Five Promises for 2019

At our church, the theme for 2019 is “Reflect and Refine.” At the start of this new year, we’re asking ourselves some challenging questions, like, “Are we hungry to grow? Are we hungry to know more of God, especially his presence, love, and power? Are we willing to make more space in our lives for God, so we can seek him with all our hearts?” The hard reality is God will not refine or purify us unless we seek him wholeheartedly. 

The good news is that when we seek God, he promises to be with us. We know this from the five promises found in Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  This verse promises us God’s presence (“is with you”), God’s power (“mighty to save”), God’s pleasure (“delight in you”), God’s peace (“quiet you with his love”), and God’s praise (“rejoice over you with singing”). 

However, for us to receive these promises, Zephaniah is clear we must repent of all idols in our lives (see Zeph. 1:2-7; 2:1-3). Before you think “Well I don’t worship idols, so no problem!” you may want to consider that an idol is more than a gold-covered statue. According to Romans 1:25, idolatry can be understood as worshiping and serving “created things rather than the Creator.” Thus, I define an idol as “anything or any person we worship, serve or trust in more than God.” So as we examine our lives, we may find some modern-day idols. What about social media? It seems to me many people are worshiping Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Tinder more than God. Perhaps some of us may be spending more time posting, scrolling and liking/swiping than praying, reading the Bible, or serving needy neighbors. Or what about video games? What about football: NFL or Fantasy Football league? What about shopping for clothes or cosmetics on eBay or Amazon? What about pornography? What about alcohol? What about chocolate/sweets? What about Netflix? Or how about workaholism, approval addiction, romantic relationships?

            If you want to know if you have an idol, ask yourself these questions: what is the thing, that if taken from my life, I would lose all sense of meaning and purpose? If taken from me, I would want to quit living and die? 

Another way to find out is by fasting: abstain from your favorite app/platform, stop watching Netflix, stop playing video games, stop drinking alcohol for two weeks. Can you do it? Does it even make you uncomfortable to think about it? If you resist fasting from something that is non-essential, there’s a high likelihood it’s an idol in your life.

Again, if we repent of our sins and our idols, God is mighty to heal us, transform us, and fill us with a greater love for him and our fellow humans. We can be sure of this because God “is mighty to save.” How? Well, you and I have the benefit of seeing the whole picture of God’s plan for history. Unlike the prophet Zephaniah, we live after the arrival of Jesus Christ. We know about Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. 1 Corinthians 1:18 declares “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Romans 1:16 announces “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” Furthermore, Colossians 2:13-16 asserts that through Jesus Christ, God has defeated death, sin, and evil. Our three most formidable opponents have been conquered!

At the beginning of 2019, do you believe in God’s presence and power? 

If you’re struggling with doubt or discouragement, let me tell you a true story. Perhaps you’ve heard of Bob Goff. Bob is the founder of Love Does, a nonprofit organization that operates schools and pursues justice for children in conflict areas such as Uganda, Somalia, and Iraq. Bob is a NY Times best-selling author, adjunct law professor, and the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Uganda to the United States. 

According to Bob (in his book, Everybody, Always), Uganda has a problem with witch doctors. People will pay witch doctors to put a hex/spell on their enemies. To do that, witch doctors commit demonic and heinous crimes, including child sacrifice and mutilation. A few years ago, Bob heaom he calls “Charlie,” was attacked and left for dead by a witch doctor named Kabi. Miraculously, Charlie survived. Through the generosity of donors, Bob flew to Uganda, became Charlie’s legal guardian, and brought Charlie to the US where he had multiple reconstructive surgeries at Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Today he’s a happy and healthy boy. 

But Bob did something no one had ever done before in Uganda: he prosecuted Kabi for his crime. Up to that point, witch doctors were not prosecuted because the Ugandan legal authorities were afraid of them. Yet Bob believed in the power of God, so he found a judge willing to take the case, put Kabi on trial, and Kabi was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison. 

Remarkably, that’s not the end of the story. God told Bob to love his enemy Kabi. So Bob flew to Uganda, went into the prison, shared the gospel with Kabi, and Kabi prayed to make Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior. Then, Bob discipled him to the point Kabi wanted to evangelize the prison. So Bob and Kabi, the prosecutor and the man he prosecuted, stood side by side, while Kabi preached the gospel to 3,000 men on death row, and hundreds of them came forward to believe in Jesus and get baptized. 

Since that time, Bob Goff started a school for witch doctors, to teach them to read and write using the Bible as their textbook. Bob Goff, Charlie, and Kabi demonstrate Jesus Christ is powerful and mighty to save! 

If God can change Kabi, he can change any of us. So let’s seek God passionately and trust his promises in 2019.

