Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Challenge: Being the Best Church FOR the Community

Do we want to be the best church IN the community or the best church FOR the community? That challenge has haunted me ever since I read it a few weeks back in Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw's book, The Externally Focused Quest.

The natural tendency of many churches is to be the best church IN the community. The authors suggest that this is the unspoken objective of most churches. As a result, they staff, budget and plan to achieve the goal of being the best church in the community.

When that is our objective, what is the result? Where does our emphasis lie? Our emphasis is almost exclusively internal. After all, what does it mean to be the best church in the community? Maybe it is being the biggest church. The one with the best building. The one with the coolest worship band. The church with the most programs or the best preaching. Maybe it means being the friendliest church or having the most life-impacting small groups. Each church in each community will answer that question slightly differently. And while there is nothing really wrong with being any of those things, should they be the church's objective? Should it be our objective to become the best church IN the community?

Or, should we strive to be the best church FOR the community? What would change if we sought that objective? Obviously our focus would shift from internal to external. We would start thinking and praying about how to serve the community. Instead of focusing on who is inside the church, we would seek to know those outside of the church as well. We would develop a burden to reach the community with the good news of the gospel. We would ponder how to get our church and its people into the community at large so that people outside of the church could see Christ in them. We would focus on training and equipping the people in the church to impact the people outside of the church. We would not be content just to have programs where we would invite the community into church, but we would also prayerfully seek opportunities where the church can go out into the community.

It is tempting to always seek to be the best church IN the community. I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit continually challenges me on how I can lead our church to be the best church FOR our community.

How about your church? What is your spoken (or unspoken) objective? It is internal or external? Does our gaze focus on who or what is inside our church walls, or do we look outward beyond those walls? What would change in your church if your church made a commitment to be the best church FOR your community? And what part do you play in making that objective a reality?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

God is Faithful, Powerful and Willing

This is the last part of a three part series on the essential perspectives we need in marriage, taken from Paul Tripp's book What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage.

The first reality is that we live out our marriages in a fallen world, a world that does not function as God intended it to function. A second reality is that we are less than perfect human beings. Sinful desires war against our soul and the soul of our spouse. Those desires, given an opportunity, cause turmoil in our relationship. The third reality is the most important. While the first two realities are true and vital to understand, the last reality is the one that gives us hope. This last reality reminds us that we are not alone. God is near. And God is faithful, powerful and willing to help.

This reality reminds us that when life is tough, when marriage is tumultuous, God does not leave us to our own resources. My temptation – and its a guy thing – is when I see a problem, I try to solve it in my own resources. That can work some times, but other times we don't have the resources we need in ourselves. I simply don't have the resources I need to love my spouse as Christ loved the church. I don't have the resources I need to be willing to give myself up for her as Christ gave himself up for the church. But God does. He has those resources available and he is committed to giving us everything we need to live out our marriages in a way that honors Him.

God is faithful. The classic example of God's faithfulness is Jesus Christ. When mankind sinned, God made promises of redemption. And he guided history and events and circumstances until, in the fullness of time, He sent His Son to be born on earth. And in obedience to God the Father, that Son fulfilled God's promises of redemption by being the atoning sacrifice for our sin. If God can fulfill promises that require the ordering of history, do you think he can be found faithful in your life and marriage?

God is also powerful. He is the sovereign authority over all the earth. He is creator. He sustains the world. He holds power over death. And one day complete victory will be His. If God has sovereign power over the whole world, do you think He can demonstrate His power in your life and marriage?

Finally, God is willing. It is great to have a God who is faithful and powerful, but He also has to be willing to act in our lives. And He is willing, not because of what He sees in us, but because of what is inside of Him. God is a God of mercy. He is the source of love. He is full of grace. A person could continue to list His character traits – goodness, gentleness, patience, kindness and so on. God is willing even when we are unwilling. And He is a God who delights in transforming people and situations.

And so when life is tough, when the fallen world savages you, when living with your spouse is a painful chore, know that we do not stand alone. We might be standing in weakness, in temptation, in struggle, but we do not stand alone. God is with us. He is faithful in all things. His power is the answer to our weakness. And he is willing to come in and transform both ourselves and our spouse.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Sinner Married to a Sinner

Last week I shared the first essential perspective on marriage that we all need to be aware of from Paul David Tripp's book What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage. We were reminded that we live out our marriages in a fallen world.

The second essential perspective on marriage is equally important: We are sinners married to sinners. We don't get married to someone perfect – rather they bring the fears and failures of sin into the marriage, just as we do.

Now to some of you, that might seems obvious. But practically speaking, marriages are filled with unrealistic expectations. Ask any pastor who does pre-marital or marital counseling. Couples expect their spouses to meet their needs, to have the right words to say, to have the emotional or physical energy to always support or comfort or encourage the other. And when those things do not happen, the result is disappointment or even conflict.

As Tripp notes, both members of a marriage bring something into their marriage that is destructive to what marriage needs and must do. That thing is called sin. Sin infects each of our lives and it will infect our marriages as well.

Contrary to what we are thinking when we are in the midst of a marital conflict, most troubles in marriage are not intentional or personal. Most spouses do not intentionally set out to make life difficult for their partner. I don't go home after a long, hard day thinking, “How can I pass my frustration/exhaustion/misery along to my wife?” What we experience in those times of marital trouble are the effects of sin, weakness and failure in the our life or the life of our spouse. The fact is, bad days at work or frustrations with kids spill over into our marriages.

When we experience those things, we face a choice. In at least some of those times, we will choose to be selfish, unkind, jealous, bitter or argumentative. There will never be a time when we respond graciously in every circumstance because we are sinners too. If we minimize this heart struggle we both have, we “will tend to turn moments of ministry into moments of anger.” (Tripp, pg. 24)

Rather, those times when the sin of our spouse spills over into our lives should be an opportunity for ministry. When their sin, weakness or failure is on display, we should think this way:
1. God loves my spouse.
2. God is committed to transforming my spouse by His grace
3. God has chosen me to be one of His regular tools of change in the life of my spouse.
Consistently thinking along those lines will bring change to our selfish responses to the sin in our spouse's life.

But what happens when we do not have a godly, gracious perspective? What happens when we personalize that which is not personal in our spouse's actions? What happens when we convince ourselves that the thing our spouse does that frustrates us right now is done as an intentional, personal attack?

When we personalize what is not personal, we tend to be adversarial in our response. We no longer think about how to apply God's grace to the situation. We are not oriented on ministering to our spouse – rather we are most likely to be about eliminating the frustration our spouse's sin presents in our lives. As a result, we can easily escalate the trouble, either settling for quick solutions that do not get to the heart of the matter or getting angry and confrontational, causing more damage to our marriage and multiplying the sin. All of us who are married or have been married have been there – don't deny it.

This is where the Bible comes in. Dr. Tripp reminds us much better than I could:

“The world of the Bible is like your world – messy and broken. The people of the Bible are like you and your spouse – weak and failing. The situations of the Bible are like yours – complicated and unexpected. The Bible just isn't a cosmetic religious book. It will shock you with its honesty about what happens in the broken world in which we live. From the sibling homicide of Cain to the money-driven betrayal of Judas, the blood and guts of a broken world are strewn across every page. The honesty of God about the address where we all live is itself an act of love and grace. He sticks our head through the biblical peephole so we will be forced to see the world as it really is, not as we fantasize it to be. He does this so that we will be realistic in our expectations, then humbly reach out for the help that He alone is able to give us.” (Tripp, p. 25)

Being sinners married to sinners, we desperately need the perspective and help only God can give!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Marriage in a Fallen World

Personally I try to read a book on marriage every year. I have two reasons for this. First, it is good for my own marriage and second, it gives me a greater basis for counseling people with marriage issues. My book for this year is Paul David Tripp's What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage. I was excited the find out that Dr. Tripp will be speaking on that topic in Missoula in October, 2012. (For more details, look here.) The only bad thing is that I have to wait a year to hear him.

Dr. Tripp lays out three essential perspectives on marriage that we all need to be reminded of. The first is this – we are conducting our marriages in a fallen world. I can hear some of you saying – duh! - we know that. But do we always think about how it affects our marriages?

Simply put, we live in a world that does not function as God intended it to function. God created it perfect, sin messed it up. Everything in our world is touched by the brokenness of our world. Sometimes the affect of sin is rather minor, other times it is major and life altering. Whichever the case it, we cannot escape this environment.

The fact that God allows us to live and love in a broken world is not an accident. While God is not the author of the sin in our world, He has a plan and purpose in the midst of that sin. He intends to use the difficulties we face – in life, in marriage, at work or wherever – to do something in us that cannot be done any other way.

Most people pursue happiness in marriage. Not a bad thing – there is a well-being that happens when a couple has a happy marriage. But is happiness in a marriage a big enough goal for a couple who believes? Tripp suggest that God has better things in mind, bigger things, deeper and more necessary things, eternal things. Rather than shooting for personal happiness, God envisions us aiming for personal holiness. God's purpose is to work through our daily circumstances, those situations tainted by the brokenness of the world, to change us. In other words, since we are sinners, God is working to rescue you from you. That might mean that there are times when, in love, God interrupts or compromises our happiness for our holiness. That is His unshakable commitment in our life.

And though those times when our happiness is interrupted can be painful, they should also produce hope. It is a hope that says that God is in the middle of those circumstances or that situation, molding us. His purpose is to help us mature in Him, so we can respond to life better. That makes us a better person to live with, which of course results in a better marriage. All of this is there to fulfill God's eternal purpose for us. As the apostle Paul says in his writings:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30, NIV)

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18, NIV)

Stay tuned for the second essential perspective on marriage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A True Christian Hero

A while back I finished reading Bryan M. Litfin's great book, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to investigate this time period in church history in a little more detail. Litfin's book provides the reader with 10 readable portraits of men and women from the centuries of the earliest church, from Ignatius of Antioch (c. 115 AD) to Cyril of Alexandria (5th century).

My favorite chapter in the book was the chapter on Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt (299-373 AD). It reminded me of the reasons why Athanasius is on my list of true heroes of the Christian faith.

Athanasius lived during a time of intense theological debate about the person of Jesus Christ. Much of that debate centered on a doctrine called Arianism and its founder Arius. Arius was a man who taught that Jesus Christ was not fully God and had not existed eternally with God. Rather, he believed that Jesus was the first creation of God and as such was not of the same divine substance as God the Father. Rather he was inferior to the Father.

Athanasius confronted the error of Arius head on and at first, had some success. His superior, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria excommunicated Arius and during the great church council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism was soundly and officially rejected as heresy by the church. The Nicene Creed stated clearly that Jesus Christ, eternally existing, was of the same divine substance as God the Father.

That should have been the end of Arianism, but it wasn't. Just the opposite, in fact. The influence of Arianism grew. Arians sent “missionaries” to the barbarian tribes outside of the empire, converting many of them to their view. After the Roman Emperor Constantine died, succeeding Emperors were Arian in belief. In fact, it was not until 381 AD, during the church council of Constantinople, that a biblical view of Jesus was again firmly established in the Roman Empire.

And what about Athanasius? What did he do during this time when, as another church father wrote, the Roman Empire woke up on morning and was astonished to find itself Arian? Athanasius, the true Christian hero, stood firm on the truth. At times it seems as if he was the sole remaining voice for a biblical, orthodox view of Jesus Christ. It got so bad that someone later penned a description of this time as “Athanasius against the world, and the world against Athanasius.” Athanasius even stuck to the truth of Scripture in the midst of suffering. He was exiled from the Empire a number of times for his belief, spending 17 of the 46 years he was bishop in exile. He lived a great part of his life abused, unwelcome and rejected. When he died in 373 AD, the fight had yet to be won. He died without seeing the victory of orthodox doctrine that he had fought so hard for.

Why is Athanasius a “hero” to me? Because he stood on the truth in an age when seemingly everyone had abandoned the truth. We live in an age like that today. The views of people are drifting farther and farther from a biblical worldview. That is happening in social issues like the homosexuality or the sanctity of life. But it is also happening in the theological arena. For example, everyone wants to co-opt Jesus for their own gain. Politicians and organizations want Jesus on their side – they are not too concerned about what their Jesus is like or whether they quote him in context. Cults and other religious groups embrace a Jesus that is generally nothing like the biblical portrait of Jesus. Scholars debate the veracity and accuracy of the New Testament. Some go so far as to postulate that we know very little about what Jesus actually said, which of course frees them up to make a Jesus of their own liking. What is the role of a Christian who believes in the authority of the Bible in all this? The same role as Athanasius – to take a stand on the truth of Scripture and not budge, no matter what. Like Athanasius, we may not see a victory in these things in this life. Athanasius did not see victory, but he was faithful to the end. Hopefully we will be also.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review - At the Corner of 6th and North by Joshua J. McNeal

At the beginning of this review, I must reveal my bias. The author, Josh McNeal, is a friend of mine who asked me to read his book and let me know what I thought. I will admit, I began reading the book as a favor to Josh, but the story drew me in bit by bit until I was reading the book to see how it ended. In my mind, that is one of the signs of a good book.

