Rejoice in the Lord Always!

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. (Philippians 4:4-5)

In the midst of everything going on in our culture, have you lost your joy? Are you overwhelmed, anxious, angry, discouraged, depressed?

Paul’s encouragement in Philippians has been a favorite of mine for many years. But now, in the midst of the stress and division of our times, I am reminded again of the need to practice his words.

Remember Paul isn’t writing Philippians from a beach in Maui. He is in prison…suffering for his faith…uncertain of his future…living under the reign of Nero…facing the reality of death.

And he says, “Rejoice!”

How?

First, by focusing on the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord. You have to go back to what you know in Christ. I am created in God’s image. I am His workmanship. I am adopted… blessed… chosen… redeemed. My identity is found in Him. My security is built on Him. My destiny is certain with Him.

Second, by letting your “reasonableness” be known to everyone. This word is one of the hardest to translate in the New Testament. It describes a person who is gentle, gracious, patient, equitable. “It expresses that considerateness that looks humanely and reasonably at the facts of a case” (Vine). It is “sweet reasonableness” (Matthew Henry).

You already have this quality in Christ…you just have to let it rise to the top of your heart, letting it reign over feelings of cynicism, criticism, bitterness, and irritableness.

Third, by remembering that the Lord is near. He is beside you…with you…within you. And He is coming again…to set this world straight…to make all things new. You have a faithful friend… and you have a sure hope… so everything else can be put in perspective.

So, yes, this world is broken… yes, this life is difficult… but in Christ you have permission, motivation, reason, and power… to rejoice!

To choose joy.

To pursue joy.

To find joy.

To share joy.

It’s a better way to think and to live.

So, again, I say rejoice!

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Deconstructing America

I love this nation.

As I have traveled overseas in my lifetime and read stories of oppression, corruption, and persecution in other nations, I have always thanked God for the blessing of being born here.

We are blessed.

Peace.

Stability.

Security.

Prosperity.

Creativity.

Liberty.

That does not mean that I do not see the sins, failures, injustices, and even atrocities of our nation and its history.

Slavery.

The Civil War.

Eugenics.

Racism.

Jim Crow laws.

Segregation.

Greed.

Violence.

Abortion.

The scenes are ugly.

The sins and injustices cannot be denied.

But what makes them particularly egregious…in fact, the very reason we even see them…is because we know that they are wrong…that they violate the very nature of our nation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence)

The failure of America is not in its ideals but in its failure to live up to its ideals.

To recognize a Creator…to acknowledge the inherent worth and value of every human life…and then to dehumanize others…to hate them…to enslave them…to oppress them…to murder them…runs against the very heart of this nation…against the very heart of God.

We were built on an ideal…on a value system…on a moral ground.

We are unique as a nation.

We are not bound by ethnicity. We don’t all look the same. Watch any Olympics and you will see how unusual we are compared to the vast majority of nations around the world.

Red. Yellow. Black. White.

Our diversity testifies to our uniqueness.

And our challenge.

We can only stay united when we hold to common ground.

The recent turmoil, unrest, anger, division, and violence in our nation is highlighting our loss of this common ground.

We have no foundation underneath us.

We have no moral law above us.

We have dethroned God…deconstructed reality…deconstructed our nation.

The philosophy of postmodernism denies absolute truth…denies metanarratives…even denies common reality…and elevates radical autonomy.

I am my own law.

I am my own truth.

I am my own reality.

I am my own god.

If God does not exist, everything is permitted. (Dostoevsky)

Nietzsche predicted our world. If there is no absolute truth, then all that is left is individual perspectives…individual interpretations…individual truth.

And whoever has the power makes the rules.

Thus…will to gain power.

And that is what is happening in our nation.

Our political wars are a war for power.

Because we have lost our common ground.

We have lost our morality.

We have lost our way.

America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. (Alexis de Tocqueville)

It is easy to find the faults of America.

Put together millions of different people…from thousands of different cultures…over hundreds of years…and you are bound to see sins, failures, injustices, and atrocities.

A nation is simply a collection of individual sinners in the same location. It is no surprise when sin abounds in such a place. The miracle is when it doesn’t.

It is easy to deconstruct America. Tear it down. Blow it up. Destroy it from the inside. Raze it to the ground.

But it is hard to build a nation.

Especially when you have already denied the existence of a foundation.

And it is hard to create peace in a nation.

Especially when we can’t even achieve peace in our families…in our marriages…in our own conflicted minds and hearts.

So I pray for America.

