Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pet Peeve: "I Covet Your Prayers!"

Every now and then there is a saying among Christian circles that, I must confess, drives me crazy. 

One that I thought had died off but seems to be gaining new life is the phrase, “I covet your prayers.”  We all know what is meant by this, but do we have to phrase it this way?

I’m pretty sure I know how this phrase got into circulation.  In the book, “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, he writes about how social fads begin.  They start when someone of influence says or does something that is perceived as innovative.  This could be anything from a simple catch phrase to wearing a pair of old-fashioned Hush Puppies shoes to a swank gathering.  When the innovation is introduced, it will pick up steam if there are other influencers who get influenced by the innovation.  Then, those influencers go to their spheres of influence and begin to replicate the innovation.  If this pattern repeats itself, it creates a new social fad.

So let’s get back to the phrase, “I covet your prayers.”  Most likely, someone of influence used this phrase in a gathering of other influential people.  Those influential people were impacted by this innovative phrase that gave a new sense of urgency to prayer.  Then, they went to their own spheres of influence and began using the phrase.  From there, other people of influence picked up on the phrase and it eventually became standard vernacular for Christian communities.

But here’s my problem . . .  since coveting is obviously one of the big no-no’s of the Ten Commandments, how did this ever become a “Christian” phrase?  This makes about as much sense as me saying, “I am lusting after the young people in my community to come to Christ!” Or how about, “I have a murderous desire to teach the Word of God.”  Both of these latter examples do a good job of describing a particular sentiment, but we would all agree they are not appropriate.  If these latter examples are not appropriate, how can the former phrase be appropriate?  It isn’t.

My next question is . . . when Christians use this phrase, do they think about the biblical definition of “covet” and misuse it anyway or are they simply repeating “Christian” verbiage without any thought process?  Whatever the answers may be, they are both bad.

So, please . . . for goodness sake . . . l covet your attention to this matter . . . Oops, I mean I desire your attention to this matter.  (Did you notice how acceptable “covet” was in this sentence because of the numerous times you and I have heard it misused?)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Lessons my dogs have taught me about life...

As long as I can remember, I have loved dogs.  I particularly like big dogs but I’ve only owned one big dog.  His name was Tad and he was the most beautiful Boxer that has ever lived.

I was quite young when my family got him.  Early on we entered him in a couple of dog shows and he won them both.  His kennel owners wanted us to show him on a regional and national scale because they were convinced he could be a great champion, but we decided against it because we wanted Tad to be a family dog.

Some of my most treasured memories of Tad were playing football with him in our backyard.  I would line up with the football and Tad would position himself in front of me.  When I said “Hike!” Tad would jump up and put his front legs on my shoulders and ride on me until he tackled me.  He was a wonderful football coach because when I started Little League football at the age of seven, I was far ahead of the other kids and could run by them all.

One of the curses of Boxers is that they generally don’t live long lives.  Tad made it to about six years old when he started having problems.  He developed a seizure problem that was horrifying to watch.  His seizures eventually got the better of him and he passed away.

Death was something I hadn’t experienced yet in life as a seven-year-old.  If I think about it, I can still get the chills I experienced when I heard that Tad would not be coming home from the vet.  Those moments of seeing his food dish, his leash, the bell on the door he would ring when he wanted out . . . realizing he would never use them again was absolutely heart-wrenching.

Our next dog was a spunky Poodle-Schnauzer named Bo.  Somehow I had heard that my mom had talked with a lady up the street who knew of someone who had Schnauzer puppies for sale.  Somehow I found where my mom wrote down the information because the next thing I knew I was on the phone calling.  This pleasant voice answered the phone and I asked about her puppies for sale.  She said she had puppies for sale but, perhaps, was my mother available to talk on the phone.  (I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to talk business with an eight-year-old).  My mom got on the phone and sometime later we were heading out to go look at the puppies.

When we arrived at the house, I recall there were two puppies- a boy and a girl.  I was drawn to the girl because she had the classic Schnauzer coloring.  However, my brother and mother were drawn to the boy . . . he was black!  I couldn’t understand why anyone would want a black Schnauzer, but in order to guarantee our chance of taking a dog home, I quickly changed my loyalty and said the little black dog would be just fine.  Somewhere along the way home we decided his name would be Bo.

Though we all loved Bo, it was very clear that his priority was my mother.  Anytime my mom left the house, Bo would go to my second-story bedroom and watch out the window until she came home.  He obviously knew what kind of car she drove because as soon as she drove by the house he would let out a howl of pure glee and race to the garage door.  He would continue to howl until she came in.  Once she came in, he jumped up and down in absolute ecstasy for another few minutes.

Bo had an amazing ability to make friends with other dogs that I have never seen before or after.  One day when he was probably two-years-old I was walking him around the neighborhood and went by my friend Nick Siefert’s house.  As we passed by, Nick’s dog Hercules was barking in their yard.  Bo seemed to want to go say hello so I allowed Bo to go to the fence.  I could tell by the tales wagging that both dogs were very happy to meet one another.

It wasn’t too long after this that my mom was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a dog whimpering under her window . . . it was Hercules wanting to play with Bo.  So, my mom let Bo out the front door at about 3:00 AM and the two of them scampered into the night.  Bo came home about 6:00 AM.

This soon became a nightly ritual.  However, little did we know that there was another dog in the gang.  One day Mrs. Dempsey was talking with my mom and asked if my mom realized that Bo and Hercules came by every morning at about 3:00 AM and whined for her dog Blue.  We had no idea.  The gang had a wonderful span of nightly excursions until Hercules died.  I can’t recall if Bo and Blue continued or not.

