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

Stop Cursing the Darkness

The Garden

In case you haven’t noticed we are living in a rapidly changing world. Life-altering changes are occurring across a wide spectrum of society including technology, entertainment, medicine, the economy and society.

Change can be good. We are living longer and better because of change. We stay in contact with more people in more places today because of change. We have a better standard of living because of change. We get a glimpse into the lives of other nations and people and understand them better because of change. But not all change is to be accepted equally. Not all change is good. This is perhaps most noticeable in the changes we see taking place in our society.

Today we are witnessing some of the most profound changes in our culture and society that any of us can remember. This was brought out in an internet article under the title Are America’s Absurdly Homophobic Ways Just Buried in History? Don’t let the author’s calculated, prejudicial title, or the fact that she writes from a position on the extreme left put you off. Her main point, and at least this much is true, is that our western society is embracing rapid change, especially in the area of same-sex relationships. While we are not yet where she thinks we need to be, she points out evidence that suggests we are on the right track – at least her right track. What is interesting about her article is that she could have substituted several other topics for same-sex marriage and written the same article. As a culture we are changing and not always in good ways.

As Christians we recognize that our culture is changing in ways that often militate against our faith and our too typical reaction is to curse the darkness. But we also need to recognize that we have a choice: we can either curse the darkness around us or we can take steps to dispel the darkness. We were never promised a culture that would love us, respect our faith, or look at us as being desirable members of society – in fact a good case can be made from scripture for just the opposite response (Luke 6:22).

None of this should surprise us. We really shouldn’t be surprised at the downward progression of our western culture. We shouldn’t be surprised that we are characterized as being absurdly homophobic, or to use another descriptive phrase from the author, bigoted and homophobic. I can think of at least two reasons why the slide of our culture into the slough of immorality should come as no surprise to us: First, people without Christ are simply acting as people without Christ. They are following their fallen nature and except for the fact that God has changed us we would be right there with them. We should expect them to act this way.

The second reason that none of this should take us by surprise is because God told us this would happen. The Apostle Paul famously begins chapter three of 2 Timothy with the words but know this, in the last days perilous times will come. He goes on to describe these perilous times: people will be lovers of themselves . . . unholy . . . without self-control . . . despisers of good (always understand the biblical word good in the context of what God says is good, not what people think is good) . . . lovers of pleasure. Does that sound like our culture or what!?

So let’s stop cursing the darkness. It’s here. It’s to be expected. Cursing what we don’t like is the easy way out. But the spiritual darkness is here and it’s not going away, at least not until Jesus comes.

Instead of cursing the darkness try being a light to dispel some of the darkness around you (Matthew 5:14-16). If you provide some light in the darkness of your world some people will respond to the light and be drawn to the One who is the Light of the world. And that’s how you defeat the darkness.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What Will People Say at Your Wake?

Grave at Nazareth

Have you ever wondered what people will say about you when you’re gone? It would be interesting to be able to listen to the conversations taking place around the room at your wake. What will people say?

I don’t think that they will talk about how much money you made, or how many hours you spent working, or the house you lived in, or the car you drove. But people will remember you for how honest you were, how caring you were, how faithful you were, how godly you were. They will remember you for your generosity, your compassion, and your faithfulness to God. They will remember you for the important things.

That leads to the question: What’s really important? What are the really important things in life? It’s a good question to ponder. After all, life is too short to spend it doing unimportant things. If we want our lives to really amount to anything we had better spend it doing things that matter – things that are important.

So what are the important things in your life? What are the things that you’ll look back on with pride and satisfaction when you’re in the winter of life? What are the things that you’ll be glad you accomplished?

If I was going to make a list of the important things for my life, a sort of spiritual bucket list, it would look something like this:

• being a faithful husband
• being a Godly influence on my children and grandchildren
• spending more time serving God
• becoming a better teacher of the Word
• doing more to help and encourage the Believers in Haiti

What’s even more critical than what people will say about you is what God thinks about you. In reality it doesn’t matter what people think or remember. What God thinks, however, IS important. So what does God think about what you think is important in life? Does He agree with your list or is He wondering why you have so many unimportant things on your list?

My prayer for all of us today is that we will spend today – and everyday, doing what is really important in life. In Philippians 4:8 the Apostle Paul wrote, Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What Does Trusting God Look Like?

Each year at our church we choose a theme – something about the Christian life that we want to emphasize throughout the year. Our theme for this year is Everything by Faith. It comes from the Apostle Paul’s statement, the life which I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20). Paul considered his life to be dead and the life of Christ to be alive in him so that everything he did in this life he did by and through faith. Faith was the ruling factor in his life. The Apostle’s life was all about trusting God in every circumstance, in every decision, in every moment.

As Christians we are to live, like the Apostle Paul, every moment of every day by faith. That means trusting God in everything. It won’t be easy – in fact it will be difficult. Your flesh doesn’t want to live by faith; the world will tempt you not to live by faith; Satan will oppose you if you try to live by faith. But living by faith is the goal of our lives on this earth.

But what does trusting God in everything look like on a practical level? It’s one thing to say that you trust God, it’s another thing to know what trust actually looks like. Let me give you some snapshots of trust that I’ve recently shared with our church family plus a few additional ones.

Trusting God is to believe, embrace and act on the truth that . . .

You are important to Him even when it seems like He’s forgotten you (John 3:16, Matthew 10:39-41)

He knows and will always do what is best for your life (Philippians 1:6)

He knows what is going on in your life and is involved in ways that you cannot see (Romans 8:28, Philippians 2:13)

He is leading your life to make you into someone He wants you to be (Romans 8:29)

His desire for your life is better than anything you could come up with (that’s just common sense)

His work in your life is rooted in His extreme love for you (Romans 5:8)

He can turn the bad of your life into something good (Genesis 50:20)

Your life is not spinning out of control because He is in control (Isaiah 14:24)

If you follow Him it’s the right thing to do even when it means that things don’t always go smoothly for you (1 Peter 1:3-9)

If you choose to follow Him and live life His way it will all work out in the end (1 Peter 1:6-7,9)

He can and will help you in ways that are best for you (Hebrews 2:18, 4:16)

What looks like a failure in life to you He can turn into something that looks like a success to Him (remember Peter? John 21:15-17)

When you can’t explain what God is doing in your life you accept it knowing that there will be a day when it will all make sense (1 Corinthians 13:12)

You will be more like Jesus when He’s done with you than you were when He started (Romans 8:29)

Remember that the Christian life is not about what we can see, but Who we trust. Our motto is and must be we walk by faith [always trusting] not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve