Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Funny story-

Myrtle, the church gossip, and self-appointed monitor of the church's
morals, kept sticking her nose into other people's business. Several
members did not approve of her extra curricular activities, but feared
her enough to maintain their silence.

She made a mistake, however, when she accused George, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his old pickup parked in front of the town's only bar one afternoon. She emphatically told George (and several others) that everyone seeing it there would know what he was doing. George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just turned and walked away. He didn't explain, defend, or deny. He said nothing.

Later that evening, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Myrtle's house...walked home...and left it there all night.

You gotta love George.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

You will eventually look like your dog

Please note this remarkable display of one of the many reasons to not have a dog. If you still decide to have a dog, I hope it's good looking.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The necessity of sound doctrine when death confronts

I just returned from a memorial service for the mother of one of our members. I was blessed by the pastor's faithful ministry of the Word in the midst of mourning. Thankfully, by God's grace, the woman who died trusted Christ allowing for a certain level of joy as the pastor reminded us of God's many eternal promises to believers.

I've been a pastor for ten years. We have a young church and have only had to deal with the death of members on a few occasions. The times I have ministered to grieving families have left indelible impressions on me. I am continuing to learn how to comfort families and individuals in such times. Times of bereavement cause me to think deeply, not just about the person who died or the people grieving, but about my own mortality and the fact of this fleeting life we live. I am drawn to this Scriptural reality- a clear and accurate knowledge of sound doctrine is what helps moderate our grief when confronted with death.

When Paul writes to the Thessalonians it is clear there was some ignorance about what happens to fellow believers when they die- something that happened with relative frequency for Christians in the First Century. Paul brings comfort the best way it can be brought- through sound doctrine- in particular, the resurrection of Christ and our eventual resurrection. Words of encouragement are important. A hug in a time of need goes along way. Offering our presence to those who are hurting is a noble and effective thing. But nothing will comfort a saint more in hard times than sound doctrine. Paul, in a few short but power-packed verses, gives foundational doctrinal truths in order to help Christians who have lost loved ones moderate their grief. The first doctrinal truth has to do with our knowledge of Jesus Christ and His resurrection, the second has to do with the final resurrection of all Christians.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. -1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Notice Paul’s wording- “we do not want you to be uninformed (ignorant)..that you may not grieve as others do...”. In his letters to the Corinthians he was more sharp and confrontational. In Corinth there were those who were propagating serious theological error relating to Christ’s resurrection. In His first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. -1 Corinthians 15:12-14

To Corinth he was writing to correct those who were teaching error. To Thessalonica, he was writing to correct ignorance. His tone in 1 Thessalonians, while maintaining a high doctrinal level, is pastoral and bent on comforting the saints by giving sound doctrine. Paul knows that correct doctrine will give genuine comfort to his hurting brothers and sisters.

Scripture constantly links our creed and our personal stability in life. In other words, you must have correct theology for you to experience the stability and understanding life will require. Yes, certain events in life will still rock us, bring us to our knees, confuse, frustrate, and confound us, but they will not destroy us. Our knowledge of Christ and His faithfulness will uphold us. Paul does not want ignorance to get in the way of the peace the Thessalonians could be experiencing. Apparently, because some did not understand the nature of our future resurrection they where unjustly mourning the loss of Christian brothers or sisters.

Grieving is no where condemned by God, in fact throughout Scripture we witness believers doing just that. However, our grieving, if we understand the fate of those who are covered by the blood of Christ, should be moderate. We weep for the family of one who has left this world and for ourselves as we will miss that brother or sister in this life, but we weep with a resolute confidence in God's promises. For as sure as Jesus rose from the dead, so also will all those who are united to Christ by faith. For the Christian there is no such thing as total death. Notice the rest of verse 13 and Paul’s wording-

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. -1 Thessalonians 4:13

Paul is very careful here to not use the word “die”. Instead Paul describes the departed Christians as “fallen asleep”. We use the term “die” when we describe a person ceasing physical biological function. Technically and biblically, there is no real sense of total death. For the believer our souls have been made alive by Christ and never die. Our physical body dies and disintegrates, but our soul lives ultimately to be reunited to our restored physical bodies. Matthew Henry comments on Paul’s usage of “sleep” instead of “die”-

For the Christian, death does not annihilate them. It is but a sleep to them. It is their rest, and undisturbed rest. They have retired out of this troublesome world, to rest from all their labors and sorrows, and they sleep in Jesus. Being still in union with him, they sleep in his arms and are under his special care and protection. Their souls are in his presence, and their dust is under his care and power; so that they are not lost, nor are they losers, but great gainers by death, and their removal out of this world is into a better.

