Friday, February 06, 2015

I Should Have...But I Didn't

Just an observation ...

It is not uncommon for me to cross paths via e-mail or in person or through social media with people I would have considered good friends when I was in full-time ministry.  When these interactions occur, I never quite know how a former friend will respond to me or how they "feel" about me. 

One thing I've noticed that I hear often is something like: "I should have reached out to you but I didn't" or "I read your blog all the time but I've never tried to contact you."

Honestly I get why most people don't reach out to friends during seasons of sin or difficulty. It is just awkward.  After all, what do you say to someone who is making decisions with which you disagree? Do they even want to hear from you? How do you communicate your concern for them without pushing them away?  Frankly, it is just seems easier to lose contact.

I can list lots of people that I would have considered a friend or mentor who have never attempted to reach out to me. Some tried once or twice but most did not. And I don't blame them. Nor do I expect them to make any effort to contact me. Like I said, I get it.

But here's what I want to encourage you to do: the next time you think of that person who has made some bad life decisions or who has gone through a tough time of their own making, reach out to them. Let them know you are thinking about or praying for them. Let them know you are there if they need you. Let them know God loves them regardless of their life decisions. Let them know there is healing, grace, forgiveness, and redemption. Let them know you care.

You may or may not ever hear back from them. They may or may not want to hear from you. You may or may not ever see them again.  But here's what I know: people need to know that there is someone who cares about them even on their worst days. People need to know that there is someone who is there for them regardless.

I love how Jesus stood by Peter in his worst moments. He loved him through some tough decisions. And I believe how Jesus dealt with Peter in his darkest hour shaped Peter's future ministry. How Jesus responded to Peter forever marked his life.

Ask yourself: who do I need to reach out to today? Who has made some poor choices but just needs to hear from a friend? Who needs to be pursued? 

Take that step. It could make all the difference. I speak from experience.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Real Story of David & Goliath

This Sunday I am speaking on one of my favorite Bible stories: David & Goliath. You do not have to be a "church person" to have heard this ultimate underdog story of a shepherd boy who defeats with a sling and a few stones a war-trained giant who wears weights for a jacket.

I love a good underdog story. Some of my favorite movies are about underdogs: Rudy, Rocky, Remember the Titans, The Karate Kid, Hoosiers, Braveheart ... you get the idea. We love movies that involve some person or team overcoming tremendous odds to win an unimaginable victory.

We love the story of David and Goliath because we appreciate stories of courage and heroism. I believe there is a part of us that wants to stand against the odds with valiant audacity and win the battle. In short, we want to be David.

I believe this is one of the primary reasons that most of the sermons you hear about this biblical account center on encouraging us to stand bravely like David and face life's "giants" - which usually come in the form of financial stress, an addiction, a bad relationship, stress, anger, or any other "difficulty" that we face in life.  Most of these well-intended messages provide us some type of moral example application on how we should muster courage, trust God, and use our weapons to defeat those pesky giants life sends our way.

But what happens when the giants win? What happens when the relationship ends or the addiction comes back or the financial security never comes? What happens when all the courage you can muster is not quite enough and you retreat to the corner afraid to face your giants?

I believe to read the story of David & Goliath strictly as a moral example to follow misses the Bible's bigger redemptive storyline. While David does serve in some regard as an example, more importantly David stands as a mere shadow of the One who would come to conquer life's eternal giants.

In the story, David is kind of a champion-redeemer in the sense God raised up this unlikely deliverer who would stand in the place of cowering Israel and win a battle that guaranteed victory for the entire nation.  His victory provides escape for God's people.  See what's going on here?

The story of David & Goliath fits within the broader framework of God's redemptive story. It demonstrates how God works.  David is a picture of how God would one day provide a Champion-Redeemer who would conquer the enemies of sin, death, and hell.

Our ultimate enemy is not our circumstances or finances or troubles or whatever "giants" you are facing. Our greatest struggle is against the law of God that demands our perfection, our sin that causes us to fall short of God's standard, and death - the consequence of our sin.

And it is in the gospel that God provides an unlikely Savior to deliver His people from these eternal enemies, to win the victory on our behalf. 

As others have pointed out, we are less like David facing the giant Goliath and more like the Israelites cowering in fear while our Champion-Redeemer stands in our place and wins the battle over sin, death, and hell for us through his own sacrifice. He wins our fight and we reap the benefits.

