Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Why I love the doctrine of predestination


When I was a senior pastor, one of my favorite tasks was taking people through the church membership class. Not only did it give me a chance to get to know our new people; it also gave me the opportunity to teach some of our Presbyterian doctrinal distinctives.

One of the doctrinal distinctives I love most is predestination. I believe and teach that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, including the salvation of certain human beings. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:4-5, God chose us in Christ "before the creation of the world," and "predestined us to be adopted as his sons." Peter opens his first letter by saying that we "have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (1 Peter 1:2).

Every time I present this doctrine, people ask good and reasonable questions: "Why didn't God choose everybody?" "What about free will?" "How can God judge people he has not chosen?" Sometimes I have to say, "I don't know." There is mystery around many teachings of the Bible, including this one. While I do not understand every nuance of the doctrine of predestination, I love it. It gives me comfort and assures me that this world is governed by a wise God and a good plan.

I ran across a post in the Gospel Coalition Blog that beautifully summarizes the blessings of the doctrine of predestination. It's by Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. Because he says it so well, I'll quote his words in their entirety:

The doctrine of election is precious to me because it is biblical. In a display of the Father’s love for the Son, He gives a specific people to the Son (John 6:37). This truth is evident in...the book of Revelation when it declares that the only ones entering the eternal heaven are those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). John further testifies in Revelation 13:8, that these names were written in this book before the foundation of the world. In other words, one fruit of the Father’s love for Jesus is our salvation. The Father made a free and sovereign decision to save a people as a gift for the Son and for His own glory from the foundation of the world (see also John 8:47; John 10:26-29; Romans 9:10-16).

The doctrine of election is precious to me because it secures my salvation. Jesus declared that all that the Father gave Him would come to Him and that He would never cast out any who came to Him (John 6:37). Jesus delights in receiving and keeping those whom the Father gives Him because He came to do the Father’s will (John 6:38-40), and the Father’s will is that Jesus not lose any of the ones that the Father has given Him but that He raise them all up on the last day (John 6:39).

The doctrine of election is precious to me because it encourages me to pursue holiness. Paul reminded the Thessalonians “God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV). The Bible assures us that even though now we are only gradually being conformed to the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), we will at glorification be completely conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

The doctrine of election is precious to me because it is the basis for assurance of my salvation. Because God gives a people to the Son, and because the Son receives that people and keeps them, I am assured that I will never be cast out (John 6:37), nor perish, nor be snatched out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). Can you imagine such assurance? The God who predestines for salvation (election) will insure that all whom He calls to salvation will ultimately be glorified (Romans 8:30).

The doctrine of election is precious to me because it encourages me to share the gospel and gives me hope for fruit in evangelism and missions. Not only does the Father give a people to the Son (John 6:37), and not only does the Son receive these people and keep them (John 6:37-39), but the Father also assures that those whom He gives to the Son will come to the Son. It is the Father’s will that everyone believing in the Son have eternal life (John 6:40), and these who believe can only come at the Father’s drawing (John 6:44, 65). Therefore, if the Father gives a people to the Son, and He assures these people come to the Son, then we can be assured that evangelism and missions will bear fruit (Acts 13:48), and we can find encouragement in our Lord’s words to Paul, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:9-10, ESV).

Finally, the doctrine of election is precious to me because it moves me to make much of God through Christ (true worship) and little of myself (humility). May we understand election and may it strip us of personal pride and move us to worship the Sovereign Lord in all His glory and grace.


Monday, June 03, 2019

Humble requests from a church shopper

In my previous post I wrote about my retirement from being a pastor. One thing I did not share was that my wife and I have been visiting different churches. Even though we love our friends at the church I’ve pastored for the last 18 years, it seems wise to look for a different church where we can worship, grow, serve, and make new friends.

It has not been easy.


Now I realize we pastors are among the pickiest church-shoppers in the world. When we visit churches, we over-analyze everything from the smiles we meet (or not) in the parking lot to the fonts in the bulletin to the tears of the preacher. And more. So I know I'm hard to satisfy.


