Transformation and Grace

Sin is not just a blemish on our past, and it is also a detriment to our future.

As a result, God calls us not just to grace but also repentance.

In Biblical terms, we need both justification and sanctification. 

These are foundation truths of the Christian faith.  I fear that the second part of this equation is being lost to the tide of culture. 

We love the message of God’s amazing grace.  It is fantastic news to hear that God knows our sins, mistakes, and failures and offers us a clean slate.  He does not hold our past against us; instead, he forgives us through the power of the cross.  Everyone who hears that message says a hearty “Amen.”

The other side of the equation is equally important. The call of faith is not merely a message of grace but also of transformation.  We are to leave our sins behind in exchange for a new tomorrow. The sin that stains our past is also entangled around our soul and must be severed to live the life God desires for us.  We die to our old self so that we may walk in a new life. 

This message has increasingly been coming under attack.  Culture tells us we were born this way, and there is nothing we can do to change.  It is in our DNA.  God made us like this, and there is nothing flawed with anything he makes.  Yes, we need grace, but it ends with me letting go of my past. 

In the past year, I have been accused of lacking grace, unloving, and being pharisaic.  Why such harsh accusations?  Because I told people they needed to leave their sin and live differently.  It has been deemed unloving to tell people they need to change the behavior that is against God’s will.  These actions are destroying their life. 

Today, I want you to know I do not believe it is ungraceful to tell someone to change.  It is great to pick someone up out the filth of their life and clean them up, but it is also necessary to instruct them not to return to living in the dump. Jesus said we are to take up our cross daily and follow him.  We are to die to our old self and live a life where Jesus is the sole leader. 

Grace without transformation is not only unbiblical, and it is also detrimental to the future God desires for you.  A message of anything less is a false teaching that does more harm than good.      

Precious Memories, How They Linger

I first heard those words from the Woodsman quartet at my home church one Sunday evening. An all-male gospel quartet was big in those days, most churches had one, and ours was better than average. Bud sang bass notes that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Together they sang, and those words rang out through the Church auditorium at a special concert I was attending with my parents. Later, Alan Jackson would record the song, and it became a radio hit, but nothing can top the music from my youth by four men in matching red jackets.

At the time, I had little idea what they meant. I did not understand the pain of losing someone and how sweet it was to recall a moment you spent together. Precious memories are precisely what the title suggests. They are recollections of past moments that we hold dear because of the person to whom they were connected.

The problem with anything I find precious is that it may not be regarded as that to others. I first learned this with possessions. There were things I treasured, like an old fishing lure given to me by my father, that other people treated as common when I showed them. Similarly, my most treasured memories may seem like frequent everyday events to others, but they hold a special place in my mind.

Nothing I have said so far is surprising or challenging, but I always like to flip ideas over and seem them from a different angle. The things I see as ordinary, others may find as precious. The conversation I had as I was rushing to get home, might have meant little to me but was a blessing to the person with whom I spoke. That visit, meal, card, email, or even text may have been shared while busy, but it may be a touching moment to someone else. I think we need to be continually reminded that we have no idea the impact we are making for good.

I heard a preacher one time talk about the three most common things that Jesus did for people. He offered them a look, a word, and a touch. To people who were ignored, he looked at them with value. To confused people, he spoke a word of clarity. And to people who felt alone, he compassionately touched them. All of those are everyday acts that we might take for granted, but to someone else, they may be a precious memory of someone who cared.

So go into the week and offer the world kindness in the name of Jesus, you never know the difference it will make in someone’s life. They may treasure your time and it lingers with them for the rest of their life.

The Importance of Your Life of Faith to Others

The other day I sat with a lady who told me an all too familiar tale. Her daughter had married a man who called himself a believer but did not go to Church. As my inquiry of the situation continued, she told me about how this man was wonderful and kind and giving but did not have time for other religious people. Then came the story about how he grew up in the foster care system. He was placed in a family who claimed to be a Christian family but showed no signs of it outside of Sunday morning. They were mean, manipulative, and very uncaring for this man throughout his formative years. The big word he put on these people was simply hypocrites.

I wish I could tell you that this is the first time I heard this sordid tale of a family who claimed to follow Jesus, but I would be lying. These allegations have been leveled against believers for as long as I have been in ministry. It is always the same tale, “I have no faith or little need for the Church because of some people who demonstrated their faith as a charade.” It was played out every Sunday morning for the community for whatever reason, and this person saw behind the veil.