The Meaning of Christmas, then and now

Sunday, December 2 marked the beginning of Advent, a season of preparation and reflection before Christmas Day. Christians around the globe have celebrated Advent for at least 500 years. Why is that? A few years ago the Jimmy Kimmel Show asked some kids on the streets of Los Angeles to explain the Christmas story. Their answers are captured in a video posted on YouTube called “Kids Tell the Story of Christmas” (dated Dec. 9, 2016). Their responses are varied: some children endearingly recount the events surrounding Jesus’s birth, while others disjointedly mention, “Jack the Skeleton Guy” and Santa.

The video reminded me there is no uniform narrative in American culture regarding the meaning of Advent and Christmas. However, when it comes to practicing Christians, it’s crucial to ask, “What’s the meaning of Christmas? Why is it important? And does it make a difference in our lives and the world today, beyond spending unseemly amounts of money on presents, trees, decorations, and cards?”

I suggest we find some answers in the gospel of John, chapter one. This is a classic Advent text that explains the meaning of Christmas. It starts this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14).

This magnificent passage teaches us two important concepts about Jesus. First, Jesus is God: the eternal co-creator. Jesus Christ is God because he was already present with God the Father at creation. The Word, the Son of God, has always existed—he has no beginning and no end. What’s more, Jesus is God because he is a co-creator with God. All things were created through him, including you and me. That means you are precious because God made you! You’re not junk, you’re not an accident, you’re not a random collection of cells. You are a precious being made in God’s image!

Second, we learn in John 1 that Jesus is God’s living, breathing and embodied love-letter to humanity. God sent Jesus to show us that he cares deeply for both human beings and all of creation. The incarnation, that is, the second member of the Holy Trinity taking on human nature, shows us how much God cares for us, and longs to be in a relationship with us. God pursued us, came to us, reached out to us. He initiated contact with us, even though humans are filled with sin, brokenness, darkness, selfishness, and resentment.

Now, let’s contrast the incarnation of God with our Internet and social media-driven age, which can dilute or thin out authentic communication. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, tend to turn communication into commodification (aka, a product). Tech experts Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms wrote a fascinating book called New Power: How Power Works in our Hyperconnected World. They assert, “Far from the organic free-roaming paradise the early internet pioneers imagined, there is a growing sense that we are living in a world of participation farms, where a small number of big platforms have fenced, and harvest for their own gain, the daily activities of billions.”

In contrast, the arrival of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, shows us God cares for us unconditionally. God has no ulterior motive. He’s not trying to harvest our information for profit. John 1 teaches us that Jesus is God’s living, breathing and embodied love-letter to humanity. If we don’t understand this, we don’t understand the meaning of Advent or Christmas.

But that doesn’t have to be. John 1:12 makes this declaration: “to all who did receive him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” In the original language, the word “receive” means “toactively receive something, to accept with initiative.” And the word “believe” means more than intellectually agreeing to certain propositions in the Bible. It means wholesale surrender and trust.

That reminds me of “La Vida,” an expedition I took in college as part of our liberal arts curriculum, where we hiked through the Adirondack mountains of New York for two weeks. Before our team departed, we spent a few days preparing by engaging in trust building exercises. One of them was the trust-fall. One person would stand on a tree stump. Then two columns of four people would form a bed of hands behind him/her. Then the person standing on the stump would countdown: “3, 2, 1… I’m falling” and fall backward, trusting the eight teammates to catch him/her. Faith is just like that: it’s a trust fall. You totally surrender, fall backward and believe God will catch you.

Ultimately then, the good news of Christmas is this: those who believe in Jesus Christ become children of God.Some people read John 1 and ask, “Aren’t all humans children of God? New Testament Scholar Leon Morris makes this distinction: “God’s attitude to all people is that of a Father. All are his sons in the sense that he made them and that he provides for them. But people are his sons in the full sense only as they respond to what he does for them in Christ. When they receive the Word they are born again into the heavenly family. It is only in this way that they are really God’s ‘children.’”

Ponder the beauty of that. Those who believe in Jesus Christ become children of God. That’s why the Son of God came. So that you and I, through faith in the name and character of Jesus Christ, would be given a new nature, and join a new family. Jesus washes us clean of all failure, shame, pride, and anger. He came to make us new. That is the Christians observe Advent and celebrate Christmas.

Five Keys to Powerful Prayer

Have you ever felt the anxiety of trying to call someone and you couldn’t get through? There was an earthquake, hurricane, car crash or an attack on a military base, and your loved one was at that location, and you tried to call him/her to confirm he/she was safe. Do you recall the mental and physical sensation? Your heart racing, your breathing shallow and rapid, the panic sign flashing in your brain while you attempted to keep yourself calm. What did you do? Did you repeatedly hit “redial?” Did you go for a walk? Play with your phone distractedly?

It appears the Apostle Paul may have faced a similar kind of anxiety during certain moments in his life. In fact, we see hints of it in his letter to the Thessalonians. According to Acts 17, Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica for about three weeks, and then barely escaped a violent riot started by those who opposed him. Since that time, the apostle Paul wanted to visit the Thessalonians but was unable to as Satan “blocked” his attempts (1 Thess. 2:18). Imagine how that felt: Paul knew they were facing opposition, threats, and persecution but received no update on their welfare. Finally, after enduring months of radio silence on their spiritual state, he finally sent his protégé Timothy to check up on them. Thankfully, Timothy gave Paul a positive report of their continued growth in Christ.

