HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).

MEN ARE FORMED, NOT BORN

The news of men has not been good of late. My friend Tommy died last week. The last I heard he was in the Roanoke Rescue Mission. But in the end, he was homeless, doing crack, meth, and heroin. The drugs took him at 52.

There’s the porn epidemic. As Catholic writer, Benjamin Wiker, has said, “Our sexual environment is about as polluted as China’s air, and the harm caused by such pollution is just as scientifically demonstrable.”[1]

Then there’s the swelling cohort of insecure, indecisive, incompetent young men whose directionless energies are squandered in endless pursuits of, well, that’s just it, nothing special. As Auguste Meyrat recently wrote, they are “hapless chumps” who can “make observations, crack jokes, ask questions…but they cannot make theses and support them.” Women may “friend-zone” these guys, but they won’t marry and have children with them.[2]

And its common knowledge that one of the greatest common denominators for mass shooters (not counting jihadis) is that they are young, alienated men, with absent, abusive, or just irrelevant fathers.

Males are born, but men are formed. And our culture is failing to form them.

Cultural trends for the last forty years mitigate against it. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” founding feminist Gloria Steinem said, and a whole generation of women believed her and did without. That movement, along with constant media mockery of men as sleazy sex addicts or buffoonish oafs, removed much of the motivation men had to become something other than overgrown boys.

Healthy masculinity, the kind that gets tough when the going gets rough and tender when it doesn’t, has also been undermined by hypocrites like Bill Cosby and pedophile priests. But they are only the most famous of a multitude of men who hide predatory natures behind a faith and family friendly mask.

What’s to be done? Specifically, what can the church do? The most important thing we can do is buy into my thesis: Men are formed, not born.

There are definite attributes and specific disciplines that separate the men from the boys that can be passed down from one generation to the next. They have nothing to do with physical or sexual prowess and everything to do with character formation. We can work out the details of how to do that later, but we must buy in first. We must believe that positive masculinity can and should be formed in young men by older men.

Too many fathers and too many church men assume that “boys will be boys” and just let them raise themselves or worse, “let their Momma do it.” That’s not meant as a slam on moms who sacrifice endlessly for their children. But the truth is that young men do not respond the same way to women as they do men they respect. As a result, we have a generation of “feral children,” who—wishing they were real men—have mistaken real masculinity with owning powerful weapons and hyped-up pick-up trucks. Or else mistaken it for feminine virtues that, while admirable, aren’t masculine and therefore do not satisfy the innate need of a male to achieve manhood among other men.

My friend Tommy grew up a feral child. His father abandoned him early in life and rarely offered anything other than criticism for his son’s failings. Like all of us, Tommy made choices for which he alone was responsible. He had multiple opportunities to turn his life around. But I can’t help wonder how his life might have turned out if the right set of men had taken him in and committed to train him how to be a man.

[1] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/08/04/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact/

[2] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/ts-eliot-poem-describes-modern-males-perfectly

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.

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

In the last eleven months I’ve traveled over forty thousand miles to meet three of the most remarkable men of faith you’ve never heard of. These men, with the unfailing support of their wives and co-workers, lead some of the largest church planting networks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For their security and the safety of the people in their ministries they will remain anonymous, but I can assure you they are quite real.

Luke wrote of Barnabas, “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”[1] These men fit that description, indeed go beyond it. They are small “a” apostolic leaders. While they do not speak with the authority of Paul or Peter, they are men whose gifting, vision, faith, and energy enable them, like the late Billy Graham or Bill Bright, to bring others together to accomplish amazing expansion of the church in difficult parts of the world.

As I recovered from my last bout of jet-lag, my mind began cataloging the common threads woven into each man’s persona, seven signs of great faith. Perhaps they will encourage you as much as they have encouraged me.

First, they are full of cheerful positivity and optimism. All three men had powerful encounters with Christ at an early age, one as young as six. Now in their sixties, they have experienced enough loss to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Yet they remain confident that God has yet more amazing things to do in their ministries.

Second, they are willing to sacrifice personal comfort. All three are successful professionals who could have had trouble-free, upper middle-class lives. But they chose to take on ministries that grew exponentially and now consume most of their waking hours as well as put them at great personal risk with their governments.

Third, all have experienced deep personal brokenness of one kind or another yet continue to trust and walk with God. One, whose childhood friend and fellow minister was murdered by an Islamic regime, experienced a break in his relationship with God. “It was as if my prayers were turning to ice blocks and falling on my head.” When he asked why the Lord replied, “You must forgive the murderers.”

“I shouted and screamed at God for what seemed like hours,” he said. Finally, he said, “I can’t Lord. I can’t! I don’t have it in me to forgive them. I want you to judge them!”

“I know you can’t. Ask me and I will help you,” said the Lord.

“It was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” he said. “But the moment I spoke the word I was set free.”

Fourth, all of them are relentless in “seeking first the kingdom,” in their spheres of influence. They are bold, headstrong men, impatient with limits and excuses. But they are also humble and sensitive to the Spirit, willing to receive counsel from others as dedicated as themselves.

