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.

ABORTION SURVIVOR’S LAMENT

ABORTION SURVIVOR’S LAMENT

The details are vague now, so many decades hence. He sat on a curb or was it a granite ledge? outside the downtown clinic. Either way it was cold, barren, like his heart. The girl—yes, still a girl only 17—was inside, had disappeared into the sterile glass door of the nondescript building. She had found the place, or had he? He couldn’t remember. Either way, it hadn’t been there long, a new edition to the healthcare—cruelest euphemism—landscape. But he had found the money. Oh yes, that he clearly recalled. He found the two hundred dollars it took to end the life in her womb. In blind, self-centered cowardice he thought he was solving a problem, keeping their secret. But the cold reality of what he’d done began unconsciously seeping into his soul that day like the humid chill coming through the concrete. He paid the doctor to kill his son.

How could he have done that? How could he not see? The evil was obscured in those days. “It’s just a blob of cells,” they said. But he should have known.

Little did he know in 1977 that he was only a grain of sand in the mammoth cultural landslide that was the sexual revolution. Free love never was victimless. Roe V. Wade, that revolution’s greatest victory, remains the longest bloodbath in history with the longest trail of traumatized survivors.

Time moved on and so did he until about a decade later, when his first child was born. Something clicked, a window opened inside, and he began to see. Life is precious! He should have taken the blow, not the girl. Not the child. He should have taken the guilt and shame with her and provided for them both. That’s when he started attending the annual pro-life march downtown on January 22nd. It was the least he could do, the only thing he knew to do besides giving to crisis pregnancy centers, to publicly repent and repudiate his past. To do something about the future.

It wasn’t enough. At least, it hasn’t been so far. The Pro-Choice propaganda political action machine continues to cover the selfish cowards—yes you men, I’m talking to you not the girls, not the women; you are the ones God holds responsible to protect the defenseless and provide for your children—among us. It did so again this week when forty-four Senators refused to back the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, the one that requires doctors and nurses to save the life of a baby who survives an abortion.

How could they? How could they be so blind? So selfish? So cold and hard? How can the doctors and the nurses, sworn to “first do no harm” stand aside and watch them die? They can no longer hide behind youthful ignorance or scientific uncertainty. They know. They KNOW what we are doing. They know the landslide has killed millions of innocents and yet they refuse to protect and defend.

In his forties a young man walked into his life. Energetic, intelligent, eager to serve alongside and be mentored. It took a while because he was so busy with family and work, but finally it clicked. Another window opened. “The timing is about right,” he thought. “This could be my son.” A strange wave of grief and gratitude washed over him. “God you are so good to me. I don’t deserve this privilege, but I accept it as a gift from your hand.” Many more surrogate “sons” have come and gone since, and slowly the wound has healed.

“Perhaps,” he wondered, “perhaps now, with the evil so blatant that they celebrate infanticide, this new generation of brave young men and women will finally have done with the death dance. Perhaps now, if enough of us will tell the truth of what we did and what it cost and how merciful God is—perhaps now they will ignore the propaganda, listen to the still small voice of conscience, and end this revolution for good.”

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

Denny Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 was particularly poignant for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team had just buried their former president, Joe’s 49-year-old son, J. D., who died of a neurological disorder in January. I bet Joe’s family would happily forfeit the trophy and all their successes if they could have J.D. back. But that’s not how they roll.

It reminded me of other personal disasters I’ve witnessed.

Seventeen years ago, this week, I walked with my friends Phil and Shelley Ramsey, as we buried their eighteen-year-old son, Joseph, who died in a car wreck.

A late-night phone call, “Pastor, can you come? Our baby was born with undeveloped lungs and isn’t going to survive.”

A distraught counselee, “I’m thirty-nine and pregnant with our second child and my husband just left me. Where is God?”

Pregnancies that miscarry, dream jobs that become soul shredders, the number and diversity of things that can disappoint and disillusion in life is endless. But it’s worse when we think God has somehow let us down.

Evangelicals are particularly prone to this. We’re taught all our lives that God loves and cares for us: “His eye is on the sparrow,” said Jesus. “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you,” wrote Peter. That’s true, but not the whole story. Most of us have a truncated biblical world-view about suffering and it costs us dearly when trouble comes. We cherry-pick the verses we like and forget the context. We think life is supposed to be a Disney World ride when it’s more like the Daytona 500, where the big wreck is always in the offing.

Life’s inevitable disappointments are often about unmet expectations, of God, others, and our selves. When we line them up with what the Bible actually reveals about people, life, death, the world, and God they may not be easier to bear but they do leave us less confused and better prepared to overcome.

Scripture tells us: “time and chance happen to everyone,” including us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” but all sparrows fall. “He knows the number of the hairs on your head,” but they will turn white and turn loose. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that can be expected to crack without warning. All humans are “slaves of sin,” prone to follow our self-destructive passions and hurt those we’re supposed to protect. The heart is “deceitful above all things … who can really understand it?”[1]

Depressed yet? I’m not aiming for that, but it’s imperative to see that nowhere in the Bible does God promise us sunshine without sweat and smiles without sorrow. Aligning expectations with revelation dilutes frustration.

What has he promised?

To make us part of his tribe. To share with us his joy. To suffer with us when we hurt. To give us his strength. To counsel and comfort us. To love us even when we don’t love ourselves. To stand with us in life’s battles. To shape us into little Christs. To providentially provide for us and through us the things we need to survive. To empower us to participate in the awesome and terrifying task of advancing his kingdom. To give us a purpose, a future, and a hope, a reason for joy in the midst of pain. And to glorify us with Christ when he returns.[2]

Joy and sorrow will ever run parallel tracks until that day.

Joe Gibbs Racing took their fifty-four-pound trophy to Steak ‘n Shake, Sunday night, just like they did after their first win in 1993. It was the biblical thing to do.

Life is like the Daytona 500, a difficult, fascinating, disappointing, exhilarating, often dangerous, always high-stakes ride. Trust God and buckle your seat belt.

[1] See: Eccl. 9:11; Matt. 10:29-30; 2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 6:6-22; Jer. 17:9

[2] See: Eph. 2:19; John 17:13; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:26; John 15:5; John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Rom. 8:35-39; Rom. 8:15-17; Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:19; Acts 1:8; 1Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:12; Rom. 8:18.