A Decade of Lessons Learned

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Here is the video of my message from Sunday, followed by the article I wrote for our newsletter, RoadSigns.

December 4, 2016, I walked into The Gathering for the very first time, excited with anticipation and hopeful for the future, but having little idea of what I was really walking into.  Of course, then it was Memorial Baptist Church, a 55 year-old church that, like most Baptist churches in the south, experienced a season of growth and expansion before ultimately growing stagnant and becoming identified more for inward fighting than outward ministry.  To say the least, it was not the most enticing offer a pastor could receive, but one I was certain God had led me to.

Now, after all these years full of victories, trials, growth, pain, mistakes and ministry, God has brought us to where we are today.  To look at the numbers, one would say we haven’t done much in ten years.  We’re a congregation with 150 on a really good day.  To some, that is considered outright failure.  To me, not at all.  One of the things I felt committed to from day one was worrying less about growing wide and more focused on growing deep, though I must admit that reading the  annual issue of Outreach magazine’s “100 Fastest-growing churches” could, at times, be very depressing.

These “fast-growing” churches spread quickly, adding programs and buildings and, to be honest, that’s very appealing.  Just imagine having no real financial worries or no concern about keeping the doors open or the lights on.  Seems nice.  I have been tempted, throughout the years, to adopt some of those practices until I realize that quite often (though not always), those churches are a big crowd of people and little more than that.  Discipling people is hard in any church, but it’s exceptionally hard in large churches.  I cannot be satisfied with growing a large crowd of people that I can preach at each week, but cannot disciple.  So, I have to re-center myself on the ideas of “calling” and “church” and what that means and what that looks like.

Over the years, I’ve “retaught” myself that lesson over and over.  I remind myself of our purpose and the Truth of what the church is.  Many of the lessons I’ve learned along with that have been painful.  I’ve made many mistakes; I have many regrets, but I know that’s a part of life and that is why I need a Savior.  Fortunately, most of those who have stuck with us have been patient and full of grace, and I’m grateful.  As we’ve grown in being a church, I’ve grown in being a pastor, and hopefully, a person.  Yes, I have much more to learn with much growing yet to do, but God has taught me that His grace is sufficient throughout it all.

So, I’d like to share a few of the major lessons I’ve learned over the last ten years that I hope will help us to continue growing in the years to come, should God be pleased to grant it.

  1.   Christ must build His church and the Word of God must be its foundation

Matthew 16:13-19 reads:

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

17 And Jesus responded, “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”

The first important fact about this revelation of Jesus is that Peter was not the builder – Jesus was.  Yes, Peter (and the apostles) would be instrumental in the building of the church, but that’s just it:  they were instruments.  They were to be the agents used, but the architect and builder is Christ, alone!  Why?  Because Peter was not equipped to be the builder!  He had no idea how to do that.  Peter couldn’t even know who Jesus was unless God had made it clear to him.  That’s what Jesus said in verse 17.  So, if he couldn’t even know Jesus as God without the Father telling him, how is he supposed to build the church that he’s never even heard of before?  The knowledge was given through revelation.

That revelation is the Word of God.  Here is a truth you need to hold onto:  We cannot know the Son of God rightly unless we know the Word of God thoroughly, and we cannot follow the Son of God faithfully unless we are committed to the Word of God exclusively.  This is what is meant by Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).

People have often asked me how you take an old, dying church and re-plant or revitalize it to become a healthy church.  I’ve always said, “I have no idea.”  I don’t.  I’m the first to admit that.  Again, Peter didn’t, either.  Jesus did, though!  He must build His church in His way, in His time and according to His blueprint or it’s just another man-made edifice, created for the pastor’s glory.  I think that might be one reason we stay small because that keeps us humble and it keeps us depending on HIM for our lifeblood rather than our money and ingenuity.  That’s not to say all big churches are proud and self-sufficient, but many are and all of them face that temptation.

