyle which defines us.

The book Gospel Transformation challenges us with the following exercise:

"The following list may help us recognize that repentance needs to be a lifestyle.  Work through it slowly, taking a few moments to meditate on and pray through each item.  Spend more time on those items of particular relevance to you:

  • Lack of prayer
  • Making excuses
  • Desiring to be first/Have my way
  • An unthankful/discontented heart
  • Not denying myself
  • Not listening to others
  • Being harsh with my spouse and children
  • Rarely encouraging others
  • Fearing the opinions of others
  • Not sharing the gospel with joy
  • Wasting time
  • Finding refuge in work
  • Speaking evil of those who oppose me
  • Directing attention toward myself
  • Thinking unkind thoughts of others; assuming the worst of others, not the best
  • Using my success to build a reputation
  • Complaining under the slightest hardships
  • Covering my sin with feeble apologies or trying to make up for it
  • Considering myself more highly than I ought
  • Lusting for what God has not given me
  • Not challenging evil in my world; indifference
  • Excessive use of money for personal pleasure and comfort
  • Passing judgment on others
  • Thinking that someone else needs the gospel more than I do
  • Bragging about myself rather than about Christ
  • Anger with those at odds with my agenda
  • Treating my children and neighbors as if they are bigger sinners than me
The conclusion of the matter should be clear: repentance should be a lifestyle because for us sinning is a lifestyle."  

Praise God for His great grace to us in Christ!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A cultural prophecy fulfilled

The 'forward' of a book is a thing often overlooked.  Most readers skip forwards to get immediately to the meat of the work.  The forward to Neil Postman's classic Amusing Ourselves To Death, though, deserves thoughtful pondering as much as his book.  In our age of social media, reality TV and electronic billboards, his trenchant observation is even more clearly a cultural prophecy fulfilled than it was when he wrote his book in 1985.  Even if you've never read 1984 or Brave New World, I think you'll get his point.  Here it is in full:
We were keeping our eye on 1984.  When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves.  The roots of liberal democracy had held.  Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.   Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned out in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.  As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.  In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.  Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.  This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How I cross-reference my Bible

Today I listened to an interview with a seasoned pastor who was asked, "How do you catalog the most helpful parts of the many books you read for future reference?" His response was, "I don't." That is fine for him since he has an amazing memory. I, on the other hand, need to write down references for future use. My present system is proving so helpful, that I thought I'd share it with you in hopes that some of you might find it fruitful to replicate. In simple terms, here's what I do:

  • I read with a pencil in hand.  That makes it possible to write notes in the margins and underline significant quotes.  I used to make notes and underline with a pen but do so no longer.  Many of the notes I wrote in books 20 years ago I wish were not there.  Therefore, I only use pencil now so that someday I can erase wrong-headed notes or quotes which I've grown to believe are no longer worth underlining.
  • I cross-reference my main study Bible.  Personally, I find most biblical cross-references published in a Bible's margins (Thompson's or otherwise) positively unhelpful.  Some are just plain hard to locate or discern between marginal and footnote references.  Others seem to have nothing to do with the text.  Therefore, I use a Bible for my main study purposes which has large margins, allowing me to write in my own cross-references.  Those references become very valuable when teaching/preaching on a text which is greatly illumined by another part of God's Word.  
  • I cite salient book quotations in the margins of my study Bible which help illumine a given text.  This has become the primary way in which I am able to recall in the future and use thoughts I found unusually helpful while reading secondary sources.  This practice adds to the value of my study Bible since it is not simply a copy of the Word of God but a depository of wisdom culled from the minds of great Christians from over the centuries.  An example from the Genesis 3 page of my study Bible is included here.

What is the Gospel Coalition?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Psalm 103 epilogue

For the past two weeks, we've had the privilege of unearthing many of the evidences of God's grace found in Psalm 103.  We looked at ten in total.  Do you remember them?

  • Forgiveness
  • Physical healing
  • Redemption
  • Renewal like an eagle
  • Justice
  • Knowing/enjoying God
  • Compassion
  • Love
  • Significance 
The grace of Christ showers us with these ten blessings.  During my messages, I emphasized placing these evidences of God's grace front and center in our minds as ammunition in our war against sin and in our pursuit of happiness.  With blessings like these through Christ, we lose our appetite for sin and find contentment and happiness no matter what else we may not have in life.  Remembering Christ's grace is the key to our happiness and holiness.

This week, as I've pondered Psalm 103 some more, it struck me that as we remember, meditate on and stir up thankfulness for these gifts of grace through Christ, we ourselves begin to change and take on these very characteristics in our own lives and relationships.  Think about it:
  • Forgiveness: The more I receive forgiveness from God through Christ for my sins and delight in His mercy to me, the more I will be a forgiving person toward those who sin against me.  For instance, what empowered David to be so forbearing of Shimei, the man who cursed him after Absalom's revolt in 2 Samuel 16?  One significant factor has to be the great forgiveness David had received from God in the wake of his great sins in 2 Samuel 11.  Do you want to grow in your capacity to forgive others? Focus on the greater forgiveness in Christ God has extended to you.
  • Physical healing: Now, none of us has the power to physically heal another person, but we can exhibit care for those who are ill or injured in our lives, and our remembrance of God's past healing of us can inspire such feelings.  Back in 1991 I returned from the Gulf War with a residual disease which dogged me until the spring of 1995.  At that time many friends prayed for me, and God healed my body.  None of those symptoms have ever returned.  What grace!  But what a shame it would be for God's healing grace not to flow over to an increased sensitivity to and care for the many hurting, injured and ill people around me.  One practical effect has been that whenever I see or hear an ambulance, I pray for that person/situation.  Remembering God's healing grace to me makes all the difference when I encounter others who need His healing.
  • Redemption: Again, we don't have the power to 'buy another out of spiritual slavery' as Christ has redemptively done for us.  But, think about what Jesus' redemption took: it cost Him His life.  Philippians 2:1-11 is a great expression of that.  The more we as redeemed sinners contemplate the cost of Christ's redemption of us, the more we will be transformed by His Spirit and become increasingly willing - even eager - to lay down our lives for one another and, as Galatians 6:2 says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."  
  • Spiritual renewal: Though only the Holy Spirit can 'satisfy us with good so that our youth is renewed like the eagle's,' the more we call to mind the wealth of goodness God has poured out to us and feel its renewing effect in our hearts, we find ourselves empowered to bless those around us with goodness (rather than the badness of our sin and selfishness) in a living prayer of blessing for them.  I think of Epaphroditus in Philippians 3:25ff. of whom Paul (who was in prison) says, "ministered to my need" or  Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:16 who "often refreshed" Paul.  We don't know the details, but without doubt the refreshing good flowing through those Christian men was rooted in the deeper renewal given them through the grace of Christ.  Making much of that in our lives can make us such friends of refreshment to our friends, too.
  • Justice: Every day we have opportunities to stand up for what is right in defending the oppressed and seeking justice for the helpless and marginalized in our world.  That could take the form of anything from expressing some righteous anger when you hear about human rights in Syria being violated or writing a letter to the city council suggesting a ceiling on local rental prices because of gouging.  But our passion for justice will not grow unless we keep a clear and steady gaze on the justice of God for the sake of Christ's righteousness.
  • Knowing/enjoying God: Perhaps the greatest of all gifts of grace is the welcome for us to know and enjoy God.  That's the big point of our salvation according to Christ (John 17:3).  Where would we be without knowing and God, and how pale our enjoyment of creation with the Creator excluded?  The more we ponder this joy and privilege of knowing Christ, the more we'll be compelled to share it with others.  All of us want to increase in our witness, don't we?  Taking time daily to ponder who we would be and where we would be (not to mention where we'd be heading) without knowing God has great power to launch us into an evangelistic mindset with greater fervor and passion.
  • Compassion: None of us would say that we lack compassion.  We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people.  Yet, in reality, our compassion is often quite selective and often connected to our personal benefit in some way.  How can we change that and become people who notice hurting people more often, and then seek to alleviate their pain?  Remembering God's great compassion poured out to us every day - that's how.  Think of how compassionate God has been to you the past 24 hours: He gave you the gift of sleep, He provided you with food, He listened to your prayers and complaints, He felt deeply grieved when you were sinned against.  The list could go on and on.  When we consider God's Fatherly compassion to us, suddenly we find ourselves taking note of others' pain and doing something about it.
  • Love: Remember the two key areas of God's love touched on in Psalm 103?  His love which graciously placed a holy fear of Him in our hearts, and His loving plan to generally extend His covenant grace to believer's children.  God didn't need to love us in those ways?  He could have stopped at loving us in merely general or distant ways, but both those ways are intimate and personal. When I think about the depth and scope of God's love, I'm suddenly ashamed at the stinginess of my love for others.  But I'm also motivated to extend it to others; to live out the loving character qualities listed by Paul in I Corinthians 13:4-7: patience, kindness, not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude or insisting on my own way or being irritable or resentful or rejoicing at sin but rejoicing with the truth as well as bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things and enduring all things.  When I think of God's intimate, replete love for me, suddenly I want to live that way to others.
  • Significance: In my more honest moments, I find myself looking in so many wrong places to feel significant: how well I preach a sermon or counsel a couple; how beautiful my house looks or how many books I read in a month.  Those are empty places in which significance stems from pride, rather than God.  But in Christ's Kingdom our true significance is found.  We bear His name; we get to share His message; we stand cleansed, adopted, transformed and bound for glory for eternity!  Remembering those truths of significant grace we find in Christ, suddenly its not quite so important what I look like in the mirror or how good my grades are or what a fine parent my neighbors think I am.  Christ is enough.  Nothing's more liberating than that.  Just think of the blessing to others and the greater glory that would rise to God if we stopped our perpetual construction project of trying to find our significance in worldly things.  There's only one solution: saying 'yes' to our significance that already exists fully in Christ.  Our significance was settled at the Cross, and now we can rest.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Revisiting Blog Guidelines

