Is God Really In Control?

A while back I was having a theological conversation with someone. They were taking issue with my belief in the sovereignty of God, that is, the belief that God is in control of all things at all times. The person’s main concern was that if all Christians believed that God was in control of all things, none of them would do missions.

I thought about that on Wednesday night while I sat and heard a woman telling a story of the sovereignty of God. She and her husband and their five children packed up everything and left behind the comforts of Georgia for the challenges of Romania. For eleven years now the family has been working to break down barriers or racism, rescue women who are or otherwise might be caught in the sex trafficking industry, pulling children out of orphanages and giving them a better home, providing an education and yes, evangelizing the lost.

This family’s belief in the sovereignty of God didn’t keep them from the mission God had for them. It fueled their mission.

Christians like to say that God is in control but I wonder how many of us really believe that. Sure, we can say that he is in control on a random Tuesday morning. But what about on a Wednesday morning when a tornado hits? Or when there’s a bad phone call from your brother? Or when it feels like you can’t possibly go any further? Is God still in control then?

The Bible answers that question with a resounding yes.

I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the LORD, who does all these things. Isaiah 45:7 (ESV)

This would be quite scary were it not for God’s goodness. Hitler had a pretty good measure of control over Germany. An abusive husband can control his wife. But neither Hitler or the abusive husband are good.

It does us no good to speak of the sovereignty of God if we do not also speak of the goodness of God.

 

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the LORD, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:1-5 (ESV)

So the sovereignty of God is not intended to free us from the mandate to make disciples of all nations or from any other more specific mission God may have for us. But there are a few things that the sovereignty of God, when understood in union with the goodness of God, will free us from.

Things like fear and anxiety.

It’s interesting to hear how people talk about the upcoming presidential election in the United States. Here’s a basic summary of one point I hear frequently.

“Well, neither one of the candidates are any good but we need to vote for ______________ because at least God can work through that one.”

But God can’t work through the other one? Read the Bible. It’s one big, long story of God working through tyrants to accomplish his perfect will for the good of his imperfect people. Or, to put it another way, the Bible is an account of God’s complete control over all things. That doesn’t mean that we have to support tyranny or some supposed lighter version of it. It just means that we don’t need to be afraid when it comes knocking on our door.

God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness work together to free us from the constant hand wringing that so many have given in to.

God was good and he was in control when he created the heavens and the earth.

God was good and he was in control when Jesus was crucified.

God was good and he was in control on the day that I was saved.

God was good and he was in control on the day that my parents divorced and on the day that my mother got sick and on the day that she died.

When we have our presidential election, God will still be good and he will still be in control, no matter who wins.

And, whether God calls you to Romania or to stay in the states to make disciples, he will still be good and he will still be in control.

Because God is both good and sovereign, we can trust that when bad things happen, God will eventually, some way and some how, work them for our good. We don’t need to know all of the details. When tragedy strikes, the world is better off without us trying to excuse God, speak where he has not spoken or explain away his sovereignty.

We say something much more powerful when we simply trust God and worship him.

He really is in control.

He really is good.

And that frees us to obey him boldly and worship him gladly.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36 (ESV)

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Your Church Might Not Be As Relevant As You Think It Is

When the new church came to the small town, there was a lot of promise. The building looked nice. The new church had the financial backing of a main campus in a larger city. The staff was well-trained. The music was trendy.

Within a matter of months, that building that was once full of so much promise was sitting empty on Sunday mornings with a For Sale sign out front.

What happened?

For a lot of churches, relevance means nothing more than gimmicks backed by a large budget. It’s marketing with a Jesus stamp on it. And the gimmicks that work in one area aren’t necessarily going to work in another one.

But there is one guaranteed way for a church to be relevant to its surrounding culture. No smoke machines are required. It’s much easier than that. Well, I should say that it’s much easier said. The doing part can be quite difficult. If a church really cares about being relevant, that church needs one single focus.

Love.

A truly relevant church will have an unyielding love for God. Everything that church does will be an act of love for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather than seeking their own prominence in the community, this church will pray and live, “Hallowed be your name.”

