Friday, February 17, 2017

Adversity and Grace

One of my favorite Christian authors is Jerry Bridges. His book The Discipline of Grace has been so helpful in my life. The crux of the book is an exhortation to rest in God's unfailing grace, rather than our daily performance. It is here that Bridges introduces the oft repeated insight that a Christian must, "Preach the gospel to himself every day." Through this we remind ourselves that our standing before God is all of grace from start to finish, and every moment in between.

The final chapter is entitled "The Discipline of Adversity." I can only assume the author put this last because adversity and trials are so dreadful. Passages like James 1:2-4 are easy to understand but hard to apply when the tidal wave of hardship has crushed me.

Here are a few of the closing lines from the chapter:

"Learning to live by grace instead of by performance helps us to accept the discipline of adversity. For one thing, we realize that God is not disciplining us because of our bad performance but, on the contrary, because of His love for us. We also learn to accept that whatever our situation is, it is far better than we deserve."

Keep this in mind when you are experiencing suffering or hardship. Wade out into God's "river of grace" and stand there. Let the current wash away your self judgements as it pushes you further into the loving arms of your Heavenly Father. Preach the gospel to yourself and receive this truth: Nothing "will be able separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39b)

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Lessons From the Broken Road

I started along a broken and bumpy road on January 28. Frankly, I knew this road was on the horizon but never wanted to travel there. It came with a phone call. The voice was calm but the words came like an avalanche, throwing me into a state of shock and despair. My oldest daughter was dead. Her struggle with drug addiction, that had robbed her of so much, had taken her life.The news took my breath away.

There is not enough space here to share everything. But this will be an attempt to share a few things that have been prominent, things I have become aware of, lessons I am learning about myself, about life and loss.

Not Words, but Presence
It has been interesting to talk with friends and family and to hear how we express ourselves when death comes. Words fail. Some try to force words, attempting to manufacture something that will fix the mess or aid the one hurting. Sometimes there are religious platitudes. These words are well intended I know. They rarely help. What is helpful is simply being present. The strength and embrace of another individual, made in the image of God, reflecting His power and love. Talking is fine and I've done much of that too. But the strongest support has come from presence.  I'm a pastor and so I've been on the other side of death. I realize more than ever that being willing to just be with others in their pain is enough. God can use this greatly.

Love is Active and Varied
What our family experienced from dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, was nothing short of remarkable. I lost track of the number of texts, calls, emails, Facebook messages and hugs...big, wonderful hugs joined with tears.  There was food, from unexpected places. Cards filled with heartfelt words of kindness. We received beautiful flowers and plants that will continue to remind us of this outpouring of human compassion. Jesus explained that the "greatest commandment" is to love God completely and to love others selflessly. I've seen that kind of love in action. Honestly, it is that sort of others-centered love that is missing from many parts of the American experience, even in churches. If Christians hope to see our world transformed it will begin with an active, purposeful love. It is the gospel in action and it is has power. I'm not saying the gospel itself is not vitally important. However, authentic love provides the foundation for the gospel to be received. Moreover, it is through loving one another that we demonstrate that we truly are followers of Jesus. At least, that's what He said.

God Works in the Mess
Space on this page limits my ability to fully explain how we have witnessed God at work. Pieces fell into place so that we could travel unhindered to be with family at just the right time. Resources came together from a variety of people to provide for unexpected expenses. Hundreds of people came to the visitation and many stayed 2 hours until the memorial service started. Many who stayed would not likely be compelled to attend a regular church service. They heard the hope-filled message of forgiveness and grace found in Christ. Dozens more who could not attend have watched the service on video. I was enabled by God to stand and preach, from a place of strength and love, to share my heart as well as the gospel. Only eternity will tell of the impact of these events. It was clear to me that God was indeed guiding every aspect of these events.

