Lessons For Your Church From The Civil War

It was said to be impenetrable. If history has taught us anything, it’s that things that are said to be impenetrable are usually going down. Good and hard. This was no exception.

Fort Pulaski is located just off of the Georgia coast. It was built in response to the War of 1812, just in case any other countries had any wild and crazy ideas. As the times changed, the fort would be used as a defense from the Union army.

It’s easy to see why someone would think that Fort Pulaski was indestructible. In a way, it looks more like a castle than a fort. It even has a moat around it, as if the Atlantic Ocean weren’t enough of a barrier.

If you don’t know anything about history and you take a tour of Fort Pulaski, you’d think that they were really starting to let the place go. At one point, when you turn a corner and look at one of the massive walls, you see that it’s covered with holes. Big holes. If you look close enough, there’s still a cannonball lodged in one of those holes. It was put there courtesy of the Union army.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. There was no cannon powerful enough to reach the walls of Fort Pulaski. Or so it was thought. But the Union had developed a rifling system that allowed cannons to travel much further than was previously possible. You can imagine the shock when the men inside Fort Pulaski saw their walls begin to tremble.

There was another problem. As the walls started to give way to the constant pounding of Union fire, the residents of Fort Pulaski noticed something. Once the wall finally fell, the next wall to be hit would be the one where all of their gunpowder was stored. If something didn’t happen soon, Fort Pulaski would be the first manned spacecraft to the moon.

So something happened.

Confederate soldiers surrendered Fort Pulaski to the Union army.

Fort Pulaski fell for two reasons: poor planning inside the walls and a mixture of arrogance and ignorance as to what was going on outside of the walls.

Churches work the same way.

Rather than concerning themselves with training up disciples and taking the gospel outside of their walls, many churches are content to merely hide behind those walls. If they were forced to write out an honest mission statement, it would say something like, “We exist to stay out of debt and keep the doors open.”

No one ever asks what the point is of keeping the doors opened and the budget balanced if disciples aren’t being made. Hint: if disciples aren’t being made, there is no purpose in keeping the doors opened and the budget balanced.

I’ve heard people say that a church is a generation away from closing the doors. I disagree. Every church is one Sunday morning away from collapse. All it takes is one week of abandoning the mission and message of Jesus Christ.

When the church allows sin, consumerism or indifference to knock them off of their mission, rather than raising up members who are eager to make more disciples, they settle for making sure that the stockholders (read: tithers) are all happy. Rather than training students to defend their faith, they entertain those students and keep them busy and then wonder why those students can’t seem to navigate their way through the godlessness on their college campuses.

In the 1960s, Fort Pulaski made the full transition from a military base to a park. By the 80s, it had a museum. Instead of defending the coast of Georgia, it sold t-shirts.

Your church can have the same fate. Rather than being a disciple-making factory, it can very quickly turn into a museum where people walk through and talk about the good old days.

All it takes is a little negligence about what’s going on inside the church’s walls and a little apathy about what’s going on outside those walls.

All it takes is one Sunday.

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Good News For People Who Doubt

I wasn’t blessed with the best of nicknames.

Jaybird.

That’s what people called me when I was a kid. I know guys named Cornbread, Turk and Bubba. Those are all solid nicknames. Each one tells you that the guy with the nickname either has a cool story to tell or is not one to be messed with. Not so much for Jaybird. There are no linebackers in the NFL named Jaybird. Well, maybe with the Cleveland Browns but you get my point.

I’m much better off than a guy named Thomas. No one ever calls me Jaybird these days. But Thomas has the misfortune of being called Thomas the Doubter for several hundred years now. Why are we so hard on Thomas? No one ever says Peter the Denier or Paul the Murderer. And there’s certainly more to Thomas than his doubts. Of all the disciples, he seemed to be the one of the ones most concerned with going where Jesus was going (John 11:16; John 14:5).

But we don’t talk to much about those moments. Thomas is better know for his doubt that led him to make a bold, misguided statement but also helped him to see his Master like never before.

Jesus had just risen from the grave and word was getting out. The disciples had locked themselves in a room and, no doubt, were trying to process what the empty tomb meant. And then Jesus walked in (John 20:19-23). By the time he left, all of the disciples were sold on his resurrection. Well, all of the disciples who were there. Judas Iscariot was dead. And Thomas, well, we don’t know where he was. But he wasn’t in that room (John 20:24).

