Thursday, December 11, 2014

Levi's Genes

I am speaking this Sunday from the genealogy of Matthew. I guess I could call it Levi's Genes (see what I did there). I love the story behind the Christmas story that Matthew provides.  The genealogy Matthew offers is more than space filler or a list of names we tend to ignore. It is a narrative comprised of some of the most sordid and shocking tales in Scripture - outrageous, immoral, reprehensible stories of scandal and depravity.

Why does Matthew chose to highlight what most historians attempting to prove the Messiahship of Jesus to a Jewish audience would want to omit?  We get a hint in 1:21 where Matthew records the angel's instruction to Mary to name the child Jesus "for he will save his people from their sins."

God the Son entered the messiness of our world in order to save sinners. Matthew's scandalous inclusions in the genealogy of Jesus are just another reminder of this grace-filled truth. He highlights what we would hide so that we are reminded that the Christmas story is about God sending a Savior into the world.  Sinners need a Savior.  They don't need a program, plan, or step. They need a Savior.

We tend to sanitize the Christmas story with traditional nativity scenes, greeting cards, and carols. But Matthew reminds us that before we get to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi there is an R-rated back story that would make most of us blush. And these stories serve as a tapestry of grace and redemption.

Not only did Jesus enter our world through a barn and feeding trough, but He was born into a family tree filled with perverse sexual sin, murder, incest, deceit, horrible decisions, and all sorts of sinful misconduct.  Matthew wants us to know from the beginning the type of people Jesus came to save - people with hidden secrets, shady pasts, and open sins. People who are sinners.

In a sense, God stacks the deck against Himself to make sure we understand the gospel is not about what we do or do not do.  Our self-proclaimed goodness is pointless. Jesus came to save people with no religious platform. 

If you know Matthew's story, you recognize he himself is a bad-boy-turned-disciple. He was a thief and traitor.  His friends were party people. He had no platform upon which to stand. And then Jesus entered his space with those two simple words "follow me" and everything changed.

Matthew intentionally reminds us from the start that this story is different. It is not about how good we are. It is about how good He is.  And when you explore the stories in Matthew's list, you learn the gospel is for outcasts, immigrants, and paupers. It is for perverts, adulterers, murderers, renegades, seducers, liars and thieves. Bottom line: the gospel is for sinners. And that list includes me. 

God sent a Savior because that is exactly who we need. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A White Man's Perspective

I am white.  I see the world through the eyes of a white male.

Let's take it a step further. I was raised in a prejudice environment.  I grew up hearing the "n-word" used regularly by family, friends, and many in the southern culture in which I was raised.  Sadly it was also an occasional part of my vocabulary and attitude until after high school.  That's my reality.

I can't understand how a black man feels. I do not see the world through the eyes of a person with a skin color different than my own. I do not know what it feels like to be singled out because of my race. I have never been publicly profiled.  I have never felt labeled because of my skin tone. I have never lived as a minority in a nation with a deep-seated history of prejudice attitudes and actions.

I have a couple of close black friends who have described to me how they are consistently made to feel. I can't relate to them. Frequently searched at airports. Followed around in stores. Unnecessarily questioned. Routinely pulled over for no legitimate reason. Constantly looked at with suspicion.

I don't get it.  Bottom line: I can't get it. I am white and whether we want to admit it or not white privilege is a reality. I have certain advantages simply because I am a white male. I will never face unfair prejudices because of my race.  If you have trouble believing that actuality, you are either in denial or willfully uninformed.

I can only view what is happening in Ferguson through the eyes of a white man.  And let's be honest, we tend to defend the people who are most like us. Just look at the polls associated with the Ferguson situation. The story they tell is clear.

What that means is my natural tendency is to defend Officer Darren Wilson. Sadly the depravity of my heart wants to believe Michael Brown somehow deserved what he got.  I choose the words sadly and depravity because the natural sinful heart of humans is bent toward our own distorted view of justice.  We want what we believe is right based on our own partisan ideology.

Michael Brown was a human being created in the image of God. He had value, worth, and dignity.  Right or wrong, deserved or undeserved, innocent or guilty, Michael Brown's death is tragic. In the midst of our effort to defend why his death is justifiable, don't miss the tragedy.  It is tragic because a human being, created in God's image, lost his life.  And our "yeah, but" reactions simply speak of our own lack of understanding of how valuable a life is to our Creator.

