I’ve Been Blown Away – And it Wasn’t Good

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Have you ever had one of those experiences in life that just blew you away? It made your head spin and you felt your chest getting tight? It happened to me recently. I like to think that when it comes to my emotions I keep things even – not too high, not too low. But this one messed with my mind and my emotions.

First a little background. Around eight years ago I became the pastor of Schuylkill Valley Bible Chapel. When I moved into my office there were a few boxes that I never got around to unpacking. I put them in the closet in my office and shut the door. Problem solved. They weren’t crucial; mostly filled with odds and ends.

Two weeks ago I decided it was time to unpack the boxes and free up the space in the closet. When I finally reached the bottom of the pile I discovered a box that hadn’t been opened in more than ten years. Inside were old high school and college yearbooks. I pulled out the first yearbook I saw; it was from my freshman year in college and I began a stroll down memory lane. It was fun looking at friends that I had known forty years ago and wondering what they had done with their lives and where they were today.

Then I came to one picture. It was a picture of a good friend from college days. I’ll call him Matt. Matt was one of those guys who just stood out from the crowd. He was talented, handsome, and popular. But there was something else; something about Matt that was even more important than all of that. In a Bible college filled with Christian students he stood out as godly. If anyone was going to accomplish something for God, Matt was the guy. Or so we all thought.

That’s when I did something that I wish I had never done. I decided to Google Matt’s name. I was curious. Was he the pastor of a mega church? Had he had become an evangelist preaching to overflow crowds? Perhaps he was a missionary reaching thousands of unreached people with the gospel. What I found blew me away – and not in a good way.

Without getting into a lot of detail I found that Matt is on his third marriage and is currently serving a six year sentence in a federal penitentiary for conning people out of almost half a million dollars. At least one business went bankrupt because of his con and many more people lost money they could not afford to lose. He took advantage of people and violated their trust.

There was more on the internet but some of it seemed to be gossip. At least I couldn’t verify more than what I’ve said. But that’s enough. My friend Matt, one of the godliest young men I have ever known is a con artist. A cheat. A liar. My heart sinks even as I write these words. I want to say it isn’t so. Something’s not right. But the FBI report is there for anyone to read. He’s listed on the penitentiary web page.

I’m still struggling to process all of this. I want to tell myself that something terrible must have happened in his life that caused him to act the way he did. Maybe he suffered a head trauma that changed his personality – it’s happened before. I want to justify his behavior.

I’ve thought a lot about Matt the past two weeks. I’ve wondered if finding those old yearbooks was a God thing. I’ve wondered if I should take something away from this besides a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m still processing it.

In my effort to make sense of what I discovered I’ve thought a lot about grace. I’ve thought about the fact that God has shown so much grace to me in my life. Without His grace I could easily have done what Matt did, or worse. I’ve thought about the truth that what Matt needs right now is grace – from God and from me. I know that what he did was wrong but I also know that there is grace for the sinner.

I’ve also thought a lot about forgiveness. Matt needs to find forgiveness from those he hurt and from God. On the other hand I’m still struggling in this area. Somehow, and this surprised me, I’ve felt betrayed. Not that Matt owed me anything because he didn’t – forty years is a long time. I just expected more. Maybe I got my eyes on the man instead of on God. What I know is that I need to look into my soul and find forgiveness – not for Matt’s sake but for my own.

Pray for my friend Matt. I decided to reach out to him after forty years – maybe that’s what God wanted all along. So I wrote to him because he needs a friend and because he needs to know that grace and forgiveness are still available. Maybe I can help him find what he needs.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Bless Your Heart!

Mt of Beatitudes

It’s a Southern thing. If you’ve ever spent time in the southern states you’ve probably heard it. It’s said in that sugary sweet southern drawl that can only come from a true-born and bred southern belle: Bless your heart!

It sounds nice but it doesn’t always mean what you might think it means. As one southern belle explained; here in the South we believe in being polite, even if it kills us…so sometimes when we really want to say something nasty, we just say “Bless your heart” because it makes us feel better.

For the southern ladies the phrase has a wide range of meanings from can you believe she wore that dress (which would then be Bless her heart) to I wish I could make it better. Believe it or not there’s a real art in knowing how and when to use it. If you want more insight into the mind of a southern lady read this light-hearted article titled The Many Nuances of “Bless Your Heart” . . . written by a true southern belle. Check it out here.

On a more serious note we Christians have some of those less-than-helpful phrases. Things we say that on the surface can be taken to mean one thing but in reality mean something entirely different.

