Rewind: HOPEless

In 2011, my wife Charmaine and I spent over two weeks in Thailand, meeting with refugees and pastors, learning more about the Karen people group and about international missions work with our friend Joanna, a missionary that we support. We came back in the middle of July and, 4 days later, I took a group of teenagers to Colorado for a summer missions trip. We worked with a local church that does outreach to several local apartment complexes, including a couple of locations that are filled with very low-income residents. Then, about a week after we got back from that trip, I had the honor and privilege of officiating the wedding of a former student. It was an exciting and absolutely exhausting month.

Throughout my two trips, God kept bringing the idea of hope into my mind. The history of the Karen people is very interesting, and several times in my trip it was paralleled with the history of Israel in the Old Testament. The Karen people were evangelized early in the nineteenth century by Adoniram Judson – a small people group called by God surrounded by nations that served other Gods. The Karen people were tempted to stray from God. Eventually, as was described by Karen pastors in Thailand, they strayed from the path God had called them down and God judged them, exiling them from their homes. But, like Israel, God has not done this simply for the sake of punishment or out of anger; I believe he has done this out of love and a desire to have these people reconciled to Him. It is my prayer and my belief, sparked by the prayers of the Karen pastors and leaders that I met in Thailand, that the Karen will again one day be reestablished in their homes in Burma and that they will be a shining light for the one true God in a region where they are surrounded by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The biggest struggle for the Karen leaders, as well as the biggest difference between the Karen who are showing signs of life and those that have given up, is hope. Pastors like Henry, Weelapong, and Edward (I’m changing some names for their protection) show a great deal of excitement and anticipation for what God is going to do, and they desperately pray for His will to be done. Many others, however, have given up; and who can blame them. They have been driven from their homes (some several times) by a government that hates them because of their race. They have seen friends and family members killed. They trekked through jungles barefooted, avoiding poisonous snakes and spiders and dangerous animals. They live in terrible conditions in refugee camps in a foreign land, run by foreigners that are teaching them ideas that do not mesh with their heritage. Where could anyone find hope in the midst of that?

These are homes of refugees behind barb wire; there are tens of thousands of refugees living in Mae La, making it the largest camp in Thailand.

While working with the students in Colorado, there was one apartment complex in particular that we struggled with, a place called Green Gables. Not only was Green Gables the largest of the locations that our group worked at, it was the worst off. The kids that live here spend very little time at home during the day, and the parent (almost none of the families have 2 parents) is typically happy to not have to deal with the kids. Problems that we typically expect from inner-city teens, like drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and extreme attitude problems, start here around ages 7 or 8. Few kids here reach the 8th grade. When the sun goes down, almost everyone makes their way indoors because they know it isn’t safe to be outside there in the dark. Where can you find hope in that?

…look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
-2 Cor 4:18 (ESV)

The truth is, an honest assessment of any life can lead us to struggle to find hope, apart from the one thing in the universe that can give us a future worth living for – Christ. Those pastors in Thailand look not at what is currently happening or what seems likely but at what God can and will do, and they have hope. They know what God has promised for those who follow Him. In Colorado, we were told of a group of girls from Green Gables that had found hope in the Lord. They were entering High School with great grades and with optimism for what was in store for their future. They were looking past the struggles in their lives, their families, and their community to see that God has a plan for them.

God is doing amazing things, and the future is only going to fill us even more with awe and wonder at God’s amazing power. God told His people through the prophet Habakkuk;

Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told. (1:5)

God said this leading into the judgment of Assyrian and the exile of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. God was showing His people that justice would come, even when it meant judgment against Israel. God’s plan is good and, in the end, works to bring Him the glory He deserves. He will fulfill all the promises He has made, and we can live knowing that He is in control, even when life seems out of control. Justice will come, and God is going to do absolutely astounding things right before our eyes. So, despite what we see in our culture, in our economic situation, in the political situations around the world, or in our own homes, we can have hope that God is in control and that He has a plan for each of us, ultimately ending in an eternal rest with Him in glory!