The most beautiful thing about Bo was that he was always there for me during years of constant change.  Bo was my companion from second grade until my early twenties.  He was there after a tough day at elementary school when I got in a fight with Peter Pavlakis.  He was there after a break-up with a girlfriend.  He was there when I came home from prom.  He was there after my big victory against Sheridan High School.  He was there the day I left for college.  He was there the day I came home from graduating from college.

He wasn’t there the night of my twenty-third birthday.  He hadn’t been feeling well and had been staying at the vet.  All day at work I was hoping and praying that Bo would be home for my birthday.  When I got home from work, my parents and my brother and sister-in-law were in the family room.  They were waiting for me to take me to dinner.  After I greeted them I said, “Where’s Bo?”  Nobody said anything.

I slowly stood up and went downstairs to my room . . . and cried!  My buddy, the one who had always been there for me, was gone.  Needless to say, I didn’t go out that night for my birthday.

Many years later, my wife and I decided to get a dog.  We hadn’t firmly decided on exactly when we would get one, but I woke up one Saturday morning and knew that this was the day we’d bring a new family member into our home.

We went to the local shelter . . . I was so eager that I got there an hour before they opened.  Finally the door opened and we went back to look at the dogs.  My wife was interested in a smaller dog that didn’t shed.  I was hoping for a bigger dog.

As we walked down the corridors, each kennel contained about four dogs.  There were a lot of Pit Bulls that didn’t seem very happy to be there nor the fact that strangers were looking at them.  We got to a kennel that contained four smaller dogs.  One was a cute, white dog that sat up and placed his nose through the chain fence.  He seemed to be saying, “Look at me . . . how can you walk past me and not want ME?”

We stopped and looked at him for a moment and then kept walking and looking.  We got to the end of the kennels and I looked at my wife.  “Well, I guess I didn’t see anything today.”  My wife hesitated and replied, “Can we go back and look at the one again?”  I knew exactly which one- the small, white dog.

So we walked back to his kennel and asked the worker if we could take him out of the kennel for a closer look.  The shelter had a little play area to get better acquainted with the dogs.  The worker took the dog out and brought him to the play area.  This little dog was so glad to be out of the kennel that he ran and ran around the play area.  I remarked to my wife, “He doesn’t seem too interested in bonding with us!”  Just after I said that, as if on cue, he straddled up next to me and gave me a big kiss.  “OK, this one is ours!”

We named him Bojo which stands for Bo Junior.  To the best of our knowledge, he’s a Poodle-Cocker Spaniel mix . . . and my wife and I love him down to the last inch of his tail.  He gets two walks every day.  I walk him before I go to work and my wife walks him in the evening.  I also jog about three times a week and Bojo demands to be with me for those runs as well.

So what lessons have my dogs taught me about life?  So far, all I’ve done is share a few stories about my three dogs.  My dogs have taught me how indescribably great the gift of life is and how amazing unconditional love is.  My dogs have allowed me to experience some of the deepest joys my heart has ever known.  The simple act of knowing Bojo has ripped away dead layers on my heart.  My heart is softer now.

OK . . . you may be still wondering what is the major theological point?  After all, this is a pastor’s blog so there must be something “spiritual” about this.  Here it is . . . I know that Bojo is going to die someday.  I can’t tell you how much that is going to rip my heart apart.  I’ve asked God to grant Bojo a long life.  Maybe God will, maybe He won’t.  But before Bojo dies, I will praise God every day for this little dog’s precious life.  And eventually . . . hopefully a long, long time from now when Bojo dies, I will praise His Creator for giving me the unbelievable privilege of being with one of His precious creatures.

This is what my dogs teach me about life . . . life is about the gift of life given to us by God and the relationships we form through these gifts.  They are truly more precious than silver and more valuable than gold.   

Now, if you are not a dog-lover, you are probably convinced that I am officially off my rocker.  However, if you are a dog-lover, I’ll bet that you are saying, “Amen, amen!”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Dying Grandpa

There was a grandpa who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness some time ago who learned that his illness was now in the final stages.  He was going to die within weeks. 
Death did not scare him because he knew of the treasures that lie ahead.  However, he was heartbroken about how to tell his six-year-old granddaughter about death.  He struggled and prayed to God, “Please, give me the words to explain death to my granddaughter.”  Then, all of a sudden, he knew the Lord had given him the perfect way to explain death.

The next day, he asked that his granddaughter be brought to his house.  When his granddaughter arrived, the grandpa said, “Honey, you know how much I love you.  Grandpa has something very important he needs to talk to you about.”

“OK, Grandpa,” the little girl responded.

The grandpa continued, “I need to talk to you about death . . . you see, your grandpa has just learned that I’m going to die soon, but before it happens, I need to explain it to you.”

“I don’t understand, Grandpa,” the girl said.

“I know you don’t understand . . . but hopefully I can show you what it is like” said the grandpa.  “In just a moment, I’m going to get up and go into my study.”  His study was the room right next to the living room where the two of them were talking.  “Once I go into my study, I’m going to close the door.  I want you to wait out here for a couple of minutes.  Then, I want you to come into the study to be with me” said the grandpa.

“OK, grandpa,” the girl responded with a quizzical look on her face.

So the grandpa took one long look at his granddaughter, gave her a big kiss on the cheek, and went toward his study.  As he opened the door and began to enter the other room, he looked back one last time at his granddaughter and said, “Now remember, grandpa loves you!”

When the grandpa went into his study and closed the door, he could hear his granddaughter fidgeting in the other room.  Finally, he heard the small steps approaching the door.  The door handle turned slowly and the girl gradually opened the door.  When she got the door opened, the grandpa was standing there saying, “Come here!”  And with that, he wrapped her in his arms and gave her another big kiss.