The disciples had to tell Thomas the news. They told him that they had seen Jesus. Not experienced Jesus. Not felt Jesus. They saw him. He talked to them. He showed them his wounds. This was no rumor and it certainly wasn’t a ghost. But Thomas wasn’t impressed. That’s when he made his bold, misguided statement.

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:25 (ESV)

Never.

Jesus took the challenge. But he waited. For eight days he allowed Thomas to marinate in his doubt.

The disciples were inside, back behind the security of locked doors. This time, for whatever reason, Thomas was with them. And Jesus showed up again.

Guess whose name Jesus called out first when he walked in.

He didn’t say the name of  Peter, the Rock. He didn’t ask for John, the Beloved Disciple. He called for Thomas, the Doubter.

The grave could not hold Jesus down. The locked doors could not keep him out. And Thomas’ doubts could not keep him away. Jesus came and met the Doubter where he needed him most – right in the middle of his cynicism and unbelief.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” John 20:27 (ESV)

Thomas responded by making another bold statement. But this one was anything but misguided.

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:28 (ESV)

Doubt is one of the sacraments of our age. Even in some churches, doubting seems to be a mark of spiritual enlightenment. So we have pastors who doubt the virgin birth, professors of religion who aren’t quite sure if Jesus ever even lived and an entire generation of church goers who are only sure about one thing – that it’s wrong to be sure about anything.

On the other end of the spectrum, there have always been those Christian leaders who have all of the answers. They know the answers to the questions that haven’t been asked yet. Even on issues not addressed in the Bible, they are absolutely certain that they are right and you are wrong – on everything.

And then there’s Thomas. Yes, he had his doubts. But the answers he didn’t even know he was looking for weren’t found in more evidence or a deeper knowledge. They were found in Jesus. That is where we must look. And as we do, we must echo what the father of a sick child said to Jesus. “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

The Christian’s identity is not found in his doubts. It’s found in his Savior. But it is through repentance and moving beyond those doubts that the Christian grows closer to his Savior.

History tells us that Thomas likely went on to India to share the good news of Jesus. It is also likely that he was martyred for his devotion to what he vowed that he would never believe. Thomas marinated in his doubts for eight days. He spent the rest of his life taking them to Jesus and serving him.

We all have our doubts from time to time. Perhaps for you it’s some part of the Bible that you find just too hard to believe. Or maybe you check all of the right boxes when it comes to believing the Bible but it’s the future that makes you doubt. You’re all on board with the virgin birth being real, it’s God’s sovereign and loving control over tomorrow that’s giving you second thoughts.

Either way, remember that Jesus is big enough for your doubts. Don’t cling to them. Cling to him. Right where you need him the most, right where your faith is the weakest is right where he meets you.

Do not disbelieve, but believe.

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That Would Make It All Worthwhile For Me

A while back my son got one of his toys stuck in a tree. Being the resourceful type, I threw his favorite football into the tree to knock the toy down.

The football got stuck too.

I took this as a challenge. Not from my son. From the tree. My son had to see his dad show the tree who’s boss. So I grabbed another football.

That’s about the time my wife came outside with a BB gun. She was going to shoot the toy and the ball down with my son’s air rifle. I didn’t say anything but I didn’t want that to happen. I had to be the hero. The only rifle saving the day would be my left arm.

I won’t tell you how long it took me or how bad I was sweating or how tired I was or how bad my arm was hurting or how goofy I looked. It’s none of your business. But I eventually got the ball and the toy out of the tree. Score one for dad’s rifle arm.

I was the hero.

The end.

Or so I thought.

While I was taking my victory parade into the house, I heard crying. It was my son. And these weren’t tears of joy flowing from his proud eyes because he got to witness the greatness that was his dad’s throwing clinic.

These were tears of sorrow. Deep sorrow.

The ball that I rescued from the clutches of that tree had been hit by a BB. It was losing air. And fast. This was my son’s favorite ball. We never walked out into the backyard without him touching it. And now it seemed to be disappearing right in his hands.

It was time for dad, the resourceful hero, to step into action again.

I told him that I would get him a new ball but that we wouldn’t get rid of the old one. There was an Atlanta Falcons game that weekend – a divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. I told him that when the Falcons won the game, we’d write the score on the ball, and do it again the next week, and again when they won the Super Bowl.

Just like that, I was the hero again. The now deflated ball had become a trophy. My son’s tears dried. But there was only one problem.