What I have learned over the years is that the main thing we can do…the thing we MUST do, is to stand faithfully, unshakably and unashamedly on the Word of God.  If we compromise the Gospel, we have forfeited our right to be called a church of the Lord, Jesus, regardless of size.

I have also learned that to do that is costly.  It has cost us potential members who disagree with one or more teachings or doctrines in Scripture.  It has cost us former members who have agreed with Scripture in theory until it actually meant life-change and forsaking of particular sin they weren’t prepared to give up.  Put simply, standing on the Word of God is always going to cost us and that cost will continue to rise.

As the acceptance and embrace of secularism grows in American culture, it will be more difficult for us in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 10 years.  Of this I am convinced:  Churches may come and they may go, but if we determine to stand on the Word of God with boldness and grace, The Gathering will stand because God will uphold us.

  1.  Real ministry must happen with the entire church or doesn’t really happen at all

Ephesians 4:11-17 provides the core of our ministry philosophy in that God has given church leaders (elders, deacons, teachers, etc.) for the purpose of equipping the church for ministry.  That has been the core of what we believe since day one.  What I have learned over the years is that saying it’s your ministry philosophy doesn’t make it so in practice.  Ten years later, there is still a small group of people doing the majority of ministry at The Gathering, though it is certainly a larger number of people than it has been.  We have tried many things over the years, some things more successful than others.  What we have seen is that those things that have made a real impact; that have changed lives have, without exception, have been those things that were championed by someone within the church. More times than not, the way we identify new leaders that God is raising up in the church is the involvement they have and the leadership qualities they display as they just get busy serving the Lord through His Body, the Church.

The only way this church or any church is going to survive and thrive is for every single member of the Body to find a place of ministry and “own” it.  Real ministry cannot happen any other way because no one person, nor one small group of people, can do all of the ministry and when they try, real ministry ceases to happen.  For the sake of our ministry in the world, find your place and begin pouring yourself into it.

  1.  Unity is fragile and can only be maintained when we serve each other and are focused on the same goal

One of my favorite passages is Philippians 2: 1-4:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, 2 fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. 3 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

I love these verses because they put unity in such simple terms.  If there is any encouragement in Christ, consolation of love, fellowship with the Spirit, affection and mercy…any at all, it says.  In other words, if God is doing anything in your midst, then unify around that, focused on the one goal of honoring Christ with the benefit of receiving the blessing that results.  Be the Church!  How can this happen?  How can we be unified?  There is only one way and this passage explains it: You have to take your eyes off of yourself.  You have to give up the notion that you are the most important person in the room and look around for ways that you can “show family affection to one another with brotherly love [and] outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)

I have learned that this is a tall order, even in the church.  We are, by nature, self-serving.  Even when we are giving ourselves selflessly in ministry, we can still hold onto the attitude that this ministry should be done my way.  I’ve been accused of that many times over the last 10 years (mostly during the first 6 or so!).  Many of those times were nothing more than being clear on certain things that I knew Christ wanted done in His church and I couldn’t compromise…but not all the time.  There have been times that I’ve either been afraid, stubborn, or just short-sighted, and it’s resulted in disunity, sometimes with people even leaving the church over it.  I regret those times.  Other times, the roles were reversed.  Either way, the hard lesson is that unity is a hard lesson.  It’s extremely fragile and is always just one hurt feeling caused by one careless word taken the wrong way for everything to fall apart.  If we’re going to thrive for the long haul, it’s going to be because we are committed to each other in covenant membership, determined to weather the storms together, having the hard conversations when necessary, extending mutual grace and mercy, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt.  Christ is not honored when His body is splintered.  As we move forward, I am committing myself anew to the hard task of becoming thick-skinned and tender-hearted rather than thin-skinned and hard-hearted.

I believe that if we are unified, ministry-oriented, self-sacrificing, and committed to the Word of Truth, Christ will build a church out of this little rag-tag bunch of disciples that can and will impact, not only Chattanooga, but indeed, the entire world.

To God be the glory in our next ten years together!

