Moving and shaking

On July 28, 2015 Stephanie and I officially started our lease. Three days later, we had loaded everything we owned (at least, everything that was not already in Nashville in our PODS unit) into our two cars, and began the 9+ hour drive to the capital of Tennessee.

Now, I’m sitting in our apartment, listening to my beautiful wife sing praise music to herself as we seek to trust God with this huge transition. This time last night (give or take half an hour) I was bawling like a child in a haunted house… for the second time that day; I have not cried such deeply profound and sorrowful tears since the death of my grandfather in high school. Even as sobs shook my body, I felt so foolish and weak. What was I thinking? Why did I ever leave my home?

For the past few months, I’ve been mentally preparing for this move. And the whole time, God has been lining up different elements for us, and smoothing the road before us. “I’m excited, and a little bit scared, but more excited than scared,” I kept telling people who asked. And I was honestly assessing my feelings.

Then we got here.

It is possible to be a shy extrovert. I know because I am one. I tend to dread situations where I am expected to reach out to meet someone new, and yet I thrive on interaction with others. Moving to a city where I know virtually no one turned terrifying. Suddenly, I had no close friends (besides Stephanie, of course) for hundreds of miles, and to make new friends would require stepping out of my comfort zone to seek them out.

And, through all this process, I had been terrified that if I truly showed my fear and sadness, it would only heighten Stephanie’s fears and loneliness and doubt about being Tennessee immigrants. She, as always, astounds me with her ability to love me and forgive me and understand me.

Now, having talked, cried, prayed, read the word, talked more, cried more, and prayed more together, I’m astounded by God’s goodness to me.

1 John 4:16-19 says:

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.19 We love because he first loved us.”

Wrapped up in my fears of being alone, of being a bad husband, of leading my wife away from home, was ultimately a fear of punishment, and a lack of love. I was afraid that God would punish me for the choice I made by making us miserable in Nashville. I was afraid that Steph would punish me through resentment. I was not loving God, or Stephanie, or the city of Nashville with perfect love from God.

I am trying to find joy in the sadness; I’m trying to let God’s love fill me and perfect my love so as to cast out all fear. God reminded me tonight that even if I am so unfortunate as to never see my dear friends from Texas again in this life, I am so fortunate that I will see those who love Him in the next. In the same way we can rejoice through the tragedy of death when the deceased is a believer, I can rejoice in the new ways God will grow Stephanie and I through this hard, and at times very lonely, time.

So here is my current prayer: I am asking that God (who is able to do exceeding abundantly more than I can ask or think) would help us to see this city as what it is, a population of people who bear His image. Some are already my brothers and sisters in Christ, adopted into the family of God. Others are still in need of someone to tell them about Jesus that one more time where God opens their eyes to the truth of the gospel. Either way, they are loved by God dearly, and that makes them vastly more worthy of my love than I can understand.

And as I ask God to help my unbelief, He is perfecting my love for this city and her inhabitants. And that love is casting out my fear.

It’s a process that will take time, but it feels good to be done moving (and done shaking).

Time well spent

Most of my readers probably already know this because of the newsletter I sent out recently, but I will be finishing up my time with the Austin Stone Community Church in just over a week.

It’s sad to think that I will be leaving this staff that has become so much like a family to Stephanie and I. However, we are joyful about where God is taking us, and excited to see what new things He has in store.

I will be starting a new job at LifeWay Christian Resources starting in August. This requires a move to Nashville, and to some extent the embracing of a new culture. Stephanie and I are certainly nervous about being so far from friends and family, but we trust that the Lord will use us to glorify Himself.

Because I will have a bit of time between jobs, I have been thinking a lot about how to use my time well. It’s easy for me to waste time if I don’t set out a plan for how to use it productively. More than anything, I want to honor God with my time.

That said, one way I feel I can honor Him is to catch up with my supporters! I will be seeking opportunities to grab lunch or coffee with anyone who has been a part of my team the last two years, and I can’t wait to tell you all the cool things I’ve learned, done, and plan to do.