But I think I have some legitimate gripes about the way churches “do church” these days. I suspect I’m not the only one who would like to say to church leaders some of the following:


1) Please, don’t put on a show. I am not impressed with trendy décor, a darkened room, professional musicians, and multi-colored lights. I don’t want to watch worship, I want to worship. I don't want to listen to the band, I want to sing the songs. Worship is a dialogue. The congregation needs to be involved, giving God the glory due his name. It's pretty simple really. But in some of the churches I've visited I fear there's more focus on the trappings than the Presence.


2) Please, pitch your songs lower so men can sing them. I’m a tenor, but in most of the churches I’ve visited I couldn’t sing the songs because they were pitched too high. Men need to be engaged in worship, but they won't be if they can’t sing the songs.


3) Please, speaking of music, sing hymns. I'm talking about those quaint things you find in books called hymnals. Sing the hymns written centuries ago by men and women who thought it a good thing to put theology to music. I need to be reminded of the holy character of God, the suffering and reign of Christ, the rich truths of justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. I'm sorry, but most modern "worship songs" don't do it for me. They are repetitive, sentimental, subjective, and often very hard to sing. Hymns are honest: they give voice to our sadness, doubt, loneliness, and fear. They are also faith-strengthening: they remind us of who God is and what we believe. Hymns also honor our history: they connect us to the saints who have gone before. I know your intentions are good; you want to make the gospel as accessible as possible to a world unfamiliar with the things of God. But we lost something precious when we traded hymnals for PowerPoint. Bring back the old hymns, especially the hymns that grew in the soil of the Protestant Reformation. Put hymns to new tunes if you want--that's great. But don't relegate them to the recycle bin.


4) Please, when you're describing your church with institutional language, refrain from using the same words that are making the rounds these days. If I hear the word "relentless" one more time in church, I'm going to scream. Don't tell me you're "passionate about reaching the city." Just reach the city and I'll believe you. Can you think of another word to describe God's grace besides "outrageous" or "extravagant" or "reckless" or "crazy"? And can we agree to ban the word "awesome," just for a while? All I'm arguing for is some originality in our language. What's at stake? Authenticity. The world around us can smell a fake and a plagiarist a mile away. Let's not say things we don't mean, and let's do the things we claim to value.


5) Please, don't tell visitors they're not obligated to put money in the offering plate. It sounds so cheesy. Plus it's unbiblical. All human beings are obligated to give back to God a portion of what he has given them, whether they are members of your church or not. People need to be challenged, not let off the hook. And I think they instinctively want to be challenged, whether they'll admit it or not.


6) Please, don't make up your own benediction to end the worship service. Earlier I said to be original; but don't be original with the benediction. Memorize and use the benedictions clearly articulated in the Bible, such as: Numbers 6:24-26; Romans 15:5; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 16:23; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 3:20-21; Ephesians 6:23-24; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Hebrews 13:20-21; Jude 24-25; and Revelation 1:5b-6. Pick one of those each Sunday. And don't close your eyes when you give the benediction. The benediction is not a prayer, it's a blessing. Raise your hands, look at us, and recite one of God's inspired "good words" to close the service. The final element of the worship dialogue should be God speaking his word of blessing over us as we go out into the world.


What do you think? Am I out of line? Sorry if I sound curmudgeonly. I just want us to strive for simplicity, honesty, and theological integrity in our Sunday worship services. 
  

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Place I Find Myself

“Who are you?”

It was 1973. I was a 19-year old student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, eating lunch with friends. Stephanie—serious, inquisitive, known for deeply diving into matters of the heart—was sitting to my right in the dining hall. As I munched on my dry hamburger I could tell she was staring at me. I glanced over at the eyes that were looking into me. She asked again, “Who are you?”

I thought: What do I say? Friends are around, waiting to hear. Do I say something funny or wax profound? What’s she expecting me to say? Is she in love with me, or getting ready to attack? 

