PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

The church I lead ran its first Alpha Course in 2011. We’ve hosted it eight more times since then (twice one year and none in 2018) and 2019 was the best ever! The reason? Not because our team was any better than previous years. We had many of the same people. And not because the food was any better, although it was great. And not because the Alpha Course now features a high-quality video journey with two young hosts in fascinating global locations along with in-person interviews instead of just a guy giving a talk on a stage. We used the new videos in 2017. The difference was that the 2019 Alpha Course at our church had more prayer support than any previous year and it showed in at least five ways.

First, prayer preceded the partnership between the Task Force leader, me, and the Alpha Course Host, Jeff Good. Jeff and I went into this partnership after attending the Alpha Course National Leadership Conference in Arizona last winter. We prayed together in the hotel room and at other times during the conference and came away convinced that God would have us offer the course this year. After that, we agreed to meet weekly to pray for this year’s course.

If you’ve ever spent a long time praying for a specific project, you know what I mean when I say that many direct answers to prayer don’t seem all that spectacular. Things just occur or become obvious or apparent that weren’t apparent before. Things flow. For example, all we knew when we left Arizona was that we were going to offer the course and we needed to pray. We didn’t know who would lead the Task Force and who would be the Host. The Task Force leader oversees setup, meals, and clean up. The Host does PR and everything else. But over time it became apparent that, even though I’d been the host most years and I’m no cook, I should lead the Task Force and Jeff should be the Host.

Direct answers to prayer and evidence of its power appeared in other ways as well.

I realized we probably didn’t have enough budgeted to pay for all the food and the necessary advertising. We also needed a new catering plan that would involve the whole church. But before we even had the catering plan, someone donated $1,000 for the food. Then, a thought “occurred to me,” You dummy, Karen Schopen owns the best restaurant in town and has been in the hospitality business her whole career. Ask her! And voila! We had a new catering plan that included the whole church working together as a team.

But we still needed someone to massage the menus and recruit the cooks and select the right serving setup and make sure I kept everyone up to speed. Enter my excellent wife who, though she’s never cooked for fifty people in her life, knew exactly what to do and how to get it done. Almost the whole church participated. No one felt exhausted and burned out at the end. The meals were great! And the cost? We spent $942.04 on food!

Then there was childcare! Before we could even ask her, Karin Theo offered to do a children’s program concurrent with Alpha. Karin recruited helpers from the whole congregation, and we didn’t have to worry about this part at all. A big relief for me!

Technological problems overcome. We wanted this Alpha Course to feel seamless and high quality to our guests, but we also knew that, technology being what it is, glitches happen. We prayed about that and sure enough, about halfway through the course, the sound card went bad on the computer. One of our guests who is a whiz with technology had it figured out for us before dinner was over.

Finally, and most important, friends who are genuine seekers felt free and safe to ask their hardest questions and hear answers. People in the small groups developed great relationships, shared their deepest struggles, and grew closer to God. One, totally new to the area and our congregation, even joined the church.

With all that in mind I want to ask you to do three things. First, join us each week in prayer for the 2020 Alpha. Second, ask God to show you what part you can play in an Alpha Course near you. Third, begin praying and talking it up with your friends as God provides opportunity. Be ready to invite them when the time comes. I believe the 2020 Alpha Course will be the best ever!

Haven’t heard of The Alpha Course?Click here: The Alpha Course.

THE SECOND LAW OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

THE SECOND LAW  OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

Physics recognizes the second law of thermodynamics. Everything is winding down.  Everything atrophies. Everything decays unless it’s maintained.

Do you have a car? The clutches and seals in the transmission will wear out. Own a home? The siding will rot. The mortar in the bricks will need touching up. The porch will sag. The plumbing will stop up. Have a computer? Its CPU will crash if you don’t maintain it.

What most of us don’t realize is that there is a spiritual version of that law.  It’s called “the law (or doctrine) of total depravity”.  It means that the whole person is affected by something that destroys us, something that causes problems in our relationships and our communities. The mind, the will, the emotions and the body of every human being is infected with a condition known as sin. It doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as he can possibly be. It means that left to ourselves, without something to keep us in line, we will tend toward selfish, greedy and destructive behavior.

The second law of thermodynamics means we must work at maintaining physical things. The law of total depravity means that we must work at maintaining spiritual things. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its saltiness it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and put it on under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 5:13-16).

How to pull that off? Well, it can be costly. The late Howard Hendricks told this story:

Recently, I was walking the streets in San Mateo, California. I met an attorney I knew from a local evangelical church. I said to him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I’m looking for a job.”

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He said, “No, last week I walked out the front door of that corporation and told them, ‘You can hang it on your beak. I’m no longer going to write contracts that you and I both know are illegal and illegitimate.'”

That man is regarded as one of the top five corporate lawyers in America, and he’s unwilling to sell his value system for a mess of pottage. We need a larger core of lawyers like that.[1]

I can hear you thinking, “Yeah, we need more lawyers like that!” But to be honest we need more mechanics, more doctors, more contractors and more everybody to be like that. That’s what it means to be salt.

