Thursday, June 26, 2008

God is Still Here

My father-in-law's favorite saying is, "Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see." That wary attitude has served him well in life that has been successful from both a business standpoint and (more importantly) a spiritual one.

That saying has some good practical application: It's good to be wary of the latest "hot new thing" in spirituality or in life. It is also wise not to be blindly optimistic about our circumstances: Just because someone believes things are going to work out doesn't mean there won't be pain along the way. Many Christians have had their own faith wrecked by this kind of spiritual Pollyannaism that says, "If I believe it, it will be."

So wariness is wise...but when it becomes skepticism and doubt, it can be one of the most destructive things in the Christian life. When we start to doubt whether God can do anything good with our circumstances, when we give up on the notion of being useful to His Kingdom, when we fail to dream of greater things and settle for a life LESS abundant...then we fall short. We fall apart. We fall away from Him.

On the day Elijah left this earth, his protege Elisha must have faced some serious doubts. How did he respond? How can we overcome the doubts, fears and natural skepticism that tends to attack our faith? That is what we'll discuss this Sunday.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Youth Camp

I'm spending the week at youth camp! Carrie and Kayleigh are with me, while Will accepted a last-minute offer to spend the week with my parents in the country.

We're on the campus of Howard Payne University in Brownwood. Our bus ride here yesterday was pleasant (believe it or not), and I am looking forward to a wonderful week. Hey, I've even got internet access out here, so I should be able to keep in touch with you all via email.

A few observations from the short time I've been here:

  • Our kids are great. They were well-behaved on the bus ride here, and have been that way ever since. Maybe it's because this is a high school only camp, and the kids are more mature (Middle-school camp is next week). Or maybe our kids are just great.
  • The food is really quite good so far. If you've never been to youth camp before, trust me on this one: The food is never good. Let's hope this camp breaks the trend.
  • I'm old. Yesterday, someone asked me how old I was. When I said 37, one of our youth girls (her name shall be mercifully withheld) said she assumed I was in my forties. She quickly said that was only because she didn't know any pastors in their thirties, but the damage to my fragile ego was already done. Sigh.
  • Our speaker this week, Craig Tackett, is very high-energy and entertaining. He gave a great message last night on John 21, focusing on how Jesus' love chases and confronts us. I was enlightened by the message, but I was also thinking about how hard it would be to speak to youth for a living. A few years ago, the youth group at South Avenue Baptist in Pasadena (where I pastored previously) attended a camp where the speaker was boring. They came back saying, "We would've rather listened to Jeff all week." You have to have heard the tone of voice in which they said it, but trust me: They meant it as a slam on the youth speaker, not as a compliment to me. Hence the fragile ego.
  • The theme of the week is "I am," focusing on the unchanging nature of Jesus. It's going to be a great week. If I get time, I might post some other news from camp. Keep us in your prayers!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Watch out for slippage

I have been on a through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan since my seminary days, and it has benefitted me immensely. Most of the time, my daily Bible reading is like taking goes down easily, and I don't feel any immediate effects, event though I know it's doing me good over time. But sometimes, the Spirit reaches out to me through the pages of His Word and grabs me by the throat. I had one of those moments last night. I thought I'd share it with you.

I am in 2 Chronicles right now, and last night I read the story of a King of Judah named Asa, found in chapters 14-16. Asa was a good king (so good, he gets three chapters worth of ink!). He reversed the idolatry of his predecessors and brought spiritual revival to the land. He also led the Jews to resounding victory over an invading force of a million Ethiopian and Libyan soldiers, armed only with the power of God.

When Asa had been king for 36 years, the king of Israel invaded Judah. Asa responded by making a treaty with the king of Aram (Syria) to fight on his side. This did the trick--Israel retreated back to their place, and all was well. But a prophet approached king Asa and asked him, "Why didn't you trust God to help you this time? He gave you victory over a much bigger force when you were younger. Why now do you feel you need to turn to a pagan king?" Asa was so enraged at this impertinence, he had the prophet thrown into prison. His health later declined, and along with it, his faith in God. The Scripture tells us that in his last days, he refused even to pray about the pain he was experiencing.

