Monday, October 24, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: The Meaning of Marriage

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Yesterday, we began a brand new series called "A Marriage Made on Earth."  Over the past several decades as the divorce rate began to rise sharply, all manner of "marriage helper" tools have emerged in our culture.  Though all are well-intended, many perpetuate myths about the marriage relationship that are simply untrue.

The Scriptures on the other hand paint a broad, clear picture of the key elements that make a marriage last.  And when we contrast these views, two major trends of how marriage is perceived in our culture are exposed as faulty:

Marriage as Romanticism:  Concepts such as "falling in love" or "finding a soul mate" are rather recent developments.  When they describe the romantic elements of the marriage relationship they can be healthy things.  Human beings are highly complex creatures, and romance can be a powerful and positive thing.  But when romance, and the idea of living "happily ever after" is viewed as the essence of marriage, it can actually destroy it.  How often have you heard a divorcing couple say something like "well, we just fell out of love?"  That is a marriage built on the sinking sand of "romance."

Marriage as Consumerism.  This is capitalism applied to the marriage relationship.  Too many marriages today are a social transaction.  I seek a wife because I need someone to meet my needs and serve my interests.  In other words, its about "what I get" out of the relationship.  Our culture has been groomed to treat marriage this way because we believe individual happiness is the ultimate value.  So marriage becomes like a trip to my preferred store.  When they stop carrying the product line I like, or new policies emerge that don't work for me, I shop elsewhere.  When your marriage is rooted no more deeply than the amount of "relational currency" the other has, sooner or later one or both will run out of currency, and the relationship is over.

Marriage, according to the Scriptures, isn't romanticism or consumerism.  Marriage is Covenant!  Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34 are two areas of the Bible where this Hebrew practice is outlined graphically.  Two parties would reach an agreement, cut an animal in half (nose to tail!), and walk between those bloody halves as a way of saying "may I become like this animal if I do not keep my word to you."  Ever seen that picture on the front of a wedding invitation?

But this is the essence of a marriage that lasts--a dual promise to sacrifice and commit unconditionally to the other.  Yes, marriage can be romantic and fun.  But at heart, marriage is a bloody struggle of spiritual warfare.  It is one man and one woman, arm in arm, facing all the hardships of life together, and bringing glory to God together.

Marriage is war. And winning that war together requires a covenantal commitment that understands three things about marriage.

Marriage is grounded in creation.  One man.  One woman.  One lifetime.  Yes, humanity deviated radically and early from this God-given precedent.  Polygamy, rape, premarital and extramarital sex, divorce, homosexual behavior, and a host of other "expressions" emerged early on.  But Genesis 1 and 2 describes what has been God's standard since the beginning.  When we are given to each other in marriage, we are being given a great gift from a loving God that is grounded in the created order itself.

Marriage is a tool of sanctification.  No, you don't have to be married to grow in your faith, and there are hundreds of ways that God makes His people holy.  But marriage, if it is done right, is the expressway to husbands and wives both becoming more like Jesus.

Marriage is a proclamation of the Gospel.  Marriage, Paul says in Ephesians 5, is "a profound mystery" that we should spend a lifetime exploring together as husbands and wives.  But this we know for sure from the beginning: our marriages should be a reflection of Jesus and His church--and of the Gospel of His sacrificial death and resurrection that makes successful marriages possible.

This is the meaning of marriage--hand in hand, walking through the war zone of life together--and in the process, going deeper and deeper into the mystery.  Does this describe your marriage?  It can.  Whatever your background or that of your spouse, God can bring your marriage to this place, and over the next several weeks, we will look more deeply into how this happens.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A Missional Life

Growing Passionate Followers of Jesus Christ who serve all people.

That's our mission statement at Covenant Church.  But as we move forward together, we need to ask ourselves a serious question: Are we really making disciples, or are we just enabling religious consumers?  Sometimes, the two look an awfully lot alike.

I was visiting the church of a close friend a few years back, which at the time had about 3000 in attendance.  When I walked into the foyer, I saw stations offering people multiple opportunities to serve--and not just within the church walls, but within their community and around the world.  Banners advertised those same opportunities all over the building.  Everywhere I looked this place screamed "we are here to build servants to our neighbors and the world!"  I happened to be walking with the Communications Director--the guy who was responsible for all that "messaging" and I complimented him highly.  "I was in here less than 10 seconds, and I know exactly who you guys are.  You have done a fantastic job with the message!"  As a new staff member, he was thankful for the compliment, but had also just come from a much larger church led by a "Health, Wealth and Prosperity" Pastor--the kind of church that promised its people everything and demanded nothing--except money of course.

To my compliment, this new staff member replied "Yeah, this message is a lot harder to sell than the message at my last church."

Yesterday, we finished up our series entitled "A Different Kind of Life" with a long, hard look at Hebrews 11 and 12.  What we saw there was a phenomenal picture of the saints through the ages who gave everything they had--including sometimes their own lives--for the sake of Jesus.  They weren't religious consumers.  They were faith-filled disciples who lived on mission 24/7.  What we learned from their lives was that to live missionally is to live in faith.  So what is a faith-filled life?  And how do we live it?  Because without it, we can't live the way Jesus wants us to live.