We were building our hopes on the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons are my team. With the exception of a few seasons during my middle school years spent admiring the work of Joe Montana, I’ve cheered for the Falcons my whole life. I’d seen enough Falcons games to know better than to pin the hopes of a small child on their ability to win the Super Bowl. I would have been better off promising him a hot air balloon ride to Narnia.

But the promise had been made. There was no going back and there was no saving the day. This one was completely out of dad’s hands. There was the very real possibility that my son’s kids would one day ask him why he has a deflated football that has Seattle 73, Atlanta 6 scribbled on it.

The Falcons went on to win the game against the Seahawks and I wrote the score on the ball. 36 to 20. The next week, even though the kind folks at ESPN didn’t think that they could, our team beat the Packers in the NFC Championship game. With joy, I wrote 44 to 21 on the ball. The Falcons were going to the Super Bowl. I felt like Hannibal from the A-Team. I love it when a plan comes together.

Later that day we learned that the Falcons would be playing the New England Patriots in the big game. The irony of writing their name on my son’s deflated football was not lost on me.

Sunday night, about midway through the second half, my plan started to unravel. The Falcons stopped doing everything that they were doing right for most of the game. They started looking more like the Falcons I grew up with. For some reason, the Patriot’s historical comeback didn’t really surprise me. My teams have been in games like that many times, usually always on the wrong end of the comeback. But I was worried about my son. He was right next to me. How would he take it if the Patriots actually came back and won?

Apparently, pretty well.

He was fast asleep.

As far as he knew, the Falcons were still destroying the Patriots. I was taking it harder than he was.

The next morning, I went into my son’s room to wake him up for school. His first words were exactly what I had expected.

“Who won the game, dad?”

“The Patriots.”

The word Patriots had never been spoken with so little enthusiasm.

He had a puzzled look on his face. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. His face said it all. Right before breakfast, ESPN was on our television. Both of my sons watched in agony as the experts praised the Patriots for valiantly coming back to beat that other team.

My son asked me to change the channel.

My hand was already on the remote to do just that. The hero strikes again.

When my sons left for school I grabbed a marker and wrote the score on the deflated football.

ATL 28

NE 34

OVERTIME

I’m looking at that ball right now. When I pick it up and shake it, I can still hear the BB that started all of this. I don’t know what my son will end up doing with that football. I hope that he keeps it. And whenever he looks at it, I hope that he remembers that things don’t always end the way we want them to end. I really wanted him to be able to look at that ball a few decades from now and remember the time when he and his dad watched the Falcons win the first of their fifteen Super Bowls.

It didn’t work out that way.

I hated seeing the Falcons lose that Super Bowl. I hate that my plan didn’t come together. But maybe one day my son’s kids will ask him why he has the score of Super Bowl LI written on a deflated football and he’ll just smile and say, “Because my dad loves me.”

That would make it all worthwhile for me.

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I Don’t Have A Dog In That Fight

I’ve lived in the south my whole life and one of my favorite things here is the way that we talk. It’s more than just the accent. It’s the sayings. When dinner was almost done, my mom used to tell me, “Jay, I’m fixin’ to take it up.” I had no idea what that meant. I still don’t but I think it’s an old Irish phrase meaning, “The fish sticks and tater tots are ready to be eaten.”

Here’s another southern phrase.

“I don’t have a dog in that fight.”

That’s what people in the south say when there is some sort of conflict between two parties that they cannot relate to. When Earl is eating his breakfast at Waffle House and two hipsters in skinny jeans walk in having a heated argument about the Tony Awards, he tells himself that he doesn’t have a dog in the fight.

I’ve felt a lot like Waffle House Earl lately.

On one side I see women wearing hats that resemble reproductive organs marching though the streets demanding equality. On the other side I see a presidential administration playing games with the truth and even more dangerous games with things like war and oil. As I watch both sides go at it, I sit back and tell myself, “I don’t have a dog in the fight.”

It’s not that I don’t care. My head isn’t in the sand. It’s just that I can’t relate.

I can’t relate to leftists who are doing a fine job of reminding the world that Christians aren’t the only hypocrites. That’s always been the knock against Christianity, right? People don’t come to church because it’s full of hypocrites. Setting aside the irony of the statement, most Christians acknowledge the reality of our hypocrisy.

Not so for the left.