Without something to preserve it, the world will suffer ethical decay. Without something to light the way, the world will recede into darkness. God put his church into the world to be that something.  God put you and me here to do something for the world that the world cannot do for itself. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

[1] Citation: Howard Hendricks, “Beyond the Bottom Line,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 101

 

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

THE GREAT HOPE

THE GREAT HOPE

“If you lose consciousness do you want me to stop at the nearest ER or do you want me to keep going to Duke?” We had already made a rapid stop on the side of 501 South near Roxboro to switch oxygen bottles when the first one ran out. My friend Paul was near unconsciousness as I fumbled the valve swap from one to the other.

“Keep going. Take me to Duke,” he said as he sucked down all the O2 from the fresh bottle that his ravaged lungs could absorb. The cancer he had been fighting for seven years was winning.

I hit the gas and tore down the highway, trusting that any police officer who might pull me over would agree with my sense of urgency.

That was April 14, 2013. My friend Paul never came home from Duke University Hospital. We buried him one month later.

Because it feels so permanent, the loss of friends and loved ones can have a devastating effect, creating a lifelong chain of grief and depression, unless we have a source of joy that is beyond the reach of death.

That source is what we celebrate this week. It is the great hope of the resurrection.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. [1]

The resurrection changes how we experience all of life, not just the end of it. Let me give you three ways that it has changed life for me.

First, I have no fear of death. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t look forward to saying goodbye to family and friends. I don’t look forward to pain and suffering. But as the Apostle Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

Did you see that? “To die is gain…to be with Christ, is better by far.” The fact of the resurrection tells us that what Christ promised can be counted on. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go there to prepare a place for you.” I don’t fear that place. I look forward to it.

Second, I live in hopeful expectation, of seeing loved ones yes, and friends who have believed, but the hope is far greater than that. I look forward to seeing Jesus face to face, the living Jesus I have known in his word, the presence I have known in prayer, through the veil, and in worship as “through a glass darkly.” “Now we know in part, then we shall know as we have been known.” No more shadows, no more veil but standing (or kneeling) in the presence of my King, rejoicing with him in the beauty, righteousness and glory of his kingdom, celebrating with him at the great feast of the Lamb and drinking anew with him the Cup of the Covenant.

Finally, every day is Easter to me. Every day is resurrection day. I live in the joy and freedom of the sons of God, for I too have “died to this life and been raised with him to walk in newness of life.” When I take up my own death in Christ (Romans 6) I am free to enjoy all of God’s good gifts on planet earth, good food, good fun, good friends and good love, without the fear that losing any of them to death is a permanent loss of real life. The true source of joy is beyond the reach of death.

My friend Paul knew that hope before he died. Now what about you? Where is your hope? If it is in this world alone, then count on it, you will lose it. But if you have the greatest hope, if it is in the resurrection of Christ, then you will have strength to face the loss of anyone or anything, and no one can steal your joy.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (1 Co 15:19–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

Pivotal moments often arrive when we least expect them. An email in the inbox, a phone call in the evening and life reaches a cross-road. A new path emerges. Will we take it? Nothing will ever be the same if we do. And nothing will ever be the same if we don’t. We want to know, need to know, is it the right one? Is God in this? How can we tell? How do we know it’s him?

A man named Nathanael had a day like that. His story is in John 1:43 – 51, a text that always intrigues. Why did Nathanael react so profoundly to Jesus’ simple statement in verse 47-48? Why, when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree …” did Nathanael make a pivotal declaration that would change his life forever?

“You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).

Most commentators focus on verse 51, linking it to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, and of course they are right. But that still doesn’t answer the question. Verse 51 came after verse 49. So, what happened? How did Nathanael know it was Him?

The first clue is in verse 48.

“How do you know me?” he asked. This, in response to Jesus’ comment, “Behold! An Israelite in whom is no guile!” tells us that when Jesus made that observation, he pinged something deep in the man. He revealed that he knew something about Nathanael that only God could know because Nathanael had only discussed it with God.

The fig tree is the clincher. Up until that point Nathanael could speculate that Jesus was a perceptive observer of human nature. But the fig tree in Jewish life is a literal place with a figurative meaning. A man sitting quietly under his fig tree is a man sitting in a peaceful place meditating and sharing his innermost thoughts with his creator. We might compare it to our favorite chair or place of prayer when we think quiet thoughts with God.

Imagine the topic of Nathanael’s meditation that day. What could it have been to draw such a powerful response? Something along these lines perhaps: “God I will not hide my thoughts. Nothing is hidden from you anyway. You know my going out and my coming in. I will tell you what I think and ask you my questions. Teach me your way.”

Imagine then that Nathanael goes on to speak to God about his struggles. It could be some sin or temptation. It could be unbelief or concerns about his people. It could be issues with his wife or his family or his work. We don’t need to know the specifics to identify with his struggle. We only need to know that he was being transparent with God in that moment under his fig tree. He was telling God what he really thought, even though it might not have been something he would want to say out loud at church. “God, I’m telling you the real deal here. I’m not holding anything back, not pretending to be holy. I’m just telling you the truth about what’s happening in my soul.”

I bet you’ve had discussions like that with God. I know I have. Then you open the Bible and it speaks to you in a way it never has before, or a song comes on the Christian radio station, or a man or woman of God delivers a word that pings your soul and you know without doubt that God saw you under your own fig tree. You know without doubt that your pivotal moment has come. You will confess that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” or you will not. Either way, you know it was Him and you know life will never be the same.

When that moment comes, don’t be afraid. Take the turn. Follow him. He knows you better than you know yourself and he will take you to places you never dreamed you could go.