“That’s what death is like, honey,” said the grandpa.

“I still don’t understand,” she said.

“Honey, when I got up from the living room and went into my study and closed the door, could you see me?”

“No, grandpa.”

“Could you hear me?”

“No, grandpa.”

“Did you know that I was still alive?”

“Of course, Grandpa, because I knew you were in the other room.”

The grandpa said, “That’s exactly what death is like.  There will be a time soon when you will no longer be able to see me, nor hear me, but you’ll need to know that I’m still very much alive!”

This is the hope we have for anyone who dies as a believer in Jesus our Savior.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”

So when a believer dies, he is still very much alive.  He is simply living in the other room.  Of course Jesus has also told us about that other room.  “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Boy & the Steam Paddle Boat

During the early 1900’s along the shores of the mighty Mississippi River there was a young boy sitting on the river bank fishing.  An older man came along and struck up a conversation with the boy. 
The old man asked the boy how often he fished at this spot and whether the fishing was any good there.  The boy said sometimes the fishing was good and sometimes it wasn’t, but the best part of fishing there was being by the river.

Soon into their conversation, a steam paddle-boat began making its way up the river.  When the boy saw the boat, he stood up, pulled a big white handkerchief out of his pocket and started waving it at the boat.

The old man said, “What are you doing?”

The boy replied, “I’m waving down that boat to come over here and pick me up!”

The old man then said, “Son, that boat has important places to go and it has important people aboard and valuable cargo that must be transported to the next port.  That boat won’t come over here and pick you up!”

The boy didn’t say a word.  He kept waving his handkerchief.

All of a sudden the boat, which was on the other side of the river, started to maneuver across the river.  It kept getting closer and closer . . . and the old man was amazed.  It eventually came right up to the river bank and let down its walkway.  When the walkway was fully lowered and reached the bank, the boy raced onto the walkway.

The old man quickly shouted out, “Hey, young boy, how did you know that boat would come over here and pick you up?”

“My dad is the captain!” the boy replied.

So what is the point of this little story?  In this story, the old man represents the “intelligence” of this age.  Scientists think they know all there is to know and they, by and large, have concluded there is no God.  They love to ridicule “elementary minds” that believe in such non-sense.

However, those “elementary minds” have an ability that a scientific mind will never possess . . . the ability to have faith.  The Bible tells us that faith is the “confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen.  It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see” (Heb. 11:1 NLT).  The scientific mind will never have faith because it cannot accept anything it cannot see.

The Bible also tells us that it is only by faith that we can “see” and perceive God.  God does not reveal Himself through science, but through faith in Him.

The science community, therefore, tells us that death is the end of human existence.  They are like the old man in this story who condescendingly told the little boy that the boat would surely not come over to the river bank to pick the boy up.

The boy represents the humble Christian who has faith . . . who knows that His Heavenly Father and His Lord will come get him when his time on this earth is done.

So let the mockers mock and the scoffers scoff at us silly Christians who believe our Heavenly Father and Lord Jesus will pick us up someday as well.  But here’s the funny thing about us Christians . . . we hope all the mockers and scoffers will someday get onboard.  I’m truly not looking forward to seeing any of their faces when they realize they missed the boat! 

Thursday, April 30, 2009

When Death Teaches Us About Life

I had the blessed privilege to be awakened in the middle of the night a few days ago.  One of the members of my congregation had just passed away and the new widow was calling to inform me.
I quickly responded by asking her if I could come be with her at her house.  She said, “No, but I’m going to the care facility right now to see him and you can meet me there if you’d like.”  I told her I’d be right there.

By God’s design, we arrived at the care facility at the same time (12:20 AM) and made our way to a dimly lit side-door.  I had never been to that facility before and I didn’t know where the front door was.  I knocked at the side-door a few times until finally someone opened it.  The worker greeted us saying, “People usually come through the front door.”  I’m glad I’m not quick-witted because this would have been a prime opportunity to display my finest work!
I’ve been to many care facilities . . . but not at 12:20 AM.  The place was dark.  The halls were dimly lit.  There were interesting aromas.  There were interesting noises.  We eventually made our way to the room where the drapes were drawn around the middle bed of three beds and a small bed light was glowing through the curtains.

As we ventured toward the break in the drapes, she drew back the drape and saw her husband.  He looked quite peaceful.  She slowly moved to his side.  She reached out her hand and began gently to rub her finger against his face which had a little bit of stubble.  She lovingly and thoughtfully moved her finger back and forth.  She then reached down and touched his hand.

It was one of the most loving scenes I’ve ever witnessed- a wife of fifty-some years gently stroking the face of her departed beloved.  There weren’t any tears or sobs . . . just loving glances and touches.

I watched with deep admiration . . . I admired her courage and I was captivated.  My mind kept pondering what must be going through her mind.  I’ll never know.  All I do know is what I learned that amazing night . . . four life-changing lessons.

First, I perceived a sense of fulfillment permeating the drape-enclosed space.  The fulfillment came from staying true to the vows “till death do us part.”  I sensed God’s pleasure that the marriage covenant was honored and I believe He extended a special grace to the surviving spouse.  It was truly special to behold.

Second, I’ve noticed a special grace that author Max Lucado calls “living grace and dying grace.”  In John 14, Jesus promises His peace to His followers and I’ve witnesses this peace time after time with the surviving spouse.  Yes, there is grief, but there is also an underlying peace and grace that can only come from the Lord.

I’ve also witnessed dying grace.  This is the grace where God gives His dying saint a sense that the end is near and everything is going to be fine.  I don’t see any fear or panic.  It is an undergirding by the hand of the Lord that carries the dying saint during his/her last days until He carries him/her Home.
Third, I’ve witnesses the power of Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”  I usually quote this verse as I’m sitting with the spouse next to his/her departed.  These words are powerful and real.  They have the eternal power to turn the most helpless moment into the most powerful realization that this loved one is alive!

Fourth and finally, I’ve witnessed how death teaches me about life.  Sitting next to the body of a departed church member brings clarity.  The clarity is this . . . as Christians we are not to fear death or run from it.  We are to embrace it.  As the Apostle Paul says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain!”  It’s only when I embrace my death and the victory it will bring that I truly begin to live!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Debunking the Myth: Once Saved, Always Saved

There seems to be a great misunderstanding in the Christian community about the phrase, “once saved, always saved.”
The phrase refers to the belief that once a person “receives” salvation, he cannot lose it.  This belief is based upon one of two assumptions.  The first is echoed in Jesus’ words in John 10:27-29.  “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.  My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”

The second assumption people use to support “once saved, always saved” is a distortion of Calvinism.  Calvinism, of course, holds the view that true Christians are unconditionally elected unto salvation by God.  Therefore, they conclude that since salvation is entirely based upon God’s choice, if one is chosen, one cannot become “un-chosen.”  Thus, once he was saved, he will always be saved.

The idea of “once saved, always saved” seems to be particularly attractive to those with family or loved ones who have strayed from the Lord.  I often hear people saying, “We’re so thankful that Billy prayed to receive the Lord when he was twelve, so we know he’s saved!”  What they really mean is, “We know Billy is living like the devil, but we’re counting on that prayer to get him into heaven.”

Jesus makes some clear descriptions about the sheep that won’t be snatched out of His hand.  First, they “hear” His voice.  I don’t have time to quote all the Scriptures that relate “hearing” with obedience, but it’s unquestionably what Jesus means.  So, the sheep that don’t have any fear of being snatched from the Shepherd’s hand are obedient sheep.  The second description is that they “follow” Him.  “Follow” is a present tense verb in the Greek which denotes a continuous process of following Jesus.  He isn’t referring to sheep who constantly wonder away.

Yet, most of the time I hear “once saved, always saved,” it is in reference to a person who has wondered away from the Lord.  Thus, I don’t think we can quote a passage like this for comfort.  In fact, it teaches the opposite . . . it teaches that if anyone is not “hearing” and “following,” he better watch out!  The safety is only for those who are “hearing” and “following.”

Now, in regard to Calvinism, I believe “once saved, always saved” is a distortion of the doctrine.  Yes, Calvinism clearly teaches that individuals are unconditionally elected unto salvation.  Yes, it is appropriate to then extract the truth that if one is unconditionally elected, then one cannot un-elect oneself.  However, the final point of Calvinism’s five points is the “perseverance of the saints.”  This means that those whom have been chosen for salvation by God will continue in their faith and fruitful work until called Home.  Nowhere does Calvinism teach that once one is saved, one can coast the rest of life and live in any manner.  In fact, Peter exhorts us in 2 Peter 2:10 to “be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure.”

Yet, here’s the sticky point . . . since Calvinism teaches that true saints will persevere in the faith until the end, the true test as to whether one is truly saved is if he/she perseveres until the end.  This side of the finish line, there is no way for me to know for sure whether I’ve been truly elected by God.  I can’t live 80 years as a saint and then live my final five years living like the devil.  It is only when I’ve completed my course of faith that I know I have been chosen.

So be careful with the phrase “once saved, always saved.”  The phrase is true if it is understood correctly.  However, it can be fatal if it offers false hope to one who has drifted from the Lord and remains unrepentant!   

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Make Plans...God Laughs

I saw a license plate holder with the message, “I make plans . . . God laughs.” 

The first thing that struck me about this license plate holder was that it was on a BMW 5 Series (which I truly admire.  If you have the means, I highly recommend one- I certainly don’t have the means).  The second thing that struck me is the apparent contradiction of images.  On the one hand, this beautiful new BMW 5 Series carried an aura of “I’ve made it . . . and the evidence that I’ve made it is the fact that I’m driving this beautiful new BMW.”  Yet, on the other hand, this person had not only the humility but also the desire to let the world know about a paramount truth in his/her life . . . “It doesn’t matter what I plan, God has the final say.”

If I had a life theme, I think this truly sums it up: I make plans . . . God laughs.  I’m starting to get the idea that God is laughing a lot about my plans because He seems to change every one.

This past year I was sure God was leading me to become a chaplain in the Navy.  The process is long and arduous but I persevered through all the hoops.  The final step was being flown out to Washington D.C. to the Naval Headquarters for a final interview with a panel of high-ranking Navy officers.  I must have done alright in the interview because I was selected to the Chaplain Corps.

Here’s where God started to laugh.  As soon as I was selected, I began to feel a sense of uneasiness about going ahead with my plans.  I then received my first assignment: Okinawa!  I should have been thrilled with these orders, but I began to feel the opposite emotion.  At one point, when I was in my Navy recruiter’s office signing the paperwork to join, I had to stop the process because I was beginning to feel severe apprehension.  The Navy set a final date for me to make a decision.  My wife and I prayed up to the last minute of the deadline and I eventually declined my commission because I didn’t feel God’s peace.  I made plans . . . God laughed!”

If you are reading this blog, you’ll notice I pastor a church in Southern California.  This leads to another example of my life theme.  Before I came to California, my wife and I were sure God was calling me to a church in the small Kansas town of Leoti.  Leoti is a town of about 2000 people in Southwest Kansas.  The people there are either farmers or ranchers and have a real zest for life.  I had been interviewing with this church for awhile and we were making plans for me to come out to the church to preach a sermon in order for the congregation to vote on whether they wanted to call me as their pastor.

