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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Mistaken Mentor & A Wedding Ring

"You will not make it three years! Your so-called marriage is destined for failure."

The words leaped off the page at me. They hurt deeply. They angered me. This remark was just a small part of a long grace-less diatribe I received from one of former mentors.  I had reached out to him to seek his forgiveness after a year of silence.  Like many, he contacted me shortly after my sin was exposed and harshly informed me how wrong I was and how deeply disappointed he was in me.  And then I didn't hear from him again until I reached out to him a year later to seek his forgiveness and convey how God had been working in my life over the previous year.

His response? A harangue on how unrepentant and narcissistic I was and how my second marriage was destined for failure. I guess I wasn't surprised. We tend to talk about grace more than we display it.  He really didn't know what steps of repentance, restoration, and healing I had taken so he didn't really know the state of my heart nor did he care to learn what God had been doing.  Sometimes it is just easier to lash out than accept and practice what forgiveness looks like in real life. I get it.

Today Ashley and I celebrate our third anniversary.  Three years is not a huge deal for most married couples but for us it is monumental.  A lot of people believed our marriage would not survive. A lot of people informed us our marriage would not last.  And yet not only have we survived, we have thrived.

Today I can honestly say that our marriage is stronger and healthier than we imagined. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Strength often comes through refining.  Our marriage did not begin under ideal circumstances. Most marriages built on the foundation with which we started crumble under the duress.  And yet the tough times we have gone through have actually drawn us closer together and not pulled us apart. Difficulties will either weaken or strengthen a marriage.  By God's grace, ours made us stronger.

2. We are passionate about each other.  I have never been loved the way Ashley loves me.  I did not know someone could love me the way she does.  I love being loved by her.  I do not feel I deserve her.  I have been asked on numerous occasions how I got "so lucky" to be married to Ashley. And to be honest, I don't know.  She is way more than I deserve. I cherish her.  I love so much about her that a list can't do justice to the things I love about her.  I believe our passion for each other keeps our marriage fresh and growing. She gets me. I get her. I love her for who she is and she celebrates who I am. She really is my best friend.

3. Second Marriage Grace.  My most read blog post ever was one I wrote on second marriage grace. You can read it here. In that post, I talk about how God used a message by Andy Stanley to teach us the principle of second marriage grace. It is a truth to which we cling regularly. The statistics of how many second marriages end in divorce dwarfs the failure of first marriages.  We know that if we are going to have a healthy, successful, and enduring marriage that we must cling to second marriage grace. It is the heartbeat of our relationship.

4. God heals, redeems, and restores.  This truth is the one primary reason our marriage has not only survived but thrives. Simply put, God's grace defies statistics. We are living evidence of that reality.

To celebrate our three year anniversary, I gave Ashley a beautiful wedding ring.  When we got married three years ago, we gave each other simple wedding bands. It was symbolic of where we were in life and the difficulties that awaited us. Our relationship was built on the only real thing we had at that time: each other. Everything seemed to be stacked against us. And the simplicity of our wedding bands symbolized the simplicity of what we had: each other.

Three years later I wanted to give Ashley something that symbolizes the depth of where we are now in our relationship.We are defying the odds. Not because of how great we are but because healing and redemption are real.  Grace trumps stats.

My former mentor was wrong. Our marriage is not destined for failure.  Our marriage, by God's enabling grace, is stronger and healthier than ever.

Happy Anniversary Ashley Hudson. I love you more deeply today than I ever have. And the best is yet to come.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Passports and Sovereignty

We just returned from an incredible family vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I love taking my family on great vacations.  We try and make our vacations memorable. In Cabo we snorkeled, went sailing, swam with dolphins, rode ATVs on the beach, ate great food at fun restaurants, and stayed in a nice resort. It was an awesome vacation...that almost did not happen.

We did not have an easy time getting to Mexico...because I am an idiot.  Last year we went out of the country by boat which means my two younger kids did not need a passport to leave the country.  I assumed the same was true when leaving the country by air.  BIG mistake.  When we arrived at the airport at 5:00 am on Saturday morning, we were informed all three kids needed passports.  I was in shock.  I had made a huge mistake.