The genuinely relevant church will have a bold love for each other. In this church, love, not personal preference, will rule the day. So rather than fighting over musical styles and carpet color and the best way to educate kids, this church will devote itself to fighting for the good of each other. Rather than gossiping about the tenth grader who got his girlfriend pregnant, this church will see that he is corrected and restored in love. And they’ll walk with him through the difficult days ahead.

But the love won’t be contained within the walls of this church. It will spill out into the streets. So the people in the community who vote differently and look differently than most of the members of this church will still feel the love of this church. When disaster strikes, this church will not get its marching orders from the politicians or pundits on TV. They’ll just keep right on doing what they’ve been doing all along. They’ll love people.

The relevant church will have a prophetic voice in the community. No, they won’t hold up signs on the town square telling people who God hates. But they won’t endorse sin for the sake of “reaching” people. They’ll make a bold stand against sin but not just the sins of others. They’ll be even bolder as they fight against their own sin. But through it all, they’ll lean on a gracious God who hates sin but loves forgiving sinners.

I fear for the church.

Yes, I know that in the end, the church wins. But there are a lot of local manifestations of the church that have me concerned. These are the churches where authentic relevance was abandoned decades ago in favor of a marketing scheme meant for nothing more than larger crowds and more money in the offering plate.

I fear for the churches that cannot possibly love their communities because they’re too busy hating each other.

I fear for the churches that only stand against the sins of others while turning a blind eye to their own.

I fear for those churches that no longer have a prophetic voice because they lost it screaming for the things that don’t really matter.

I fear for the churches that have been compromised by politics, believing the lie that ultimate salvation is found in a political figure rather than Jesus Christ.

Your church might have a smoke machine and a worship pastor in skinny jeans who has won a couple of Grammys. Or your church’s worship service might be led by a guy in a bad suit with a cassette tape. It doesn’t matter.

Trends come and go but truth and love are forever.

Truth and love are always relevant.

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The Best Day At UGA

George Strait sings a song called The Best Day about a father being with his son through all of these milestone events in the kid’s life. It starts with their first camping trip together and then remodeling an old car in the teen years and it ends with the boy, all grown up by now, getting married.

After each event, the boy tells his dad, “I’m the luckiest boy alive, this is the best day of my life.”

A few weeks ago, I got to have one of those days with my two sons when I took them to their first Georgia football game. Neither one of them ever looked at me and told me that they had just had the best day of their life. But I felt like I had.

And even the two drunk guys sitting behind us couldn’t change that.

It was a noon kickoff so we got on campus early. I made arrangements with my friend Merv Waldrop, a great American, to tailgate with him. Merv has turned tailgating into an art form. The food on his table and the songs on his radio are all carefully chosen to fit with the occasion. When my wife took out the food that she prepared for everyone, Merv’s mouth fell open. He told me that I had married the perfect tailgating wife. That’s sort of like getting a compliment from Moses.

Not long after we started eating, Merv took us on a tour of the campus. He showed my boys where Crawford Long discovered ether and where leaders of the Old South once laid their heads. My sons were amazed. And so was I.

It was the best day.

When my sons finally walked into the massive Sanford Stadium for the first time, they were speechless. I don’t think that they had ever seen so many people in one place. Or so many red shirts. We were halfway through the first quarter before they realized that the crowd was real and not some sort of special effect.

Seated around us, we had a good crew of strangers who weren’t really strangers because they were wearing red too. The couple in front of us were season ticket holders. Next to them there was a family that looked a bit like ours. Behind us there was a young couple.

It was hot but we were all in Athens watching the Bulldogs.

It was the best day. For all of us.

And then the two drunk guys showed up and sat right behind us.

Remember, this was a noon kickoff so either they had just taken a single shot of jet fuel or they had been drinking since they woke up. My money was on the second option.

One guy was sort of drunk. That is to say, he was wasted but he was sober enough to know that he was wasted. The other guy just didn’t care. He threw caution (and his liver) to the wind sometime around 9:30 that morning. Or the night before. I don’t know. He was leaning on the people next to him and slurring and cussing and generally reminding me why so many people don’t like the Georgia Bulldogs.

At one point, he went on a cussing binge. And his cussing had no purpose. He was being foul just to be foul. I’ll spare you his word of choice but pretend with me for a moment that the word apple is a vile, disgusting word that would make a sailor blush.

Really Drunk Guy: “Apple!”

Sort of Drunk Guy: “Shut up. We’re going to get thrown out. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Really Drunk Guy: “Apple! Apple! Apple! I love apples! Apple McAppleby. Martin Van Apple! Apple!”

Sort of Drunk Guy: “Your wife is going to kill us.”

I asked my sons if they knew what that word meant. They said no. I was relieved. But I turned it into a teaching moment.

“This is what happens when you drink too much.”

Judging by the look in their eyes, they’ll probably never have so much as a tablespoon of NyQuill for as long as they live.

Finally, the GBI came by and had a talk with the two inebriated fellows. Not the campus police. Not a state trooper. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation. You’re a special kind of drunk if it takes the GBI to settle you down. Whatever the officers said to those men must have worked because they didn’t make it past the first half.

After all of that, I decided that the family needed a drink. Powerade. Not whatever intoxicant that two fellows behind us were having.

Things on the field weren’t much better. Georgia was playing a daycare from Louisiana that day. And for a good portion of the day, the daycare was winning. I started to question the wisdom of my game selection. Perhaps I should have picked an easier team, I don’t know, maybe Georgia Tech, so that my sons were guaranteed to see a win. But in the end, the boys in red pulled it out. And all of us in red went home happy.

But we would have went home happy anyway.

It really was the best day.

I’m the luckiest dad alive.

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Grace And The Disaster On The Front Pew

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I’m usually not good at predictions.

But I nailed this one.

My wife was helping out somewhere else in the sanctuary. I was preaching. And my kids were by themselves on the front row for the whole service. That’s usually not a problem. It’s happened before. But this particular Sunday morning was unique. Our church was taking the Lord’s Supper and, for my kids, there would be no parents around helping them to handle the elements.

I quietly predicted disaster.

Like I said, I nailed it.

The bread came by without incident. My two sons sat just one row in front of me as I led the service. I could see their tiny, probably not very clean fingers, navigating their way through the plate. My sincerest apologies to all of the folks who came after them. The boys both grabbed their bread and waited patiently. There was no throwing or choking. Just reverence. I was proud. But we were only halfway there.

When the juice came around there was a problem with the exchange between one kid and the other. I was sitting right there. I saw it happen as if it were in slow motion. But, just like when you realize a half a second too late that you’re about to get in a wreck, there was nothing I could do. The whole plate of little juice glasses did not spill but there were enough that did.

Two thoughts immediately came to mind.

First, after nearly 40 years spent in church, I finally realized why every Baptist church has dark red carpet. I always thought it was because of some hidden Bible code. It’s not. It’s for moments like this one. The dark red juice blended in quite nicely with the dark red carpet.

My second thought was that I was glad that we’re not Catholic. Catholics believe that the elements of the Lord’s Supper actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I don’t know much about pastors in Catholic churches but I’m sure that they get in a lot of trouble when their kids spill something that serious on the carpet. Wait. See, I told you that I don’t know a lot about Catholic pastors. Never mind.

While I was sitting there contemplating Baptist carpet and Catholic tradition, things were still falling apart on the front row. My kids were scrambling for tissues they could use to clean up their mess. When they found none, they took their search outside of the sanctuary. Both boys. And then one of them came back in. And then he left again. And then they returned to the scene of the crime.

By this time I had quit thinking about carpet and Catholics and started asking God to forgive me for my impure thoughts. And boy were they impure.

I was angry. But I wasn’t angry because my sons were rebelling. They weren’t. I was angry because I was afraid of what people might think about me. I wanted to correct my sons loudly and publicly so that everyone could say something like, “See, that preacher knows how to handle business!”

We don’t take the Lord’s Supper because of tradition. We take it because Jesus told us to do it in remembrance of him and the work he did on our behalf by dying on the cross and rising from the grave (Luke 22:19).

Thankfully, by God’s grace, I remembered all of that before I created an even bigger disaster.

Things finally settled down with the preacher’s kids on the front row and the service closed out without the roof falling in. On the way out to our car, my son was solemn. He told me that he was sorry for what had happened during the quiet of the Lord’s Supper.

By this time, the grace of God had already taken over the law that was in my heart.

I told my son that it was okay. There was an accident and he and his brother did the best they could to make it right. I told him that next time they needed to remember that there are other worshipers around and we need to do all we can not to distract them.

He understood.

Life moved on.

Our kids need our discipline. What they don’t need is our wrath. And they don’t need parents who care more about impressing a crowd than shaping their own children. Yes, our kids need to be corrected. And sometimes that correction needs to be firm. But there always needs to be grace.

We take the Lord’s Supper the first Sunday of every month at our church. The next time we take it I will remember. I’ll remember the cross where my Father gave his Son to rescue me from my sins. But I’ll also remember the pew where I was reminded that demonstrating grace to others didn’t stop at the cross. Recipients of grace should be the greatest distributors of it.

If you ever come to visit our church and you look hard enough around the front row, you’ll see a spot in the dark red carpet. The pastor’s kids put it there. Like their father, they’re not perfect. But, like their father, they carry with them a different spot.

That’s the spot of the blood of Jesus that has washed away our sins.

And it’s a spot that gives us all the grace we need for each new day.

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Thankfully Broken

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I have to preach a tough sermon this Sunday. It covers a passage from the Bible that is often overlooked. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when preachers didn’t shy away from the topic addressed by Jesus in these verses. Sure, many of those preachers probably could have used a little more grace in their sermons on this topic but at least those sermons were preached. Today, they rarely are.

This Sunday, I’m preaching on divorce.

We preacher types love sermonizing to the choir. We speak boldly against abortion and gay marriage and we should. Once I preached a sermon against abortion and a lady came up to me afterwards to thank me for being so brave. There’s nothing brave about preaching against abortion in the Bible belt. Divorce is a different story.

More and more people in the church have been divorced. And some of those people give a lot of money to the church. It’s been said that people vote with their feet and their wallets. One good way for a pastor to get people to vote against him is to preach on divorce. It’s a sore subject for a lot of people so many pastors find it easier to skip it and carry on with preaching for the choir. People say that they like to have their toes stepped on. They really don’t.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this Sunday’s sermon. All of those thoughts have led me to one conclusion.

Thankfulness.

I’m thankful that I grew up in what society often refers to as a broken home.

I’m thankful that I had to battle with the pain and bitterness that often become permanent residents in those broken homes.

I’m thankful that I routinely saw my mother crying about bills that she wasn’t able to pay.

I’m thankful for those occasional weekend trips to visit my dad.

I’m thankful for a mother who, when she talked about my dad, preferred funny stories from their dating days rather than ones that would fuel bitterness and rage.

I’m thankful for a dad who, when I was an adult, drove me to the side of a middle Georgia road, looked me directly in the eye and told me that he was sorry for the way that I had to grow up.

And I’m thankful for a Heavenly Father who worked in my heart in such a way that I was able to gladly give genuine forgiveness.

I wasn’t always thankful for those things. I spent a significant portion of my life resenting they way that I grew up. But something happened. When I started preaching and counseling and talking to people who have been ravaged by divorce, I noticed something. I wasn’t just sharing information from some book some guy wrote. I wasn’t just giving the Baptist talking points. I was saying what the Bible had to say but I was doing it as someone who had been there. I was like the coach who knew what it was like to play the game.

My mother used to talk about feeling like everyone in the church was staring her down because she was one of the few people who had been divorced. I think about that whenever I preach on divorce. I probably wouldn’t if I grew up in a perfect family situation.

The experiences of my childhood taught me that not everyone who is divorced wanted the divorce. It’s likely that the single mom in your church did everything she could to keep her marriage together and probably lives more fervently for Jesus than you do. There’s a good chance that the single dad who only gets to see his kids every other weekend made tremendous sacrifices to keep his family together. In the realest of senses, his divorce nearly came over his dead body.

God is in the business of bringing beauty out of broken situations and people. Most artists use a perfect blank canvas for their masterpieces. God often uses our brokenness as the canvas for his perfect masterpiece.

Paul wrote it like this.

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout he whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. Philippians 1:12-13 (ESV)

In case you missed it, Paul wrote those words while he was under arrest for the terrible crime of preaching the gospel. I like to think of this as gospel math. Our pain plus God’s redeeming power equals the advance of the gospel.

Unless we have bitter and unforgiving hearts.

There would be no gospel advance through Paul if he had allowed bitterness toward his captors to derail his mission. And there would be no gospel advance through me if I would have allowed bitterness to keep me from forgiving my dad that day on the side of the road.

Forgiveness is supernatural.

Without the supernatural grace of God, none of us would be forgiven for our great sins against him. And without the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, none of us would ever forgive those who have sinned against us.

You may not know divorce like I do. But you do know brokenness. Do not allow that brokenness to morph into bitterness. Instead, trust your heart to God so that he can do the supernatural work that only he can do of protecting your heart from hardness. And trust your future to God. Only he can do the supernatural work of turning your pain into a vehicle that advances the gospel.

As I write this, I am beginning the preparation for a really tough sermon that I have to preach this Sunday.

In reality, the preparation for this sermon began many years ago.

And I couldn’t be more thankful.

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Why Stand For The National Anthem?

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I can relate to Colin Kaepernick. Not because of the color of my skin. Not because I wear socks ridiculing the police or shirts sporting dictators like he does. I can relate to Colin Kaepernick because there are things in this country that I don’t like.

I don’t like that the murder of babies is a multi-million dollar, government funded industry in our country.

I don’t like the fact that we have lost anything resembling a moral compass.

I don’t like the division.

I don’t like the slow decline of religious liberty.

But, when the national anthem comes on, I stand up. And I make sure that my two sons do as well. Heres why.

I stand up because of Leman Sanders. He dodged bullets and caught malaria in the South Pacific during World War II.

I stand up because of Wynsol Smith. He’s still carrying wounds from time spent in the Korean War.

I stand up because of Marcel Tayamen. His family left the Philippines for the United States long before anyone had ever heard of Colin Kaepernick. He served his country in the Air Force during Vietnam and carried on with that service long after the war was over.

To me, even in a world of aborted babies and leaking religious liberty, taking a knee during the national anthem would seem like spitting in the face of Leman Sanders, Wynsol Smith, Marcel Tayamen and countless others who served their country.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do something.

I support Colin Kaepernick’s right to take a knee or sit down during the national anthem. We lose something very valuable in the country if we lose the right to peaceful protest, even if we don’t happen to agree with the protesters. The problem is that now, taking a knee has become all the rage.

I’m sure that there will be high school and college players doing just that during the national anthem as the season wears on.

U.S. Women’s Soccer player, Megan Rapinoe has refused to stand when the national anthem is played before her games. She’s doing it to raise awareness for LGBT rights. Forgive me for my ignorance here but I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what rights the LGBT community are missing out on. The right to shut down even more bakeries?

And now the Seattle Seahawks have announced that the entire team will sit out the national anthem for their opening game of the season. That opening game of the season just happens to be on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. They’re calling it a “big surprise.”

Remember, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do something.

We’ve lost something. In an effort to have our voices heard, we’ve forgotten to go through the trouble of actually examining what it is our voices are saying. It’s like everyone wants to be Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat but no one wants to be the Rosa Parks who spent the rest of her life living in humility and on principle.

The government should not make Kaepernick, Rapinoe or the Seahawks stand during the national anthem. The employers of those athletes should. Their employers should remind them of people like Leman Sanders, Wynsol Smith and Marcel Tayamen. Brave men who served, even though they probably didn’t agree with everything their country was doing. Their employers should remind them of the little eyes who are watching them and who are likely to imitate their protest.

And their employers should remind them that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do something.

A short while back my sons were getting ready to watch a soccer game on television. I was in and out of the room but I could hear what they were hearing. It was the national anthem. I couldn’t, however, believe what I was seeing.

They had gotten up off of the couch where they would be camped out for the next 90 minutes and stood with hands over their chests, just as if the singer of the national anthem were in our living room. It was a proud dad moment.

While they were standing, I didn’t see two sheep, mindlessly following the masses.

And I didn’t see all that was wrong with our country.

For that short moment, I saw two little boys who stood, not because they were made to but because they felt that it was the right thing to do.

Maybe, in spite of all of our differences, our country can get back to that point.

Maybe.

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Your Church Might Not Be As Pro-Life As You Think It Is

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Is your church pro-life?

Are you sure about your answer?

Perhaps you need to take a closer look.

Sure, your church hates abortion. At least once a year, there’s a sermon against it. Folks from your congregation might even participate in the occasional pro-life rally at the state capital. You all hate the idea of some girl, somewhere in the country, giving up her baby to the abortion industry. Everything inside of you wishes that the nameless teenage girl, in some unknown part of our nation would keep her baby.

But what about the girl that you do know? You know, the girl that sits a few pews over from you on Sunday mornings? The scared teenager who will no doubt be keeping her baby but has no idea what to do beyond that? What about her?

Will the self-righteous looks and passive aggressive comments from some of the stone throwers in your church make this young girl wonder if keeping her baby was the right decision?

Will the leaders of your church care more about teaching her a lesson than they do restoring her in grace?

Is there an environment in your church where those who have made the same mistakes feel free to come alongside this girl to walk with her in love?

Will you help her with diapers and a crib and babysitting or will you leave her to herself because, “that’s what she deserves”?

There’s this philosophy among guys in the military. Leave no man behind. In battle, no matter the danger and regardless of damage that has already been inflicted, men do not leave their brothers on the battlefield. They run back to them. They get them up off of their feet. If they have to, they drag or carry them back to safety while dodging enemy fire. No man left behind.

Sadly, the Christian army is often very different. We ignore our wounded. We leave them to suffer and die alone in enemy territory. Or even worse, we shoot them.

Chances are, that pregnant teenage girl in your church knows that she’s blown it. She doesn’t need your daily reminders. What she needs is to be reminded of the gospel of grace. She needs to be reminded that Jesus came to save sinners, not hang out with perfect people. She needs to know that her sin is not beyond the reach of Jesus’ nail-scarred hand. She needs to hear passages like Matthew 1 preached where we see a pretty messed up family tree that eventually led to the birth of a perfect Savior.

I hope that your church is pro-life. But I hope that your church’s pro-life stance extends beyond a voting booth or a political rally and bleeds over into the next pew where a scared teenage mother-to-be is wondering what the future holds.

I pray that you are there to show that girl that no matter what happens with her and the life inside of her, there will be plenty of grace in their future.

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About That Mosque In Rural Georgia

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There’s a big fight going on in my part of the world. Some people want to build a mosque in rural Newton County, Georgia. Most of the people in Newton County, Georgia don’t want the building there. At least that’s how it seems. At first, those in opposition cited traffic concerns but at a recent public meeting, the real reason became apparent. The people of Newton County don’t want a Muslim place of worship in their community.

The will of the people is understandable here. After all, Islam hasn’t done the best job of separating itself from bloodthirsty lunatics. On the surface at least, one can understand why the people of Newton County wouldn’t want a Muslim place of worship in their community.

But that’s just on the surface. A second look reveals that allowing the government to decide which religion can or cannot put up a building is a very slippery slope. Beyond the rhetoric, fear and tribalism there is the following reality: when one religion is banned by the government, no religion is safe.

Islam is a lie. More than that, it is a demonic lie. Millions have been and continue to be deceived by it. I would love to see the religion wiped off of the map. But I don’t want that to happen because of a local government with a new ordinance or a federal government wishing to make “the sand glow.” I’d rather see Islam choked out by the gospel of Jesus Christ, the One True God. One day it will be.

There are a lot of houses of worship in my community. The one closest to my house teaches the false doctrine that Jesus was created. Many others, with more socially acceptable titles on the sign out front, haven’t preached the gospel in decades. If Jesus showed up this Sunday, they’d form a committee and have him voted out. There are other churches where the gospel of salvation by good works and the promise of health and wealth are boldly proclaimed. For them, the God of the universe is the means to the end of their best life now.

I pray for these churches and houses of worship. For some, I pray that they would shut down because everyone there comes to realize the lies they have believed and the truth of the gospel. For others, I pray for revival and a new start. But what I’m praying for can only be done by God, not the government.

I get it. Most terrorists are Muslims, not Jehovah’s Witnesses. All the people in Newton County want to do, I’m told, is keep terrorism out of their community. They don’t have a beef with any other religions.

Consider this.

I’m the pastor of a Baptist Church. I frequently preach that homosexuality is a sin but that homosexuals are not beyond God’s grace. I believe in male leadership. I am very particular about what wedding ceremonies, even the heterosexual ones, I will perform. I believe that every word of the Bible is God’s true word. There are some instances where I would be forced to tell government officials, “I must obey God rather than man.” And I’m not alone. There are millions like me.

But do you know what all of that makes us in the eyes of our increasingly godless culture?

Terrorists.

Why do you think that peaceful, evangelical church planters have such a hard time finding a building in the northeastern United States? Because the angry mobs see them as intolerant. Or as being on the wrong side of history. Or hateful. Or just plain old terrorists.

The First Amendment of our Constitution does not speak of the freedom of the Baptist religion. Or the Methodist religion. Or a religion that we’re more familiar with and that’s less scary. It speaks of the freedom of religion. Period.

My dad used to tell me that democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. Right now in Newton County, the wolf mob is friendly to Christianity. But we would be foolish to believe that it will stay that way. The tide has already turned against us in a significant portion of our country.

So if some group decides to build a mosque in your community, let them do it. The spread of Islam will not come to a stop because of a town hall meeting. But, at least in my part of the world, it can slow down when Christians start viewing Muslims as lost sheep in need of a Savior rather than pests in need of an eviction notice.

Freedom is scary. It comes with risks. There is danger involved. Some people can’t handle living under a government that isn’t big enough to keep them safe in any and every circumstance. As a result, they are left with a very large government that is big enough to protect them from any and every religion.

I hope that the mosque in Newton County gets built.

But, somewhere along the way, I hope that it gets repurposed because the families who worship there come to see the supremacy of Jesus Christ over Allah. That can’t happen through a government ordinance.

Only the Holy Spirit can make it happen. That can be a scary reality.

But when we rely on government to do what only God can, we are left with something even more frightening.

Tyranny.

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Don’t Waste Your Sermon

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He told me that the church service was a complete failure. His words crushed me. But after hearing his complaint, I had to agree. I think that’s why his words still weigh so heavy on me, several days later.

The man wasn’t talking about the church where I pastor. It was another church, in another town. The man’s family had been through a lot of adversity in recent months. It was more adversity than most of us could could ever imagine. Now, just as things were starting to settle down, it was time for my friend’s son to move away to college. The whole family loaded up and made a weekend event out of it. They wrapped it all up on Sunday morning by going to a church that I had recommended.

I’m somewhat familiar with this church. I’ve visited it several times. I knew that it would be a good place for a young college student to get plugged in. That’s something that I desperately want for students who are leaving our church for college. This family, perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever known, needed to hear an encouraging word from the Bible.

Instead, they got an infomercial.

When my friend gave me his assessment of the service he said, “The preacher never cracked open the Bible one time and all he did was ask for money and try to sell stuff.”

Pastor, you have one job to which all of your other ministerial responsibilities take a back seat. Preach the word. But sometimes we get too distracted to obey that simple command. We get distracted with buildings and budgets and chasing relevance.

And the sermon moves to the backseat.

Or into the trunk, bound and gagged.

And the people suffer.

I recently met a man whose daughter had just been killed. I’ve been thinking a lot about him and how the church that I pastor can reach out to him. To the best of my knowledge, he’s not connected to a church. I have no reason to believe that he is a Christian. I hope that he shows up to our church one Sunday. Or another church for that matter.

But when he does, I pray that he is not met with a sermon about how everyone needs to start giving more so that we can build our new building. I hope that he does not encounter a sermon about financial blessings or taking your sex life to the next level. I hope that he hears the gospel of joy and peace and reconciliation that comes through the forgiveness of sins by Jesus Christ.