 

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2016 Summer Series at The Gathering

I love the summer!  I enjoy the other three seasons, but I have a definite favorite.  It is possible that I’m more excited about this summer than I have been in quite a while, at least as far as it relates to my time as Lead Pastor at The Gathering goes.  I’m so ready for summer that we’re going to start a little early.

This Sunday, May 1, we’re kicking off our new summer series…

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The Psalms are an amazing collection of the most interesting, relevant and Christ-exalting songs ever written.  It has been said that it is all of Scripture in one book.  James Montgomery Boice, in his 2nd volume of his work on the Psalms, has said of this book:

I have always thought of the psalms as the deepest and most spiritual portion of the Word of God…the psalms touch deeply on the hurts, joys, and spiritual aspirations of God’s people…they never lose their grasp on God or their faith in Him as the great, sovereign, wise, and loving God He is.

Steven Lawson, in his book, Preaching the Psalms, describes this book as having the power to comfort the afflicted, renew the soul, and magnify the Lord.  He says, “From the pinnacle of praise to the pit of despair, this book captures the full range of human emotions, “ but most of all, he continues, “the psalms led God’s ancient people in worshiping Him.” (pp. 78-79)

Those are a couple of reasons I am looking forward to this new series.  We all have struggles and joy and pain, and successes and the book of Psalms helps us to work through each of these and, ultimately, lead us to the throne of Christ in worship.

To me, summer has always been about taking a little time to relax, maybe travel a bit and take some away from the normal stresses of life, reflecting on what has happened in the year so far, and planning how we’re going to finish it out.  That’s what I see this series being about, as well.  Taking time out from our normal Sunday morning series to look at these reflections of the heart as the writers plumb the depths of their emotions as they deal with all the stresses of life and finding their way to the foot of the throne of God.  That’s something that I think we all need to experience!

Another reason I have chosen to spend the summer in the Psalms is that this is the season of vacations.  Everybody is on the go (as, to some extent, it should be).  When the kids are out of school, that time with family should be taken advantage of if there is an opportunity to travel together.  That doesn’t mean we take the summer off from gathering together as a church family, but it does take into account that some time out of town inevitably happens.

Because the Psalms can be looked at as individual units, this will be an expositional series where you won’t be lost if you miss a week.  I wanted to continue walking straight through a book, but one that isn’t dependent upon the last weeks message.  Psalms gives us that best of both worlds approach.

Finally, I decided to tackle this admittedly challenging book this summer because it seems everything I’ve been involved in over the last couple of months has been pushing me in this direction.  For a long time, I sort of avoided the Psalms because of the sheer volume of Psalms to cover–I’m not sure we’re ready for a 150-week series!  Actually, it would be even longer because there’s no way we’re covering Psalm 119 in a week!  Now, I think we’re ready. So, the plan is to begin working through it this summer and, if the Lord directs, we may pick it back up where we leave off next summer and on and on.  The prospect of an ongoing summer series in the Psalms is pretty exciting to me and I hope it excites you, as well.

So, take a week or two to enjoy sitting under the palms, if you get the chance, but make sure you commit the rest of the summer to sitting under the Psalms!

A Theology of Serving

With every passing year, people find more ways than ever to fill their time.  Between work and family and all the extra-curricular actives that go along with that, there is very little time for anything (or anyone) else. For many Christians, just getting to church on Sundays is a major success. “Surely, God understands my schedule.  After all, I can only do so much. So, why should I serve?” That’s the question we have started the year asking at The Gathering. It’s an important question and one that must be asked if we, as the Church and as individual disciples, must ask (even for those who are already involved in life up to their noses).  This is perhaps most important for the “busy” since a failure to prioritize can often lead to a greater sense of busy-ness and decreasing levels of peace and joy!

Recently, I preached on “A Theology of Serving,” attempting to answer that all-important question of, “Why should I serve?”. I have presented four major reasons as to why we should serve, both within your church and in your community. These reasons form the basis of a theology of serving.