If you get my newsletter, you can find more information there, but if not, please visit the About or Support page on this blog to figure out what you can do now that I’m finishing up with the Stone.

How great is our commission?

Recently at our staff meetings we have been talking about evangelism. My confession to you is how abysmally infrequent my efforts to share the gospel have been since becoming a resident at The Austin Stone. Through various mind-hoops I jumped to rationalize my lack of faithfulness to talk about Jesus.

“All of my co-workers are believers; who else could I share with?”

“My job is to write Sunday school lessons; surely that counts as sharing the gospel.”

“No one will listen anyway; it’s weird to just approach strangers.”

My excuses were numerous and some might sound familiar to you, but all of them fall down when held to the standard given in scripture. What I find particularly interesting is how often we cite The Great Commission as being Matthew 28:19-20, skipping over the preceding verses. To do so, in my experience, strips the passage of much context.

For starters, verse 17 tells us that some of the disciples still had doubts. If the very men who were among the first to see the resurrected body of Christ still had doubts, is it any wonder that we often doubt our calling as well? It comes as no surprise to me that we struggle to share when I read this verse, but luckily, Jesus had planned for their doubt.

Verse 18 has Jesus speaking to His followers, but He doesn’t start right out with a command, but rather with a reminder: “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.” What a statement! There is no single thing in all of creation over which Jesus has no authority. There is no person to whom Christ’s commands do not apply. There is no event that can occur without the knowledge or permission of Christ. There is no place in the physical or spiritual realm in which Christ does not have jurisdiction.

On the one hand, this verse serves to rebuke the excuses we may contrive by telling us that we are compelled to obey Christ. However, it does more than just that; it also speaks into our fears and doubts, just as it spoke into the doubts of the disciples, and comforts us with knowledge of who Jesus is. His authority is limitless in scope and in scale, meaning that each encounter you could possibly have with an unbeliever is subject to His oversight.

Reading this passage in this new light should inspire us to shift our view of failure. We tend to view successful evangelism as an instance when a sinner hears the gospel, repents, and believes, and it is. However, when a sinner hears the gospel and refuses repentance and belief, that is success, too. The only failed evangelism comes from us forgetting who is sovereign over our relationships and interactions, and choosing not to preach the gospel at all.

Remembering Christ’s authority is primary, and combined with a secondary method to overcome the obstacles of evangelism can be very helpful. In addition to fixing your theology, it is always good to have a plan of what you can do with that better understanding of God. So, here are a few ideas that helped me rediscover my love of sharing the gospel.

Evangelism is a little like public speaking. It can be really scary, but it will be a lot scarier if you don’t know what you plan to say. Come up with questions you might ask a new friend to direct a conversation toward Christ. Practice asking them. Think about the layers of a person’s life (surface level likes and dislikes, deeper levels like family background, hopes and fears, and ultimately their belief about God) and think through ways you might be able bring those up in a conversation. However, keep in mind that…

Evangelism is NOT public speaking. Don’t just talk and talk and talk. What you have to tell the person you intend to share with is vitally important, but you need to take time to listen to them as well. In general, you are probably better off having a spiritual conversation than offering a spiritual presentation. A quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt captures this idea nicely: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,”

And my last little tip flows from the last. Everyone is a sinner, but not everyone sins the same way. Don’t get too caught up in what a person’s sin may be. A general rule of thumb is that our opinion of their sin doesn’t matter compared to their opinion of Christ. You will be much more winsome with the gospel if you focus on humanity’s brokenness before God than if you try to get a person to specify their personal brokenness.

And remember, our commission is more than good, it’s great.

The Plumbline

I’ve been thinking about the way people tend to cherry-pick teachings, commandments, and moral ideals from the Bible (and other religious/philosophical texts for that matter). I confess, I am often guilty of this. I ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like, or cannot obey, spouting rhetoric only about those I find palatable. Or worse, only those I think others will find palatable. Sometimes I worry that in an effort to offend nobody, we will reach them. Pay careful attention to what I’m not saying, before I go about trying to explain what I am saying; I’m not saying “offending people doesn’t matter!” Not at all. What I am saying though, is that there is something inherently offensive about the gospel to the natural man. No one desires to be wrong. No one sets out with the goal of going against the truth. The gospel is offensive on a deep and intrinsic level because it tells us “You are wrong. You are broken. You are desperate. You cannot help yourself.” The Words of God are offensive to human ears because they tell us that we cannot simply pursue whatever base impulses or perversions of the truth we may desire.