As the time got closer to deciding a date, I started to feel apprehensive about this decision.  There were some external factors that were a problem (i.e. our house in Denver had been on the market eight months without a nibble), but I couldn’t pinpoint any single issue for being the cause of my apprehension.  The more I prayed, the more apprehensive I got.  The apprehension eventually grew to the point that I knew I had to stop the process.  It was an extremely difficult phone call to make because I had grown to enjoy the people and looked forward to being their pastor.  Once again, I made plans and God laughed.

Over the course of the next couple of months, no other ministry positions opened up.  Then, at a friend’s wedding, I was sitting next to a gentleman from my denomination who asked what I was up to.  He then asked if I would consider pastoring a church in a smaller town in Southern California that consisted of all senior citizens.  “And, oh ya, part of the church was a converted chicken coup” he said.  Let me say that I didn’t exactly spring out of my chair with excitement.  However, since I was seeking to get back into ministry, I decided to pray about the position.

The wheels started turning quickly with this position and the church was excited to talk to me and I was excited to talk with them.  The first phone call from the church came from one of their elders who started the conversation with, “So you want to come to Southern California . . .”  I felt like responding, “No, I’m not looking to come to Southern California but it’s the only option I have at the moment.”  I decided against saying that.

The wheels kept turning quickly right up to the point they were ready to talk about the terms of my call to the church if I was selected by the congregation.  This is where the wheels fell off . . . all they could afford is $24,000 a year!  Boy, was I in a pickle . . . do I take the job for $24,000 or do I hope that another ministry job comes along?  My wife and I went to the Lord.  The more we prayed, the more we began to feel a strong call to this little church even if the money was barely above the poverty mark.  Once again, I made plans and God laughed.

Thinking back to my college days, I was sure that I would meet my wife in college.  My plan was to meet her during college, graduate, work a couple of years and then get married.  God laughed!  I didn’t meet her during college and it was a good thing I didn’t meet her during college because I would never have considered her . . . because she was twelve years old when I graduated!  Once again, I made plans and God laughed.

However, as I look at the situation with the Navy, the church, and my wife, I can now see that every time I made plans and God laughed, it wasn’t a cynical laugh from God.  No, it was a wonderful chuckle from a loving Father saying, “Son, I know you think you know where you are going, but I have something else in mind for you . . . and what I have in mind is far better than anything you planned.”

So, thank you Father, for laughing at my plans.  Thank you for closing the door to the Navy.  I’m far better suited here where you’ve placed me.  Thank you for leading me to this church that once had part of it as a chicken coup.  These are the most wonderful people and have been an absolute joy.  Thank you for laughing at my plan to meet my wife in college and get married shortly thereafter.  Your plan brought the most wonderful woman I could ever have imagined.

So when you make plans and God laughs, praise Him!  For His plan is far better than yours would ever have been.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yes, I'm a Calvinist

Calvinism is a theological system that seems to be growing more and more out of favor with the Christian populace. 
“Calvinism” is the theological view that stresses God’s sovereignty above human will.  This is the foundation of Reformed theology.  The term “Calvinism” came to us as a way to express the theology held by the Reformed theologians, most notably John Calvin.  The basis of Calvinism has been summed up in the acronym of T-U-L-I-P.  Each letter of the word “tulip” stands for a major point in Calvinism.  Other terms associated with Calvinism are “election” (God chose you, you didn’t choose Him) and “predestination” (your destiny was pre-ordained), in most cases, are synonymous with Calvinism.

In the “tulip” acronym, “T” stands for total depravity (the belief that every part of humanity has been tainted by sin).  “U” stands for unconditional election (the belief that God makes the first move in the salvation process thereby showing that His choice is not based upon any condition by the one whom He chooses for salvation).  “L” stands for limited atonement (the belief that since God has chosen only some for salvation, the efficacy of Christ’s work on the Cross was not for all, but only for the chosen).  “I” stands for irresistible grace (the belief that God’s pursuit with His grace toward one whom is chosen wins every time).  “P” stands for the perseverance of the saints (the belief that those chosen for salvation do not rest on their election but continue in works of faith and righteousness until they are called to their heavenly rest).

Since my desire is not to write a dissertation but merely discuss Calvinism’s most controversial point- election- let me begin by quoting a verse (I chose this verse at random among dozens of verses that speak about election).   2 Thessalonians 2:13 says  “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through the sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”  In this chapter, Paul is contrasting those who will be deceived by the works of the anti-Christ with those who will remain faithful to the Lord.  Notice the key wording “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation.”  The Calvinist says this verse (and dozens like it) makes it perfectly clear . . . God makes the choice.  Calvinism boils down to this basic truth . . . it is God who chooses.

Those against Calvinism say verses such as this are easily explained by Romans 8:29 that says “For those whom (God) foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.”  So, they say, “Sure, they were predestined for salvation because God foreknew they would accept Him.  God merely looked into the future and saw all who would accept Him and thereby chose them.”  A Calvinist would then reply, “But the meaning of the word “foreknew” really means that God knew beforehand those whom He would choose.  It doesn’t refer to God looking into the future and seeing those who would choose Him.”