It is not perfect but it is based on a perfect ideal…a diverse, unified people…subjected to God…guided by moral law…with a balance of powers…a promise of liberty…and a representative system of government…where each person, made in the image of God, could thrive.

There is a reason that people from all over the world have flocked to it over the years.

America has its many faults.

But it is also has its many blessings.

And you have to decide which you are going to focus on.

As for me…I am going to celebrate this July 4th…bowing on my knees…acknowledging God’s sovereignty…asking for His grace…interceding for our leaders…praying for wisdom…working for reconciliation…hoping for peace…

And grilling a burger…eating with my family…and thanking God for the blessing of freedom.

A beautiful thing…in a beautiful land.

Oh, beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!

America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

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Does the World Really Need Jesus?

It sounds like a religious cliche. A cop-out. A nice sounding phrase thrown out by pious Christians who don’t know what else to say.

The world needs Jesus.

What difference can Jesus make?

Our world is broken…angry…divided…crying out for justice…looking for answers…longing for change…struggling to find peace.

The world needs Jesus.

We run to political solutions…new policies…more reforms…better laws.

We run to economic solutions…better jobs…more opportunities…new hiring practices.

Good things. Needed changes. But something is still missing.

Something has to change the human heart.

The world needs Jesus.

The world may mock. It sounds silly. How can a religious individual 2000 years ago have any bearing on the complicated, divided, politicized, polarized situation in our nation today?

Yet Jesus entered such a world 2000 years ago. A world perhaps more complicated, divided, politicized and polarized than our own.

The human heart hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. The problems of the ancient world still plague our modern one today.

The world needs Jesus.

It is the message of Jesus that confronts us with four undeniable realities…four truths…that provide the answer to the problems that we encounter today…and that connect us together even in our differences.

We are all made in the image of God.

We all bear infinite value…divine worth…unspeakable glory…because we are made in the image of God.

His creation. His handiwork. His design.

Every person…every color…every tribe…every tongue…every ethnicity…every nation.

And [God] has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth… (Acts 17:26a).

All of us…made from one blood…with one blood…bleeding the same blood.

There should be no racist thought in the heart of any one who truly knows the God of creation.

We are all sinners. 

We all bear the image of God…but one marred…distorted…corrupted…even denied and rejected.

We all have infinite dignity…and internal depravity.

Self-centered. Self-gratifying. Self-justifying. Self-righteous. Self-hating.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22b-23).

Where do hatred, slander, resentment, racism, conflict, cruelty, abandonment, betrayal, arrogance, hubris, immorality, malice, strife, division, and destruction come from?

They flow out of a heart distorted…turned self-ward…fighting for our own way…unwilling to yield…rebelling against God.

There is no room for pride or superiority in any person.

We are all dysfunctional…all broken…all victims…all victimizers.

To break the world cleanly into victims and violators ignores the depths of each person’s participation in cultural sin. There simply are no innocents. (Miroslav Volf)

We all need grace.

We have all played a part in the depravity of this world. We are all complicit. We have all hurt others by our attitudes…our words…our actions…our inactions.

We are all guilty.

The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

The cross of Christ speaks to us all.

God’s justice and His grace met on a Roman cross…borne by the King of the Jews…given as a sacrifice for us all.

It is the cross that confronts our sin and demonstrates God’s love.

It is the cross that rains down justice and offers a flood of grace.

At the cross, God did something unthinkable…unfathomable…the Just One bore our injustice in order to freely offer us His mercy.

When we acknowledge our own sin…bend our own will…and humbly kneel at the foot of the cross…we find life…discover love…and receive a new heart.

It is the cross that melts our cold hearts…softens our hardened hearts…breaks the will of our stubborn hearts…replaces the fear and hatred of my angry heart with love.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

It is only in receiving forgiveness that we can extend forgiveness.

It is only in receiving forgiveness that we can truly pursue justice.

Every act of forgiveness enthrones justice; it draws attention to its violation precisely by offering to forego its claims. Moreover, forgiveness provides the framework in which the quest for properly understood justice can be fruitfully pursued. …Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice. (Miroslav Volf)

We all need hope.

We long for peace…we long for justice…we long for love.

We long for a world where the daily news does not highlight sin, war, racial division, relational conflict, death, destruction.

We long for a world made right.

Every injustice reversed.

Every wrong redeemed.

Every relationship restored.

Every part of creation renewed.

We do not have the power to bring in such a world.

Yes, we should work toward this end…we should strive to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

It is because we live in a world designed for justice…destined for justice…that we should desire justice in the here and now…and work for it, knowing that our labor is not in vain.

But on our own we simply cannot make it happen.

We need someone with power over sin…power over sickness…power over disease…power over the destructive forces of this world…power over death.