The left loves to preach a message of tolerance and inclusion. Until it comes time to tolerate and include a pro-life group of feminists in their anti-Trump parade. In a single tweet, I’ve seen leftists call for the assassination of President Trump while hash tagging something about love trumping hate. Nothing says I love you like an assassin’s bullet. The rules, it appears, only apply to the rest of us. And, call me crazy, but something just doesn’t seem right about a woman calling for equal rights while wearing a plastic reproductive organ on her head. Several years ago, feminists stood against things like 2 Live Crew’s lyrics. Now, a large portion of the feminist movement has become the embodiment of 2 Live Crew lyrics.

I just can’t relate.

But what’s coming out of the White House isn’t much better. Over the weekend we saw President Trump bemoan the fact that we didn’t take the Iraqi’s oil when we invaded. There are many reasonable people who call that a war crime. But for some on the right, war crimes can only be committed by the left. When the right does something barbaric, it’s patriotism. As if that weren’t enough, the president went on to say, “Maybe we’ll have another chance.”

Later on in the weekend, for some reason, a big deal was made out of the crowd size at the Trump inauguration. Instead of just moving along, the current administration decided to go to war over it which eventually led to the White House press secretary making a clearly false statement about the Trump inauguration being the biggest in history. In an effort to cover up the mishap, Kellyanne Conway classified the lie as “alternative facts.” Alternative facts? Maybe if we’re talking about 12 things you didn’t know about Pearl Jam. But this is just a rebranding of the word lie. Sadly, many who claim to belong to the way, the truth and the life, will have no problem with alternative facts just so long as they’re coming from the mouths of those on the right.

I just can’t relate.

But I don’t feel like a man without a country. Sometimes not relating can be quite liberating. I’m free from having to defend indefensible actions like murdering unborn babies. And I’m free from feeling the need to say sentences that start with, “Yeah, but Hillary…” whenever the current administration gets caught in a lie. Excuse me, an alternative truth.

It’s important for Christians to remember that we do not belong to the kingdoms of this world. Our King’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). When we forget that, we end up selling our souls in order to prop up our broken kingdom against the other guy’s broken kingdom, all the while forgetting that both are on the verge of collapsing right on top of their most passionate supporters. Propping up an earthly kingdom, it turns out, can be quite a heavy burden to bear. That burden becomes much lighter when we realize our standing in the kingdom of Christ (Matthew 11:28-30).

When we see two sinking ships, we feel the need to pick one. There is another way. Rather than picking one of two losing sides, why not just pray for both sides while speaking the truth. The real truth. Not the alternative one.

I’m committed to pray for President Trump. I don’t support him but I wish him no ill will. And I’ll also be praying for the #notmypresident crowd of angry feminists. When you can’t relate to either side, sometimes it’s best to just pray for both of them.

And eat eggs.

With Earl.

At the Waffle House.

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Cootie Catcher

My son climbed into the truck and told me to name a color.

I said red.

Then he asked me for a number.

I said eight.

Apparently I gave the right answers because he told me that I was going to be a millionaire.

At school he had made what he called a fortune teller. A generation or two ago it was called a cootie catcher. You’ve probably seen one of these before. It’s made out of a piece of notebook paper and it fits over your hand sort of like a puppet. Written on the outside are numbers and colors that correspond with something about your future.

After I got over the initial thrill of knowing that I would be a millionaire when I grow up, something else amazed me.

Kids today can access a world of information on a phone. If they want to know how many touchdowns Matt Ryan has thrown this year, it’s just a few clicks away. They can watch entire television shows and download albums on their phones. But they still like to play the same paper game their grandparents played way back in another world. Score one for the simpler things.

But simpler things have a way of becoming complex things. In the second grade, you dream about the car you’ll drive and the house you’ll live in. In your thirties, when you get the car and the house, you long for the good old days when those things were just dreams rather than bills to be paid. Sometimes, the life we dream of isn’t as peaceful as we thought it would be when we were holding a cootie catcher in our hand.

Forget about the nice car. Is there a cootie catcher that promises us peace in the future?

Usually, when we hear about someone being at peace, it means that they’re dead. “Billy lived a hard life, especially there at the end, but he’s at peace now.” It doesn’t have to be that way. While we will never know a perfect life on this side of eternity, we can know peace. Peace among the dreams that never came true. Peace among the dreams that did come true but turned out to not to be so dreamy. In the thick of anxiety and fear, the Bible offers us hope.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2 (ESV)

In the heat of your stress and anxiety, it is possible to know peace. It is possible to silence the unnecessary noise around you and to rest in Jesus like a child in his mother’s lap. David Powlison says, “Most of the noise in our souls is generated by our attempts to control the uncontrollable.” It’s as if we’ve grown to believe that the cootie catcher really works, that we really are in control of our future. We aren’t. Failure to recognize this is the root cause of much of our anxiety. That’s why David wrote, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me (Psalm 131:1).