What is a Faith-filled life?

1. Its a life of singular passion.  Faith is, to put it simply, living your life as though God can be trusted.  Even when I don't possess what has been promised to me, I continue to move forward.  And when I live that way, I'm living the life of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, and thousands of others.
2. It takes the long view.  So many of the people we read about in this passage lived their whole lives on a promise they never saw fulfilled.  In other words, they weren't living primarily for this life, but for the next one.  Jesus said "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Everything we have in this life is temporary.  Often we think of tangible possessions, but this is also true of relationships.  One day, everything that is precious to me in this life is going to be taken from me.  A faith-filled life that lives for eternity takes a view that is much longer then ones' own life.
3. It produces spiritual heroes.  2000 years after this letter is penned, we know the stories of these people, and so many more who came after them.  Even beyond the stories we read in Hebrews, we remember a Lutheran pastor named Bonehoeffer who stood up to Hitler at the cost of his life.  We remember Martin Luther King standing in the midst of a nation infected with the virus of Jim Crow describing a dream of a better world.  And when we think of these people, we think as the author of Hebrews; "The world was not worthy of them."  That is spiritual heroism, and living a life filled with faith can bring you to join the list of those who fit that profile!

So how do I live this life?

1. Get rid of what holds you back.  The author of Hebrews says "lay aside every weight and sin."  What sinful habits are keeping you from greater intimacy with your Creator?  What is causing you to live in fear?  Throw it off!
2. Never give up. The athletic imagery is inspiring.  Like a marathon runner, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Don't back down.  Don't tap out.
3. Fix your eyes on Jesus.  Get your focus off of your circumstances, a questionable financial market, a circus-style Presidential election, or anything else that is causing you to lose heart, and focus your attention on Christ--who endured the cross for you.

Imagine an entire generation of Christians right here, right now, of whom it could be said when we are dead and gone, "the world was not worthy of them."  Are you living your life in that way?  Because that's a life of faith, and its a powerful place from which to serve Jesus to the fullest!

Let's start living it together church!

Monday, October 03, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A Christ-Centered Life

"Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."

Those infamous words are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, though there is zero evidence of his ever having spoken or written this, or anything like it.

But even if he had, it would remain a stupid thing to say.

Yesterday, we finished week three of a four-week series entitled "A Different Kind of Life."  The Scriptures repeatedly call God's people to "stand out" and lead a life that is markedly different from others--noticeable to the point that it is questionable to others.  Like those on whose shoulders we stand who healed the sick, fed the hungry, educated children, treated women as equals, and changed the world through lives no one in the 1st century had ever seek before, we are people whose lives should evoke the simple question, "who ARE you?"

But none of that means anything if it isn't grounded in the person and the work of Jesus.  We can feed the hungry, heal marriages, start addiction recovery programs, and help people economically, but without a Christ-centered life that produces a verbal witness, all we will do is send people to hell sober, with full stomachs, happy marriages, and fatter checkbooks.

The reason we focus on tangible and more immediate needs is to point to the ultimate need of forgiveness of sins and the transformation of our hearts.  Without that message at the core of everything we do, we are merely dabbling on the surface of things.  The point is we can't just live differently and make a lasting difference on people if that difference isn't informed and empowered by something beyond this world.  And in the introductory verse of Romans, Paul describes five ways that Jesus completely transformed his life--ways that describe how our own lives can be transformed.

Jesus Changes Our Lives. The Christian Gospel isn't just another religion alongside other world religions--another "choice" among many paths to God.  Jesus transforms His followers at their core, and Paul's own testimony is evidence of the miracle that Jesus works into each of us.  This former Pharisee who was committed to earning his salvation by obedience to the law now calls himself a "bondservant of Jesus Christ."  This "Hebrew of Hebrews" whose identity was once wrapped up in his ethnicity is now the "apostle" sent out by the one who came to save the whole world.  This persecutor of the church--the 1st century equivalent of an ISIS recruit--is now set apart to proclaim the very message he once sought to eliminate from the earth.

When we read the opening words of Romans, we are reading the words of a changed man.  And it is that change that empowers us to live the different kind of life to which we are called.  In our own strength, we can only "fake it" for so long.  The life we are called to live can't be produced in our own strength.  We can never be happy enough, or inspired enough on our own to keep it up.  It requires a complete overhaul of our identity.

Jesus Moves our Assurances. The whole of the Christian message is rooted in the fulfilled promise that Paul describes in verse 2.  The promise of Jesus was a promise first made in the Garden of Eden, and Paul emphasizes here that it is a promise that has been kept!  In our world, of written contracts and low trust, its easy to be a little skeptical.  But we serve a God who keeps His promiises, and all of our assuracnes can be placed in Him.

Jesus Centers our Focus  In verses 3 and 4, we see Paul describing the essence of the Christ-centered life.  This "Son of David" who came as Messiah--this "Son of God who is perfect man and perfect God--has conquered death.  As we live high-risk, high-stakes lives for His glory, bad things might happen.  But the worst thing that can happen is death--something Jesus has already defeated.  This is a man worth placing at the very center of our lives.  This is a man worthy of defining the totality of our identity.