Fifth, they are innovators in their professions and carry that spirit into their ministries. If something isn’t working, they aren’t afraid to cut it and start something that will. If an opportunity appears on the horizon, they have the vision and courage to risk big resources to pursue it.

Sixth, they deeply love their countries and want nothing more than to see them set free from spiritual darkness. And they are deeply loved by the people they lead in return.

Finally, they are all men of deep and continuing prayer. But I bet you knew that.

As we travel through the rest of 2019 together, let’s imitate their faith and see what God will do.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ac 11:24). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

7 PRO-CHOICE ASSUMPTIONS and why they are wrong

7 PRO-CHOICE ASSUMPTIONS and why they are wrong

The pro-life laws passed in nine states this year have released an avalanche of pro-abortion media, entertainment, and political pressure on lawmakers and voters alike. Some of the pressure is pure power play, like Netflix’s CEO’s threat to pull production from Georgia over its new law. But much of it comes from cleverly crafted messaging designed to play on our sympathies and sense of fair play.

It’s hard to be rational when our emotional levers are being pulled. But some common assumptions underlie most of these messages.  I’ve boiled them down to seven and attempted to provide answers from a biblical worldview. I hope you find them helpful.

First assumption: Man, not God, is the measure of all things. Life is only sacred under certain conditions, conditions chosen by man.

But if a thing is sacred only under certain conditions, then it is not sacred at all.

Second assumption: Because man is the center of the universe, society is able to optimize conditions for everyone everywhere at all times, and has the responsibility to do that for every unplanned pregnancy.

But are we really that powerful? Does anything in human history teach us that we can rescue everyone every time, especially when they don’t want to be rescued? And does our inability to achieve moral perfection in one area justify blatant immorality in another?  Does the fact that we are unable to optimize conditions for every person mean it’s OK to kill them?

Third assumption: that the natural environment is the most significant determinant of the well-being of children and that human beings can end war, spend the money on improving social well-being, and create environmental Utopia.

Three responses are required.

First, all reliable research shows that the most significant predictor of successful development for children is a home with a mom and a dad in a traditional marriage. That is true across the board, from criminally polluted Shanghai to environmentally pristine Washington State.

Second is another worldview assumption: that humans will one day stop fighting one another and all wars will end. Five thousand years of human history tell us otherwise. The best that can be hoped for is that the strong will protect the weak from the predators that have been with us since Tubal Cain.

Third, life has no value if the Utopian ideal for society cannot be achieved. This reveals the dark thread that runs through the entire pro-abortion argument: Anything short of perfection as we define it justifies death for the unborn.

Got a problem with the world as it is? Just kill the kid. Problem solved.

The fourth assumption: That somehow society is responsible to provide comprehensive and responsive healthcare, a decent standard of living and economic opportunity for everyone so that every child will be provided for.

In the real world, economic opportunity is created by entrepreneurial risk-takers who put their own well-being on the line to found successful businesses that employ others with a living wage and pay taxes that enable all the elements of a decent standard of living.

But if we somehow fall short of that Utopian ideal? Never mind, just kill the kid. They don’t have any rights anyway.

Fifth assumption: The LGBT argument for abortion. Pro-abortionists know that no one is arguing against moms and dads of any and all ethnicity having children. They know that Asian-Americans have the same rights as African Americans who have the same rights as every other American couple that wish to have children. But the LGBT argument for abortion says that if same-sex couples can’t have children then we’ve failed as a society and that justifies abortion.

The thing is, life is never born to two men, or two women. It’s a biological impossibility. A man and a woman are always necessary for the creation of a child. A child born of surrogacy is a child robbed of its ancestors.

But that’s OK, if we disagree with the LGBT agenda, just kill the child. They won’t know the difference.

Sixth assumption: we should stop spending money on war machines and the people that use them because they are only and always about ending life. They aren’t. In the right hands they are about protecting civilization by ending the lives of aggressors.

Again, five thousand years of history tell us one thing: nations that do not provide for their own defense cannot provide peace, equality, justice, education, healthcare, or a clean environment for anyone. They must be well-regulated and accountable to civilian authority and just-war ethics. But until Christ returns, warriors and the weapons they employ are necessary evils.

But in the pro-abortionist worldview, and in America since Roe v. Wade, the most defenseless of all have no right to be defended by anyone.

Seventh assumption: If we didn’t intend for a human life to be created, or if that life is somehow defective according to someone’s standards, then it’s OK to kill it.

This one requires four separate responses.

First, pro-abortionists don’t come right out and say this, but the way the argument is cast makes it sound as if most abortions are due to rape, incest, failed birth control devices, or some form of coercion i.e. religion. The facts are otherwise, and they know it.[1]

Second, pro-abortionists nurse a Utopian view of technology and a truly naive view of human sexual passion when they argue that birth-control methods can somehow be made 100% effective. Life has a way of overcoming every barrier and the effectiveness of all of them (short of surgery) depend on some level of self-control.