The future is too great for us.

But it’s not too great for the One to whom we belong.

David’s peace was not like the so-called inner peace that people talk about these days. You know, the kind that makes us feel better about ourselves but never really goes beyond ourselves. Real peace is shared peace.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore. Psalm 131:3 (ESV)

We live in a world where most people are being driven crazy by the noise of what they cannot control. It could be that your greatest testimony is living out the peace you have from being content in the God who controls all things.

In the town where I live, there used to be a guy whose job it was to stand out in front of the pizza place and try to get the attention of the people who drove by. Stand isn’t the best word to describe what this guy did. He danced. He danced like it was his goal in life to get people to stop at that place and buy a pizza. I don’t even like the restaurant he worked for but sometimes I would think to myself, “Well, if he feels that strongly about it, maybe I should try a few slices.”

He was the exact opposite of the guy who works for the place that sells Halloween costumes in October and does taxes in March. You know the place and you know this guy. He’s always dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, leaning on a sign that says, “We’ll do your taxes” while texting. That’s it. No dancing. Just texting. I hate to be so judgmental but I don’t want my financial future in that guy’s hands.

You are that guy. Or the pizza guy.

Whatever it is that you put your hope in, that’s what you advertise to a hopeless world.

If your hope is ultimately in your ability to control the future, you have nothing to offer a hopeless world.

But if you are trusting in the Sovereign God who has calmed and quieted your soul, even when everything else in your life is falling apart, the world stops and takes notice.

A Simple Beauty

There is a lot of beauty to be found in simple things. Sometimes it takes a kid to help us to look through all of the clutter and see that beauty in a fresh way.

I became a Christian when I was very young. The church I grew up in put a lot of emphasis on the sinner’s prayer, the walking of aisles and the raising of hands. As a young Christian, I spent a lot of time worrying about whether or not my faith was legitimate. Did I say the prayer right? Was I thinking the right thing when I walked down and stood in front of the church? What if I left something out?

The other night, standing under the cold dark sky in my driveway, it was like I was having a conversation with my younger self. Like me, my son became a Christian at a young age. Unlike me, he doesn’t know much about altar calls and raising hands and repeating public prayers after revival preachers. But he still has his doubts.

He was worried that maybe he got his prayer wrong all of those years ago when he asked God to forgive him for his sins. Like his father did before him, he feared that a misplaced prepositional phrase in a prayer could mean the difference between heaven and hell. To comfort him, I walked him through the Bible. I went to some of the same Bible passages people carried me through when I was younger. We talked about salvation being more about the cry of the sinner’s heart than the repeating of a sinner’s prayer. We talked about things like belief and Lordship and resurrection.

I asked him if he understood what I was saying. Before I had kids, I never did that. I never understood why people would end their sentences with phrases like, “You know what I mean?” or “Do you see what I’m saying?” Now that I’m a dad, I do it all the time. I guess that I just want to be sure.

He told me that he understood. But his face told a different story. It was the canvas for an uncommon mixture of comfort and confusion.

“I get it but it all just seems so simple,” he said in a prophetic tone you can only hear from a child.

That’s when I knew that he really got it.

My son is a worker. A hard worker. A few months ago, he set a really high goal for reading books in one of his classes. About midway through the semester, it looked like he wasn’t going to make it. So he got to work. My son read more words in the last few weeks of 2016 than I did in twelve years of grade school.

He met his goal.

I think that’s why the simplicity of the gospel had my son confused the other night in our driveway. When you meet a reading goal, you get to sit back and delight in the work that you did. You can say, “I did that.”

Not so with the gospel. Before Christ, we were all “children of wrath” fighting against God (Ephesians 2:3). We were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1). Dead rebels don’t usually have a lot to bring to the table. Just their faith.

And, just in case we might begin to think that our faith is somehow a product of our own doing, Paul reminds us otherwise.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)

The Christian life is not simple. Temptation can be very difficult. It’s hard to love enemies. It’s hard to fight against sin. Like Rich Mullins sang, “It’s hard to be like Jesus.”