When the Trinity Church Blog was created, we set out some ground rules for how we should operate, but as things go, some guidelines were lost and some have not always been enforced. I would like to revisit the posting instructions that we set forth at the creation on this Blog on June 19th 2008.  

Blog Introduction and Appropriate Commenting

Greetings Trinity Church and welcome to the Trinity Church Blog. Andy, or other elder approved persons, will periodically post articles, links and other church related materials to this blog. We would like you to comment or ask questions in the comment section if you so desire. If you choose to comment please provide your name in the appropriate section. All anonymous comments will be deleted.

Please keep the following things in mind as you consider what you will write in the comments section. This has been copied from a long-time, respected Christian blogger.

  • Am I expressing love for my fellow believers? (John 13:35, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.")
  • Are my words gracious and "seasoned with salt"? (Colossians 4:6, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.")
  • Are my words edifying, appropriate, and grace-giving (Eph. 4:29)?
  • Do my words convey a heart attitude of humility before God, contrition over my sin, and reverential awe at God's Word? (Isa. 66:2, "This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.")
  • Am I "speaking the truth in love"? (Eph. 4:15)
  • Am I "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace"? (Eph. 4:3)
  • Am I pursuing "what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding"? (Rom. 14:19)
  • Am I "slow to speak" and "slow to anger"? (James 1:19)
  • Am I "quick to hear"? (James 1:19)
  • Is the fruit of the Spirit--“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control"--evident in my heart and through my words? (Gal. 5:22-23)
  • Am I increasing in faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love? (2 Pet. 1:5-6)
  • Am I writing with eternal reality in view, remembering that my words will serve on judgment day as evidence about my heart? (Matt. 12:37, "By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.")
  • Am I writing in complete candor and honesty, including disclosing my true identity?
We look forward to providing helpful information with a way to promote charitable interaction between brothers and sisters who love each other with the love of Christ.
- Josh Hawkins

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Some leadership perspective

Since Greg Demme made the elders' revised staff presentation in the meeting after church last Sunday, people at Trinity have had a variety of reactions. 