Yet here’s the key: when Paul was tempted to worry about the Thessalonians, he went to God in prayer. Repeatedly, throughout the letter, Paul prayed for them and thanked God for them. When Paul lacked information, he prayed. And when he did, he found power.

In 1 Thess. 3:10-13, the apostle teaches us about powerful prayer: the kind of prayer that dispels our anxieties, that transforms our vision, hearts, and character. It also changes our circumstances. As best we can tell, according to Acts 20:1-3, Paul visited the Thessalonians five years after he sent his famous letter. God answered Paul’s prayer, but Paul had to wait five years to see his request come to fruition. That reminds us, God works on his own timetable. You and I are in a rush—but God’s timing is perfect.

The first principle we learn about powerful prayer is that it is constant or persistent. In 1 Thess. 3:10 he states he prayed for the Thessalonians “night and day.”

Essentially, Paul is saying “I pray around the clock for you!” Paul’s prayer life was not limited to a few minutes first thing in the morning. Whenever the Thessalonians came to Paul’s mind, he prayed for them, or he praised God for them.

Second, Paul teaches us that powerful prayer is earnest. In 1 Thess. 3:10 he declares, “we pray most earnestly.” When we pray, there’s got to be passion, heat, intensity. This is the opposite of saying a perfunctory grace at the dinner table: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” Some pastors and prayer warriors call this earnestness “pressing into God.” It’s going deeper. There’s more energy and focus in prayer. It’s like a laser boring a hole through steel.

A third principle is that powerful prayer involves spiritual warfare. In 3:11 Paul prays that God would “clear the way for us to come to you” (unfortunately, we don’t know what was inhibiting Paul. Some have speculated he was in jail or had a physical ailment). Paul prayed God would remove the satanic barrier so Paul could break free and visit his friends. This is a spiritual warfare prayer. Jesus taught about this kind of prayer. In Matt. 16:19, he asserted “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Scholar D.A. Carson explains: “Jesus’ disciples, in accordance with his gospel of the kingdom, take up the ministry of the keys and bind and loose on earth what has with the coming of the kingdom been bound and loosed in heaven.”

According to Jesus, powerful prayer involves spiritual warfare. It is embracing our authority as Jesus’ disciples and kingdom bearers, and binding and loosing whatever God has already bound and loosed in heaven.

Fourth, in 3:12, Paul makes this plea:  “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow.” This prayer is twofold:the apostle prays the Thessalonians’ love for other Christians will increase and overflow, and that their love for “everyone else,” meaning those outside the church, will grow and gush out. The word for love here is the word “agape,” which is the same word used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” This refers to unconditional love. It’s NOT “I will love you IF…” but rather, “I will love you period”: “I will love you when you reject me, spurn me, upset me, disappoint me.”

For many, this is a challenging verse. Almost every believer I’ve ever met has been burned by a Christian or a church. Yet Christianity teaches the importance of humility and forgiveness. As the old saying goes, “if the church was perfect, no one could join.”

Furthermore, Paul prays the Thessalonian’s love toward those who do not yet profess Christian faith will expand and spill over. Remember, Paul was talking to people who had been maligned and mistreated, even persecuted for their faith in Jesus. That’s a bold prayer!

The final principle of powerful prayer is found in 3:13: “May God strengthen your hearts so you will be blameless and holy.” Holiness refers to one’s purity, while blamelessness means, “free from fault or defect concerning one’s public reputation.”

The takeaway is that powerful prayer is constant, earnest, involves spiritual warfare, and asks for increased love and purity. Which area of prayer are you most strong? On the other hand, what aspect of prayer are you most weak? Rest assured, we can all grow regarding this vital discipline.

Personal Priorities

I am sure you’ve noticed this, but we live in a microwave, Snapchat, Vine video culture. Everything has to be quick or instant. Perhaps more than any time in history, we expect so much for so little.

For example, I recently stumbled across the “7 Minute Workout” Challenge App on my I-phone. According to the description, it is a seven-minute workout that can be done anytime and anywhere. It asserts, “Researchers have selected 12 exercises that are performed for 30 seconds with 10-second rest intervals.”  The App claims this workout leads to “a higher daily metabolism that is the equivalent of working out for over an hour.” So buy the App, do the workout, and it’s as if you exercised for an hour! We expect so much, for so little.

Unfortunately, in my humble experience, this runs counter to how life works. If I want to be a godly parent, it takes way more than seven minutes daily with my kids. Similarly, if I want to have a robust relationship with God, it involves more than a few minutes here and there.

In fact, these two ideas are inseparable: the Bible argues that to be a strong parent, I must develop a thriving relationship with God. Deuteronomy 6:5-7 says this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.”