But thanks to things like grace and love and the cross, it’s not hard to come to God. That’s because he’s the one who does all of the work. And he does that work on behalf of the small sons of a preacher as well as seasoned drug addicts. He pours out the riches of his grace, mercy and love, “on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12).

It really is that simple.

Sometimes the simplest things can be the most beautiful things.

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)

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So Tell Me About Your Relationship

“So tell me about your relationship.”

If you would have known the answer that was going to follow that question, you never would have asked it.

You are at your high school reunion. It’s been 20 years since you’ve seen most of the people in the room. You can hardly recognize a lot of them. But after the initial awkwardness, conversation begins.

During one conversation, marriage and relationships come up. Everyone starts talking about their families and how having kids has changed them. You notice one of your old friends is wearing a wedding ring. That’s when you ask your ill-fated question.

“So tell me about your relationship.”

“I got married on June 7, 1997. It was a very special day. Very emotional,” he says bluntly.

For some reason, you feel the need to dig deeper.

“Great! So what are you and your wife up to now? Is she here tonight?”

His response startles you.

“I got married on June 7, 1997. It was a very special day. Very emotional.”

By now, you’re experiencing some combination of curiosity, worry and even anger.

“Yeah. I get that. But what about now? What are you and your wife doing now? What kind of work does she do? Do you have kids?”

“I got married on June 7, 1997. It was a very special day. Very emotional.”

As you turn and walk away, you are certain that all isn’t well in your friend’s marriage, if he is really married.

Marriage is about more than the day of your wedding. It’s about right now. It’s about the future. If all you can tell me about your marriage is the it began, something isn’t right.

In the same way, if all you can tell me about your Christian faith is the day you, “got saved,” something isn’t right.

For far too long we’ve convinced ourselves that following Jesus is nothing more than raising our hands and repeating a prayer after a preacher only to live however we want to live while we wait for heaven. We even spiritualize this by saying things like, “Well, Jesus is my Savior but he’s not my Lord.”

A key indicator of genuine Christianity is perseverance. It’s impossible for someone to lose their salvation. God doesn’t unadopt his children (1 Peter 1:3-5). But it is quite common for someone to fall away from the faith that they once claimed as their own. That’s because the faith that they claimed was never theirs to begin with.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 1 John 2:19 (ESV)

You can train a monkey to walk down an aisle. A bird can be taught how to repeat a prayer after a preacher. And as important as baptism is, you can hold anything underwater for a second. But only a true disciple of Jesus Christ will remain true until the end (Colossians 1:21-23).

The focus of Bible Belt religion is a date in the past when a hand was raised, a prayer was prayed, and a card was signed.

Genuine Christianity is quite different. It’s focus is on a Sovereign Lord who’s grace is needed on both the day of salvation and the days that follow.

Bible Belt Religion gets along just fine without Jesus and his calls for total obedience, thank you very much.

Genuine Christianity recognizes that no matter how the race begins, what really matters is how the race is being run now and how it will finish. It leans heavily on Jesus at every step.

Hell is filled with the victims of Bible Belt religion.

In Genuine Christianity, imperfect hearts are filled with gratitude at God’s grace, repentance for the sins we still allow to creep in and love for others.

If all you have to say about a relationship is the day that it began, it could be that there really was no relationship to begin with.

So tell me about your relationship with Christ.

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Sorry We’re Closed

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend this Christmas and it has nothing to do with people saying Happy Holidays or what the lady at Starbucks does or does not write on your cup. The culprit here isn’t the world. It’s the church.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me over the past month or so if the church that I pastor will be having services on Christmas day. Christmas day, in case you’re unaware, falls on a Sunday this year. The nerve!

Our church will still be meeting on Sunday, December 25th but a lot of churches will not be and I can’t figure out why.

To help explain my confusion, let’s consider another date on the calendar.

Sunday, February 5, 2017.

That’s the date of the Super Bowl. It’s basically a national holiday. So imagine if the NFL decided to cancel the game in order for families to be able to celebrate this national holiday together. “But that wouldn’t make any sense,” all of America would scream. And, in a rare occasion, all of America would be right.

The party and the festivities and the holiday like atmosphere all exist because of the game. Take away the game and you take away any legitimate reason to celebrate. On top of that, on the one day that the NFL is able to reach a significant number of people who otherwise might not watch a game, they take it away.

Such is the case with many local churches this year.