But God has preserved in us an innate understanding that there IS right and wrong, even though we, apart from Him, cannot keep the two straight in our minds. How do we know this innate understanding is from God? Well, let’s look at the alternatives, and seek out their logical conclusions.

If our morality comes from ourselves only, then we will not share a standard of morality, and are each justified in doing what pleases us at the time, and there ought not to be consequences to actions, as any behavior can be moral to any person at any time. That, I hope, does not sit well with you. Additionally, we don’t see this in human society. So we cannot, as individuals, be deciding our own moral standards. Perhaps then, moral standards are a construct of society?

If our morality comes from the society in which we were raised, from a mere general consensus of what is right and wrong, it would certainly explain the shifts in cultural behaviors over time. Unfortunately, if this is the case, we must admit that there are behaviors and acts in history, and currently happening in other cultures, that we may view as heinous, but that, for a given time or place, are good and moral to do. If society sets the standard of morality, then the majority rules, and in their ruling, may choose which, if any, rights should be maintained for the minority. This may sound right (though I hope it does not), but the position that society dictates morality loses tenability upon deeper analysis. Consider a man who views morality as a general societal construct, and nothing more. What if the general society in which he lives were to dictate that he no longer had rights? By his own view that society is able to dictate morality, he would be obligated to consent to any abuses targeting him, acknowledging  them as moral to commit. Again, we do not see this. Rather, we see oppressed minorities rising up, seeking justice, seeking reparations, seeking equal treatment.

So if morality cannot be decided by the individual, nor can it be contingent on the mere whims of society, it must come from something outside both ourselves and our culture. It must be sourced from somewhere both deeper than the heart of an individual and yet more universal than the collected ideologies of a people. And if it is set by an outside source, which it must be, a person or people’s specific opinions about the standard of morality will not affect it. The implications of this are huge.

If morality is set by an outside standard, our belief about that standard affects only whether or not we conform to it, not whether or not it exists. The common analogy is that even should I claim no belief in gravity, I will still plummet when I step off a ledge. If something is real, believing in it or not cannot alter its realness. I may attempt to shield myself from criticisms by claiming everything is “just an opinion,” but boiling water will scald me even should I hold the opinion that it is not so hot.

Interestingly, our innate moral compass serves the paradoxical purposes of both demanding that there be a good and loving and just God, and condemning us for our inability (or unwillingness) to conform to His standards. We look at His statutes and  balk at the ones which require us to give up debauchery or scoff at those that insist we adopt attitudes of humility. Yet, we will cry out for justice and an end of evil just as easily. We want the world to be without evil, and yet we want a place for ourselves in that world, with all our evil desires intact. We long for a God who will punish the wicked, so long as we are not counted among them.

Sadly, this has led many to worship or scorn different, custom designed “gods.” They look for a pacifist Jesus in the gospels, ignoring the righteous anger He displayed when clearing the temple, hoping it will allow them to avoid confrontation. Or perhaps they seek to defame God as violent and spiteful through passages in the Old Testament, ignoring the mercy He showed to Nineveh, hoping to excuse themselves from obedience. Each of us has constructed our own little god, built around our own opinions of right and wrong, and as a result, our faith is idolatry.

So here is my challenge to each of you: As I continually tear down my ideas of who God “should” be and attempt to replace them with the truth of who He is, I challenge each of you to scour scripture and seek the ways you may have misunderstood God.

Obliged or Obligated?

Christmastime is, as usual, particularly packed with proceedings and parties. There is always so much to do, and sadly, I’ve found my motivation waning as I ask myself, “do I even care?” The worst part is I cannot give the answer that I know I should, and apathy has become an easy enough default state.