My response to those stories is usually the same. First, I express my sorrow over what they experienced. I remind them that people are flawed, and there have been religious charlatans since the beginning, and even Jesus has a Judas. Second, I tell them that not all people are like what they think. There are some wonderful, deeply committed people who attend the Church and live out their faith with a high level of commitment. They love, give, and are a blessing to the world. Third, I remind them that their faith should never be placed in people. Jesus died for our sins, and if you set your sights on anything less, you will be disappointed. I point out that frustration with people is not the same as disappointment with God. Finally, I tell them that they can be different. Their faith does not have to be a mask they paint on for Sunday morning; they can be a shining example to others. The failures they experienced in others does not need to be repeated by them. It can be the motivation to live authentically for Jesus.

I have never converted anyone through this one conversation, but hopefully, I have opened their eyes to some new possibilities, and over time they may walk a new path.

Today, I want to flip this whole thing over and remind you of the importance of your life. If you attend a Church or call yourself a believer, you have been placed on a pedestal and are being watched by others. You may not have asked for this responsibility or even like it, but it happens despite your approval. What you do Sunday afternoon through Saturday night is making an impact for the kingdom of God. The words you use, the attitudes you display, the beverages you consume, the way you treat others, the conversations you have, and on and on, speak volumes about what you really believe to others.

You are having an impact for the kingdom of God. Is your impact positive or negative? I pray that one day I do not have to sit down with your kids or coworkers and have them talk about having to overcome a terrible Christian experience with you.

The Power of Music

One of the most popular gifts of the holiday season was Apple Air Pods. If you have no idea what I am writing about, then let me describe them as the little plastic pieces people have in their ears. Most of them are white, and they are a form of wireless earphones for listing to music. That’s right; now you can go anywhere with a phone and wireless headphones and listen to music unattached and undisturbed. The result of this gift was seen everywhere I went over my New Years’ vacation. I would say that one out of every five people (pure guesstimate) had in these new headphones while I was out shopping.

I have numerous reactions to this new trend. One of my most prominent thoughts is how it cuts off the human connection and moves us toward isolation. But I have come to land on this one repeated idea. Music is more important now than it has ever been before in human history. People are having the tunes and words piped into their brains all day and everywhere they go. This is making music the most important tool of the twenty-first century.

Many years ago, I heard this quote shared by Ravi Zacharias: “Let me write the songs of a nation–I don’t care who writes its laws.” Andrew Fletcher, Scottish political activist (1655-1716). At the time, I thought it was interesting that a person who lived so long ago cared about the power of music. Then I saw this new revolution that has come with the smartphone, and now I understand it completely.

As a Christian living in the year 2020, we need to acknowledge three things about music.

  1. The Power of Music. Music can create moods, connect with moments, and share thoughts in a way that pleases us. I bet I could start the line of a song, and even if it was from many years ago, you could still remember the words while associating some story with it.
  2. The Importance of New Music. For all my ministry, I have heard the older generation complain about the new songs we are singing in the Church. At first, it was open hostility, and now it is more passive-aggressive as people tell me that “worship was outstanding today” when we sing a few more hymns. One thing people are missing is the power and importance of new music to the next generation. Because they can and will listen to it all day, they are drawn to new expressions of faith in music. You may not care about that new song, but it is communicating something to our children and grandchildren.
  3. The Need for More Music Writers. If the future is going to be impacted by music more than it ever has, then we need to encourage more people, especially young people, to write new music. Instead of complaining, we need to be embracing the power of music for good for the next generation.

Today, when you play music in your vehicle, listen to it at work, hear it in the store or see some person wearing Air Pods, then remember the presence of music everywhere and the power it brings with it. Our ability as believers to harness this medium for God might be the most significant ministry to this generation.

I Enjoy That Quote Too, But …

There are thousands of quotes floating around the internet. My social media feed is full of them every single day. This is not a new phenomenon. When I first entered the ministry, people would shout different quotes at me. One person used to say to me over and over, “People don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care.” For him, that settled the issue of the connection between preaching and pastoral care.

Let me say this clearly: I enjoy a good quote too, but that does not equate it with Biblical truth.

One of my Facebook groups shared this quote, “God would rather I am sitting in a boat fishing and thinking about him than sitting in a Church thinking about fishing.” People responded with their affirmative statements except for one fellow who used a hashtag as his response – #thingsJesusneversaid. It sounds like a good view until you try to align it with the words of Jesus or any part of the Bible.

We may like a quote because it expresses something we think or feel. It captures our thoughts and puts words to it. I am glad you like and are possibly inspired by it, but that does not mean that it rises to the same level as God’s word. This is true even if the quote is from a Christian source or a religious leader.