Look, I understand calling off services that night. If the church is big, it makes sense to have one combined service. And when Christmas falls on a Wednesday, I get taking a break from regularly scheduled programming. There are times when it makes sense to not have a service, rearrange other service times and scale back a bit.

But this doesn’t make sense.

Perhaps part of the reasoning behind cancelling this years Sunday morning Christmas services has something to do with the fact that many of us feel like we cannot “have church,” if I may use that phrase, if it’s not going to be a full on, Hollywood worthy production. When the Pastor of Pyrotechnics and the Pastor of Make-Up are both out of town, it can be hard to put on a top notch production. So why bother? We all know that Jesus wouldn’t want us having a service where people are not blown away by our slick production skills.

Would he?

Yes. He would.

Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that there is a difference between excellence and mere performance. We should do our jobs with excellence but that excellence must be for the Audience of One, not the audience in the seats and online. So what if attendance is down on Christmas day. Jesus was born in a manger but many church leaders can’t fathom the horror of having to preach to a half-empty room.

Another reason behind the cancelling of services on Christmas Sunday could be that many, even many who lead churches, have forgotten what Christmas is about. In an effort to show that Christmas is not about presents, many have been convinced that Christmas is about family.

It’s not. Well, at least not in the sense that they’re thinking.

Jesus didn’t come to earth so that we could have the day off and watch football with our family. Don’t get me wrong. I love having the day off and watching football with my family. But if that’s all we’re doing on December the 25th, we’re missing the point.

Christmas is about family in the sense that Christ came to earth to transform his enemies into his family. So if you are a believer and you really want to, “be with family” on Christmas day, you’ll grab the family that lives in your house and take them with you to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child with your other family. The family of God.

For decades, Christian leaders have quietly made fun of what has been referred to as Christmas and Easter Christians. That’s the people who claim to be Christians but only show up to church on Christmas and Easter. Or when there’s going to be food afterwards. Or when there’s going to be an intense business meeting. You get the point.

But that’s part of the beauty of Christmas and it falling on a Sunday this year. The people who don’t show up the other 50 or so weeks out of the year are very likely to crawl out of bed on Christmas morning and go to church to hear the story of God lovingly sending his only Son to rescue his people from sin and death.

It’s just too bad that many of those people on Sunday morning will be greeted by a locked door and a sign that reads, “Sorry we’re closed.”

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Does Christmas Offend You?

It’s one of those stories that’s supposed to make us mad.

But instead, it should cause us to take a closer look at ourselves.

The owner of a Florida restaurant received a nasty note from a customer complaining that the Christmas music playing in the background was, “offensive.” He went on to suggest that the owner replace the religious themed music with “holiday music.” Less “O Holy Night” and more “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Wait. I almost forgot. That one offends people too. “Less O Holy Night” and more “Walking In a Winter Wonderland”, played on organically harvested, free range, gluten-free instruments. That ought to do it.

This is the part where some evangelical leader will start a social media crusade urging us to fight for the traditional Christmas. When he starts, don’t listen to him. You’d be better off listening to the offended customer at that Florida restaurant.

Don’t get me wrong. Leaving passive aggressive notes about how Christmas songs offended you is absurd. Just find another restaurant. If my favorite eating establishment decided to play Nickelback’s Greatest Christmas Hits all through December, I’d find another favorite eating establishment. No passive aggressive note needed.

But this offended customer is probably closer to the true meaning of Christmas than those wishing to guilt the barista at Starbucks into writing Merry Christmas on your cup of coffee.

Christmas is supposed to be offensive.

It’s offensive because it’s the true story of a people whose sins were so bad that it took God coming to earth in the form of a servant to live the perfect life that we could not and to die the death that we should have. In case you’re wondering, you and I are included in those people whose sins are so bad (Romans 5:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 2:1-11).

Are you offended yet?

We should never be surprised when the world acts like the world. That doesn’t make what they do right, it just makes it expected. The message of the gospel is foolishness to them (1 Corinthians 1:18-23). We shouldn’t be surprised when a group of people who are blind to the truth of the gospel don’t line up to sing about how their great sins caused the eventual crucifixion of the Christ Child (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Here’s what should surprise us.

We should be surprised when people who claim to believe the traditional Christmas story do not allow the truth of that story to play out in their day to day lives, both in the month of December and certainly not on a random day in July.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the modern American church. We’ve stopped being offended by the gospel. We’ve watered it down so much with self-help and get rich quick schemes that we’ve missed the real power behind it. We think that our power and influence comes from having a seat at the table in Washington D.C. In reality, it’s found in an offensive story about a virgin birth.