Power to transform our selfish hearts.

We need someone who sees the whole picture…the beginning and the end…who can rule justly because He sees clearly…who can rule graciously because He loves unconditionally…who can rule eternally because He lives forever.

This is why we need Jesus.

This is why He came.

This is Who He is.

This is who we need to be.

This is who I need to be.

This is who you need to be.

And this is why I can say…

With utmost confidence…and hope…

The world needs Jesus.

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Five Undeniable Lessons from the Coronavirus

The coronavirus has impacted us all.

Yet we all have different opinions about its origin, nature, danger, mortality rate, treatment, and prevention…along with a whole host of concerns, questions, suspicions, and criticisms of our government’s response to it.

Unique times.

Uncertain times.

Unprecedented times.

Unnerving times.

In the midst of this pandemic, I think there are at least five undeniable lessons that we can learn.

1. Our nation is seriously divided. Well, we already knew that but this virus has certainly highlighted it. We are so divided that not even a potentially deadly virus, that can infect both Democrats and Republicans, can bridge the gap. We are much more divided politically than we are religiously, racially, or educationally. Bottom line…Republicans can’t stand Democrats…and Democrats can’t stand Republicans. And both sides vehemently…and confidently…blame the other for the problems in our nation.

I remember the days after 9/11 in America. Even though there were strong political divisions in our nation back then, there still seemed to be some level of shared values…shared life…shared loyalty to our nation. This crisis has not yielded the same common ground…the same common good…the same common grace toward one another.

2.  We don’t trust our government or the media. The partisan divide has created a deep sense of suspicion, cynicism, and mistrust. If you are conservative, you watch FoxNews and distrust everything Nancy Pelosi, and every other Democrat, says. If you are liberal, you watch CNN and distrust everything Donald Trump, and every other Republican, says. Thus, we generally live in our own “echo chamber,” only listening to and befriending those who think like us.

The pervasive availability of alternate news sources only amplifies the problem. Now, anyone with an opinion, a mic, a camera, and some claim to credibility can demand just as much attention as a major news source. The democratization of information creates more fragmentation as no one trusts anyone who doesn’t already confirm what they already suspect.

3. We live in a dangerous world. Regardless of our opinions and divisions, there is one thing that is still true…we are all mortal humans living in a dangerous world. We can fight against each other all we want but it doesn’t change the fact that we have bigger problems and greater enemies in this world. We are all vulnerable to weakness, sickness, disease, disaster, injury, infection, aging, and death. Something as small as a virus… unseen, uncontrolled, unconcerned…can invade our bodies, ravage our strength, and take our lives. We are not as strong as we think we are…and our world is not as safe as we want it to be.

4.  We need a hope bigger than ourselves. In the midst of difficult times…whether it be from the pandemic itself or the negative effects that result from it…we long for good news. Unfortunately, the news media doesn’t offer much hope…and politicians, no matter what position or party they belong to, can only offer temporary solutions. If our hope for the future extends only to the next paycheck or the next election or the next medical breakthrough…then we don’t have much hope.

True hope must extend past the sorrows, injustices, and tragedies of this world. True hope must be higher…greater…stronger…than death. If this life is all there is…if this world has no purpose or meaning…if death is truly the end…and the universe is doomed to destruction…then how can we say that we have real hope? We are deluded…deceived…and desperate to hold onto our illusions.

BUT…if there is a God who created us…who loves us…who entered our world…who died for us…who conquered our enemies…who rose from the dead…who offers us eternal life…who promises to make every wrong right…to turn every sorrow into meaning…to restore all creation to paradise…then we have real hope.

5.  The message of Jesus Christ is reaching more people around the world than ever before. If you are a Christian in America, then it is easy to think that the message of Christ is sort of “stuck in neutral.” This global shutdown has even made some people think that “churches are closed” and that the gospel is being restricted by the government.

Here is the reality…the church is not closed because it is a people not a building…and the gospel cannot be restricted by the government because it is a spiritual message that spreads heart to heart, person to person, family to family, house to house. The church can be persecuted…even mocked and attacked…but it ultimately cannot be stopped. Because Jesus Christ has promised to build His church…and if the gates of hell can’t stop it then certainly no human government can. Proof? The fastest growing Christian movements in the world today are in China and Iran…and the church continues to grow exponentially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Even in America, the shutdown of church buildings has resulted in the message of the gospel going out further and reaching more people than ever before through the power of the internet. How people respond is up to them…but the message is spreading.

So, believer, take courage.

God is sovereign.

Christ is risen.

And the Spirit is at work all around the world.