Jesus Increases our Gratitude.  In verse 5, Paul reminds us that if we are Christian, our story begins and ends with grace.  Unmerited favor.  Something we get that we do not deserve and could never earn.  The gratitude that comes from realizing this is more than enough motivation to live differently, noticably!  No one should change their life rythym becaue they were made to feel guilty.  We should be intiving strangers to our table because of the grace of God that invited us--strangers, aliens and enemies--to HIS table!  We should live questionably because we serve a Savior who did things that blew people's minds.  When you have been transformed to the core, you posess the kind of grace that won't burn you out.  Gratitude for what Jesus has done becomes the nuclear source from which we can continue to live questionably and hospitably.  Its all about gratitude.  Everything else is a fossil fuel that runs out.

Jesus Encourages our Awe.  In verses 6 and 7 we see the heart of what it means to find your identity in Jesus.  Here we see that as His followers of Christ, we are His property (we belong to Him), and we are His beloved.

You were loved before the world was created.  You were chosen before you were born.  Jesus bled for you before you were born.  The Holy Spirit has immersed you into Christ permanently--eternally!  Imagine the kind of powerful life you can live when you simply embrace and live in that identity!

David Hume, the 18th century skeptic philosopher, left his office one evening, telling a colleague of his intent to hear George Whitfield, the British preacher and revivalist.  Surprised, his colleague said "I thought you didn't believe the Christian message."  Hume replied "I don't.  But I'm not going because I believe.  I'm going because George Whitfield does."

How many people would say that about you?  Is your life so immersed--so centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ--that they would say of you what Hume said of Whitefield?  "What they believe is crazy!  But I am fascinated by them, because it is obvious to me that they really believe this stuff!"  That is a Christ-centered life!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Reasons for Christians to Stay Quiet on Social Media Tonight

"Clinton-Trump Debate Expected to Be Rare Draw in a Polarized Age."

That was the New York Times headline that led my news feed yesterday.  The article predicted the possibility of as many as 100 million viewers--20 million more than the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that has thus far held the record for the most viewers.  83 percent of registered voters are likely to watch.  But many of the reasons behind these predictions have little to do with issues affecting our nation or the expectation of high-minded debate.

And the NYT article didn't hide that fact, stating clearly that "the uniquely uncivil presidential campaign is about to produce one of the biggest civic gatherings in decades. . . .many may tune in merely for the spectacle."  Comparing this debate to the Ali-Frazier fight, former talk-show host Dick Cavett stated the painfully obvious; "There's possible drama and fireworks and insults and horror and disaster and potential enlightenment.  It would attract anybody."

In short, most people aren't tuning in to be educated on substantive issues.  Most will be watching hoping for a train wreck.  And in the event of a train wreck, expect lots of pictures.  And tweets.  And Facebook statuses.  And further polarization, contention, and all-around nastiness.

With that looming context in view, it might do Christians well to remember Paul's words:  "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.  (Ephesians 4:29)

There are times when followers of Jesus should engage, and engage fully in cultural conversation.  This is especially true when the principles of the Kingdom dictate a higher and more worthy approach than what we hear and the manner in which we hear it.  There are other times, when the conversation is set up in such a way as to make it unredeemable, when Christians should just walk away and "take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness."  (Ephesians 5:11)

I'm not saying a Christian shouldn't watch tonight's debate.  But I am suggesting that our best response to anything said tonight might just be silence. Rick Warren has well-stated that the western church has successfully severed the hands and feet of Christ so that all that is left is a big mouth.

So if I may be so bold, let me make a simple suggestion to any Christ-follower reading these words ahead of tonight's debate.  When it comes to your use of social media, just stay quiet tonight.

I think this is a good idea for three reasons.

Division is not our business.  Inevitably, there will be someone who responds to this with "but TRUTH divides!"  And that's true.  But anyone who believes either of these candidates deals in "truth" is living in a dreamworld.

The kind of polarization we have witnessed in recent months--some of which has actually escalated into actual physical violence--is simply antiChrist.  Followers of Jesus may disagree with each other--even strongly so--about how to solve a problem.  But in the end, our commitment under the Lordship of Jesus should be to the solution, not to attacking those with whom we disagree.  Can we all be honest enough to admit that tonight's "debate" isn't going to be about issues so much as personalities?  Let's not contribute to the national division we are experiencing by throwing our own vitriolic, social media-empowered gasoline on that already-raging fire.

We aren't going to change anyone's mind.  Currently, less than 8 percent of the electorate is "undecided."  And even if that number was larger, the chances of changing someone's mind with a Facebook post is slim.  The greater chance is that you lose a friend, or lose your testimony.  Tonight, refuse to be part of the social media "echo chamber" that in the end, solves nothing and only deepens the division.

We may throw away greater opportunities. I'm the pastor of a church filled with people who will vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, and Jill Stein. (a  few in our congregation have told me they are writing in "Mickey Mouse" as a protest vote, but I digress.)  Each has different reasons for supporting their chosen candidate, and none at this point in the election wants to hear their brothers or sisters say "how can a Christian vote for THAT person?!"