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“Crazy Love” – Francis Chan

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I grew up believing in God without having a clue what He is like. I called myself a Christian, was pretty involved in church, and tried to stay away from all the things that “good Christians” avoid-drinking, drugs, sex, swearing. Christianity was simple: fight your desires in order to please God. Whenever I failed (which was often), I’d walk around feeling guilty and distant from God. In hindsight, I don’t think my church’s teachings were incorrect, just incomplete. My view of God was narrow and small.

If you’ve never heard of Francis Chan or his story as a believer and pastor, I’d encourage you to look it up. He is a solid, traditional Christian pastor who is unwilling to settle for comfortable, traditional Christianity. For me Chan is one of the best pictures of a man of God seeking to do God’s will regardless of the consequences. This has meant starting churches, leaving ministry settings that are comfortable and well established, and being willing to step out in a direction that leads to a lot of unknowns with very few guarantees. I have been able to relate well to what Chan has done recently, and he has been an inspiration and example for my personal life.

Chan’s basic idea in Crazy Love is that we underestimate and under-appreciate God’s love for us. This is a message I have heard at various times from various teachers and authors, but Chan approaches it in a different way. Instead of focusing and rehashing “God loves you” over and over again for 170 pages, he clearly, personally and passionately lays out God’s overwhelming love and care for His people as He has displayed it through scripture. Chan then immediately builds off of that, pushing us to see how that powerful love should affect us.

The world needs Christians who don’t tolerate the complacency of their own lives.

Too often Christians talk a good game about God’s love and how we want to follow Him, but our lives don’t show it. We speak of having faith in God, following His guidance for our lives, and loving others, but then we react to situations in ways that are the least disruptive for our own lives as possible. We let our comfort, our desires, and our control get in the way of truly loving God and living a faith driven life for Him.

One of the biggest challenges I have felt from Chan’s teachings is in my relationship to others. I’m more of an introverted guy who likes to stick with a couple of people I’m comfortable with. I enjoy going deep in my study of the Bible and of faith-I love digging into biblical history and systematic theology. But Chan challenged me on a lot of how I went about that. I could say that relationships with others were important as much as I wanted, but if I didn’t live in a way that showed that other people were important to me, it wasn’t an honest statement. I could talk about personal discipleship and all of the Bible study I’ve done over a couple of decades of being a believer, but if I didn’t take Christ’s commands to love my neighbors as myself it was worthless. If I was not letting the powerful love of God flow out from me to others, I was not having the impact on my world that God intended for me.

Chan shared one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard. He talks about a gang member who, through Chan’s church, accepts Christ and turns away from the gang. He becomes an active member of the church initially, but after a few months his attendance drops off. Chan contacts him and asks him what is happening, and the answer is amazing. The man explains that in a gang, they are family and they act like a family, being a central part of each others lives and spending significant time with each other. The church said they were a family, but the reality was that they got together for a couple of hours every week then mostly avoided each other the rest of the time. How is that for love? Crazy Love continues to challenge me to stop living life by default, in a way that is standard and comfortable, and live like I truly believe in what the Bible teaches. There are few books I encourage believers to read ahead of this one, and I hope that others take up the call to live honest, passionate lives for God.

I wrote this book because much of our talk doesn’t match our lives. We say things like, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ and ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart.’ Then we live and plan like we don’t believe God even exists. We try to set our lives up so everything will be fine even if God doesn’t come through. But true faith means holding nothing back. It means putting every hope in God’s fidelity to His promises.

A friend of mine once said that Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly. Which are you? The kind that reeks, around which people walk a wide swath? Or the kind that trusts God enough to let Him spread you out-whether that means going outside your normal group of Christian friends, increasing your material giving, or using your time to serve others?

“Crazy Love” by Francis Chan, with Danae Yankoski

ISBN# 1434768511

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Bring It

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When you get excited about something – I mean really excited about something – what do you do? Do you sit back, hide it, and try not to let anyone know about it? I suppose if it’s something embarrassing you might hide it. I know I didn’t let too many people know when I watched a couple of World Cup soccer matches a couple of years ago…don’t worry, I got over it. I only watch real sports now.

If you are like me, when you get excited about something you want to share it with everyone. It was a late-fall afternoon several years ago when I found myself alone at a conference in Nashville looking for a cheap lunch. It was then that God blessed me with the gift of Chick-fil-A for the first time. It was amazing, and I told everyone! I can now count at least a half dozen friends and family members that share my love of those wonderful chicken sandwiches.

There’s a guy from the Bible that models this idea perfectly. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist until one day when he heard John make an incredibly powerful statement;

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29

The moment Andrew heard this he left John and began following Jesus. But do you know what he did first?

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ).  He brought him to Jesus.

John 1:40-42

Andrew was excited about Jesus and the first thing he did was to go, get his brother, and bring him to Jesus! This is something that Andrew does a lot; he brings people to Jesus.

In John 12, there is a group of Greeks who come to Jerusalem and want to see Jesus. They find their way to Philip to try to get an audience with Jesus. Apparently Philip doesn’t know what to do, so he finds Andrew. Guess what Andrew does; he takes Philip to Jesus.

My favorite Andrew story is the feeding of the five thousand. He doesn’t play a big part, but I think what he does says a lot about him. There are 5000 men who have gathered on a hillside to hear Jesus. Given that there would have been family units present, that means there’s a lot more people than that gathered on the hillside. Jesus tells his disciples to feed them. The disciples sort of freak out at this – how are we going to do that! We’re in the middle of nowhere! Where would we even get the money to buy food for all these people!

However, only Andrew brings up a possible solution.

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?’

John 6:8-9

Andrew doesn’t know what to do. He only sees one possibility: Jesus. He finds a boy with a lunch, and he brings him to Jesus. He doesn’t know what to do with the boy or the food, but he knows that Jesus can do far more than anyone else. Andrew believed in Jesus, he had faith in him, and he was excited to follow him! Because of that, over and over again, he brought people to Jesus.

Who are you bringing to Jesus? How are you doing it? By your actions do you show that you have faith in him, that you believe in him, that you are excited about him? Do you invite people to hear about him, do you talk to people about him, or do you stop yourself because you don’t know what their reaction will be or you are afraid of the consequences?

Don’t be afraid, be excited! Know that God doesn’t expect you to have all of the answers or to know exactly what is going to happen, He just wants you to point people to Him and trust that He will know what to do with them. The truth is that there are a lot of people that will have a strongly negative reaction to the message of Jesus. That’s ok. The gospel message is one that is divisive; it forces people to make a decision, to choose whom they will follow – Christ or themselves.

As followers of Christ, we are called to be faithful. So be an Andrew – bring people to Jesus. Then, sit back and see what miracles he has in store for you!

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“Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible” ed. Grudem, Collins, and Schreiner

God has a unified plan for all of history. His ultimate purpose, ‘a plan for the fullness of time,’ is ‘to unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph. 1:10), ‘to the praise of his glory’ (Eph. 1:12). God had this plan from the beginning.

-Vern S. Poythress

understandingI believe that while I was growing up my parents and my church did a very good job of teaching the Bible to me. When I went to Bible college, I realized that the depth of my Bible background was not the norm, even among the other church-raised Christian students. For this I am and always will be extremely grateful.

One thing that I did not understand, however, was the idea of biblical unity. I knew the Bible as 66 different books by different authors, each with its own story or teaching. I knew that they all fit together historically and theologically and that they were all important (though I admit I struggled to see how Leviticus was particularly useful).

What I didn’t grasp was that they were all really one story, one narrative inspired by God for us to learn and grow from. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to us, not in a segmented, disconnected collection of parts but in one beautiful whole that we look at and understand as a single story. And this story is about a good and loving God who makes a way for His rebellious creations to be brought back into relationship with Him through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ. The entire Bible, Genesis through Revelation, is about Jesus Christ, whether it comes in the form of a story about his life from the gospels; through psalms and poetry showing God’s character and pointing to the work He is doing to restore His creation; or through a book like Esther that does not directly mention God but constantly points to His provision during a time of hardships to bring the people of God back to Him.

Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible does a very nice job of going through the Bible from Old Testament to New and showing the theological and historical unity of each part. Reading it is a little like reading a low-level Bible class textbook, but the writers do a great job of presenting information in a very personal and heart-felt way; they make learnin’ fun!