  • Some are excited and ready to go.  They understand that finding the right people for the specific ministry needs Trinity is currently facing is extremely difficult (e.g. out of nearly 100 applicants our search committee has considered, only three seriously considered relocating to Minot).  They also understand that we are trying to hire not just for the present needs of the church but for the future needs we will have more and more as the church grows and as we seek to launch multiple sites in Minot and plant churches in our region.  
  • Some are excited about the possibilities, but hesitant about the financial cost.  They understand rightly that bringing on two additional staff pastors (and eventually other support staff) plus needed facility upgrades if we retain our current building will stretch us and require more giving.  They understand that this will take us out of our comfort zone into the realm of sacrifice and mission-oriented faith.  
  • Some are confused or frustrated, thinking the elders have changed their plans AGAIN, directing the church to yet another vision.  It is true that a different staff proposal from the Executive Pastor position voted on by the congregation in April has been offered, but that does not equal a different vision for the church or even for what the elders have envisioned all along for ou r staff needs.  As some of you will remember from our April meeting, I mentioned that in February when the elders were discussing which kind of staff position we most needed next (operations or pastoral) their conclusion was, "We need both now."  In April we put together a search committee looking for a superman-XP who would do both operations and oversee the congregation's pastoral needs.  What we've realized is that such a position is both difficult to fill and unhealthy as it would stretch one pastor too much.  Therefore, we have concluded that our conclusion in February proved true: "We need both now."  So, that is our proposal.  This recent proposal is also in harmony with our overall vision we communicated in April.  We believe very strongly that the best way to reach and thoroughly disciple Minot's unbelievers is to concentrate first on single-site health (a more healthy staff configuration, changing the focus of the congregation to looking outward rather than inward and establishing a facility which is able to support our long-term vision), then branch outward with multiple sites to target specific neighborhoods and finally planting churches in the growing, unreached towns within driving distance of Minot.  This retooled staff proposal would help us dramatically move forward the entire vision we cast in April.  Nothing in our vision has changed.  If anything, this double staff hire would better position us to make that vision a reality.  It may help to remember that vision is all about an agreed upon destination and the general means to reach that destination.  The destination is exposing more and more people in and near Minot to the glory of the gospel in all of life and enfolding them into gospel-centered churches.  We invite you to join us in getting really EXCITED about that vision.  That's what we should be working, praying, teaching, evangelizing and giving toward.  The leaders of the church who the members have entrusted to lead us have decided that the best way to arrive at that destination is through the three-fold vision (increased single-site health, multi-site local growth and regional church planting).  Now, the details of putting that vision into place is like taking a road trip.  At the beginning we may chart a course in general and head that direction, but invariably mid-course corrections and decisions which slightly shift the course are going to be made along the way: road construction leads us to choose a different road for the next 100 miles, on one day we're hungry for Chinese instead of Mexican, so we travel to a different part of a city than we were originally planning, etc.  Mid-course decisions and corrections are not changing the destination at all, just adjusting according to how our Sovereign God leads us as we proceed.  We have just made a mid-course correction: changing from the proposal for an Executive Pastor to our present two staff proposal.  So the journey goes.  We believe this decision will get us to our desired destination even better, just as a quicker road discovered does the same on a road trip.  So, we encourage you to stay focused on the destination, not the many mid-course corrections which will invariably be made along the way.