Here's the good news: ultimately it is not on you to muster up the courage to face and overcome your giants. That battle has already been fought and won by Jesus.

In other words, we do not fight FOR victory. We fight FROM victory. Huge difference.

What happens when the giants win? What happens when my courage fails? What gives me hope when I am unable to win the battle?

What gives me hope and courage is knowing that Jesus has already won the battle. Victory is mine through Jesus.  As David says in the story, "The battle is the Lord's." 

What that means in my every day life is I live in what He has done for me. I can face whatever difficulty life throws my way because I am His. He has won the victory on my behalf.  I rest in and live in the power of His victory.  I don't have to be Rudy. I don't have to be Rocky. I don't have to be David.  I just have to be me - a sinner who has been pursued and purchased by a Champion-Redeemer who stands in my place. I live in His triumph.

Jesus is greater than David. So the next time you read the story of David & Goliath, remember this story is more than another underdog tale.  It is a shadow of a bigger story where the ultimate victory was won by a Champion-Redeemer whose victory gives me the hope and courage to face life's difficulties.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rob Bell, Suicide, and Reconciliation

Last night Ashley and I watched The Rob Bell Show.  If you don't know, Rob Bell is an author, speaker, and former pastor who has faced some significant criticism from evangelicals for his thoughts, writings, and theological evolution.  Recently he has surfaced with the Queen of quasi-spiritualism herself Oprah Winfrey.  His new show even airs on Oprah's network.

This blog post is not about the beliefs of Rob Bell.  You can find plenty of information regarding Rob with a simple Google search.  I thought the show was typical Rob Bell. He said a lot and very little at the same time while keeping me engaged throughout.

What caught me by surprise last night was one of the people Rob interviewed for his episode on reconciliation. Rob interviewed a young lady named Rachel whose father was a pastor who went through a moral failure, lost his family and church, and eventually took his own life. His name was Doug and he was a friend of mine.  Rachel was just a child when I knew Doug.

Doug's father and my dad were close friends. His father died of cancer many years ago and Doug eventually became the pastor of his father's church.  He and I knew each other from the time I was just a teenager and in my early twenties I even spent about 9 months helping him at his church while I attended seminary in the evenings. We spent a lot of time together and had a ton of fun in the process.  When our lives took different paths, Doug and I did not keep in contact as much.  Eventually I heard that he had left ministry and some time later my heart was broken when I was told he took his own life.

Years later my life would take a somewhat similar path as Doug's.  To this day, I can remember my dad saying to me repeatedly during some of my toughest moments to never lose hope. He did not want me to end up making the same life-ending decision as Doug.  Even though I have been through some dark and lonely days, by God's grace I never faced suicidal feelings or thoughts.  But I do get why Doug made that fateful choice.

This particular episode of the The Rob Bell Show focused on reconciliation and how God desires for people to be reconciled with Him, others, and our own hearts.  Our story is a part of who we are and yet our tendency is to live apart from those chapters of our lives that create pain and hurt.

As Rob points out, reconciliation allows us to identify those parts of our lives that tend to disrupt our path, to own those parts of our story, and to use them to bring healing to others who are facing similar struggles.

Some of the most difficult chapters to name, own, and share are those we created or caused.  And yet God in his grace redeems those chapters to make us whole in Him and for the sake of those who cross our paths.  We should not live in shame, guilt, and embarrassment over those chapters. Instead we should allow them to reconcile our hearts to God for His purposes.

As Rob pointed out on his show, the cross is the ultimate sign of God's desire for our hearts and lives to be reconciled to Him.  The death of Jesus points toward redemption and healing.  It is because of His death that we can experience the peace of reconciliation.

"Me too" are not always words to be proud of when someone is telling you their darkest struggles or experiences. And yet the words "me too" bring a healing and identity that allows us to experience the reconciling grace of God that makes spiritual healing and wholeness possible.

Whatever you are facing today - know there are others who have faced or are facing the same situation. Name it. Own it. And allow God to use it for both your healing and others on this journey.

Thankfully God is using Rachel's story to bring hope and healing to others.  She has learned that tragedy and hurt are chapters that God can use for our own reconciliation and healing and to speak into the lives of others.

So thank you Rob Bell for highlighting this story in a way that reminds us that God's ultimate purpose is to reconcile all things to Himself (2 Cor 5:19).

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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