Thanksgiving Gratitude

This week, we celebrate another Thanksgiving. Over the years, I have watched – to my dismay – our unique holiday celebration of Thanksgiving, be pushed and crowded out of our collective conscience, as Americans. Each year, Thanksgiving seems to fade further, and further into the background, in deference to its bookend holidays of Halloween and Christmas. In fact, almost as a mockery, many people have stopped using the word Thanksgiving, calling it instead turkey day.

But, for me, Thanksgiving will always be my favorite holiday, next to Easter and Christmas. I can’t think of anything more enjoyable than gathering with family and friends, around a wonderful meal, for the express purpose of giving credit, where credit is really due, to the creator of the universe, for all of our many blessings.

Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. The word gratitude comes from a Latin word meaning grace, graciousness or gratefulness. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for all that we have, beginning with life itself. With gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness of God, and His goodness to us.

Recent published studies show an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.

In one study, they asked groups of participants to write a few sentences each week. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, the other group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.

Gratitude helps us refocus on what we have instead of what they lack. And just like a muscle, it atrophies or gets stronger with use.

So this Thanksgiving, join the psalmist – with an attitude of gratitude – in saying,

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you. For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. We celebrate His abundant goodness and joyfully sing of His righteousness.

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Psalm 107:1

Happy Thanksgiving

OK not to be liked

We’re living in a day and age where it’s deemed critically important to be liked by everyone. The mega social media platform, Facebook, is built around the whole concept of liking or disliking something or someone, with the intended goal of getting as many page and individual post likes as possible. There are hundreds of articles written on how to get more likes. Want to increase your likes? Easy, get out your credit card and we’ll make it happen.

With that said, who doesn’t like to be liked? No one that I know of. Worse than someone not choosing to like you on social media, is the dreaded unlike. That’s where someone intentionally dislikes you. With one quick click, you’re voted off the island against your will. Devastating!

Unfortunately, this whole “please like me” fad permeating today’s culture, has leaked over into the church. As a result, far too many pastors, church leaders, and Christians in general, are bending over backwards to be liked. But to be universally liked means that you must be constantly on your guard not to offend anyone, ever. And that, my friends, is a big, big problem.

Many people today have a very warped understanding of what the Bible actually says about heaven, hell, sin, marriage, sex, etc. Because when asked, too many Christians – afraid of offending or being unlikable – remove the rough edges of biblical truth.

Jesus never watered down the truth, because to do so compromises God’s Word and does a severe disservice to those who need to hear it. Jesus also new that Christianity was not a popularity contest. In fact, quite the opposite. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” (Matt. 10:16). “Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.” (1 John 3:13).

An ancient proverb states that you can judge a man’s character by who his enemies are. That’s also true in the spiritual realm. The world loves its own, but since Christ chose believers out of the world, the world hates them (John 15:19).

Remember, the world hated Jesus so much that it killed Him. We, as His followers, can also expect hostility. “If the world hates you,” Jesus said in John 15:18, “you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.”

Peter noted the reason for the world’s hostility to Christians when he wrote, “[Unbelievers] are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.” (1 Peter 4:4).

How we live our lives as Christians should make unbelievers very uncomfortable in their sin, and remind them of coming judgment. But I don’t see much of that happening today. And, it’s not going to change until this generation gets over this silly “please like me” phase.

“without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved-and that by God.”  Philippians 1:28

Cast all your anxiety on him

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that an awful lot of people today are uptight and anxious.

I read an article last week that said young adult Americans are, free, confident, tolerant, open-minded, and self-asserting—but they are also cynical, depressed, lonely, and anxious. The next day I ran across another article titled, “Pass the valium: U.S. anxiety levels climb faster than rest of the world”. This author said that levels of U.S. anxiety has jumped sharply since 2014, and came in at the highest levels since the surveys began a decade ago.

Another article jumped out of the headlines titled; “Prozac Nation Is Now the United States of Xanax”. This author said that while to epidemiologists the disorder is a medical condition, anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition, too.

Anxiety has become an everyday issue for many, and can easily be fueled by stressful relationships, politics, social media, or Atlanta traffic. Per data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern.

Regarding anxiety, Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic, urges people to put things into perspective historically. “Every generation, says Stossel… believes itself to be the most anxious age ever.”

There was no shortage of stress and anxiety in the Old Testament, and not much relief in the New. And, what’s interesting is that unlike what’s promised by today’s prosperity preachers, stress levels, did not then, and do not now, necessarily go down because you’re a Christian. In many cases, it gets worse.

But the good news for the Christian is this: though faith in Christ does not eliminate anxiety, it does give you the option of getting rid of it. And, by getting rid of it I don’t mean suppressing it, or reducing it, or covering it up, I mean letting go of it completely. That’s what Peter was talking about when he said, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.” And, Peter knew how to cast!

When you feel stuck, or stressed, take some time to honestly answer these two questions:

(1) What can I control?  (2) What can I do nothing about?

After answering those questions – relating to whatever it is that’s producing the worry, stress and anxious feelings – bundle up everything that you are powerless to control, and throw it as hard as you can away from you and into God’s lap.

Take some advice from Bobby McFerrin, and the Apostle Peter. Don’t worry, be happy, cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

Loving God with all your mind

There was a quote I remember reading years ago, though I can’t remember from whom, that went something like this, “I was thinking the other day that my brain has got to be the greatest organ in my body, but then I realized who was telling me this.”  Very funny!

The brain is arguably the most powerful organ in the human body. After all, it’s responsible for everything from the way I move to what I think. It’s even active while I’m asleep. 85 billion neurons complete upwards of five trillion chemical reactions each second, at speeds of over 260 miles per hour. That’s powerful.

The human mind is more powerful than the largest supercomputer and can solve great problems. However, what many people don’t realize is that as powerful as the human mind is, it is powerless to accomplish anything spiritually unless and until it is reprogrammed by God.

In the same way that humans are alive physically but dead spiritually – until God performs the miracle of removing the heart of stone (dead to God and all things spiritual), replacing it with a heart of flesh, and putting in a “new spirit” (Ezekiel 36:26-27) – humans are spiritually brain-dead until God miraculously reprograms the brain to accept and obey spiritual truth.

I’ve often used David E. Matthews quote, “It does not require half as much brains to find out something is wrong as it does to correct it.” The fact is, however, that until God initiates a brain awakening, the human mind (half or otherwise) is not capable of figuring out that anything is wrong spiritually.

In our natural, unregenerate state, there is something dramatically wrong with our minds. As a consequence of our suppressing the knowledge of God in our sin, we have been given over to a debased mind (Romans 1:28).

Though it may appear to be so at times, unsaved people do not ever seek after God. Unregenerate people who look like they are seeking after god, as Thomas Aquinas said, are seeking the benefits only God can give, not God Himself.

To have a sound mind, a spiritual mind, a mind that seeks after God and desires to do what is right, one must first be touched by the ultimate spiritual awakening brain surgeon, the Holy Spirit. And that is only the beginning. Though now capable of becoming like Christ, a new spiritually awakened mind is virtually empty. The only way we can be transformed is with a renewed mind (Romans 12:1-2). As R.C. Sproul said, “A renewed mind results from diligently pursuing the knowledge of God… True Christians want God to dominate their thinking and to fill their minds with ideas of Himself.” That’s how we love God with all our mind!

“He answered, ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Luke 10:27

Conform or be hated

Most people do not like being the odd man out. In other words, that person who clearly does not fit in with the rest. Visibly different. Noticeably not like everyone else.

For the most part we learn from a young age to conform. Conform is defined as being similar in form or type, and is even further defined as “to agree with.” Whenever Melinda and I are going to an event where one or the other of us is not certain how most will be dressed, we are careful to make sure we find out. After all, no one wants to be that person who clearly didn’t get the memo, and looks seriously out of place. Most people want to blend in, not stand out.

For the Christian, conformity can be a good thing or a bad thing, based on who we’re conforming to. We are told explicitly not to conform to the world (Rom 12:1), but rather to conform to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). This is where things get really difficult. Why you ask? Well, because Jesus said that “the world” – that same world that we’re not to conform to – actually hates Him! And therefore, it also hates us. That is, those of us who are conforming to Him.

Hate is defined as an intense or passionate dislike. That’s putting it mildly. Hate is a very strong word. So, strong that it’s now become its own crime. But Jesus made it perfectly clear that if you refuse to become a part of the world’s system, meaning that if you refuse to conform to the generally accepted group-think of today’s culture, you should expect hatred and opposition. Like it or not, you will be the odd man out!

And, here lies the conundrum. How does the person who seeks to be dressed like everyone else – to not be unduly noticed or offend the host – accept the fact that the more he conforms to Christ, the more he will be shunned, insulted, ridiculed, called out, and ultimately hated.

Recent research shows that college-aged millennials today are far more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated, compared to previous generations. Just over 60 percent of millennials say they have abandoned Christianity because it is “judgmental”. Which, of course, is another way of saying that Christians clearly did not get the cultural group-think memo. The one that says everyone has the right to do whatever they want, and not be criticized.