This story hit me hard because I have a tendency to think that my own spiritual growth is a given at this point. I am old enough that the raging hormones and vain personal ambitions of my youth seem silly. I am aware of a new maturity and wisdom that I didn't previously possess. And so it would be very natural for me to relax in the area of spiritual discipline. But I must realize that the same thing that happened to Asa can happen to me. He did far more in his youth than I have, exercised far greater faith than I have ever been called to use. But later in life, his faith was weak.

I suppose the old preachers were right: Faith is like a muscle that grows weak with disuse. Let's not forget to exercise!

Our God is Not User-Friendly

I remember taking Church history courses in seminary. I found them very interesting (I'll confess...I'm a history nerd), but also a little frustrating. Every generation of the Church had some glaring theological blind spot, some belief or practice that made me think, "How could they do that? Weren't they reading the same Bible I am?"

I am certain our generation has its share of blind spots, too. I sometimes wonder what future generations will say as they study 21st century American Christians. I suspect one criticism they will have is that we have defanged our deity. We have made God into a doting, generous grandfather-figure who never gets angry with us, never punishes us, and never wants anything but our comfort and happiness. Future generations will hear that in our songs and sermons, read it in our literature, and track the results of this unbalance view of the Almighty. It doesn't take a seminary degree to see that such an image isn't biblical.

Of course, God IS a God of grace. Hallelujah for that! Yes, He loves us infinitely. But that infinite love is balanced by an infinite holiness. The author of Hebrews reminds us, "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." And that holiness produces some stories in the Bible that are downright scary.

We'll look at two such stories in our series, "The Difference Maker" this Sunday. The first takes up much of 2 Kings 1. The second is found in 2 Kings 2:23-25. I've never heard a sermon preached on either of these passages, so pray for me...I'm going where angels (and far better preachers) fear to tread.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The God of Justice

Take a minute to read the first Psalm. There will be a test afterward:

1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.

2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Okay, here's your test: What do you think that Psalm means?

If you said that Psalm is a promise that God is on the side of the righteous, that He's opposed to the other words, if you said that Psalm means He's a God of Justice, I would say you're right.

So...why does it so often seem that people who flagrantly flout God's laws, abuse innocent people, and live selfish, greedy lives seem to prosper, while good people can't seem to get a break? That is the subject of the message this Sunday, based on a story from 1 Kings 21. We'll see why it really does pay to do the right thing...and if you're like me, you need the encouragement!

See you Sunday.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Dallas bound

Keep me in your prayers. I head to Dallas this afternoon for a week of training in the National Church Adopt-a-School Initiative. I am excited about the opportunity to learn more about this ministry from people who have been doing it successfully for nearly 30 years. I can't wait to get started on this, but there is a lot of work to be done this summer in getting us ready for the fall. Lord willing, I'll see you on Sunday!

God of the Gentle Whisper

There's a popular praise song being sung in churches across the country these days. The chorus goes: "Every day with you, Lord, is sweeter than the day before." Like most contemporary praise choruses, it's exceptionally catchy and fun to sing. Unlike most, it's not entirely accurate (in my opinion).

In a spiritual sense, our lives DO get better every day. Though we age outwardly, we are inwardly being renewed day by day, and every day we live brings us one step closer to the great and final reunion with our Lord. But even the most committed followers of Christ will have bad days from time to time. Take a moment to read Paul's "resume" in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. Does it sound like Paul had some rough moments in serving Christ? Jesus even promised us: "In this life you WILL have tribulation."

Even Elijah had bad days. We'll look at an extended session of darkness in Elijah's life when we study 1 Kings 19 this Sunday. Ironically, his season of depression came right after the high point of his life.

Please be prayerful for this sermon. There will surely be people there Sunday (including, perhaps, you) who are going through the valley of the shadow of death themselves. I don't expect this sermon to cure all their ills, but I hope it can inspire them to move towards hope. All of us will experience difficult times, just like Elijah. This Sunday, we'll see how God responds to us in those moments.