Some Quick Thoughts on Fear

Fear is one of the most crippling things in life. It causes us to fall back in the face of opposition or danger.  It prevents us from taking advantage of great opportunities that could alter our lives for the good.  It leads us to play it safe when anything worth having involves some level of risk.

Too much of life is dominated by fear.  Fear to move. Fear to try. Fear to love. Fear to hope. Fear to risk.  Sure there is room for a healthy dose of “fear” that, hopefully, causes us to pause and assess the risk-reward ratio before we do something completely foolish, but what I’m talking about is that level of fear that prevents us from even such an assessment.

2 Timothy 1:7 teaches that God hasn’t given a spirit of fear, but love, power and a sound mind.  Each of these things take something very important: boldness.  It takes great boldness to love, to exercise power and to think straight, putting behind us stifling thoughts and irrationality that prevents us from truly living; from fulfilling all that God has for us.  In this verse, Paul tells us that those things are provisions from God.  They are gifts given to us through the Holy Spirit of God to those who are His.

In whatever form fear may try to creep into your life, remember this verse of promise from God that has become very special to me as I engage in battle with my own fears:

“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will hold on to you with my righteous hand.”  Isaiah 41:10

If this is true and we determine to take God at His Word, how could fear ever have any power over God’s Children?  Today is the day to conquer fear in your own life, once and for all, through the power of the Holy Spirit of God who has already defeated it!

General James Mattis on the Importance of Reading

I have been working hard at increasing the depth and breadth (and speed!) of my reading.  To be honest, I’ve often felt guilty for taking time in my day to read.  I always thought, “How many of my church members get the luxury of sitting down with a book in the middle of their day to read?”  I have come to realize how short-sighted and, frankly, absurd that notion is.

My whole job is to make sure that I’m learning the answers to a thousand different questions.  I have to work to understand deep, theological concepts so that I can adequately and simply communicate them to people who are struggling, hurting or confused over something that has happened in life.  For me to understand the answers, I have to continually be digging and studying which, of course, means reading.

In some way or another, you have to continue developing, too.  Whether it’s in your job, your family, or your soul, you are charged to keep growing.  We are constantly learning.  The question is whether we’re learning the hard way or doing the hard work to learn the easy way, which rarely happens without reading.

I recently came across one of the absolute best articles I’ve ever read on the subject of “professional reading” which could also apply to the area of general “developmental reading.”  It’s about the reading habits of General James Mattis who was recently tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next Secretary of Defense.  In the Business Insider article, General Mattis talks of the primary reason that carving out time for extensive reading time is so important:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

What about you?  Do you make reading a priority?  I encourage you to expand your horizons, develop a wide-range of interests (history, biography, theology, etc.), and begin carving out time whenever you can to invest in personal growth through reading.  I highly recommend you read the entire article here and check out the following extra posts for some tips and guidelines.

Additional articles on the subject:

Albert Mohler on “The Reading of Books”

My article on 7 Tips for Reading Better, Faster and Smarter

Welcoming Chris Petty to The Gathering

I have the privilege of welcoming a friend of mine, Chris Petty, to preach at The Gathering this Sunday.  Chris is formerly the Pastor at Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Ringgold, GA, but has recently been called as a career missionary to Bolivia.  He and his family are planning on moving early in 2017.

I love the kind of ministry Chris has been called to because of the focus on training and developing Bolivian pastors to then go back into the churches and areas they are already living and serving in.  It’s exciting to see this kind of mission work developing simply because of the potential to reach so many more people through just one missionary.  Here is an excerpt from the information about Chris and his family’s recent appointment:

After Chris has served for 8 years as senior pastor at Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Ringgold, GA, God is leading our family to La Paz, Bolivia as full-time missionaries! Pouring our passion for missions into the body at PSBC has been our role in the Great Commission, but that role is now changing. It is an overwhelming privilege that excites us and scares us at the same time. Chris will be training and discipling pastors as well as mobilizing missionaries from Bolivia to other parts of the world, including to least-reached people groups in remote villages of Bolivia. Joy will be ministering in the home and the community, developing relationships with women and children in order to evangelize and disciple. All three of our children desire to go and are willing to sacrifice to serve. We are so grateful for this gift! We will be sent by SIM and Poplar Springs Baptist Church. Our goal is to leave by the end of this year.

ministry facts

• 85% of pastors in Bolivia have no biblical training and many are even unconverted.

• Many churches in South America are eager to send missionaries but lack training and the infrastructure to send them.

• There are more than 35 least reached people groups in Bolivia.

• Because of their access to many “closed” countries and their ability to adapt to many cultures, Bolivians have the potential to be a strategic mission force.

I hope you will make plans to join us Sunday to hear Chris and meet his family.

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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Shelved Blessings

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How happy are you right now?  Seriously, are you over-the-moon kind of crazy-happy in your life?  Blessed?  Certainly, better than you deserve, but do you experience real blessing in your life such that you are overwhelmed at how good life is…how good God has been to you?

Sometimes, the blessings of life seem to hide when I spend most of my time focused on the troubles.  I get caught up in the busyness of life and the overly full calendar, the relational trials, the bills, and on it goes, so that it crowds out time to focus on the blessings in life and even robs me of the time I need to even pursue real, lasting happiness.