This is Josh's first published novel and I would say it is worth the read. The story revolves around 6 characters, all of them in the midst of a variety of life situations. All 6 suddenly receive a phone call, followed by a mailed invitation. The invitation requests their presence at the corner of 6th and North in their town. When they arrive, strangers to each other, they are picked up by a school bus and whisked away.

It is at this point in the story that the plot gets mysterious. The characters' bus ride into the unknown reminds me a bit of C. S. Lewis' literary device in The Great Divorce. The 6 end up at a strange hotel that is independent of time and there they are met by their host – Jesus Christ Himself.

If this sounds a bit like William P. Young's book, The Shack, I will admit that there are some similarities. Thankfully the Jesus portrayed in At the Corner of 6th and North is a Jesus with solid, biblical, theology, as opposed to Young's Jesus who seems to pick and choose which biblical ideas are important. Without spoiling the rest of the plot, the bulk of the novel is built around Jesus revealing himself to the 6 invitees and in a unique way, inviting each of them into relationship with Him.

Now, there are lots of Christian fiction books out there – why read this one? First, Josh is a great young man with a heart for the Lord and I would love for you to read his book. He has written an interesting story that draws you in and leaves you encouraged. Second, and more seriously, this book has some challenges for Christians. It is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is the answer to the situations of life that people find themselves in or, in some cases, even create themselves. I don't mean for you to think that the Jesus of the novel is a milquetoast, therapeutic Jesus – He is not. He loves, but displays His justice at the same time. But the way Josh portrayed Jesus and His individual ministry and individual call to each one of the 6 characters was a profound reminder to me of how He ministers in each of our lives. As a pastor, it is easy to fall into a “ministry rut.” Josh's book reminded me of the importance of examining how we do things, examining how I portray Jesus in my messages and my life and recognizing that our Lord can use a variety of different people and methods to draw someone to Him. Another scene challenged me in the area of worship – is my heart really in the right place for worship? What does Jesus hear and see when I worship – a heart that is sold out to Him or a body just going through the motions?

Some may read this book and argue that, like too much Christian fiction, everything works out too neatly in the end. As I was reading, I admit that I was wondering if that was going to be true. And you could say that is what happens. But the author has an answer for that argument. Near the end of the book, as one of the characters is being escorted through the hotel by Jesus after surrendering her life, they pass a number of empty hotel rooms. When the character asks if more people should have been at the hotel, Jesus' answer is that many are called, but few are chosen. (Matt. 22:14, KJV) In other words, many invitations were sent, but only the 6 characters responded. So what Josh has presented to his readers is a picture of the unique and effectual call of Jesus in a life. The power of such a call should draw believers to their knees in praise and re-ignite our hope for those we love who do not yet know our Lord and Savior.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jesus: A Contradiction in Terms?

Recently I started reading the John Piper's Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God together with Paul, my ministry mentor and friend. The book's premise is that we should be most satisfied in God because God is most satisfied in God.

The first chapter of the book is about the pleasure that God takes in his Son, Jesus Christ. Now I have read a number of John Piper's books and each one has challenged my thinking about God and ministry. This one has proved to be no different so far.

As I read that first chapter, there was one paragraph that stopped me short and really struck me. If you forgive the extensive quote, let me reproduce it for you. Piper is referring to a sermon by Jonathon Edwards entitled “The Excellencyof Christ.” Here is Piper's summary of Edward's words about Jesus Christ.

