Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Bride At 31

I married the girl of my dreams 10 years ago, and this past Sunday (June 20th), my bride turned 31 years old.  We were laughing the other night remembering what we were like when we met in 7th grade, full of junior-high awkwardness and adolescent energy.  I have known Barie Sue since she was 12 years old, and she has turned from an fun-loving friend into a fun-loving wife and mom.  Who could have imagined that the girl sitting next to me at the lunchroom table in middle school would end up being my lover and partner for life?  I'm sure if I went back and talked to 12 year old Keith, he would think I was crazy. But the 31 year old Keith who has had the privilege of knowing Barie for two-thirds of her life knows that God was being incredibly gracious to him when He put Barie Sue in his path. 

I am kind of a serious guy (some people call it gruffness - I like to call it intensity), and Lord knew that I needed a wife and best friend who could make me smile.  And if it is one thing that Barie does extremely well (among many), it is smile.  I mean, check out the picture that I posted with this entry.  Barie's bright, big, beautiful smile, and her penetrating eyes can soften the heart of the hardest person.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard Barie say over the years, "I know you can't look at me without smiling."  And it is true.  When I think of her, I smile.  Her laugh is infectious and her most commonly noted quality is her joy.  The fact that she has come from the places she has been and still exudes seemingly endless genuine joy from her heart is a daily evidence of the gracious love of Jesus in her life.

Which reminds me of another facet of Barie's life that nobody could have guessed when she was 12 - her hunger and passion for God.  She was passionate about boys when I first met her (which was good for me), but today she is most passionate about honoring her Lord with every aspect of her life (which is really good for me).  She has struggled to figure out how spending daily time with God fits into a life with four small kids and a husband who moves slow in the morning, but amazingly, she has still managed to grow in her knowledge of and love for Jesus Christ.  This year at church we have made it our focus to work at growing in Christ-likeness, and to that end, we filled out spiritual assessments on each other so that we could see what other people see in our lives.  When I filled out Barie's, I was reminded what a godly woman she has become.  When you know somebody a long time, it can be hard to see how they have changed because the process is so slow.  But when I stopped to think about the woman that Barie has become, I was thankful for not only her love, but her example.  I want to be the kind of Christian that she is.

Beyond her spirituality, she has worked hard to be more physically fit at 31 than she was at 21.  In 2009, she completed her first triathlon and her first half-marathon.  I mean, who are we kidding?  We're talking about the year after she had her fourth baby!  I can't speak from experience, but I've heard that having kids can be tough on your body.  I got to watch first-hand how her short body struggled to hold those big babies.  But she did it with joy and ease (and quite a few TUMS - but that is a story for another post), and now she looks like she hasn't even had any babies.  She is in the best shape of her life.  I remember trying to first get her into running and working out after I found out about my diabetes five years ago - it took some arm-twisting.  But now, I can't even keep up with her.  My bride at 31 can out-run, out-bike, and out-swim me.  I personally don't think that is fair.

Most of all, though, I wish all people could know the giant heart of compassion that grows in my wonderful wife.  Every person she meets is the most interesting person at that moment.  She never meets a stranger, though she has met some strange people, and her tears flow freely when she sees someone in need.  If God ever makes her rich, I know that she will give all that money away.  She simply feels so deeply for others.  I am thankful that God has grown my own heart of compassion over the years, so that now I can see people and feel for them with deep love.  But Barie feels that deep love for everyone, not the handful that I care about.  Almost every day when I come home, Barie starts off her first paragraph of conversation with these words, "you won't believe who I met today..."  And then we're off to the races.  And while it is funny to me - it's not funny to her - she is genuinely concerned and every new person she gets to know.  Over the years I've known her, that deep love for others has only grown.

When Jesus was asked in Mark 12 what the most important commandments were in all of the Torah, He answered with two - love God with all that you are and love others as yourself.  As I read those words, I can't think of any better description for my amazing bride at 31.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Notes: Ford County (2/5)

I've read a lot of John Grisham books over the years, enjoying the earlier legal thrillers better than his later books, and so I picked up a used copy of his newest work, a collection of short stories, before we left for vacation.  The book is a quick read and the characters that Grisham introduces us to are interesting.  In spite of this, I didn't really enjoy the stories.  I tired of the combination of similar features in every story - lots of drinking, unethical small-town lawyers, frequent divorce, and time in prison.  I just couldn't get involved in any of the stories in any kind of meaningful way.  Maybe it was the fact that I just read Gilead a month ago, but either way, I found Grisham's writing in these stories to be repetitive and uninspiring.  Sin may be the universal point of contact between human beings, but stories without any redemptive value wear down the soul.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Notes: Billy Graham (5/5)

I read Billy Graham's autobiography, Just As I Am, about 10 years ago when I was first considering a life of ministry.  His autobiography is long and detailed, but extremely moving.  Graham has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people in person than anyone in history and has influenced a whole generation of Christian leaders around the world.  When I received David Aikman's biography of Graham, I was excited to read about his life from an outsider's perspective.  Aikman, as a senior writer for Time magazine earlier in his life, is well versed in world religion and world politics.  Because of this, Aikman brings a unique perspective to covering Graham's ministry and life.