Here’s the key: faith has to be in you before it can be in your kids, so prioritize your relationship with God. Every person is called to enter into a relationship with God through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. And that relationship is to be the top priority of our lives. In Matt. 6:33 Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Practically speaking, how do we do that? A quick disclaimer: this is not a seven-minute deal, but a lifetime journey. It is pursuing God with all that we are, every day, everywhere, all the time. However, let me suggest four ways you can make knowing God your priority so you will be a stronger man/woman of faith and thus a godly parent.

First, evaluate your relationship to God’s word. God’s word purifies and changes us. Psalm 119:9-11 asserts, “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

Our best illustration is Jesus. According to Matthew 4, when Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus quoted the Bible to repel Satan’s enticements. We can best grow in our relationship with God, and turn away from sin and the temptations of Satan, by planting God’s word into our hearts.

Here’s what’s remarkable about God’s word: if we drink it in and digest it, it has power, through the Holy Spirit, to change us. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even the dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Another way to prioritize your relationship with God is by evaluating your friends. Proverbs 18:24 observes, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The truth is that your friends will help make you a better follower of Jesus or drag you down. The people you surround yourself with will reflect and reinforce your faith or will lead you down a path of ruin. Many of us are quite possibly investing in unhealthy relationships, and it’s time to make a change. For others of us, we may need to build a stronger support system. Perhaps we need to find a community of parents who are seeking after Christ in order to grow as Christian parents. They have wisdom and insight and will encourage us in our faith and parenting journeys.

Third, evaluate your marriage. If you’re married, what is the state of your marriage? Is it happy and healthy, loving and supportive? Is it tense and dysfunctional? Are you just co-managers of a household? I have heard it said—and agree—The best parenting is modeling a godly marriage to our kids. Not a perfect marriage, but a humble one that is dependent on the grace of Jesus Christ.

I believe Ephesians chapters five and six outlines the correct order of priorities in our families. According to Eph. 5:1, God is first: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love.” Marriage is our second priority (Eph. 5:21—33).  Third, comes the children: Eph. 6:4, “Parents… bring up your children in the training and instruction of the Lord.”God is first; spouse is second; children are third. As a pastor, I cannot tell you how often people foul up their families by prioritizing the children, or their career, before their relationship with God and their spouse.

If your marriage is struggling, I encourage you to see a Christian counselor or pastor or attend a marriage training or retreat. It is possible to get your marriage back on track with the right resources and support.

Lastly, you can deepen your relationship with God taking responsibility and making time for your priorities. Pastor Carey Nieuwhofdid a life inventory and evaluated his parenting, Bible study, marriage, etc. He came to a hard realization: “I stopped saying, ‘I don’t have the time.’ Instead, I starting saying, ‘I didn’t make the time.’ That made me realize that everything I do is a choice. It’s a constant reminder to me that I need to make time for what’s important and cut what isn’t.” Put differently author Louie Giglio wisely remarks, “Whenever you say yes to anything, there is less of you for something else. Make sure you’re yes is worth the less.”

Deuteronomy 6 gives this challenge: our faith has to be in us before it can be in our kids—so we are wise to prioritize our relationship with God.

What areas of your life do you need to change and rearrange?

Resurrection Hope

I heard the story about a guy named Stan and his friend who was leaving the sanctuary Easter Sunday after worship. As was his custom, the preacher was standing at the door greeting people. He grabbed Stan’s friend by the hand and pulled him aside. The Pastor said to him, “You need to join the Army of the Lord!” The friend replied, “I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor.” The Pastor asked, “Well then how come I don’t see you except on Christmas and Easter?” He whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

All joking aside, we just celebrated Easter on April 1. The resurrection carries profound implications every day of our lives in every area of our lives. How? 1 Peter 1:3-4 makes this powerful declaration: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (NIV).

The Apostle Peter starts the letter by stating that we praise God because in his mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection.This idea is rich, so let’s spend some time unpacking it.

First, is “in his great mercy.” Mercy refers to God’s compassion. Did you know God has a deep passion for you? That he cares for you with a love that you and I cannot begin to fathom? You may be thinking: “But I don’t feel it. How do I know God feels this way about me?”

Well, we know because “he has given us new birth.” “New birth” means “reborn, restored, made new.” Through faith in Jesus Christ, God makes us reborn, restored, made new. What’s that about? Using similar words, in John 3:3 Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”The Christian tradition teaches that each person is born with a sinful nature. This means the default setting of our hearts is to constantly say “no” to serving God and obeying his word while saying, “yes” to our selfish desires. That makes us estranged from God. And if we don’t address that sinful nature, when we die, God in his perfect justice, releases us into Hell, where we are separated from God’s loving presence for eternity.

However, the good news of the Bible is that God the Father sent Jesus to die on the cross to take away our sins and give us a new nature. And when we trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we are reborn, made new. It’s a gift: we don’t deserve it, we cannot earn it; instead, we must turn away from our sins and receive it.

Amazingly, this new birth brings with it another gift: “a living hope.” Hope is assurance, confidence, expectation. This hope is not rooted in our feelings, but in the Holy Spirit, who lives inside every Christian. 1 Peter 3:18 states Christ “was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” And because we have this living hope inside us through the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, it’s inexhaustible. It’s with you all the time, everywhere. Now, what happens when it seems distant?

In that case, it’s best to look at the resurrection. Peter assets the resurrection secured this living hope. How so? First, the resurrection is a historical event: in 1 Cor. 15 the Apostle Paul states it’s a historical fact verified by the twelve apostles and over five-hundred witnesses. Second, the resurrection is attested to by a living person—Jesus Christ. We have a living hope because Jesus is living.

Bottom line, we praise God because in his mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection.

Now think about this: in 1 Peter 1 Peter pointed Christians—who were most likely experiencing persecution for their faith—to the resurrection because the resurrection changes everything, including the way we view evil and suffering.

John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University and author of the book “Gunning for God,” tells a story about touring Eastern Europe and meeting a Jewish woman from South Africa. The woman told Lennox that she was researching how her relatives had perished in the Holocaust. At one point on their guided tour, they passed a display that said, “work makes free.” It was a replica of the main gate to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Right then, the Jewish woman turned to Lennox and said, “And what does your religion make of this?”   Lennox writes: “What was I to say? She had lost her parents and many relatives in the Holocaust… I had nothing in my life that remotely paralleled the horror her family had endured.” But she stood in the doorway waiting for an answer. I eventually said, “I would not insult your memory of your parents by offering you simplistic answers to your question… I have no easy answers; but I do have what, for me at least, is a doorway into an answer.” “What is it?” she asked. I replied, “You know that I am a Christian. That means that I believe that Yeshua [the Hebrew name for Jesus] is the Messiah. I also believe that he was God incarnate, come into our world as savior, which is what his name ‘Yeshua’ means. Now I know that this is even more difficult for you to accept. Nevertheless, just think about this question—if Yeshua was really God… what was God doing on a cross? Could it be that God begins just here to meet our heartbreaks, by demonstrating that he did not remain distant from our human suffering, but became part of it himself? For me, this is the beginning of hope; and it is a living hope that cannot be smashed by the enemy of death. The story does not end in the darkness of the cross. Yeshua conquered death. He rose from the dead; and one day, as the final judge, he will assess everything in absolute fairness, righteousness, and mercy.”

There was silence. After a moment, with tears in her eyes, very quietly but audibly, she said: “Why has no one ever told me that about my messiah before?”

The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus give us a profound hope.

 

 

 

How is your family?

Our church recently started a new teaching series called “How to parent (and lead) beyond your capacity.” It’s based on a book called Parenting Beyond your Capacity by pastors and fathers Reggie Joiner and Carey Nieuwhof who study Deuteronomy 6 in depth. I am excited because I believe this series will apply to almost everyone: parents, grandparents, godparents, future-parents, and to any person who leads and influences another person. I have asked single people, who don’t have kids, to visualize that person: a younger friend, niece, nephew or cousin. I reminded them, “God put you in that person’s life to offer positive influence and guidance.”

All of this reminds me of the day I became a parent. It all started back on June 7, 2005, in Castle Rock, Colorado. My lovely wife Autumn was thirty-six weeks pregnant. At 1:30 am on a Tuesday, she awakened me and said: “I think I am in labor.” And because I’m an incredibly supportive and sensitive husband, I rolled over and went back to sleep. But a short while later Autumn shook me forcefully and declared “I am in labor, and we need to go to the hospital NOW!” We threw some clothes into a bag, and at 3:00 am sped toward Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado.

Upon arriving in the labor and delivery room, things immediately started going wrong. The nurses struggled to get an IV into Autumn’s hand, and some blood dripped down her fingers. Then, Autumn screamed so loudly and demonstrably (I’m pretty sure it echoed off the Rocky Mountains) the attending doctor concluded she was a perfect candidate for an immediate epidural. However, they gave her too much epidural medicine, and she started to feel sedated and numb. Afterward, we discovered our son’s face was turned inward, toward Autumn’s spine, so the doctor tried to turn him but was only partially successful.

Finally, when it came time to deliver, the OBGYN burst onto the chaotic scene and ordered me to “take a leg.” I said, “Hmm, excuse me?” “Grab her left leg,” she replied. “I didn’t think I was going to be this involved in the delivery,” I thought to myself. Autumn started to push, and then our son’s heart-rate dropped dramatically: apparently he was not coming out fast enough. The OBGYN announced she had to suction him. I had no idea what that meant. She proceeded to put a plastic cap on his head, pumped it, and boom, out came Landon Carter Hoffman.

I hate to admit it, but I immediately thought “Oh no, we have a problem, he doesn’t look like me. He has black curly hair, dark brown eyes, and a cone head. That doesn’t seem quite right!” (For the record, I have blond hair and hazel eyes.)