  • Some people, in light of the various decisions and directions being vision-casted by our leaders, are feeling afresh the pain they've felt in the past for decisions made by church leaders.  Change always brings discomfort and at times the specific changes proposed hit our comfort or threaten our ministry loves (or what we want the church to look like) the most.  That's painful.  Sometimes church leaders sin in various ways in the midst of leading a church through change as well.  I know I've done that at times and hurt people deeply.  I think I've tried to communicate and repent to all I've sinned against through leadership gone wrong in the past.  The danger for those in this category is equating change or bold, visionary leadership with pain or something negative.  All growth (of the church and us through sanctification) requires change.  Change for mere change sake is unhelpful, but those who are simply change-averse will find themselves eventually warring with God Himself and that's a very dangerous place to be.  If you or someone you know is having a difficult time with Trinity's changes and vision because you still have unresolved hurt or unforgiveness from the past, I plead with you to trust God and talk with the person(s) with whom you have an issue.  If you allow it to fester and spread, it will both eat at you and infect others with an ungodly cancer of dissension.  God cares more about the unity of His people than he does about our opinions about ministry direction pro or con.   
  • Some people just want to be comfortable and are willing to sacrifice the glory of God on the altar of their comfort rather than sacrificing for the greater fame of Christ in our city.  I have heard of folks at Trinity in the past few days who have asked, "Why do we need to grow as a church?  We like it just like it is."  Let's think about such sentiment for a moment.  On the one hand, they are expressing something good about Trinity - they feel welcomed; they feel like they've found a true family; they've found a safe place to grow spiritually, etc.  Those are good things.  At the same time, they must realize that if the church had had that 'no grow' attitude six months prior to their arrival, they likely would not have been welcomed into fellowship like they were.  If the person who told them about Christ had a 'Why does Christ's church need to grow?' attitude, they likely would not have heard the gospel.  What if Billy Graham had had that attitude - or DL Moody - or the Apostle Paul who wrote in 2 Corinthians  6:11, "We spoke freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open."  We need to ask ourselves, members of Trinity Church, is our collective heart wide open to the masses pouring into Minot?  Are we captivated with the excitement of not just hundreds but thousands and tens of thousands of men, women and children trusting, worshiping and being changed by the grace of Jesus?  Are we dissatisfied by the fact that the hotels and restaurants and apartment buildings are multiplying rapidly in our city but churches are not?  Are we willing to take some holy, dangerous risks for the sake of Christ's Kingdom knowing that for eternity we'll have no regrets?  True, we don't have to set our sights on growing as a church.  We don't have to grow if we're willing to forego and ignore the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18ff).  We don't have to grow if we don't care about Christ becoming more glorious and the hope of the unbelievers we know, let alone the Hope of the nations (Psalm 67).  We don't have to grow if we are o.k. with the sinful immorality which is laced through our city and its families and institutions.  If we are fine with setting aside the authority of Scripture and instead ordering the church and her priorities according to what feels most comfortable to us, then we don't have to think about looking ahead and beyond ourselves toward the growth of Christ's Kingdom.  We don't have to pray, teach, volunteer, work, evangelize and dream toward the expansion of the church.  But we know that would equal defection from Christianity itself.  As your leaders we're ready to say loud and clear, "It's time to dream boldly and march obediently and with joyful sacrifice into a greater expression of Christ's church for greater glory to Christ."  If this means death to our comfort and fears, then so be it.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