For example when someone catches you after church as you’re rushing out the door to take Billy to his Sunday afternoon soccer game – and they want to tell you all of their problems. And you throw them a I’ll pray for you. Which means if I ever remember whatever it was you said I’ll add it to the end of my next prayer – and then promptly forget about it.

Or – and here’s one from the book of James (James 2:14-17), someone shares their burdens with you and you give them one of those be warmed and be filled brother, only today we say God bless you! But we really don’t do anything to help them.

Or how about the phrase, Just trust God, which gets us off the hook like we don’t need to do anything else because God will take care of it and we don’t help them carry their burden (check out Galatians 6:2).

The Apostle Paul reminds us let your speech always be with grace (Colossians 4:6). Words of grace are words that are authentic. They are words that help and heal and strengthen the one to whom they are spoken. They are words of genuine comfort and blessing to the hearer. They aren’t words spoken one way but with a hidden meaning. They are true, straightforward and clear.

Hey, it’s OK to say Bless your heart, or I’ll pray for you, or God bless you, or Just trust God, as long as you mean what you say and in saying it impart grace to the hearer.

So I want to say to you, Bless your heart! – and I say it with all sincerity. I want God to bless you in great and wonderful ways. I want God to bless you like you’ve never known blessing before. I want God to literally overwhelm you with His blessing. So again let me say, Bless your heart!

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Where Are We Headed?

En Gedi

No one questions the fact that the America of today is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) America. 2014 is not 1960. Just to show you how life has changed in the past 54 years, consider that in 1960:

• the average age was 29 today it’s 37 – we’re getting older as a nation

• the average man weighed 166 pounds and the average woman 140. Today, the average man weighs 194 pounds and the average woman weighs 164 pounds – we’re getting fatter as a nation

• 72% of adults were married, today it’s 51% – we’re becoming less committed as a nation

• 12% of Americans sited alcohol as a source of family problems, today it’s 30% – we’re becoming more dependent as a nation

Since the early 60s we’ve gone from audio cassettes (1962) to 8 tracks (1964) to CDs (1981) to MP3 players (1990s). At the beginning of the 60s we didn’t have calculators (1967), ATMs (1969), personal computers (1970) or cell phones (1973 – and it was HUGE! – and sold for $4,000).

Some of the commonly accepted practices in 1960 seem totally outdated to us today. For example women could not obtain a credit card without their husband’s signature, serve on juries in most states nor attend most Ivy League schools including Yale and Princeton (not until 1969). It’s clear by the evidence that we’re not living in 1960. We’re not even close. Things have changed.

Not all change is bad in fact some of the changes have been good, they have benefited society. Changes in medicine mean that we live longer and healthier lives. Changes in technology mean that we can do things today that we could never do before – and we can do them faster.

Other changes, and I would argue that these are far more consequential changes, have brought detrimental results to our society: drug use is up; the divorce rate is up; our sexual mores are down; our respect for authority is down; church attendance and religion in general is down.

The question is where are we headed as a nation? Another question that we need to ask is; is the direction in which we are headed the right one? Your answer to these questions will be determined by a number of things including your age, your political leanings, your faith and your personal preferences.

While this issue cannot be solved in one blog post, for the Christian there are several things that we need to remember:

1. The direction of our country does not need to define us. We are pilgrims and sojourners on this earth (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 2:11), citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20) and we should be defined, not by this culture but by the culture of the King of Kings.

2. The direction of our country should provoke us to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). We don’t stop doing the right things because our culture is marching down a broad path to destruction – we double our efforts; we try twice as hard. We don’t let the evil in our culture overcome us, we overcome the evil (Romans 12:21).

3. The direction of our country gives us the opportunity to stand out. It gives us a platform from which to speak. It gives us darkness in which to shine (Matthew 5:14-16). It gives us the opportunity to offer people hope (Romans 15:4, 13, Ephesians 4:4).

4. The direction of our country may not be right but the direction that we are going is absolutely right!

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Why You? Why Now? Why Here?

The Garden

This is the season of Thanksgiving in America. It’s a time to reflect on our blessings as a nation and as individuals. As I’ve thought about the blessings of life two questions often come to my mind. The first is Why was I born at this time in history? The second is Why was I born in this country of the world? I think these are important questions for Christians to contemplate especially during this time of the year.