  • I serve because it fulfills my purpose.

Many people ask this question: What is my purpose. The answer is simple, but it might not be what you think. Many define their purpose with their job, be it a doctor, a builder, a homemaker, or an accountant. That misses out on purpose. There is a difference in calling and purpose. Calling is what you do (hopefully, based on your determination of what God has called you to do), purpose is what you ultimate accomplish by what you do. For a children of God, there may be hundreds or thousands of different callings, but all have only one purpose! That purpose is nothing more and nothing less than to glorify God! (Romans 11:36, Ephesians 2:10, Matthew 5:16, 1 Peter 2:12). So, in whatever I do, I am to glorify God in the way I serve.

  • I serve because it defines my identity in the Kingdom of God.

I serve because I am a child of the King and to be a child of the King is to serve the King and to serve the King, I serve others. Jesus, Himself set the example by coming not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28). As disciples of Jesus, our identity is found in Him. We serve because we are to be like our Master (Philippians 2:5-7). If you refuse to serve, you are refusing to follow Jesus.

  • I serve to fulfill my role within the Body of Christ (the Church).

Every person who has been adopted into the Family of God (Romans 8:14-17) has been given both ability and responsibility to fulfill a calling within the local church. If God has called you here, to this specific church family, it is for a reason. You matter! If you are not serving in some capacity, then you are not accomplishing your calling and, consequently, are not experiencing the level of joy Christ has for you, and we are lacking in something that God has for His church that you are to provide (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).

  • I serve because to do so stands against the spirit of darkness and declares the existence and work of God.

We are the “Imago Dei”; the Image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:26). Since the fall of man in Genesis 3, we have preferred “self-serve”.  Sin has made us into self-centered creatures, living to feed our wants, our desires, our needs and our lusts.  Those who believe that there is no God and that the universe is simply a product of chance observes this tendency towards self-preservation and argues that we have a natural instinct towards the survival of the fittest; that we will only do that which assures our own survival or the continuation of the species.  All “serving” would then be utilitarian with the goal of serving our own interests.  When we give and serve, expecting nothing in return, we are declaring “PURPOSE!”  We are demonstrating the fact that we are made in the image of the living God, reflecting His character to a dying world.

If we are going to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, there is no alternative. If we are not serving, we are not following. Look for ways to serve both your church and your community. Get involved in some of the ministry or pray about what ministry God may be calling you to start in 2016. Whatever it is, get off the sidelines and engage in the ministry you were designed to do!

Blessed With Another Year at The Gathering

imageDecember4, 2006 was a Monday.  On that day I was excited, uncertain, confident, humbled, overwhelmed and a knotted bundle of a hundred other emotions.  I was beginning my first week as the Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, the foundation upon which The Gathering would be built and I had no idea of what all was in store.

With today being the start of my ninth year as Lead Pastor, I still feel a little of all of those things.  I am so grateful for all that God has done through this faith-family and am looking forward, with great anticipation, to all He has yet to do.  He has raised up leaders that are second to none, built a community of faith that is solid.  He has matured Believers, taking them from infants needing milk to Disciples feeding on the Word.  He has, in short, done more than I could ever think, hope or even dream of.

To say this journey thus far has been easy would be a joke.  To say it has been free of deep heartaches and pains would be a lie.  To say it has been joy-filled would be a gross understatement.  Through everything so far–all of my mistakes and all of our accomplishments–I can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing anything else.

I am grateful to God for letting me be His undershepherd for a church like The Gathering, Chattanooga.  To Him be all the praise and glory!

