Thursday, March 25, 2010

Of Birthdays and Brokenness

I turned 43 last week. Weird how getting old affects a guy. Yesterday I was 29 with two little kids. Now I’ve got three in double-digits. Yesterday I was running triathlons, weighed 180 lbs. and was often mistaken for a college student. Now, 15 lbs. and a few surgeries later, the significantly fewer [and more gray] hairs give my age away. I’m not cool anymore, and what really tells me I’m getting old is that I’m starting to really not care if I’m cool or not. This is, I am now understanding, why old men have hair sticking out of their noses and wear white calf-high socks with black hushpuppies. It is about comfort, not about what others think!

Yesterday (actually over 13 years ago) I came to Providence Church, a 59-attendee church (kids and all!) that met in Cedar Bluff Middle School. Today, we’re a bit larger and we’re still having a great time seeing people come to Jesus and grow in grace. I’ve made so many good friends, experienced some hurts, made many mistakes, and grown wiser and more in love with Jesus. It is funny how much I’ve changed what I think about some things and how I’ve become steeled in what I think about others. I’ve seen kids in our church grow up and have kids of their own. I’ve laughed...a lot. I tend to cry...more with every year.

One of the hardest things about ministry is how people come and go. Some people I have loved have hurt me deeply. It’s something I think about every day. I’m sure it is why many pastors burn out and/or move around so much. Staying in the same town for many years means frequently facing people (who don’t like you) and their gossip. The pain can be overwhelming. Every pastor feels betrayed from time to time. If they don’t run, they can respond in other wrong ways: become bitter, combative, or calloused, or even feel defeated and depressed. I tend to fight the latter. I tend to fret over mistakes I’ve made and missed opportunities. Sometimes I even ponder whether it is worth the pain to tell people the truth (of course, I know it is). Dwelling on hurt isn’t good, but it is certainly not good to just pack it away and not deal with it. I choose to deal with it by prayer, and by writing thoughts down (like I’m doing now). It also helps to have people close to me who care enough to listen.

I am blessed that both of my parents are still alive. My mom sent me an encouraging text at the very minute I was born (43 years earlier) to say “happy birthday.” It reminded me that God had a reason to bring me in to this world. All I want to do is fulfill his purpose for me. What frustrates me is how I far I have to go. I fight with my flesh, the world, and the Devil, who all conspire to render me less useful. I know my primary objective in life is to bring glory to God and make disciples, beginning with my responsibilities as a husband and father. After that I am called to be a pastor of the flock called Providence Church. These are enormous responsibilities, for which I feel entirely inadequate. There are times I fight feelings of failure. Indeed I have failed in many ways.

My dad gave me a birthday call, too. On his way back from a coaches’ convention in Georgia, he stopped by and spent the night. We looked at old pictures and stayed up late talking. He had many encouraging words to say. I went to bed feeling blessed that I was given such a godly heritage and great foundation. God has given this to me and I don’t want to squander it. I am so undeserving, yet so thankful for God’s grace upon which I must depend. The same God who orchestrated all these blessings past that I could not control, commands the future. My only logical response is twofold: to yield—that is, to be broken before the One who is sovereign, ask him to use me, and to make me usable; and to love—desire him with all my heart and worship him with my efforts and actions without regard for selfish gain.
“One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 3:13-14

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Man Called Patrick

A few years ago, I wrote a little article about the real St. Patrick, one of my favorite holiday heroes. Here it is.

When most people in our country think of St. Patrick’s Day, they think of wearing green, shamrocks, and leprechauns with pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. If you ask someone who St. Patrick really was, you will probably get answers that mention an old Irish saint chasing the snakes away from the “Emerald Isle.” The problem is none of this is true! The only vestiges of truth that remain popularly known are these: a beloved man named Patricius (we’ll call him by his better-known name, Patrick) died on March 17th in Ireland sometime between 465 and 493 A.D. (the year is disputed). But there is much more. Who is the real Patrick?

Imagine the horror of seeing your hometown destroyed and being taken captive by cruel raiders and sold as a slave to a foreign land. This is precisely what happened to 16-year-old Patrick, the son of a British Roman civil magistrate in west Britain around 430 AD.

In the fall 1998 edition of Christian History magazine, Mary Cagney describes his six-years of slavery as follows:

Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents' heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master's pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Worst of all, he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time. Early missionaries to Britain had left a legacy of Christianity that young Patrick was exposed to and took with him into captivity. He had been a nominal Christian to this point; he now turned to the Christian God of his fathers for comfort.

God had gotten this teenager’s attention. According to David L. Brown, Ph.D. in his 1999 article, The Real Patrick: Missionary to Ireland,

Patrick had ignored the Lord up to this point in his life. But things were different now, very different. He began to remember some things that his preacher grandfather had told him. The despair of slavery and the solitude of his occupation compelled him to remember his Christian upbringing and his need of the Lord. He writes in his confession, "I was about sixteen but did not know the true God, but in a strange land, the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and I was converted." Patrick came to know Christ as his personal Savior and was freed from his slavery to sin. Patrick grew in the Lord. "His devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ brought upon him a nickname, ‘Holy-Boy" from his fellow slaves. Through the years, he learned to pray whether he was working or resting." It is evident by his own testimony he learned to practice 1 Thessalonians 5:17 which says, Pray without ceasing. He says this in his Confession: "After I came to Ireland, every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed. The Love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; I used to get up and pray before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me…because the spirit within me was then fervent."

Later, Patrick even told the Lord that he would give his life to ministry if he ever regained his freedom. After serving his godless master faithfully, Patrick sensed that the time to make a break had come. He escaped and traveled 200 miles on foot over treacherous, unknown territory to the coast, and boarded a ship of traders headed for Gaul (modern France). When the Celtic mariners arrived, they were disappointed to only find devastation. Goths or Vandals had so decimated the land that no food or buyers of their goods were to be found in the once vibrant area. Here Patrick got his first recorded opportunity to share his newly revived faith with someone. Cagney, quoting Patrick’s autobiography, reports the conversation went something like this:

What have you to say for yourself, Christian?" the ship's captain taunted. "You boast that your God is all powerful. We're starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul."

Patrick answered confidently. "Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey."

At that moment, a herd of pigs appeared, "seeming to block our path." Though Patrick instantly became "well regarded in their eyes," his companions offered their new-found food in sacrifice to their pagan gods.

Patrick did not partake.

Historians believe that after training for ministry for a time in the South of France, Patrick headed home where he found his family and resumed his life. But God kept bringing the Irish—those miserable, superstitious, pagan Celts—to Patrick’s mind. Once Patrick even had a dream of a man from Ireland calling and pleading, “Help us!” Patrick wrote, “I was deeply moved in heart,” and he made the decision to leave his beloved Britain for Ireland, but this time he was taken captive by God’s desire for the lost. "I dwell among gentiles," he wrote, "in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things."

Patrick explained that the false gods that the people of Ireland worshipped and feared were actually evil demons, and he beckoned them to place their faith in Christ. Things began slowly but Patrick was determined. He faced opposition on many fronts, and his life was frequently in danger. Cagney writes,

Predictably, Patrick faced the most opposition from the druids, who practiced magic, were skilled in secular learning (especially law and history) and advised Irish kings. Biographies of the saint are replete with stories of druids who "wished to kill holy Patrick."

"Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity," Patrick wrote, "but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere."

Indeed, Patrick almost delighted in taking risks for the gospel. "I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God's name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children."

Eventually God used Patrick to bring a king, Loiguire, to faith in Christ who intended to kill the young missionary. The different accounts of this confrontation are rife with legend, so much so that it is difficult to ascertain fact from fiction. Nonetheless the King was dramatically converted, and Patrick made it a central part of his strategy to convert the one hundred or so kings first so that their subjects would hopefully follow. This tactic proved to be extremely effective.

It is understandable that slavery was an evil against which Patrick would battle tirelessly. According to Cagney,

[Patrick] was, in fact, the first Christian to speak out strongly against the practice. Scholars agree he is the genuine author of a letter excommunicating a British tyrant, Coroticus, who had carried off some of Patrick's converts into slavery.

"Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord's own flock which was flourishing in Ireland," he wrote, "and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters." He called Coroticus's deed "wicked, so horrible, so unutterable," and told him to repent and to free the converts.

It remains unknown if he was successful in freeing Coroticus's slaves, but within his lifetime (or shortly thereafter), Patrick ended the entire Irish slave trade.

Even though he was not considered a man of great learning, Patrick is also known for his insistence on sound biblical doctrine. Dr. Neil Chadwick writes,

Because of his deep faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Patrick made this doctrine a center piece of his instruction. To help explain the mystery of the ‘Trinity’ he used the simple three-leaf shamrock to illustrate the three persons in one God.