Well, they cleaned him up, swaddled him, put a hat on his head and handed him to us. There he was. We were parents, and our world would never be the same!

Since that day, Autumn and I have been on a parenting journey. At times it feels a bit like wandering through an impossible maze. Just when you think you may be getting the hang of it, your kid changes, they grow out of diapers or become a pre-teen, and suddenly, you feel discombobulated and lost.

However, I am convinced we can grow as leaders, parents, and influencers. We can all improve and get better. To do that, I believe it’s best to look at what the Bible has to say about parenting, leadership, and influence. In particular, Deuteronomy 6 provides rich insights into parenting and leading others well. For our purposes here, I want to make two brief observations:

1) God wants what’s best for our families/relationships. Deut. 6:2 indicates God wants us to “enjoy [a] long life” and verse three says God wants our lives to “go well” and for our families to “increase greatly.”

2) Our families are called to love God completely. Deut. 6:5 commands us to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Our families and relationships will function well when we look to God for guidance and help.

But here’s the catch. We cannot do this on our strength. Because of sin, we cannot love in the way He deserves. Our natural inclination is to place our desires before God’s plans for us. That is why the New Testament teaches we need a relationship with Jesus Christ to purify us from sin and empower us to love God wholly.

As I close let me encourage you to do a frank, family assessment. Please spend a few minutes this week answering two questions:

1) How is our family doing? Are we enjoying life? Are things going well? If you are single, ask: how are my closest relationships doing? Are they healthy?

2) Currently, where does God fit into our lives? Is he near the center? On the periphery? Off the map?

I bet we would all agree that our families can grow and improve. The key is how much we invite God into this process.

The Spirit helps us grow and change

Even though we’ve just entered February, many of us still possess a remnant of New Year’s hope. We have a God-given desire to make positive changes: to lose ten pounds, to lower our cholesterol or blood pressure, to strengthen our marriage by attending a retreat, to pay down debt, or pass a professional exam to be considered for a promotion. Or perhaps want to be less angry, more patient, to forgive more quickly and often. Some of us want to grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ: to pray more efficiently, to read the entire New Testament or even the whole Bible!

But the hard truth is that we cannot change using our strength. None of us has enough willpower, grit, and discipline. Thus the key to growing and changing is to know who’s leading us—that is, where we can find lasting power and wisdom.

May I suggest the Holy Spirit?

Who is this Spirit? In the Christian tradition, he is God: the third member of the Holy Trinity consisting of the Father, Son, and Spirit. He is fully divine, equal in power and glory to God the Father and Jesus the Son.

Furthermore, this Holy Spirit is a person, not some nebulous, weird ghost. In John 14:16 Jesus calls the Spirit our “Advocate.” In the original language, this word means “legal advocate, advisor, comforter, helper.” The Spirit is our advisor, our comforter, our helper. How does he advise, lead, comfort, and help us? Well, it’s helpful to know he lives inside every Christian. 2 Corinthians 1:22 says God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” Think about that: if you’re a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives in your heart. God the advisor, comforter, and helper, lives inside you right now!

The Spirit helps us in so many ways but let me give just two examples: Romans 8 says the Spirit confirms our identity and helps us pray. According to Romans 8:16 the Spirit “testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children,” and Rom. 8:26 states “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” (In the Protestant tradition, generally speaking, we pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.)

And because the Holy Spirit is God, and a person we can have a relationship with, we are called to cultivate and guard that relationship. Galatians 5:16,18 puts it this way: “Walk by the Spirit…[be] led by the Spirit.” Moreover, Ephesians 4:30 commands, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” while 1 Thessalonians 5:19 instructs, “Do not quench the Spirit.”

Now, here’s where the rubber hits the road. Chances are we need more of the Spirit operating in our lives. And so are you (and I) willing to ask God the Father, in the name of Jesus, to allow the Holy Spirit to increasingly flow inside you and take up further space in your life? That is, to offer the Holy Spirit every part of you, including your fears, your secret sins, your hidden shame? Are you willing to give the Spirit your highest hopes and dreams? Although the Spirit is in us, sometimes we hold back part of ourselves, thinking “God, you can have my family, but not my bank account,” or “you can have my house, but not my internet browser,” etc. I believe the Spirit will give us the power to grow and change if we will surrender more of ourselves to him in 2018.

 

 

In 2018, consider being a bridge-builder

We have arrived upon January 2018! Yes, you survived (and perhaps even thrived in) 2017. The beginning of a new year is oftentimes pregnant with hope and possibility. We believe we can make positive changes in our lives: lose ten pounds, pray more, pay down debt, serve in a local charity, etc.

However, given our current national political environment, marked by division and discord, I want to strongly urge followers of Jesus to consider making a particular commitment in 2018. Let’s make a new or renewed effort to be “peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). While we cannot control what takes place in Washington, D.C., we can control the way we carry ourselves in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and sporting venues. Because Christians are children of God, we can let go of bitterness, cynicism and sarcasm and focus on being people who are agents of peace, healing and reconciliation.