The Sky Isn’t Falling

There has been a great deal of chatter, as well as no small measure of fear and trepidation among the Christian community following the release of a Pew Research Poll that Christianity in America is in decline.  This cartoon pretty well sums up the reality of what is happening. 2015-05-27-dying1

2015-05-27-dying22015-05-27-dying32015-05-27-dying4Credit: http://adam4d.com/death-of-christianity/

July 4th Freedom Run in Downtown Chattanooga

So, we’ve come up with an event for this summer that we believe will be a lot of fun for our church family (and really, anybody who would like to join us!). We’re going to host a July 4th 5k and 10k run that we’re calling The Gathering Freedom Run.  It’s obviously related to Independence Day, but we hope to be able to talk with people about our real focus which is true freedom in Christ. We’ll end at Coolidge Park for a picnic together, so if you don’t run, plan on coming to that anyway. 

We will officially announce this with all the details later this week, but I needed to tell you now because one of our accomplished resident distance runners, Meredith Zinke, has put together a couple of training plans that will get you in shape and ready to run the distance you choose by July 4th. She put this together last week, which is why it starts on the 10th, but you can jump in now and do fine. So pick the one you like and get moving, and watch for more details here or on The Gathering website and Facebook page. Hope you will join us!  I’m planning on the 10k, so come run with me!

We’ll have these as downloadable PDFs available in the next day or so. 

5k Plan:

  
  

10k Plan:

   

4 Reasons I Volunteered for Jury Duty

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That’s right, I volunteered for Jury Duty.  No, to my knowledge, I’ve not lost my ever-loving mind.  I thought it through and I volunteered to serve for the next four months on a Grand Jury. I suppose I should start out with how I was actually able to volunteer since, normally, one is “volunteered” for it.  When I checked in, I assumed it would be like other jury selections of which I’ve gleefully participated and an elimination process would ensue at which point I would be among the chosen few or, like many of the hopefuls I would be playing judge for, get off Scott free. This was very different.

To my surprise, I quickly learned that the court prefers volunteers to sit on the Grand Jury.  Because of the length of service and the nature of this particular type of jury, it is best to have those who, for whatever reason, want to serve.  

Admittedly, my first reaction was, “Who in their right mind would want to serve for four months on some jury?” The more I thought about it, though, the more it became a real decision I had to consider: do I sit back and hope for the best, waiting to see if there were enough volunteers to fill the seats without me being drafted, or proactively take one of the seats of my own volition.  The decision turned out to be a tough one, but I chose the former…of course you already knew that.  The question is, why?

As I sat deliberating over my course of action, I quickly weighed the pros and cons: I thought about the time commitment–all day every other Monday and Tuesday throughout the entire Summer.  Well, there’s one strike against it.  I thought about the heinous nature and the sheer volume of the crimes I might have to consider…strike two.  I thought about my already busy schedule as a pastor.  I didn’t need to add something so time-consuming to my already-full docket.  Strike three…but not out.  As I began to pray about it, asking God to reveal to me what He wanted me to do, other considerations began to flood my mind.

1.  We talk a lot about the need for the Church to make a difference in the world…a world where her influence as the Church is being eroded almost daily.  It seems as though anything related to conservative orthodox Christianity is marginalized as antiquated and out of touch with mainline culture.  How can we really make a difference, putting our faith into action?  This is an opportunity, as a child of the very One who defines what is just, to serve in a position of influence within the community.  As one filled with the Holy Spirit of God, there is no one better qualified to serve in such a capacity.  Yet, rather than take these opportunities, we regularly do everything we can to get out of them. Ouch.

2.  I’ve done my share of complaining about the justice system.  Almost every time I watch the news, I bemoan the lack of accountability with politicians bending (or outright redefining) the law to hardened criminals who get little more than a slap on the wrist for destroying lives.  If I’m not willing to serve when I have the opportunity to make a difference, quite frankly, I need to shut up.

3.  To serve is a privilege in a free society. In this Country, an individual accused of a crime is not left to defend themselves before some crooked dictator, but before fellow citizens and peers. We, as citizens, have the final say in declaring guilt or innocence. That is something I am both thankful for and whole-heartedly support and should be proud to participate in the process.