I didn’t know. So I looked at her, smiled, swallowed my bite of burger, said my full name, and hoped she’d either go away or give me a hug. Stephanie did neither. She kept staring, and asked again. “Who are you?”

It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, hippies, psychedelia, and campus unrest. Self-discovery was all the rage. We were the “Me generation.” So no wonder she asked. It was a good question. Who am I? 

I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know. 

Do I know now?

~~~~~

Stephanie's question has haunted me since that day in the Furman dining hall.

For the last thirty-three years, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve had a challenging and happy career as a preacher, leader, and shepherd of four different congregations. I’ve baptized, married, nurtured, and buried hundreds of God’s people. Had you asked me a few months ago who I am, I would have told you about the children I’ve raised, the friends I’ve loved, the places I’ve traveled, the sermons I’ve preached, and the people who say I did them some good. All good things.

But do those good things answer the question, Who am I? Isn’t it possible to have done all those things and still not known my true self? Yes indeed.

And what do I say now? I am no longer “Pastor Mike.” In February, 2019, I stepped down from church leadership. I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to do something different. 

So I semi-retired. I took a job at a theological seminary as the Dean of Students. It’s part-time. I’ll do some teaching, mentoring, and a bit of preaching here and there. I'll be free on weekends to travel with my wife and visit our kids and grandkids. But I won’t be wearing my pastor hat anymore. People won’t thank me for a good sermon or a helpful counseling session. I will no longer tell folks that I pastor a healthy, healing church. My email inbox will no longer be filled with questions, meeting requests, and forwards from well-meaning church members. 

So if Stephanie were to ask me today, “Who are you?” how would I answer? How would you?

~~~~~

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor and author Peter Scazzero writes, "The vast majority of us go to our graves without knowing who we are. We unconsciously live someone else's life, or at least someone else's expectations for us."

I agree with that. Most of us get our identity from what we do. And that’s not entirely bad. But when you no longer do what you’ve done for most of your life, you need to know that you are more than the sum of your contributions to society. The world around us measures us by what we achieve, own, or look like. But all those things are fleeting and unsatisfying. The truth is that identity and value are intrinsic to our being as the people of God. This is why the invalid in the nursing home is just as valuable, just as glorious, as the cancer researcher or the best-selling author or the homeschool mom.  

When someone asked Thomas Merton who he was, he said simply, "I am the loved one."