So, once again I am impressed with how much sound doctrine helps to moderate our grief in times of bereavement. The best comfort I can be to my congregation doesn't happen after someone dies, it occurs beforehand by teaching them sound doctrine.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Confidence.....the very mention of the word evokes thoughts of fearlessness, boldness, resolution, firmness, sureness, tenacity, fortitude, and certainty. This word, confidence, is what I had in my dodgeball playing days in Grand Island, New York. Often when a person speaks of confidence, he or she is talking about a confidence in their self. A confident person has faith in his or her abilities to accomplish a given task. This kind of self-confidence is not what I had as a member of my dodgeball team back "in the day", no sir, but it was confidence none the less. You see, there was a "kid" on our team known to me only as "the bear", we called him "T-Bear" for short. In 7th grade, he was already close to six feet tall and two hundred pounds, I am sure he could have grown a beard if he wanted to. He threw the ball so hard that if the ball hit the unpadded part of the gym wall it might burst from the force (I saw him do it once with my own eyes!). I had a very simple strategy in our games- hide behind T-Bear at all times. I cannot tell you how many games we won with T-Bear throwing balls at the other team. Bear actually liked me hiding behind him because I would fetch loose balls for him to gun down more opponents. I became a confident fixture behind the mighty Bear. You see, winning the game was not ever a question to me as long as T-Bear was on our side. Everyone on my team knew the power needed to win games belonged to T-Bear. As I read the Word of God, the specific words of Jesus, and am honest about all my shortcomings and failures when I try to accomplish things in my own strength, I am reminded how I can do nothing without Christ. It would have been an unwise dodgeball tactic for me to self-confidently leave the protective cover of the Bear, I would get pummeled by our opponents, no doubt. Self-confidence in life and ministry is my biggest challenge. I am so glad Jesus is straight up with us when he says to us (me)-

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. -John 15:4-5

Now, my strategy in life and ministry is simple like my strategy in dodgeball was- I hide behind Jesus!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Rappin' for Jesus

I am in the midst of teaching a Sunday School class on Christian Worship. During our last class we discussed the somewhat controversial matter of music quality in worship. One class member noted how there is some music that is just plain bad and should not be used in worship. You know, the kind of music that kind of makes you cringe when you hear it. I'm talking beyond the "worship wars" debates here, I mean plain old junky music. I think there's room for debate as it relates to style and quality, but some music is just not befitting the worship of God. I think most people know it when they hear it.

The caution I usually give when assessing the quality of music used in worship relates to guarding ourselves from judgmental attitudes towards those who have a different understanding of what "beauty" and "excellent" means. Our church leadership has chosen a certain style (predominantly classical, hymn-oriented) for our morning worship services because we believe it embodies beauty and excellence. Could we be wrong? Sure. However, much of what we choose to use in our worship services has withstood the test of time and multiple generations of the godly have bolstered our assessment. There is great safety in this. Obviously, I think a solid, liturgical, covenantal service using well-written hymns married with excellent tunes is the best way to worship corporately, I also acknowledge I am but human and can err.

Having said what I think, in general terms, does not mean that I wish to judge the motives of those brothers and sisters who have a different standard of what is acceptable in worship. I think we are all at different places in our journey with Christ and our views on such things might fluctuate. I know from experience that style isn't necessarily an indicator of our heart's devotion. I shared this somewhat humorous, and a bit embarrassing , confession with the class-

In 1989 I was a freshman at Moody Bible Institute. Prior to MBI I formed a rap group (yes, you heard me right) with my good friends Nathan and Bob. All three of us went to Chicago for college (Bob went to U of Illinois-Chicago). We tried to keep our rap group together as we had opportunity to do some concerts for youth groups. Word got around to some of our new Moody friends that we had a rap group. Providentially, the president of Student Mission Fellowship, a senior, was on our floor and heard of our skills as MC's. He asked us if we would do a missions rap for the special missions chapel he was in charge of leading. I thought it was a great idea. I didn't realize that Moody, at that point, had never had any rappers do anything in a designated time for worship. We would be pioneers of sorts, however that didn't really phase me or the guys because in our hearts we thought our rap would honor God and encourage our fellow students concerning missions. We recruited a couple other guys to be dancers (poppers and breakers, as the old 80's rap jargon goes- for you homies out there who are trippin' and unaware). Keep in mind, there were professors, administrators, and guest missionaries there for this chapel. Moody was, and still is, a pretty conservative school. We decided not to run up on stage and start bustin' lyrics, rather we wanted to kind of fool the students. Instead of dressing in our normal rap gear (see above picture), we dressed in suits and went up on stage as if we were going to do a traditional gospel quartet. The president introduced us without saying what we were going to do. We stepped up to the microphone and began singing in the most awful way you have ever heard anyone sing. You could see the cringing postures and embarrassed looks on the faces of our fellow students as they thought we were unaware of how bad we sounded. After egging the audience on for a bit, we quit and acted disgusted that we stunk so bad. I then said, "hey, wait a minute guys, we can still do this...we'll do it our way", and just then the sound man hit a rockin' beat and I busted a rap I wrote especially for the occasion called "The Bible's Great Commission". To top it off, Nathan and the other guys were dancing up a storm while I was rapping. The crowd was going nuts. It was a first at MBI.

Now, what's my point? Looking back, I think the quality of music we used was bad. I can only tell you, at that time, I didn't really know the difference. Further, I can also tell you, my heart really was focused on praising God and encouraging the brethren. One of my professors was asked what he thought of our rap, he very gently said, "I think their hearts were right". He was being kind by not saying what he clearly thought, that the style was awful and not a good choice for the worship of God. The music wasn't congregational, it was loud, it had an overpowering bass tune, I'm sure our busting a move wasn't all that worshipful either. Still, at that time of my life, I really thought I was doing a good thing.