Third, pro-abortionists routinely recommend death for Down Syndrome children and others with birth defects. The reason is that they come with special challenges for the parents to raise and life-long challenges for the child to overcome. Granted. But have you ever asked the parents of a Down Syndrome child if they wish the child were dead? And are they somehow less than human because of their defects? Is that what makes it OK to kill them? I have friends who’ve lost limbs and been brain-injured in accidents. Are they somehow less human? Is it OK to kill them?

Where does it stop? That’s the real problem. It doesn’t end there. Once we decide one form of human is less-than-human and therefore disposable, we are only a step or two away from the Nazis, the Hutu’s, the Turks, and every other civilization that justified genocide.

Fourth, pro-abortionists pound away on the word choice, as if most of the women who get pregnant have no choice in the matter. But barring sexual assault, addressed above, all women have a choice in the matter. In fact, they have more than a choice, they have tremendous power in their relationships with men. But that power lies in an understanding of their person-hood and sexuality that has been systematically dismantled over the last sixty years.

This isn’t popular, but it is truth: Women have the power to demand mental, emotional, financial and physical support—in short faithfulness—from men in the covenant of marriage. Within that covenant, all their rights are protected, and all their children are provided for.

But the new sexual orthodoxy teaches women that sex is for play, marriage is optional, and babies are disposable.

And we wonder why depression and anxiety disorders are on the rise.

Abortion is almost never necessary. It is always a choice based on assumptions, all of them bad. Choose life.

[1] 1.5% of abortions are due to rape or incest. https://www.focusonthefamily.com/socialissues/life-issues/dignity-of-human-life/abortion-statistics

[2] http://www.breakpoint.org/2019/05/breakpoint-the-bedroom-and-the-pew

GETTING A GRIP ON DEPRESSION D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Classic Book on Emotional Health

GETTING A GRIP ON DEPRESSION   D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Classic Book on Emotional Health

It happened again yesterday. A Facebook post from a friend reported the death by suicide of a man in the prime of life. The post also mentioned one of the common denominators in most of these stories: even his closest friends didn’t know how badly he was hurting. That’s the bad news. Far too many struggle with depression in the dark, not knowing what to do with it until it kills them.

Yesterday, World Radio’s Emily Whitten reminded me of the good news (you’re not listening to World Radio yet? Try it here) with her classic book of the month review on D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’, SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION: Its Causes and Its Cure.

Lloyd-Jones was a well-known British preacher of the mid-twentieth century with an agile mind and accessible style who left a career in medicine to pursue ministry because: “Medicine could not cure the real disease. Only the gospel had the power to change people at the core.”[1]

I read SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION years ago with great profit and still counsel others with its five major principles. Lloyd-Jones outlines them in the first chapter and elaborates on them through the rest of the 300-page work.

He begins with temperament, explaining that just as one diet works better for some body types and a different diet works better for others, so our temperaments, our personalities effect how we experience life and how we process it. Lloyd-Jones is quick to point out that temperament has nothing to do with salvation—we are all saved by faith in Christ alone—but it has everything to do with how we experience the Christian life. Self-examination is healthy, indeed a necessary spiritual discipline, but some of us are prone to perpetual introspection, self-accusation, and vain regrets. The first principle is to know ourselves, our particular weaknesses, and compensate for them.

The second is obvious but often overlooked: our physiology. We are body, soul, and spirit and though we talk about them separately we experience them as unity. One affects the other. Illness, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and a poor diet contribute to depression. The energy of youth can delay the effects for a while, but fatigue is incremental and cumulative. It catches up with us.

Writing in the 1950s’, Lloyd-Jones could not know what later medical research has shown. Just as some bodies are prone to diabetes and require medication, others are prone to neuro-chemical imbalance and benefit from medicines that enable healthy brain function. But those drugs are not for everyone and can mask serious spiritual issues that need to be addressed first. True guilt arising from real sin that results in painful shame can be cleansed and healed only through the cross of Christ.

Next are the natural cycles between highs and lows. The peaks of excitement that come with great success are usually followed by emotional troughs. Think of Elijah under the juniper tree after the success on Mount Carmel.[2] We manage our emotions better when we anticipate the cycles.

A few hours before the rooster crowed his failure and betrayal, Jesus warned Peter, “The devil has demanded to have you, to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. After you have recovered, strengthen your brothers.”[3] The reality of spiritual assault, the fourth cause, is something every believer needs to keep in mind, especially after a personal failure.

Finally, keep up your faith. Jesus’ instructions to Peter reveal three elements for battling spiritual depression: prayer, partners, and perseverance. We should not face spiritual assault alone. Find brothers who will pray for you. And once you’ve recovered, strengthen others.

Those five principles cover the causes of spiritual depression. Lloyd-Jones ends the first chapter by offering the first principle in effecting a cure, one he learned from the Psalms.

“You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business do you have to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way … Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.’”

[1] Whitten quoting Lloyd-Jones’ friend, Jason Meyer, from Bethlehem College.

[2] 1 Kings 19:4

[3] Luke 22:31

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.