Let me take the side of believing the word “foreknew” to mean that God looked into the future and saw all that would come to Him and, thereby, He predestined those individuals.  The benefit of this belief is that I don’t have to wrestle with why God didn’t choose someone because, according to this belief, each person is to blame if he doesn’t choose the Savior.  However, isn’t there something still a little upsetting about this belief that says Jimmy and Joe were predestined before time because God knew they would accept His Son but Sammy and Sue were not predestined because God knew their actions as well?  By the time Jimmy, Joe, Sammy or Sue is born, his/her eternal fate is already sealed.  How is this belief much more attractive than traditional Calvinism?  The only way this belief gives any hope about an individual being able to choose Christ while actually living is to say that God missed some folks in His “foreknowledge.”  Otherwise, they would have already been predestined!   

So let’s go back to the biggest critique of Calvinism . . . “You mean that God chose some to go to heaven but didn’t choose others and those who aren’t chosen go to hell?  How could a loving God do such a thing?”  Let me be the first to say that this thought should never be easy for us to understand.  Even the Apostle Paul told his audience in Rome that he wished he could be accursed and cut off from Christ if it would mean the salvation of his fellow Jews who didn’t believe (Rom. 9:3).  But even though it is tough to understand, it doesn’t make it less true.

I’ve noticed that most people who disagree with Calvinisn don’t have any trouble believing that the Jews were the chosen people of God throughout the Old Testament.  The person whose face gets beat red debating against Calvinism has no trouble accepting the chosen lot of the Jews.

So here’s my question . . . why is accepting New Testament election so much harder than accepting Old Testament election?  What’s the difference?  The Old Testament is filled with examples of election.  Every prophet was chosen by God.  The LORD told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Or how about Moses or Abraham or David . . . all elected by God.  Yet, the greatest evidence of election/predestination in the Old Testament is the Jewish people themselves.

The Jewish people began through the blood line of one man, Abraham, and became a people among hundreds if not thousands of other people groups.  Yet, to whom did God give His covenants?  It was to Abraham and his descendants.  But was it to all of Abraham’s descendents?  No, God’s covenants did not apply to Abraham’s descendents through Ishmael, but only those through Isaac.  So, of all the millions of people, it was only the Jews who were given the covenants. Is this not election?  Can’t a person use the same objection that is leveled against Calvinism . . . “You mean God chose the Jews but didn’t choose the Egyptians, Hittites, Jebusites, or any other people groups on the face of the earth?  What about the poor Edomite, Moabite, Philistine or Ammonite, didn’t they have a chance?”  The answer is . . . No!  (Of course, there were some God-fearers from other nationalities, but the number is so small that there was no realistic chance of any of these other people groups ever having access to God’s covenants).

So whether we are looking at God’s choice of the Jewish people or God’s choice of individuals for His Church, it’s all by God’s choice.  And this is the foundation of Calvinism.

So what’s the benefit of Calvinism?  It’s certainly not to provide fodder for heated debates among saints.  If you don’t agree with Calvinism, that is OK with me.  There are plenty of Scriptures that speak to the responsibility of the individual in the salvation process.  And if I’m being completely transparent, I’m probably 51% Calvinist and 49% other.

Perhaps the greatest amazement of Calvinism is the thought that not only does the God of the universe know me, He also chose me to be in His family before the beginning of time through the work of His Son.  Meditate on that for a bit and it should begin to blow your mind.  It is my belief that prior to Christ’s departure from heaven to earth to become the incarnate Perfect Sacrifice, Jesus had you in mind as motivation for going ahead with it.  (There’s no question in my mind that those whom “God foreknew” means that the Father knew your name personally).  As David said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Meaning of Good Friday in Two Words: Propitiation & Redemption

Speaking parenthetically, let me begin by saying that I am growing more uncomfortable with the word “Easter.”

I used to think that people who objected to the name “Easter” were merely being alarmists.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  I don’t have the desire to give a full history of the term Easter, but it seems more and more clear that its origins come from the pagan goddess Ishtar (which is usually translated “Easter”) who gave birth to a promised child Tammuz.  It appears that early Christians borrowed the term from this pagan festival that occurred at the same time of year as the Passover and Resurrection Day.  So from now on, I am challenging myself to speak only of Resurrection Day rather than “Easter.”

The key to understanding Good Friday is to understand the concepts of propitiation and redemption.  These two spiritual concepts are essentials to understanding the complexity of the Father’s wondrous salvation process.  Until we appreciate both concepts, Good Friday and its significance in the salvation process are nothing but a veiled shadow.

Propitiation is a word that many modern bibles have wiped out.  The apparent reason is that modern thinkers don’t like the concept of an angry God who exacts wrath upon sinners.  The word propitiation means the removal of wrath by the offering of a sacrifice.  In a world of political correctness, the concept of a wrathful God is not palatable to many.  The masses today want a grandfather-like God who winks at sin and says, “That’s just boys and girls being boys and girls.”

The Hebrew word kipper (atonement) underscores the understanding of God’s wrath toward sin.  Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was the most holy day of the year when, according to Leviticus 16, the Priest would take two goats and then cast lots to see which would become the scapegoat and which would become the sacrifice.  One of the goats was then chosen as the sacrifice and it was slaughtered.  Leviticus 16:15 makes clear that the slaughter was for the peoples’ sins.  After the first goat was slaughtered, the Priest would then place both hands on the head of the other goat, confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel and all their transgressions, and then send the goat into the wilderness.

Both goats became a propitiation for the wrath of God against the sins of Israel.  I’m sure most animal lovers would say the first goat was the greater propitiation!  The first goat symbolized that the ultimate consequence of sin before God is death and the scapegoat symbolized that sin causes an eternal separation from God.  Why would God demand such an annual ritual?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that if I ever witnessed this in person, being an animal lover, I don’t think I’d ever look upon my sin or its consequences in the same way.  I’d be confronted with two realities.  The first is the sheer horror that my sin demands such a wrathful response from God.  We live in a world of denial that negates the vileness of sin in the eyes of a Holy God.  The second reality would be the utter amazement that an innocent animal took God’s wrath for me.  So by annually practicing this ceremony during Yom Kippur, the people were given a graphic reminder of God’s zero tolerance policy toward sin.