First, let's talk about the structure and style of the book.  While Graham's autobiography is primarily written chronologically, Aikman's biography is written categorically, covering Graham's crusade ministry, his relationship with other Christian leaders, his teaching and example on racial issues, his friendships to American presidents, and his legacy one at a time.  I really appreciated this approach as it allowed the reader to think about Graham's ministry in larger terms than simply one-time events.  Aikman's book is much shorter than Graham's autobiography (about 300 pages compared to 800 pages) and moves quickly.  Graham's life, experiences, and relationships gives the biographer plenty of material to work with, and Aikman doesn't get bogged down in too much detail.  Rather, Aikman tries to interpret the impact and influence of Graham's life and ministry.  Also, as an insider to the Christian community, I can testify that Aikman understands the inner-working complexities of the community very well and writes about them lucidly.

Second, let's talk about the content.  Aikman is obviously a big fan of Billy Graham, and it is hard not to be.  Very few people are this faithful to their calling over the course of 70 years in the public eye.  So many ministers in the public eye have fallen prey to the temptations of power, money, or sexuality.  Yet, Graham has stayed true to his original call to preach the gospel for seven decades.  Aikman carefully examines Graham's missteps along the way, most of them the result of Graham's desire to be liked by those around him.  The part of the book that grieves my heart the most (as a pastor with four kids) is Aikman's discussion of how Graham's traveling ministry impacted his five children.  Three of the five have been divorced, and they have all talked publicly about their struggles with their dad being gone so much of the time for his crusades around the world.  At the end of the day, however, we all have much to learn from the example of Billy Graham - most clearly from his faithfulness and his humility.  The last paragraph of Aikman's book is so poignent that they are worth quoting in full:
Some of the results of Graham's ministry may become clear in time; others may not be known until - if we believe in its existence - we are in eternity.  But we do know that Billy Graham, evangelist, one of the most successful men in America of the second half of the twentieth century in any conceivable endeavor, was also one of the most humble.  When speaking of how people would recognize his followers, Jesus taught, "you will know them by their fruits."  What fruits?  The fruits of moral virtue in their lives, sometimes referred to as "the fruits of the spirit."  by that criterion alone, Billy Graham, world-famous evangelist, sometimes called the Protestant Pope, a seven-decade long servant of the call to preach the gospel, has been singularly and to the end a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Questions About Perseverance

I preached yesterday on our call as believers in Jesus Christ to persevere (look at Galatians 6:9, Hebrews 12:1, and Matthew 5:33-37).  I had never preached on that topic, and I found it especially challenging and helpful to my own maturity.  I've talked to many people since yesterday who said they had never heard a sermon on that topic and were thankful to hear what the Scripture teaches.  We only answered questions after first hour since we baptized after second-hour yesterday.  As I've done other weeks, here are some answers to questions that came in...

1) How do you discern when to pray and wait, or pray and take action?  This is really a question about discerning God's will.  My general rule of thumb on discerning God's will is that we pray (try to discern His voice), we read Scripture (to make sure that we are not missing something that is obvious), we listen to godly counsel (a lot of Scripture encourages us to seek wise advice), and then we act.  Sometimes we can use "I'm praying about it" as cover for procrastination and laziness.  We need to make sure and guard against that temptation.  If my Bible teaches it and godly men and women around me encourage it, I should seriously consider it.  All that being said, we do need to make sure that we don't over-commit ourselves to the urgent at the expense of the important (a major point in my sermon yesterday).  If we say 'yes' to everything, we will eventually say 'no' to something.  We have to be discerning about what is most important for us to give ourselves to, commit to those things, and then follow-through.  This raises other questions...

2) What do I do if I have already over-committed?  How do I respond to this message to persevere if I am already over-committed and I simply can't keep up this pace without killing myself?  The first answer to this question is to remember NOT to get in this situation again.  Remember that you can't please everybody all the time and that each of us have to make priority decisions every day.  If you get trapped into being a people-pleaser all the time, you will constantly find yourself over-committed.  That being said, the question is what to do when I'm already there.  First, I would say that you have to realize that your lack of perseverance will impact somebody else.  If you are going to back out on something you originally said you were going to do, you need to make sure and help find someone else to do what you had previously committed to.  Don't just drop the ball - hand it to someone else.  Second, consider if you can keep your commitment if it is short-term with the knowledge that you will not re-up your commitment after you are done.  It is easier to be out of balance for 8 or 12 weeks if you know that at the end of your commitment, you will have learned your lesson and can stay balanced for a longer period of time.  Finally, if you absolutely have to break a commitment to someone, don't act like it doesn't matter.  Own your own faults and commit to learn from your experience.

3) How do you cope with other people’s failure to keep their promises, when you are the one who was let down?  What if you are on the receiving end of someone not persevering in their commitment?  What if you end up carrying the weight of the family, your job, your ministry because someone else did not follow through?  This is a very real situation that we all face from time to time.  In my response, I think we need to hold two principles in tension: grace and truth.  First, we need to be gracious - we should realize that we have let others down before, and that if Jesus had waited until we persevered in all of our commitments before He rescued us, we would still be waiting.  In other words, as with all sin, we are called to reflect the forgiveness that we have received from Christ.  In addition, however, we need to be people of truth.  We need to challenge other believers to keep their word.  We need to let others know how their lack of commitment will impact our life.  When we don't persevere, other people are hurt - that is the simple truth.  And as a Christian community, we need to do a better job of having honest conversations with each other about follow-through.  We can be gracious and still call others to a higher standard of integrity and perseverance.  Ultimately, I think we should learn from our painful experiences with broken promises to not break promises ourselves.  May God help us all to be men and women who keep our word.

Minor Prophets

While I was away on study-break last week, I read through the Minor Prophets (the 12 smaller prophetic books at the end of the Old Testament).  This was a great exercise for me and reminded me of God's greatness, holiness, and compassion.  As I read, I summarized the message of each book.  Here were some of my thoughts...

Hosea – 14 chapters – Hosea is asked by God to marry a prostitute (Gomer) so that he will know what God’s experience with Israel is like.  God addresses Israel’s repeated adultery (idolatry with other gods) and their presumption of God’s continuous blessing.  The book ends on a positive note with God promising to renew and restore a repentant Israel.
Joel – 3 chapters – Joel announces the locust plagues against the people of Judah (a terrible judgment from God), then in 2:12 begins to call God’s people to repentance and healing.  God promises to restore His people, pour out His Spirit on them, and to defeat their enemies.  He does all of this so that His people and the nations will know that He is the true and reigning God.
Amos – 9 chapters – Amos speaks of God’s judgment on kings/nations that oppress other peoples with violence and cruelty (see 2:6-6-16 on Israel).  The Lord has brought warnings from prophets and plagues on His people, but they failed to return to Him.  Amos if the reluctant shepherd prophet who confronts the leaders of Israel with the visions that God has given.  Amos’ vision of God is intense and awesome in His judgment and wrath against sin.  Only the last 5 verses speak of God’s future restoration of Israel.
Obadiah – 1 chapter – God promises to bring judgment on the people of Edom because they stood by and watched as the nation of Israel was invaded and conquered by foreign fighters.  They turned on Israel when the going got tough, and now God has promised to destroy Edom and restore Israel.
Jonah – 4 chapters – God calls Jonah to announce judgment on Nineveh.  Jonah refuses and runs away from God’s calling.  God stops Jonah and gets his attention through a storm and a fish.  Jonah repents and delivers the message to Nineveh.  The people of Nineveh repented and God relented.  Jonah became angry at God’s mercy toward Nineveh and God confronted Jonah about his anger.
Micah – 7 chapters – Micah prophesies the Lord’s judgment against those who abuse their wealth and power (especially the leaders of Israel) to take advantage of the weak and poor.  He condemns the false prophets who are saying everything is okay when it is clearly not okay, and he looks forward to the coming reign of God on the earth (the coming Messiah – Jesus).  In the day of the Coming King, peace will finally reign and all nations will worship the true God.  More than sacrifice, God wants his people to do right, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.  God is faithful to His promises.
Nahum – 3 chapters – God announces coming judgment against the Assyrians in Nineveh, proclaiming His great and awesome power to wipe out a people with one word.  This book is full of powerful imagery of what Nineveh will experience as God brings judgment – it is terrifying language.  The Assyrians were the most powerful and wealthy nation of that day, and yet God brings them to their knees.
Habakkuk – 3 chapters – Habakkuk questions God’s plan to use the Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah.  God pledges to destroy all those who worship idols, who put their trust in their wealth.  This book is a call to faith – Habakkuk ends with a prayer declaring his trust and joy in God his Savior.
Zephaniah – 3 chapters – Zepheniah prophesies against Judah for their indifference toward God’s ways and the nations for their pride in scoffing at God’s people and God Himself.  The prophet recognizes that God’s continued threats of judgment are not changing the people and looks forward to that day when their hearts will be changed because the Lord, the King of Israel, will live among them in person.
Haggai – 2 chapters – Haggai confronted the governor and high priest with the message that the Lord’s house was in ruins while the people were building their own houses.  The people and the leaders repented and God spurred their hearts to rebuild the Temple.  In response to their obedience and faith, God promised to bless them richly.
Zechariah – 14 chapters – Zechariah is full of apocalyptic imagery – flying horses, lampstands, baskets, chariots, scenes of heaven and earth – all pointing to the restoration of God’s people, God’s judgment against all of the nations (images pointing to the four corners of the earth), and the coming of the royal Branch (who will reign in Jerusalem as God’s representative).  The main message is that God has not forgotten His people in exile and that He will restore them through their coming King (9:9-17).  When the King comes, He will bring dancing and rejoicing for His people.  This book is more hopeful than the others and more focused on the coming Messiah, his betrayal and death for the cleansing of the people.
Malachi – 4 chapters – The Lord is angry with His people because they show less respect to His name than the other nations who have no covenant.  Malachi’s role is to call the people of Israel to respect and honor the name of the Lord, to not give Him empty, left-over sacrifices, but their best.  The Lord is angry at His people for breaking their vows, stealing their tithes, and ignoring His warnings.  The book ends with a group of God-fearers renewing their vow to God, and God promising to send the Son.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Book Notes: Three Books

I have been behind in posting about the books I've been reading, and before I dive into several books this week, I wanted to put out some quick reviews of three books I've read recently.  I read the first two while I was on my 10-year wedding anniversary trip to Cancun in May, and I am working my way through the third one right now with my family.

Book #1: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer-Prize for this fiction book in 2004.  I had heard some great reviews by other pastors who read it, so I picked up a used copy before I left for vacation.  The book is a compilation of first-person letters written from an elderly dying pastor to his young son.  The letters cover a wide range of topics - everything from family history to his professional life as a pastor to personal struggles.  I really enjoyed this book - probably more than most since I could relate to many of the ups and downs that the pastor faced over the years of his ministry and because I loved the quick interludes of American history throughout.  The writing is beautiful and moving throughout, and Gilead made me want to write a yearly letter to each of my children on their birthday so that I could leave them with something from me when they get older.  I don't know if I'll do it, but I should.

Book #2: With the Old Breed by EB Sledge
EB Sledge's memoir of his fighting on the front lines in the Pacific during WWII has been out for almost three decades now.  The book continues to sell well and has been introduced to a new generation of readers as the basis for HBO's WWII series called Pacific.  I have read several books about the World War II era, so nothing in Sledge's book was new to me, but his close personal encounters with war, death, disease, friendship, and honor made for incredibly gripping reading.  As we just celebrated Memorial Day 2010, book like this remind me of how blessed we are for the freedom that we enjoy.  Men like EB Sledge and many others who did not come home have served our country so bravely and sacrificed so much.  I am thankful to EB Sledge for writing his story down for generations to read.

Book #3: Training Hearts, Teaching Minds
I have always struggled to know the best tool to use to help my kids get an accurate understanding of God and His ways.  We have used different kids' Bibles and devotional books over the years, but this one by Starr Meade is my favorite (by far!).  Training Hearts, Teaching Minds is a daily family devotional guide that gives six devotions for each question in the shorter catechism.  The catechism questions are updated into modern English (which is great), and the daily devotionals are short (which is also great).  The devotionals guide your family into one or two passages each night that help the family understand the question that you are current studying as part of the catechism.  If you are in the midst of raising up kids to know and love God, I would highly encourage you to pick up this awesome tool.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Letters Topic #3: Perseverance

I like to preach about risk-taking, about being a radical disciple of Jesus Christ.  Early in my pastoral ministry, I used to think that everyone's problem in their relationship with Jesus was their lack of willingness to make sacrifices and take risks for the sake of the gospel.  Now, I am beginning to wonder if I only had part of the story.  While risky faith is important, perseverance is equally important.  It is not enough to set sail, we have to finish the journey.  The Bible has much to say about God's faithfulness toward us and His desire for us to be faithful to our commitments.  As I lead a group of Christ-followers in 2010, I notice that one of the major challenges that we face in our journey toward maturity is persevering in our commitments and being faithful to our word. This Sunday, June 6th, I will preach on how Jesus Christ can help us become a people who regularly persevere.  In anticipation of that topic, I thought I would throw out a few reasons we fail to persevere...