Why am I making this case?

Because I am convinced it reflects God’s heart and therefore His will for our world. Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV) says “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 (NIV) makes this bold assertion: “…if anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”

Simply put: God cares deeply about reconciliation.

How do we define it? According to scholar Leon Morris the word, in its original usage, means “to change (make other) or to exchange (provide an other)… ‘to effect a thorough change.’”

Bottom line, it is noun and verb, content and action. First, the Christian gospel is ‘reconciliation.’ The cross itself demonstrates both the vertical and horizontal planes of reconciliation. Through faith in Jesus Christ, humanity can be reconciled to the triune God, and humans, to one other. Second, ‘reconciling’ is an action: an intentional, perpetual and vigorous movement connecting people across barriers. To reconcile is to build bridges across difference, and even alienation and hostility.

According to Colossians 1, God is reconciling all things to himself by making peace through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. God’s desire to heal what is hurting and repair what is broken, not just with individuals but also with all of creation. A key way God does this is through his people, known as Christians. 2 Cor. 5 teaches us reconciliation is a “message,” a “ministry,” and even an identity (“Christ’s ambassadors”). Followers of Jesus are to share the message of reconciliation, embody it through their lives (an outward-facing ministry), and embrace their ongoing role as Heaven’s ambassadors on earth.

Make no mistake: this message, ministry and identity were (in the Apostle Paul’s day) and are today, radical and counter-cultural. Eminent theologian N.T. Wright contends, “The world has never before seen a ministry of reconciliation; it has never before heard a message of reconciliation. No wonder the Corinthians found Paul’s work hard to fathom. It didn’t fit any preconceived ideas they may have had. He was behaving like someone… who lived in a whole new world.” Christians are appointed by God to live in a new way because they represent the God who has done a new thing in Jesus Christ. However, we act with humility, knowing perfection is unattainable since we still wrestle with sin and brokenness.

Here’s the takeaway. Knowing God’s passion for reconciliation, and our calling as reconcilers, whom is God asking you to make peace with: an estranged neighbor, coworker, or relative? A friend who’s hurting and withdrawn? Go and seek to build a bridge across that divide. Ask for forgiveness. Tell that person you want to have a better (as opposed to a bitter) relationship. Or perhaps God is asking you to serve as an intermediary who initiates a healing conversation between estranged parties you are connected to. Doing this, undoubtedly, will not solve all the world’s problems. But it will stimulate reconciliation, which in turn, will bring more harmony to our families, workplaces and communities. I am convinced reconciling will create a reservoir of goodwill that will grow and overflow, creating an ever-widening impact.

 

 

Taking your Spiritual Temperature

 

A few weeks ago our younger son Kelan made a funny remark. He said “It smells cold out.” Our older son Landon replied: “That doesn’t make sense! You can’t smell temperature!”

The conversation reminded me how temperature-obsessed our culture is. If you’re like me, you check the weather app on your smartphone numerous times a day. Many of our cars have high tech climate control settings. And what about cooking thermometers? Thanksgiving is coming, and so many people are thinking about either using their digital Bluetooth thermometers, or buying a new one. Temperature even influences our everyday language. We say things like “That lady was boiling, she was hot around the collar,” or, “That guy gave me a frigid stare, an icy look.”

Interestingly, God cares about temperature too. In his letter to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22), Jesus indicates he’s taken their spiritual temperature and has found it deeply troubling. He states, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (Rev. 3:15-18).

A little history will help us better understand Jesus’ references. Historians tell us Laodicea was a prosperous city due to three major industries. First, it was a major center for banking and finance. Second, it was a significant producer of textiles, and was especially known for its production of a shiny, black wool. Third, Laodicea had a prestigious school of medicine, which contributed to the production of a special eye ointment known as “Phrygian powder,” that supposedly healed various eye maladies.

However, in spite of the city’s wealth and prominence, it lacked a stable water supply. In fact Laodicea was dependent on a six-mile aqueduct running from a rivers to its south. New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray explains: “Since… the River Lycus dried up in the summer [and because] Laodicea had to use a long viaduct for its water, the water was not only tepid but impure and sometimes foul, making people sick.” Essentially, Jesus is using the temperature and quality of their water as an illustration of their deplorable spiritual condition. They are lukewarm and foul like their water supply.

What’s the consequence? Jesus states, “I am about to spit you out.” Their spiritual condition is unacceptable.

Why were they lukewarm? It appears the church was coasting: they were going through the motions in their knowledge of Jesus Christ. Scholar Alan Johnson gives this diagnosis: “It was a city with a people who had learned to compromise and accommodate themselves to the needs and wishes of others; they did not zealously stand for anything… they were useless to Christ because they were complacent, self-satisfied, and indifferent to the real issues of faith in him and discipleship.” It seems the church had adopted the attitude of the city’s service based culture.