I am a Christ follower. The bedrock of my belief system is the story of a God who loves, forgives, and redeems undeserving people.  In and through Christ, my natural prejudiced tendencies are being replaced by a love for all types of people - regardless of race, gender, social status, nationality and every other dividing wall that separates us from the moment we enter life.

As a person who is being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, my perspective is also being shaped. No longer do I live life just as a middle class white male living in the suburbs or as an urban black male living in the inner-city. Instead, I am part of a people who are not to be defined primarily by race, gender, or class but by the gospel (Gal 3:28). In other words, the lens by which I view life and people should not be marked primarily by my own bigotry or preferences or self-centeredness but by the impartiality and inclusiveness of the gospel.

As a follower of Jesus, I should value life. I should value the life of those I would naturally disregard. I should value the life of those I would normally judge or condemn. I should value the life of those who in my twisted opinion "deserve" what they got.  And I value these lives because Jesus values them ... because Jesus values ME!  In short, the gospel changes how I view and interpret the brokenness of this world.

Let's be frank. Racism is a S-I-N.  Jesus spoke regularly against it. Paul condemned it. The other New Testament writers denounced it.  In the Old Testament, God consistently rebuked His people for their racist tendencies.  Racism, obvious or covert, has no place in the life of the Jesus follower.

Rioting is wrong. Violence is sinful. Destroying property is senseless. But using the inappropriate reactions of sinners to disregard true racism or ignore hurting people is without excuse for the Christian.

I am a white male. I can't change that reality.  I view life from that perspective. But more importantly, I am a sinner who has been radically transformed by the gospel of grace. The only true remedy to racism is the gospel. Jesus entered the chaos to redeem sinners. That is the heart of the gospel. And it is through that grace-centered lens that I must seek to live life amidst the chaos. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Second Time

I am speaking this Sunday from Jonah 3. Jonah is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. It is clear gospel in story form. 

God calls ~ Jonah runs
God wants to include outsiders ~ Jonah wants to exclude outsiders
God loves ~ Jonah hates
God pursues ~ Jonah flees
God forgives ~ Jonah whines
God provides second opportunities ~ Jonah needs second opportunities

God is the only hero in the story of Jonah. The only example Jonah provides is what NOT to do.  He is the epitome of a self-absorbed, self-righteousness, self-concerned God follower. Even his prayer in chapter two is self-focused and self-serving.  God on the other hand repeatedly imparts unconditional grace to the undeserving in the story - the righteous (Jonah) and the unrighteous (sailors, Assyrians).

One of my favorite statements in the book is found in 3:1 where it maintains the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.  I love that phrase "the second time."  Those three simple words tell us so much about God (and us).

1. God doesn't hold grudges.

I love the fact that God does what is necessary to save Jonah, not to punish him, but to redeem him - to rescue Jonah from Jonah.  And then God extends an unconditional second opportunity to this disgruntled, rebellious prophet. God doesn't qualify his call with "you blew it the first time Jonah" or "you will never amount to anything" or "what lesson did we learn Jonah" or "don't make me regret this."  We tend to hold grudges. God tends to redeem sinners for His glory and purposes.

2. God is more interested in redeeming you than accomplishing a task.

Let me be clear on something: God doesn't NEED you. God doesn't pursue us because He is needy. God seeks after us because of who He is. As the Creator, He desires to be in relationship with His creation. God did not need Jonah to take His message to Ninevah.  He could have raised up an army of prophets.  But God pursued Jonah because He desired to redeem Jonah.  We tend to overvalue our place in God's work.  We like to be needed.  But in reality, God will accomplish His work with or without me. But God desires to do a work in my life that redeems me from me.

3. God has high demands.

God's call on Jonah's life does not change. He does not negotiate His demands. His instructions remain the same - take My message to Ninevah.  God's demands are high.  He is holy. We are sinful.  He is pure.  We are impure.  We can't measure up to God's requirements.  And that is why the gospel is so vital.  We can't meet God's requirements of righteousness. But there is One who did - Jesus Christ.  Jesus lived a sinless life and became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.  I'm not sure our finite minds can comprehend the depth of that statement.

Here's what I know: God is more righteous than I can comprehend.  My sin is more offensive to God than I can even begin to imagine. My sin deeply offends a holy God.