I was revisiting one of my favorites in Scripture this morning: Psalm 1.  Kind of smooshing the English Standard Version and the Holman Christian Standard version (my two faves), it starts off saying, “How blessed (or happy) is the man who does not…[and here I paraphrase heavily]…listen to ungodly advice, hang out with people who chase after ungodliness, or take part in conversation with people who criticize and put people down…[ok, I’m done paraphrasing], but his delight is in the [Word of God…yeah, I know, I paraphrased again] and on His Law he meditates day and night…”

So, if you caught that, Psalm 1 is saying that happiness and blessing in life is a result of delighting in the Lord’s instruction “day and night”, which is just another way of saying constantly.  It’s about taking the Bible down off of the shelf and setting aside time in the morning to read it.  It’s about reflecting on what was read throughout the day, and quite often means memorizing at least some portion of it so that it’s fresh in your mind at all times.  This is the life of a disciple who wants happiness in life and if I’m not experiencing that; if my life is crowded out with all sorts of things that don’t end in happiness or blessing, then I have to start by evaluating my time in the Word.  Now, that said, Scripture isn’t talking about a “giddy” kind of happiness that is all circumstantial, but a joy and contentment, or the ability to delight in even the most mundane part of life, realizing the blessing in even being able to do it or participate in it.

This changes the way we look at our crazy schedule, our less-than-satisfactory job, and our relational struggles so that we become grateful for opportunities, for steady work and people in our lives to interact with.  It changes our perspective!water

So, how much happiness and blessing do you want in your life?  No, really, how much do you want, because if the amount of time we spend in God’s Word is a “pound-for-pound” comparison to the amount of joy, contentment, blessing and happiness we experience, I wonder if we want all of these things as much as we say we do.  Saying we want blessing in life without going to the source of blessing for our lives is like saying we are thirsty but not realizing there’s a sink in the kitchen.  Sadly, in my own life, I often walk through the kitchen, notice the sink, but decide I’m too busy to put the glass under the faucet and turn the knob.  That’s short-sightedness and results in shelved blessings!

Then I walk out of the room, look around at my parched life and think, “Man, I wish I had something to drink.” crackedearth

On Teaching Them To Soar

It’s Friday morning, my day off, and I’m sitting outside at Rembrandt’s, one of my favorite spots in Chattanooga.  The temperature has finally dropped below 90, the birds are singing and a breeze is gently blowing.  The coffee is hot and it’s a great time to reflect on things flowing through my mind.

You can see the dad just above my screen.
You can see the dad just above my screen.

As I sit here, there is conversation going on all around me.  Most of it I don’t hear, or at least don’t comprehend, but there is one family sitting at one of the tables closest to me that I can’t help but notice.  It’s a middle-aged couple sitting with a young man having coffee together.

After a couple of minutes, it becomes clear the young man is preparing to begin college and the parents are preparing to say goodbye.  I don’t know where they are from, but it’s clear they don’t live here.  There is a sense of excitement in the conversation, especially as the young man is talking about this new chapter in life, but overshadowing that are clearly mixed emotions lingering softly over the table.  It’s something that I’m beginning to instinctively pick up on.  Perhaps that’s why I can’t pull my attention away from them.

As the mother gets up to go inside, it’s time for Dad to encourage his son to “call your mother at least every Sunday. She needs to know that you’re thinking about her.”  I find it interesting that he only said call your mother because a few minutes later when the boy also went inside for one reason or another, I could have sworn I saw the glimmer of a tear in his eyes.  Unmistakably, there was pain on his face.

It’s hard to deal with…children growing up and moving through stage after stage of life.  It seems as though we don’t have time to adjust to one that they’re already moving into the next, one series of painful joys after another.

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Look snazzy for picture day.

Maybe I’m thinking so much about this because I’m moving through yet another with Jacob.  For the last two days, I’ve ridden to his new school with him…in his own car…driving.  Wow, how could this little boy already be at this stage of life!  Somewhere along the line I blinked and found he is not so little anymore.  As he, himself, pointed out yesterday morning with a smile as he tied his shoes on the steps getting ready to leave for the first time in his own car: “Wow, Dad.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that you were teaching me how to tie my shoes.”  Now, I’m teaching him how to drive on his own.

I can’t even write this without feeling the lump in my throat.  With every passing day, I’m experiencing the series of heart-aches I know my own parents went through, usually without my ever being in tune with enough to make it easier for them.  Heart-ache that never really goes away.  How could it?  Your kids are always your kids.

So, it’s the mist of mixed emotions gently floating above that table that I identify with.  It’s painful to think of your kids growing up so fast, but it’s so amazingly gratifying to observe…and maybe even play a small part in…the development of their wings.  I’m so grateful to God for giving me two wonderful, talented and loving boys and the privilege to pour my life into and do all I can, through His power, to instruct them and nurture them, to correct them and train them in learning how to fly.

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!

Held Fast

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Last week, I had the privilege of taking Jacob with me to the Together for the Gospel Conference in Louisville, KY.  Time nor space allows me to describe all that it meant to me, especially getting to share an experience like that with my son (and, hopefully, Andrew’s time is coming, too!). IMG_6001 I will say that one of the surreal moments I had as a father was following a tour group around as Jacob participated as a prospective student of Boyce College!  Obviously, no decisions have been made, but as a two-time graduate of Southern Seminary (which is also home to Boyce), it was an odd feeling to be there in that capacity.

At the beginning of each T4G session, we spent time in worship.  It’s something you just have to experience to get a grasp of the sense of awe: 10,000 voices singing simple, often very old hymns, to the accompaniment of an extraordinarily gifted worship leader/pianist.  I get excited and impatient when I think that’s just a little bitty foretaste of heaven!

One of the hymns we sang has come to mean a great deal to me.  It is a reminder of all God has done to secure me, both now and for eternity and I hope it can be a comfort and encouragement to you, regardless of the circumstances you face.  Maybe today you need to be reminded — He will hold me fast!

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