Christians around the digital water cooler

Posted by on Apr 24, 2015 in Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

Christians around the digital water cooler

When I got my first job in ministry right out of high school, the internet was just starting to be a thing. I remember how excited I was when we installed our first broadband access at this growing church. Broadband back then meant “anything faster dial-up.”

It was a major accomplishment to simply have a website, with pictures, even! Social media wasn’t a concept, much less a job description. Most of the online conversations we had with colleagues and friends happened over email. A few of us rebels used instant messaging.

It is quite different now. The web has matured and is now at the epicenter of the marketplace. Not only do we have better broadband, we can watch five-minute cat videos (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We also gather around a digital water cool on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other networks the kids tell me about.

Mostly this is fun and useful. Has there ever been a time in history where celebrities are as close to the people? In the old days, if I wanted to ask Tim Keller a question, I’d have to look up his church in the phone book (yes, a phone book). Today I can tweet him a question and get an answer.

Social media allows us to join tribes based on common interests. It can be leveraged for social good. And often drives conversation around important issues.

But social media can also bring out the crazy in all of us. Somehow even the best of us throw off restraint behind the keyboard and find a strange new hubris. We say things about people or even to people that we’d never say if the conversation was happening in flesh and blood. The most clever and the manipulative among us are able to form critical narratives about people with whom we disagree. Sometimes with a creative hashtag.

Followers of Christ need to continually think and rethink their social media engagement. We are presented with both opportunity and danger, peril and potential. Platforms can be powerful vehicles for delivering the timeless message of the gospel story, with all of it’s radical, paradigm-shifting impact. They can also fan the flames of self-righteousness and nurture the worst lusts: pride, anger, and self-importance.

If you are active on social media, you’ll find it difficult to always pinpoint, exactly, where that line is between winsome and prophetic engagement on the one hand and snarky, flesh-building arguments on the other hand. Often what seems reasonable to the one tapping the keyboard comes like a cold slap to the recipient. We know our own blind spots and we’re often defensive when they are pointed out. But we can do better than we are doing.

Two things are true about Christians and social media:

  1. If we love our neighbors and care about the shape of our cities, we cannot afford to withdraw from the conversations in the digital public square.
  2. We must work hard to engage our ideological opponents gracefully, even if it means enduring insult and withholding rhetorical retribution.

You’ll find no verse in the Bible about Twitter. But Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:15, written to a marginalized Christian minority, might be a good guide:

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

To a people misunderstood for their radical devotion to a crucified Jew from Galilee, Peter presents two competing ideas: A willingness to unflinchingly articulate gospel-shaped arguments and a commitment to a tone of civility and grace. Because we believe each human bears the image of God, we cannot consider any person, regardless of what they believe, to be undeserving of respect. We also must love enough to share the truth, even, truth that pings the conscience.

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The Emotionally Mature Church

Posted by on Apr 24, 2015 in Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

The Emotionally Mature Church

415uFly4v7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In his book, The Happy Christian, David Murray asks these probing questions:

If someone who had never encountered Christianity before wandered into your church or your home, what would be the greatest impression made upon him? If he had to sum up in one word the mood of the worship, prayers, and sermons of your church or the conversation at your family meal table, what would that word be? What if he was asked to describe your church or faith with either a negative or a positive symbol? (Murray, xxiii)

If you are like the majority of believers Murray believes we’d have to confess that most would give our church and our faith a negative symbol. For Murray, the problem is that believers aren’t exuding joy as we should.

After reading this quote from Murray my mind immediately went to one of my favorite Christopher Wright quotes:

…the language of lament is seriously neglected in the church.  Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can’t be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy.  There is an implicit pressure to stifle our real feelings because we are urged, by pious merchants of emotional denial, that we ought to have “faith” (as if the moaning psalmists didn’t).  So we end up giving external voice to pretended emotions we do not really feel, while hiding the real emotions we are struggling with deep inside.  Going to worship can become an exercise in pretence and concealment, neither of which can possibly be conducive for a real encounter with God.  So, in reaction to some appalling disaster or tragedy, rather than cry out our true feelings to God, we prefer other ways of responding to it.  –(Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 52)

For Wright, the problem is that we do not have an authentic language of lament. If Wright were answering Murray’s question I wonder how he would respond? Would he disagree with Murray’s assessment? Would he say that the problem isn’t that we have too little happiness in church but that we don’t have enough lament?

I don’t know Wright’s answer, but I know my own. I believe both Murray and Wright are correct. When we lose the language of lament and happiness it is because we have lost a depth to our relationship with God.

Lament is not godless bickering. Neither is happiness a godless smile. True lament and true happiness are God-centered. It is out of the depths of my relationship with a loving God that the voice of lament rises up when things are not as they ought to be. And it is out of that same place where true happiness rises above our sorrowful circumstances.

When we move away from the God-centeredness of the Psalmists we also move away from their ability to experience the full range of healthy emotions. If you don’t have a place for lament in  your Christianity then you are missing something in your understanding of the Lord. Likewise, if you don’t have a place for legit Christian happiness there is a hole in your gospel.

Therefore, let us draw near to God where we’ll find the confidence in Christ to lament and to smile.

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A Tip For Seminary Students

Posted by on Apr 23, 2015 in Dear Seminarian, Featured

A Tip For Seminary Students

seminary-300x125Disclaimer: This works for me. It might not work for you. If you flunk out of seminary after taking my advice, I’m sorry.

I came to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 2009. I was excited to be able to learn from some of the world’s greatest professors. I figured I would learn so much and that I would grow in my relationship with the Lord in ways I didn’t imagine. My first semesters didn’t disappoint.

After awhile, though, my soul started to ache a bit. The greatest impact was on my Bible reading. I started reading less devotionally and more as a seminary student. To use the words of Paul Tripp I was becoming more concerned with mastering the text (at least in the eyes of my professors and fellow students) than being mastered by the text.

Then my passion for theology books and studying started to dwindle. That might not seem like a big deal, but it was. We strive to become like what we most admire. Before seminary, when I so passionately devoured theology books it wasn’t for head-knowledge. It was because I loved God and wanted to be more like Him. I wanted to learn how to be a better minister.

Then I started having to read. And having to write papers on the Bible. My heart changed. I became a student of SBTS and no longer a student of the LORD.

So, I started taking fewer classes and threw myself into other stuff and promised myself I’d finish seminary eventually. I took it very slow. Now I’ve amped up my schedule again. I’m working my tail off to graduate as soon as possible.

I’m getting busy with seminary classes again but as of now my heart hasn’t changed with it. One thing is different. And here is my tip:

If you are a seminary student forget that you are a seminary student; Live as though you aren’t.

You still have papers due.

You still have books to read.

You still have quizzes and tests to take.

But by all means don’t let yourself be a student of your school and forsake being a student of the Lord. Always keep it in front of you that the reason you read a book is not because the professor tells you to—it is because you are trying to know the Lord more. You aren’t writing a paper because a professor tells you to—you aren’t writing to please men—you are writing to get out on paper what the Lord is showing you. You are writing to tell of the excellencies of Jesus.

I’ll close with a blunt statement that I believe is true. If you can’t do this…if you become a student of a school more than a student of Jesus…I don’t think you’ll make a good pastor/minister. You’ll get eaten up. If you sacrifice your relationship with Jesus on the altar of a theological education then you’ll do the same thing when the heat of ministry gets turned up.

So make that commitment now. You’ll get an F in Systematic Theology before you let your heart grow numb. The sooner you do this—and the sooner you forget you are in seminary—the more fun you’ll have and the more you’ll actually learn.

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Three Keys For A Passionate Prayer Life

Posted by on Apr 22, 2015 in Prayer

Three Keys For A Passionate Prayer Life

Praying Hands bibleEvery believer should have a connecting time of prayer and devotion. Each of us may have different rituals, practices, places, and/or times for our petitions to be made known, but one thing we should agree on, prayer is imperative for our healthy relationship and walk with Christ. For me, I tend to dive into the Scriptures and see how Jesus connected with the Father. What I see is, the Gospel writers describe Jesus finding time alone. While prayer can be done anywhere and anytime, I believe in the importance of seeking God’s presence in the loneliness of prayer. The Psalmist exclaimed, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Psalm 62:1a). Waiting is something we may not desire to do, but it is something that we should long for—to just sit and have some reflective time with God—allowing Him to speak to our hearts and bring our souls rest. Here’s three ways that may help you find that.

Intentionality

There were moments when Jesus intentionally sought time to be alone (Mk 6:47); “He would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). I’ve read and heard preachers say, “If it was good enough for Jesus then it’s good enough for me.” Perhaps, but that just sounds so generic to me; it’s like saying, “Jesus loves me this I know” is all I need to learn about Christ. I believe we should be always be examining our walk, our time with God, and our intentional intimacy—whether in prayer or reading. Our time with God is more important than anything else we can schedule or dream up. I know as a pastor, that seeking out real time and dedicated dialogue with God is essential to my leadership, teaching, and vision, not to mention my personal life.

I can respect and understand why Martin Luther stated, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” As this seems like an oxy-moronic statement, it’s not. What Luther is declaring is that the centrifugal pull of his life is Christ—his center and core of all that exists belongs to Christ. Even the busyness of worship and ministry can take us away from finding intentional alone time with God. God is the most important person in our life. Intentionality matters. Matthew records, “And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt 14:23). Not only did Jesus find alone time, He also found time for prayer—alone. Your prayer life ought to have intentionality—as well as impulse, which brings us to point number two.

Allowing Room For God

In a book I’m working on now, one of the chapters begins with this sub-title heading; allowing room for God. Our lives get so busy with children, wives, events, schedules, ministry, and occupations, that we even plan our time off for sports, friends, and family time. I know that I’m so busy that I plan dates with my wife. But honestly, when are we allowing room for God? You may be thinking, isn’t this like being intentional about being alone? Yes, it is indeed coupled with intentionality, but allowing room for God has more to do with allowing room for spontaneity—being receptive to hearing the Holy Spirit’s voice for intimacy and connection.

I know that there are times when I can feel God pulling on my heart and I think, “God wants to talk, now!” It reminds me of the description in Matthew: “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray”(Matt 26:36). Ever have a time when you had to excuse yourself from company to go and pray? I recall one time when I was an Executive Chef, prior to my pastorate, and as I was slammed (cooking term for extremely busy) at the restaurant with tickets coming off of the printer, pouring out onto the floor as the expeditor yelled out which meals to have prepared. As I was in the midst of my sauté station’s overload, I heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit say, “I want some alone time now.” I was shocked. For those who don’t know, I’ll fill you in. In the restaurant industry, rule #1, you don’t ever leave “the line” (kitchen cooking area) when busy—ever! But I know my Master’s voice, and so I made an excuse that I had to go get something quickly in the walk-in. There in the refrigerator, I had a nice conversation with my Lord, which was what I needed to get through the busy night and the stress. Allow room for God. Allow room for spontaneity. God is not so rigid and structured that He speaks at the same times and in the same methods.

Being Able to Hear

As a father, there are times when I ask my daughter to do something. Her selective hearing reminds me of my own. Sometimes there’s difference in hearing and listening. Being able to hear means that I understand and recognize what was being said, listening has to do with obedience—at least in this sense. While both words are sort of interchangeable, it’s not the semantics that I’m seeking, but the understanding of knowing the Spirit’s voice. As believers, Jesus explained that it was imperative that He go to the Father so that He could send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). The Holy Spirit is our connection to the Father while in prayer (and everywhere). If we begin to tune His voice out, we will not be able to receive guidance, direction, or conviction—all are keys to our spiritual growth.

As well, there are times in prayer that I seek out God’s presence and it may not be to hear anything, but just to sit silently and wait. Sometimes my mind may wander, but I will bring myself back to silence and peace of mind—not in a contemplative or meditative way, but in a relaxing patient way. I desire that “the peace of Christ rule” my heart (Col. 3:15). I want God to know that I’ll wait for Him. I shouldn’t be coming to God with my list of prayers all the time—and assuredly I have a big one. I want to be able to hear Him speak.

I find that most believers do not have a dialogue with God—as they claim that God never speaks—but it’s that they’re too busy cutting Him off with suggestions, petitions, and supplications, which reduces God down to the status of a divine bellhop. Dialogue has the understanding of hearing and speaking; hearing being the most important aspect.

Take the time to be intentional, spontaneous, and attentive, and let God take your prayer life to another level.


This post first appeared at Men’s Daily Life and is posted here with permission.

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Four Keys to Accepting Compliments Well

Posted by on Apr 21, 2015 in Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

Four Keys to Accepting Compliments Well

12386-thank_you_pastor.630w.tnA surprisingly difficult aspect of the Christian life is accepting and receiving compliments. It’s not that we don’t appreciate compliments or find them encouraging. But there is a danger of basing our identity upon them, or simply receiving them in the wrong way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to receive compliments better. Here are four keys I’ve discovered:

1) Listen and Give Glory to God

This can be challenging, especially when you are attempting not to sound dismissive or flippant. It is important to thank the person after they have given you a compliment, even if you don’t feel it is deserved. Clearly they made the effort to say something, so thank them for taking the time to do so. The second part can be a bit strange to say if you’re not used to giving God all the glory, but as a Christian, this should always be part of our response. After all, only through Him do we have the ability to do anything and everything (Acts 17:28). Our response doesn’t have to be routine or reactionary. This response should be heartfelt and propelled by the glory of God rather than the praise of men. Often times I’ll do this by saying, “Thank you for your kind words,” or “I appreciate what you said.” Insincerity is easily read by people. So, if you can say it sincerely, you might follow by saying “all praise be to God for His great work” or something similar.