Here's what I also know: God's grace is bigger than I can comprehend.  My sin is swallowed up in the death of Jesus - leaving me redeemed and righteous in His sight. My sin is great but Jesus is greater.  That's good news - that's the gospel.

I am like Jonah in so many ways. I want to be preferred.  I tend to position my heart toward my own desires and wants.  I react wrongly. I rebel. I have to be pursued by God.  Jonah is always lurking in my heart.  And that's why I need the gospel.  I need a God who comes to me, not just a second time, but again and again and again and again.  I need a God whose grace is limitless and that is exactly who He is. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

One Game Short

As I write this blog, the Alabama 5A High School Girls' Volleyball championship game is being played and my daughter Kayleigh is not playing.  Her team is not playing. Even though they finished the season with 52 wins and ranked #1 in the state, they lost in the semifinal game last night.  My daughter cried. My heart ached.  Losing hurts. And watching my daughter lose hurts even more.

Six years ago my daughter Kayleigh decided to play recreational volleyball. We were living in Las Vegas at the time and we had a group of friends who enjoyed getting together on Sunday evenings and playing sand volleyball at one of the local parks.  Kayleigh and one of her friends decided it would be fun to play and so we signed them up at the local rec league and sat through multiple games of girls basically struggling to get the ball over the net any way possible.  Competitive is one of the last adjectives I would use to describe these games.

And then life happened and we ended up in North Alabama and were introduced to what true competitive volleyball looks and feels like.  Suddenly I realized Kayleigh had never really played true volleyball. But the coaches here decided to give her a chance.  She is tall, athletic, and learns quickly. Their gamble paid off and Kayleigh became a consistent defender, hitter, and top contributor for one of the top volleyball programs in the state.

I believe volleyball has been a genuine part of Kayleigh's healing and growth.  It has taught her hard work and discipline.  She has developed lasting friendships with her teammates.  She has developed athletically, mentally, physically, and emotionally. She has learned.  She has felt the thrill of victory and the sting of defeat.  She has grown up. She has flourished.  And through it all, I cheered from the sidelines with pride and humility. Proud of who she is and humbled that I was chosen to be her daddy.

Kayleigh's season came to an end last night - not just her volleyball season but a season of her life. She is no longer a struggling, insecure, somewhat awkward middle schooler trying her best to get the ball in the air.  She has grown up.  She is a young lady.  And over the next several months this life season will come to a surreal end as she takes her next step into the real world.

I can't say Kayleigh is the only person who has cried in the last 24 hours. Tears have fallen on my cheeks as well - not just because my inspiring daughter's dream of winning a state title fell one game short but because my baby girl is growing up.

Some days I miss those Saturday afternoons in a hot rec center when everything seemed less intense. But then I realize that God has taken both of us on a journey that has shaped who we are today - a journey that gives me the confidence that no matter how many mistakes I make as a father God's ability to clean up is bigger than my ability to mess up.   

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

To: The Pastor Considering an Extramarital Affair. From: Me.

I read an interesting article yesterday entitled To the Pastor Considering an Extramarital Affair.  As someone who as the culprit has lived firsthand through this reality, I was interested in what Dr. Degler had to say.  Her perspective is spot-on for the most part.  Here are a few of the thoughts that stood out to me.

1. The real issue when it comes to sins like adultery is my own brokenness. 

I can blame my former spouse and our unhealthy relationship on my choices (and those issues are not totally irrelevant) but in reality my own brokenness caused me to make the choices I did.  While my wife loves and understands me at a level that I have never experienced, it is only because of what God has done in our lives that I can make that statement.  What caused us to get involved with each other initially was rooted in our own selfish hearts and actions.

2. Your sin will be exposed.

I can't describe the pressure of living with the realization that you are on the verge of getting caught at any time - especially in ministry when everything is on the line. It is crippling.  And yet somehow you convince yourself that you will be the exception to the rule. 

I have no doubt there are multitudes of pastors who are living with hidden sins who may or may not ever be exposed.  They may "get away with it" from the public eye but eventually their heart will be exposed in other ways.  Sin always leads to death. It may be the death of your ministry, influence, and family.  Or it may be the death of intimacy, a relationship, one's heart for God, or a multitude of other possibilities. But regardless of how public your disclosure becomes, your sin will be exposed and things will die in the process.