Let's be honest.  That question could legitimately be asked of ANY of these candidates for various reasons.  But when we take to social media with those opinions, we are--more often than we realize--throwing away greater opportunities for unity with each other, and walk in relationship to each other.  If someone you know perceives that you think they are "stupid" or "ungodly" or "unenlightened" or in any other way less than you because of a social media statement about this debate, you may very well lose any further opportunity to engage with them about issues far more important than this temporary kingdom in which we find ourselves.

This is especially true for church leaders.  Pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, Sunday School teachers and others who lead need to realize that if your social media presence causes you to be seen as a shill for one candidate or one party, your influence in the body of Christ will be greatly diminished--perhaps deservingly so.  You have a much higher calling that should not be wasted on this nonsense.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul compares his ministry to that of a "master builder."  In the end, he states that we will all stand in front of Jesus, and "each one's work will become manifest." (3:13)  In Paul's mind, there are two kinds of builders; those who build with "gold, silver, and precious stones," and those who build with "wood, hay and stubble."  At the end of the age, he tells us that the first group will be rewarded, and the second will have their work burned up.  Because in the end, it never truly amounted to anything.

As I observe how tonight's presidential debate has been set up, advertised, publicized, I see a lot of wood, hay and stubble.  Should you watch?  That's up to you.  Should you vote?  I believe you should.  Should you watch waiting for the right moment to pounce on the one you want to lose?  I'm pretty sure that kind of activity on social media won't amount to anything.

Tomorrow will be a new day.  I expect, given what has been predicted, that a blanket of negativity and caustic rhetoric will have been thrown over our national discourse once again.  That will be our opportunity to shine a unifying, clarifying light.  That will be our opportunity to truly face our national division in a more effective way.

But tonight, maybe we should just keep our mouths shut.

Monday Morning Rewind: A Hospitable Life

Picture a kitchen table.

It doesn't have to be fancy or elaborate.  Four legs and a top.  That's all you need.  Some of the most life-changing, world-altering encounters and conversations have transpired around a simple table.

The table is powerful.

Yesterday, we continued our series "A Different Kind of Life" by talking about hospitality.  For many people, hospitality is a struggle.  For one thing, genuine, Biblically-defined hospitality always involves the love of strangers, and even enemies.  But this concept is also a struggle because in our culture, we too often confuse "hospitality" with "entertainment."  The real question of hospitality isn't whether the table linens match or if the event schedule is off.  Want to know if you are truly hospitable?  Ask yourself one simple question:

Do people feel welcome and wanted when they are in your company?  

That's it!  Are people happy to be around you?  In your presence?  In your home?

Another way of asking it is this:  What do people experience at your table?  As followers of Jesus, nothing embodies this call to love and serve others more than a story about a wedding feast in John 2.  And when we look at this story and the miracle it contains, we see four things hospitality does.

Hospitality fosters community.  Yesterday, we saw that Jesus was invited to a wedding at Cana.  This means someone at the party knew him, and liked Him!  That is the kind of community that leads to people finding Jesus.  No matter how doctrinally sound you are, or how much of the Bible you have memorized, you will never get to truly share your faith with anybody if they don't like you.

But when others feel at ease in your presence, and enjoy your company, powerful spiritual conversations can occur!  When you focus on welcoming others and loving them no matter who they are; when you focus on their happiness and comfort--you are creating the very kind of community that can open those doors to share Christ.

Hospitality serves a need.  For us, running out of wine (or anything else for that matter) isn't such a big deal.  You head around the corner and you pick more up.  But in the 1st century, when you're out, you're out!  And when you're out at a Jewish wedding, its humiliating.

In Jewish thought, wine is always associated with joy.  The Rabbis even had a saying that "without wine there is no joy."  And out of this embarrassing crisis John paints a deep, spiritual lesson for us.  Apart from Jesus, there can be joy in your marriage, or in a wedding or other celebration.  But good times that are nothing more than good times will eventually run out.  If we want unlimited joy, we need the presence and power of Jesus.  And that is just what we witness in this story.  The deepest need at this party could only be met by Jesus.  Likewise, our deepest needs, and those of our neighbors, can only be met by the presence and power of Jesus.

Hospitality brings joy to others.  When you take the facts of this story into account and do the math, you come to the conclusion that Jesus miraculously produced between 110 and 180 gallons of wine.  That's a lot of wine!  And that's the point; that the problem Jesus is solving is a shortage of something associated with joy and hospitality, and it is His presence that provides a joy and gladness of welcoming that will never, ever run out.

When we demonstrate Christ-centered hospitality toward others, both the quality and quantity of joy goes up.  They have never felt more loved, more welcomed, or more valued then they do when they are in your presence.

Hospitality mirrors the character of God.  This entire scenario did what any genuine, Christ-centered demonstration of hospitality should do: it brought great glory to Jesus.