What is ironic is that I normally research things to death and still cannot believe something so obvious slipped my attention. It looked like our much anticipated vacation might not happen. But to make a long story short, our vacation was delayed by 3 days and we spent 8 hours and an extra couple of hundred dollars getting expedited passports for the kids on Monday.  We also had to rent a car, drive back to Decatur in one day to get a notarized approval form and stay 2 nights in a hotel in Atlanta. It was quite the ordeal.

Needless to say, we were ready for vacation once we got to Mexico.

One thing I noticed during our entire ordeal is how quickly we Christians love to assign responsibility to God.  Our immediate response in these type of moments is to maintain that God has some divine reason for our vacation being delayed.  Was the plane going to crash and God decided to spare us and not everyone else on the plane? (The answer was no by the way).  Did we avoid some type of tragedy?  Did we get to Cabo on Tuesday so we could reschedule Monday's excursions when it poured rain in Cabo?  Maybe but that sounds so trivial to me.

My personal belief is that we did not get on that plane on Saturday for one primary reason: I am an idiot.  I did not do my research and realize every person, regardless of age, has to have their own individual passport to leave this country by air.  I am not going to assign blame to God for my stupidity. 

Here's what I realized. When we arrived at the Atlanta same day passport agency on Monday (the only one within hundreds of miles), I realized that there were dozens of people in the same boat as us.  Some had a slight tear or water stain on their passport.  Some ignored their expiration date.  Some people flying into Europe did not book their ticket within 3 months of expiration.  And on and on and on. Every person had a story. Every person missed a flight. Every person was supposed to be somewhere else at that moment in time.  And yet there we all stood - waiting in the same line for the same basic purpose.  Did God cause each one of us to miss our flights for some supernatural reason? Maybe? Maybe not?  Maybe we are all just idiots who forgot to do our research.

Those who know me well know that I am more reformed in my personal theology.  What that means in short is that I have a high view of God's absolute sovereignty in all matters.  I believe God is in absolute control and nothing catches God off guard.  But I also believe that God allows for stupidity.  God in His sovereignty gives room for flawed humans to make dumb mistakes.  And I even believe He allows these type events to happen without some bigger supernatural reason driving it. Sometimes God just allows stupid to happen.

At the same time, I also know that the Bible is clear that God cares about the very details of our lives. God was not indifferent or unconcerned about what happened to us. So in one sense, there is a sovereign reason we missed our flight.  But perhaps the sovereign reason was to teach us to be better prepared or to teach us patience. After all, have you ever stood in a government agency line for 8 hours?  Maybe it was a simple teaching tool to help shape us as individuals.

Let me put this whole scenario into more focus.  After arriving in Mexico on Tuesday, I learned that my mother who went in for a somewhat routine surgical procedure that day stopped breathing for 2-3 minutes during her recovery.  If my dad had not been present in the room when it happened, we are not sure she would have survived.  It was a surreal moment for sure.  Some people would look at this situation and think perhaps God was trying to keep us home for that reason.  Really?  So we one-upped God and figured out a way to get there even though He wanted us to stay?  Sounds like kind of a weak God who can get one-upped by an idiot who forgot to do his research.

Here's reality: God is in absolute control.  He is in control when we make stupid mistakes. He is in control when your loved one stops breathing.  He is in control of missed flights as well as life and death situations.  His purposes will be fulfilled in everyday life.

I am not sure God caused us to miss our flights on that Saturday for some life-altering supernatural purpose but I do know that God cares about the details of life and works through the normal to shape us.  In other words, God works through and in our stupidity to make us more dependent on Him and less dependent on us.

This vacation was one of those trips where things seemed to go a different direction than we planned.  We were almost expecting things to happen. As a matter of fact, my wedding band is lying somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes life just happens - even on vacation. And yet through it all, we had one of our best vacations ever.

And guess what? God was in control the entire time - even when I was an idiot.