Now to the New Testament mind, hopefully it is obvious that Jesus is our sacrifice for atonement- our propitiation.  Romans 3:25 says, “God presented him as a propitiation, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.”  Notice the reason for our Lord being a propitiation . . . “He did this to demonstrate his justice.”  A just God must render His justice against sin.

I believe Jesus is also the New Testament fulfillment of the scapegoat.  Just as the scapegoat was banished into the wilderness by the Priest, so too Jesus was banished from the presence of His Father while hanging on the Cross.  When Jesus uttered those heart-wrenching words, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me,” He was experiencing the brunt of the Father’s banishment.  One question that I’m curious to ask our Lord is, “What caused you the most agony: the hanging on the Cross or being banished from your Father’s presence?”  I’m quite certain He will say it was the latter.
While propitiation exposes us to God’s wrath against sin, redemption exposes the lengths to which God reaches out to us who have gone astray.  Redemption is defined by Easton’s Bible Dictionary as the purchase back of something that had been lost, by the payment of a ransom.[1] There is a key difference between redemption and any normal purchase.  When one purchases something, one is normally buying something that one does not already own.  Here’s a silly analogy.  Suppose you bought a pair of shoes at Macy’s and then some time later visited the store again.  At some point a clerk from the store looked at you and said you need to pay for those shoes again if you want to keep them.  You would reply, “I paid for these two weeks ago.”  The clerk would then respond, “Maybe so, but if you want to walk out of this store with those shoes, you must pay for them again!”  If you decided to pay for those shoes again, you have just ransomed your shoes.  Thus, we must understand the concept of ransom before we fully comprehend redemption
When we look at redemption through theological terms it becomes astounding what God the Father has done for us through Jesus His Son. The first reality: we first belonged to God.  As created beings, we belong to our Creator.  However, our sin drove us away from God and we were delivered to the domain of darkness as Colossians calls it.  When we were transferred into the domain of darkness, we still weren’t autonomous beings.  We were under the authority of the evil one. 
The second reality: God purchased us back.  Colossians 1:13-14 says, “For He (the Father) rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  Imagine this . . . even though I once belonged to God and walked away from Him through my sin, God reached out to me again to purchase me back.  This truth is vividly displayed in the Old Testament by the prophet Hosea being instructed by God to go buy back his wife Gomer who had left him and gone into prostitution.
The third reality: what was the price that was ransomed for us?  Of course the answer is Jesus’ blood was the ransom price.  But let’s make this hit home . . . what is the price you would take in exchange of your son or daughter being sacrificed?  It’s pretty clear that most parents would not have any amount that they would say, “OK, if you pay me x, then you can sacrifice my child.”  Thus, the child’s blood is priceless.  Therefore, how much more priceless does this make the blood of the Son of God?  It’s countless!
So as we come to Good Friday, let us reflect on two concepts of God’s overwhelming love toward us and the Son’s inconceivable obedience.  Jesus is our propitiation.  He is the One upon whom God spent His wrath for my sin- the innocent Son of God brutalized and killed for my transgressions.  The image of Jesus being brutalized by the soldiers and ultimately crucified should cause me to “tremble, tremble, tremble” as the beloved hymn says.  It’s only when we tremble that we can be sure we understand propitiation.  If we don’t tremble, I’m not sure we understand propitiation.
Jesus is also our redemption.  Even though we had deserted God, He courted us back to Him through the Gospel and paid the amazing price to ransom us- the blood of His Son.  Today in the news there is a story of an American ship captain who was taken hostage by Somalian pirates.  These Somalian pirates are demanding a ransom for the life of the captain.  In our case, God bought us back again with the highest price in the universe- the blood of Jesus.
As I began, I said that it’s only in understanding propitiation and redemption that we have a clearer picture of Good Friday and its role in salvation.  It’s one thing to know that Jesus died on the cross for my sin . . . but it’s a deeper understanding when we grasp the depth of propitiation and redemption.

[1]Easton, M.G.: Easton's Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"You mean I'm not the next Billy Graham?"

As I look back at my seminary days and my conversations with my fellow classmates, I’m sure that each one of us had the quiet expectation that God had a big ministry in store for us after graduation.  After all, why would God have called me to seminary if there wasn’t a grand-scale ministry down the road?  If I’m being completely honest (don’t think worse of me for this), I believe there were actually a few moments that I dreamed about being the next Billy Graham. 
Before I tell you whether or not I actually became the next Billy Graham, there were pivotal moments in my church experiences that groomed my expectations for future ministry.  Many times we base our future assumptions off of past realities.  My church experiences only fueled the fires of expecting God to do something BIG.

When I was a toddler living in Denver, my family drove way out west to Bear Creek Presbyterian Church every Sunday.  I didn’t care for the 45 minute drive each way but my parents never asked my opinion.  The attraction at Bear Creek was John Coad.  Here was a man who was an ex-Marine and was the nearest thing to the Apostle Peter since Peter himself.  John was a passionate preacher of God’s Word, much like Peter must have been, but also had the interpersonal skills of Peter as well.  My favorite story was when he strongly disagreed with an elder at a Session meeting and challenged the elder to step out to the parking lot!  Sure, he had a few flaws but that man could PREACH!!  The result of his preaching was that Bear Creek grew from a church of a few hundred to a church of a few thousand.