I have a different perspective now, one that I have thought through biblically, theologically, historically, and musically. In this light, I think our choice of style is faithful to God's Word and and can be classified as "right worship". I also think most people know what fits that category, when they really analyze it. Still, as opinionated as I am about such things, I want to be careful not to judge the hearts of those who see things differently than me. I might judge the music, but not the hearts of those who choose it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

New wine to strengthen us...

Last night my family and I enjoyed great fellowship at the home of one of our church members. They served a delightful Merlot with an excellent meal. Later that evening my middle son, Nico, asked me about Jesus' turning water to wine. We had a great conversation about this being Jesus' first public miracle and other various features of the narrative in John. I communicated to Nico (who is only 5, so I don't know how much he "caught"), the importance of this first recorded miracle. I think this act was very personal and focused on His new disciples more than anyone else who might have observed. Christ did an amazing, miraculous, thing, with a narrow focus on who it would truly effect. The only "outsider" who seemed to notice what Jesus had done is the "master of the feast" (the caterer):

John 2:9-10 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now."

The master of the feast was amazed at the quality of the wine that was now being introduced. We observe him noting the usual custom for wedding feasts. The best wine is served first for a couple of reasons- First, the initial guests would often drink enough to make their tastes dull. Why waste good wine on people who won’t appreciate it? Second, as the celebration moved in to the second and third days, new people would arrive, it was simply too expensive to keep up a fresh supply of high quality, high denarii wine. It just wasn’t practical. He immediately goes to the bridegroom to commend him for such a gracious act. It was as if he had never seen someone do such a thing. Interestingly, the servants did not reveal what they had seen and the miracle goes largely unnoticed.

So why? What was the real intention of this “sign”? The answer comes in verse 11-

John 2:11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

Jesus did this sign for his newly chosen disciples. They transferred allegiance from John the Baptist to Jesus. They believed the word of John about Christ and they believed Christ. It was this occasion that Jesus used to build their trust in Him. What a marvelous miracle, yet only the reaction of the disciples is revealed. It is very probable that the newly married couple and the great crowd that was celebrating never heard about the shortage of wine or the solution to the problem. No, the miracle was done for the express purpose of teaching his disciples so they could trust Him going forward.

The other signs Jesus does are clearly accompanied by detailed explanation as to what is to be learned from the sign. In this case, the only clue we have is this simple phrase in v. 11- and his disciples believed in Him. No comment about Mary, the servants, the master of the feast, or the bridegroom. The focus is on the building of His disciples faith in Him.

Here's the point of my wandering thoughts (sorry)- While the Lord clearly works on a sovereign, "macro", providential level with His mighty works and constant oversight of all creation, He also works in a "micro", personally providential way to build my trust in Him. I'm so grateful for this! He blesses my family and I in so many neat "little" ways which serve to strengthen our daily trust in him.

Jesus could have made a big spectacle of Himself- a real 'Grand Opening' to His public ministry with the water to wine miracle. Instead, all textual indicators point to this being a relatively private, pointed, miracle. His intention was to give the newly called disciples confidence to follow Him in the challenging days to follow. I would suggest, while not usually through miracles (the suspension of natural law), the Lord directs specific events in our lives in order to manifest his Lordship to us personally and build our confidence. Why? So that we might serve Him more faithfully.

Note the two reactions to Christ's miracle:
1. The Master of the Feast thought it was amazing, but never linked it with the Savior.
2.The Disciples saw and their trust in Christ was strengthened for service.

I definitely want to emulate the second reaction. Perhaps it's time for each of us to reconsider the many events in our lives. Those trials and pains we have dealt with (or are dealing with)- God can turn them in to wine by strengthening our trust in Him through them. Those accomplishments, blessings, and victories…do you see them as part of God’s pouring new wine out for you?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Found: Useful Purpose for a Dog

All the passionate emails I received in response to my post about dogs and their lack of intelligence prompted me to do some searching. Perhaps I was wrong about dogs? I don't know if I've found proof of their smarts, but I have found one use for them I hadn't thought of....

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Valentine thoughts of John Calvin

I never get tired of reading John Calvin. In my mind, he is the most brilliant post-apostolic theologian to ever live. The focus of this entry, however, is not upon Calvin's theological prowess, but rather his marriage, since Valentine's Day is upon us.

Calvin got married at the age of 31. He had been so busy studying, teaching, preaching, and governing that he didn't seem to have much time for romance. When he and his mentor, William Farel, were unceremoniously run out of Geneva for three years, he took refuge in Strassburg, Germany where he had more time to consider the ladies. Don't get me wrong, Calvin wasn't the stud of the football team, in fact, he was scrawny and sickly most of his life. Couple his appearance (cool beard and sweet hat not withstanding) with a propensity to enjoy deep philosophical and theological discussions, he didn't have the obvious makings of a top ranked most eligible bachelor.

His time in Germany was a temporary sojourn where he remained busy, but not like his ministry in Geneva. We have a small window in to Calvin's romantic thinking through correspondence with close friends Farel and Bucer. His friends urged him to take a wife, that he might enjoy the comforts of a well ordered home. In response, Calvin wrote to Farel-

"I am none of those insane lovers who, when once smitten with the fine figure of a woman, embrace also her faults. This only is the beauty which allures me, if she be chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health. Therefore, if you think well of it, set out immediately, lest some one else gets the start of you. But if you think otherwise we will let it pass."