Before we start launching our defensive weapons in the war to protect Christmas, we would be wise to take a long look at ourselves.

Sure, we sing all of the old traditional hymns, but why is it that the truth in those hymns often no longer moves us beyond anything more than sentimental memories of Christmas at grandma’s house?

Why do we live more like entitled brats than children who have been lovingly adopted into the family of God through the birth, sinless life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

We have traded in the truth that the gospel is God graciously moving toward his enemies to redeem them in favor of a gospel where God selected us like an NFL team makes a first round draft pick. “After all,” we seem to tell ourselves, “why wouldn’t God want such spiritual and moral standouts like us on his team?”

Secular progressives miss the true meaning of Christmas because they’re too offended to hear it.

But a lot of religious people miss the true meaning of Christmas because they’re too proud to be offended.

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17 (ESV)

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Jesus Didn’t Die For A Christian School

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When I first became a pastor, there was a problem that I had to address. It wasn’t a new problem. For years, ministry leaders have been fighting against the idea that simply joining a church will make you right with God. But recently, I’ve noticed another issue rising up from the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s the idea that the church isn’t really all that important.

There are people who have replaced any involvement in the local church with charity work. They reason that they can do plenty of good work on their own without being tied down by a local church and its drama.

Others use Christian schools as their alternative. Why would someone need to go to church on a Sunday when they spend all week studying the Bible at school? This argument can be heard from pre-kindergarten all the way through seminary.

The people making these arguments don’t claim to be against God. They aren’t atheists. They just don’t care for the church.

While their reasoning may seem sincere enough, it goes directly against what the Bible teaches.

Imagine a wedding ceremony. The groom repeated his vows to his bride. It was a beautiful moment. Tears filled his eyes as he expressed his love and commitment to his soon to be wife. But when the bride’s turn came, she went rogue. Rather than repeating what the minister said, she made up her own vows.

“I love your head. I love the way that your eyes look when you smile. I love your hair. I love the way your mind works. I will follow your head wherever it goes and I will love it forever. But it’s a different story for your disgusting and completely useless body. I have issues with it that I’d rather not deal with at the moment.”

How romantic!

This would never be accepted at a wedding ceremony but, somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s okay in our relationship with Christ and his body.

Jesus is the head of the church and the church is his body.

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. Colossians 1:18 (ESV)

When we claim to be devoted to Christ but completely disregard his church, we are claiming the impossible. Either you love someone as they are or you don’t. You can’t just love the head of your spouse and you can’t just love the head of the church. It’s a package deal. If you really love Jesus, you’ll love what he loved enough to die for.

Jesus didn’t die for your Christian school and he didn’t die for your favorite charity.

Jesus died for the church. His church. His body.

I love Christian schools. I have spent a significant portion of my life associated with them and I hope for that to continue. But I cringe when I hear a parent excuse their lack of commitment to the church because they send their kids to a Christian school, as if walking with Christ is about nothing more than raising kids with a good Christian education. One sure way for parents to raise kids with a lukewarm faith is for their own faith to be lukewarm. And lukewarm faith is about as good as you can expect from yourself when you’re not committed to a local church.

The New Testament was not written to non-profits or Christian schools. Most of it was written to specific local churches. Philippians, for example, was written to a church in Philippi. That means that when Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always and to put away anxiety (Philippians 4:4-7), he’s telling us that in the context of the local church. There are a significant amount of New Testament commands that are impossible for an individual to obey apart from the local church.

A while back I was talking to a group of ten or so Christian school students. It was a pretty casual conversation covering everything from music to history to, you guessed it, church. I asked them if they went to church every week.

One kid said yes. One out of more than ten students.

So I asked how many go once a month.

No one.

Every six months?

Crickets chirped.

Once a year.

Tumbleweed blew through the room.

It’s been said that if you want to find a really large collection of lost people all you have to do is look on a church’s membership roll. I agree but I think that we can add the Christian school to the mix as well. If you work at a Christian school, you’re in a bigger mission field than you think you are.

Yes, we can do good deeds through a charity instead of the church.

And yes, we can learn about the Bible at a Christian school and remove the church from the equation.

But there’s one thing that we can’t do apart from commitment to a local church.

Follow Jesus.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV)

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