Enter His Gates With Thanksgiving

thankfulness

We are coming up on the American Thanksgiving season. It’s a reminder of our nation’s history and how the pilgrims broke bread with the natives after enduring the long, dangerous trek across the open ocean. As we enter this season, we’re reminded of all that God does for us. He sustains, protects, loves, saves, and executes justice.

The current general mental and spiritual outlook in the US is grim. Suicide among our youth is the highest it has ever been and is the second leading cause of death among young people. Drugs and negativity have overtaken our cities and have permeated even the deepest of our rural communities.

An article from two years ago called The shocking impact negative people have on your brain, according to science, is making its rounds again. The article explains how neurons in the brain that “fire” are neurons that “wire.” In other words, if we hear negativity all the time, our brain chemically becomes hardwired to perceive the world through negativity, regardless of reality. The opposite is also equally true–the more thanksgiving we hear, the quicker our brains become hardwired to perceive things with optimism and hope.

It’s no surprise that the Bible instructs us to be thankful. Over and over again. Psalm 100 says, “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!” (Psalm 100:1-4 ESV).

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Our Heavenly Dwelling

Heaven

Last week we talked about our heavenly inheritance and how we need to be working. We get back what we put in. We cannot expect a free ride through life. But what will that heavenly inheritance look like? People who are not believers may poke fun and tell us that we believe in a mythical place that doesn’t exist. Or we believe in a mythical God who we can’t see. So how do we respond to that?

The reality is that none of us know what Heaven looks like. We don’t have a clue. And we should be OK with that answer. Paul says that we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Does this mean that we blindly believe that something better is waiting for us when we die? Not at all! Faith is not blind. We know that Heaven is real. God tells us that. We know that there are breathtaking places here on the earth–exotic landscapes that exude pristine beauty. Others who have been there can describe it, show pictures, etc., but it will not fully engage all of our senses until we have physically gone there. Those places here on earth are no less real just because we have not physically been there. They indeed exist. And they are incredible parts of God’s creation.

If we know this to be true on the earth, it is equally true for Heaven. Paul says, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. . . . He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 5:1, 5 ESV). God has been preparing our heavenly home since the beginning. We can only imagine what heaven will be like. But we have the Spirit as a guarantee. We know Heaven to be real and incredible and peaceful. “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

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The Testing of Your Faith

wisdom

As we focus on the theme of wisdom this year, it’s appropriate to talk about struggles in the context of wisdom. Oftentimes, in the middle of our deepest struggles, wisdom is what carries us through. Wisdom allows us to see beyond the tragedy so that hope can emerge and come into deeper focus. Wisdom helps us make guided decisions so that we don’t remain in a permanent rut.

Without wisdom, we would never understand that trials can actually deepen our faith. They have the ability to refine us and make us stronger. James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:2-4).

Most of us don’t have the first instinct to be joyful when trials hit. It is not our fist response. Our sight gets clouded by the agony of the pain. We often are dazed, shocked, and have to focus on just breathing. But it’s wisdom that helps us see the big picture. Wisdom tells us that there is a loving God who validates our suffering. Wisdom tells us that we can put one foot in front of the other and that each step is another movement forward.

But we also need to ask in faith. James says, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” In all of our trials, we need to ask for more wisdom. Our faith will be tested. Our faith is tested. Let’s ask for wisdom as it is tested.

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Resurrection of the Dead

empty tomb

To be honest, I feared death as a kid. I remember, at a young age, having my imagination go wild. What if I died? What if a parent or sibling died? What happens to them? Are they gone forever? Will we ever see them again? It’s natural for us to think of these kinds of questions. I no longer have a fear of death. Death is something that brings life. It’s spring right now. The grass is gorgeous! Flowers are blooming. Trees are in blossom. Life is emerging from death.

Paul says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36). He was talking about Christ’s resurrection. There were people who denied the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees were a sect of the Jews who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Paul is clear, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). Earlier Paul told the Corinthians that he decided to know nothing while he was with them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Without death there cannot be life. The seeds that are sown are dead and, when they take root, are raised up with life. Paul rightly says that we are resurrected with Christ. At our baptism there is a death to our old self. We crucify our old selves with Christ and are raised up a new person. We share in his resurrection! The good news didn’t stop with Christ being raised from the dead. That was just the beginning! The good news is that we are raised with Christ-that he is our salvation and we will live for eternity. Christ is our hope. The empty tomb is the heart of the gospel. There is so much to celebrate as we remember the empty tomb!