From a purely secular point of view any of us could have been born at any time in history and we could have been born in any country. Think about how different your life would have been if you had been born to a struggling peasant family during the middle ages somewhere in Europe. You probably would have lived in a small hut made out of branches and mud with a dirt floor. No lights. No running water. No central heat. No bath or shower. No indoor plumbing. One change of clothes. Bread and porridge once a day. No doctors or medicine. And no prospect of a better life – if you even survived childhood. If your parents were peasants you would be a peasant. That’s how the class system worked.

Yet we (especially American Christians) live in prosperity. All of the things that peasants lacked throughout history we have. And more. We are free. We are rich. We are healthy. We are fat. We are spoiled. Not only do we have one of the most enviable lifestyles in the world, we have one of the best lifestyles in human history. Why?

The simple answer is that God put you where He put you. I asked a dear pastor friend in Haiti if he had ever wondered why God had him born into a Haitian family instead of into an American family. He replied that he had thought about it – often. And the conclusion that he came to was that God had a purpose in the circumstances of his birth. He understood that God had placed him into a country of immense suffering in order to make a difference.

There is a Biblical principle that comes into play here. Luke 12:48 says for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required. Although this statement is found in the context of eternal rewards and punishment, it states an eternal principle. We will answer for how we use what God has given us. Those of us who have been privileged to have been born into prosperity and health are those to whom much is given in a material sense and we will have to answer for how we use our blessings.

This is no small matter. If it is true that we are among the most prosperous and blest people in the history of the world, and there is great evidence for this, then what is/will be required of us is immense. We have a greater responsibility to minister the grace of God than any other generation has ever had.

God has put you here, now because He has a purpose in the circumstances of your birth. He wants you to make a difference with your life. How that plays out in your life will depend to a large extent on how you view the ownership of your life and possessions. If they belong to you, you will most likely make a small difference. If you see them as belonging to God then you will probably make a great difference.

Being thankful is more than simply reflecting on the blessings of the past year. It’s an understanding of the source and purpose of our blessings that motivates us to action. Never forget that we have been blest to be a blessing.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

The Christian and The Enemy

Headwaters of the Jordan

As Christians we understand that we are in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:10-12). The problem for many Christians as one writer explained is that we either over emphasis the battle; some blame every sin, every conflict, and every problem on demons, or we under emphasis it by completely ignore[ing] the spiritual realm and the fact that the Bible tells us our battle is against spiritual powers.

A difficult issue that we need to discuss in the context of spiritual warfare is the issue of the enemy. Who is the enemy? The Bible is clear that Satan and his cohorts are our enemies (Ephesians 6:12), but what about those who oppose Biblical teachings and values? What about the same-sex activist? What about the atheist? What about the liberal politician or the biased news media? Are they also our enemies?

I think that we need to tread carefully here. The Bible does talk about people who are apart from Christ as the enemies of God (Romans 5:10, 1 Corinthians 15:25). In fact it says that we were all in that camp at one time (Colossians 1:21). You could easily make the argument that anyone who is an enemy of God is automatically the enemy of the Christian.

There is, however, another very critical part of this discussion, and that is how we as Christians are to relate to our enemies. We have been conditioned by our culture to believe that the best and possibly the only way to interact with an enemy is to attack them with the ultimate goal of total victory. So we go after anyone who dares to openly, and sometimes loudly, disparage our beliefs. We want to put them in their place, to destroy their credibility, even to attack their character.

But that is not how God has told us to relate to our enemies. Instead He said love your enemies (Matthew 5:44) and if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirst, give him a drink (Romans 12:20). That’s a far different approach than many Christians have/are employed/employing. I think the problem is that we have been indoctrinated more by our culture than by our God. I’m not saying that we need to keep silent when someone takes a stand against Biblical truth, I’m just saying that we need to agree with God more than we agree with the dominant views of our culture. We need to employ God’s tactics instead of the tactics of the world. The Bible is clear that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). That alone should give us a clue that the standard operating procedures of this world are not to be those of the Christian.

The question for the Christian is not Who is our enemy? The question is How will we treat our enemies? If more Christians would begin to treat those who disagree with us with grace and compassion instead of anger and hostility we would stand a better chance of impacting the direction of our culture.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

How Effective is Your Church?

Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane

One of the issues that all pastors struggle with is gauging the effectiveness of the church they serve. One of the reasons pastors even care about this issue is because for a pastor, the effectiveness of his church is directly related to the effectiveness of his ministry. After all, pastors like to know that they aren’t just spinning their wheels. They like to know that their lives are counting for something; that they are making a difference. I believe that the vast majority of evangelical pastors desperately want their church to be spiritually effective, to be spiritually health. That is what they give their lives for (obviously in the context of giving their lives in service to Christ).