1) Lack of Clear Priorities - when we are not sure what is most important in our lives, we can tend to say "yes" to every opportunity that comes along.  And of course, if we say "yes" to everything, we are really saying "no" to what is most important.  We all know this in general terms, but if we have not written down explicitly what our most important priorities are, then we don't know how to evaluate all the opportunities that come our way.  In order to persevere in our commitments, we have to limit our commitments to what is MOST important.

2) Fear of man - as a follow-up to point one, we need to admit that we all struggle to say "no" when someone asks us to help.  Most of the time, it is driven by compassion and a desire to help, but sometimes it can be driven by the fear in our hearts that the person asking us may reject us and not like us anymore.  In this way, a fear of not getting man's approval can cripple our perseverance.  We are usually less willing to say "no" on the front end that we are to say "yes" at the front end and then follow it up with a "no" when we realize that we have over-committed.  I think this is because we believe other people will be more understanding if we tried to say "yes" but had to back out because of other commitments.

3) Boredom - we are an entertained people, aren't we?  It drives me crazy when one of my children goes from one activity to another and then asks me, "what's next?" as though I were their personal entertainment machine.  Yet we have all been impacted by immediate-gratification culture.  We want to enjoy something, and we want to enjoy it now!  If something bores us over time, we move on to something new.  This seems harmless when it is a video-game, but what happens when it is a spouse?  Our limited endurance for boredom has had terrible consequences in the area of personal perseverance.

4) No Vision - another reason that we give up so quickly is that we forget why we are doing what we are doing.  If we lose vision and feel like we are just going through the motions, we will quickly grow weary with the follow-through.  How many of us have signed up to do something or said 'yes' to something when we very excited only to see the passion and joy leave as we got into the long-haul?  This is so common that we even have a name for it - "burn-out."  Why does a fire burn out?  Because it loses it fuel (the wood) or can't get any more oxygen.  The fuel for perseverance is vision - remembering the big picture while we are faithful in the small details.

What are your thoughts on why perseverance is so hard?

Book Notes: Jesus Manifesto (4/5)

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have teamed up to write a new book about Jesus Christ.  Their work is an attempt to call the Christian community back to a exalted view of Jesus as all in all and to correct the Christian community for all the other pursuits that we have made primary over the years.  In many ways, their words are encouraging and powerful as they stirred my heart to reconsider my devotion to and connection with Christ.  In other ways, their book felt uneven (co-authorship can do that) and unnecessarily polemical (attempting to refute those who emphasize other things in their preaching and teaching).  I would have enjoyed their exalted vision of Jesus more had they not repeatedly attempted to correct the teaching of others.

As a guy who attempts to preach Christ in all that he does, I was saying "amen" to many passages in the book.  All of us can be reductionistic in our teaching (trying to say that all we need to teach is ______), and the Jesus Manifesto says that if we are going to be reductionistic in anything, it should be toward Christ.  The Scriptures do say that He is all in all, so we have justification for putting our whole attention and devotion and affection on Him.  However, Sweet and Viola don't go to the next step (which I understand is not the focus of their book) and show how an all-consuming devotion and love for Christ then impacts all the different areas of my life.  In other words, if we are not going to preach legalism or moralism or social justice or mission, then we need to show people how a passionate walk with Jesus produces morality and justice and evangelism.

Overall, this book is an attempt at a modern-day updated Christology.  How do we talk about Jesus in today's language so that we are faithful to the Bible and yet also help introduce people in our day to meet with the living Christ?  Sweet and Viola make a strong case against dry doctrinalism (just talking about Jesus instead of talking to Him), and yet their book is a doctrinal book - making the case for the biblical view of Jesus in all of His glory.  I think this is needed - I just wish they had not dogged the doctrine of Christ as less important than knowing Christ.  They are equally important.  Most cults in our culture today speak of Jesus and their relationship with Him, but they are not talking about the Jesus I know and meet with every day.  They are making Jesus in their own image, according to their own doctrine.  In order for our worship and devotion and love of Christ to not lead us into the ditch (to use the authors' language), we have to make sure that we are worshiping and loving the true Christ.  I'm afraid that most people in my generation use the name Jesus without any idea who they are talking to.

All this being said, I do want to sincerely thank Sweet and Viola for calling us back to the center of all things - Jesus Christ.  My heart is stirred to love Him more and to allow Him to live fully through me.