That's who I am too. I am God’s beloved. I’m his child, the object of his affection. To me (and you!) God says, "You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11).

~~~~~

So here's the place I find myself: I'm discovering that my identity is not rooted in me and what I do, but in Christ. Pretty basic, right? I've stopped trying to be somebody. I don't care that I don't tweet. I've given up on trying to make a name for myself in my Presbyterian denomination. What would that have accomplished anyway? I'm trying to heed Jeremiah's word of warning to his scribe Baruch: "Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not...." (Jeremiah 45:5).

After years of trying to be a good, successful pastor, I'm now trying to enjoy being God's son.

I'm not there yet. Like unraveling a knot, it takes time to undo a lifetime of seeking reputation and honor. But "I press on," as Paul says in Philippians 3, to "gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith--that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil 3:8-11).

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Receiving the Kingdom Like a Child

I love to give children’s sermons.

For one thing, they require far less preparation than regular sermons. But their impact sometimes seems to be far greater. Adults tell me how much my children’s sermons mean to them. They latch onto the object lessons as well as (or better than) the kids. And they are amused by the kids’ reactions to my messages. A couple weeks ago, I was taken aback by the number of children that came forward for the lesson. I asked rhetorically, “Where did all these kids come from?!” One little boy answered with bluster, “From our mothers’ wombs!”

This morning my children’s sermon was about discouragement. I told the children that one of the things that discourage us is our sin. It’s discouraging, I said, to realize that we sin against God and the people we love. I held up sheets of paper, on each of which was printed the name of a sin. I asked, “Which of you has ever told a lie?” Half the kids’ hands went up. “Who has ever disobeyed your mom or dad?” Almost every child raised his or her hand. “Who has ever complained? Who has called people a bad name? Who has ever been selfish?” Each time, hands went up from honest little boys and girls.

I went on to explain how, because of Jesus, God has separated our sins from us as far as east is from west. I quoted Hebrews 10:17, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” Then I ran each sheet of paper through a paper shredder that I had concealed on the platform. I showed the kids the thin strips of paper piled up inside the shredder and asked, “Can you read those words on the paper now? Could you possibly put the sheets of paper together again?” The obvious answer to each question was no. I hoped the kids got the message: Through faith in Jesus Christ we are justified, released from guilt and shame forever, and adopted into the family of God by sheer grace.

What struck me the most was the kids' readiness to raise their hands when I asked if they had sinned in various ways. I'm not sure adults would be so honest. The children weren't terribly concerned if their peers found out they'd been selfish or deceitful. They weren't trying to protect their image or build a résumé. They were willing to come out of hiding and self-disclose. We grown-ups don't find that easy to do.

In order to be saved from sin, one must humble him- or herself, confess his or her sins, turn from them unto Christ, and trust in him alone as the way to God. In this, children seem way ahead of us. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Mark 10:15).


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Fasting

(I posted this back in 2009 but thought a re-post with minor revisions would be appropriate for Lent in 2018.)

The 40 days leading up to Easter, not counting Sundays, are collectively called Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day before Easter.

Historically, Christians have used Lent to remember the 40 days and nights Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). So fasting has been the main thing believers do during Lent. Some traditions are more rigid about this than others. Many, like my own, take little or no official notice of Lent at all. Personally, I like the Christian calendar and think it would be good for our church to refer to it more often.

Anyway, when it comes to fasting it's important to remember that there's nothing meritorious about fasting per se. And there's nothing at all evil about food or the enjoyment of it. Fasting is done in order to break our addiction to anything we trust in or depend on instead of Christ. It's a means of teaching ourselves to feed upon Jesus and find our all in him even when we're not fasting. It's a way of saying to food, "Food, I'm kicking you in the FACE! You will NOT take the place of Jesus Christ in my heart!"

Food just happens to be one of many things we turn to for satisfaction, and in finding satisfaction in food we may stop clinging to the Crucified.

It's no accident that Jesus frequently compared himself to food. He called himself the bread of life (John 6:35). He said for us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, figuratively of course (John 6:53). He said that he would give us food that endures to eternal life (John 6:27). Many of his miracles involved food (changing water into wine, feeding the 5,000, feeding the 4,000, etc.). So I think fasting is a great way to remind ourselves that Christ is our true meat and drink.

But there are lots of other things we might abstain from that have as much if not more of a grip on our affections. In fact, I'd say that for some people fasting from food is way too easy.
  • What about cell phone use? Most people are addicted to their mobile phone. It would be quite a step to leave our cell phones at home for a day. My cell phone is an idol if I use it to rely on other people to give me what only God can supply. Many people get a rush from continually texting or talking to other people on the phone. It also cheats us out of enjoying silence and solitude.