This is not a time to be fearful, suspicious, cynical, angry, or discouraged. It is a time to look outward…for the opportunities are everywhere…and to look upward…because our redemption is drawing near.

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30 Things I Have Learned in 30 Years of Ministry

This month marks my 30th year in full-time ministry as a pastor. Wow…I am getting old!

In May 1990, I moved to New Orleans, LA as a naive, ultra-idealistic, fearful yet slightly over-confident Bible college graduate ready to embark on my first full-time ministry position as youth pastor at Berean Bible Church.

Thirty years later, I am pastoring Community Bible Church in Baton Rouge, LA…about an hour from New Orleans…less naive, much more realistic, a little less fearful yet very aware of my weaknesses, inadequacies, and limitations as a pastor.

As I reflect back on thirty years of ministry, I wrote down thirty things that I have learned along the way. There is no particular order to this list. I simply started writing until I hit #30.

  1. Be careful of someone who is too eager to tell you their side of the story. Someone told me to be careful of the first person who comes into your office for counseling when you start a new ministry position. This has proven to be true. When someone is way too eager to make sure you know their side of the story, then they are most likely hiding something and want to get you quickly on their side before all the facts can be known (Proverbs 18:17).
  2. Take a day off…and turn off your phone. Ministry has a way of consuming all of your time and mental energy. Make sure to take a day off…and to stay away from the phone and emails.
  3. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. A wise old friend told me this when I began ministry in New Jersey. He was oh so right. To be an effective teacher, you need to be a loving pastor first.
  4. God will break you to use you. The pattern in Scripture is clear. Before God could use Joseph, He had to break him. Before God could use Moses, He had to break him. Before God could use Peter, He had to break him. Until our self-sufficiency and pride are gone, we will not depend on God’s Spirit. God uses broken vessels for His glory. When we are weak, then we are strong.
  5. Teach with your life more than your words. I used to think that people would remember all the great lessons I taught and sermons I preached. Instead I found out that most people can’t remember what you taught…but they remember how you lived.
  6. Guard your heart and your eyes. Proverbs 4:23 tells us to guard our hearts with all vigilance because out of it flows everything else that we do. And in 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul tells young Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself and on your teaching.” We fail and we fall when allow little sins to creep into our heart and then start covering them up.
  7. Be vulnerable. None of us are fully formed in Christ. None of us have “arrived.” All of us need grace. And it is the security of grace that allows us to be honest with ourselves and vulnerable with others. The opposite of vulnerability is superficiality. God won’t work deep in our hearts when we insist on putting on a veneer of fake spirituality.
  8. You can’t change anyone. When I began ministry, I thought I could change the world. Over time, I realized it was hard enough to change myself…and impossible to change others. The best we can do for others is love them, pray for them, and point them to Jesus. We are care givers but only He is the cure giver.
  9. Be compassionate…everyone you meet is fighting their own battle. Life is hard and everyone has fears that they hide, sins that they battle, and wounds that they are trying to heal. Even behind anger is a heart that is fearful or wounded in some way. So look past the outward masks and personas and ask God for wisdom to see another’s heart.
  10. Fight for joy. Joy has always been the barometer in my life. When my life and ministry lack joy, then I know something has gotten off track in my mind or my heart. Joy is the “serious business of heaven.” It is our strength. It is the fruit of the Spirit. It is the will of God for us. It is our birthright as believers. Let us fight each day to be thankful and joyful in Christ. Like the psalm writers, sometimes you just have to praise your way out of the pit.
  11. Reserve mornings for God. Life has a way of hitting you early in the morning. Every day I am tempted to jump right into the responsibilities that overload my calendar. Instead I am learning the secret of giving the “firstfruits” of the day to God. Reserve the first minutes or hours of each day for Him…read, meditate, pray, exercise, worship…and then let the rest of the day fall as it may.
  12. Seek understanding before reaching a conclusion. Many times I have reacted wrongly or judged someone prematurely because I failed to take time to listen before I reached a conclusion. James’ advice would save a whole lot of heartache if we followed it daily: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).
  13. Love people where they are…not where you want them to be. It is too easy to get frustrated with other people…particularly in areas of life where we are strong and don’t seem to struggle. But God calls us to love people where they are…and even to be willing to stoop down and wash their feet. After all, that’s what He did for us.
  14. Strengthen your marriage. The strength of my marriage will impact the long-term strength of my ministry. My first priority as a pastor is to love my wife and lead my family well. For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:5)