Some years later during my sophomore year of high school, my dad took our family to the first service of a start-up church.  The name of the church was Cherry Hills Community Church.  When Dr. Jim Dixon took the pulpit that first Sunday, I thought, “Here’s a tall, skinny guy who actually holds my attention during the sermon.”  As the months passed, a phenomenon started to occur: my high school friends were actually attending church and loving it.  Then another phenomenon occurred: a dad of one of my friends started attending church who hadn’t darkened the doors of a church in years . . . nor would he have ever desired it.  Within a few months, this dad was an usher.  I’m not sure he missed a single Sunday for years.  By the way, the church grew from hundreds of attendees to thousands of attendees because they were all seeing what I saw that first Sunday: this tall man can PREACH!

Some years later, my brother began attending a church-plant from Faith Presbyterian Church called Faith-Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church.  The name was eventually shortened to Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church.  The church was pastored by a short guy named Mark Brewer.  My brother told my family about the church so we visited a few times.  The first time I heard Mark preach I thought, “Here’s a guy who has an amazing ability to make me feel the Bible story in a way I hadn’t experienced before.  Yet, right when I was completely enthralled with the story, he broke my line of concentration with the funniest one-liner I had ever heard.”  By the way, this church grew from a church of hundreds to a church of thousands because this man could PREACH!

Some years later, after I had graduated from seminary, I received a call to be the Senior Pastor of Valley Community Church in San Jacinto, California.  (The title is somewhat of a misnomer because I’m a solo pastor).  As I anticipated my first year of ministry, I called upon my experience to be my guide.  I would simply do what I had been mentored to do by John Coad, Jim Dixon and Mark Brewer.  All I had to do is PREACH and the crowds would start rolling in.

The first few years the attendance rose impressively from a statistical standpoint- attendance was up 48%.  But the real numbers told the real story . . . we had gone from an average Sunday attendance of 64 to an average of 95.  The truth was brutally apparent to me: I was no John Coad, Jim Dixon, or Mark Brewer.  The harder I tried to be like them the more desperate and miserable I became.

I realized that I was lying to myself back in seminary.  God didn’t have a grand ministry in store for me.  The fact that I was one of the finalists for the Seminary Preaching Award was no indicator that I would possess the abilities of a Coad, Dixon or Brewer.  I was crushed.
 In the midst of my brokenness and misery, the Lord began ministering to me.  He took me through a Peter-like moment when He impressed upon my heart, “Guy, if I want their ministry to minister to thousands and yours to a hundred, what is that to you?  You must follow Me!”  When I allowed the fullness of these words to resonate in my heart, the great spiritual truth sprang forth . . .  If I am following the Lord and doing what He has called me to do, then it is every bit as important to Him as any other ministry!

The truth is . . . I was not lying to myself in seminary when I assumed the Lord had a grand ministry in store for me.  The only difference is that now I see things more clearly from the Lord’s perspective.  The greatest ministry is being in the place God has called us and doing the things He has called us to do.
So, I guess I’m not the next Billy Graham . . . thank God! 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Madoff Mess

I can't imagine the horror and emotions of the thousands of people around the world who had invested their life savings with Bernie Madoff.  What investors thought was one of the elite investments in the world turned out to be a $50 billion fraud.  What should happen to Mr. Madoff?

Let me begin with a quote yesterday from Mr. Madoff.

"I am actually grateful for this opportunity to publicly comment about my crimes, for which I am deeply sorry and ashamed," he said.  "As the years went by, I realized my risk, and this day would inevitably come. I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for my crimes."

I am absolutely shocked and amazed that Mr. Madoff actually confessed his guilt before a judge.  Why am I amazed?  Because a confession is so rare these days even when a person is caught red-handed! So for that, Mr. Madoff, thank you for doing what so few choose to do these days.

What should happen to Mr. Madoff? Since Mr. Madoff is Jewish and many of those he defrauded are Jewish, let me quote the Jewish Torah . . .

Numbers 5:6-7 "Say to the Israelites: 'When a man or woman wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the LORD, that person is guilty and must confess the sin he has committed. He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and give it all to the persons he has wronged.

Mr. Madoff has done the first step . . . he made his confession.  The second part of the Law is the most difficult: restitution.  I don't know how a man who has defrauded $50 billion from investors worldwide can make restitution plus one fifth (that's an extra $10 billion).  This will be impossible for someone who will be spending the rest of his life in jail.
But, if Mr. Madoff is truly sorry for his crimes and if (I don't know that he does) believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of the Torah, then is it possible that this God is powerful enough to rectify Mr. Madoff's mess?  In other words, are there messes too messy for even God to clean up?

Mr. Madoff, for some eternal reason, God has allowed you and your crimes to come to the forefront of the entire world.  The world expects you to go to prison for the rest of your life; your assets to be sold; investors to receive maybe one penny of every dollar they invested.  But is it possible that if you truly humbled yourself before God and called upon His name, that God would reveal Himself in your situation by providing the means to fulfill the Law: make full restitution plus one fifth.

Now to the rest of us . . . if Mr. Madoff humbled himself before God and called upon God's name and all his investors received full restitution plus one fifth, what would we say?  We'd have to say that we've witnessed something truly miraculous.  We might even be compelled to say that we've seen God's hand at work.

So, Mr. Madoff, I urge you to toil your remaining years in this most noble pursuit to obey the Law.  The way I see it you have nothing to lose- you've already lost everything.  But, maybe, by endeavoring in this most noble quest of seeking God and seeking to obey His Law, you might provide a blessing to the world that no amount of money could ever afford . . . you might provide an opportunity for the world to witness God!

So the ball is in your court, Mr. Madoff, and it's your serve.  You can either call out to the LORD and possibly witness a miraculous act for all the world to see or you can do what the rest of the world expects from you- nothing.