Again, the table is a powerful thing, especially when those tending that table are followers of Jesus.  Because when you and I put our focus on another--when we welcome the stranger to our table--we are doing what Jesus did when He invited us to commune with Him.  Remember, we were strangers to His table, and had no business sitting at His table.  But he invited us anyway, just as he invited Zacchaeus, the tax cheat, to dine with him and it changed that man's life, and he paid back everything he had stolen with interest! (Luke 19:1-10)  Being hospitable mirrors God's character, and it can produce miraculous results.

What about you?  Who is your Zacchaeus?  Who is that person at work?  At school?  Who is that person in your community that no one wants to be around?  Who is that group that is held at arms' length that YOU need to be rubbing shoulders with?  Make the time to get out of the "holy huddle" with your Christian friends, and welcome a stranger.  Focus on the other.  And watch the power of the table as you mirror the character of God by bringing unlimited joy to the lives of others!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A Questionable Life

Yesterday, we began a four-week series entitled "A Different Kind of Life."  If you have been a follower of Jesus for any significant length of time, or if you have been around a lot of people who follow Jesus, you have probably heard that Christians are supposed to be "different" from everybody else, and that's true.  Our Bible is full of passages calling us to a different sort of life.  In fact, the Scriptures have a word for this, and that word is "holy."

Now, when you ask someone to define "holiness" you get all sorts of answers.  Growing up in a conservative small town in the south, I was taught that this was always associated with certain activities that one should avoid.  In other words, in addition to following Jesus I should never use tobacco, drink alcohol, or vote for a Democrat. (no kidding!)

Of course, the problem with "lists" of forbidden behaviors is that they really don't produce the kind of life Jesus calls us to.  While there may be wisdom in avoiding activities that could be enslaving to the body and soul, even those who meet those standards often find themselves thinking the same way, having the same worries and concerns, and possessing the same aspirations as others.  In short, when others look at our lives, they often see little noticeable difference.

That raises a question:  What is this "different kind of life" that we are called to?  Well, that kind of life involves several things, and we began this series yesterday by emphasizing that this kind of life should be "questionable."  Our lives should be lived in such a manner as to cause others to ask, "who ARE you?!"

In Paul's letter to the Colossians, we get a glimpse of what this looks like.  When we looked at Chapter 4 yesterday, we saw a contrast between what he prayed for them as opposed to what he asked them to pray for him.

Be Vigilant.  Paul asked the church to be persistent in their prayers, and to pray fully aware of their circumstances.  When we read these requests, it should cause us to ask if we pray fully aware of what is transpiring in our neighborhood, our cul-de-sac, our community, and our world.

One of our staff values is "Prayer is our Primary Strategy."  In other words, prayer can't just be the "bookends" of a long meeting.  We try to look at our agenda, and if that agenda could be discussed anywhere outside of the church if we just removed "prayer" from the beginning and end, its probably not an agenda that deserves the attention of God's people or their leaders.

How about you?  Is prayer a regular and strategic part of your life?  Your family's life?  Vigilant prayer is informed, purposeful, personal, and as a result, far more powerful, and any truly "questionable" life starts with, ends with, and is permeated by it.

Be Bold.  Paul further asks the church as they pray to ask for boldness on his part.  It is obvious from this and other places in the Scripture that Paul was a gifted evangelist, and God tells us that He still gives the church those kinds of people today (Ephesians 4:11).  These people have an extraordinary ability to share the message of Jesus with clarity and compel others to turn from their sins and put their faith in Christ.

This doesn't mean that ONLY gifted evangelists should share their faith.  But it does mean that when it comes to these people, we should give them the room they need to exercise their gifts, encourage them, and pray for them often--that they would be BOLD!

But again, not everyone is gifted in this particular way.  Ever feel as though the church was "squeezing you into a mold" you didn't fit?  Some of the worst stories I've heard involving this were stories in which well-meaning church leaders suggested that everyone should be the bold, door-knocking, barrier-crossing evangelist.  Are you one of those people?  What if you aren't gifted in that way?  How should you take responsibility for sharing your own faith?

In other words, "what about the rest of us?

Be Intentional.  When Paul shifts his focus back to the church in verses 5 and 6, his tone changes.  Rather than ask for them the same thing he asks them for, he prays that they will "walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time."  Picture an airplane circling the airport--a regular stop in your routine.  Paul says to the church, "I want those moments to be spent in the presence of outsiders."

If he were alive today, Paul might express it this way; "Get out of the 'Christian bubble!'"  For too many followers of Jesus, we isolate ourselves from the very relationships Jesus intends that we establish.  Maybe its because we don't want to be uncomfortable.  Perhaps we think in doing so we are protecting our children from "corrupt influences."  But regardless of our reasons, the Apostle is telling us here "rubbing elbows with non-Christians should be a regular and intentional part of your life!"

In short, be strategic with your life!  And to be strategic and intentional, you have to walk among the world "in wisdom."  Think about how you spend your life.  Some of us have better health than others.  Some of us have more money than others.  But time is the great equalizer.  Every one of us is given the same 168 hours per week.  God expects us to use those hours strategically.

He also intends that we use that time in a way that is "questionable" to the world.  So while gifted evangelists should seize every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel with boldness, most in the church will share their faith via answering the questions unbelievers are asking who are in relationship with them.