This probably isn’t the kind of book everyone will jump at, but it is the kind of lesson everyone should learn. There is a big picture, a unified story that the Bible tells, and if we do not see that these pieces we have fit into a whole, we miss out on the amazing picture that God has given us.

“Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible”  ed. Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, and Thomas R. Schreiner

ISBN# 1433531623

Contributors: Vern S. Poythress, C. John Collins, Gordon Wenham, David Howard, David Reimer, Paul House, J. Julius Scott Jr., David Chapman, John Delhousaye, Thomas Schreiner, Darrell Bock, and Dennis Johnson

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Rewind: Dirty

This is one of my favorites, and comes from a hard lesson for me to learn from God. It is my hope and prayer that in 2013 we will remember God’s passionate love for us despite our rejection of Him.

Sometimes the way I read my Bible is a little delusional.

Take, for example, the story of Hosea. I used to love that story. God tells his prophet Hosea – a spiritual leader, one of those “church guys” – to go out and marry a prostitute. Not a reformed and repentant prostitute either; he is supposed to go up to some street-walker and take her into his home. I can only imagine what would happen today to the church where the pastor spontaneously marries a prostitute.

Hosea obeys. Apparently he and his new wife Gomer get along OK, because they have a child in relatively short order. However, two more children are born shortly thereafter, whose names are “No Mercy” and “ Not My People.” What kind of father names his child “Not My People”? No father does…that’s the point. Hosea 1:3 says that Gomer “bore [Hosea] a son,” but verses 6 and 8 simply say that Gomer gave birth to children. These children were not Hosea’s.

The message of the story is dramatic. God is telling His people that they are cheating on Him, that “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (1:2, ESV) God isn’t pulling any punches here, He is stating it the way it is. Instead of being passionately, deeply in love with the groom, the bride is out sleeping with whoever she can pick up off the street.

Reading this story in the past, I have often pointed to the sinfulness of Israel, to God’s patience and kindness, and to how generally sinful humanity is. My problem was that I never really saw the personal message for me in the story. As I put myself into the story I was always an observer to the story, someone watching the pain of Hosea and the ridiculous rebellion and rejection by Gomer with sympathy; or I would identify with Hosea, understanding the feelings of helplessness and rejection.

My problem was that I wouldn’t accept the fact that, in the story, I am Gomer. I am the prostitute that was rejecting my Groom. I am the one that is continually walking away from the One that saved me, that loves me in spite of myself and is willing to provide for my every need.

It hurts to put ourselves in the role of Gomer because it becomes painful. We begin to see our rejection of God clearly and we begin to have an idea of the pain that we cause God. We have to come face-to-face with the ridiculousness of our choices: that we have walked away from something so good for something so terrible. We have to say, “I am the prostitute, whoreing myself out to whomever I meet.” That hurts.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Despite the rejection, the deception, and the pain God sends Hosea back out to get Gomer. Even after the adultry and two illegitimate children, Hosea takes her back. It isn’t even Hosea being willing to accept her after she comes crawling back full of apologies and remorse. Hosea has to go out, find his wife, and even pay for her; things have become so bad for this unrepentant adulteress that she has fallen into slavery.

Like Gomer, we have to recognize that, on our own, we are at a rock-bottom level of hopelessness. But God hasn’t given up on us; He still wants us and will redeem us. He loves us so much that He has paid for our rebellion and our mistakes. Despite the terrible things we have done to Him, He is still there to bring us home. On the other side of the pain we feel in understanding our rebellion and extreme sinfulness is a joy and a love that we otherwise could not understand.

God is desperately, passionately, deeply, and completely in love with you. Despite whatever it is that you’ve done, He is still there to pay the debt and bring you home, without any worry of guilt or resentment. Return to Him with joy and feel His love surround you as He holds you in His arms and carries you home.

This is a painting by my friend Scott Erickson. This post is very personal and I wanted to include some of his art, which has meant a lot to me.

Check out more of Scott Erickson’s art…it’s great!