Addiction is All Around Us
I've seen the ugly face of drug and alcohol addiction. Many of us have. Its sad and often painfully obvious. We can not be silent about these things. Bringing them into the light and under the influence of the gospel is where healing and transformation will take place. Christians must be willing to embrace those who are struggling with addiction with compassion and not condemnation. However, we must also recognize that addiction is all around us and within each and every one of us. Addiction is the desire of our hearts to cling to, rely on, flee to, find satisfaction in anything other than God. Sadly many of us have addictions that are not viewed as ugly and are even encouraged. Addiction can take the form of approval seeking, perfectionism, people pleasing, peace making, achievement and the list goes on. When we embrace these things as a means to satisfaction, affirmation and ultimate joy, they are just like drugs. We are a broken people, all of us. Some are unaware, while others are fighting to keep these things in the dark. It is in the light of God's grace, within safe and loving community, that we will find freedom from all of our addictions. [You can find good and helpful insights about this here.]

Grief is Odd and Unpredictable
In the back of my mind I realize that grief is a process that takes time.  I will not get past this in two weeks. However, I want it to be over and done, neat and tidy. That's not how it works. Even though we all know about it, death takes us by surprise when it comes to our door. There is no "right way" to navigate this road. My experience is unique to me. But I am not alone. There is great comfort and strength in having others supporting me on this journey. I don't know exactly where this road will lead me. But I am confident that God doesn't waste anything. He is with me and He is for me. He is using this hard and painful experience to shape me.

If it were up to me, I would choose a different way. But I'm not God. I'm not in control. So I will trust Him to guide my steps as He continues to teach me.
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Friday, December 18, 2015

Relationships, the Illusion of Connection and Christmas

God has made us for relationship. Humans thrive in good and healthy relationships.  The problem is, because we are all broken, these relationships are often messy - not so good, not so healthy. Therefore, relationships are work.  But its worth the work to cultivate authentic connections with others. This has always been true.

However, with modern technology comes modern challenges.  I spend more time "connecting" through electronic devices than via personal, face to face contact with others.  I send text messages, instead of speaking voice to voice over the telephone. I write emails with a computer, rather than personal letters that have my unique scribbles that those close to me recognize.  I have hundreds of friends that I observe and "connect" with over social media instead of over a cup of coffee.  All of this fosters isolation rather than connection. Have you experienced this illusion of connection that modern technology has created and we have fully embraced?

All of this electronic communication has given us the illusion of connection, when actually it has dulled and stifled genuine relationships.  Even as I am reading the posts of others, commenting on photos and "likeing" articles, I often come away with a growing emptiness.  Since all of these devices save us so much time we should have plenty of opportunity for a cup of coffee, a phone call or dinner around that table with our family.  It takes intentional effort to unplug the electronics and move toward others. I suspect those others in your life are longing for connection with you too.

What's more, when I spend time utilizing electronic devices I am drawn away from the deepest and most meaningful connection of all - the one with God.  (Its even possible for me to read the Word of God on an electronic device. I suppose that's better than not reading it at all.) Somehow all of this media, technology and progress has created an environment buzzing with activity. So much noise!  I think it would be wise for the people of God, the followers of Christ, to set aside the electronics and simply "be still!"  At least I think that would be wise for me. It is in the strengthening of this ultimate relationship with my Heavenly Father that I am enabled to better connect with those around me.

God could have communicated and connected with mankind through a multitude of ways. But He came to us in person.  Jesus came so that we can have a relationship with Him.  God is not a distant, unconcerned force.  He is a personal, loving God - engaged with His creation.  This is the story of Christmas. So in a very real sense, Christmas is about connection.

[I realize the irony of this post given it is communication via a blog and that I'm using an electronic devise and so are you. Shut your device down and go have a real conversation.]