4.  Most importantly, I thought about my children.  I want my sons to grow up with a sense of responsibility.  I want them to be ready at all times to stand up for what is right and be a part of the solution in the world in which they live.  I want them to be men of integrity who can be trusted to do the right thing all the time and be willing to be inconvenienced in service to others.  What am I telling them if, when I have the opportunity to take a stand and voluntarily serve the cause of justice, even when inconvenient, I figure out a way to “be excused” from service.  I have a responsibility to my children to set an example and I cannot take the “do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do” approach.  

So, I am gladly serving.  I voluntarily said yes and I know it was the right decision.  That’s not to say there aren’t some really good and valid reasons not to serve under certain circumstances. What I am saying is that we need to do everything we can to make ourselves available to positively influence our world. Am I looking for a pat on the back or an “atta-boy”?  Nope.  Really, this should be the very minimal we do to work at applying our faith in the world in which we live, so it’s really nothing special.  Besides, my first reaction was to try and get excused, so I’m certainly not being noble. It’s really an attempt to remind us to be a bit more intentional about engaging our culture, inconveniencing ourselves to serve where and when we can, living as ambassadors in this world for the glory of God. There is, perhaps, more at stake than we just may realize.

TGC Article: 8 Lies Christians Believe About Success

Man, this is such a great article on the lies Christians believe about being successful in life.  If you are serious about being a faithful disciple of Jesus, I would highly recommend you read and re-read this from The Gospel Coalition blog.  Here is an excerpt of a few of the lies we easily fall for:

lightstock_12509_small_seth_magnuson__350_233_903. God helps those who help themselves.

When God tells us to become like a child, he doesn’t mean “become like a child emotionally but make sure you have life insurance and pension and a stocked pantry.” No, he means seek first the kingdom of heaven and all of these things—the food, the clothing, the future—will be added unto you. He wants to take care of us while we devote ourselves to him. And it will probably mean appearing foolish to the rest of the world.

4. You are what you make of yourself.

There’s a lot of pressure to speak up, to be assertive, and to make your name known lest you get lost in a sea of pixels. But Jesus says the last shall be first. Despite being God, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death—even a cursed death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–11). He trusted God to glorify him, even as he emptied himself of glory. We’re called to do the same.

5. Suffering is a sign of failure.

When did North American culture become adverse to pain? If we begin to feel uncomfortable, we pop a pill. If we struggle with depression or discouragement, or if we encounter a terrible diagnosis, we rush to therapy or the doctor instead of first going to the Father and asking him what he wants us to learn through this suffering. God uses suffering for our good, even if it should end in death. We carry around within us the death of Christ, and we will never know the power of Christ’s resurrection if we don’t enter first into suffering.

You can read the full article here.

When It’s Good to be in a Gang

Paul tells Timothy that if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, “he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:20-21)

This is a concept I’ve been dealing with a lot lately in messages at The Gathering, though it’s a concept I’ve not mastered.  I certainly struggle, not so much with the concept or idea of “cleansing oneself”, as much as the practice of it.  The concept basically addresses the outworking of sanctification (the process by which the Holy Spirit begins making changes and also empowers us, through discipline, to bring about changes, as well).  Whereas salvation/transformation is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, sanctification is a divine partnership, in which I have responsibility.  Admittedly, it would be much easier if God just DID IT all, Himself, but that’s not the way He’s chosen.  Instead, He has equipped me to do battle within myself and those deep-seeded sins that “so easily entangle” (Hebrews 12:1).

Because of the work Christ has already done in my life to change my position before the Father to that of Holy and blameless, I have the power to say no to conditional sin that, before, I could not.  Before, sin had me chained…I was under it’s power, fulfilling all the things that my flesh dictated to me (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Now, the Word tells me I’m no longer a slave to sin and that the only reason I am under any authority of sin is that I, willingly, place myself under it’s control, wrapping myself again with the chains that once held me, choosing the sin from which I’ve been freed.  In short, I sin now because I want to, not because I have to (Galatians 5:1).  That’s what is troubling.  I want to sin. Man, I hate even saying that, because I really don’t and, yet, if sin ever dominates my life, according to Scripture, it’s because I let it.