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“Explicit Gospel” – Matt Chandler

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For some reason – namely, our depravity – we have a tendency to think that the cross saves us from past sin, but after we are saved, we have to take over and clean ourselves up. This sort of thinking is devastating to the soul. We call this the “assumed gospel,” and it flourishes when well-meaning teachers, leaders, and preachers set out to see lives first and foremost conformed to a pattern of behavior (religion) and not transformed by the Holy Spirit’s power (gospel)…
The idolatry that exists in man’s heart always wants to lead him away from his Savior and back to self-reliance no matter how pitiful that self-reliance is or how many times it has betrayed him. Religion is usually the tool the self-righteous man uses to exalt himself.

Christians often talk about the gospel as something that, for each of them personally, was of past significance. We heard the gospel, either as a child, a teen, or an adult, and we “were saved.” We became believers in Jesus Christ, and now the gospel’s job in our lives is done. We now just call on the gospel whenever we feel like we have to tell it to someone else so that it can save them too.
What we miss is that the gospel, the message of Christ’s sacrifice to atone for our sin and the transformation of our life into something that brings greater glory to God, is supposed to be an ongoing central part of our lives. Through the gospel we are reminded of our need for a savior, the ongoing process going on inside of us to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ, and the future hope we have of an eternity of peace and comfort in the hands of our loving God. This is something that should not just be in the back of our minds, but our entire lives should revolve around this gospel – we should be driven to continue to seek the depths of what God wants to teach us and to share His message with those around us.
In his book, Chandler reflects on a couple of different ways we can look at the gospel: on the ground, the specific part that humanity plays in the gospel story; and in the air, the story of God’s plan to restore all of creation back to a state of perfection. Each of these perspectives have great value and give us a clearer picture of who God is and how He is working in us and the world, but they also have dangers if one is emphasized too much over the other.

The god of evangelicalism may be tame and tired at times, but the God of the Bible is mighty.

Christianity today is often divided; some people and groups continue to lock themselves away in their castle-churches, hiding from the world while claiming to focus on a “personal discipleship” – something like modern day desert monks. Other groups are so interested in engaging culture and the world around them that their personal theology devolves into a universal, “lets all get along and hug more ‘cause we’re all going to heaven together” perspective that wholly ignores what God has declared in His Word. The reality is that God has called each of us to a close, conscious, personal relationship with Him that impacts not only how we think but how we treat others, how we view the world around us, and how we are to live our lives. It is not easy, it is not soft and cuddly, it is offensive, and it is dramatic. We are not to hide from it; we are to proclaim it, to others and to ourselves. And we will be better off for it.

Anyone ambivalent about what Christ has actually done just isn’t clear on the facts. To present the gospel, then, is to place a hearer in an untenable position. The heart of the hearer of the gospel must move, either toward Christ or away from him…Some are drawn; others repulsed. But nobody hears Jesus and just says, “Eh.”
The explicit gospel, by virtue of its own gravity, invites belief by demanding it.

“The Explicit Gospel” by Matt Chandler
ISBN# 1433530031

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Rewind: Words, words, words

I have always enjoyed reading. When I was a kid, I read all kinds of things, from some terrible Sci-Fi novels to Shakespeare (the title is a Hamlet quote, by the way; Act 2 Scene 2). What I haven’t always enjoyed was reading books that would teach me something. Especially after college, I found it really difficult to pick up any books other than those that would be entertaining or distracting.

A lesson I learned from many older and wiser teachers was this: when we stop reading, we stop learning and growing, and we will never reach the potential God has put in us. So I started reading again, and slowly a desire to continue to read and learn has grown. Recently I put together about a 10 month list of nonfiction books I have read, and it was exciting for me to look back at what God has taught me in that time.

Reading isn’t just about the words, it is a time investment. When you read something for the purpose of learning and personal growth, you are investing time in yourself.  So not only is reading important, reading the right books are important. Every book I pick up and read I have chosen for a very specific reason; a specific topic, a specific author, maybe a recommendation from someone I trust. I have intentionally spread out the material I have read; books published in the last couple of months, books by the early church fathers, leadership teaching, discipleship teaching, history, contemporary issues, etc.

I want to share some of this with anyone interested in investing in themselves. I will be writing posts on some of the books I have been reading. I will compile a list of these posts under the section “Recommended Books.” I hope you read some of these and share your thoughts. Remember, knowledge that isn’t shared is useless.

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