Yet all was not lost! Jesus asserts, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person” (Rev. 3:19-20). Jesus is declaring “I love you enough to rebuke you and discipline you.” Like a parent who disciplines their child for disrespect or laziness or impulsivity, so the child will grow and mature and reach his/her potential, God disciplines us so we will know him and grow in him.

Moreover, Jesus commands them to “be earnest and repent.” The word “earnest,” in the original language, means “zealously.” Simply put, Jesus instructs them to zealously repent: turn away from your sins of self-sufficiency and complacency and return to me. Why? Jesus continues: “I am knocking on the door of your heart and life. Open it—let me in. I will come in and eat with you.” This word “eat” can be translated “dine with.” In first century Roman culture it referred to the main meal of the day, what we call dinner or supper, taking place in the evening. It was a time to relax, connect and talk.

To summarize: Jesus challenges them, and us, to zealously repent of your self-sufficiency and complacency, open the door to your heart and let me in, and we will dine together. We will converse and have an intimate, face-to-face relationship.

I am curious: what is your spiritual temperature? Are you hot: that is, passionately following Jesus? Are you complacent and lukewarm, going through the religious motions? Or are you cold—keeping Jesus distant from your heart and life?

This November, as fall turns to winter, it’s a fitting time to take our spiritual temperature.

 

 

Jesus is in control, even during crazy times

We are living in surreal times, aren’t we? In recent weeks, Houston, the fourth largest city in the US is starting to recover from what’s been called a 1000-year flood. Then there was a devastating earthquake in Mexico. Hurricane Irma has wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and Florida. North Korea is threatening the world by lobbing a missile over Japan and testing a hydrogen bomb. Many of us wonder: what’s next?

Ironically, months ago I planned to preach on Revelation 1-3 at our church during September and October, not knowing all these apocalyptic events would be occurring. I recently joked to our congregation “Nothing like studying the apocalypse to make you feel better, get all warm and fuzzy inside!”

However, I’ve come to realize that Revelation is exactly what we need during times like this. Historians believe that around 95AD, the Apostle John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos, had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. And Jesus instructed John to write letters to the churches in seven cities in Asia Minor, what is now modern-day Turkey. Around this time, the Imperial Cult was growing in strength and influence. The Emperor Domitian required the empire’s subjects to call him “Lord and God” and to worship him by burning incense. In fact, every city listed in Revelation 2-3 had an imperial temple except for Thyatira. Many Christians were refusing emperor worship and so were being abused and marginalized. Yet apparently some Christians were wavering and engaging in emperor worship. So as led by the Holy Spirit, John wrote letters to the seven churches both encouraging them and warning them.

But before that, in Revelation 1, Jesus reminds the Apostle John, the Christians being persecuted, and all who would read this majestic book, that he is God and he is with his people in the midst of their crises and suffering. Jesus declares “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18).

Simply put, Jesus announces he is God using three descriptors. First, he confesses to being the eternal ruler and creator. A few verses earlier, in Rev. 1:8 he said “I am the Alpha and Omega… the Almighty one.” Jesus is the eternal ruler because has no beginning or end. He existed before creation and will exist after there’s a new creation. Because he’s the eternal ruler, Jesus rules over creation and over the history that takes place within creation. That was great news for the Christians being persecuted by the Roman Empire. They needed to be reassured Jesus was still in control. And in our chaotic times, we need to be reminded Jesus is the eternal ruler and creator who’s still in control of time and history.

Second, Jesus is the crucified and resurrected one. Jesus says, “I’m the Living one, I was dead, but now I’m alive.” Throughout the book of Revelation, (i.e. chapters 5,14, 22) Jesus is referred to as “The Lamb who was slain.” Jesus suffered and died on the cross yet three days later he rose from the dead and is alive today! That means he is with us in our struggles, pain, hurts and confusion. The scriptures say he is close to the brokenhearted. And 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us that because Jesus rose from the dead, his people shall rise from the dead!

Third, Jesus Christ is judge. He states “I hold the keys of death and Hades.” In the ancient world and in the Bible (i.e. Isaiah 22), keys were a symbol of authority and control. Whoever has a house key controls access to a house. In Rev. 20, Hades refers to the departed wicked. So Jesus announces he has authority over death and hell and so he is the judge over death and Hell. And if Jesus has authority over death and hell, he has authority over all things, including a vicious emperor and the fate of Christians resisting him. It also means he has authority over hurricanes, earthquakes and unhinged dictators with nuclear weapons.

Alright, what does all this mean? The bottom line is that Jesus Christ is God: eternal ruler and creator, crucified and resurrected one and judge. Whether our circumstances are good, bad, ugly or indifferent we have a God who cares and who is in control. It might not always look or feel that way, but that is what the Christian faith teaches. He is our hope and strength in the midst of the turmoil.

Do you and I know this Jesus? Are you and I trusting him to lead our lives? Are we praying fervently to him and listening to his voice? And are we helping needy people in every possible way? If so, we can press forward with a dogged confidence come what may.