I think this is why Paul encouraged his young son in the faith to “Fight the good fight of faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12a)  It is most certainly a fight, but it’s a fight that involves retreating…running away from an enemy.  Sounds crazy when talking about standing firm and fighting, but being an overcomer, in this case, involves running away from enemies we cannot beat if we remain in their presence.  Samson was the strongest man in the neighborhood, but the only way he could have beaten the Philistines was by running away from that which tempted his heart…the great temptation of Delilah.  He was defeated, not by the brute force of an army, but by remaining under the influence of a single individual who offered him all that he wanted…momentary pleasure.

Wow, that’s it right there.  Momentary pleasure.  Even though it doesn’t last, it still has the ability to train wreck our spiritual lives.  This is why Paul kept encouraging Timothy to run away from it.  Don’t try to stay and fight because, eventually, you’ll let your guard down and the fight is over.  Clean knock-out.  As a matter of fact, right after Paul encourages Timothy to cleanse himself, he tells him how:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant[e] must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2: 22-26)

In this passage, there is both a “run away from” and a “run towards”.  Both words used, “flee” and “pursue”, communicate both an urgency and an exertion of effort.  One involved running away from as hard and fast as you can while the other involves chasing after something as to catch it.  In other words, we should never be standing still!  The question is where should the most emphasis be placed, on fleeing or pursuing?  Which one do I focus on more?  The great news is that they are in opposite directions, but only sort of.  Here’s what I mean: I can flee from unrighteousness, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily pursuing godly righteousness.  It might mean that I’m simply pursuing self-righteousness.  I might still be trying to overcome sin under my own power and that will just lead to a pride that is nothing more than unrighteousness in disguise.  So, in truth, I’ve never actually run away from anything!

The key, then, to dealing honestly with sin, is to chase after godly righteousness “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”  In other words, I will never actually overcome sin in my life using a “Lone Ranger” approach because I’ll just drift towards self-righteousness and never even notice.  It’s actually a great weapon of the Enemy, “the Father of Lies”.  However, if I am in a community of humble people who are honestly seeking these same things, we can ” gang up” on sin, keeping each other in check, moving towards true godliness together, pointing out that slow drift away from our godly pursuits.

This is why “Gospel friendships” are so important, where we are deliberately speaking into each others lives; where almost every conversation contains some level of Gospel conversation, encouraging and challenging each other and simply “checking up”.  It doesn’t happen by accident and takes a great deal of cultivation.  If, though, I want to overcome sin in my life, sin that my flesh really wants to give in to because I like the momentary pleasure it offers, I have to pursue such relationships with everything I have, knowing that it’s worth the effort.

Shallow Church

Of late, I’ve been dealing in my own mind with the sillyness that is the American church.  We are ridiculously petty and self-absorbed.  Like in the days of the early Church, today in many parts of the world, persecution exists and is running rampant.  Just last week, I heard of four children in Baghdad, under the age of fifteen, who were beheaded because they refused to denounce Jesus to ISIS terrorists.  Seriously?  Kids who died for their faith?  Would I do that?  Would my children?  Are we too tied up with important stuff like getting our feelings hurt because of the way someone spoke to us or because someone simply did something we didn’t like?  Are we too concerned with getting a good parking space, flipping off the driver who cut us off or other earth-shaking “First-world problems” to worry about serious spiritual growth that would result in a boldness that would allow us to die for Jesus if called upon?

God help us in this crazy world.  God help this crazy institution we call the American church.  May it not come to the point of requiring persecution to wake us up to the realities of the spiritual realm.  May we not have to be threatened with death in order to get serious about our walk with and commitment to Christ.  I don’t hope for or wish for persecution.  On the other hand, if it did (or does) come, the Church would undoubtedly be strengthened almost immediately.  Would you be a part of it?  For more of my thoughts on the subject, watch my message from Sunday:

John – Portrait of a Savior, Part 39 from The Gathering on Vimeo.

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