Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: Worst Year Ever!?

Whew, what a year. While we can probably say that about any year, this one was one for the books. Of course I am specifically thinking about the unsavory presidential campaign that commandeered the headlines all year, but that's not all. The economy has continued to struggle—for the eighth straight year. It seems culture continues to lurch toward negativity and licentiousness. Many notable people died. Racial tension seemed to creep near to a boiling point. International tragedies and natural disasters were not uncommon: Isis, Syria, refugees, terrorism attempts (and incidents), severe drought and fires, Zika...I could go on.
But was it that much worse than other years? I'm old enough now to remember many bad years that contained terrible events and trying times. My grandparents told me of the Great Depression and the years of World War II. Those seem much worse by comparison! As I think about it, I'd trade 2016 for many others in memory. In fact, 2016 was quite good for me in many ways! Health-wise, financially (despite giving more than ever and having two kids in college), family life, experiences, good movies and sports events, lessons learned, relationships with others, spiritual growth, progress regarding our church's mission...there are so many ways 2016 was quite good!
Let me take our church's mission for example. This time last year we were over 1.7 million dollars in debt (which has been an albatross hanging around our collective necks). We don't have the final tally, but in our year of "decrease to increase" (d2i) we have paid more than 1 million dollars toward that debt ALL WHILE giving 100% of what was needed for our budget! Pretty great. Meanwhile, two of our church plants became official, independent churches during 2016! What's more, some of the churches we planted in previous years planted churches this year! That's cool!
So, we should be careful about joining the chorus of negativity. Remember, celebrities (and others) will die every year, disasters will happen, there will be wars and rumors of wars, there will be other election years. I think we would be wise to focus on victories rather than losses, feel determined rather than defeated! God is still in charge! In this I take much comfort!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Night of First Christmas

by Chad Sparks
Twas the night of FIRST Christmas, and all round the earth
A few were expecting our great Savior’s birth.
But outside of Joseph and Mary his mother,
It was a surprise to anyone other.

Most mortals were nestled all snug in their beds,
Or pining away in fear and with dread.
Yes, viewed from humanity’s angle was seen
Our distance from God, man’s sin in between. 

So dark was the world, in more ways than one,
Man needed some sunlight and needed the Son.
But what was occurring in heaven that night
Is something that I want to now bring to light. 

In the throne room of God, who rules earth and space,
Great joy for the ages was was just taking place.
A plan that for eons was followed precisely
Was perfectly coming together quite nicely.

It was no mere chance or stroke of good luck
that led to the night that left shepherds awestruck;
God did more than nudge fate’s outcome that night,
He planned it with joy from creation’s first light.

That’s right, e’en before creation’s beginning, 
He conceived a great story, that included our sinning.

It’s rarely considered—God’s side of the curtain
A different perspective, I can say that for certain.
So with your mind’s eye, let’s go there right now,
to the throne room of God to see why and how.

Before there was earth, sun, or planets like mars,
Before there were galaxies, matter, or stars
God did, don’t you know, already exist,
The causeless effect, and here’s a good twist:

This God, although one in essence and being,
Is also three distinct persons agreeing
And living in harmonious communion and love
God Father, God Son, and God Spirit the Dove 

He completely enjoys satisfaction unending
And glory and pleasure and light comprehending;
He precisely had need for not anything more 
With riches and goodness and power galore!

Yet discussion amongst the Godhead began
to consider sharing God’s bounty with man.
“We are so much joyful in fullness and light
We must create others to share our delight. 

What will be these creatures who can comprehend
A God, Almighty, and also a friend?
They must be formed in our image you see,
Like us they’ll be plural, a he and a she.

We’ll give them a soul, a spiritual hunger,
Make them crave worship, appreciate wonder.

Let’s first make a world where they can survive,
Let’s make it with water where all life may thrive.

We’ll create a sun for light, warmth, and weight
Of gravity that makes it revolve and rotate.
A sky that is filled with stars that shine out
And a moon that at night glows with visual clout.

In fact, a whole cosmos for just that blue dot
And physical laws of this nature God wrought
Might cause men to yearn for the Creator of all 
and know of his wisdom and order and call!

We’ll make them mere mortals but make them alive
We’ll give them a garden, of no gift deprive
We’ll put them in charge of all other life kinds
And let them experience a love’s tie that binds.

They’ll love one another, they’ll be as one flesh.
They’ll love their creator with passion afresh.
They’ll know the great love God has in God’s self.
They’ll live in the joy and enjoy the earth’s wealth.

We’ll walk with them daily in the cool of the eve,
They’ll know us completely, they’ll MORE than believe, 
They’ll relish our presence, they’ll feel our delight
They’ll make earth much better, they’ll fill it with light.

But how will they know us completely?” God asked,
“If they never know need, if they're never downcast?
If they never need God to give them relief,
Will they understand hope, if they never know grief?

And what of the goodness of God will they see?
His grace and forgiveness, cause for jubilee?
Will men know the depths and extent of God’s love? 
Will they be bound to earth and not heaven above?

If men have no option for sin from the start
Obedience for them won’t be from the heart.
They’ll know not the fullness of God as they could
What’s light, until darkness is well understood?”

So God gave man something, a gift or a curse
God gave him a will—free, for better or worse.
Obedience is cheap if it’s forced and compelled.
But given from love, it’s unparalleled.

Man’s gift of free will, well we know the story
He ate of the fruit, it’s no allegory
Death and a curse was rightly his wage,
For sin and rebellion deserving God’s rage.

And so came the evil and sadness of sin.
Man entered a prison with darkness therein.
A slave to his flesh and to Satan he was,
A sin-nature that dirties whatever he does
Is now an intrinsic part of his being,
And will be passed down to his seed unforeseeing. 

Cain’s murder of Abel his own little brother
Was first among many who killed one another.
Rebellion at Babel, the self-worship tower
Confusion of language diluted man’s power.

But God was undaunted, his plan still in tact, 
As men grew more evil in breach of contract
Meant judgment of all, the whole human race, 
Would show them the consequence of their disgrace.

God sent a great torrent that covered the world
And under the waters that flooded and swirled,
The sinners of earth were summarily drowned 
Except Noah’s family which ark did surround.

Then drunken old Noah began it again
What seemed to be clean was marred with his sin. 
Then God chose a man whose family he blessed.
Because he believed, God’s name he professed. 

God purposely chose to reward Abram’s faith
And for the first time, a Messiah, he saith
Would be Abram’s seed, a descendant, a star, 
Would bless all the world and would bring near those far.

Abe’s family, Isaac, and Jacob and sons
Believed in God’s promise but still weren’t the ones
Who God said would come and bless all earth’s men
And save them from all of the wreckage of sin.

Abe’s children were stubborn and like all of us
They could not be faithful, they sinned and they fussed,
God freed them from slavery, from Egypt’s hot sand
He gave them his law which he wrote with his hand.

But time after time the people defied
This God that had showed so much grace they denied.
God sent them the prophets to warn them and plead,
And gave them his word that they would not read.

Untold generations continued rebelling
Until God declared that his earthly dwelling 
Would no longer be in Jerusalem’s temple.
He’d had it with Israel, t’was really that simple.

His Spirit ascended to heaven and closed
Off all conversation and those who opposed
Israel were given the run of the place,
Their temple destroyed, their people displaced

But God was in heaven, honing his plan
Whereby God the Son would become a man.
“Let’s do this to show them what God’s really like
That God sees the rich and the poor both alike,

The male and the female, the young and the old
All are my children, find all in my fold.”
So by a poor girl Christ came to this earth. 
The angels called shepherds to witness his birth.

But imagine in heaven before the revealing,
Michael and Gabriel and others were feeling
Excitement that no human words can express
As all were waiting to sing and to bless.

The multitude of the heavenly host 
Instead of Jerusalem, announcing to most
God sent them to pastures near Bethlehem town.
To a handful of shepherds and sheep bedded down.

“Don’t make them afraid,” to the angels God said,
“We want them to come to the manger his bed. 
My Son is for poor men—like these—who receive,
I want them to see him, that they might believe.

And instead of a quasar or comet of might, 
A stellar event, exceedingly bright,
Let’s make a new star, for those who are seeking
A sign from above in the heavens for speaking,

Let’s show them that not only Jews do I love
We’ll call some from Persia with a star up above.
The Scriptures they copied from the captivity
Will lead them to join in my nativity.”

So instead of a God-sized and grand celebration,
God’s humble appearance is a clear illustration,
The job of reporting the news of God’s birth
Falls right at our feet to take round the earth.

Yes, the climax of all of God’s grandiose plan
To create a world for a creature called man
And to give him a choice and allow him to fall
So he would know God, and his grace most of all.

Of course Jesus’ birth is not the last word,
This baby was born (don’t think I’m absurd)
for the purpose of dying a criminal’s death.
As he said it himself in his final breath:

“It is finished!” The darkness, the stain of man’s sin
That plagued our existence, corrupted within.
God finished the mission he started at first;
He showed us his love, when we were our worst.

Yes he, himself, took our sin and our stain.
Yes God bore our guilt, he felt our pain.
Now when we believe in this baby that came
And follow this God who calls us by name,

Our lives are made new, and we are now blessed;
We live life forever, not on earth at it’s best,
But in heaven with God, who has given us more
Than this physical world that we wrongly adore!

So let’s spring to our feet, to our friends give a whistle
And send out the Good News like the down of a thistle;
And let us proclaim with all of our might:
Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!

[For a video of the reading on Christmas Eve 2016, click here.]

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas Light

There are a lot of things that make the Christmas season special. One is the lights. All the lighted Christmas trees and displays are such a contrast to this time of year when the days are short and darkness comes early. I’m kind of sad when it’s getting dark outside while I’m still at the office. But along the way home I see houses with lights, and I pull into my driveway with our house lit up and our Christmas tree shining in the window. It’s just another thing I love about Christmas! 
As a kid in the early 1970s my mom and dad would drive the family car on Gay St. and Henley St. to let us see the lights on Christmas Eve and drive in all the neighborhoods where we knew people lit up their houses. I did the same with our kids; one of Drew’s first words was “lights” (but he couldn't say the "L" sound. He said, "sights." He was enthralled by them. Great memories.

This is the first electrically-lit 
Christmas tree. Edward Johnson, 
an employee of Edison, displayed 
the pitiful (by today's standards) 80-
light tree at his home in Manhattan.
Have you ever wondered where the tradition of lights as Christmas decorations originated? According to tradition, using the evergreen tree was started by Boniface in Germany in the 600s, and was apparently hung from the ceiling as a reminder of the Trinitarian God who gives us everlasting life. The first lighted tree recorded was by Martin Luther in the 1500s who used candles to symbolize Christ as the light, and Christians who, as children of God who live in a dark, sinful world "among whom ye shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15 KJV). Of course, fire and dry trees don't make the the safest combination, and because it was primarily a German tradition, only relatively few in England and America adopted this practice. It was Thomas Edison who, for the Christmas season of 1880, decorated his New Jersey laboratory in order to display his new invention, the electric light bulb, amazing those passing by on the trains. The publicity stunt worked, and established electric lights as a Christmas institution. 

So, why lights? Simple. Because Jesus is the light of the world. He said it himself several times: Here’s one in John 8:12: Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Prophesies in the OT equated the Messiah with light. One of the better-known examples is Isaiah 9: 
2The people who walked in darkness 
   have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
   on them has light shone.
…6For to us a child is born,
     to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
That's what's quoted (in part) in the New Testament:
Matthew 4:16 
the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.
He’s the light of the world who came to our darkness. Yes, he probably wasn’t born in December. No matter. The symbolism is important. When the world was dark and without hope, Jesus—the light—came.

That’s important foundational stuff for us to understand for the next passage as we continue in Luke. It’s in chapter 11: 

33“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 34Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. 35Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. 36If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”

Many miss the meaning of these words. I have! Some people take this to mean that you can look into someone’s eyes and see their soul. Others think this means that you should be careful about what you look at, and by looking at sinful things you can bring darkness to your soul. 

Neither of those describe what Jesus is saying here! What’s he saying? Let’s unpack it.

33“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.

We’ve seen Jesus use this language before. He is the lamp of God that is shining light. He IS the light of the world. God has, through Jesus, let himself and his truth be known. Hebrews 1:1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature… He is God in the flesh. If you see Jesus, you see God. No one human being in history has been more universally known! No matter how hard enemies of Christ have tried to stamp out his light, he has continued to shine! That’s what we celebrate at Christmas: John 1:4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. …9The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
The first Christmas is when God “lit the lamp” for the world to see. Perhaps that’s why he gave a star over Bethlehem guiding the wise men from the east; or why he allowed the explosion of glory and light when the angels announced to the shepherds. draw in those pagans from the nations, and invite those poor shepherds to the manger. That’s why we have Christmas lights—they remind us of the light of Christ shining in a dark world, overcoming the cold and gloom of the longest nights of winter with the joy, glory, brilliance, and beauty of God who invites everyone!

Now that we understand that, what is Jesus saying?

 34Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.

Jesus is giving us a metaphor: just as a lamp fills a room with light, your eye is what lets light in to your body. Think: If your physical eyes are closed, your body is effectively in darkness. 
Your eyes (as Jesus intends) is kind of like windows to a car: if they are clear (that’s actually a closer rendering of the word translated, “healthy”) then light gets into the car, but more importantly, the driver has understanding of his surroundings and can appropriately stop or turn or speed up and not be in an accident. If the windows are painted black, there’s no understanding of what’s around, and the driver is effectively living in darkness. That’s what Jesus means. Have you ever been to a cave and they turned out the lights? It's pitch black. You are afraid to move. It renders your whole body incapacitated. Blindness (darkness) paralyzes. When your eye is healthy (clear), the light enlightens your mind, enables your hands, feet, everything. Your whole body is enlightened, filled with understanding. Get it? 

 35Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. 36If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”

Jesus seems to suggest that we can determine whether we live in the light (with understanding) or live in the dark. He says we need to care a lot about this. We choose to live spiritually blind or not. We are all born spiritually blind and we need only open our eyes to the light of Christ. But it is also true that God must give us sight. These ideas are not contradictory! A great example of God’s power and our responsibility regarding spiritual blindness is found in Jn 9: 
1As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. 
Jesus said this man’s physical blindness had a purpose! To illustrate something...spiritual.
…5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud 7and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
Jesus healed the man born blind. Something that has never happened in our medically advanced time! But he asked him to do go wash in a pool. 
When the man could see, I wonder if it changed his life? Of course it did! He didn’t need a cane, he could get a job, he didn’t need someone to guide him, he didn’t injure himself as often, he could run, he experienced color, light, beauty, knowing what his loved ones looked like. It staggers the mind to think of how his life changed for the better!

When you open your eyes and receive Christ the light, you will understand the world so much differently. He becomes the lens through which you understand God, yourself, the whole world! We call this your WORLDVIEW. A Christian worldview. Everyone (whether they know it or not) has a worldview. A toddler believes he's the center of the world. A secular humanist believes that the material world is all that exists. A Buddhist believes liberation from suffering comes through self-purification. Someone with a Christian worldview understands who they are (sinner saved by grace), who God is (holy, sovereign, all powerful, loving), where everything came from, where it’s going, and that there’s a plan for the universe that God is bringing about perfectly. Christians believe their primary reason for existence is to love and serve God. Love other people, care for God’s world. A personal worldview is a combination of all you believe to be true, which becomes the driving force behind every emotion, decision and action. Yes, surrendering to Christ and his word enlightens your view of everything! And as you pursue him, you will experience peace and contentment, regardless of your physical or financial circumstances. But there’s more. When Jesus says, 36If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, He is also speaking of the literal wholeness we will experience ultimately in heaven, where we’ll meet him face-to-face, see him as he is, and be like him in our resurrected, eternal state. Like the old song, “we will understand it better by and by.” But more than just understanding, “When we’ve been there 1000 years bright shining as the sun,” we will experience glory, beauty, ultimate satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy never ceasing!  

So what? 

1. Know the light of Christmas. Open your eyes and receive the light this Christmas. Believe in Christ. Receive him. Surrender! Then you will have light by which to understand and live in this world and unlimited light/beauty/understanding in heaven. Yes, he is the light.
In John 12:46, Jesus said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”   
Not everyone will. John 3:19-20 says, 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.  2 Corinthians 4:4 says: In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  
The appeal I make to you is to repeat what Jesus said: be careful lest the light in you be darkness. Don’t be spiritually blind. Open your eyes. Surrender to him.

2. Make known the light of Christmas. Jesus is the light in you. Show him!
Daniel 12:3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, [will shine] like the stars forever and ever.
Matthew 5: 14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Acts 13:47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”

How are you going to share the light this Christmas?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Someone Greater is Here

An icon of Christmas in America is the holiday movie or TV special. And so many of them, both old and new, have a similar theme: The true meaning of Christmas. 

Take The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the Jim Carey version) for example. Cindy Lou Who asks the Grinch (who is disguised as Santa), "What's Christmas really about?
"Vengeance!" The fake Santa blurted out without thinking. Then he caught himself and said, "I mean, presents, I suppose."
"I was afraid of that." Cindy Lou Who said sadly.

But of course, the "real meaning" of Christmas was finally discovered by the Grinch and all the residents of Whoville: Christmas is about being together! Here's how the original cartoon ends:

"Christmas Day is in our grasp,
    so long as we have hands to clasp.
Christmas Day will always be
    just as long as we have we.
Welcome Christmas while we stand,
    heart to heart, and hand in hand.."

Think of the favorite Christmas shows that answer the question: 
In the classic Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life,
(that everyone should see, by the way) it's all about
how blessed we are to have friends.
In A Christmas Carol, it's all about having compassion 
and giving to others. You don't want to be a Scrooge!
In Elf it's about Christmas spirit (because that's what 
makes Santa's sleigh fly)!
In Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it's that everyone is 
special, even misfits!
In many (like A Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and Home
Alone) Christmas is all about family. 
These are all good things, right? Of course. But a good answer isn't always the right one. Truth is, they’re all asking the right question, but they’re providing the wrong answers. That’s because they totally miss Jesus. 

I must say, there is one shining exception. It’s perhaps the most famous Christmas special: A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know the story: After Charlie Brown experiences aspects which don’t sit right with him about Christmas, he becomes more frustrated about the whole holiday itself. The climax of course is this: After everyone laughs at Charlie Brown for picking a terrible tree and as the obvious failure of his directorship of the play reveals itself, he has a meltdown, and in frustration shouts climactically, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” That’s when Linus, the security-blanket-carrying philosopher walks into the spotlight and quotes Luke 2:8-14 and then walks over and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” 

Linus got it right. Bottom line: if you miss Jesus, you miss Christmas

Here’s the tragedy: 
if you miss Jesus, you don’t just miss Christmas. 
You miss life. 
You miss God. 
You miss everything.

Luke 11:29-32 is not a Christmas passage. But it is in this sense: it's about people who miss Jesus. 

29When the crowds were increasing, [Jesus] began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign..." 

Evidently all these people rushed to see Jesus because they wanted to see him do something amazing. "Sign" means miracle. They wanted to be able to tweet that they saw him do something paranormal…Facebook that they were there…take a selfie so that they could brag. They wanted an emotional... maybe even a spiritual experience. Hearing about him wasn’t good enough. Hearing him speak wasn’t either. They wanted to see something big. Jesus said this was evil! Why? Because their thirst for entertainment would never be quenched—it was from selfish motives. Others sat in judgment wanting to see if his miracles “passed the test” worthy of a prophet, much more a messiah

Let me ask you: are you seeking some sign? Are you wanting God to perform for you? Is he failing to meet your standard or pass your test?

Jesus continues, "...but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation."

What does that mean, "the sign of Jonah"? You remember Jonah, right? The guy who was swallowed by a fish for 3 days and lived to tell about it. 

In Matthew 12, Jesus says something similar:

38Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 

That’s what Jesus meant: “Do you want a miracle? I got your miracle. I’m going to die and be buried for 3 days. Then I’m going to rise.” That’s really the greatest of all miracles. Others you might fake. Death, burial, and resurrection—quite tougher.

Back to Luke 11. Jesus continues:

"31The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 

What’s he saying? He’s referencing 1Kings 10 & 2 Chronicles 9 when a well-known and wealthy Queen from today’s Yemen or Ethiopia came to see King Solomon for herself because she had heard about his wealth & wisdom. She recognized that what she’d heard was true! Then she confessed God and proclaimed him blessed! Jesus is saying, while she was able to recognize greatness, those in his day couldn't see it even when it was as clear as the nose on their faces!

"32The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here."

Remember a little more about Jonah? He was the reluctant prophet during a time when Israel was threatened by Assyria (capital: Nineveh). He resented that God wanted him to go there because he hated Nineveh—so much so that he ran from God rather than prophesy to them. Nineveh was east, so he fled west, got on a boat and headed toward Spain across the Mediterranean! So God sent a violent storm. After all efforts were made to spare the ship, the sailors beckoned the passengers to pray to their gods. Jonah confessed his sin and suggested they throw him overboard. They reluctantly did, and the storm Jonah sank to the bottom. But God sent a fish to swallow him. After three days inside it, God now had his attention. He was spit up on the beach and this time he went to Nineveh. I’m sure he was quite a sight—perhaps the first bleach-blonde middle-easterner ever seen—when he preached, “Repent!” Then he found a place outside the city to watch God burn the sinful city. But much to his chagrin, all the men of Nineveh, including it's king, repented. It was an amazing revival of an unlikely city! They knew nothing of God or the Bible. 

Jesus points them out and said that God will raise them up one day and that they will stand in judgment of those who DO know better. 

The imagery here is powerful. Jesus reminds us that there is a judgment day coming. God will be on the throne, and call forth witnesses. The Queen of the south and the Ninevites will shout: “Guilty! We outsiders believed! You insiders did not!

And here we are in America. A nation founded by Bible-believing people, many who were deeply committed Christians. Here in the south, there are churches on every corner and Bibles in every home. What's more? Our single greatest national holiday is Christmas—nothing else comes close. WE, OF ALL PEOPLE MUST RECOGNIZE THAT SOMEONE GREATER THAN ANYONE ELSE HAS COME. Amazingly, the God of the universe came to us—as a baby. That’s it. The GOD-MAN has come!

Bottom line: This Christmas if we forget that it is first and foremost a celebration of God becoming flesh and entering the world he created that we marred by our rebellion and sin—in order that he might save us and bring us to himself, then we have missed EVERYTHING about Christmas. Everything. We have rendered our celebrations and traditions vacuous and even harmful. We, with those who missed him in Jesus' own generation will also be condemned by the queen of the South and the men of Nineveh for our great blindness and error. 

Do not miss Christmas! Do not miss what this is really all about! Not family & friends, not peace, not giving to others, not good will to men—as good as those things are! Christmas is about God enacting his rescue plan in the most amazing, unexpected way. Coming to us as a baby. So that even the least among us might be saved by grace through faith.

Don’t miss Jesus. Receive him. Confess Christ. Repent and turn to him. Do not be that one on judgement day who is condemned. Christ came for you, died in your place, and raised just as he said he would so that you might believe. IF you believe, you will not only see Christmas with new eyes and find infinitely more fulness in it, you will see life with new eyes. And you will have God. Forever.

Don’t let others miss him. Christian, tell about him this season when you get opportunities. Look for opportunities. You WILL have opportunities. Here are some ideas:
  • When your unbelieving co-workers miss Christmas, don’t scornfully demand that everyone “keep Christ in Christmas,” SHOW them Christmas! Show them Christ and a Christ-centered, Christ-like Christian. Serve them! Love them. 
  • When people’s patience wears thin in line at the store, be different. Show love & smile & overcome evil with good. Complement the shell-shocked lady at the customer-service desk. Tip your waitress well. Be different with contagious JOY & goodness. Maybe they’ll ask why, and you can say: “Because the REAL meaning of Christmas has changed my life.”
  • When you gather with your crazy family, BE THE ONE who reminds everyone what Christmas is all about. Be a Linus.
  • Look for ways to share Christ’s love SECRETLY. As a family, do Secret Santa with a purpose, or secretly give someone in need a gift from God.
  • Do something uncomfortable and unexpected. Invite an outsider. Perhaps an  international person for a holiday meal. Trust me, they’re curious. They’ll love hearing the Christmas story with your family. Include a single person or a new couple in town in your family celebration. Ask God to show you someone to include.
  • Of course, include someone in our church family on Christmas Eve. People are especially open to church on Christmas. Then have a worship service at home with your family and guests on Christmas Day.
These might help you and your family not only REMEMBER what Christmas is about, but TELL others in a powerful way.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Disciple-Makers or Demon Deacons?

I'm writing this post knowing that it's not an exciting issue for most people. But it actually is, if you love God's church, think it should be conformed to the instructions God gave us for church in the New Testament, and love seeing more people leading in his church (which equals growth of his church). 

First, it is not the goal of Providence Church to be a megachurch or to have bragging rights because we are the largest church in town. That's just vain. Our goal is to utilize our time and resources in order that through us God will make disciples of as many people as possible and have the largest impact on this world. That means it's more about quality (disciple-making) than quantity (converts or attendees). That's because real disciples are on mission and reproduce themselves. That said, we have for 10 years struggled to break the 1000-attendee barrier. It's not an uncommon thing, and it's not necessarily a bad thing (if we are planting churches and making, growing, and unleashing disciples). I am convinced that there is a correlation between the size of a disciple-making church and the impact it can have in this world. For many reasons (that I will not expound upon here) and in our context, I think that the "sweet spot" number is 1500 to 2000 people. There are some practical factors that can determine whether we grow that large, like: our building's size, our lack of parking space, our leadership structure, as well as our culture of inviting and welcoming and encouraging new people, and caring for those already in the family. These factors, and to a greater degree our struggle to grow, has caused our elders to pray and think and read and discuss solutions. 

Several things are obvious: 
1. We need more space. This can be accomplished in several ways: multiple services, different campuses, larger facilities (either by constructing more or moving to another location), or getting rid of people by planting new churches. NONE of these are easy. 

2. We need more, capable leaders. After all, we are in the people business. An essential ingredient to making disciples is disciple-makers. These should be raised up IN THE CHURCH, or we are not accomplishing our mission.

3. We need more resources. Specifically, money. Because there are many practical necessities for disciple-making and church planting. 

Let me deal with the first and last of these quickly: 
1) The space problem is real, especially regarding parking and children's ministry space. Yes, the auditorium is tight at times, but that's not our primary problem. We have and are trying to accommodate for this until we're able to plant a church and build more space.
3) As people grow more mature spiritually, they are obedient to God and give more. We have started classes to help people manage their money better, and we have significantly paid down our debt (I have not given up hope that we will retire it). This frees up significant amounts of money each month.
Also, growth in members also results in more giving.

That leaves number 2. How do we raise up leaders who are capable and accountable to, and passionate about making disciples and planting churches? We must be intentional about this. We recognized (again) the need for our current staff and leaders to raise up "replacements" for themselves and recruit and train more who will "own" the ministries of Providence. These leaders must be identified as equals to the staff (much the same way as our non-staff elders are equals to Jesse and me).

About a year ago, I read a book entitled, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith by Michael J. Svigel. Unbeknownst to me, Jesse was reading it for a class about the same time. In the book, Svigel accurately describes the simple structure of the early church, consisting of elders AND deacons, that remained basically the same and allowed the church to grow exponentially for the first few centuries. That is, until the Roman Emperor became a Christian and the church exchanged the simple structure it began with for a much more complex structure that more resembled Roman society. Corruption and stunted growth followed, ushering in the dark ages.

Jesse wrote me an email early in 2016 dropping the idea of calling this new categorization of leaders, deacons. My first reaction to this suggestion was not positive. I've dealt with "demon" deacons before (and not the Wake Forest University variety)! It usually wasn't pleasant. Deacons tend to be winners of a church popularity contest vote who, instead of serving, become the Mayberry town council-type complainers and troublemakers—dividers, not disciple-makers. I re-read the scriptural passages about deacons, and read germane sections of RetroChristianity again. I realized that what Jesse had said was true: the only biblical name for the type of leaders we were wanting to establish is "deacon." 

After much discussion, Jesse and I made the case to the elders so that we could all pray together about this. After much more deliberation, we decided to put it before the church. Here is the white paper we wrote about the new (to us) office.

After much prayer, we presented to the church that we wanted to establish the office of deacon at Providence. Of course there was some pushback. We totally expected it. In fact, it was not as much or as fierce as we expected. And all was lovingly delivered. All those who struggled with establishing deacons at Providence had churched backgrounds where deacons were not defined and determined biblically. This had resulted in problems for the church. 

In addition to the white paper (which answers most questions), I answered a few emails and had additional conversations with people. For example, here is part of one email reply to a member who is (like me and many others in our church and area) from a Baptist background (I've hidden the name of the recipient). In addition to having some bad personal experiences with deacons in a traditional church, he was struggling with the idea of women deacons.

Hey brother,
I appreciate your email so much. I love you and I LOVE your commitment to the Bible. I assure you there will never be a day while our current elders are alive where we compromise the clear teaching of Scripture, and I hope we put measures in place for the future leaders of Providence to have the same commitment. I am thankful for you for lots of reasons, including because you are a convicted conservative, evangelical, protestant, Christian. SO AM I. Even though we are not affiliated with a denomination, we are certainly "baptistic" regarding doctrine. I'm proud of my Baptist heritage (well, most of it anyway :) )! Truth is, we from Baptist backgrounds must forget some of what we have been taught about deacons, and look to the Scriptures alone for the definition. While baptists get most things right, many of them miss the biblical role for deacons. That has everything to do with Baptist history in the United States.
In Baptist churches, deacons have over the centuries become "rulers" rather than "servants" as they were intended to be in the New Testament. Baptist churches in the USA usually began in small communities, in rural areas, or on the frontier, and hardly EVER had a full-time pastor when they began. Most of them had itinerate or "circuit" preachers who would alternate between 2 to 4 different small churches! Because there was a shortage of pastors/preachers/elders (they considered these terms to be synonymous) and didn't have a plurality of elders, the deacons operated as the ruling "board" of the church. If a church was able to grow enough, they would eventually celebrate the day that they could hire a full-time pastor. But the power vested in the deacon board never changed. That's why virtually all Baptist pastors have stories of having trouble with "the Deacon board" of their churches (I know you have experienced this!). The deacons had become a ruling board, rather than what the NT intended: a group of leading servants who served under the authority of the elders. Most conservative scholars agree that the word sometimes translated "wives" in 1Tim.3:11 should be translated "women" and refers to women deacons. I quoted John MacArthur in the "white paper" and I could bore you to tears with the many conservative commentaries and early church fathers who were convinced of this interpretation. Here's just one more from the great conservative Baptist Charles Haddon Spurgeon's favorite scholarly resource: Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible:"their wives" — rather, “the women,” that is, the deaconesses. For there is no reason that special rules should be laid down as to the wives of the deacons, and not also as to the wives of the bishops or overseers. Moreover, if the wives of the deacons were meant, there seems no reason for the omission of “their” (not in the Greek). Also the Greek for “even so” (the same as for “likewise,” 1 Timothy 3:8, and “in like manner,” 1 Timothy 2:9), denotes a transition to another class of persons. Further, there were doubtless deaconesses at Ephesus, such as Phoebe was at Cenchrea (Romans 16:1, “servant,” Greek, “deaconess”), yet no mention is made of them in this Epistle if not here; whereas, supposing them to be meant here, the third chapter embraces in due proportion all the persons in the service of the Church. Naturally after specifying the qualifications of the deacon, Paul passes to those of the kindred office, the deaconess. 
Trust me, there is not a single early church father of the first five centuries that disagrees with this interpretation. It was not until much later when it was translated or interpreted "wives of deacons." I know what you're thinking. "No conservative believes women can be deacons." I know! I have felt the same way! And I still do regarding churches where deacons [unbiblically] are rulers! Again, we want the office of deacon to be what the New Testament intends: servants. I think it is more important to bring our church in line with what the Bible really teaches than to hold to man-made tradition. Please know that there is no biblical case for women elders (who ARE the ruling body of the church) and that Providence will not compromise regarding the Bible's teaching. I give you my word on this. So unless we see something in the Bible that suggests that we should change our practice to conform better to the Bible, we will not change it. I am thankful that we have a men-led church. In most churches I know, most volunteer and leadership positions are filled by women. However, we actually have more men involved in all aspects of leadership (including traditionally woman-dominated positions, like children's ministry and worship) than any other church I know percentage-wise. That's due in part to our focus on men being the leaders God has called them to be. This is in no wise a put-down for women! God loves strong women and we want them to serve in the church in myriad ways.
Brother, the decision is not made yet. The elders are presenting the idea to the whole church so that we can all pray about it, study what God's Word says, and then vote on it. 

There it is. Exciting stuff, right? I actually think so. We MUST raise up new leaders if we want to make more disciples and plant churches. I think God is trustworthy to build HIS church. As we conform it to the description given in the New Testament, we are trusting HIM to do so.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New (to me) Truck

I'm now the owner of a Nissan D21 pickup truck (1992, 4x4, v6, automatic, King Cab, in Midnight Blue Pearl with 139k miles and pretty new Goodyear tires). I bought it for a really great price. I stumbled across it when looking for something to drive while my old Wagoneer was being repaired and repainted. The plan I sold Darla was that I would not have to rush my paint and body guy and I could just sell the truck after the Wagoneer was done, which is much better than renting a car (or burdening someone by borrowing their's). Well, I'm afraid I'm growing attached to it! I think it just may be a keeper (shhh! Don't tell Darla). It runs really great and is just so handy.

I always loved these Hardbodies. They came out the year I graduated high school. I had friends who had them (I was a GM and Toyota truck guy back then) and I thought they were really cool. I had forgotten how easy/fun/economical these little trucks are. I've enjoyed zipping around in it and having the useful bed in the back (taking the trash and hauling wood is a little more of a hassle in the Wagoneer because I have to hook up the little trailer—it's hard to beat a truck!).