  • What about answering emails? For me, giving a quick answer to someone's email is often a way to establish my own righteousness. ("Hey, look at me. I'm so on the ball that I answer emails faster than anyone!")
  • And what about social media? "How many FB friends do YOU have? Oh, not as many as me, eh? So sorry..." Looking to anything besides Jesus to give us that ultimate sense of value and worth is idolatry! Maybe a way to put that idol in its place is to visit Facebook just (gasp!) once a day or something like that.
  • As for me this Lenten season, I am taking a break from watching TV news. I’m going to try to free up space in my soul for the Good News.
The point is, there are lots of things out there that compete with Christ for first place in our hearts. Food is one. What is it for you? Maybe Lent would be a good time to kick that thing in the face.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

News addiction

Like many others (see this for example), I've finally come to the conclusion that watching too much news on TV is bad for my health--especially the health of my soul.

And for me, it's become an obsession. Maybe an addiction. 

I turn on a cable news channel soon after waking up in the morning. I check a local TV news station as well, just to make sure I didn't get murdered or robbed during the night. A few times during the day I click on my favorite news websites to see what's happening in Washington. My wife and I watch at least one political news show after I get home from work.

And what do I get in exchange for all this news watching? A sense of powerlessness. It's like our problems are overwhelming and I can do nothing about them but sit here and get more informed. It also leaves me with a sense of foreboding. Things are getting worse and worse. America's ills are insurmountable. Never in history have things been so bad. There's no one on the planet competent and capable of rescuing us from ourselves.

For all the benefits of up-to-the-minute reporting and the ability of technology to connect us in mere seconds to any part of the globe, we now know far more than we can handle. We are burdened with problems we cannot alleviate (except through prayer, of course, and I don't mean to minimize that). A natural human response is to grow passive and even cynical. But for some reason we keep watching. We can't miss the "latest news." 

I think back to when I was a kid. My family's TV received three channels. The news was confined to an hour in the evening: 30 minutes of local news, weather, and sports; and 30 minutes of Walter Cronkite. That was pretty much it unless someone got assassinated. There was more to life than what went on in the state or nation's capitol. We actually had hobbies and conversation.

Now, news is available on television 24/7. Every new segment is heralded with a "Breaking News" or "Alert" banner, telling us to stop everything and pay attention. More information constantly crawls across the bottom of the screen. If we're not near a TV we can whip out our cell phone or tablet and see what the pundits are saying. And the funny thing is, they're saying pretty much the same thing they said this morning or yesterday or a few days ago. But, it's IMPORTANT! they say.

And another thing. TV news turns people into non-humans. News anchors have no life; they are just images on the screen. I don't know anything about them: their families, their hopes and dreams, their fears, their pastimes. Are they married? Do they have kids? What do they struggle with? What do they want out of life? No, they exist solely to inform me. They may as well be robots or texts. It's the same with those they interview--our president, our congressional representatives, governors and so on. When they appear on the screen with a microphone shoved in their faces they are either my friends or my foes. They are either Republicans or Democrats, hawks or doves, conservatives or liberals. They are images, but not the image of God. I can safely judge them, accept them, ridicule them or praise them from the safety of my living room couch. I really have no idea who they are, what makes them tick, why they are conservative or liberal, what they really believe in their heart of hearts, or what they go home to at the end of the day. That's the information I don't need. Just tell me what's happening.

When Jesus came, he brought good news. The good news that there is a King and a kingdom. This is the news I need to hear. In fact I need to hear it 24/7. It's good for the body and the soul. Maybe if I tame my obsession with TV news I'll have more time and mental energy to consume the good news of the gospel.

How do you deal with the constant urgency of news? How can we put TV news in its place, so that we have more capacity to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves?  




Monday, January 01, 2018

Best Christmas gifts ever

For the past several years, our son James Michael has blessed his three siblings (and my wife and me) with the most creative, amazing Christmas gifts: drawings of his nephews and nieces in various settings borrowed from pop culture. Not only do the drawings capture the unique personalities and appearance of each child, but in almost every case Michael has incorporated into each drawing something of the personality or tastes of the relevant family. For pictures 1, 3, and 4 below, Michael's girlfriend Meredith did the coloring. God has blessed both Michael and Meredith with a truckload of artistic talent, and it makes our family so happy at Christmas time!

Here is a sampling...  

1. Michael's brother David's four children, borrowing from the Jackson Five.

                                                                               
2. This one Michael gave to all three siblings because it pictures all 11 of his nephews and nieces.





3. Michael's sister Jennifer's four kids, at least one of whom (like Jennifer herself) is a Beatles fan.

4. Michael's sister Rebecca's three children, who love the musical Hamilton.