That raises another question:  What are you doing, and how are you living that makes your life questionable?  If we worry about the same things as our non-Christian neighbors, spend our money in the same way, act the same way, react the same way to problems--if our life looks EXACTLY the same as theirs, what would they ask us about?

Paul's challenge here is to live a freakishly weird life--the kind of life that causes others to ask "who ARE you?!"

By the 4th century, the Roman Empire, which at one time saw Christianity as an undesirable faith to be eliminated, had begun to see thousands of people following Jesus.  That didn't happen because of mass evangelism, literature distribution, or a "hot band" on the stage.  It happened because followers of Jesus fed the hungry, showed hospitality to strangers, tended the graves of the dead who were not part of their faith treated women as equals in a male-dominated world, and treated household slaves as brothers.

Rome came to faith in Jesus because no one in Rome had ever seen a life quite like this!

How about you?  Are you living in a "questionable" marriage?  Are you running a "questionable" business?  That is our calling; living a questionable life to the glory of God!

Friday, July 29, 2016

"How Did You Do It?" 22 Years of Marital "Bliss" and "Blisters"

22 years ago tomorrow, a beautiful, smart, winsome, godly young lady with obvious issues of blindness and bad character judgement had already said "I do" to a young 22-year-old knot-head named Joel. 

If, at that moment, you had told either of us what God had in store for us over the next two decades, we would not have believed it!
As you can tell from the pictures, we don't look the same as we once did.  Amy has gotten a lot prettier, and I've gotten a lot uglier and hairier!  Additionally, there are now three other people who live with us who call us "Mom" and "Dad," and as anyone who is a parent knows, the presence of such little ones changes life in profound ways.  All in all, its been a blessed 22 years, and yes, I'd do it all over again with this wonderful woman.  It hasn't all been fun, but marriage isn't supposed to be.

Over the past several decades, divorce statistics remain unchanged, and as a minister of the Gospel, I've personally experienced those statistics.  Charles Lowery once comically said "I'd rather preach a funeral than a wedding any day.  They pay more, and they last longer!"  I can certainly vouch for that.  About 30% of the couples for whom I have officiated a wedding are now divorced.  On the other hand, everyone I've ever buried is right where I left them!

In this kind of context, we are often asked by younger couples how we have made it as long as we have.  Because we constantly praise and adore each other publicly, sometimes folks get the false impression that Amy and I have never had marriage struggles. Truth is, we have hit a few very rough patches in our years together, just like every couple does.  So, why are we still together?

1. Because we try to love Jesus more than we love each other.  Here is the unvarnished truth.  I don't deserve my wife, and the Biblical prohibition against divorce isn't about me or her.  Its about Jesus.  I think if we based our "staying power" merely on our devotion to each other, we too might have been a statistic years ago.  Keeping the wedding vows I made to my wife aren't primarily for the benefit of my wife.  Its about a promise I made to my Creator and Redeemer when I entered into the very marriage covenant that He created in order to point people to Himself.

One day in the future, one of us will pass away and leave the other one behind.  In that moment, the Rainey marriage covenant will be forever severed, because contrary to what some false religions teach, we aren't headed toward an eternal marriage between Joel and Amy. Instead, Joel and Amy are both headed toward their ultimate Bridegroom.  On that day, we won't miss each other because we will both be too busy basking in the unspeakable glory of what our earthly marriage was always supposed to be pointing to.  As wonderful as my relationship has been with Amy, I can't imagine how wonderful that day will be!

So over the past 22 years when arguments seemed to become more regular, or one of us thought the other seemed to be less tolerable, we've tried to look beyond each other, and toward what we promised God we would do our best to reflect--the very thing He expects marriage to reflect.  It hasn't always been easy, but God has a way of always out-giving us in every way, and I've certainly experienced that when it comes to how rewarded I feel by Him for our faithfulness to each other.

2. Because we allow each other to be who we are.  Amy genuinely loves to run, and has completed two half-marathons.  If I'm running, its either because someone has a gun, or because I've come to the conclusion that I don't need to get any fatter than I already am.  Amy is a slow, careful, deliberate and thoughtful reader.  I go through books like chicken wings.  Amy likes to take her time in the grocery store.  I want to split up the list and do double the shopping in half the time.  When we vacation, Amy enjoys the journey.  I'm trying to break a record to get to the destination.

Bottom line:  we are different, and we allow for those differences in each other.  I have a pair of running shoes only because she loves to run.  She has a motorcycle helmet because she knows I'm most relaxed when I'm on my Harley in in the mountains.  Because we know these things about each other, we make sure the other can make time for these things.  They come up every time we have a "calendar meeting."  And we do this because, in the midst of my pastoral schedule, teaching duties and publishing deadlines, and her juggling of the home schedule, we don't want to lose each other.  I thank God for a woman who, when she sees me stressed out, asks "so when was the last time you took a ride?"

3. Because we are best friends.  I'll be brutally honest here:  When I was standing at the altar 22 years ago with my soon-to-be wife, I had a few things going through my mind, but none so intense as the thoughts of what we would be up to that evening!  (Cue the retching now from the peanut gallery.......and my children!)