3. You are one google search away from being exposed again and again.

We live in a world of easy access to information.  Even four years removed from my exposure, someone continues to take it upon themselves to continue to remind people of my sin.  In my opinion, it is a sad individual who is that obsessed with the sin of someone else but it is my reality. I wrote an article once telling how someone even fraudulently signed me up for the Ashley Madison website (Life is short. Have an affair)! 

In King David's famous prayer of repentance in Psalm 51, he talks about how his sin was ever before him.  In some sense, exposed sin is ever before everyone now.

4. Your sin affects a lot of people deeply.

I am not sure I still recognize the deep effects that my choices had on other people.  I experience in everyday life how my choices affected those I love the most. And I am sure those effects will continue to surface as time goes.  My sphere of influence was somewhat wide and I know I hurt more people than I even realize. 

There are numerous people even after four years who refuse to acknowledge my existence. I am talking about people I led to Christ, people I married, people I hired to serve on my staff, people I baptized, whose children I baptized, people I mentored, who mentored me, people in whom I invested time, energy, and money, people I once influenced or who influenced me, and on and on.  I am not saying these people are right or wrong in their continual reaction. Honestly I understand their response. It is the easiest and most natural one. And these examples are simply people with whom I had a direct relationship.  I have no idea how many people outside my direct circle felt the impact of my choices.  Remember: sin never impacts you alone.  It always affects other people.

5. There is hope for those who have an affair. 

I'm not sure we fully grasp the magnitude of God's grace, redemption, and healing until we go through a life situation that forces us to rest solely in it.  I'm not suggesting you should go through what I have been through in order to experience the level of healing God has provided. I do not wish these past 4+ years of my life on anyone.  Sometimes God's grace is as much about from what it protects us as much as from what it delivers us.

What I am saying is that I talked a lot about grace prior to my life-altering season of sin but I have truly experienced His grace in recent years.  When almost everyone in your life is telling you how great you are, you tend to ignore or forget your need for grace. But when almost everyone in your life is telling you how sinful, wrong, and foolish you are and yet God in His grace reaches down and picks you up and reminds you that you are His child in spite of how sinful, wrong and foolish you are, that's when you begin to grasp fully how undeserved, radical, and necessary grace is.

The road is long. The journey is tough. The path I chose rarely ends well. And yet there is hope. There is hope because God redeems. There is hope because God forgives. There is hope because God never gives up on us. There is hope because His grace is bigger than my sin.

I live everyday knowing I am not doing what God gifted me to do.  I struggle regularly with how God wants me to use my gifts for His glory.  I miss doing the things I am equipped to do.  And yet, I have hope.  I have hope that no matter where my life goes from here God's love for me remains constant.

So to the pastor considering having an affair or the everyday person flirting with a decision that could alter the course of your life and the lives of those around you, don't do it.  The price is high. The consequences are severe.  Choose life. Choose forgiveness. Choose healing. Choose hope. Choose grace. And for those who have already crossed that line ... you do the same.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Ready, Set ... SIN!

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (Romans 6.1)

Have you ever wondered why Paul had to address this question?  Here's why: Paul taught a message of grace so scandalous that it naturally led followers of Jesus to conclude it makes logical sense to increase our sinful activity so that God's extraordinary grace can be further displayed. More sin = more grace.

Here's an unnerving thought for those of us who prefer our list of rights and wrongs: when you proclaim a message of genuine grace, some people will assume a life of indulgence is the best path to experience grace at the deepest level.

Obviously Paul quickly corrects this misunderstanding by instructing his readers that dying to sin and living for Jesus are natural by-products of experiencing grace - not the opposite.  In other words, when I truly capture the magnitude of God's radical grace it propels me toward right living not away from it.  When I sin, I am taking a step back from who I am in Jesus.

In Christ, I have been declared free. So why would I live a life of captivity?  When I sin, I am putting on shackles Jesus has already removed. It is unnatural for a redeemed person who has been set free to desire bondage (even thought there is often a level of comfort there - another post for another day).

When as a Jesus follower I grasp the reality of the gospel, I am drawn to righteousness. That's why it is essential to understand that the gospel is not just the entrance point into the Christian life. The gospel is the heartbeat of Christian living. It is what enables me to live for Jesus and become more like Jesus. It is the reason Paul says in 1 Cor 2.2 that he has one message: Christ crucified. Anything else tends to leave us antinomians or legalists.