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Friday, May 1, 2015

I've Got Good News

The gospel is the good news that actually starts with some pretty bad news.  Mankind is completely ruined because of sin.  Because of our sin we all face the judgement and wrath of God, and rightly so.  There are no good deeds or religious acts that we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God.  However, God in His grace and mercy provided a way for our sin to be removed and His wrath to be appeased through His Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus lived a perfect life and died sacrificially on the cross in the place of sinners. In demonstration of victory and power, Jesus was raised from the dead and is alive today.  His sacrifice for our sins was totally sufficient and accepted by God the Father.  Jesus is the living Lord!  Everyone recognizing their hopeless condition, their offense of sin against God, turning from their sinful/selfish life and believing in Jesus Christ - they will be saved and made right with God. Jesus takes our sin and we receive His perfect righteousness when we repent and believe.  Believing in Jesus is the expression of faith, resting one's entire life on what Jesus accomplished by His sinless life, purposeful death and victorious resurrection.  Having come to believe in Jesus, the Christian has been given a new life and will remain a faithful follower of Jesus forever.  All of this is a gracious work of God.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Youth Sports and Life Lessons

PCS Girls Basketball Team 2014-15
Our culture is consumed with sports and it starts so young.  Many parents push their kids nearly to a breaking point, as if life depended on athletic prowess.  You've heard the statement, "Its not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game."  Another guy said, "Winning isn't everything, its the only thing."  In the end, the object of the game is to win. But there is more to it than that.

Recent sports stories tell of a Little League baseball team accused of violations in the LLWS, a high school coach suspended for humiliating opponents by running up the score and two high school teams actually trying to lose. Reading these sorts of stories is pretty unsettling.  However, there are many inspiring stories that often occur in relative obscurity.


My daughter's high school basketball team just finished the season...with 1 win.  By all accounts they did not achieve success. Of course, it depends on how success is measured.  Her team only had 5 players.  They worked hard. They never stopped hustling. I believe they learned some important life lessons.  That is one of the goals of youth sports after all.

I was encouraged yesterday to read an article written by a coach who faced our team late in the season. Our team inspired him.  There's no live link currently to his article, although it is supposed to appear soon in a local paper. You can read it below.  I'm proud of my kid. Not because of her personal achievements, but because she is a genuine blessing in my life. Among other things, God is using her to shape me. She's part of my life lessons.