I'm not a mechanic, but can do most low- and mid-level work in my garage. I totally have respect for you experts out there! I like piddling around with it and learning about how to do stuff. And for the first time in my life (with a few exceptions), I've learned that it's freeing to have a car to drive while working on another! I've always felt the pressure to get my projects finished quickly because I've depended on the car for transportation!!

So far I've changed the oil & filter, the spark plugs & wires, the belts (they were in horrendous shape), the thermostat (I had virtually no heat), and air filter. I also fixed a speedometer problem (previous owner said it worked before I bought it) and replaced all a/c vents (that were brittle and sun-baked).

Issues it has:
•The transmission seems to want to shift nearer the rpm redline than seems right. I'm going to change the fluid and filter and see if that helps.
•The cruise control doesn't work. Switch is on and light is too. No engage. Guys on the "Infamous Nissan" Hardbody Forum online have suggested a couple of fixes that I'm going to try today.
•The body is great except for a palm-of-your-hand-sized dent in the front of the hood and some peeling factory clear coat on the hood and roof. But there's no rust on body or frame!
•The driver's seat has a small crack in the vinyl part (just above the recline handle) and a cigarette burn right in the middle. I'll just look for a replacement seat from time-to-time at the junkyard, but I'm not worried about this. It looks like the skin on the the dash has become unglued in places. And the cover of center console is showing age. It, like the top of the steering wheel, is deteriorating.

Fun stuff to work on! Or NOT work on (it's an old truck so it doesn't need to be perfect)!

Now to come up with a name. I'm thinking, "Buster."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Christmas Tree CAMPING Adventure

That's right. We've taken the Sparks family Christmas tree adventure to new heights. We decided to take one more trip in Miss Daisy (the camper) before putting her up for the winter the weekend after Thanksgiving to our favorite Christmas tree farm in White Top Virginia.
Miss Daisy has been an ongoing project since May, and has probably been one of the reasons I've blogged less since May. We've redone almost everything and we have camped!
After a great Thanksgiving Day with my dad, sister, step brother, and families we finished packing up; and went with our good friends the Hicks from Mississippi (yes, the "Mississippi Hicks"), who we camp with every year in Elkmont. They drove all the way up to get a tree! 

We hooked up Miss Daisy to the Wag and went. All five of us with both dogs. Yes, we all slept in Daisy. Even the dogs. The nights saw temperatures dip down to the low 20s. All water and drinks left outside were frozen solid! The camper was warm, but it was a little rough to go outside in the mornings and cook breakfast (which begins with melting ice for coffee)! 

We were saddened to learn that Charlie, the Christmas tree farm owner, died a couple of weeks ago. Now his daughter was selling trees. There were more people buying than we have seen in previous years (that doesn't mean many–we're usually the only ones!). She was there making wreaths and taking money. We took our time to find a tree, taking lots of pictures. The dogs love running free as we look. This year they had a couple of farm hands who cut your tree for you and take it to the old tree binder for you.

Here are some pictures of our time there. Notice that the girls even dressed up the dogs in sweaters. Not entirely impractical. It was below freezing there. Mo is cold natured and Sparky has lost lots of hair in his old age.

After getting lunch at the Whitetop Store, we drove up to Grayson Highlands. It was cold and windy. But the wind was really whipping at the top. It seems to always be windy there, but this was the strongest wind I've seen there. Like 60-80 mph constant. You had to lean into it to stand, and you had to yell to be heard. Cuttingly cold! Darla and Duncan hunkered down in a cleft of the rock while we went to the top.

After spending the night back at Grindstone Campground, we packed up and headed home. We stopped in Abingdon for lunch. People were taking pictures of the Wag and Miss Daisy like we were celebrities and waved at us like we were a one-car parade! One lady gleefully ran out of a building and asked to take a selfie with our family and the Wag & camper! So funny.

Okay, I feel compelled to dispel the "Pinterest Perfection" images here and remind readers that all is not perfect! The Wagoneer SUCKS gas, especially when pulling the trailer at interstate speeds. Also my pictures (intentionally) do not show the damage to the back bumper and right rear quarter panel sustained in the recent wreck I had. In addition, Darla and the kids (not Dara, who drives a Jeep truck) were complaining of the loud, droning, exhaust sound that now is even louder due to the damage in the back. I'm getting the Wag fixed and repainted soon, but it still leaks oil and has a tired engine with over 225k miles. This is evident on long, steep uphill climbs. Daisy's not the perfect camper either. We don't have a working oven, refrigerator, or any air conditioning. And wow, it's tight with five adults and two dogs! We had our share of bickering and patience-wearing-thin. So don't be fooled by the pictures. Know that we are a family of sinners who are in process, and we have limited funds to try to stretch and still have fun experiences together. Thankfully, there were no breakdowns.