And I know what some of you are asking, "but it wasn't just the physical attraction.  You did LOVE her, didn't you?"  And I will say yes, I loved her--at least as much as any 22-year-old BOY could love anyone. Furthermore, those feelings weren't wrong.  God put them there for a reason.  But, those feelings alone don't make a marriage last, principally because they come and go.  You'd be amazed at how quickly the sweet smell of cologne and perfume fades when the stench of dirty laundry and medicinal salve is in the room!  

Over the years, Amy and I have had many "romantic getaways" when we hire a sitter and take off for a night away, or several nights away.  Our 10th anniversary was spent in Cozumel; our 20th in Key Largo.  This year's anniversary finds us 12,000 miles apart while she does some really important work with educators in Vietnam.  So when she gets back and we are finally able to celebrate, it will probably involve a jacked-up body clock.

And then there was three years ago.  We were planning to go out for a quiet evening together at a local restaurant, but two of our three children caught a stomach bug, so instead we ate takeout, sat on our back deck, and were available in case one of them threw up.

Romantic, huh?

Over the past 22 years, we've had many more experiences like what we faced three years ago than we've had trips to exotic destinations!  And through all of those experiences, we have learned that the best way to face them is to do so as friends.  There is nothing wrong with romance.  I've learned to enjoy it far more over the years. When we get dressed up to go out, Amy is always stunning.  Its funny, I can look at women's clothes on the rack, or jewelry in her jewelry box and not have a clue, but believe me, she knows where it all goes, and it looks really good when she gets it all in place! She is beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent, and that makes candlelight dinners with her an exquisite pleasure.

Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with sex.  Matter of fact, I happen to think that sex is fantastic!  Sex can greatly enhance a permanent bond between husband and wife, but it cannot create that bond, and it isn't what makes a marriage last.  If you think otherwise, you have placed sex on a throne where only God belongs.  

Prolonged sickness, a tough pregnancy, young children that won't sleep, stressful times at work, and a hundred other things can result in you being "on the bench" for a while where sex is concerned. But you always have friendship, regardless of whether the lights are dimmed, whether you hear the kids puking in the background, or whether or not you can work out that getaway.  Friendship isn't dependent on context.  Its unconditional, just like the love we are commanded to have for each other in a marriage.

4. Because we have sought help. I've known and pastored a lot of married couples, and the only ones I've known who never had a rough patch were those who had a problem with compulsive lying.  Amy and I have experienced those rough patches too, and one of the ways we made it through was to seek help.  Twice we have visited a counselor, because there was an issue we knew we needed to work through together, but weren't sure how to do it.  At that point, our marriage wasn't "about to fall apart" (if you wait that long, you might need more than a counselor!), but we wanted to stay on top of things together.

We have also been greatly helped through the years by other couples much older, who have been married much longer.  By living in relationship with them, we have learned from their mistakes, and gained much wisdom on how to improve our own relationship.  Professional counseling can be a good thing, but trust me, the guy with a Ph.D. who is on his third wife has nothing profitable to say to you about marriage.  On the other hand, if you can find a couple who has been married at least as long as you have been alive, you will most likely gain a lot of very useful wisdom.  

Come to think of it, you shouldn't even be asking this 22 year veteran about marriage.  I'm still learning myself!  Instead, go to church and find that man who has been married for 40 or 50 or 60 years.  Find that sweet old lady who walks in every Sunday with a walking cane in one hand, and her husband's hand in the other.  You might learn something.  I know Amy and I have!

So I sit here this morning grateful to Jesus for holding Amy and me together for all these years, and I'm grateful to a wonderful wife and best friend who continues with me on this journey.  Happy Anniversary Amy!  Come home safe!

Monday, July 11, 2016

When Your Pastor Falls

Yesterday, the elders of NewSpring Church, the 30,000 attendee, multi-site congregation in my home state, announced the release of Senior Pastor Perry Noble due to behaviors that disqualify him for pastoral ministry.  This announcement was understandably shocking, both to the evangelical world, and more so to the NewSpring church family.

Some predictable responses to this sad news have already transpired--from secular media outlets pointing out NewSpring's status as the "richest church," to angry fundamentalists shouting "See! I told you so!"  For my part, my heart goes out to Perry, and to the church he founded.

When the first church I ever planted was just an infant, NewSpring was itself just learning how to walk.  Those were trying times in my own life and ministry, and I remember several conversations with Perry that helped me greatly.  Perry cares about the church--all churches.  Perry cares about pastors.  But mostly, Perry cares deeply about lost people finding Jesus.  Perry did  many things differently than I would do them, and a few things I would never do.  But you don't have to be twins to be brothers, and as a whole, I have been very thankful for this brother and the difference he has made.

And since yesterday, I've been thinking a lot about NewSpring Church, and many other churches like her who have had to bid farewell to a pastor who disqualified himself for ministry.  Noble and NewSpring may currently be alone in the spotlight, but they are far from the only pastor and church that have encountered a situation like this.  When this kind of thing happens, it doesn't matter how big or how "rich" you are.  Its excruciatingly painful for all involved.  I've consulted with multiple churches in the wake of their leader's moral failure--be it sexual, financial, substance abuse, or other lack of personal discipline.  Moments like that in the life of a church are humiliating for the pastor, impossibly difficult for those who hold him accountable, and painful for a church family that, whether or not they realize it, are dealing with a level of grief commensurate with losing a family member to death.