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A Servant of Justice

servant songs

I’m continually blown away at the volume of messages I get from people crying out that their church covered up abuse. It never ceases to amaze me what lengths these “leaders” go to to keep the victims silenced. I’ve had several messages this week from people who showed me the evidence–women who were hospitalized from husbands beating them and others where churches had private meetings about how reporting child rape to authorities is a “liability” to the church, so they decide to keep it a secret from their church and not report to police. How people can paint Jesus as someone who is OK with this is a leap that would confound even the devil. No amount of twisting of scriptures can account for this poor theology.

We make mock God’s justice if we blend oppressors and the oppressed together. If we silence the cries of the abused and embrace the abuser, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26, 27).

The servant songs in Isaiah do not depict a helpless Savior who rolls over and plays nice with oppressors. Instead, in Isaiah 42:1-4 we find a warrior savior who is destined to bring forth swift justice for the poor and oppressed:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice on the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice; or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.

Throughout Jesus’ life, the oppressed flocked to him and the oppressors hated him. This is consistent with the servant songs in Isaiah, with God’s foundation of righteousness and justice in Psalm 89:14, and with Jesus’ mission to proclaim good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, recovering sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18, 19). Jesus’ compassion was reserved for the oppressed, not the oppressors. Matthew 9:36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

This was not a figure of speech. The people who cried out to Jesus really were harassed, and this drove his compassion. The religious leaders were relentless in their attacks. They wanted to silence the oppressed. They abandoned the poor. They were angry when Jesus healed people. Think about that for a moment. Imagine desperate people who, either they or their children had suffered for years, walking out of a hospital healed. Then imagine what it would take for people to become angry enough to march into the hospital and scold the doctors for healing them.

Jesus was a servant of justice. He brings forth justice because this is what love does. Love does not turn a blind eye to oppression and injustices. Love requires us to step in and protect. It requires us to call people to account who use force, coercion, and deception to get what they want. Yes, Jesus was a servant of justice. And this is good news to people who are desperate for help.

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I Am the One Who Helps You

desperate

I recently watched the 2013 Netflix documentary on trafficking called “Tricked.” It follows both former trafficking victims and current pimps who go on camera to talk about the industry. Human trafficking is a multi billion dollar industry that has increased exponentially in recent years. Because of the threats to prostitutes and the dehumanization of the victims, it’s virtually impossible to catch the pimps and incarcerate them. Police departments are completely overwhelmed and, because they are losing ground, governments are cutting money from the departments.

One District Attorney’s office said, “We’ve cut $1 million per year for three years. So they’re asking us to do more with less and with fewer people. At some point I have to weigh, can we continue to handle all these cases at the normal level? When somebody brings me four or five times the number of cases, I may not have the staff to handle all those cases.”

One of the detectives in the documentary said that pimps used to scout for women and young girls who came from broken homes or who had a past of abuse. With the advancement of technology, they said that everyone is a target, no matter how stable their home life is. He said that this is why trafficking has gotten uncontrollable so quickly. Trafficking is called “modern slavery” for a reason. Nobody goes into this “work” because they want to.

But it’s not just trafficking that has people distraught. There is a crisis at our southern border. Thousands of people every day are risking their lives to desperately cross into the US because they are running from dangerous gangs. There is a global crisis of oppression. The questions are “How did we get here?” and “What do we do about it?”

Many people will be packed into church buildings across the world on Easter Sunday to celebrate the risen Christ. I know there is a real temptation to use Easter as “outreach” in order to grow the church and reach those visitors. But maybe a better way is to talk about the desperation in the world and how Jesus came to redeem it. There is so much oppression, poverty, and sickness. The world needs redeemed from it. People need a refuge–a safe fortress. Isaiah 41:14 says, “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.”

A few verses later says, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them.” God feeds and waters the poor. He is a fortress and a refuge for the oppressed and weary. There is hope in the resurrection. We need to share in this hope. We need to let people know that only in Christ can there be restoration and redemption from the pain and suffering of this life. And Christians need to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the people who are suffering to remind them that God is the one who helps us.