One statement within our movement of Church was to “call Bible things by Bible names.” The idea was that once we step out of the pages of the scripture, meanings can get changed, and intents can be skewed. The same is true, with quotes from both the famous and infamous. We can take a nice turn of phrase and elevate it to the level of undeniable truth, which we should not do.

Go ahead and enjoy that quote. Put it on your wall in a beautiful frame, have it emblazed on a T-shirt, or make it the background on your phone. The one thing I want to warn you about is that you should not build your life on it. Only the Bible is worthy of that type of action.

Showing Appreciation

I am an outspoken opponent of Pastor Appreciation Month. I have written about this on my blog (you can search for those posts), spoken about it in sermons, and deconstructed it in private conversations. Most of the people I serve know where I stand, and last October, I received precisely zero cards or gifts, and I am perfectly fine with that happening.

But all my crusading has led people to the wrong conclusion that I hope to correct. A month ago, I was talking to one of the people in the Church, and they said, “I know you don’t like people to appreciate you, but I want you to know that I do.” Wait. What?

I guess they had taken my harsh words about a month set aside to artificially praise your pastor as a statement that I was opposed to all appreciation. That is a mistake, and I am sorry if I gave anyone that impression.

Showing appreciation is a vital part of every community, but especially the Church. There is a proper place for people to demonstrate their recognition for the works and gifts of other people. Telling people that you are so happy that they did this project is not wrong. Stating how glad you are that someone used their talents for God’s glory is always a good decision.

I am against artificial praise. People saying how blessed they are by a ministry when they are not. Friends offering praise for a clearly subpar effort is a mistake. A false appreciation that is forced by some holiday or social construct is my problem.

Sincere, genuine appreciation is a precious gift to the community of God’s people. Let me encourage you to say the words, send the email, drop a text, write a card, or pay a visit to someone and tell them how much you appreciate them. Take time today to contact that person who has made your life better and tell them how they have blessed you. May your words be ever full of the praise of God and an appreciation for others.

You don’t need a particular month or day to show people how much you appreciate them. If you genuinely mean it, today is as good of a day as any.

What Dad’s Stroke Taught Me

Last week on January 8, I remembered it had been exactly three years since I lost my father. The hard truth is that in many ways, we lost him about 20 months before. On Easter weekend, the day we call “Holy Saturday,” my dad had a stroke. He spent days in the hospital, and the latest technology saved his life, but dad was never the same.

Everything became a struggle. He could no remember things well. He once had this enormous memory of everything. Now it was gone. He could not formulate words into coherent sentences the same way anymore. Words were mistaken and jumbled. As the days wore on, he would talk less and less. His anger would, and frustration was evident as we struggled to understand him.

The biggest thing that happened was the loss of control of the muscles in his mouth and throat. He could no longer drink regular water. It had to be thickened to the perfect consistency. Meals became a struggle as he could not swallow the same way. Throughout the entire twenty months, every day consisted of trying to get him to eat and not choke.

One of the most significant lessons to me through that time was not just my love of dad, but the amazing designs of our creator. While this may take a more extended discussion somewhere else, I do not believe in evolution. I understand the Bible story of Genesis chapters one and two are hard to harmonize. Within the first part of the story of humanity is the undeniable truth that God created humanity. Each and every individual is put together in a fantastic and complicated way. Systems in your body depend on other systems and muscle groups.

We take for granted the intricate design simply to take a drink of water. Your brain kicks in when you lift the bottle. Muscles in the back of your throat contract so that you do not allow liquids down until you are ready (that is what dad lost). At the precisely right moment, your mouth pushes the fluid back with your tongue while your throat opens. It takes multiple muscles and brain activity, and you do not even notice. That is until it is all taken away.

Dad choked on food. He would gag on water. We did everything we could, including me telling him my sister was “going to throw him into a home” if he didn’t try harder. It didn’t help. He lost weight and struggled until the very end. All this happened because he lost control of a handful of muscles and mental connections.

One example of the hand of the creator is the human body. It is said that Darwin struggled with his theory because of the complexity of the eye. The work of the mouth reassures what I believe. Our creator God knit us together, and even with its flaws and shortcomings, you are an incredible piece of engineering. Your body and your life are not formed by random chance.

In many ways, my dad continued to teach me about God to the very end. At one point, it was through his words, and near the end, it was through his body. The whole experience might have left me sad in one way, but in another, it strengthened my faith in the one who made me.