So, what will it be? (A) Play it safe, try not to be too different. Do everything you can to fit in with the rest. Or, (B) forget the world and its sinful system, and conform to Christ. Live life as the odd man out, visibly different, and at odds with the status quo.

Jesus says, “Choose B!” The disciples, who ultimately turned the world upside down, were so much like Christ that people started calling them Christians, which means “Little Christs.”

“So that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” Philippians 2:15

Duped and disarmed

Though God the Father ordained the cross to deal with sin… Jesus was also nailed to the cross via the actions of secondary agents —rulers and authorities — such as Pilate, the Sanhedrin, and even Satan.

The “rulers and authorities” of Rome and Israel, as well as their father the Devil, disarmed Jesus, stripped Him naked, held Him up to open shame, and celebrated what they thought was their triumph over Him.

But despite these horrific details of the death that Jesus died, its paradoxical: for on the cross, God was disarming the powers, stripping them naked, triumphing over them, and holding them up to public contempt.

What Satan thought to be the end of his hated enemy once and for all, turned out to be the complete opposite. Death did not have the final say, for God raised His Son from the dead, proving that He is sovereign and evil does not get the last word.

In many parts of the world today, and in nearly all cultures, there are a lot of superstitions, which are conjured up to help protect people from the very real threat of what we know to be demons, even if they go by other names elsewhere.

But, thanks be to God, as Christians, we need never fear this dark demonic domain, for when Christ was crucified and raised from death to life, Satan realized he had been duped and disarmed.

John Calvin says that the demons “are disarmed, so that they cannot bring forward anything against us… our guilt being itself destroyed.” Demonic powers cannot rightly accuse those who are in Christ of guilt, nor can they possess Christians or separate us from God’s love.

So, this Easter, revel in the fact that Satan can no longer hold your guilt against you, he’s been disarmed and put to shame. We are the victors in Christ!

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” Colossians 2:15

Restless hearts

Every year – when I was a pastor to youth in the Bay Area in California – I took a large group of young people to a small village in Mexico. We would camp right in the center of town next to the church. Besides conducting a week long vacation Bible school for the children and nightly worship services, over the years, we built a new church and a public play ground in the park.

When I think back over those years, and reminisce about what we accomplished for the Kingdom of God, I believe the greatest impact took place in the hearts and minds of each American teenager, as they encountered a dichotomy. They were experiencing the happiest people they had ever met, who possessed nothing of material value. These folks were dirt poor, yet they were genuinely happy, and their lives were full of purpose and meaning.

Gallup did a survey of 132 countries and found those with lower per capita economic output actually had higher rankings for meaning and happiness, as well as lower suicide rates. It turns out that those countries are more religious, giving people a sense of purpose.

Over 1600 years ago Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Despite that reality, today, increasing numbers of Americans, are looking away from God and the church, seeking to construct their own meaning. Yet those self-made answers rarely quiet our restless hearts. As Pascal said, “It is in vain, oh men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for all your miseries. All your insight has led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you discover the true and the good.”

The Christian worldview, based on biblical revelation, answers all of life’s big questions, explaining both our human dignity and our depravity. The Bible also directs us to a fixed reference point by which we can orient our lives: God Himself. “Man’s chief end,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

This much is for certain, our hearts certainly won’t find rest in money.

“Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” 1 Timothy 6:6-8

Against all odds

“I’ll take ‘The most persecuted religious group in the world today’ for 800 Alex.” If that were an actual Jeopardy question, do you know what the correct answer would be? The answer in terms of sheer numbers and sheer horror might surprise you. It’s Christians. Specifically Christians living in Muslim-majority countries. I’m not talking about Christians fighting against Christmas or Easter being marginalized to simply a winter and spring holiday; I’m talking about “know your place or we’re going to kill you” persecution. And, what’s really tragic, is the Western mainstream media barely acknowledges that it’s happening.

And, don’t think for a second that the persecution of Christians and Christianity is limited to the Middle East. North Korea, China, Cuba, and Somalia are just of few of the countries that are constantly monitoring Christian activity, and like the game of Whack a Mole, stand ready with the big club, anxious to beat it back into extinction.

But against all odds, the Christian church is thriving. Underground, or above ground, new disciples of Jesus Christ are made every day, as the gospel continues to advance in the world.

Jesus explained to His disciples that this is the way the gospel always advances – side by side with every cause for pessimism is evidence for joy and everlasting hope. Maybe the best illustration of it is His comparing the kingdom of heaven, in Matthew 13:24, to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.