Most historians agree that he taught a “grace alone through faith alone” salvation, unlike that which was developing in the Roman Christianity of the European continent at that time.
Patrick boldly proclaimed Christ in Ireland for about 30 years. And talk about impact! Roy D. Warren, Jr. in his book, Patrick of Ireland: The Untold Story wrote, "he planted over 200 churches and had over 100,000 truly saved converts." Patrick writes in his autobiography,

I am greatly a debtor to God, who has bestowed his grace so largely upon me, that multitudes were born again to God through me…Hence, the Irish, who had never had the knowledge of God and worshipped only idols and unclean things, have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called the sons of God.

Patrick loved the Lord and constantly trained new Believers to follow the Great Commission. In addition to planting churches, he built scores of monasteries, schools, orphanages, and other institutions for instructing people in the faith, and established hundreds of pastors and leaders. Many of these institutions still exist.

We should learn from the cultural impact that God instrumented through Patrick. Brown writes, “While the Roman Empire and occupied lands were going from peace to chaos, the land of Ireland was going from chaos to peace under the ministry of Patrick.”

So on this St. Patrick’s Day, tell someone about the real Patrick. And consider this: God wants to raise up some Patricks today. He is looking for those who are willing to lay aside the comforts of this life to find more contentment in being greatly used by God.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why our prayers fail?

So I've been contemplating why Christians' prayers sometimes seem to fall short. While praying this morning it occurred to me that we tend to pray too little, too small, and too weak.

We pray too little:
We simply don’t pray enough. William P. Wilson, M.D., 
Professor Emeritus at Duke Medical Center and Director of the Institute of Christian Growth found that “the average churchgoer in the US prays one minute a day. The average pastor prays three minutes a day.” That’s really bad, and really telling. Perhaps that’s why sermons are so weak and so few people respond. Perhaps that’s why so many pastors succumb to temptation and become a public scandal, shaming the name of Christ. Perhaps that’s a reason our churches are so empty and powerless. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to tell the difference between Christians and their unbelieving neighbors. When we don’t pray intentionally and consistently we are, in effect, displaying one or more of the following attitudes: I don’t need God, God doesn’t listen, or God can’t change things. All of these are lies! When I take time to pray, I spend time with the One who loves me and happens to run the entire universe. He has asked me to pray. I need him. By praying, if nothing else, I acknowledge my dependence on him and prove my belief that he hears me. If that were all my prayers accomplished, it would be enough. But of course, that is not all. My prayers move God to action.

We pray too small:
We tend to pray for less significant things. “Let me have a good day.” “Keep my kids safe.” “Let me get a raise.” “Let me have a new car.” “Help me to feel better.” “Let the food we are about to eat go to the nourishment of our bodies.” “Give me a good night’s sleep.” Come on folks! It’s not that these things are not important, but can’t we do better than that?
I have been around many Christians, some of them were people I would call exceptionally godly (of course, these are people who would never call themselves that!). These people tend to pray for BIG things. They ask for God to awaken thousands to the truth of the Gospel and for God to change our culture. They pray for God to use their time, bodies, resources, intellect, etc. for the sake of his glory in this world. They ask for God to raise up godly men and women with passion for his church and his word. They pray for God to change the hearts of people in government. They pray that their kids will love Christ with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength, and bring their friends to Christ; and for their schools to be impacted for Christ’s sake. They pray for God to bless them financially so that they can give generously to their church and people in need. They pray for God to stop the advancement of Islam and other false religions through the power of Christ, and set ablaze the church against whom "the gates of hell cannot prevail." They pray that God will let them suffer any negative thing (sickness, sorrow, persecution, poverty) as one joyfully sharing in the sufferings of Christ for their own growth and the sake of his glory. That’s praying BIG. God is big. He likes for us to pray for big things.

We pray too weak:
Our prayers sometimes lack assurance and passion. We can come across like this: “Lord, thank you for this day. If it is according to your will, please be with John Doe while he is feeling bad and please help our church do what you’ve called us to do. And I pray that I will not face difficulties today.” When we pray weakly, not with conviction expecting results, we waste our time and a great opportunity! We are told to “boldly approach the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) and to pray expectantly. Jesus made this crystal clear in Luke 11:5-8

And he said to them, "Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and he will answer from within, 'Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything'? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.

It is the rude urgency of the friend wanting the loaves that moves the groggy sleeper to action. Christ (who is not a groggy sleeper, by the way) is telling the story so that we will show urgency in our prayers! He follows his parable with this (Luke 11:9-13):

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

We have a Father who wants us to have...not just good gifts...but the Holy Spirit when we ask! Therefore, a strong prayer will be bold, and will “remind” God (or, more accurately, remind the one praying) of the promises he has made in his Word. It will be passionate and specific; pleading and intense.

I want to pray often. I want to pray big. I want to pray strong.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When you DON'T feel like it...

The pastor of my home church, Dr. Richard Emmert, was a man of prayer. He went on a trip to South Korea and saw how God was transforming that nation. He witnessed first hand how the Korean Christians prayed and knew that was the key. It changed him. He came back challenging and leading our church to pray. Our church experienced an awakening—and it is still doing well today. He said much about prayer. Among many other great quotes that I still remember, this one came to my mind today:

“Pray when you feel like it...pray when you don’t feel like it...pray UNTIL you feel like it.”

This morning this was fulfilled in my prayer time.

I had some dental work done yesterday afternoon. After the local anesthesia wore off my whole jaw was throbbing with pain and I had a huge headache. I didn’t sleep well. My alarm went off at 5 am and I did not want to get up. I took 2 ibuprofen and dragged myself to the church to pray. Honestly, I struggled. I didn’t feel like praying. I asked God to help me. I remembered in Matthew 26 when Jesus told Peter and the disciples to pray with him in the garden the night he was betrayed. He soon found them asleep. “Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray...” He prayed again and saw that they had fallen asleep—again! I bet they would have been wide-awake had they known what was about to happen!

Anyway, I kept fighting—sometimes frustrated that I couldn’t stay focused. I asked God to help me pray. He did. All of a sudden it seemed the clouds cleared and I met with God! My heart revived and I know God heard me. He helped me know what to pray. And I heard him. I walked out refreshed and renewed! Thank you Father.

“Pray when you feel like it...pray when you don’t feel like it...pray UNTIL you feel like it.”

Now I get it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A little guidance for praying

I’ve been praying in the mornings. Not for the show, but because I want God to move. It has been incredible. Some others have come to the church to pray too. Some have said they want to come but can't for scheduling reasons (work, taking kids to school, etc.). A couple of people have asked if they could have a copy of the Morning Prayer guide to which I’ve referred. Instead of the popular ACTS method (Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication) which is good, I’ve found Jesus’ model prayer is more helpful for me to get things going. I've been using the following and the time flies!

October 19-November 26 Mondays-Thursdays
Nothing fancy. No music. No preaching. No requests. Just prayer.
Come any time between 6-8 AM. Pray however long you want.

5 Aspects of an Effective Prayer according to Jesus in Luke 11:2-4

1. Acknowledge your privileged position with Him: He is your Father.

"hallowed be your name,"
2. Affirm His “Awesomeness.”

"your kingdom come."
3. Align your priorities with His: The Kingdom is first.

"Give us each day our daily bread."
4. Ask Him to provide for your needs.

5. Address sin:
"Forgive us our sins," Confess your sins to God.

"for we also forgive everyone who sins against us." Forgive others’ sins.

"And lead us not into temptation." Ask God to guide you away from sin.

Some ideas for your prayers:
For God to have mercy on our nation:
•Spiritual awakening- that he would cause many thousands to be saved, changing our culture, turning back the moral decline.
 President Obama
 Congress in general
 Our Senators: Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker
 Our US House Representative: John Duncan, Jr.
 Supreme Court Justices
 State and local leaders
Pray God will give them wisdom to do what’s right & best for our nation. Pray they will not give in to corruption or dishonesty, or act out of self-interest. Pray they will seek to know God and his will. Pray they will not spend unnecessarily. Pray that God will remove those who lead wrongly.
•Military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan
For God to have mercy on people you know:
•For those who do not know Christ- that God will draw them to himself, that God will open doors for you to lead them to him.
•Christians you know who are in sin, not growing or struggling spiritually.
•For the spiritual well being of your family.
For God to have mercy on the church:
•For Providence specifically:
 That we are true to God’s word and sensitive to his will.
 That we are effective in reaching the lost AND growing believers.
 That our people find meaningful relationships with each other.
 That God will help us impact the world through our missions efforts and planting churches.
 That God will give the elders and staff wisdom to lead.
 That God will protect us from division, error, and scandal.
 That God will provide financially through the giving of his people.
 That God will raise up people to lead and volunteer.
•For the Church in general:
 That the drift toward moral relativism & radical tolerance is reversed.
 That God’s people would love and obey God’s word.
 That we would not be divided, but unite in spreading the gospel.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Motivations for Prayer

(Note: I just read over this and perceived that it comes off like I’m trying to sound “Mr. Spiritual.” Please don’t read that. Truthfully, I’ve been under conviction for many months about my prayer life. It has not been what it needs to be. I’ve been going through the motions, sometimes rushing through prayer after reading the Word in my daily devotional time. This discipline is good for me, and my hope is that somehow it will encourage you!)