“In Jesus Christ, he says, meet infinite highness and infinite condescension; infinite justice and infinite grace; infinite glory and lowest humility; infinite majesty and transcendent meekness; deepest reverence toward God and equality with God; worthiness of good and the greatest patience under the suffering of evil; a great spirit of obedience and supreme dominion over heaven and earth; absolute sovereignty and perfect resignation; self-sufficiency and an entire trust and reliance on God. (The Pleasures of God, p. 30)

Read those words again, contemplating each pair of ideas. Imagine even one of those pairs resident in an average human being – it would an impossible contradiction of terms. We would consider that person horribly mixed up or mentally ill. Yet in Jesus, the divine Son of God, each pair of attributes are each perfectly embodied and lived out. Only Jesus could display a character like that. It is no wonder that God is completely satisfied in His Son and our Savior! The question is – are we equally as satisfied in the salvation God has provided and the Savior He sent to provide it?

Friday, April 8, 2011

More than a Remodel

Recently our church took on the task of remodeling our sanctuary. As someone in our church remarked, “They say that you cannot build a church with older people, but you sure can remodel one with them.” I want to express my appreciation to all the wonderful folks who came out to help, including some of the retired guys who were there virtually every day during this month long process. The remodel is almost complete and it looks great! It is amazing what can be done to give new life to a building.

It is even more amazing what God has done to give new life to us in Christ. As Easter approaches and as we prepare to celebrate Easter in our newly remodeled sanctuary, I got to thinking about the “remodel” God does in each believer's life in Christ. And Easter is the key to that remodel, that profound renewal of our lives.

When we moved to Lolo in 2004, our church sanctuary was firmly defined as still belonging to the 70's. The carpet and pew fabric was orange. The pendant lights were orange. The walls were dark paneling. That is the way it was. It screamed “out of touch.”

In the same way, human beings are “out of touch” as well – but we are “out of touch” with God. The Bible says that we are powerless to reach out to God and that we were ungodly in our outlook. (Rom. 5:6) We were sinners in rebellion against God (Rom. 5:8), people who had suppressed the truth of God in our lives and exchanged that truth for something much less. (Rom. 1:18, 22-23) As a result, the person apart from God is actually called an enemy of God – one who is antagonistic toward Him. (Rom. 5:10) There was nothing we could do to make us acceptable to God.

Thankfully Easter reminds us of how all of that can change in Jesus Christ. Jesus sacrifice on the cross justifies the believer before God, it makes us legally righteous before Him. (Rom. 3:22-24) Jesus' sacrifice redeemed us or purchased us back from the power of sin and death that held us in slavery. (Eph. 1:7) Jesus also reconciled us to God, taking us from being enemies of God to being children of God and, through his resurrection, granting us new life in Him. (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:18) So what we are talking about here is so much more than a remodel – this is a complete renewal of life. This is why were celebrate Easter, because Easter is our most profound reminder that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Cor. 5:17)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Personal Preference and Public Worship

I have the blessing of leading a multi-generational church. In these days where many churches are focusing on one particular age group or generation, we are pretty excited to be multi-generational. But with the blessing of being multi-generational comes some challenges, particularly in the area of music.

While I cannot say that our church is renewing the “Worship Wars” of the past, people do have strong opinions and those opinions tend to differ along generational lines. I hear all the opinions. More hymns. More choruses. More contemporary. More traditional. Less drums. More drums. Faster songs. Slower songs. You get the picture. And while as a church we are committed to a blend of hymns and choruses and tend to lean more contemporary than traditional, there is still always some tension.

Where I struggle is finding the place of personal opinion and personal preference in worship music. All of us have personal preferences. For example, I grew up listening to rock and roll. I listen to a wide variety of contemporary Christian music, but my personal preference skews toward the harder edged end of that genre. And though I love the old hymns as much as the next person, if I were to apply purely my personal preferences, we would have a rock and roll worship show on Sunday morning. (And some of you would cheer, others are grimacing.) I know there are others in our congregation whose personal preference would be all traditional hymns in a traditional style. Others want everything upbeat, still others would prefer it all quiet and contemplative As a pastor of a multi-generational church, I believe all of those styles – contemporary and traditional, upbeat and contemplative - can be possible in the worship music of our church, even though all may not be present every Sunday.

What gives me pause is thinking about the place of personal preference in worship music and the fact that worship is meant to be directed at God. After all, we don't worship corporately to please people. The songs are not there is impress outsiders with our talent or impress the congregation with our musical choices or styles. Rather our worship, while it has a corporate, horizontal component, is meant to be directed vertically, to God. If it is not, it isn't worship; it's just a concert of spiritual songs.

I wonder what would happen in our churches if every person put their personal preferences about worship music on the shelf before walking into church? What would happen if each of us made it a priority to seek God's face in corporate worship every Sunday, regardless of the song style or selection? Would God be glorified? I think so. Would we be unified? Yes again. And last time I checked, those were very good things.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What Turns Intention into Action?

This morning one of my elders and I met with the superintendent of the local school. We had a great conversation about how our church can get involved serving the kids in the school and expressing our appreciation of the school's teachers. This discussion came as a result of our church's commitment to be more intentional about serving our community. Over the next months, we will be looking to motivate our church members to get involved with some aspect of service to our community. The challenge is this - how will we change the focus of folks in our church to get involved in serving more actively in the community?

This afternoon I sat down to finish reading a book entitled The Externally Focused Church by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson. In the concluding chapter, the authors told the story of a study done at Yale University where a professor tried to persuade students to get tetanus shots. The study was composed of two focus groups – one group was given a booklet which graphically illustrated the dangers of tetanus, the other group was given a booklet with language that was toned down and had no pictures. Both booklets announced that the university was offering free tetanus shots at the health center. The results were predictable – the students who were given the more dramatic information were much more likely to admit they needed an inoculation But one month later, only 3 percent of those students had actually gone to the health center to get the shot.

The professor conducted the study a second time, but with one key change, In the booklets given to both control groups, he included a map of the campus with the health center circled and listed the times shots were available. One month after that study 28 percent of students were inoculated, an equal amount from each control group. The variable that made a difference was not urgency or gravity of the information, it was the map and schedule.

The conclusion for the church is rather obvious – when we try to recruit volunteers, either for in church ministry or community service outreach, we need to give people practical information about how they can be involved. In some ways, this principle applies much more broadly than that. Sometimes I catch myself muttering bland spiritual platitudes from the pulpit, rather than giving people concrete or practical information about spiritual growth or service opportunities. There are many people in churches who want to serve and grow, but lack that mechanism to turn desire into action. Let's give it to them.

Now, you might be thinking – isn't there a spiritual aspect at work here as well? Absolutely – God's Spirit draws us into and empowers us for growth and service. No denying that. Let's just make sure that we provide the practical information the Holy Spirit can use to truly motivate that person from intention to action.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Do You Pray For?

That is a challenging question for to ask myself – what do you pray for? I think the answer to that question depends on what defines our life. If our life is defined by the values of the world around us, than our prayers will be focused on those values. Our prayer life will be dominated by petitions to make us successful, and to provide for our needs (and our wants). There will be prayers that our children get good jobs, score high on important tests and get into the right colleges.

But what if our life is defined by something else? What happens when our life is defined by what God values, rather than what the world values? What do our prayers look like then? Let's ask the apostle Paul:

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of His calling.... (2 Th. 1:11a)

What does it mean to be worthy of God's calling? In Paul's letters, God's call is always an effective call to salvation. The call of God on your life leads to salvation. So he is talking to people who are saved. He is not praying that somehow these folks would work hard enough to become worthy to be saved. None of us were worthy to receive God's call – it is a gift of grace.

God has called us into relationship with him. We are heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ. (Rom. 8:17) We are adopted into God's eternal family. (Gal. 3:26) We are not worthy of that call. But Paul prays that we become what we are not. As D. A. Carson notes in his book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation:

He prays that Christians might become worthy of all that is means to be a Christian, of all that it means to be a child of the living God, of all that it means to be worthy of the love that brought Jesus to the cross. (p. 53-54)

Being worthy of the calling of God does not mean we work longer and strive harder. Is there responsibility on our part? Sure. But the real power to transform comes from God. Paul prays that God would count us worthy, that God would do the work in our lives that is necessary to bring that about.

So what does a prayer like that look like? Let me give you an example. We pray for all kinds of things for our kids. I have a child with a chronic medical problem that has so far eluded doctors and medicines. I pray every day for healing for my child. But if I am praying that God may count her worthy of His calling, I should also pray that God would work in her spiritually, that she would grow in her knowledge of Him, that she would serve Him with all her heart, regardless of any healing from God or solution through medicines or doctors.