  15. See the beauty of the church even in all of its messiness. I have been in church ministry long enough to see the “warts,” scars, and blemishes of the “bride of Christ.” We can get off track complaining, blaming, gossiping, grumbling, demeaning, dividing, wounding, and hurting others. Yet somehow God still loves us. And He teaches us how to love others, as He has loved us, by putting us in a local church with other imperfect people. What can feel ugly at times is actually the beauty of the church.
  16. Don’t let your children regret being PK’s. I remember someone telling me before the birth of my first son, “You know that pastor’s kids are always the worst ones in the church.” It was not a well-timed, encouraging statement from a fellow brother in Christ (see #15 above). But I was determined to put my family first and to make sure that my boys never lamented the fact that I was in ministry. That was a good choice.
  17. Take vacation time. It is often hard to pull away from ministry. The needs of people never go on a vacation so sometimes it is hard for pastors to take one. But I am learning more and more how vital it is to rest. We often have to “be still” in order to truly know that He is God (Psalm 46:10).
  18. Take a sabbatical. In line with the above, every pastor needs an extended time of rest after many years of service. Ministry has a tendency to produce a slow drain on your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy…and without a recharge, you will eventually crash.
  19. Focus on faithfulness not success. In our image culture, it is too easy to look for success in outward factors. However, God calls us to faithfulness not success. We are called to plant and water…only He can bring the increase (1 Corinthians 3:7).
  20. Avoid comparisons. Wow, this is so much easier said than done! With the advent of instant information and communication, we are exposed to every ministry, church, and pastor around the world. It is hard not to see the outward successes of others and to feel your own inadequacy. Almost daily I have to remind myself that God has not called me to be someone else…but to be the person He has created me and redeemed me to be…and to minister faithfully within the sphere He has given me.
  21. Exercise regularly. Yes, bodily exercise only profits a little compared to godliness (1 Timothy 4:8). But it still has a profit! Our bodies are the temple of God. It is hard to minister effectively when our bodies are neglected or broken down. Taking care of our physical bodies is a spiritual discipline.
  22. Learn to breathe. Stress and anxiety are realities in ministry…or at least they have been for me! Stopping, resting, exhaling, and casting my cares upon Him have been a growing daily necessity in my ministry life.
  23. Don’t take yourself too seriously. When I am honest, I realize that most of my anxiety can be traced back to pride. I am trying to bear on my shoulders that which only God can bear. I am trying to be a “mini-messiah.” I am thinking that I have to manage and control the universe. I am doubting and usurping God’s sovereignty. Learning to laugh at yourself and your weaknesses can be a freeing exercise. Isn’t it amazing that God chooses…and prefers to work through…cracked pots? (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
  24. Keep the main thing the main thing. Just about everyone in the church has an opinion on how the church should operate…and usually they don’t hesitate to tell the pastor! If you don’t have laser focus on the gospel of Christ and on making disciples for Him, then you will easily be tossed to and fro by every opinion, fad, political issue, and church program that floods the market.
  25. Keep learning. Always be teachable…always be learning. Read books, listen to podcasts, take classes…do whatever it takes to keep growing in your faith and to keep sharpening your ax (Ecclesiastes 10:10).
  26. Serve on a team. One of things that I have learned in ministry is that I don’t want to minister alone. I am so thankful for the elders that I have served with in church ministry. I can remember each one…and each one has taught me something about myself, about the Lord, and about ministry. We were not meant to serve alone.
  27. Be a peacemaker. It is all about relationships…and relationships are downright difficult! Live long enough and you will have plenty of opportunities to be hurt, wounded, neglected, forgotten, offended, and betrayed. Since ministry is people-intensive, then the chances of being hurt as a pastor are even greater. Learn to bear with others. Learn to forgive. Learn to say you are sorry. Learn to seek reconciliation. Learn to be a peacemaker…and to be called a “son of God” (Matthew 5:9).
  28. Be a discipler. Invest in people. Be a Paul to a Timothy. Just about every young man is looking for someone to affirm them, love them, pray for them, encourage them, and help them develop into the man God created them to be.
  29. Don’t expect quick results…we are growing trees not weeds. I often wish that ministry and discipleship yielded quick, tangible results. Sometimes you see radical changes in people but more often than not people grow slowly…with lots of stumbles and falls. Our eternal God is not in a hurry…and He teaches us patience and grace through the long process of discipleship.
  30. Love God and love others! Don’t over-complicate ministry. Love is the foundation. Love is the measure. Love is the goal (1 Corinthians 13). It is in contemplating the abundant, incomprehensible love of Christ that we are filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Saturate yourself in the grace of God every day and let His grace ooze out of your pores. That is the secret of ministry.
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