The first week that I prayed at the church from 6-8 AM from Monday until Thursday really was great. I have absolutely NO regrets—in fact, it has made a difference in my life. You’ve got to understand that I’m not naturally a morning person. I start early because I need to, not because I want to. My brain typically starts hitting on all cylinders around 10 AM and I tend to get really productive toward the end of the day. All my adult life I’ve asked God to help me be a morning person—and I envy those who naturally are!

So I say all that to say this: Thursday of last week, I struggled during the morning prayer time. I “fought” for the first 15-30 minutes. I’m not sure why. My thoughts were unsettled and I chased rabbits everywhere in my mind. I worked through the Lord’s Prayer as a model outline to “cover the bases” (I’ll try to blog on that method later). I finally “broke through” and had some really good heart communication with God for the next hour before becoming a little groggy. Note to self: I was up late Wednesday night—don’t need to do that again! So I took a break and walked out to get a drink of water. Then I was good for the last 15 minutes.

Since Thursday, I’ve been reflecting on my motivation. I’m determined not to let this become an empty discipline or a legalism. I’m not waking up this early for NOTHING!!

So I’m asking myself the question: WHY SHOULD I BE MOTIVATED TO PRAY? I’ve thought of a few things that might actually motivate Christians, and I think they are both historically and biblically sound, too!

Motivation #1: FEAR.
People tend to pray when they are scared. Some fear for personal loss: afraid they will fail a test, lose their job, have to sell their home; or worse, afraid they will lose a child or spouse. Some see the news and become afraid for our nation. Closer to home, we SHOULD fear what we see happening to our kids when they are enticed by the world. When we read the Bible (particularly books like Amos), we should fear God’s judgment of the lost, the wayward church, or ourselves because of sin! I’m not sure fear is a bad thing-in fact, I’m pretty sure this is a very GOOD thing. Sometimes God uses fear to drive us to pray.

Motivation #2: OPPORTUNITY.
If God is really moved by our prayers and actually acts in response to them, we are CRAZY not to pray. Millions of people lay down billions of dollars to play the lottery hoping they get wealthy, when they know their chances of winning are next to impossible! We, however, as God’s children, have the ear of Almighty God, who is the all-powerful, Maker of the universe and beyond! There’s nothing he can’t do and nothing he doesn’t own. And we have been told that he hears and responds to our prayers!

Motivation #3: INTIMACY.
When I pray, I commune with God and spend time in his presence. In other words, I hang out with HIM and talk to HIM! One big concern I have of our technological/informational age is the way it crowds out the simple, quiet time with God. God said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psal. 46:10). This is the opposite of our tendency today. We need our iPod blaring in our earbuds at all times we’re not engaged with people. We need to keep up with all 999 “friends” on facebook. We need to answer the constant stream of emails and watch youtube videos. We need to spend hours in front of our flat-screen HDTVs watching news, sports, comedy, and hundreds more channels that we pay hundreds each month to see! Sure, our enemy lures and tempts us with some of the content of the many different media to which we expose our minds. But more than the content, it is the time away from God that is just as hurtful. If the enemy can keep us distracted...occupied...busy, he’s got us. But when I put away the distractions and spend time alone communicating with God, I know him more and better. When I pray I “hear” from God’s heart. Not new extra-biblical revelation, but meditation concerning what I know about God—things I’ve learned about him in his Word—I understand him more. I sense his holiness. I feel his pleasure and his presence. When I know him more, my love for him grows.

Motivation #4: PLEASURE.
This one is linked to the previous. It does not take long in prayer before my priorities and tastes begin to change. When I am saturated in the world, I find myself longing for the things of the world. When I am in the presence of God I begin to see the world as it really is: shallow...stale...hollow...unsatisfying. Not so God’s presence. As Paul said, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
” (Rom. 11:33), and David:
“Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3).
When we pray, Not only do we begin to realize the vastness of God’s infinite attributes—we actually begin to take some of them on. We walk in his peace. We act in confidence. We show his meekness and gentleness. We start “dressing” like our Father. Again quoting Paul, “as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts... And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.... And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:12-17).
It is FRUSTRATING to be a Christian who continues to fail to become more like Christ, and EXHILERATING to be one who continues to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). The Christian who spends time with Christ has a distinct advantage of increasingly bearing Christ’s identity.

Motivation #5: POWERLESSNESS.
“Prayer is an unspoken confession of our utter dependence upon God. Prayerlessness is an unbroken testimony of our dependence upon the flesh” (R. Sprinkle). Truth is, I can do nothing on my own. I can’t even do what’s right when I try. I can’t insure my own safety, let alone that of my wife and kids! I am so feeble and helpless. So many things are out of my control. My health, the future, virtually everything! I certainly can’t change anyone else. I can’t do anything about our country. It’s depressing when I think about it. The only thing I can do is to ask my Father to act. He CAN do ANYTHING. In fact, he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). If I can’t do anything...and he can do everything...I am insane if I don’t pray.

Motivation #6: OBEDIENCE.
God has asked that we pray, and told us that he would act when we do. Here are just a few of the passages in the Bible that encourage us to pray:

Matthew 7:7-11
7"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
9"Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Luke 18:1
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

Ephesians 6:18
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

1 Timothy 2:1-8
1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
8I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling

Colossians 4:2
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

1 Thessalonians 5:17
Pray continually;

Philippians 4:6
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

James 5
13Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

1 Peter 3:12
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer

1 Peter 4:7
The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.

I want you to know that the last few mornings’ prayer time have been incredible! The time has FLOWN by. I’ve actually been shocked when I looked at my watch and saw it was past 8:00! I hope this encourages you to pray.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Amos...Drives Me to Pray

Studying Amos has been great. If for no one else, for me. I am amazed at how much Israel in Amos’ day resembles America, and how much the religious scene then bears likeness to ours. Then to hear Amos pronounce God’s coming judgment to them gets really close to home. I know we live in another time after the coming of Christ and the cross, and live in the age of grace. And that’s the big difference: when one rejects God today, he is rejecting God's law AND his grace. As the writer of Hebrews said it, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation” (2:3)? The answer is...we won’t.

This is not good news. My heart breaks when I think about the millions of people drinking the world’s Kool-Aid, blindly on their way to eternal judgment. Some of them live around me. Their kids go to school and play soccer with mine. Some are my friends. Some are related to me. And they seem as if they have no clue. Not only this, but the “great salvation” that they are neglecting actually brings them what they are really looking for in the world’s counterfeits: Contentment. Happiness. Fulfillment. Love. Peace. Joy. Things the world rarely delivers, and never on a permanent basis. But it is so hard to convince them of this truth. Especially when the world, aided by our fallen flesh and the Enemy, preaches so persuasively that gaining more stuff...having more sex...looking more hip...etc. are all more important than having...GOD!

Therefore, many of us just quit trying to share the Good News. We see the enormity of the task and are overwhelmed. Indeed some of us do well (or so we think) to fight off the allure of the world ourselves as we occasionally lose skirmishes with our own flesh. Then Satan takes advantage and “guilts” us into silence. What are we to do?

Like Amos, we are to cry out to God. He is the only one who can help. He helps by strengthening us, his children. God has the power to trump whatever influence he has allowed the world and demonic forces to employ, by drawing people to himself. HE IS ABLE TO CHANGE THE GAME.

That is the only logical conclusion: I must ask him to. I MUST PRAY. Especially when he tells me that he, Almighty, Sovereign God somehow utilizes the prayers of his people to make things happen. It is a stunning thought—the Omnipotent, Omniscient, Eternal, Infinite God is actually moved by the prayers of mere men to accomplish his perfect, predetermined plan.

Whoa! I gotta catch my breath.

Umm...why then do I not pray?

Well, I’m going to. I’m committing myself. I’ve always believed that you schedule what’s important to you. Right now, as I write, I can’t think of anything else more important. I laid it out there publicly Sunday...I can talk about praying, but actually doing it is a completely different thing. So I need a little structure for the sake of accountability, that is, if I’m serious.

I’m going to open up the church every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday until Thanksgiving from 6:00 til 8:00 AM to pray. You’re welcome to come join me if you want. I’ve already started, in fact. There have been a few others who have come, too, but I’m really not looking to see who comes (or if anyone else comes at all). This is simply what God wants me to do.

This isn't for show. Jesus said that when you pray, go in your room in secret, not like the hypocrites who want all to see. He said that then “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). I guess that’s the thing I’ve struggled with the most about coming out with this, or for that matter, even posting this blog. I don’t want any attention for me. I’m not trying to look spiritual. I do, however, want God to move. And maybe it is ok to be like Paul in this sense: he said, “Be imitators of me, as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). I think pastors should lead the way. Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, we see that Jesus didn't always pray in secret. He prayed with his disciples and in public. He taught his disciples how to pray. So did Paul. Corporate prayer is commanded throughout the Bible and is frequently practiced by the church in the book of Acts. So I say, If it helps you to pray with me and others, I invite you to come. Whether you come to the church or not...I ask you to pray.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Déjà Vu: Sox are Through.

Ok, indulge me a little hyperbolic sports drama.