I love it! Calvin is asking his buddy to hook him up! Can you imagine Farel trying to find a wife for Calvin- "um...I have this friend. He's really, really, smart. I mean, really smart. He studies most mornings and evenings. He pastors, preaches, teaches and writes the rest of the time. He's a bit on the stoic side, and not the most humorous dude you'll ever met. Still, he has a tender side, and oh, by the way, it's very likely that he will become one of the biggest influences on the Church of Jesus Christ man has ever seen...so...are you interested in meeting him?" Needless to say, neither Farel or Bucer successfully scored Calvin even a single date with a righteous babe.

On two occasions in Strassburg, Calvin came close to marrying. First, a German speaking woman was recommended to him, things seemed to be going well enough, but she wasn't willing to learn French. This eventually led to their parting ways. I'll bet she regretted that when Calvin's Institutes went platinum! Second, Calvin's brother tried to match him with another woman, they even got engaged. Calvin had invited his good friend Farel to the wedding but it fell through before the March 10, 1540 date for reasons not mentioned in any of Calvin's letters. I wonder if she gave him a "Dear John" letter?

Finally, by God's good providence, John Calvin found his helpmate. He married Idelette de Bure in 1540. Idelette was a widow with several children (total number of children unknown, most say four). Calvin was familiar with she and her former husband as he pastored them through his eventual death by pestilence. Idelette, like Calvin, was frail and of ill health. She was a devout woman and great encouragement to John immediately. Calvin wrote to his friends saying he was attracted to her quiet, modest, gentle character. As Philip Schaff said, he found in her what he desired- firm faith, devoted love, and domestic helpfulness. Calvin called her the "excellent companion of my life...the ever-faithful assistant of my ministry...a rare woman."

John and Idelette lived in Germany for a year before Calvin was called back to Geneva. John and Idelette had one infant son who died shortly after birth. They lived as one flesh for just nine years as Idelette died in Geneva after a protracted illness. Calvin wrote a most personal and precious letter to William Farel shortly after his wife died, describing the last moments of her life:

Having been removed to another apartment after seven, she immediately began to decline. When she felt her voice suddenly failing her she said: 'Let us pray; let us pray. All pray for me.' I had now returned. She was unable to speak, and her mind seemed to be troubled. I, having spoken a few words about the love of Christ, the hope of eternal life, concerning our married life, and her departure, engaged in prayer. In full possession of her mind she both heard the prayer, and attended to it. Before eight she expired, so calmly, that those present could scarcely distinguish between her life and her death. (taken from Schaff's History of the Christian Church)

Calvin felt the loss of his wife very deeply. He lived fifteen years after Idelette's death and never remarried. He later wrote, "My wife, a woman of rare qualities, died a year and a half ago, and I have now willingly chosen to lead a solitary life."

Calvin's second ministry in Geneva was his most memorable and influential, by all accounts he had "mellowed out" considerably. I am sure his domestic tranquility assisted his demeanor. Calvin's marriage, even if relatively short, served as a strength and encouragement to him and his ministry- a benefit to us all.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

An Open Letter to Rudy Giuliani

While I am certain Rudy Giuliani doesn't care who I am, I do have a few words to him and other politicians who choose to use his strategy to get elected.

Rudy, I just saw the interview you did with Sean Hannity, and found myself getting angry with your statement about abortion. Were you serious? Do you take people for fools? In 1999 you said on CNN- “I’m pro-choice. I’m pro-gay rights”. At that time you were also asked whether you supported a ban on partial-birth abortions, to which you answered- “No, I have not supported that (a ban), and I don’t see my position on that changing”. Now that you are a candidate for the presidency, you have chosen to weasel-word a new explanation of your position aimed at soothing (or suckering) people who might be uncomfortable with abortion (i.e. anyone who is honest about what the procedure is...who can be comfortable with it?). Come on Rudy! You haven't changed your position at all. When Hannity asked your position on abortion, you responded- "I hate it". You elaborated further- “I think abortion is something that, as a personal matter, I would advise somebody against. However, I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I think you have to ultimately not put a woman in jail for that.”

Rudy, I would much rather you just be honest and say you are pro-abortion and leave it at that. What you have done is reveal your dishonesty and the very reason no one should vote for you.

You said you hate abortion! Are you serious Rudy? You hate abortion? Why? I know why you should hate abortion. You are way too smart to be ignorant of the procedure. One doesn't have to be a doctor to understand what happens in an abortion. Do you say you hate abortion because you know the most common abortion procedure used requires the abortionist to first paralyze the womb opening and then stretch it open. He then inserts a hollow plastic tube, which has a knife-like edge on the tip, into the uterus. The suction tears the baby’s body into pieces. He then cuts the deeply rooted placenta from the inner wall of the uterus. The scraps are sucked out into a bottle The suction is 29 times more powerful than a home vacuum cleaner. You would be right to hate abortion.

Rudy, you should also hate abortion for the multiple other abortion procedures that are practiced and progressively more violent and heinous as the baby grows toward full term. There is a good reason to hate abortion, you would be right to hate it. All human beings should hate it.

Rudy, you should hate abortion for what it does to women. Over one hundred potential complications have been associated with abortion. "Minor" complications as you might know, include infections, bleeding, fevers, chronic abdominal pain, gastro-intestinal disturbances, vomiting, and Rh sensitization. The nine most common "major" complications are infection, excessive bleeding, embolism, ripping or perforation of the uterus, anesthesia complications, convulsions, hemorrhage, cervical injury, and endotoxic shock.

Rudy, abortion certainly deserves to be hated, you should hate it. In addition to the physical danger abortion exposes a woman to, the greatest damage is psychological. No matter how Planned Parenthood and other Pro-abortion groups paint it, every woman who aborts her baby knows she had her child killed. When her accomplices are gone (usually parents or the boyfriend), her conscience does not allow her to ignore what she has done. She has just helped to commit murder. Abortion reeks terrible havoc on a woman's psyche and the pain will never leave her. Rudy, abortion should be hated. It is awful. It is hideous.

Rudy, it is right to hate abortion. But Rudy, I don't think you really hate it. You say you hate abortion. You say you would personally advise against it, yet, you think a woman should have the freedom to choose abortion. I could understand if you said you don't agree with it, but someone should be able to do it. However, you said you hate it. It should be legal and acceptable to do something that provokes hate in you?
Come on Rudy! Stand against something that provokes hate in you. You have to know what abortion is, you're too smart to be ignorant, yet you think it should be a valid choice for someone? Rudy, I just don't think you hate abortion like you say.
It wasn't all that long ago when you told a talk show host on the radio that you would uphold a woman's right of choice, and that you, as a government official, would fund abortion so that a poor woman is not deprived of a right that others can exercise, and that you would oppose going back to a day in which abortions were illegal. So, Rudy, you hate it, but poor women should be able to have an abortion if they choose?

Rudy, your words are incredibly troubling when just a modicum of logic is applied. There are only two options:
1. You are lying and don't really hate abortion (since you think it should be available, like it is now). You're just weasel-wording to get elected.
2. You hate abortion, but love popularity more.
Both options grieve me deeply and I pray you will not be given the mantel of the U.S. Presidency because of what this reveals about your character.
Tony Felich

Friday, February 9, 2007

Rejoicing in the Lord

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, "Rejoice always". As I have studied the biblical concepts of joy and rejoicing, I am reasonably certain Paul isn't giving an exhortation to be happy. Rejoicing and the experience of biblical joy has almost nothing to do with what we think of as happiness. Further, it is not possible to control happiness in such a way. We are unable to turn happiness on and off like a water tap. Some bible versions have translated this text “be joyful always”, when in fact this tends to reflect the “be happy” idea so prevalent in our day. When the Apostle commands us (by the authority of God Himself) to “rejoice always” he is capturing a biblical idea that pertains to the true worship of God on the part of His people. Rejoicing in the Lord has nothing to do with “feeling good” or “being happy” as such. Happiness is an emotion, whereas joy is an attitude or demeanor. Paul is not issuing an order to be happy, but rather an invitation to worship. The older and larger testament is laden with these kinds of invitations, one vivid example is the first verse of Psalm 95-

Psalm 95:1 Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.

The call to worship is to turn our attention from our experience of happiness or sadness and turn them to the Rock of our salvation. To praise God, regardless of outward circumstances or fluctuating emotions is to rejoice always. Choosing to praise God, no matter what, actually serves to promote genuine joy. This is why the Psalmist exhorts us-

Psalm 100:1 Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!

When it comes to the worship of Almighty God, as we focus on him, our praise will indeed be joyful. Consider Psalm 100:1 above. Surely the lands (this is reference to the various individuals who inhabit the lands) were not all well and prospering. Surely they also, like each of us, experienced the ups and downs of life. Still, the lands are exhorted to make a joyful shout. Not just any shout, but a joyful shout. When we focus on God and who He is, our eyes are taken off self and circumstance and we are able to experience “rejoicing in the Lord”.

The themes of "joy" and "rejoicing" are common in Paul's letters. Paul experienced extreme physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual trials. His words to the Corinthian church teach us more about rejoicing in the Lord-

2 Corinthians 6:8-10 ...by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.

Clearly, rejoicing in the Lord is a disciplined choice that purposes to give God the praise due His name despite how cruddy we may feel at a given time. Despite the very real and powerful emotion of sorrow, Paul chooses to rejoice.

I think many Christians struggle, as I do, with true worship because they mistake feeling “happy” with rejoicing in the Lord. What the bible shows time and time again is that rejoicing in God and earthly happiness are mutually exclusive. Of course, our situation in life can hinder our coming to God in worship. That is why Paul admonishes us, despite what our situation is, to rejoice in the Lord. Still, choosing to worship God in the midst of difficult circumstances will actually have the effect of pulling you away from your circumstances and in to the presence of God. Rejoicing in the Lord is volitional. It is a disciplined choice. Consider afresh the particular words of a familiar verse (emphasis mine)-

Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Notice the volitional force of Paul’s statement. “I WILL rejoice”! So, despite my situation in life and the onslaught of wickedness in my own heart and around me, I WILL REJOICE. It is a choice of the will to render unto God praise He is due.

You will be shocked and amazed at what taking your eyes off yourself will do for yourself!

Worship in our lives individually and collectively is about taking our eyes off ourselves and putting them on God. When I am starting to have a pity party for myself, I try to stop, reflect, and rejoice in God. I try, by His grace, to turn my attention to His character, His flawlessness, His great love for me through His Son. A renewed focus on God in the midst of life's happenings helps to transform the complexion of our lives in to something worshipful instead of a futile race to find whatever makes us "happy".

So, when Paul says, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, "Rejoice always", he is giving an invitation to worship the true and living God, not a command to be silly, sloppy, smiley and superficially happy. In this light, what could be more profound than truly rejoicing in the Lord?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A Day at the Capitol in Topeka, Kansas

I spent the day in Topeka, at the Capitol building (one of the most beautiful in the United States), praying for the legislature. The words of the Apostle Paul to the young pastor, Timothy, came alive to me in a new way today-

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. -1 Timothy 2:1-2

Several months ago I was asked to be part of a steering committee that would plan a special luncheon to be held for members of the Kansas state legislature. Capitol Ministries, led by Dennis Dull, was spearheading this luncheon and provided the administrative oversight to make the event happen. This morning and afternoon we had the event and I believe it was a great success. We had several members of both the Kansas Senate and House come for the luncheon where many of us pastors were able to meet them and let them know of our commitment to pray for them. The luncheon included testimonies from two members of the legislature as well as an encouraging message from God's Word provided by a Kansas City area pastor, Tom Nelson. Pastor Nathan and I had the opportunity to talk directly with the senator from our district, Dennis Wilson, and were impressed with his commitment to governing well for the glory of Christ. We also had the privilege of being introduced to the entire House of Representatives at the beginning of their session and again later to the Senate as they began their business. Further, we spent some time, as pastors, praying for the legislature on the third floor of the rotunda (an architecturally gorgeous part of the building) as the representatives and senators were scurrying to and from their committee meetings.

I was blessed by the whole event and will genuinely strive to be more active in praying for those who govern on our behalf. To top it all off, I was even given the privilege of opening the Senate's session (in the room shown immediately above) with prayer. Here are the words I prayed:

Heavenly Father, thank you this day for the state of Kansas and all the senators here gathered for the purpose of conducting business on behalf of the residents of this state. Lord God, thank you for giving us the opportunity to live in a country and state that provides citizens the opportunity to participate in the legislative process.

Lord God, by the ministry of your sovereign Spirit, may your blessing and guidance be upon these elected officials here gathered both individually and corporately as a senate.

As individuals, please guide, direct, and encourage the senators. Protect them from making rash or unwise decisions, grant them wisdom that allows for taking actions that honor you.

As a Senate corporately, please grant a spirit of civil discourse and an exchange of ideas that includes respect for one another. In the end, may all the actions taken by this body serve the state of Kansas and her resident’s well, which is another way of asking for your Will to be done in and through this legislative body.

I lift this prayer in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Some tough jobs...

I was recently thinking about the various jobs I've had. I never had it as tough as the poor fellow above, but I've had some tough ones. Here's the top ten most difficult jobs I've ever had, I'd love to hear about some of yours:

10. Paper Boy in Western New York: I delivered papers for 4 years while in junior high and high school back in Western New York. My entire route was over 5 miles of riding my bike, going up and down multiple flights of stairs in apartment complexes, chasing people down to collect money, getting bit by a huge German Shepherd, trudging through the snow and slush three months out of the year, and coming close to getting hit by a car innumerable times, all for $50 per week. The Buffalo News still owes me!

9. Shipping/Receiving Clerk: I worked at a large warehouse on the loading dock unloading and loading huge trucks all day. What made this job more "interesting" was the freight we received and shipped. The company was a science supply company that provided all sorts of supplies for schools across the U.S. and Canada. Supplies included all sorts of dead and pickled animals. Every so often we'd get a load of rotten cats. The smell haunts me to this day.

8. Moody Special Crew: I worked on campus during college setting up and taking down for special events. Additionally, while I was there, Moody acquired some old, abandoned buildings which they set out to refurbish and use for various purposes. I spent several months helping to clean out an old, condemned, rat-infested, asbestos-laden, death trap of a building in downtown Chicago. It took weeks just to get rid of the pigeons so we didn't get "rained" on while working.

7. Cinderella Motel/Campground Lawn Mower etc.: When I was 13, I mowed the lawn at a local motel/RV Campground. One summer the Grateful Dead came to Buffalo and hundreds of bikers stayed at the campground. When they left I had to put all the empty beer bottles and cans in bags for recycling and pick up the trash. The maggot factor was staggering as drunken fly larvae wiggled all over the garbage I had to pick up and throw away. Yummy.

6. Tree Trimming: I worked for a time cutting trees with my boss from another job. We would contract to trim old, huge trees in the St. Louis area. The job paid well, and I enjoyed the manliness of a Husqavarna chainsaw, however, I'm more or less afraid of heights. Being up in a tree most of the day grew more and more difficult as the jobs went on. Eventually I was relegated to staying on the ground and cutting the wood there and hauling it off. Major hit on my pride, I might as well have been forced to wear a dress.

5. Rock Shoveler: I only had this job for a week, but I'll never forget it. A friend of our family was building his own house. He was too cheap to pay a company to put stone down where he was going to pour his basement floor, so he hired me, for a pittance, to shovel a couple tons of stones down in to the basement hole. It took me a week (would have taken a front-end loader a couple hours) to shovel all those stones down there. Blistered and sore, I came to realize not every job is worth taking.

4. Covenant Seminary Grounds Crew: I loved this job for the physical outlet it provided in the midst of so much studying and reading. Still, it was a very tough job. We dug trenches constantly, shoveled mulch, cut the lawn on some crazy hillsides, weed-whacked 8-10 hours per week (poison ivy and all), and any other job the seminary needed done. The St. Louis, beastly humid summers, made this all the more interesting. In the winter, getting a call at 5 am to come shovel before classes started also provided excitement.

3. Montessori School Maintenance Man: While in seminary, I worked at a private pre-school owned by a nice elderly couple. The job as a whole wasn't too demanding, however taking care of two ponies, for this animal lover (not), was the factor that made it difficult. Each day I would have to shovel an abundance of pony "byproduct" and feed these thankless, stinky, beasts. Sometimes I had to give them medication- have you seen how that's done on a pony? To this day I can see almost no value in these genetically inferior, lazy, ungrateful animals. Oh yeah, the kids thought they were cute.

2. Telemarketer: I am most embarrassed to say I worked as a telemarketer for about 6 months right after I got married. I needed an evening job to try and save more money for seminary, so telemarketing was about all that was available for a guy with a biblical Greek degree. I actually did pretty well at it, I just couldn't stand doing something I knew drove most people nuts. The shifts were 4 hours long and I would get hung up on no less than 300 times in that span. Making 10 sales per shift was considered very good. Maybe this is where I got over the fear of rejection?

1. McDonald's Grill "dog": Without question, my hardest job ever was working at McDonald's while in High School. I had two other jobs, so I only worked two 8 hour shifts a week at McDonald's. They were the toughest hours of work every week. I worked on the grill and was there for the "changeover" from breakfast to lunch. Brutal. Further, I worked in a McD's that was located directly across the street from an amusement park. During the lunch hour busloads of people would come to eat there. I literally put 12 burgers down and when I turned them, had to put 12 more down. We ran like crazy the whole day, sliding across the grease coated floor, all for $3.35 an hour. I remember having one short lull and my supervisor said- "if you have time to lean, you have time to clean"! Wow, was that a tough job.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Superbowl thoughts- Thank you Buffalo Bills!

Above is a picture any Western New York resident knows too well. It comes from Superbowl 25 when Scott Norwood missed this 38 yard field goal (normally a chip-shot for this all-pro kicker) to lose the game to the Giants 20-19. The significance of this missed kick has been debated ever since 1991 when it occurred. The Bills went on to appear in the next three Superbowls, something that will never be repeated. Adding to this feat, they managed to lose all four of their Superbowl appearances. Many of us old Buffalo Bills fans believe Norwood making that kick would have seriously increased the chances of the Bills winning one or maybe even two more Superbowls. Instead of the butt of many jokes,The Bills would be mentioned in the company of the various dynasties in NFL history. The 1990-94 Buffalo Bills were the greatest team to never win a Superbowl.

I was raised in Grand Island, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. I grew up an avid football and hockey fan. Western New York is a blue collar, relatively small metro area. We take our sports seriously. Having now lived in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Wichita, St. Louis, and Kansas City, I can say without a doubt, Buffalo fans are the craziest, most devoted, of all major sports fans. A small TV market and further lack of national media exposure diminishes their prominence and could eventually lead to losing the Bills or Sabres, but don't let that fool you, Buffalo fans are the best.

That brings me to a major point of spiritual victory in my life. To be a football fan to the degree I was required a serious devotion. In fact, right when the Bills were starting to get good (known in Western NY as the "Kelly-Thomas-Reed-Smith" era), I was just beginning my discipleship journey with Christ. I remember doing whatever I could to be at church events, I considered myself to be a devoted follower of Jesus as a teenager. The only exception came when the Bills were playing and I could be at the game or somewhere to watch the game on a big screen. This would mean, sometimes, leaving church early or not going at all. I remember one of the pastors gently rebuking me for skipping out on church to catch a Bills game. I thought to myself- "give me a break, we're only talking about 10-16 times that I might miss something church related...big deal! Go pick on someone else"!

The first three years Buffalo made it to the Superbowl I was living in Chicago attending Moody Bible Institute. My obsession with the Bills and the NFL did not decrease, in fact, I worked as a doorman at a Michigan Avenue high rise on Sunday afternoons, so I could watch tons of football right at my desk. I never missed church in the morning, so I rationalized no foul was being committed. When I left Moody, got married, and took two years to work before going to seminary, I kept my obsession alive, especially that first year (1993-94) as the Bills made it to their 4th Superbowl that January. I never skipped church in the morning, heck, I was preparing for pastoral ministry, however, my day was definitely keyed on getting home, relaxing, and taking in some football...ok...lots of football.