I know how terrible that sounds. I’m not here to try and defend myself or make excuses. I’m just typing out what I’ve been dealing with, fully understanding the tragic nature of it all. My goals through this exercise are to confront my own brokenness and convince you, dear reader, to pray for me.

It started a few weeks back, I’d guess, with a sneaky trick my flesh pulls against me with some frequency. The premise of this snare is quite simple, as my brain clings to Satan’s lie that I must accomplish some great feat or achieve some spectacular objective before I will have the approval I so desperately crave. This lie compels me more than any other, I’m embarrassed to admit. My desires to be perceived as the most creative, funniest, wisest, wittiest, most successful, best looking, or otherwise ultimate drive me to work harder and longer, which might seem like a good thing. However, this drive comes without reprieve or respite, pushing me ever on toward the unreachable goal of earning the approval of both God and men. When it becomes clear that perfection is unattainable, I crash in the most pathetic of ways, deciding that if I can’t be the best at everything, I might as well be good for nothing. There ought to be a large red circle around that last phrase, labeled “Sam is here.”

And so, as we approach the day meant to be a celebration of the arrival of our much anticipated Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I am writing out this confession of sorts, letting you all know that I am feeling especially Scrooge-like. My heart, it seems, is two sizes too small to appreciate the Advent season. Oh, that the problem were really that simple! But, in truth, it is more about the deceitfulness and desperate sickness of my heart than its size. But, I read somewhere that admitting it is the first step.

So, here, officially, I admit that my heart is sick with grief and with a misplaced affection for my own greatness. I assert that, despite what falsehoods I may cleave to, my greatness is of no import. I concede that, despite my inability to live like it, praising and proclaiming the glory of Jesus are the primary objectives of my life. I furthermore recognize, despite a lack of faith in this fact, that I have all the approval and love and acceptance and success I will ever need through Christ, who, though existing with all the fullness of God, did not grasp for the equality with God that was rightfully His. Instead He endured the cross for the sake of sinners like me, destitute and unable to obey, justifying us before the Father and bestowing on us an inheritance and adoption into the family of God.

That, I suppose, is reason to celebrate.

The Promises of God

When I look at the state of the world I cannot help but wonder “What are you doing, Lord?”

With the Islamic State, the Ebola virus, the Houston subpoenas, the droughts permeating the American Southwest, and a myriad of other social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental issues facing both the United States and the planet as a whole, it’s so easy to throw up my hands and despair.

Last night, I felt close to that point. While sprawled across my bed at home, a deep anguish began to settle over me, thicker, even than the comforter on which I lay. Stephanie, my wife, entered and saw me, and knew right that I felt burdened.

I remember saying “I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just feel sad.” Her response demonstrates why I fell for her so easily and completely.

“We should have some prayer time tonight.”

I want to share with you some of what we prayed.

Psalm 46 popped into my mind, as it so often does in the midst of strife. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but a few verses that struck me right away were 1-3

“God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

I felt a touch better; just remembering that God is here with us. He isn’t a distant God who we hope will get here in time to save, but a “very present” God who by our sides, walking with us through even the worst suffering our broken world can throw at us. And this Psalm ends with a promise.

I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” God says in verse 10. It’s not a question of if God will be totally and unquestionably honored and worshiped, or even where He will be. It will happen. It will be throughout the world.

Then Stephanie and I read II Chronicles 7:13-14.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Though I don’t know the state of locust populations in the US, we have drought, and I’d call Ebola pestilence. This verse, though technically directed to Israel, spoke volumes to me last night, and convicted me that I never pray for revival. I do try to repent, personally, when I know I need to, but I rarely if ever ask God to stir the hearts of this nation (much less this world) and bring revival. What would it look like to see large-scale repentance and a deep, abiding desire to know God more and worship him fully? I confess, I cannot even fathom what that would entail. But I know what would cause it: The Holy Spirit moving in our lives. And there, once again, is a promise of God: “I will hear… forgive… and heal.” If I really believe we need forgiveness and healing, why am I not praying for and seeking revival?

