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 serving his country.

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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