So what are the things that indicate an effective church? Attendance? Annual growth? Baptisms? Offerings? Number of guests? Percentage of people in small groups? Pastors have used all of these and probably a few more to evaluate the effectiveness of their church. But are these really the marks of an effective church?

A pastor friend recently posted this on his Facebook site (it wasn’t original with him).

THE MARK OF AN EFFECTIVE CHURCH IS NOT HOW MANY PEOPLE COME BUT HOW MANY PEOPLE LIVE DIFFERENTLY AS A RESULT OF HAVING BEEN THERE.

Wow! That hit close to home and it hurt (thanks brother RD!). Pastors can’t help but take this personally. Maybe too personally. You see pastors are part of that wonderful process that God uses to change lives. Yes, the Holy Spirit plays a major role and yes, the Word of God is extremely important and yes, the people themselves have a responsibility to change the things in their lives that need to be changed. But the pastor also plays a role. After all, he is the one who is invested with teaching the Word in ways that changes lives (2 Timothy 4:2). He is the one who will answer for the lives of the people in his church (Hebrews 13:17). And that means that when the church isn’t effective the pastor has to shoulder some of the responsibility.

But the bottom line is this – the effectiveness of a church is not about the size of the church, it’s about people who continue to live differently as a result of having been in the church. It’s possible to have a church of a thousand uncommitted people. That would be a church where no one is living differently as a result of having been there. And it’s possible to have a church of fifty people whose lives have been, and are continuing to be changed because they were there (of course pastors want both – a church of a thousand whose lives have been changed!). When we begin to judge the effectiveness of a church by any standard other than changed lives, we are missing the point of church. It’s not about the numbers (and I’m like any other pastor, I’d like bigger numbers!), it’s about the lives. Changed lives.

So back to the question: How Effective is Your Church? No, not your pastor’s church – YOUR church. You. How effective are you as a Christian? Forget the size of your church, have you cooperated with the Spirit of God and the Word of God and seen consistent spiritual change in your life? The effectiveness of your church will depend on the spiritual change in your life and the lives of the other people in your church.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

On Becoming Like Christ

Western or Wailing Wall

If the Christian life can be summarized in one thought it’s the idea of becoming like Jesus. From the moment of our salvation to our ultimate glorification the entire process of the Christian life, what we refer to as sanctification, is pointed towards the goal of becoming like Christ. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the land of Israel. It was one of the unique experiences of my life. While I have never felt the need to “walk where Jesus walked” I have to admit that there was a sense of sacredness as I touched the stones of the Wailing Wall. The same was true as I stood on the deck of a boat in the Sea of Galilee and as I hiked in the tunnels in the area of the temple mount and stood on the Roman pavement on which Jesus probably walked. Knowing that I was where Jesus had been touched me in a way that I cannot explain. I came away from that trip wishing that I had taken it thirty years sooner.

Christians around the world want to visit the Holy Land because they want to walk where Jesus walked. But it’s not enough to walk where Jesus walked. It won’t do anything for your spiritual life – if that’s as far as you take it.

I’m teaching an Adult Bible Fellowship class in our church on Matthew 5-7, the passage we commonly refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. One of the things that I tell the class each week is that you can’t walk like Jesus walked until you think like Jesus thought. That’s the crux of the matter. It’s not the physical proximity to where Jesus spent His life that matters, it’s the spiritual proximity to how Jesus thought that will change your life. We need to begin thinking like Jesus thought.

Again the Apostle Paul spoke to this issue when he wrote do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2). It is the mind, the way we think and process life that needs to be changed. We won’t become like Jesus by visiting Israel, but we will become like Jesus when we begin to think like He thought.

The New Testament stresses this need for us to think like Jesus. We’re told that we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and to let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). That is, we have been given a new mind, a regenerated mind so we need to use it to think like Christ. The process of sanctification is a process of changing the way we use our minds so that we see and respond to life in a way that is different from our normal tendencies.

Someday our minds will be completely changed. The Apostle John explains it this way: Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). That is we will ultimately and totally be like Christ. It’s a process that has already begun in our lives and it’s a process in which we have an important role to play.

The only way that we can begin to think differently, to think like Jesus is to be immersed in the Word of God. It is the Word that will wash our minds so that we think differently. It is the Word of God that will sanctify our minds and our lives (Ephesians 5:25-27). As we are in the Word the Spirit of God will transform our minds and in the process we will become, in small, incremental steps, more like Christ.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve