Category Archives: Personal Reflection

Photobombing Jesus – Confessions of a Glory Thief

 

pho·to·bomb (verb) To spoil a photograph by appearing in the camera’s field of view as the picture is taken. Oxford English Dictionary

I met Jesus in a dramatic way, which made for what some called an “amazing testimony.” I was once on a hell bound path paved with drugs, parties, gambling, and girls, but Jesus turned my heart to run after Him. Because of this, I was quickly ushered onto the stage of local churches and campus ministries to tell what God had done for me.

After preaching a few dozen times (Lord, remember not the sermons of my youth!), I became convinced that I needed to learn more about the Bible. God led me to Denton, Texas to take part in a discipleship program led by a pastor named Tommy Nelson.

As part of the program, we were charged to find an area of service in the church. I assumed that since I’d done ministry with college students, I could jump into College Life and help lead the way. It was a thriving ministry that attracted some 600 students to its weekly meeting. I was certain this was the place God brought me to be a blessing.

Instead, it was the place God intended to begin breaking me.

The Stage

John Bryson was the leader of the college ministry during those years. By my estimation, he was a gifted man who knew how much the ministry could use someone like me. By his estimation, I was an eager, prideful young man who needed to learn some humility.

As we neared the first gathering of the year, he pulled me aside to let me know he had an important opportunity for me. I assumed he wanted me to share my testimony or maybe even preach, so I showed up ready to go.

But instead of leading me on stage, he led me backstage. He pointed to a white tethered chord and told me I had the important job of serving the people on stage that evening by opening and closing the curtain for them.

With each tug of the rope, my frustration increased. My hands burned and my heart criticized the people on stage. I assured myself that if I was out there, God would have used me in a more powerful way.

I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, but near the end of the evening, everything seemed to slow down and I had a distinct impression from the Lord that went something like this,

“If you can’t be just as joyful back here serving Me where no one can see you, as you would be out there where everyone can see you— then your heart is seeking your glory and not mine. And I will not share My glory with another .”

The Photobomb

In that moment, the Lord convicted me that I came to serve with mixed motives.

I hoped for lost people to be converted, but I wanted to be the evangelist God used to save them.

I desired Christians to be encouraged, but I wanted to be the one through whom He gave the edification.

I wanted people to think God was awesome, but I hoped they would think I was awesome, too.

This is where it gets tricky. The desire for God to be glorified through me is the height of my created purpose— “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

But there is a fine line between wanting God to use you for His glory and you wanting everyone to know God is using you for His glory. That fine line is the line between pure worship and photobombing idolatry.

Most of us don’t consciously desire to steal glory from God. Because we love Him, we want Him to be magnified. But if we are honest, we hope that when people see Jesus as amazing, they see us as amazing.

I need to be crystal clear at this point…

It is not wrong to desire to be a part of what God is doing—you were created for this purpose.

“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

It is not wrong for you to want people to see God being glorified in your life—you are commanded to do this.
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” John 15:8

It is not wrong to serve with the hope that people will be convicted of their sin and trust in Christ—you have been called to this.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12

In fact, I would say it is sinful if you do not desire these things. Rather, what I am saying is that we must give careful attention to our heart to make sure we are not sinfully seeking to steal glory from Jesus.

Confessions of a Glory Thief

What follows are six glory-stealing confessions along with accompanying Gospel corrections. I encourage you to prayerfully process these with the help of a few honest, godly friends.

1. I want Jesus to be glorified, but I want glory too.
I have left wonderful Sunday services discouraged. Not because my caffeine crashed or my adrenaline tapped out. But because I wanted someone to say to me, “pastor, that was the most amazing sermon I’ve ever heard.”

I can desire Jesus to be exalted, while lusting for affirmation from others. Wanting affirmation is different than wanting to be useful. Useful servants are satisfied when no one applauds them as long as everyone is applauding Jesus.

But a servant who seeks affirmation steals something that doesn’t belong to them. As a friend once said, “a pastor who preaches to gain glory for himself is flirting with Christ’s bride whom He died to have for His own.”

When do you feel the need for affirmation? How do you respond to it? When you see yourself responding with self-pity, confess it to God and read Matthew 6:1-21. Plead with your Heavenly Father to satisfy you with His care and affirmation of you in Christ.

2. Because I want affirmation, I hide my sins.
Shame is powerful. It assures us that we cannot be honest about our true condition. So it tempts us to pretend.

When we hide sin, we show that we treasure people opinions more than we treasure pleasing Christ. This twisted trap is inescapable apart from the power of God. This is why God tells us that true strength comes from boasting in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

We do this is by confessing our sins to God and trusted Christians.

There is something powerful that happens when you look in the eyes of another person and confess how you’ve sinned against God and people made in His image. Humility birthed in those moments is unique and life giving. The idol of affirmation is choked out and God is seen as glorious in spite of you, not because of you. We do not need to pretend to be anything other than blood-bought debtors to mercy.

Do you confess your sins to others? Who knows everything about you? I mean everything.

3. I become bitter when God uses others instead of me.
During my first year in seminary, I learned about senior preaching week. The “best” preachers from the graduating class were given the honor of preaching in chapel. I so badly wanted to be among that group that I prayed and fasted for it. But during my final year, I was not selected to preach.

As I sat and listened to those brothers preach faithfully, I found myself grumbling that God had not used me in the way he was using them—and I knew it was wrong.

Do you find yourself frustrated or discouraged when you are “overlooked” by God? Those are good times to reevaluate the reasons you follow Jesus. Do you remember what Jesus said when Peter questioned how He planned to use the apostle John? He said to Peter, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22).

An envious heart produces a critical eye toward others. This kind of competition has no place in God’s Kingdom. We have all been called to make much of Jesus, not ourselves. When you find yourself comparing yourself to others, read the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) and ask God to grow gratefulness for how He is using you.

4. I become more concerned about my public performance than my private devotion.

We don’t pray more than we do because other things feel more pressing. Opportunities for public ministry rival devotion to the God who entrusted us with the opportunities. Glory thieves feel hurried out of the prayer closet. This isn’t because there isn’t much to pray about, but because we value being before men more than being with God.

I am not implying that public ministry isn’t worshipful. Some of the moments I sense God’s presence most acutely is during preaching or evangelizing. Yet, I can be tempted to neglect disciplines of prayer and fasting and undistracted bible reading because other things press on me.

One of the greatest aids for a recovering glory thief is to prioritize prayer and Bible reading. By pursing these disciplines in faith, love for God grows in your heart in such a way that it will eclipse your desire for people to think about anything other than Him.

5. I fear moral failure, mostly because it would defame Jesus, but also because it would defame me.

When a Christian falls publicly, it distorts people’s view of God (Proverbs 25:26; Romans 2:24). Anyone who cares about Jesus is grieved by this prospect. But glory thieves are doubly grieved because something else is at stake.

Caring what people think about us is not inherently wrong. But when we care too much about what people think of us, the fear of man snowballs with concealed sin in such a way that a fall becomes inevitable.

If you have fallen in sin, step into the light. Allow God to decide how He will use the story of your sin and His redemption. You will be tempted to be the commentator of your own life and control what will happen to you. Remain honest and trust Him with the consequences.

When you think about resisting sin in ministry, is it because you want to preserve the Name of Jesus or your own name? Only one of those pursuits will produce a heart that is honoring to God.

6. My desire to be something rivals my desire for Jesus to be everything.

When I stood backstage years ago, I felt the competing desires in my heart. I wanted to be the one people looked to and said, “that guy knows God and can help me know God.” What made that dangerous was that I was not content for Jesus alone to be remembered. I would have said I was, but my heart testified otherwise.

This is why I have grown to love John the Baptist. JTB did everything he could to not photobomb Jesus. Crowds were flocking to him, but he had one mission in mind—make Jesus known. He said to his followers, “I am not the Christ…He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28–30).

John pointed people away from himself. He was content being behind the stage doing whatever was necessary for Jesus to be seen more clearly. This is the kind of heart that pleases God.

Can you be content with Jesus being glorified in your life, even if it means no one will ever know your name? Are you happy to be known in heaven, but not here? Are you happy to be among the “others” in Hebrews 11 and not among the “heroes” of the faith?

Jesus came to save glory thieves from themselves. He did this by giving up His own glory and then dying on the cross for all the times we stole God’s glory. Today He is raised and seated above every other Name so that we can look to Him for help, and help others to do the same.

All Glory to God.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Mom and Dad, Thank You

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In a recent post, Tim Challies shared a few practical ways adult children can honor their parents. One of his suggestions was to esteem your parents privately and publicly. So, I’ve shared the following with them in private, and now, with their permission, I share it with you in public. Thank you for taking a moment to read, I pray the lessons bless you as they’ve blessed me.

 

Mom and Dad-

The Bible says to “honor your mother and father” (Exodus 20:12). I know I haven’t always done this well, but I trust you both know how much I love you. As my years increase, I have given more thought to ways God has used you to shape me into the man I am today. I could list many things, but I’d like to share one for each of you and then one for the both of you.

 

Mom, you taught me how to make a house a home. 

From what I can remember, I lived in seven different houses growing up. But no matter where the house was, it was always home. You made sure of that. I don’t remember fancy decorations or eccentric decor. But I do remember a warmth that withstood the winters of life.

Home was a refuge for me. In my early years I was picked on and ostracized quite a bit, but home was always a safe place. I never felt the need to run away. I never feared coming home. I don’t remember there being stress, though I’m sure it was present.

Holidays were fun. I don’t know if we received many gifts, but I know what was given, was done so in love. Meals were faithfully prepared for us. Encouraging words occupied the air. You wanted us to have wonderful memories, and my mind is filled with them.

But our house wasn’t just a home for our family, it was a home for others. Our door revolved so much I’m surprised we didn’t have to replace the hinges. People called you “mom,” because you were one to so many. People loved you because you made them feel like part of the family, even if it was their first visit. You made enough food for visitors and always let people stay over if they were in trouble.

This hospitality marks our family today. Carrie and I have had people live with us nearly every month since we’ve been married. Our dinner table is often graced by friendly faces. The Lord uses your example from my childhood to help our family do this well. I love you mom.

 

Dad, you taught me to work hard and to work with hope. 

Laziness was not permitted in our family. You knew that we only have one life and that if we wanted to get anything out of it, we needed to work hard. Whether you were starting a new business, turning someone else’s around, or dreaming of what might be next—you showed me what it means to work with diligence.

When set backs came, your resilience shined. When others would have quit, you smiled and said, “there must be another way.” You worked hard because you wanted to do well, but also because you wanted to do well for us. You wanted our family to have what we needed. And thanks be to God, we always did.

You challenged me to begin working young and save money. When I was twelve, you loaned me cash to buy a lawnmower. You helped me get jobs and helped me improve when I got fired. You never let me say, “I can’t” without exhausting every conceivable way forward. You never let me quit a team. You weren’t a drill sergeant, but you were a firm and fatherly leader. You encouraged me, and pushed me to be excellent, and never to do things “half-hearted.”

This marks me today. God has taken your example and set it apart for Himself. He often brings your words to mind and I believe He will use your lessons to help me be a more faithful servant with what He has entrusted me.

And though you worked hard, you also worked hard to be present. For as many hours as you labored, I never remember you being absent. I remember fishing trips and walks with the dogs. I remember you being home at night and wrestling with me when I was younger. I remember you and mom being at every single one of my games, no matter what.

This too has marked me, though I often feel I fall far short. Thank you for pushing me to be man who works hard, yet doesn’t forget why he is doing it. You have forever shaped me dad, and I love you for it.

 

Mom and dad, you’ve stayed married through the good days and bad.

In God’s wisdom, He brought you together many moons ago. You were young, in love, and according to your stories, probably still a little stoned. You scrapped together what you needed, but it didn’t matter what you had, because you had each other.

As the days passed, God blessed you with a couple of awesome kids. Your tribe increased, and so did your joy. As I remember, you were wonderful parents. Our house was filled with laughter. We ate most meals together. We always had food, even when times were tough.

I remember dad stealing a kiss from mom any time he could. He always told her how beautiful she was. The affection you guys showed each other taught me how a husband and wife should love one another. Our kids see this today in the way Carrie and I love each other. Thank you for that.

I remember our family going to church together nearly every week (even though I only went for the girls). I remember mom singing the Old Rugged Cross and reciting Psalm 23 and the Lord’s prayer while I snuggled in her lap. I remember our beach trips to the Outer Banks, and road trips to grandma’s house.

You partnered together to encourage me in playing sports and doing my homework. I remember dad doing all he could to provide for our family, and mom steadily working at the hospital. You were a good team together, and I praise God I got to see it.

But not everything was easy. Broken bones, burned homes, car accidents, and nearly empty bank accounts put pressure on your bond that would have caused many others to break. Though you were cracked at times, you did not give way. Only you know the depth of your private pains and disappointments. There are some scars that only heaven will heal.

But as I have watched you persevere, I have learned what love is. You didn’t have a perfect marriage, no one does. But you have had a lasting one. And that’s saying a lot. God has brought to my mind, more times than I can count, the fact that love doesn’t quit.

Mom didn’t quit on dad.

Dad didn’t quit on mom.

You didn’t quit on each other.

Kells don’t quit.

We fight and pray and persevere by the grace of God. And that has marked me. And I have great hope it will mark generations of Kells to come.

You have blessed me more than you know. And I trust someday you will see when Jesus shows you.

I am forever thankful to call you my parents.

I love you both.

With eternal gratitude,

Your Son—Garrett

You Can’t Wear Out God’s Promises

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Many beloved things in this life wear out.

Favorite shirts wear thin and tear. 

Comfortable shoes fall apart. 

Financial accounts become depleted. 

Warm friendships can drift over time. 

Even our bodies wear down, break down, at last lie down in death. 

 

But there is one thing that never wears out—the promises of God.

 

Dear friend, you can use one of God’s promises, but you cannot use it up.

You can grab a promise and cling to it wherever you go. You can hold it close through the storm, but when you arrive safely at your destination, you will find it has not dulled one bit. In fact, it likely shines brighter than when you first clung to it.

Neither do God’s promises rust or fade. They are like the fine wine of heaven; stored up for those moments we most need their refreshment. Yet, when we pop their cork and drink them down, we find a miracle. Like the widow whose flour remained full, the bottle never runs dry (1 Kings 17:7-16). Promises harvested from the Lord’s vineyard cannot be depleted.

Nor can His promises be destroyed. An oppressor may steal your Scriptures and burn them before your eyes. But as the smoke rises, the promises remain. They cannot be destroyed because they are stored in the vault of heaven.

God’s promises do not evaporate or dissipate. They grow stronger and more certain with every use. The reason for this is three fold.

 

First, a promise from God remains because God remains. He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). He is not a liar who says one thing and does another (Numbers 23:19). He is not the empty cloud that boasts of rain yet only leaves a shadow of disappointment (Proverbs 25:14). A promise is an extension of His very nature and because He does not change, we are not consumed, and neither are His promises (Lamentations 3:22-23).

 

Secondly, a promise from God can be everlastingly claimed because it was purchased by the blood of Christ. When Jesus died, His blood was the down payment for all of God’s Words to us (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 9:15). When He rose, He unlocked the vault of assurances for all those who trust in Him. A promise of God cannot wear out because Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).

 

Finally, a promise solidifies with each use. Promises are not made only to be kept, they are made to be claimed. They are like food that is not meant for looks, but for consumption. And each time we put it to use, we taste and see that the Lord, who gave His promise, is good (Psalm 34:8). We trust Him more. We love Him more. We find strength we did not know. And therefore, the promise grows surer to us. This builds faith in the promises and in the promise Giver.

 

Do you have promises that have proven strong for you?

Have you mined the quarry of God’s gold and brought forth treasures no money can buy?

 

This is the privilege of the child of God. As you walk with Him and you find a bit of treasure, keep it and claim it as your own. Yes, it is for others as well, but all the host of heaven can feast on these promises. They never run dry.

These are a few of my favorite promises. I encourage you to consider them, and to find some others for yourself. Use them. Share them. Hope in them. They will not wear out.

 

Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”

 Matthew 11:28 “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”

Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 22:4 “They will see His face”

 

Here is a final encouragement from a beloved brother who now sees these promises by sight.

“Our God, in whom we trust, is not fickle; He is not thoughtful of us today and forgetful of us tomorrow. If you should live to be as old as Methuselah, the promises of God will never wear out; and if all the troubles that ever fell upon humanity should pounce upon you, God’s strength will be put forth to sustain you, and to bear you to a triumphant close.” – Spurgeon, Sunlight for Cloudy Days

  

Lord Jesus, keep Your promise, and come for us soon.

Together 2016 – Encouragement, Confession, and Concern

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On Saturday thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC for Together 2016. This event was billed as a time for Christians from around the country, and around the world, to make a stand for Jesus and “reset” their lives in repentance.

Well-known pastors and musicians marked the gathering. Before the event had to be called off due to excessive heat, there were seven hours of wonderful testimonies, challenging messages, impassioned prayers, and heartfelt singing by all in attendance. The theme of “unity” and standing “one in Jesus” ran throughout the day.

I didn’t see or hear everything during those seven hours, but I saw much of it. And as I watched, I found myself encouraged, convicted, and concerned.

 

An Encouragement 

I wish all those who scoffingly claim that Christianity is dying off could have seen what was happening on the Mall this weekend. This gathering of impassioned believers boldly proclaimed that Jesus is still the most relevant name in the universe.

They came together in prayer, singing, and crying out to God. Together 2016 was a bit nostalgic for me. During the first summer following my conversion, I attended One Day 2000. During that gathering I heard John Piper challenge us not to waste our lives. It was a pivotal day for me, and I suspect Together 2016 will be the same for many others.

There were people from many tribes, languages, nations, and generations. Skin colors were diverse, but the prayers were unified. Themes of justice and righteousness marked the day. The songs, most of the people who spoke, and the regular pauses to pray about loving God, repentance, and our need for Jesus were heartfelt.

As Francis Chan reminded us at the end of the day, following Jesus will not be the popular thing to do, but it will be eternally worth it. I praise God that He is raising up another generation of believers who desire to follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.

 

A Confession 

I must confess, I approached the event with a critical spirit. Over the past ten years, my theological convictions have deepened—and I anticipated that most of them would be grated against during this event. And they were.

Lack of theological precision, careless phrasing of words, and the emotionalism that marks evangelicalism were not difficult to find.

But that’s when the Holy Spirit convicted me with a scene from the Gospels. In Luke 9, we find an account of a few of Jesus’ disciples getting irritated that people were doing ministry in a way they weren’t.

“John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you’” (Luke 9:49-50).

In the opening minutes of the event God convicted me of spiritual pride. I was reminded that Jesus is doing great things in His Name among people who are very different than me. And regardless of who is ministering, Jesus is always working in spite of our feeble efforts. As one of my professors used to say, “The Holy Spirit loves to work in the midst of our mess.”

Praise God for that!

The Body of Christ is diverse and we must all learn from and be encouraged by one another. I have plenty of my own issues and blind spots, as do the people in my theological camp. It is easy to sit back and be critical of others who don’t do things the way I would. But that attitude isn’t pleasing to Jesus.

He would say to people like me, “the one who is not against you is for you.” After a few moments of conviction, the Spirit broke my pride and gave me the freedom to rejoice in the good work God was doing in my brothers and sisters on the Mall.

But that joy didn’t leave me without a concern.

 

A Concern

Calling us to be “together” is a noble thing. There are countless things that divide us unnecessarily. Many of these were addressed wonderfully during the event. But the one thing that actually brings a unity that pleases God was not always clear; and was at times even undermined.

At one point in the first session, a group of men came on stage to pray, including a Roman Catholic. What he said was encouraging and true. But having him on stage to speak and pray (plus promoting the event with a video from Pope Francis) was a tragic decision that may have been overlooked by many in the swirl of all the encouragement.

While it is true that #JesusChangesEverything, this is not the truth that unifies believers. What unifies Christians is that Jesus died and rose and that anyone who repents and believes in Him and His work alone will be saved. The organizers of the event seemed to work so hard to bring down walls of division, that they intentionally neglected to be clear about the Gospel of justification by faith alone.

We must remember that the Protestant Reformation happened for a reason. The theological truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is eternally important. And sadly, this was dangerously distorted on Saturday as thousands watched it happen.

In the days since the Protestant Reformation, more people were executed or exiled over the truths that were brushed aside today than the number of people who were in attendance at the event.

Should we work for unity at great cost? Yes.

Should we pursue unity at all costs? Never.

As J.C. Ryle said in Warnings to the Churches, “never let us be guilty of sacrificing any portion of truth upon the altar of peace.”

I believe we should work together with people of all faiths for issues of religious freedom and social justice. But I do not believe that Jesus would have us sacrifice precious truths He shed His blood for in order to have togetherness.

I deeply believe that the organizers of Together 2016 are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Some dear friends of mine participated in the event today. I do think the true Gospel was proclaimed by numerous speakers and performers. I am certain the motivations of the organizers are to get the Gospel to more people. And I trust the LORD will do great things through the event today.

However, muddying the Gospel will not help any of this come to pass. The best way to love those who are in error over the Gospel is not to link arms with them, but to help them see the importance of our differences.

 

Whether this sort of gathering will happen again or not, I do not know. But we who are Christians must remember that before Jesus prayed for us to be “one,” He prayed for us to be “sanctified in truth” (John 17:17-23), because after all it is “the truth that will set you free” (John 8:32).

 

16 Things to Pray for T4G 2016

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During this week, some ten thousand Christians from all over the world will descend upon Louisville, Kentucky. What brings them together? They come together for the Gospel. This bi-annual conference is an interdenominational gathering of Christians who certainly have various differences, but what they have in common is much greater—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whether you are at the conference or not, I ask you to pray for what God is doing, and will do, through this gathering of believers. To help give you some ideas of how to pray, here are sixteen suggestions.

 

  1. Pray for pastors to be encouraged.  

Pastors spend most of their lives pouring out for the good of others. This conference provides a unique opportunity for pastors to be poured into. Pray that weary pastors would be encouraged by the fellowship and instruction they receive.

 

  1. Pray for the speakers to have power.

The speakers at T4G are some of the most gifted pastor-teachers in the world. But they are just men. They struggle with the same things everyone else does. So pray that God would give them strength in their weaknesses and that He would speak powerfully through each of them for His glory and the good of all who hear their messages.

 

  1. Pray for Gospel witness in the community.

As these many Christians come into the city, they come in contact with hundreds of cabdrivers, restaurant servers, hotel employees, protestors, and business owners. Pray that Christians would embody the Gospel they come together to celebrate by being good tippers, kind with their words, and not demanding on those who serve them. Pray this kindness would open doors for Gospel conversations and for many to come to know the Lord.

 

  1. Pray for the singing.

 One of the most unique things about this gathering is the singing. Try to imagine ten thousand unified voices singing about the wonders of God’s mercy to us in Jesus. Pray for believers to not only sing with hearts of faith, but also to be encouraged by the chorus of voices proclaiming the glories of our heavenly King.

 

  1. Pray for friendships to be born.

This conference was birthed out of friendship among the speakers. And this is one of the main reasons they put on the conference. Pray that God would kindle relationships among like-minded brothers who would be able to develop life-long friendships in Christ.

 

  1.  Pray for wisdom in partnerships.

This conference affords the opportunity for ministry leaders from all over the world to spend time together to pray, dream, plan, and orchestrate great things for the Kingdom of God. Plead that God would help His people have wisdom about ways they can work together for the spread of His glory among the nations.

 

  1. Pray for sisters to be strengthened

T4G is not a men’s conference, but because it is aimed at pastors, a large percentage of the attendees are men. But there are many sisters in Christ here who are in need of your prayers. Ask that God would build them up through His word so they can go back strengthened to bless their churches, families, and communities.

 

  1. Pray for believers to be protected.

Satan hates Jesus and He hates God’s children. Pray that his sinister schemes to hinder Gospel work would be thwarted. Pray for protection from lust and pride and comparison and envy and discouragement and whatever other fiery darts he will launch at the hearts of those who have come.

 

9.  Pray for the families of attendees. 

Most of the people in attendance leave wives and children behind at home. This can be a strain on many families who covet your prayers. Ask the Lord to give strength to wives and mothers, for children to be obedient and not get sick, and for all other chaos on the home front to be held to a minimum.

 

  1. Pray for the logistics.

To pull off a gathering of ten thousand people, you need a logistics miracle. Pray for disasters and distractions to be at a minimal and that everything from registration, to sound, to security, to book store stocking, to meals and beyond to go smoothly.

 

  1. Pray for the volunteers.

Over three hundred people travel to this conference, not simply to be served by the Word, but to serve those who are coming to hear the Word. Pray for them to serve others with the joy of Christ.

 

  1. Pray for churches to be edified. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of local churches have pastors or members in attendance this week. Pray for these congregations to be edified by those who will return with fresh vigor. Pray for delight in Jesus to spread among these churches and for great revival to occur among God’s people because of what happens here.

 

  1. Pray for unity.

At a conference where there is such a diverse group of believers, there is always opportunity for the evil one to stir up squabbles. Pray for brothers and sisters to humbly hold their convictions and aim to make much of Jesus who is the hope of all believers.

 

  1. Pray for people to love the Word.

This year’s conference focuses on the glory of the Protestant Reformation. This Reformation was birthed when God stirred a fresh understanding of His Word among His people. Pray that as the Word is preached and read and sang, that the Holy Spirit would stoke fresh fires of love for the Scriptures in the hearts of His people.

 

  1. Pray for attendees to long for heaven.

One of my favorite parts about the conference is seeing old friends. I delight in seeing their smiles, hearing their stories, and in sharing meals together. But then, we are forced to say good-bye. Some will leave early because of unplanned tragedies, and others will head home as they had planned. But there is something that saying sad “good-byes” does for us…It makes us long for that Land where we will never say good-bye again. Pray that God would use T4G to cultivate a longing for heaven where we will be gathered together once and for all with our heavenly Father. O Come Lord Jesus! Come!

 

  1. Pray for the Great Commission to be aided.

Between now and that Great Day when faith will be made sight, we have been called to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Pray that God would not allow this to just be another conference where we take home our books and notes and nothing changes. But rather, ask that God would use all the equipping and teaching and singing and planning to produce a movement of Spirit-empowered people who risk everything so that the Good News about Jesus will be taken to those who have never heard.

 

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” Romans 1:16

 

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When I was young, we took a family vacation to Maine. My father spent his summers there as a kid and wanted us to experience the beauty of its wooded wonderland. During our stay we did some fishing, went sailing, and ate as much lobster as you can before turning into one.

Near the end of the week, dad told us he had something to show us. So we piled into the car and drove along a dark, windy, pine tree-walled road that led out to an open field. The field was home to a tall, black-ironed fence that enclosed a well-kept acre of tombstones that dated back to the 1800s.

We were confused (and a little concerned) about why dad was taking us to a graveyard near the end of vacation—but we followed as he led us down a well-worn path that steered into the heart of the cemetery.

Gravestone - My Dear Young FriendWe watched as he and my aunt scanned tombstone after tombstone until they found the one they were looking for. As we made our way over to the sunken grave he asked us to gather around as he read from a gravestone that had nothing on it but this inscription:

“My dear young friend as you pass by,

remember you were born to die;

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you shall be,

prepare to die and follow me.”

On that day, a no-named dead guy delivered a message that has never escaped my memory: you will die.

Of course that wasn’t the first time I’d heard this fact of life, but ever since that afternoon in the graveyard I have remembered the message and a few lessons from it.

Lessons from the Tombstone

1.  Death is coming.

“…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Hebrews 9:27

Death is the one appointment that all of us will keep. When it comes, it comes without discrimination. Death comes for the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong, the light-skinned and the dark-skinned. Death takes Democrats and Republicans, men and women, young and old, married and single—death comes for us all.

Our date with death was secured for us long ago in a garden quite unlike that graveyard. It was a perfect Garden, one whose name meant “delight of the Lord.” But it was there in Eden that our first parents turned away from the Giver of Life.

God responded to Adam and Eve’s sin by placing a curse on them, and on all people who have come after them. The LORD told Adam that life would be interrupted and that he would “return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Since that day, life has a black cloud hanging over it reminding us that we were born to die.

2.  Death should stir reflection.

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” Ecclesiastes 7:2

Despite the fact that we know death is coming, we seem to do all we can to avoid considering it’s impending arrival. We prefer to turn up the volume of distraction and numb ourselves with entertainment. Wisdom however, teaches us to approach our deaths differently.

In what could be seen as morbid counsel, King Solomon prescribes his listeners to fill their time attending funerals instead of fiestas. Why? Because when you sit in a room with a casket and a lifeless body, your soul has an opportunity to be sobered.

In the quietness of that mortuary, you hear sniffles of sorrow similar to the ones that one day will be cried over you. You see flowers that lay on a box similar to one you in which you will be laid to rest. Your mind is given opportunity in those moments to consider that as they are now, so you shall be.

One of the oft-forgotten ministries of Moses was that of a funeral conductor. As he wandered in the wilderness for forty years, he buried an entire generation of people and wrote Psalm 90 as a reflection upon it. After remarking about the brevity of human life, Moses asked God to, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Wisdom is birthed out of an awareness that the sands of time are sinking from the hourglass of our lives. Every moment that we have sinks into a unretrievable arena that will one day be evaluated before God Almighty (Hebrews 9:27, Revelation 20:11-15). Our mortality ought move us to be wise with the days we have, which must include preparing for what comes after we die.

3.  Death is not the end.

“An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” John 5:28-29

During a later trip to the graveyard, my uncle found a note attached to the base of our memorable tombstone. The note read like this, “To follow you, I will not yet; Until I know which way you went.”

The witty chap who left this note was on to something. Our fallen friend had invited us to prepare to follow him, but before we follow him in death, it is important to know which way he went. You see, death is not the end—for any of us.

Death does not end our existence, it merely serves as a gateway into our next existence. Death is the doorway that leads to our final, eternal dwelling. While we cannot know which way our fallen anonymous friend went when he died, we can know which way we will go.

How? 

Because there is Another who was born to die, and born to live and give life to others. While He lived on the earth Jesus gave this promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me though he die yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

Jesus was the Son of God who came to earth to die on a cross for sinners and then raise from the dead. Jesus calls us, while we have time, to repent of our sins and follow Him in belief. For those who do this, they are promised a future day of resurrection.

One day soon, “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command…and the dead in Christ will rise first…then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

 

And that is the hope of those who trust in Christ. We know that one day we will escape the grave’s grasp and be taken up to be with our Lord forevermore. This too can be your hope if do not know Jesus.

His message is similar to the one on that gravestone.

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you shall be,

prepare to die and follow me.”

Jesus came as we were so that we might be as He is. He is coming soon, so let us prepare for our day of death by trusting in the One who died and rose and promises to raise us from the grave to be with Him and like Him forever more (1 John 3:2).

Come soon, O risen Lord Jesus!

Followed by The God of Grace

God's pursuing love followed me to Panama City Beach and drew a gracious line in the sand.

God’s pursuing love followed me to Panama City Beach where He drew a gracious line in the sand saying, “You are either for Me or against Me.”

It was early in my junior year at Virginia Tech—and I felt like everywhere I turned, God was following me around.

It all began a few months before, when a friend came to a Halloween party and talked to me about Jesus. And ever since that night, it seemed like I couldn’t escape what he had said. I believed God was real, but I was not ready to surrender my life of drugs, drinking, or dating. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t escape the sneaking suspicion that my friend was telling me the truth.

Several times that semester I found myself smoking a blunt, only to become compelled to flush it and pick up the Bible. One early morning I was reading and became so overwhelmed, I printed out portions of Revelation and nailed it to the apartment door of “the white devil” who had long been my cocaine dealer (yes, that freaked him out). On the weekends, I would party hard, but somehow attend a church on Sunday, regardless of how strung out I was from the night before.

My soul was conflicted. I loved the fleeting pleasures of sin, yet I felt as if I was being pursued by the One I later heard affectionally called “The Hound of Heaven.”

It was in the middle of all this soul searching that my buddy Adam suggested we take a trip to Panama City Beach for Spring Break. I wasn’t sure if I should, but it didn’t take much convincing for me to agree that I was just stressed out and that I needed a little fun in the sun to help clear my mind.

Redemptive Road Trip

As we drove with windows down and music blaring, we talked about life and school and girls—and about what I had been reading in the Bible. I told Adam that I was seeing things in a new light and I was feeling like God was showing Himself to me everywhere I went. Adam was a good friend and he listened, but I’m sure he thought I was going crazy.

As we neared Panama City Beach I noticed a plane flying overhead pulling a banner behind it. As it drew closer I could make out that it read, “Jesus Loves You – John 3:16.”

I pointed my arm out the window and told Adam, “Look, God is following me around.”

Once we arrived at the hotel, we dropped our bags in the room and headed to the beach. We anchored our chairs in the sand and cracked open a pair of cold ones. After a while I noticed what looked like a small herd of students talking to people around us and handing out little booklets. A couple guys came over to where we were sitting, gave me a pamphlet and told me that “God had a wonderful plan for my life.” After we talked for a few minutes, they made their way down the beach and I turned to Adam and said, “See, I told you, God is following me around.”

We laughed it off and headed back to the room. That evening we went to a club until closing time when we made our way out to the curb to call a cab. But no sooner than we got there, three vans pulled up with holy roller graffiti on the side that read “God loves you!”, “Believe the Gospel!” and “Jesus saves!” The drivers got out, offering free rides for anyone who needed it. We declined the ride, but as we walked away I looked over and said, “Adam, I’m not making this stuff up, I think God is following me.”

The next day was a little rainy and we decided to lay low at the hotel. At some point in the night, I found some weed and smoked myself hungry. I found Adam and we made our way to the Waffle House across the street. I told Adam that I felt like God was making me feel bad for the way I was living and I didn’t know what to do. As we scarfed down our waffles he looked at me and said, “bro, I think you need to stop doing the drugs, they’re messing with your mind.”

Within minutes, the door to the Waffle House opened up and a flood of about 30 loud and laughing people carrying Bibles came into the restaurant and took seats all around us. One of the guys walked straight up to our table and said “hey, my name is Shelby, do you go to Virginia Tech?” We said yes, introduced ourselves and then he asked me, “have I ever seen you at a church in Blacksburg?” I told him I had visited a few and that it was possible.

He explained that he was with a group called Campus Crusade for Christ and that he would like to meet up with me when we got back to school to talk about God and the Bible. We exchanged information and he headed off.

After he was gone, Adam turned, stared at me in the eyes and said, “Dude, God is following you around!”

A Line In the Sand

The next day I took a walk on the beach before dusk. As I did, I saw a girl sitting by herself staring at the ocean. I wasn’t sure why but I felt like I was supposed to go over and talk to her. I said hello and asked her how she was and if she had been in the water. She kindly replied and said the water was a little too cold for her.

I said something stupid like, “yeah I’d have to have a case of beer before I got in there.” She looked at me and said, “you know, I don’t know about that, but God has taught me that Jesus is all I need to be happy.” It was a pretty serious Jesus juke, but it didn’t surprise me.  I told her that I had been thinking a lot about God and asked her to pray for me.

As I walked toward the hotel, a lady in a beach wheelchair and another guy my age signaled for me to come over to them. I knew this was another divine set up, but I felt like it would be bad to run from a woman in a wheelchair, so I made my way over to them.

The lady’s name was Stacy James and after a few get to know you questions, she looked at me and said, “Garrett, what do you know about Jesus?” I don’t remember much else that she said except that God wanted me to know that I had to choose to either be for Him or against Him because I could not be both (Matthew 12:30).

That beach trip proved to be a true line in the sand for me.

When I returned to school I began meeting with Shelby and he helped me to understand the basics of what it meant to walk with Jesus. And since that trip, I have been for Jesus. This is not because of something wise or wonderful in me, but rather, for some eternally mysterious reason, God had set His affections on me and chased me down.

I tried to run, tried to hide, tried to explain His pursuit away, but in the end, I found His grace to be irresistible.

I’d like to leave you with two thoughts…

  1. God follows you because He loves you.

If you are reading this and know God has been following you around too, I plead with you to stop your running. God chases you down, not to do you harm, but to rescue you.

One of God’s prophets named Isaiah once described our running this way, “we all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Following our own way seems like it leads to life, but in the end it is quite the opposite. Proverbs 14:12 says “there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Running from God leads only to judgment by God (Revelation 20:11-15).

Yet because God loves running rebels, He sent His Son Jesus to come and rescue us from our wandering toward destruction. Jesus came as the “good shepherd” who “lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:10-11).

What that means is that Jesus came to earth to die on a cross and receive the judgment we deserve for the way we sinned against God. But then Jesus rose from the dead and now calls all people, including you, to turn from their sin and receive forgiveness from Him (Acts 2:38, 17:30-31). God follows you because He loves you. So stop your running and surrender to the One who watches over your soul (1 Peter 2:25).

  1. God uses you to follow those He loves. 

Do not underestimate how important it is to always be throwing Gospel seed wherever you go. Whether we are on a beach, in a Waffle House, flying a plane, driving drunk people home, or doing normal life; remember that God is working to call His people to Himself—and He is using you to do it.

My wife regularly reminds me that “every brief encounter is from the Lord.” It may be a full Gospel conversation on a short-term mission trip or it may be simply asking a cashier how you can pray for them. God uses all sorts of “brief encounters” to awaken Gospel interest in the hearts of His elect.

The question is, are you actively seeking ways to help others hear the good news of the sinner-seeking Savior?

The year after my trip to Panama City Beach, I went back, but this time it wasn’t to party. Instead, I went with the same group whom God used to reach out to me the year before. I share that only to illustrate that God loves to use the most unlikely of people for His purposes.

So if you feel inadequate in sharing the good news about Jesus with others, do not allow that to stop you. Remember that God is the great Evangelist, He is simply allowing you to share in the joy of helping others come to know Him.

Love is a Risk Worth Taking

coffee-shop-mug

I was reading in a coffee shop recently when I noticed a young man sitting across from me who was speaking angrily under his breath. His head was tilted downward and his body was tense and trembling. As I watched, he began hitting himself in the arm and the chest. Then he bit his hand so hard that I grimaced.

There I sat with the Bible open in front of me, but completely unsure of how God wanted me to respond.

I prayed, asked for wisdom, but continued to sit, trying not to stare. The man seemed out of control, and I wasn’t sure how he would respond if I approached him.

While I remained paralyzed with uncertainty, a lady walked over to the man, knelt down next to his chair, looked him in the eyes and said, “Hello, my name is Lori, what’s your name?”

She carried on a short conversation with him, asked him what his name was, what he was drinking, and then mentioned that she noticed he seemed to be upset and asked if he was OK.

He smiled, looked away with a touch of shame, and shared that he had Tourette Syndrome and that he was just having a hard day. She thanked him for talking to her and encouraged him to be careful and not hurt himself. She walked out the door and headed toward her car.

I was moved by her courage and compassion, so I caught up with her in the parking lot (trying not to be creepy) and thanked her for the way she showed such love to the man she didn’t know.

She said, “I saw everyone staring at him, but I couldn’t just watch him struggling like that. I was afraid he might hit me, but I thought it would be better for me to risk being hurt than for me to just let him hurt alone.”

I don’t know if Lori was a Christian or not, but her love reflected Christ’s love—and I was deeply rebuked.

I thanked her for her kindness, and went back to my table. After a few minutes, I saw the young man hitting himself again. Encouraged by Lori’s example, I went over, introduced myself and began talking with him. As he struggled, I asked him if there was anything I could do to help. He lifted his teary eyes to mine and said, “pray, if you are the praying kind of person.”

Brian turned out to be a Christian. Rebuked, again.

I had withheld love from a brother in Christ because he was acting in a way that wasn’t “normal.”

We talked for a little while about what God had been teaching him recently. He shared about his love for God and how faithful the Lord had been to him despite what he faced each day. His words were sincere and I could tell they came from a grace-filled wound. When we finished, we prayed together, he thanked me, and after a few minutes, he headed on his way.

And I was left to sit with my open Bible, lukewarm coffee, and a few lessons I hope never fade.

 

  1. Love is a risk worth taking.

Lori reminded me that love is willing to risk. She was willing to risk a punch to the face because she knew that Brian needed to be loved rather than ignored or stared at. Love is often risky, and always worth it. Having an open Bible and acknowledging that every page is God’s inerrant word is good, but if it does not move me to love, it means nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

The Lord Jesus used a similar scene to rebuke the Pharisees in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). There we find that being a good neighbor is marked by proactive love that overlooks all racial, political, cultural, and social barriers in order to extend love to those in need. Should safety be taken into consideration? Certainly. But as David Platt has said, “Because Christ has died and risen from the dead, safety is not our priority.”

Lori took the risk of loving Brian, and in the process showed me the lesson Jesus taught through the Good Samaritan. Her love was risky, but it was worth it.

 

  1. Love is good medicine.

I have a history of mental illness in my family, so I am keenly aware of the complexities that so many people deal with each day. That being said, I have often seen how God uses gracious displays of tangible love to bring peace to people, regardless of where they are on the mental health spectrum.

Ligon Duncan once shared a story of twin eighteen-month-old boys who had been passed through the foster care system. In their first year and a half of life they had been in nine homes, almost all of which had been abusive. That was until a couple from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School agreed to house the twins. After a difficult first few days, the parents were told by psychologists that the children would never be “affectively normal” because of terrible abuse they had suffered. Despite the warning, they kept the boys in their home for nearly two years. During this time the boys developed remarkably and the doctors could find no other explanation for their turnaround other than the love they had received. God brought healing to those young children through the Christ-like love of their foster parents.

We live in a cold world filled with broken people who feel they have little reason to rejoice. But God uses various acts of kindness to lift the spirits of the suffering. Kindness is not a throwaway Hallmark idea. It is fruit of the Holy Spirit that can break through brokenness to strengthen suffering souls (Galatians 5:22-23). Brain was strengthened by kindness that day, and so was I.

 

  1. I’m glad Jesus loves better than me.

I am increasingly thankful that Jesus does not show love to “normal” people. Why? Because none of us are “normal” before God.

The fall has marred us all. And though we may not suffer with the illness Brian does, we are all broken like Brian is. No part of our being is “normal.” We are emotionally, sexually, mentally, physically and spiritually broken. Sin has ravished us and made us far stranger to God than Brian’s illness did to some “normal” people in a coffee shop.

But it is into that brokenness that Jesus entered. He left the peaceful palace of glory and stepped down into our world of pain. He came to show compassion to sinners and to rescue us from all our self-destructive behaviors.

Jesus came to love people who could do nothing in return for Him. Romans 5:8 says it like this, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loves sinners like us by forgiving us for all the ways we withhold love from those we think are unworthy or unapproachable. But it is through this forgiving love that we are also compelled to show God’s love to the people He places in our path (2 Corinthians 5:14-21).

This love is often risky, but it is a risk worth taking.

The Sweet Freedom of Ditching My Smartphone

Andrew Sherwood is a personal friend whom I asked to write a reflection about why he ditched his smartphone. I hope his words serve you as you pursue “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).

 smartphone

 

“You want a phone that doesn’t get the internet? You mean you have an iPhone but want to go back to a flip-phone? Can I ask why?” You could tell the wireless salesman thought I was pranking him.

“I’m addicted to my iPhone,” I replied.

I pitched my iPhone for a basic no-internet flip phone a few months ago. First, let me say plainly: I believe getting rid of my iPhone is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my adult life.

That’s not because I believe it is wrong, sinful, or always unwise to have a smartphone, but because I discovered I was too immature and too undisciplined to use it well.

Perhaps you’re wrestling with some vague sense of dissatisfaction from a technology addiction and hopefully the below is helpful to you as you think about what to do next. Personally, I overestimated what my iPhone would give to me and I underestimated what it would take from me.

Here is some of fruit I’ve seen since pitching it:

Purity

“Can a man embrace fire and his clothes not be burned” (Proverbs 6:27). Praise God if you don’t struggle with sensual temptations on your smartphone. But if you do, why carry constant temptations around with you 16 hours a day? For years, I made lame and unwise excuses about keeping my phone rather than pitching it. But the flame from these things is real and the burns run deep. You can lose your soul to an iPhone. Your soul. For a phone. Deepak Reju’s article on this aspect of temptation is 
fantastic.

Increased Focus on Things that Matter

Do you ever get a nagging sense of conviction when you’re supposed to be paying attention to your wife, kids, discipleship companion, pastor, sermon, etc. and you ever-so- quietly click on the power button to check your phone? I did. Thousands of times, actually. My daughter would happily run over from the playground and find me nose down, buried in some sports equivalent to People magazine. Truthfully, I’m sickened over the memories I should have made with my family that were instead empty moments spent with my 
iPhone.

In Psalm 90:12, Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days carefully, so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” The sands of time are sinking – and I will give an account on That Day of the grains of sand wrongly given to frivolity instead of stewarding the good gifts God has graciously provided me through the people in my life.

Increased Prayer

I used to check my iPhone at stoplights, carpool lines, walking someplace — anywhere I had even a moment’s downtime. Without my smartphone, there are new opportunities to pray throughout the day. The ant principle seems to apply here (Proverbs 6:6) – over time, the small windows to pray pile up into storehouses full of brief prayers to my heavenly Father.

Living Without the Low-Pitched Hum of Anticipation

Being plugged in to a broader world of Twitter, e-mail, and instant news made for a precarious idol in my life. Even when physically putting my phone away for a few hours during family time, my heart was often going through the motions when eating a family meal, putting my kids to bed, or talking to my wife. It wasn’t just distraction I was dealing with: it was a problem of dissatisfaction that nothing but “plugging back in” would satisfy.

After getting the kids down to bed, I would sit down on the couch and immediately light up my phone, checking emails and social media. I was getting my fix (though my desires were never satiated). My wife might interject a kind comment like “Hey, how was your day?” and my immediate emotional response was one of annoyance or worse, anger. I noticed that I was frantic for updates when being without my phone for even a few hours. Have I ever honestly yearned for God’s Word or His presence as much as my phone? Just check my phone log of time spent on Twitter vs. my time in God’s Word and you’ll see what I really cared about. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Reading More (Actual) Books

I underestimated the time I would spend reading junk on my phone. Every night in bed, every morning when I woke up and the countless slivers of stolen time in between. There has been such refreshment in keeping my Bible and a few library books near me to read whenever I have free time. I’m sure there’s some way to usually read really good stuff on your smartphone that feeds and waters the mind and soul but I’m far from disciplined enough to do that.

“This is the greatest gift you’ve ever given me”

“When you had your smartphone, you were a walking vending machine of whatever you’d ingested that day. It was difficult to talk about deeper things that mattered because you were constantly distracted by internet litter. You’re now able to focus and give necessary attention to deeper issues. More of what we talk about comes from your heart rather than your Twitter feed.” – My Wife

Healthy Connection to My Humanness

I’m not anti-technology (I’m writing this post on a computer). I’m a graduate student and use technology for a lot of what I work on—and I’m thankful for it. But I also feel like I’m sort of an idiot. If Google Maps doesn’t tell me how to get somewhere, I’m lost even if I’ve driven to the place ten times before. And remembering something? Forget it—I have to put it into my phone.

There’s something about that neuro-rewiring that leaves me puzzled (read “The Shallows” for more on this) and unsure about what it’s ultimately doing to my ability to think. These days, I’m actually looking around at the streets I drive on, figuring out how to get places and forcing myself to remember things people tell me. There’s nothing inherently virtuous about these changes but there is a palpable sense of freedom when I do them.

I was taking a walk with my daughter a few weeks ago when she looked up and said “Daddy, I like having conversations with you. You’re good to talk to.” The irony. Sad thing is, I’m not that great to talk to. I’ve trained myself to zone out and to communicate to others “My phone and whatever it has on it is more important than you.” I don’t want that to be true another second of my life.

The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson once wrote “Sin hangs weights upon us so that we move but slowly to Heaven.” Those weights are often placed upon us slowly, over time, so that we get used to the pressure of them before sin adds more. And then the slower …and slower………and slower we move.

Is your phone a weight slowing your path to Heaven? A coal you’re heaping in your lap? A thief you paid $500 to steal things that matter?

Prayerfully ask God and those around you.

What is your phone for you?

When Grace and Evil Collide – A Reflection on Charleston

On Wednesday, June 17, 2015 we witnessed something remarkable.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed a young white man to sit in their pews and pray with them.

Dylann Roof certainly wasn’t the first white person to visit this historically black church, but their well-documented history reminds us why an unwelcoming spirit might have been a reasonable response when he walked through their doors.

Every Reason Not To Love

Emanuel was born out of a group of freed slaves who began worshipping together in 1791 while many of their wives and children remained the “property” of free white owners.

One hundred and forty members from this church were arrested and whipped by white authorities in 1818.

After a planned revolt by some of the slaves in 1822, white people publicly hanged 37 black slaves, including Emanuel’s founder.

The congregation’s building, which was erected with their own hands, was burned by an angry white mob in that same year.

White people had outlawed its services and the church was forced to worship in secret beginning in 1834.

In 1868, one of their former pastors, Benjamin Randolph, was shot in broad daylight by three white men.

Their church is in a state that flies a Confederate flag and has roads named after white generals who fought to keep them from freely driving to church on those roads.

Over the years they worshipped in a city where whites told them to use “colored” toilets and eat at other tables because “your kind isn’t welcomed here.”

Those memories could have clouded the air when Dylann Roof walked through their storied doors.

But instead of cold shoulders, he was offered a warm seat on a pew to pray.

History would have screamed not to let him in that night. Don’t let him close. He doesn’t deserve your love. He’s only going to hurt you.

Evil In The Face Of Grace

During the hour they sat with their would be killer, the church members shared songs and prayers and words of welcome.

But then evil showed its fangs.

Murderous, racist, grace-hating evil made fresh blood flow from old wounds.

Grace had smiled and evil struck it down.

When their killer walked out their doors, Emanuel AME was left with nine new reasons to hate the people who have hurt them.

Nine more funerals.

Nine more empty seats at the dinner table.

Nine more names forever etched into this church’s grueling history.

Suzy Jackson.

Daniel Simmons.

Myra Thompson.

Cynthia Hurd.

De’Payne Doctor.

Sharonda Singleton.

Clementa Pinckney.

TyWanda Sanders.

Left behind are widows and orphans and weeping family members with new reasons to withhold grace.

But that is not what they have done.

Instead, they have once again extended grace in the face of evil.

Grace In The Face Of Evil

At Roof’s bond hearing family members showed Dylann the same grace he saw when he sat down to kill their loved ones.

From broken hearts they spoke words that have stunned many:

“I forgive you…you took something very precious away from me…I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you…you hurt me and you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you.” – the daughter of Ethel Lee Nance

“I forgive you and our family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity and repent. Confess. And give your life to the One who matters most, Christ, so he can change it…He can change it.” – Anthony Thompson

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate…everyone’s plea for your soul…is proof that they lived in love and that their legacy will live in love…and so hate will not win…” – Alana Simmons (granddaughter of Daniel Simmons)

Those were not empty words from thoughtless lips.

The hymns they sang outside the courtroom afterwards were not the delirious songs of reeling family members.

What we witnessed is grace. The supernatural grace that flows from a spring that abides in the heart of God’s people.

The slain members of Emanuel AME welcomed Dylann Roof into their midst because Christ had first invited them (1 John 4:19-20).

They pressed past the temptation to say “your kind isn’t welcome here” and offered him a seat because Jesus had first given them a seat at His table.

And now, their family members have done the same. They have offered forgiveness because Christ has forgiven them (Ephesians 4:32). 

Grace Wins

On Sunday, June 21, 2015 the wounded but resilient Emanuel AME church assembled once again. The pews were filled with members and visitors from every color. As they walked through those doors they carried the strange mix of being heavy yet hopeful; afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).

The building that was filled with gun smoke on Wednesday was filled with joyful songs on Sunday.

The room that was stained with blood on Wednesday was saturated with praise on Sunday.

The place that was divided by hate on Wednesday was hand in hand in love on Sunday.

As they held each other up and sang hymns and proclaimed promises from God’s Word, the world witnessed the arresting reality that when evil and grace collide—grace wins. When hate strikes down love—it rises again. When Christians are separated from life through death—they are not separated from the love of God (Romans 8:28-39).

Why is this so? Because Emanuel’s strength finds its source in Jesus who was struck down by sinful hate, yet rose again to be the Savior and sustainer of God’s people (Psalm 54:4; Acts 2:22-24; Romans 5:8; 1 Peter 3:18).

What the world witnessed on Sunday was the resilience of a church who has not, will not, cannot, be killed.

Do they weep? Yes. Do they grieve? Yes. Will they ever be the same? No. But have they given up? No.

Why?

Because Emanuel AME has a Savior who lives forever to give them grace in the face of evil (Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:24-25). Jesus has promised He would do this, and Jesus always keeps His promises.

The scene from that Sunday took my mind to a scene in the book of Revelation where we see people from every tribe tongue and nation, standing together to praise the Lamb who was slain.

Revelation 7:9–17 “…I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!…they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Among those in that future heavenly scene are the members of Emanuel who have been beaten and mocked and lynched and gunned down, including the nine who fell on Wednesday. It is this heavenly picture that has sustained so many of God’s people over the years, and it is what sustains them even now.

Until Grace is All We Know

One day, grace is all we will know. There will be no more racism or evil or hate or murder or division. All those things will be cast in to the lake of fire with Satan and those who followed him. But that day is not yet.

Between now and then, we live here, in a world stained with sin. We walk through doors with stained histories of both evil and grace. Living in this tension is not easy for any of us, nor is it equal for all of us. Many in this life, including our black brothers and sisters from Emanuel and other communities like it, have unique challenges to face as they journey toward that heavenly day.

As a white man, I have so many questions for the people in Charleston. I want to know how the grace of God has sustained them for so long and through so much? I want to hear how are they helping each other avoid despair and revenge? I want to hear how they have leaned upon Jesus and how they have seen Him sustain them.

But I know I cannot just make it about what “I want” to hear. So I hope I can learn whatever it is my black brothers and sisters would want to share. I can’t do that in South Carolina, but I can strive to do that at home.

For people like me, it is easy to see events on the news, and become a spectator who says, “that man’s racist hate is so evil” and “their response is so gracious.”

But we can’t do that. Change in our church or our country or our hearts won’t happen by distant observing.

My prayer and cautious encouragement is for us to be intentional to lovingly and humbly learn from those God has placed around us. We grow when we follow the example of Christ and enter into each other’s worlds. We need to listen to each other and learn from each other.

Not all people will experience life in the same way, but Gospel-inspired conversations are the pathway to true change. Be slow to make assumptions about how others experience life, and even slower to assume no racism abides in your heart. I am still learning how to do this, and you can read about my journey here.

We can learn much about this by following the example we’ve seen from Emanuel AMC. The more we do what happened on Sunday, the more we’ll grow and avoid things like what happened on Wednesday. I don’t say that to be overly simplistic, but I do believe that racism dies when people come together at the feet of Jesus who died to “break down the dividing wall of hostility” that separates us (Ephesians 2:14).

I pray that we will follow the Christ-like path of grace. It is the way forward, because when grace and evil collide—grace wins.

 

Come, Lord Jesus, come.