Then the Lord lead us to Revelation 21 and 22. Again, I recommend reading the whole thing when you have time. Here’s the verses that I want to focus on:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'”

No matter what, regardless of what happens with all the pain and sickness and persecution and disobedience, God has promised us that a day is coming when those things will end. He makes all things new. His promises are trustworthy and true. We have nothing to fear from this world because the worst of the worst that Satan can dish out is dwarfed by the goodness of God.

As Stephanie and I prayed through these promises of God, we praised Him for His goodness. We asked Him to remember what He has said He would do, and petitioned Him to do it in our time. To be quite frank, I had never really prayed for that; at least, not in a way that was genuine or full of faith. We asked Him to strengthen our faith, telling Him we do believe while asking Him to help our unbelief.

And during our time of prayer, I thought of Acts 4:27-30, where the church, faced with persecution and revulsion, asks for boldness and to see God move, not for a decrease in pain or suffering. My heart broke as I thought of how often I’ve prayed for my comfort and to avoid troubles. Another promise of God bloomed in my mind: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

I want to exhort you, whoever you are reading this, to think over these promises of God. Understand that God’s promises will be fulfilled. God is sovereign and we have no need to fear the future. We do not serve a god of “oops” or “darn-it” or “uh-oh.” We serve the One, True, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Eternal and Benevolent God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And with the knowledge of who God is, I ask you to consider and pray over the final promise of our Lord, recorded in Revelation 22:20 -“I am coming soon” to which we ought to respond, as John did, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Creepy crawlies

Infestations always start with something small and totally manageable. Before your house can crumble from the damage of a million termites, a single termite queen must begin laying eggs in the walls. If you could find the queen before the eggs are deposited, you would avoid the entire ordeal with no more effort than a quick stomp of a shoe.

Sin is the same. Before your life dissolves into a puddle of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, a single act of the flesh must be ignored (or even justified). The tiniest little sin, something that doesn’t even feel wrong or trigger your conscience, can lead to all kinds of deep-seated issues. Additionally, sin can be like an infestation in the sense that sometimes the damage is such that you have to start by doing a little deconstructing of your own before you can start over.

I know this is true because it is in scripture (James 1: 14-15 says “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Unfortunately, I also know it is true because of my own extensive experience as a sinner. There is a well known statistic that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Though I’m not prepared to defend this contested idea, I can say with all certainty that if it’s true, my 24.8 years on this earth have given me well over 100,000 hours of practice (and that is if you, rather graciously, assume I only have sin in my heart 50% of the time). So that makes me a master ten times over. But when you master sin, it’s really sin that masters you. And it all starts with a tiny little thought.

The creepy crawly sins in my life right now are materialism and laziness. Exactly where and how they started, I don’t actually know, but I’m finding it really hard to remove from my life. But recognizing the issue is not the same as dealing with it, and when the issue is laziness and materialism, it’s easy to think “I’ll deal with this tomorrow… but for now, why don’t I buy another gizmo, that will make me feel better!”

Only it doesn’t. Not that I really, deep in my soul, think it will or should. And, to be sure, I can justify my sin so easily. I’m not going into debt to feed my desires for more stuff. I’m not missing deadlines at work to watch another season of Doctor Who on Netflix. In fact, I don’t actually buy many things, I just sort of fantasize about having a newer car, a bigger TV, or a faster computer. And I don’t indulge my desire to waste time when I have no time to waste. No, the problem is not that my relationships are in shambles and I am a shell of my former self; the problem is that I have a termite queen laying eggs in my heart, and I’m questioning whether I should stamp her out now.

Praise God for the life, forgiveness, and help He gives! My prayer, right now, in this exact moment of writing, is that He would show me the severity of my sin and remind me that to leave a “small” sin un-squashed is disastrous and foolish. In fact, my prayer is that He would re-teach me the grace He showed at Calvary and help me see that He squashed sin for me. Fortunately, because I know He is good and desires to sanctify those who are His, His answer to requests for help crushing sin will always be yes.