2) View Compliments as Encouragement

Sometimes compliments are affirmations of your character or accomplishments. View it not as others praising you but as seeing God at work in and through you. In other words, perceive this as evidence that God is at work and using you. Compliments then become opportunities to celebrate the God of all grace, who has saved you, is sanctifying you, and will one day glorify you.

3) Don’t Diminish Compliments

Receiving compliments is difficult. At times, we can be inundated with people saying they appreciate one thing or another that we’ve done. This can be hard to accept when you feel like your work has been less than stellar, or it felt too routine to be praiseworthy. That said, determine to be truly thankful that others take the time to say a kind word. The goal is to remain gracious and let your responses be seasoned with the love of Christ.

4) Speak the Truth in Love

As Christians, we should speak words of grace and truth to one another (1 Peter 3:15). The words we use are a reflection of what is in our hearts. This means that if we are going to criticize others — whether in private or in public — we should be swift to praise them as well. There is no room for a double standard. As Christians, we are to love one another and show it in practical ways. Compliments are one way to praise and celebrate the work of God’s grace in each other’s lives for His glory.

This post first appeared at Christianity.com.

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Seven Reasons Perspective is Key

Posted by on Apr 21, 2015 in Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

Seven Reasons Perspective is Key

36727-perspectiveI recently received an email from a missionary couple in our congregation who serve in a large country in Africa. The wife of this couple who wrote us was telling us how her husband had been arrested and falsely accused so that the government of the country in which they serve could get bribe money–a fairly common practice in this country when it comes to Western missionaries. After telling us about the heartache and grief that they have endured, she mentioned that they were reading the book of Acts when he was arrested. After he was released and is now awaiting a court decision, this beloved sister in Christ mentioned that when her husband was released and returned home he said to her, “I wasn’t beaten like Paul and Silas. Perspective is key.” This is a phrase that I have found myself saying over the past several months. It’s all about perspective. As I consider the many discontent and complaining spirits of both ministers and people alike in the church in America, I wish that I could take this couple’s situation and words and etch them on the hearts of us all. Here are seven thoughts on perspective that will help us stay the course in ministry and to learn contentment:

1. We deserve eternal judgment. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we must always remember that we should be in Hell right now and forever. Whatever situation God has placed us in, we can be confident that it is an unimaginable kindness compared to what we deserve. This helps me keep things in a proper perspective. Instead of complaining that we wish we had an easier or more fruitful pastorate, or that we, as congregants, wish that we could get our way on this or that matter in the local church to which we belong, we should remember what God has rescued us from through the death and resurrection of His Son.

2. We belong to Christ. Whatever undesirable situation we may be enduring, we must remember that “we have been bought with a price,” and that “we are not our own” (1 Cor. 6:20). Our faithful Lord Jesus has us right where He wants us. We belong to Him and He will never make a mistake in placing us in the situations in which He places us. This helps us keep perspective when we endure hardships.

3. We are blessed if we suffer for Christ. When Paul and Silas were beaten for their faithfulness to Christ and His mission to preach the gospel, the Holy Spirit tells us that when they were finally released, they were rejoicing because “they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Christ]” (Acts 5:41). They knew that they were men who belonged to Christ by virtue of His redeeming work and that He had called them to the high honor of suffering for Him. This helps us keep perspective as we go through the hardship.

4. We will never suffer in the same way as our Lord Jesus. Jesus suffered more than anyone who has or ever will live. This means that God suffered in the flesh to make our sufferings more bearable. Dorothy Sayers summed this up so well when she wrote:

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine.

Isaiah tells us that “His visage was marred more than any man and His form more than the son of men” (Is. 52:14). Jesus was the subject of the wrath of man, the powers of the forces of spiritual darkness, the sin of man imputed to Him and all of the wrath of God poured out on Him on the cross. None of us will ever come close to suffering what our Lord Jesus suffered for our redemption.

5. We are almost certainly suffering less than others. I try to remind myself that there are always other brothers and sisters in Christ–missionaries, pastors and believers with spiritual, physical or emotional infirmities–who are suffering more than I am. When we do this, it helps us keep perspective about our own situations.

6. We are being sanctified through our suffering. One of the chief ways that God grows His people is through suffering. The writer of Hebrews ties together the suffering that the Hebrew Christians are enduring with the loving chastening of God (Heb. 12:3-11). They were tempted to turn back to a ritualistic religion that avoided suffering, but God was using the suffering to keep them close to Christ. So it is with all the challenges and hardships that we are called to endure. The pruning may be painful, but the fruit will be sweet.

7. We will have eternal joy and glory if we suffer with Christ. We must always remember that after the hardships of this life are past, there will be eternal joy in the presence of Christ. The Apostle Paul summed this up when he said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

This post first appeared at ChristWard Collective and is posted here with permission.

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