What do you pray for? And how will your prayers change if you pray for yourself, your spouse, your family and your church that God may count each and all of them worthy of His calling?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Amazing Thoughts from the Writer of Amazing Grace

I am greatly enjoying reading a biography of John Newton, the English pastor who is most famous for writing the hymn 'Amazing Grace'. The book by Jonathan Aitken is entitled John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.
Like many biographies, Aitken traces Newton's life from his earliest childhood days, detailing the influences of his youth and his spiritual struggles. Newton worked in the slave trade, becoming the captain of his own ship. He fell in love and spent years apart from his bride to be while he earned money to support her. Newton struggled with the temptations of the slave trade, but in the midst of that was drawn to God and experienced God's saving grace.

Eventually John Newton felt the call to the ministry. He had friends in many religious groups, being friends with prominent Church of England pastors as well as revivalists like John Wesley and George Whitefield. Newton quickly became known in religious circles as a man who was a religious enthusiast – in other words, he took his faith seriously. Unfortunately religious enthusiasm was frowned upon by the formal, socially accepted Church of England he sought to join as a minister. Only after many years and many refusals and disappointments was he granted a pastoral position in the township of Olney.

Newton's mindset as he approached his first church is what struck me. We can all learn from it. This is what he wrote to his wife on the eve of his move to Olney:
“I now almost stagger at the prospect before me. I am to stand in a very public point of view, to take charge of a large parish, to answer the incessant demands of stated and occasional services, to preach what I ought and to be what I preach.”  John Newton:  From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, p. 179.
I am challenged by his last two phrases. First, to preach what I ought – to be faithful in preaching the truth of the Word of God. And that challenge exists for all of us, whether we are in full time ministry or not, because we are all involved in communicating truth, preaching as it were, to family and friends around us. Is our communication in line with the Word of God?

And then, even more challenging, his last phrase – to be what I preach. To live a life consistent with the truth that I am communicating to others. A life that is not hypocritical – saying one thing and living another – but a life that lines up with the truths of God's Word.

Lord, help me be faithful in your service, preaching what I ought, and being what I preach. Amen.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Importance of Diet and Exercise

All of us face the struggle to live a healthy, balanced life. The temptations to eat too much or be less active are always there. We have to keep an eye on our diet. We can be as active as we want, but if we eat too much junk, our lives will not be healthy and balanced. On the other hand, we can have a great diet, but if spend our days lying around in front of the TV, we cannot be healthy and balanced either. A life that is healthy and balanced physically depends on both diet and exercise.

What happens if we import these ideas into our spiritual lives? Our diet would consist of encounters with God and His Word that strengthen and nourish us. The exercise we participate in would be the times when we put our faith into action – serving the Lord by serving others. Are both diet and exercise as important spiritually as they are physically?

Consider what would happen if we were all about diet, all about nourishment alone. We would know our Bibles. We would be able to argue ourselves out of every theological box. We would be able to quote chapter and verse as well as anyone. But does head knowledge alone lead to spiritual maturity? Or does it just make us a prideful, spiritual snob?

At the same time, consider what would happen if we were only about spiritual exercise, putting our faith in practice. We would be busy. No grass would grow under our feet. But where does the spiritual strength to achieve all the good works and sacrificial service come from without a diet of God and His Word? Spiritual exercise alone can only lead to exhaustion, frustration and burnout.

The key, as in so many things in life, is balance. Are we getting the proper nutrition? Do we sit under the teaching of the Word of God regularly? Are we engaged in personal Bible study and prayer? At the same time, we are active in our exercise? Do we serve God by serving others? Are we giving of ourselves, putting our faith in action and reflecting the love of Christ to people around us?

The balanced Christian life needs both diet and exercise. In Colossians 1, the apostle Paul tells the Colossian Christians what he prays for them. He wants them to live a life worthy of the Lord. And what are the key components of such a life? Diet and exercise!

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work (here is the exercise!), growing in the knowledge of God (here is the diet!).... (Col. 1:10, NIV, comments in parenthesis are mine)

That is my prayer for all of you – that we would be as diligent (or in some cases, more diligent) pursuing spiritual balance through both diet and exercise as we are chasing the same balance in our physical bodies.