The Portland Five
 Cadiz, KY - What a winter we have had this year. The snow storm of 2015 was one that we will remember. There is something else I will remember about the winter of 2015 and that is the Portland Five. I know what you are thinking. What is the Portland Five? Actually the question should be who is the Portland Five. Sit back and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate while we are blanketed with another deep snow as I introduce them to you.
This past winter I had the opportunity to take my girls’ basketball team to Louisville to play in the Portland Christian High School Christmas tournament. Portland is one of the oldest Christian schools in the state of Kentucky.  Portland Christian has just over 400 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Their high school has just over 120 students.
The first thing that stood out about the school was their athletic director Rick Folden. Mr. Rick is a retired coach who now serves as the AD. Rick just seemed to be a fellow that probably had a treasure chest full of stories from his lifetime spent in athletics. He was as personable as anybody we ran into across the state this year. He also served as a great host for their Christmas Tournament. The hospitality started when he had someone meet our bus on the street and usher us into the parking lot. The tournament that he ran was simply first class.
Later on in January the Portland Christian team made a swing through western Kentucky. They stopped in on a Saturday afternoon to play us. We didn’t face their team in the Christmas tournament so this was the first time we had seen them play. This is also where the story really gets fascinating. The Portland team only had five girls. They were senior Kayla Niestadt, junior Sunny Jin, sophomore Emily Scott and freshman Hannah Taylor and Lydia Cyrus. They did not have any substitutes. As a matter of fact Sunny Jin was a foreign exchange student from China. It took her for them to have enough girls to play.
Tim Taylor served as the team's coach. Coach Taylor is the father of freshman Hannah Taylor. Coach Taylor coached the Portland Five for the entire season for a total salary of NOTHING. You see, Portland Christian is the only KHSAA high school that does not pay their coaches. Taylor simply donated his time and no telling how much of his own funds so Portland Christian could have a team and a season.
Now let’s get back to the team only having five girls. Coach Taylor said it was really tough to practice because there was no opposition to go against. He said, “We had to stress fundamentals and get really creative with our drills.” Taylor also said that they did not have a girl foul out all season so they never dipped below five players. In other words every one of their players played every minute of the season.
After our game with Portland in January we invited the team to the Cadiz Restaurant for a late afternoon meal. As the sun began to set on that winter day, five of our players sat across from their five players. The girls swapped stories and exchanged cultures you might say. The Portland girls talked about living in the city while our girls told stories from the countryside. The Portland girls had lots of questions about the abundance of pigs lining Main Street. This led to our own junior player Taylor Gray giving the city girls a lesson about country hams. It was nothing short of awesome to watch Taylor take the girls through the process of curing a ham and explain why the pig is so important to Trigg County. In return Sunny Jin talked about her homeland of China and explained how she wants to return and work on major environmental issues facing her country.
As you might imagine Portland struggled on the court this season with only five girls. The Portland girls were winless as they approached the end of their season. Only a couple of games were left as St. Francis came to their gym for homecoming. Freshman Hannah Taylor scored 21 points as Portland got their only win of the season by a score of 40-25.
History will show that the Portland Christian girls’ basketball team finished their season with a record of 1-15.  An outsider might simply look at the numbers and gawk at their proclivity of losing. I say different. The Portland Five were a team of super young people full of heart, character and values. The Portland Five were not afraid or embarrassed to compete when they were severely undermanned. The Portland Five and their Coach Tim Taylor were not losers at all. Trust me on this, the Portland Five are winners. You see, while others sit on the sideline and watch life go by. The PORTLAND FIVE WERE IN THE GAME. Enthusiasm Makes the Difference,
Coach Mike Wright
OT: Coach Taylor is no stranger to athletics. His son Jonathan Taylor was the 3200 meter champ in the state of Kentucky a couple of years ago and now runs at Taylor University in Upland IN.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reflecting and Resolving

A new year brings an opportunity to reflect on the past and, for some, to make resolutions for the days ahead.  Even if our commitments are eventually cast aside in the busyness of life, taking stock of our priorities is very helpful.  For followers of Jesus it might be a way to center our minds and hearts on our pursuit of Him.

Theologian Jonathan Edwards famously crafted a list of resolutions that he used as a regular reminder of what he had purposed to do in his life.  His list is extensive.  Frankly, the mind of Edwards was...well, extensive.   Here is a nice, organized version of his resolutions sorted by category.

Missions professor David Sills offers a challenge for believers as they approach the 2015.  He uses the oft quoted words of Baptist missionary William Carey, "Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God."  Sills' goal is to encourage believers to take seriously the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  A worthy aim indeed.

For the Christian there is one thing that makes it actually possible to make wise resolutions and to keep them: the power of God!  We can approach this process with the knowledge that God is with us and He is for us. And hopefully we will maintain the glory of God as our motivation. After all, it is all about Him.

So I encourage you to consider what you plan to do (or not do) in 2015.  We have everything we need because of Christ...we can not fail.

Happy New Year!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Awe Inspiring Thought

One of the most awe inspiring thoughts for the Christian has to do with prayer.  We read in Hebrews 4:15-16, "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

What a wonderful privilege of drawing near before God...the One who spoke everything into existence.  I'm not certain we fully grasp the magnitude of prayer.  I often forget this profound truth and fail to be astounded at what is taking place when I pray.

Chuck Lawless sums up this idea nicely in his helpful book Discipled Warriors

"When we pray, we communicate with the Creator of the universe. He allows us to encounter Him without destroying us while we are in His presence. In fact, He delights when we come before Him as His children." [emphasis added]

The context of prayer is one that deserves a word that is so overused in our day, "Awesome!"  This opportunity ought to amaze and humble us.  Brothers & Sisters, go boldly before your King!


 "Grace" photo by Enstrom 1918

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