New staff proposal

The elders believe that moving from illness to fitness will require major staff and facility growth.  The facility details will be explored later this year, but the elders are agreed that in light of Minot’s current real estate market, it may make sense to remain on our current land as a present main site and future south site and maximize it as much as possible (including expansion in areas of office, c.e., nursery and possibly sanctuary space as well as exterior solutions/updates) using the proceeds from selling part of our land.  This would allow us to move forward with significant staff hires (generated by our regular income) and still address our facility needs.
Phase one of our strategic vision will take us into a new pastoral staff paradigm needed to posture ourselves for growth and maximum ministry impact into the future.  Thus far in the history of our church, we have had pastors who were ministry generalists, i.e. though they didn’t do all the ministry in the church, but they were ultimately responsible for ensuring that it got done; and if there was no one else to do it, they did it.  Generalist ministry hinders both pastoral health (they are not able to pour into their areas of giftedness and draw reasonable boundary lines) and church growth (they can only reasonably oversee so much ministry before ministry balls get dropped).  In such a system, growth is only sustainable to the maximum point of that person’s capacities. 
We believe greater health and growth for Trinity will be attained by moving away from seeing any pastoral staff as ministry generalists.  Rather, creating specialized staff positions which limit their ministry focus, allow them to operate in areas in which they thrive and balance each other will posture us for maximum health and growth.  Thus far in our strategy, we’ve believed that the best starting point in this new staff configuration was to shift Andy’s generalist (Senior Pastor) role into a specialist role which maximize his gifts (Lead Pastor of Teaching and Theological Vision), and introduce a ministry partner (Executive Pastor) who together would form an Executive Staff Team and form the ‘senior staff’ hub of the ministry wheel as the church prepares to expand into phases two and three. 
As many know, the XP search has been challenging, as we anticipated that it would.  Given the broad and deep nature of the job description (which some have termed as ‘Superman’), the optimal candidate would be asked to do more than is reasonable or healthy for any single pastor.   The SC has also discovered that the vast majority of men who are qualified for this position are unwilling to relocate to Minot for various reasons. 
By His Providence, we believe God may be opening a door which would provide an ideal solution.  Through this search process not one but two men have risen to the fore with complementary gifts and personalities and we believe that both men serving at Trinity alongside Andy would form a kind of pastoral dream team which would advance ministry significantly – far more than an ultimate XP could do.  Again, at this point we doubt that the ultimate XP role which we’ve been trying to fill would be realistic or healthy.  Therefore, we are recommending that Trinity allow our search committee to explore bringing both men on staff.  At least during our season of single sight growth in health, all three positions would function together as an executive staff team:
(disclaimer: the follow position descriptions are approximate and still in process of final formation)
1. Lead Pastor of Teaching and Theological Vision (Andy)
·         Trinity’s primary Bible student/teacher/preacher over the church as a whole
·         Primary theological/ministry discipler of the elders and other pastoral staff
·         Chief architect of Trinity’s philosophy of ministry and strategic mission vision
·         Trinity’s chief theological thinker, spokesman and writer, seeking to weave gospel-centrality into every aspect of ministry
·         Nurturing/modeling a life of leadership prayer
·         Areas of occasional ministry will include select:
o   Counseling
o   Discipleship of prospective elders
o   Weddings, Funerals, baptisms, etc.
o   Leadership in Minot’s Christian community
o   Mentoring younger pastors from other churches
2. Pastor of Ministry Development with a view toward eventually moving into an Executive Pastor role when Trinity goes multi-site and begins hiring campus pastors and other ministry personnel (worship leaders, etc.).
·         The church’s chief leadership/ministry development strategist
·         The strategic catalyst toward practical implementation of the vision
·         The strategic trainer of staff
·         Hire, manage and develop all administrative staff
·         Create efficient and helpful systems for all church operations
·         The designer of the small group system and trainer of small group leaders
·         The designer of our Christian education system and trainer of CE leaders/teachers
·         The designer of our outreach and assimilation system
·         The operational representative of and to the elder board
·         Oversee all fiscal, facility and policy operations of the church
·         Oversee all operational ministry teams
·         Oversee all operational aspects of the gathering of the church body
·         He will ‘mastermind’ our local multisite and regional church planting strategy
·         He will always seek to know where every person in the church is at in the assimilation/growth/ministry process
3. Pastor of Care and Connection with a view toward eventually moving into a Campus Pastor/Pastoral Mentor role in which he would both lead his own campus and care for other campus pastors and staff members. 
·         The pastoral caretaker of the staff
·         Overseer of all pastoral care systems for the church
·         The leader of the deacons and crisis care ministries
·         The pastoral representative of and to the elder board
·         The mentor/shepherd of small group leaders and CE leaders/teachers
·         The leadership ‘face’ of Trinity’s outreach and assimilation strategy
·         The mentor/shepherd of worship leaders/teams
·         The staff person ultimately responsible for weddings, funerals, baptisms, dedications and the counseling ministry of the church (until we go multi-site)
·         He would always seek to know how every person in the church is doing in their spiritual/personal health and growth in the gospel
At this point, there are still some unknowns.  Both would need to go through the candidating/vetting process and be elected by the members of the church.   What we’re trying to determine as we make this proposal is whether or not our members agree with the elder board and search committee that this configuration would so position Trinity for optimum ministry health and growth that it is worth taking a step of faith and budgeting toward in November.
Thinking about finances, by God’s grace we are doing very well and running a substantial surplus for 2012.  Though we cannot at this time say exactly what both salary packages would total, an educated average would be around $70K.  That translates to $2,700 additional income per week.  In 2012, we have been taking in around $900 surplus each week, which leaves about $1,800 more we would need to be given each week to cover these additional salaries.  We currently have 97 giving units in our directory.  If just 40 of those giving units gave an additional $45 per week, it would be covered.  If 80 families/singles gave an additional $23 per week, it would be covered.  So, this seems quite do-able.  Also, it is highly likely that these new staff positions will both help attract and retain new families which will grow our giving base.  We see these potential hires as ministry investments which will eventually pay for themselves and then some.  Up front other costs would be needed to put these staff members in place (computers, etc.), but we do have sufficient funds in savings to cover those costs.
The elders and search committee only want to move forward with this proposal once we know most in the congregation are behind it.  Therefore, we’d love to hear your questions and feedback.  Please call or email any elder.  Thanks so much!