More and more, I’m starting to wonder if I’m setting my hopes too high. After all, new gymnasiums don’t pay for themselves.

A mentor once told me that there is a broken heart on every pew. It grieves me to think about all of the pain that is in our churches. But it grieves me even more when I hear stories about the supposed remedies many of those churches are distributing (or selling) to those broken hearts.

You might have a great music scene at your church.

Your church might have a really swell building.

And your church might be the home of a few celebrities.

But if the Bible is never opened to show hurting people and sinners the living hope that is available only through Christ Jesus, it’s not a church that you have. What you have is a civic organization.

Hurting people do not need a civic organization.

Ultimately, the do not need a slickly produced concert.

And they could not possibly care less about your new building.

What they need is to be reminded that there is a just and holy God who, by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we get to call Father.

And pastor, if they don’t hear that from you, who are they going to hear it from?

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? Romans 10:14 (ESV)

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What America Needs More Than Trump And Clinton

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America doesn’t need Hillary Clinton.

America doesn’t need Donald Trump.

I’m a Southern Baptist pastor so here’s the part where I’m supposed to say that America needs Jesus. While I believe that to be true, that’s not the angle I’m going with this. Of course we need Jesus. But quite often, Jesus likes to make himself known through his people. Even a quick reading of the Bible reveals flawed followers of God who were beams of light in a dark world.

That’s what America needs.

America needs brave young people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who remain standing while everyone else bows. And make no mistake, there are a host of 90-foot statues to kneel before today. The most prominent one in our culture is naked and painted in rainbow colors. We need young people with the courage and love to say, while standing outnumbered, “I love you but I worship a different God.”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18 (ESV)

But that isn’t going to happen if parents care more about raising great athletes who make the family a lot of money than they do bringing up men and women with godly character. And it isn’t going to happen if students at church are fed a steady diet of entertainment and sermons about following their dreams. We need young people who stand for truth when everyone else bows but that only happens if the parents and pastors of those young people are committed to teaching them the truth.

America could use people like Daniel who aren’t afraid of the threats of the tolerance police because they know that the Lion they belong to is far more powerful than the lions sent to kill them. When the world opens up our closets to find a skeleton or two, they need to see us in there praying (Daniel 6:4-5). And when praying suddenly becomes an act of terror, they need to see us doing it anyway. Continually. With the windows opened.

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10 (ESV)

America needs prophetic voices like John the Baptist who aren’t afraid to speak up against evil, even when it means a trip to the guillotine. Far too many of our pastors are too preoccupied with building their brand or being buddies with the world to go through the trouble of being a light in the world. Others have no problem speaking out against the evils of the world but they do so in a way that leaves them only preaching to the choir. And that choir is made up of their own family members. Yes, I’m looking at you, Westboro Baptist Church.

John was different. He wasn’t afraid to confront sin but he did so in a way that the very man he confronted wanted to hear more. That’s because, unlike many today, John was fueled more by grace than anger. America could use a voice like that today.

And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. Mark 6:19-20 (ESV)

America needs churches filled with people like the Apostle Paul who care more about winning people to Christ than they do winning people to their favorite political party (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). The church today has consumed itself with either fearing evil or embracing the supposed lesser version of it. We could do worse than praying for the human instruments of that evil to come to grips with their sin, repent and put their trust in Christ (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Paul had to stand trial for the terrible crime of lovingly proclaiming the gospel. As he stood before the king, he didn’t respond with the proverbial middle finger to the government, as many are quick to do today. Rather, he responded with compassion, boldness and gospel truth.

And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Acts 26:28-29 (ESV)

America doesn’t need Hillary Clinton.

America doesn’t need Donald Trump.

And America doesn’t simply need a better candidate. The best president history has ever known would have no real success in leading a people whose hearts are turned from God. Our Lord can work through any means he chooses. He has worked through tyrants before to accomplish his will. More frequently, he works through his people. But he doesn’t work through his people so that he can make America great again.

His aim is to accomplish his kingdom purposes. And regardless of the opposition, his kingdom purposes will be accomplished. The only question is this. Will we be a part of his kingdom purposes or will we be too busy clinging to our own tiny, crumbling kingdoms?

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