It's been almost a week and I'm still not over it. The Red Sox are done for the season. I'm experiencing this subtle underlying disappointment. It occurred to me yesterday that I used to feel like this all the time! This is only the third time in the last seven years that Boston has not played in the American League Championship Series. But as most baseball fans know, this level of success has not always been the norm for the Sox.

I've been a Sox fan since the late 1970s. Until 2004, I felt like I was the only one in Knoxville! Here's how it happened: Like most other East Tennessee kids who were not Braves fans, I liked the Big Red Machine—the Cincinnati Reds. Bench, Rose, Morgan, Pérez, Concepción, Griffey, Foster, all led by Sparky Anderson—those guys were great. A really cool style among teenagers back then was to wear one of those fake plastic batting helmets. I wanted one and couldn’t find one anywhere. Some of my friends got theirs at Six Flags in Georgia for $6. Soon thereafter, I went with my church youth group to Six Flags determined to buy one for myself with $6 I had saved. All day, I walked the whole park seeking one of those Reds helmets, to no avail. The Reds were so popular! Finally, at the end of the day, I decided to just buy a helmet of another team. At that time, the Red Sox helmets were red with a navy blue bill, and looked really cool. Pointing to one, I asked the vendor, “What’s the team with the B?” “Boston Red Sox” was the answer (I should have known, they had played the Reds in the 1975 World Series). I bought one. While walking across Six Flags, people kept giving me the “thumbs up” sign saying, “Go Sox!” That was cool. So I started keeping up with them. I started collecting baseball cards and collected all the Sox cards. I fell in love with Rick “the Rooster” Burleson, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski, Butch Hobson, Dwight Evans, George Scott...I can remember them like it was yesterday.

(This is my favorite player Rick Burleson in that cool red batting helmet!)

In high school I got to visit Boston and saw a few Sox games in Fenway. Then I was hooked. It was magic. I also got to see them play in Texas, Atlanta, and Baltimore. Like all true Sox fans, a tragic moment in my life was when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986. I’ll never forget it. I found out later that he is a Christian. I actually got to meet Buckner in 1999. I introduced him at an FCA banquet (I had forgiven him and said nothing of his infamy).

Point is, through all those years, I always got myself worked up that this was to be a championship year. And it never was. In fact, most years we didn’t even get to the playoffs.

That’s why I’m experiencing déjà vu. I’ve been here before. Left feeling empty after the one team I have stood by through good years and bad failed to get past the wildcard series. It’s the team I have loved irrationally and emotionally who play a sport I was never really good at but that I respect and enjoy watching. I really thought they would do it! All my shirts, hats, and jerseys are now useless to me (not really) until next April! That's sports!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Mmm. Brunswick Stew.

I first had Brunswick Stew when a friend in seminary took me to shoot sporting clays at a family home place in southern Virginia. We had it for lunch. He was kind of apologizing for not having something else to offer. I was like, “Are you kidding? This stuff is great!” It's a little different looking, but is hearty with a mild and distinctive taste. I didn’t have it again for a few years until I was on a deer-hunting trip near Columbus, GA and ate at a BBQ place called “Country’s.” They served Brunswick Stew as an appetizer then and it reminded me of how good it was. I’ve had it a couple of times since, but none of them evoked the "wow that’s good!" response like the Virginia-style Brunswick Stew I had at first.

So when the first little cool-snap happened last week I got it on the brain. I found many recipes online and combined a couple that looked good. AWESOME. It made WAY too much (I fed it to our family, the church staff, and a bunch of pastors), so I reduced it and tweaked it a little. I made it again this morning and just finished THREE BOWLS. I’m telling you, I can’t get enough. It’s like the perfect meal for a cool rainy fall day!

A couple of the staff asked about the recipe, so here it is:

Brunswick Stew (Virginia style)
Ready in: 3-5 hrs Serves 9 people

4 chicken breast halves
1 small strip fatback
½ of a medium onion (chopped)
2 stalks celery (finely chopped)
½ large bag frozen sweet corn (shoe peg or white)
½ bags frozen butter beans
1 large can whole tomatoes, pureed
5 medium/large potatoes, diced
½ 40 oz. bag okra (use about 20 oz)
½ cup ketchup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ stick butter
1 tablespoon vinegar
¼ cup BBQ sauce (I used KC Masterpiece orig.)
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt (more if desired)
½ teaspoon pepper (more if desired)

In a large stock pot, cover chicken with water and cook until tender. Remove chicken from stock and, when it's cool enough to handle, pull chicken apart, removing all the gristle or fat.

Return chicken pieces to pot with remaining stock. Add fatback, celery and onions, and simmer until tender. Add the diced potatoes, corn and butter beans, and simmer an additional 20 minutes.

Finally, add okra, ketchup, brown sugar, bbq sauce, Worcestershire sauce, butter, bayleaf, and vinegar. Cover and simmer two hours. Remove bayleaf and fatback before serving. Serve with cornbread!

You're going to doubt me while you're combining everything. Don't. It is really good!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Facebook: Friend or Foe?

The latest craze of our information age is the emergence of social networking sites. Several are notable, but Facebook is particularly popular and has caught on even with folks who are otherwise adverse to technology. I succumbed to the pressure to join a long time ago. In all honesty I was dragged to it kicking and screaming, but signed up for the sake of becoming all things to all men that by ALL MEANS I might save some. I’m sure some will think I am trying to sound super-spiritual, but it is the truth. I think it is important for Christians—especially pastors—to be on the front end of effective new ways to communicate to and influence others.

It is crazy to me how many people I have “reconnected” with on Facebook. People from every school I attended (Elementary to Seminary); people from every church of which I was a part as a member, on staff, or as pastor; family members; people I played or coached with—over 800 of them and growing! It is crazy! But I’ve got to get some things off my chest:

Like any other form of communication, there is the potential for both good and bad on Facebook. It’s cool to see how folks are doing and to have another way to encourage people. It’s cool to be able to keep up with my high school son’s friends and interests. There is much potential for creating virtual community and informing/uniting people for/against certain causes. That’s all cool. But wow, there are some things that are really hard for me. Like, I can’t spend much time on it without seeing pictures of people who claim to be Christians in all kinds of potentially compromising positions. You know what I’m saying. There’s the skimpy clothing and the “aren’t I cool” poses, and, perhaps more conspicuous than anything, the pics of folks drinking alcohol. I don’t know what it is. Does everyone take pictures when they go to a drinking party or a bar? What is it about the “look at me, I drink” pictures of themselves that people like—and publish for the world to see? Is that really what you want people to know about you? Really? Forget for a moment the very real biblical issues. What about the message being sent to the many kids who are on Facebook? Kids who are impressionable, who could see someone they know or who attend their church drinking as a justifying factor to try drinking for themselves. Do we just ignore the damage alcohol does to people’s lives? I know it first hand. Call me an old fogy (I’ve blogged before on Christians and drinking so I’ll resist).

One of the hardest things for me is the way people gossip and spread falsehood for all the world to see. Or maybe not gossip, maybe just saying things that are hurtful about their church. One couple that had been a part of our church for about a year and then disappeared posted how our church was the coldest place they had ever been and how they were never talked to and nobody wanted to be their friend, etc. The bad thing is that many of us know this couple and had made MANY attempts to befriend them—some felt that they had BECOME friends (ouch!). But what are we to do? Get into an argument on someone’s “wall,” calling out the wrongness of their perception? Of course not. People sometimes get hurt and lash out. People make mistakes. Once I heard Bill O’Reilly say that with the Internet, if you make a mistake, you do it for the entire world to see. I’m afraid that’s true.

I think Facebook attracts a lot of people who just like to know what people are doing. Is this the definition of a busybody? A nosey person? Or just someone who enjoys socializing with others? Maybe some of each, I don’t know. Truth is, I simply don’t have time for it. That sounds kind of heartless doesn’t it? I rarely get to check up on others or update my “status” because I’ve rarely got time to just mess around by myself on the internet, and I’m not sure I really want people knowing what I’m doing all the time. Life is too busy. I’m a dad of three busy kids who have to be places and who need me in their lives. I’m a husband (not that Darla always NEEDS me, but she does have honey-do lists for me!). I’m also a pastor. I don’t think I need to describe the busyness of THAT job. I barely find the time to blog. What makes blogging hard is I feel I need to cover something with some degree of conclusive thoroughness and I write way too much. Sounds like my sermons!! When I do have extra time, the last thing I want to do is to be disappointed by seeing someone I care about glorying over a beer! Ahhh...Facebook. It’s a love-hate thing for me.

Ok, I’m quitting. Not facebook, just this blog post. I do feel a little better having vented!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Vacation [continued] and America's Seven Faith Tribes

Some pics...
Top to bottom: Dara...being Dara,
Drew and I about to throw down on some Calabash seafood!
Me and D
Typical family beach setup in the sandstorm (before the umbrellas became unmanageable)

Reading on the beach is one of my favorite things in life. There’s not much better than the shade of an umbrella, a soft constant breeze, and the sound of the waves crashing interrupted only with occasional calls of seagulls! My reading this week began with a commentary on the book of John (I’m getting ready to teach John at Providence late this fall). I know, I know, only pastors read that kind of stuff. The last two days I’ve been reading the latest book by well-known researcher George Barna entitled, The Seven Faith Tribes. Great stuff! It’s really making me think.

In short, Barna’s research indicates there are seven primary faith-based “tribes” in America with different worldviews: Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Pantheists, Skeptics, and two separate Christian groups—Casual Christians and Captive Christians. I’m not finished, so I’ll save opinions on the book for later. So far, I’ve read about the two different Christian “tribes” and the Jews. It’s really got me thinking. The Casual Christians make the largest “tribe” in America with about 66% of the America’s adult population in their ranks. They are poor givers to church or charity, somewhat faithful to attend church and say they believe in God, but their worldviews are anything but biblical. They generally don’t believe all the stories in the Bible are literally true. They are average among Americans regarding divorce, porn viewing, drinking too much, media influence, gambling, and they are statistically the LEAST happy of all groups except one. They are all over the map regarding politics.

The Captives are a different group. Only 16% of the adult population, they’re the happiest of all tribes, they’re not likely to trust the media or view porn or get divorced. They consider themselves as far from perfect but have high moral standards. They are solidly biblical in their worldview. They give significantly more of their money to church and charities; they are very faithful to attend church.

As I’m reading about these two Christian tribes, I’m reminded of Jesus’ parables of the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, and his explanation of the two gates and ways. I’ve been thinking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Barna makes the comparison to Jesus’ letters to the churches of Asia Minor transcribed by John in Revelation 2-3. Of seven churches addressed by Jesus, only 2 were commended and not warned. Barna says the difference between the two groups of self-described Christians in the United States are broken down about the same. Interesting.

I must say, while reading these two chapters I thought about our church (and churches in general) in two different lights. First, I think of all the people that call Providence home whose lives do not reflect a “fully devoted follower” kind of desire. I wonder how many people in our church are Casual Christians who are relatively unchanged and unaffected by Christ’s influence on their lives? They really live for this world rather than the next, and their lives show it. Here in the south we are experts at spiritual compartmentalization and keeping God in his place. Second, I wonder if we have been primarily going after the wrong crowd of people? We generally go after the minority tribes: the Skeptic, Jew, Muslim, or Pantheist. At least, I’ve got these “unbelievers” in my mind as I preach. That’s what we usually mean by the term, “unchurched.” But if what Barna says is true, we should perhaps be more intentional about going after these Casual Christians—the “churched” or “semi-churched”—some who come to our church one out of three (or four, or five) weeks and unhesitatingly claim to be Christian. That’s what the Mormons and Skeptics do. They fill their ranks with these. My thought is that we already have a head start on them, since they are at least familiar with the Gospel. My question is how do we best reach them? Is it worthwhile to put most of our eggs in that basket to try? Thinking out loud, reaching the people of this tribe probably requires a different kind of strategy. They are, as evidenced by their own actions, uncommitted to things they have heard. So how can we help them be committed? How do we help them see that Jesus is Savior AND Lord (Master)?

Speaking from experience, adult Casuals rarely cross-over to Captive status unless something really tragic happens to them or someone they love. Death (or a close call), diagnosis of a disease or serious condition, divorce, or some other life-altering situation is what God seems to use to wake them. Perhaps sweeping revival or awakening (both are perfect terms for this) comes with a national disaster or crisis. Since our strategy depends on relationships, should we not let them feel a sense of belonging before committing and then be ready to articulate the importance of surrender when they are really listening (i.e. when faced with trial)? Once again I’m reminded of the importance of Life Groups and getting people to try this level of community.

[Three days later…]
Well, I’ve read almost all the book. I’m glad to be home! The last day at the beach was like riding 80 mph in the back of a pickup full of sand! We were pummeled by wind and sand! It made reading a real challenge. Barna’s book is great. Not sure I agree with all the conclusions, but wow, what a thought provoking read. Really helps me understand the worldviews of people and why they do what they do. I’m still processing…and finding sand in my stuff. More later.

Monday, July 13, 2009

First Days of Vacation at Ocean Isle

Wow was I ready for a vacation. The whole family was. Darla had a big “Cow Appreciation Day” at the Fil-A, which capped off a long week of work for her. It always takes me about two days of being away before I’m able to really relax. This year was no different.

We ate at the famous Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg SC on the way down to Ocean Isle, NC where we’re staying. It’s kind of a tradition. We got pictures of Darla and the kids standing with J.C., the well-known “caller” of the restaurant, saying “CALLLLL IT.” He’s been working virtually every day (except Sundays when he goes to church) for over 50 years. I got a “Beef-a-plenty, heavy on the red” (that’s a beef bar-b-q sandwich with extra sauce, covered with fries and onion rings in “Beacon language,” as Dara put it). Drew got a “J.C. Pounder-a-plenty” (a quadruple-patty cheese burger covered with fries and onion rings), and he ate it all! Drew’s never been afraid of a food challenge.

The condo we’re staying in has a view of the Eastern Channel of the Intercoastal Waterway and is a quarter-mile stroll from the beach. Always looking for a deal, we got this one for a little more than half-price through a relative of a friend. We are soooo thankful, as our budget has been strained lately.

Speaking of budget, we haven’t eaten out in two weeks in preparation for the trip (the only one who cheated was me—I ate a salad at staff luncheon). We love eating seafood and finding other local favorite eating establishments. For one meal, we plan on keeping another tradition. We usually go to a local seafood market and buy shrimp for a low country boil. We eat well for dinner, but we skimp for breakfast (cereal) and lunch (sandwiches or hotdogs packed for the beach).

This beach is pretty cool. It’s not overly crowded, but we can walk down the beach about 150 yards and be all alone! That’s what we like. There are lots of shells, no seaweed (so far), and the waves are great (we’ve even had surfers around). Pretty typical Atlantic ocean beach. The weather was sunny and windy yesterday, but today was calmer and cloudy. It rained a little. My only complaint about the beach is the rule forbidding use of any cabanas or canopies of any kind. They only allow umbrellas!

Sunday we stayed all day on the beach! I prayed for God to bless Providence (I did fight the feeling of wanting to be there). I even called Greg in-between services to see how it went. We all got lots of sun.

This morning Drew and I went to a used bookstore nearby. It was quite an experience. Not a lot of books. The elderly gentleman that worked there was an interesting guy (can’t really discuss why!). Many of the books were paperback romances, cookbooks, and outdated public school textbooks. Drew is fascinated with old books (I have no idea where he gets this!). He wanted South of the Rio Grande by Brand, Pride and Prejudice by Austen, Volume 4 of Reader’s Digest’s Condensed Books from 1976, The King’s Agent, a novel by Clark, and Mystery of the Hidden Face, by Honness. All were old hardbacks in good condition. I found a parallel edition of the Wycliffe Bible Commentary and the New Testament (over 1100 pages) for $1! The guy at the store didn’t even know what it was! It’s not often you leave a bookstore with your arms full of books for ten bucks!

We all ate lunch at the condo. Since it was rainy looking, Drew and I stayed on the deck and read our books while the girls went to the beach. A good time. Later we went to the dock and watched some folks crabbing and then went to find the girls on the beach. We played foxtail until time to shower before going to supper. After supper we played games together in the condo. I love vacation! Time for bed. Tomorrow's gonna be even better.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

When God Moves

It’s been a while since I spoke at an event. I all but dropped the speaking at extra-Providence engagements around four years ago when things got really busy at the church. My old friend Dwayne Sanders called me several months ago about speaking at an FCA football team camp and I hesitatingly told him I would.

Truth is I love speaking to kids…especially athletes…especially football players. There’s not a group before whom I feel more comfortable, and for whom I have more empathy. All the teams at this camp were from East Tennessee—about 300 (?) players from around eight teams. During the day they scrimmaged and worked on skills. I got three chances to speak to them. Something I like about speaking at team camps is that they have lots of kids who haven’t heard the Gospel.

I prayed much concerning this camp: about what I would say—and that God would work. The most critical meeting is the first night. It’s when I must make a personal connection with them and make the Gospel clear.

So I started by telling my “wild man wedge buster” story. It is an exercise in hyperbole about when I truly embraced the fact that football was a sport of aggressive courage—when I made the transformation from quarterback to wedge buster in order to make the high school varsity team. As the late comedian Jerry Clower would say, it’s not about telling a funny story, it’s about telling a story…funny. I go way over the top on telling this one. It’s always a hit and people call me “wild man” who hear it. It gets requested a lot.

After the “wild man” story, I talked about the facts of death and life. My text is Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.

Sometimes God just chooses to move in an unusual way and call many people to himself. Last night was one of those times. As usual, I tried to explain the Gospel as clearly as possible, and I gave them an opportunity to respond. I led them in a prayer to receive Christ if they truly wanted to surrender their lives to him. I asked them that if they had done so—and were serious—to stand and walk out of the room (where I would meet them). At least 50 (I don’t know the exact number) indicated that they had been saved, and did so.

Wow. It was almost overwhelming for me to see God work. I get emotional when God uses me—an undeserving instrument. It is really humbling. Thank you God for saving people and for somehow using fools and weaklings to make known your truth and grace.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Redneck day

Had an incredible day today (Monday, July 6) with the fam.

We decided to load up the truck with lunch, dog, and tubes and head up to the Big South Fork River for a redneck day. We stopped at a little full-service gas station in Oneida (not an uncommon thing there!) where the owner let us use his compressed air for free to blow up our tubes and the little raft we brought for Sparky (wish I had a picture, tubes were stacked high and Sparky shared the front seat with Darla!). We drove several miles over narrow gravel roads to an old railroad bridge called the O&W bridge and ate a picnic lunch under it beside the river. After unloading the tubes and some bottles of water, we hopped back in the truck and drove to Leatherwood Ford bridge (about 3 miles downriver), parked and hiked back up to our tubes. The hike is beautiful. It follows the river and winds through large boulders across small creeks and through beautiful trees.

When we reached the bridge we grabbed the tubes, jumped in and floated down. The water was lower than the last time we did it so it took about 3 hours to get back to Leatherwood Ford. The day was perfect! It was about 79 degrees and sunny. Rocky cliffs tower above the river and eagles soar high overhead. The river is calm most of the way except for a few small rapids and a few very slow spots, it’s like a lazy river ride at a water park—only it’s real, has no chlorine or crowd, and only nature sounds are all around. We brought a little inflatable raft for Sparky, but he was much happier just swimming back and forth to everyone’s tube, making sure they were ok. I took the raft, turned it over and laid on it like a big air mattress! By the time we got to Leatherwood Ford, everyone was ready to get out.

A good way to spend a day off!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Fourth

I haven't posted in a long while. I'm feeling a bit nostalgic this morning, so I'll share a thought. Today is July 4th. It has always been one of my favorite holidays. Not only has God shown me his incomparable grace by calling me to be one of his children, but he has predetermined that I be born in the greatest nation in the history of the world. In fact, the two are very much related.

Because of the tyranny of the church and rulers who placed restrictions on Christians who wanted to read, interpret for themselves, and practice the Bible, hundreds of thousands had fled England and other European nations for the New World in the 1600s and 1700s. America, still under jurisdiction of the king of England, offered the opportunity for people to experience freedom because of three primary factors: 1) the king was far away, 2) the frontier (which made imposing rules difficult) was vast, and 3) the defining majority of those who came to the Colonies were English Puritans who brought several fundamental ideals that became intrinsically American. These ideals included the following: belief in God and biblical authority, human dignity, God’s grace, hard work & capitalism, the rule of law, religious freedom (they had experienced religious tyranny in England), representative democracy (republican polity and accountability), and low taxation.

However, America in the early 1700s was still a wild and untamed place (and I’m not talking about the Indians). Because of the vast frontier and the lack of law enforcement and the great amount of liberty and opportunity to own land, exploitation and crime was more the rule than the exception. Townships were weak, and the American church was (except for a few exceptions) splintered and separated by great distances. Then something profound happened: we know it as The Great Awakening. It is when America was saved. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the Colonies responded to the Gospel in a sweeping movement of God that defies reasonable explanation. It was after this revival of Christian religion that King George III came to power and patriotic sentiments began to stir in the Colonies. It is no accident that the vast majority of our founding fathers were committed Christians, a fact that is obvious in their writings.

In the last 80 years, another ideal has come to our shores—European Socialism. It is in many ways directly contradictory to the ideals that made us who we are. It is an “areligious” system of elitism and soft tyranny. It believes in the authority of the state (read: the government), which determines what activities are favored more than others, rather than the ultimate authority of God and the freedom of individuals under the protection and rule of law. It utilizes class envy and the promise of "progress" and "change" (indeed some proponents call themselves "progressives"). It encourages people to see themselves as victims and see the state as their savior. It seeks to empower elitists by creating a dependent voter base. It depends on dependence. It penalizes personal achievement by taxing those who make a profit, giving to those "disenfranchised" who pay little or no taxes at all! The "beneficiaries," who want to keep the tax burden on the "rich" ignore all manner of social engineering, loss of individual freedom, government intrusion, and moral decay AS LONG AS THEY CAN KEEP THEIR BENEFITS that their "victim" status affords them. And they will vote for any politician who will continue the deal. The "progress" the "progressives" desire almost always makes government bigger, creates dependencies, takes away freedoms, and costs taxpayers' money.

The soft tyranny of Socialism has been creeping its way into our culture and institutions (including the press) for decades. It has grown in its influence and is now about to overthrow the America we once knew as our government takes over companies, becomes less accountable & more bureaucratic, and spends trillions it doesn’t have that our children & grandchildren will! God has been removed from meaningful discussion and relegated to trivial lines in politicians’ speeches. True human rights—the right to life itself—is being sacrificed on alter of a “freedom” to do whatever I want, as abortion is made more available and the aged are not honored but considered an inconvenience.

I am profoundly thankful to God to be an American. I am profoundly concerned that we are moving fast in the wrong direction. Pray with me that God will awaken us before it is too late.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Poem?

Autumn’s Fruits
By Chad Sparks
January 6, 2009

With autumn leaves, more color glares:
   Apples, grapes, persimmons, pears! 
My favorite time of year you are.
   In winter longing from afar 
The icy wind blows through the boughs
   I see my breath and hear snowplows. 
Beyond the feast of Christmastide
   The days grow short, dark clouds abide. 
The springtime and her fragrant blooms
   Woven on God Almighty’s looms 
Do not compare to fall’s sweet fruits
   ‘Een though the trees dress in pink suits. 
The summer comes with heat and storm
   Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats all swarm. 
Sweat, humidity, and haze
   Make my heart long for the days 
Of harvest season’s tasty wares
   Apples, grapes, persimmons, pears!

I’m not a poet. I rarely read poetry. But I do write things in verse from time to time—things that are usually kept between God and me. Poetry is an ancient form of expression that seems less popular than it once was. I’m not sure why.

I first wrote this poem when my daughter Duncan had an art assignment to find a poem she liked and to paint several pictures in response. However, getting the proverbial cart before the horse, she really wanted to paint pictures of fruit and figured that she would be able to easily find a poem about fruit so she just began painting. When the assignment’s due date drew near, she began searching for a poem and could not find one. The whole family searched. Finally, the night before it was due, Duncan went to bed in tears. I decided I’d just try to write one for her. I began just fooling around, using the fruit in her paintings (Apples, oranges, cherries, and pears). As it developed, I started thinking about it and my heart began to get into it. I do love Autumn and the fruits thereof. I chose to change the oranges and cherries to more appropriate fall fruits for East Tennessee (oranges don’t grow here and cherries come out in early summer). Grapes and persimmons grow wild and are fruits that I have frequently enjoyed in the woods as I grew up. Apples and pears are dear to my heart as fall fruits—my grandparents had trees with both, and fall was a time that they made jellies, pies, and other delectables. Fall is my favorite time of year for many reasons: football, hunting, leaves changing color, climate. But there were some deeper symbols emerging as I wrote.

I began to consider the different “seasons” in life. The autumn of life is what I am entering. I have passed the spring (childhood and youth) and summer (college, marriage, and young adulthood). I have kids who are growing older quickly. It is that season of life that we tend to long for all our lives a time we enjoy the “fruit” of our labor, education, and decisions. Truth is, I love this season of life. I find I do not want it to pass. I savor every day as I do fall and its fruits. I do not look forward to “winter” when I will surely long for that season just gone by, when health is fleeting, home is empty of kids, and limbs are cold. Spring (childhood and youth) is a wonderful time. All is abloom. Sovereign God is the one who made us and gives us gifts that grow into the rewards (fruit) of adulthood. Young adulthood (summer) is hot (with activity and passion) and stormy. There are many hazards and discomforts amongst the otherwise good bustle. Finding a mate, having children, starting a career, moving, etc. are par for the course. They make us long for when the fruit ripen, days shorten, weather moderates, colors appear with vigor, and harvest.

On an even deeper level, fall can also serve as a spiritual metaphor. Notice the order: icy, dark winter can symbolize the death and emptiness of a person in sin before regeneration. Springtime is that period after new birth. It is full of color and excitement. God is the one who gives forgiveness and life. Summer is when great growth occurs but with it come the bugs and heat and storm of reality as the newness of the faith wears off. Haze symbolizes the way black and white can seem to become grey when the believer is exposed to the influence of less-than-committed Christians and less-than-biblical compromises. Then harvest comes. In truth, there are many “harvests” for the Christian. Many come early. Some like trees and vines take years of patient cultivation before bearing fruit. But they keep bearing year after year, indeed for eternity!

Duncan turned in the poem with her art and the teacher liked it. Duncan didn’t even know that I had written it. Kind of cool!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Good Soil

It’s every pastor’s dream to hear that a sermon hits home with folks. I’m usually pretty phlegmatic about compliments and such (that’s why I don’t do the traditional greet-everyone-at-the-door-as-they-leave-church thing). It tends to force flattery.

Incidentally, I remember when I was brand new pastor in North Carolina, an older gentleman slept the ENTIRE message. As he left church he shook my hand and said with a reverent tone, “I really enjoyed that sermon, pastor.” I couldn’t resist. “I could tell you did,” I said with a grin. I don’t think he got it. I guess all pastors have stories like this.

Anyway, this Sunday’s very basic sermon evoked lots of comments. I pray this means God spoke to hearts.

We read Luke 8 about the 4 soils (a.k.a., the parable of the seed and the sower). You know, the sower is throwing seed (God’s word), which lands on different kinds of soil: hard path, rocky/shallow, thorny, and GOOD soil.

The question is, how can we be good soil—the kind in which God’s word best grows”

Before giving the answer, I’ve had to acknowledge a couple of things about American Christians in general:

First, I think it is evident that we’re spiritually weaker than previous generations. So many American Christians seem to have the same problems and failings as those in the world—many times it’s hard to even distinguish between those claiming to be believers and unbelievers. Maybe you too have struggled with thoughts like, “Does this Christianity thing even work? Why do I not feel God in my life? Why do I not love God like I once did?” Satan has lulled many to sleep, and enticed many more into sin. It’s fallow ground…unproductive soil…shallow…choked with thorns.

Second, we want a shortcut for everything. We tend to be lazy. We want pre-packaged, ready-to-eat, instant, trouble-free spiritual maturity. We want a magic pill, a quick-fix, an easy button. Truth is…THERE’S NOT ONE.

If you want growth, spiritual maturity, stability, the joy of walking in the Spirit and in the confidence of his indwelling presence…if you want the peace and many rewards of living in his will, you get it the same way as all saints from all time.

You see, God grows us by his grace. But he grows those whose hearts are good soil. Any farmer will tell you, this doesn’t come easy. Can you DO something to cultivate the essentials you need to grow?

The answer is “yes!” It’s no mystery, nor is it profound. But IT IS THE KEY. Truly spiritual people ALL share some common practices. What are the essential elements for spiritual growth and health? Simply put, there are three.

Time with God
People of God
Service to God

1. Time with God. Christianity is a not about religion, it is about a relationship with God. You cannot grow in your relationship with God without spending time communicating with him and being alone with him. This means regular time in Bible Study and Prayer. These are like inhaling and exhaling. We breathe in God’s word and we breathing out our heart to him in prayer. Communication is two-way: listening & speaking.

Bottom line: this is a daily discipline you must develop. Set aside a time each day. Get a plan (there are so many online resources like if you need help with a plan). I challenge you to do this for the month of January—no miss. See what happens.

2. People of God. You need a family…the church. They aren’t perfect—but neither are you. And you can't do it alone. Two biblical environments where God’s family gather together: congregation & cell (just like in Acts 20:20).

Bottom line: Whether it is Providence or somewhere, plug in to a local church. 101 is January 25. Go to the website. Sign up and we’ll send reminder! Let us know and we’ll help you find a group!

3. Service to God. Like a body of water with no outlet, stagnation occurs if there is not a giving of yourself away. Surrendering to him means all of who you are and all you have. Acknowledging all is his is a start. Following up with practical actions is where the water hits the wheel. We all have been given talents. We all have time. We all have resources. The question is how are you giving of each of these?

Bottom line: Serve God with your time, talents and possessions. Think of ways you can this year:
• Instead of a vacation, go on a mission trip.
• Don’t just see church as a place to be fed, but a place to FEED. Use your gifts: teach, acting, tech, music, landscape, construction, goof off—whatever! Your church needs you!
• Initiate a project your Life Group can do to help people.
• Pray about and set a giving goal this year.

Decide to GROW in 2009! Cultivate GOOD SOIL! Imagine what your relationship with God can be like in a year if you develop these disciplines. You will look back and be glad you did!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Blessings

This Christmas had its mixed blessings. It was great in many ways. Our nuclear family shared good times being together. God blessed us so much. We went to movies, our Christmas tree adventure went really well, and shared many other memory-making moments. This was a year that we were (read: Darla was) able to get all the shopping done early.

We also enjoyed time with other family members. My sister and her husband and kids stayed a few days at our house. Their kids and ours absolutely love being together. We hosted a big Christmas meal with them and my dad. We also went to Kingston to celebrate with my mom. My mom got Darla and I a TV to replace the one we got for a wedding gift. Huge upgrade!

Our church family was great too. There were several opportunities for gathering. The Christmas Eve services were well attended and there was a sweet spirit.

I think the gift giving part was a success. The kids all loved what they received. Drew and Duncan got new phones and TEXTING (what have we done?)! Dara got an American Girl doll with lots of clothing to go with it. Darla got money. That’s her favorite! I got a jacket and matching gloves. Love them!

I should also express my thanks to God for providing for us financially. We entered this Christmas season wondering how we were going to be able to afford it. As with many others, our cost of living has gone up and we’ve incurred some medical debts over the last two years that are making things quite tight. Suffice it to say, God provided through generous people (who had no clue things were tight). All of this was unexpected and I believe was given by God. I am so thankful and undeserving of this kind of grace.

On another note, Darla and I both got sick. Darla on Wednesday morning (Christmas Eve) at 4 a.m. began doing what the stomach virus makes people do. It was bad and lasted about a day in severe form and tapered off for the next two. I became sick with the same thing about 24 hours later. Christmas Day (Thursday) began early for me in the bathroom. I put on my game face and made it through the gift opening. I had prayed all morning that God would not let my sickness affect the day. He gave me the strength. Our tradition is to eat a big breakfast after gifts are opened. I helped Darla get things started by frying the sausage when I became overwhelmed. I hustled upstairs, shut the door, and fought the nausea. I stayed in bed the rest of the day and night. I was much better the next day and the next, resuming most activities and eating habits (still was a little shaky after meals). But then I started feeling a sore throat and my lymph nodes swelling on Saturday night. Sunday morning I awoke to the alarm after a restless night of hot-and-cold spells and a bad sore throat. I was not going to church. Thankfully, Will Cross, visiting home form Dallas Seminary was scheduled to speak. It is yet another example of God’s grace.

Every year Drew and I go on a Georgia hunting trip with a friend and his son. This year was the first year it hasn’t happened. Thank goodness! I would have been miserable. God is so good to me.

I’m planning on taking some time before the New Year to get alone with God to pray, evaluate, and plan. I desperately need some time with him.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The FIRST Commission?

Christians talk a lot about the great commandment and the great commission. But what about the FIRST commission?

Gen. 1:26-31 (ESV)
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish … birds … livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing…on the earth.” And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over…every living thing that moves on the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant …and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. …And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

In essence, in the FIRST commission, God says:
Show sanctity for all human life, respect for all human beings, and regard for God’s creation.
Have families with children and manage the earth’s resources and creatures in a way that pleases God.

Specifically, the FIRST commission deals with the following issues (that we will be discussing on Sundays in the next few weeks):
1. Human rights (value and worth, God’s image and blessing, equality between men and women)
2. Sexuality (good sex and bad, birth control, overpopulation)
3. Environmentalism (global warming and response, recycling & pollution, political & economic implications)
4. Animals (wildlife conservation, humane treatment)
5. Work (a result of the curse or a pre-fall blessing? How do we balance work, rest, family, and play?)

No controversies associated with those issues, huh?

I think it’s perfect timing! We’re in a contentious election year and some of these issues are being debated. How are you being informed? Just going with the national media? Just going along with what your parents or friends or teachers say? What about what God says—does that matter? What about his very first words to humankind?

At Providence, we’re not concerned with supporting any political party or candidates. We think it is every citizen’s privilege and obligation to vote in elections. But our calling is much higher. We want to make, be, and unleash disciples. Part of that is helping disciples think biblically.

Christians are all over the map regarding how they respond to these issues, ranging from sticking their heads in the sand (no response at all) to coming out as anti-everything! God wants us to respond and he wants us to do so with grace, gentleness, humility, AND truth. We should seek to be like Christ in both aptitude and attitude.

This Sunday we discussed our and others’ worth in God’s eyes. We humans are the crowning achievement of God’s creation as his image-bearers. As such, every human life is valuable and holy to God. From the road-rager who flips you off after cutting you off to easily-marginalized groups of people.

Our understanding of this affects everything.

If you don’t think every human life is precious and holy, where does that take you? It means you think some people are of more intrinsic worth than others. Some races are not as preferable as others. The very old and feeble can be set aside. The unborn are not deserving of full protection under the law if they are unwanted by their mother. The handicapped are pitiful and cause undue strain on others’ lives. Those who have committed crimes—and are perhaps even unrepentant—deserve less dignity than law-abiding people. Impoverished people are probably poor because of their own decisions and are viewed as unproductive.

Ultimately, when some of these people just get in the way…they really don’t matter. When someone comes along and removes them, we think, “good riddance.” This was Hitler’s line of reasoning. Taking advantage of financial crisis and other opportunities to gain power, Hitler was ultimately successful in committing untold atrocities in much part due to a German church that remained virtually silent as he incrementally showed increasing disregard for human rights and dignity. He legalized abortion and euthanasia of handicapped and infirm. He segregated people based on race and other standards of “worth.” He made criminals of many and then treated prisoners without dignity. We know the way his story ends.

