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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