Preaching grace is dangerous.  Some will misinterpret your message as a license to sin.  Others will attempt to live moral lives out of sheer willpower.  And many will fail to grasp the magnitude of both their own sin and the grace of God displayed in Jesus Christ. 

So we tend to restrict grace. We want to tame it. We rationalize it.  We explain it.  Because if we do not, grace gets really messy really fast. It is complicated. It makes us uncomfortable.

The longer I am on this journey, the more I am learning that grace can't be placed within our tidy theological systems and boundaries. It can't be harnessed.  At times it will make us uneasy and leave us puzzled.  But if it doesn't, Paul says it is not true grace because scandalous, irrational, divine grace will cause us at times to respond, "If this message is true, let's go sin because grace increases as sin increases."

If your view of God's grace does not make you uncomfortable, you haven't truly grasped it.  And guess what? It's probably because you have yet to grasp the depth of your own depravity either. 

Listen to what deceased theologian Martin Lloyd-Jones exclaims about this verse:

"The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. This is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel."

Do these words make you uncomfortable? They should. That's what the true message of grace does. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Thoughts on Mark Driscoll

*If you are not familiar with "church world" and the Mark Driscoll situation, this blog post may be meaningless to you. 


"What I did was indefensible. Thanks be to Jesus it is also forgiven." Mark Driscoll

Social media, the blogosphere, and news related to evangelical Christianity have been abuzz in recent months with the supposed demise of Mark Driscoll - the infamous pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  Accusations of bullying, verbal abuse, inappropriate behavior and language, improper use of church funds, plagiarism, and a number of other charges have been leveled against the mega-church superstar.  Yesterday he announced to the church that he is taking a 6-week leave of absence as pastor. 

I have spent some time with Mark and was even part of a small group of young leaders who were mentored by Driscoll and a few other prominent pastors.  The church I started in Las Vegas was and still is a part of the Acts 29 church planting network that Mark started.  I have talked to Mark one-on-one several times and his guidance helped shape and develop me as a young leader and pastor.

I have also been verbally confronted by Mark Driscoll. It was not fun. When I resigned from ministry as a result of my choices, I received a phone call from Driscoll that was brutal.  His language was questionable and his tone was harsh.  I was not surprised.  And in one sense, I felt I deserved it.  Maybe I did. And I didn't and don't hold it against Mark for responding the way he did. Right or wrong, it fits his personality and style.  I expected no less. 

By the way, I received similar phone calls from other headline leaders who are not being tried in the court of public opinion.  I have spent time with many other pastors who use similar language and have a similar style but who have managed to stay out of the public spotlight.  Right or wrong, it is reality. Pastors are humans and struggle with language, anger, bitterness, resentment, pride, hatred, and every other temptation known to humanity. We all make choices that are indefensible. That's why we need the gospel.

I have no idea whether Mark Driscoll should or should not remain a pastor.  I wrestle constantly with the same question in my own life. I don't know the answer.  What I do know is that pastors have a high calling.  The pressure to succeed in ministry is immense. The temptation to lose focus is constant. The loneliness is overbearing at times. It is not a vocation one should enter lightly.

My heart goes out to Mark Driscoll. Even though we would not be considered close friends, I have spent enough time with him and around him to know that underneath all the aggressiveness, brashness, and arrogance is a man who loves Jesus, his family, and the gospel. 

I pray he gets the direction he needs and is able to rebound with humility.  I pray that his brightest days are ahead of him.  I pray for his wife and children.  And I pray for Mars Hill.  My wife is from Seattle. My in-laws still live there.  It is a city that needs Jesus.  God has used Mark Driscoll, in spite of his shortcomings, and Mars Hill Church to punch a hole in the darkness there.  I pray He continues to do so. 

From all appearances, Simon Peter had a similar personality as Mark Driscoll.  He constantly stuck his foot in his mouth, corrected people, cursed, and even rebuked Jesus Himself.  And let's not forget Peter even blatantly denied Jesus when Jesus needed him the most.  And yet in early Acts when God selected someone to stand on the center stage at Pentecost and preach, guess who was chosen? Peter, the disciple with the hot head and foul mouth. Thankfully God has room for the brazen and abrasive. 

I am not defending the actions or attitude of Mark Driscoll.  What I am saying is this: give God space. Give God the space to work in Mark's life.  Trust that God is big enough and gracious enough to use this time of difficulty to make Mark more like Jesus and less like Mark Driscoll.  After all, you and I need that same space.