The 1994 Buffalo Bills Superbowl loss to Dallas marks a shift in my view and practice.

As embarrassed as I am to confess this now, I had made watching, following, and thinking of NFL football an idol. There is no doubt I was more excited about the game Sunday afternoon than I was the worship service Sunday morning. I came under conviction on two counts- first, for making football an idol in my life. Second, for dishonoring the Lord's Day with this idol. For the next three years, I wrestled with this but the Lord eventually gave me release from my obsession to keep up on NFL games each week. Eventually, while I was in seminary, my pastor challenged me about my Lord's Day practices. He impressed upon me the need to rest, worship, enjoy the fellowship of my wife and church.

When I became the youth pastor at Redeemer (where I serve now as pastor) in 1997, I was finally liberated from the gnawing desire to race home to watch football. The Lord gave me a greater love for Him and His people than this idol of my heart. Further, the Lord made the various passages about the Sabbath come alive to me-not as a ritualistic practice of what not to do, but rather a special opportunity for spiritual enrichment to be taken advantage of. I think most of my congregation thinks I don't care much about NFL football, which would be odd for someone who lives in Kansas City (avid fans, not Buffalo-level, but avid). In reality, I used to be obsessed. The Buffalo Bills and NFL football were idols in my life. No doubt.

Now, I can't wait for the Lord's Day. It's my favorite day of the week. While I understand, from personal experience, why people are obsessed with watching and following sports (they serve as a kind of release and escape from the every day "grind"), I also feel sorry for people who look upon the Lord's Day with a sense of incompletion if they don't take in a game that day. Seriously, what is more profound- time with the people of God, hearing the gospel of God, worshiping the Triune God, in the House of God, or watching a bunch of overpaid egomaniacs play a game? I think we have the choice to worship every day, especially every Lord's Day. The question is- what will we worship? I once was lost, but now I am found- at least in the areas of idolatry to the NFL and dishonoring the Lord's Day because of it.

I'm no legalist. I didn't grow up "fundy" and I'm not remotely so now. I only challenge people to be honest about their various idols and practices. You might be surprised by where your heart lies.

So, I thank the 1994 Buffalo Bills (and the evil Dallas Cowboys who defeated them in Superbowl 28). I think God used them to give me victory over one of my complex sins. Many more to go.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Contemplating Hell, with help from Jonathan Edwards

On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached the most famous sermon in American history- “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. The sermon is on the awful predicament of every sinner who is estranged from Christ. The sermon vividly illustrates how the sinner dreadfully dangles just before he plunges to eternal agony…while he has time to repent and be saved.
Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America's all-time greatest mind, was a guest preacher at a church in Enfield, Connecticut when he preached this sermon. The pastor of the church thought his people were particularly stubborn to the message of the gospel and invited Edwards to deliver the message at the last minute. Apparently The Great Awakening of 1734-45 had not affected this area of Connecticut even though most of New England was in the middle of a huge revival. By most accounts Edwards was not a dynamic speaker. Legend suggests, because of his poor eyesight, he held his written sermon manuscript up to his face to deliver it. The Holy Spirit moved in an amazing way on that largely unconverted congregation. Note what one eyewitness observed as Edwards preached that day-

“Before the sermon was done, there was a great moaning and crying out through ye whole house- what shall I do to be saved- oh I am going to Hell-….the shrieks and cries where piercing and amazing”

Surprisingly, Edwards preached that sermon once and never mentioned it in any of his writings.
Reading this great sermon always convicts me of my responsibility to preach the whole gospel. Sometimes I take the spiritual health of my congregation for granted. Furthermore, we have visitors every week- what have I done to alert them of their condition? Don’t get me wrong, no person has the power to save anyone from hell. That is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit according to the will of God through Christ the Savior. I am speaking of my clear obligation to preach and teach the truth. An important part of the truth includes the wrath of God against sin and sinners. Edwards preached, "The wrath of God is like great waters that are damned for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. The bow of God’s wrath is bent, the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at the heart of the unconverted sinner. It is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, that of an angry God, without and promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with the sinners blood."
I must preach the whole counsel of God. Scripture paints a terrifying description of Hell. What makes Hell so terrifying is not merely what it is like but it’s duration. It will go on forever and ever. Jesus makes clear the punishment and torment of Hell is never-ending:

And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” -Matthew 25:46

Paul uses similar terminology when speaking of the fate of the unconverted in 2 Thes. 1:9 as he speaks of “everlasting punishment. Jude concurs as he writes concerning the destiny of the godless, he says they will “suffer the punishment of eternal fire…reserved forever”. In our unconverted state we he have offended an eternal God. For that reason He is offended eternally. The punishment has to be eternal. Edwards preached, "The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors the unconverted sinner, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards him burns like fire; he looks upon him as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have the sinner in his sight; the sinner is ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours."

Salvation is not only from eternal punishment, it is also unto abundant life. Still, an honest consideration of hell, from time to time, would serve Christians well as motivation to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins He provides. An honest consideration of hell also drives me to greater praise of God as I contemplate what I deserved and how I have been saved from it.
It is only through Christ that I may awake and flee from the wrath to come.