3 Keys to Move Church Forward

Bible reading

I remember the day our 4 year old Catahoula dog, Jake, jumped into a pond to chase some ducks. Catahoulas have webbed feet and are known for their agility in the water. He flew across the pond and when he turned around to swim back, he literally couldn’t move forward an inch. It’s like he completely forgot how to swim. He began to panic as he wore himself out treading water. I quickly jumped in and saved his life that day. The terror on his face will never leave my memory. Most days I feel like Jake–paddling to the point of exhaustion but going nowhere. I know so many church leaders who are the Jakes of their churches. They come home every day worn out only to witness their churches continue to decline. So what gives?

In so many ways, we’ve complicated our mission, the mission. When another cause, no matter how good it seems, replaces mission, the end result is always the same–we have failed to carry out the mission. People have been messing things up since creation. In fact, one day Jesus was preaching on the Sabbath and he noticed a woman who, for eighteen years, had a crippling back disease. She couldn’t straighten up and likely suffered chronic pain. He immediately called her over and freed her from her disability. The Synagogue ruler was indignant and reminded Jesus that there were six other days he could heal. Jesus answered, “You hypocrites! Do not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16 ESV). Did you catch that? The ruler was holding on to the status quo of regularly scheduled worship. Is structured worship good? Sure. Is keeping the Sabbath right? Absolutely. But tradition became so important that the ruler was literally blinded to the mission to take care of the poor and wounded.

So what can we do to get back on track? I recently ordered Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s book, Simple Church. This book has hit all ten toes with a sledge hammer. Really. It has allowed me to do inventory and realize where I’ve deviated as a leader and that we need to get back to carrying out the mission. So, what are 3 keys to moving any church forward?

1. Simplicity
The whole point of the book is that their research demonstrates an undeniable correlation between simplicity and growth. We live in a fast paced world. The iPhone X was released November 3rd while its predecessor, the iPhone 8, was released September 22nd. People who bought the 8 had an outdated phone a month later. Our culture is moving at break neck speed. The church is trying to keep up. It can’t. It shouldn’t. People are more anxious today than ever in our nation’s history. Our drug epidemic has taken root and our addiction to prescription meds is at an all time high. People want their worship to be genuine, peaceful, simple. All the “experts” claim that we have to keep up with technology if we are going to engage our kids. My children are all advanced for their ages. What’s one of their favorite activities? Reading their Bibles in a hammock. They literally do it for hours at a time. Total silence. Simplicity. Reading Bible

2. Direction
Imagine asking someone to jump in your car and go for a ride with you. Cool. Three years later you are still driving with that same passenger, just choosing random roads to travel. At some point the passenger is going to get frustrated and beg to get out of the car. People need direction and purpose for moving in that direction. Oftentimes we ask people to join a church and we have no clue where we’re going. People notice. They are more than happy to be on a journey, they just want to know where we all are going and that it’s a meaningful journey. This is where mission comes in. Does a church have a clear, simple mission or is it a complex web of ideas and programs that aren’t really going anywhere? Jesus stayed on mission. His mission was simple, simple, simple: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2). Imagine what all Jesus accomplished in three years! What was his secret? He was driven by a simple mission and he never diverted. Everything Jesus did, every person he spoke with was to fulfill the mission. Rainer and Geiger in Simple Church say there are four common elements in growing, simple churches: Clarity (being clear about the process to reach people), Movement (the process flows logically), Alignment (the process is implemented in every area of the church), and Focus (the church abandons everything that is not in the process).

3. Willingness
A minister or any church leader can have all the vision in the world but if the congregation is not behind the vision, there will always be other things that take priority. Some refer to willingness as “buy-in.” Another way of putting it is living out what we believe. A good friend of mine, when I told a story with extra passion and persuasion, would always respond, “I smell what you’re stepping in!” When the unchurched meet us, do they walk away convinced of our love for God and others? Do they leave saying, “I smell what you’re stepping in?” If not, we have some readjusting to do. How will we convince others that Jesus is the most important thing in our lives if we aren’t even convinced ourselves? Are we willing to stay on mission and shed everything else that is not?