Often, churches don't know what to do in a situation like this.  Based on my own experience in helping churches through crises like this, let me make the following suggestions.  How should you view the pastor who has disappointed you and let you down?  And, what does the pastor who now no longer leads your church need from you?

He needs your discipline.  This is a difficult thing for many to hear, especially those in the body of Christ who are gifted with mercy and helps.  They rightly expect restoration and often cry out "why can't we just forgive him and move on?"  Within that cry is an honorable desire to redeem the situation and the person.  But often, this cry is accompanied by ignorance of the fact that "forgiveness" and "restoration" are two completely different things.  1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear about the character qualities of those who dare to be pastors.  In the case of Perry Noble, those principles were violated by an over-dependency on alcohol.  But I've seen similar circumstances arise from sexual sin, lack of discipline, or the inability to control one's temper.  When disqualifying sin has taken place and all other avenues have been exhausted, removal is best for the church, for the community, and even for the pastor.  The fact that it is also painful doesn't mean its wrong.

So if you are faced with the removal of your pastor over disqualifying sin, trust your leaders who have rightly held him accountable, and follow them as they seek to lead the church forward while simultaneously getting the pastor the resources he and his family need to heal.

He needs your stay shut!  News of what happened at NewSpring yesterday had spread to every major news outlet in North America by last night.  Imagine how you would feel if your worst moments not only cost you your job, but were also on display on TV screens, computer screens and smartphones all over America.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself "but Perry was a mega-church pastor.  Our church is much smaller--much less well-known."  But while it is true that your pastor's sins may never end up on CNN, in a situation like this they will certainly end up on the "Community Bulletin Board" where all the "real news" in your small town gets read anyway.  My point?  Your pastor and his family will be humiliated by a situation like this regardless, and the absolute last thing he needs are those he has served as shepherd adding gossip and rumor to the situation.

Yesterday, the leaders of NewSpring balanced transparency with discretion.  And because they didn't "tell it all" there will be plenty of gaps in the story, and people naturally want to fill in the gaps.  If you are part of a church where this is happening, your time is much better spent praying for your church family and your former pastor.  Don't feed the rumor mill.  Doing so only brings greater humiliation.

He needs your unity.  Your church needs it too.  This is not the time to "jump ship" and head to the church across town.  This is not the time to hit the exit ramp because church doesn't feel like Disney World any more.  And its certainly not the time to give the impression that the former pastor is the whole reason you joined the church anyway (Truthfully, if the pastor is the only reason you are there, you are there for the wrong reason!).  Now is the time to lock arms with your hurting church family.

One of the things I"m thankful for in the NewSpring situation is that Perry is humbly receiving the rebuke and discipline from church leaders.  Without that posture, this could have been much worse.  In the worst cases I've seen, the pastor resists loving discipline and "splants" a church by dividing the house and taking those loyal to him down the street to start another one.  Being part of something like that isn't honoring to your former pastor.  It enables him in further misconduct, and does traumatic damage to your church family, the community, and the witness of the Gospel.  Don't play the "God is leading me....." card on this one.  That's just ridiculous.  Now more than ever, stay with your church family!  Years from now, your former pastor will be encouraged to know that his behavior didn't do lasting damage to the body of Christ.

He needs your appreciation  While many gifted with mery and helps want to quickly "forgive" and "restore," may gifted with prophecy and discernment--the "justice" gifts--will want to find a tall tree and a short piece of rope from which to hang their former pastor.  This too, is unhealthy.

When a pastor falls, many are devastated because they say to themselves "I never thought he would be capable of something like this!"  Trust has been broken.  Spiritual trauma has been inflicted on the body.  In moments like that, it is easy to forget that you can't measure a man's life in one bad moment.

As you process your grief and disappointment, also keep in mind that it was the guy who couldn't control his drinking who also baptized your children.  It was the guy who cheated on his wife who was also there for you when your mother died suddenly.  In those moments, he never left your side.  Now, he needs you by his side.  That doesn't mean you can't feel disappointment or even anger.  It does mean you shouldn't forget how often he blessed you and your family.  Recall those moments, and communicate them to him to encourage him.

He needs your prayers  How often do you think he prayed for you?  He and his family now stand in great need of your prayers.  Ask God to give him greater wisdom for the future.  Ask God to heal him.  Ask God to heal his family.  Ask God to one day restore him to ministry.

One of the signatures on my ministry license is that of a man who would be later removed from a church because of substance abuse.  Yes, he sinned and disqualified himself..  And yes, the church did the right thing by removing him.  But whatever good anyone sees in my ministry now is largely due to his investment in me as a young man.  We shouldn't forget things like that, nor should we let those who have fallen forget them.

By God's grace, both Perry Noble and NewSpring Church have a future.  If your church has been through similar circumstances, you have a future too, and so does the man you once called "Pastor."  Give him what he needs, and trust God to give your church what it needs.