No matter how unpopular, Christians must humbly take an uncompromising stand for the sanctity and dignity of human life. When the people of a society deny the “unalienable rights” of life (as with abortion) they have scorned God’s image indwelling humankind and blasphemed God. It really is a big deal. On the other extreme, it is wrong for individuals to despise themselves. In doing so, they are despising God’s workmanship and disregarding his image in them. You know, Satan—whose primary goal is to take glory away from God—is especially active in helping fallen image-bearers disrespect God’s image. We are all sinners—this is true. By comparison to God and his glorious creation it is easy for us to become discouraged, and all the more as we get to know him as magnificent and holy. While we should practice self-denial, God does not delight in self-loathing. In fact, he is offended by it!

I was totally blown away by Bryan’s new take on an old Isaac Watts hymn (that we sang Sunday--if you weren't there you really missed out!). Read the lyrics again:

Oh Lord our heavenly King thy name is all divine
Thy glories round the earth are spread and o’er the heavens they shine
When to thy works on high, I raise my wondering eyes,
And see the moon complete in light, adorn the darksome skies

When I survey the stars in all their shining forms
Lord what is worthless man akin to dust and worms?

Lord, what is worthless man that thou should love him so?
Next to the angels he is placed as lord of all below
Thine image placed upon him fills his soul with worth
What is man? What is man?

How rich thy bounties are how wondrous are thy ways
Of dust and worms thy power can frame a monument of praise.

When I survey the stars in all their shining forms
Lord what is worthless man akin to dust and worms?

Lord, what is worthless man that thou should love him so?
Next to the angels he is placed as lord of all below
Thine image placed upon him fills his soul with worth
What is man? What is man?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Miraculous Necklace

Ok, so my attempt to demonstrate the virtual impossibility of life beginning by accident might have flopped. If you were at Providence Sunday, you know I wore an orange and white necklace that my son made for me. I told everyone that he put it together randomly and I noticed it just happened to spell out Genesis 1:1 in Morse code. Then I spent WAY too much time showing the statistical ridiculousness of such a feat! At the end I said, "If you believe this (that Drew put the necklace together by random chance), I have a piece of ocean-front property here in Tennessee I'd like to sell you!"

Just in case you're still unclear: Drew DID make the necklace, but he spelled out Gen. 1:1 in Morse code ON PURPOSE. It was JUST AN ILLUSTRATION! I hope that those of you who didn't get my poor attempt to use satire in order to "illustrate absurdity by being absurd" will forgive me. I should have been clearer. On the other hand, maybe my argumentum ad absurdum will help you remember that believing in a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life is MUCH MORE ABSURD than believing Drew accidentally made the necklace that spelled Gen. 1:1, and takes MUCH MORE FAITH than believing in a Creator God.

I’ve had a lot of good laughs with some who, for one reason or another, thought the necklace was a miracle! Thanks for putting up with me trying to be a little creative.

Here’s the stats (for those of you who have asked) on the necklace: The odds that Drew would put 102 beads in the right sequence to spell out Gen.1:1 in Morse code is one in 5x10^30

By comparison, the chances of winning the powerball jackpot is roughly 1 in 1x10^8 (about 1 chance in one-hundred million). That's roughly like filling half a basketball court 1 foot deep in pennies, marking one, and giving a blindfolded person one chance to pick the marked coin.

So I wondered, "how many pennies would it take to illustrate 5 x 10^30?" Bottom line…pennies are way too big. I went smaller. BBs were too big too. So I tried grains of sand.

There are 300,000 grains of sand per cu. in.

x 1728 cu. in. per cu. foot. (518,400,000 grains)

x 27,878,400 sq. ft. per sq. mi.

x 198,000,000 sq. mi. of surface area on entire earth including oceans.
The resulting number is not even close! So I went deeper with the sand covering the world... starting with the depth of empire state building. Still not close! Finally I got it. The sand has to be about 1,500,000 feet deep (284 miles, or that's = 1032 empire state buildings stacked on each other) to get 1 in 5x10^30 (the chance that Drew could randomly make a necklace spell Gen. 1:1)!

Here's my point: Even THAT is not as impossible as the likelihood that life appeared without God. And the comparison is NOT EVEN CLOSE!

In order for life to have appeared spontaneously, there must first have been hundreds of millions of DNA molecules. Under perfect conditions, given the size of earth, it would take 1x10^243 billions of years for only one of these molecules to occur strictly by chance.

According to textbooks written by atheist, agnostic, (as well as theist) scientists, if all the chemical bonds of earth's simplest living creature were broken, the chance of its reassembly, even under ideal environmental and chemical conditions … is less than 1 in 10^100,000,000,000 (one chance in ten to the one-hundred billionth power), a number so large, to write the zeros out in standard notation would take every page of almost 1000 sets of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Facts like these convinced Antony Flew (Oxford scholar and "most famous atheist in the academic world over the last half-century" according to the Dallas Morning News) who wrote the book, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind said, "What I think the DNA material…has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinary diverse elements to work together."

Be sure to come This Sunday. Dr. Marc Bodenheimer (one of our elders and an eye surgeon), will be teaching as we tackle Genesis 1 and the creation of humankind. That's what all the other days have been leading up to. What does it mean to be human? Come and hear!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Thinking of Buying a New Bible?

I am often asked my advice about what Bible translation is best or if Providence has a translation we recommend. English-speaking people are more blessed today than any other people the world has ever known regarding options for great Bible translations. There are generally three categories of Bibles: word-for-word, thought-for-thought, and paraphrases. 

In short, the goal for a word-for-word translation is to be as literal to the original Greek or Hebrew as possible. This may mean good accuracy, but it usually means less readability. As with translating anything, there are idioms and nuances that can be difficult to understand, and sentence structures and word order differ radically from one language to another. Interpretive judgments are kept to a minimum and the result can be English that is a little on the wooden side. 

On the other end of the spectrum, paraphrases are the easiest to read, but sometimes suffer from a lack of accuracy as the "translators" use much more interpretative liberty. Paraphrases are great for kids, people reading the Bible through (or perhaps devotionally), and people new to the Bible, but serious students of the Bible prefer a true translation. 

Thought-for-thought translations seek to straddle the line between paraphrases and word-for-word translations. The goal is to find the sweet spot of accuracy and readability. 

As you can imagine, there are degrees within each of these categories. 

There is no such thing as a perfect translation! Language changes. And translating is an ever-changing challenge! It is good for the serious Bible student to own more than one for the sake of comparison (I have about 20 translations that I keep handy in my study).

For your primary Bible, I can only offer you the following advice: 

If you are quite familiar with the Bible and want to do in-depth, inductive study, a word-for-word translation is probably for you.

Recommended word-for-word translations include the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Of these, I prefer the ESV right now, but all of these are fantastic. The ESV is pretty new and is gaining popularity among many well-known evangelical expositors. I find myself using it in my sermons more often than not.

Others may want to buy a thought-for-thought translation. Recommended translations in this category include the New International Version (NIV), the Today's New International Version (TNIV), and the New English Translation (NET). The NIV is still hard to beat--there's a reason why it is the most popular in America. The TNIV suffered some bad PR when it first came out (due to its "gender-accurate" language), but it corrects some of the NIV's peculiarities (read more about the TNIV--see my post entitled "Question of the Week" September 26, 2007). Both are concerned with accurately translating meaning and thought flow, not just the exact words and idioms that may be difficult for today's English readers to understand. The NET is one I'm using quite a bit in personal study right now. I like it. You can read more about it (or even download it for free!)HERE

We usually do not recommend some popular old translations like the KJV and ASV because the translators did not have access to some of the best manuscripts, and the language is antiquated. We also do not recommend translations that were done by translators who did not hold a presupposition of biblical inerrancy (meaning, they were theologically liberal and assumed that the Bible was not the very Word of God) like the RSV, NRSV and Phillips. We don't usually recommend paraphrases as a primary Bible. 

What About a Study Bible?

I like the NIV (or TNIV) Study Bible, the Life Application Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible (It only comes in NKJV or NASB however), and the Ryrie Study Bible. You can get most of these for around $30 (in hardback) or pay more for a leather-bound version. Coming soon is the ESV Study Bible which really sounds like it will be good. I hope to get one when they come out in October. (Update 2009: I recently got it and it is really good! I highly recommend this study Bible!)

Remember that the people who wrote the notes at the bottom of the pages in study Bibles are NOT perfect, but these Bibles do provide many helpful tools like introduction notes, explanations for difficult passages, charts and maps, etc.

If you want to read more on English Bible translations, check out A User's Guide to Bible Translations (by English Baptist pastor David Dewey). And remember, Bible Gateway is a great resource that gives you instant access to many good translations!

There are so many great options! The most important thing is that you READ one and live in God's truth. Email me if you have a specific question and I'm glad to help (