In his summary of the meaning of the parable, Jesus essentially says that as history moves along, evil will mature and become ever more evil, while godliness will also mature and become ever more godly, and ever more distinctive.

But, here’s the good news; though at times it seems like evil is winning the day, when God say’s “Game over!”, there will be a harvest. At that time, “the weeds will be gathered and burned, and the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Evil may win many battles, but the good news is that God’s righteousness through Jesus Christ, will win the war! Thanks be to God.

March 21, 2017 – Muslim converts breathe new life into Europe’s struggling Christian churches

“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Matthew 13:43

Feelings verses facts

Let me begin by explaining why I’m so sensitive about this. I went to Brigham Young University (BYU) on a full scholarship for football in the early 70s. I went there as a Christian. Not knowing a lot about Mormonism, and willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, I dove into their teachings. At first it seemed like it might be just another Christian denomination. After all, they believed and studied the Bible just like I did. But I soon realized that they interpretation of the Bible was very different than mine.

That set me on an interesting journey for the truth. Whose interpretation is correct? We can’t both be right. And, besides, this is serious stuff! We’re not talking about global warming here, we’re talking about eternity. When it comes to saving my soul, I don’t want to be close to getting it right, I want to absolutely get it right.

During the in depth study that ensued, I discovered that my interpretation of God’s Word was in fact correct. Their unique interpretation of the Bible was the result of their need to make it fit, or agree with, some of their heretical beliefs. If those beliefs were concerning minor issues like sprinkling or dunking with baptism it would be one thing. No, their differences had to do with the big stuff, like salvation.

Now it was serious. Now, in reality, it was Satanic. Why do I say that? Because, Satan is the master counterfeiter. He knows that effective deception depends on getting it as close to the original as possible, but in the end, the transaction fails.

My experience with Mormonism forever changed how seriously I handle the truth of God’s Word. Trust me, the Bible is not something to be toyed with. But toyed with it is in the book, and now the movie “The Shack”. When you blatantly redefine the Trinity and salvation you’re playing with fire. And, yes, I mean the fires of hell. Ironically, those two are the exact doctrines that Joseph Smith Jr. redefined with Mormonism, and millions are paying the price for it.

Even more concerning is the number of Bible believing Christians that don’t seem to have a problem with The Shack’s message. They get so caught up in the emotional heart tugging story of forgiveness that they’re willing to ignore the heretical depiction of the Trinity and the implied message of universalism; the belief that no one will be sent to hell.

The tragedy, as Al Mohler puts it, is that Christians have lost the art of biblical discernment, which must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.

Clearly, Satan’s most effective tactic to deceive Christians, is to tug on their heart strings. Lead with feelings, and the facts will be overlooked.

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all.” Galatians 1:6

Denial or Self-denial

Shame on me, I had forgotten. Then I started seeing people with this strange charcoal smudge on their forehead. Is that a cross? Yes, of course, it’s Ash Wednesday. As a pastor I really should be more on top of these things.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the forty-day period in the church calendar known as Lent, a time of preparation leading up to Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday. Around the world, countless Christians will have the sign of the cross written on their foreheads in ash—what is known as the imposition of ashes—and will hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

That reminder, along with various self-imposed exercises in self-denial associated with Lent, like fasting or giving things up, is all about confronting our mortality. For the Christian that means remembering two important facts; (1) you are going to die, and (2) but no worries, because you will live again. Because of God’s grace, and Christ’s death and resurrection, death’s power over us, in this life as well as the next, is destroyed. And that’s great news.

The celebration of Lent, however, is in sharp contrast to where the 21st Century is headed. As Eric Metaxas put it, “Some leading entrepreneurs on the cutting edge of the tech world see their mortality and humanity not as realities to accept, but as hurdles to overcome.”

Enter billionaire SpaceX and Tesla founder, Elon Musk, who puts the odds that we’re not living in a Matrix-like computer simulation at one in a billion. He believes it’s time for humans to merge with machines, or risk becoming irrelevant in the age of artificial intelligence.

Then there’s billionaire and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel. He takes it a step further as a self-proclaimed “transhumanist,” Thiel says he hopes to achieve immortality by “uploading” his consciousness into a computer. Referring to death, Thiel remarked that “You can accept it, you can deny it, or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are in denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

So, you can join the Lent group – and deny yourself, in preparation of the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. Or, you can join the group that denies reality – the reality and the inevitability of death that is. You can, as Thiel says, “Fight it.”

I prefer the first group where life is sane and peaceful. I don’t want to live forever in this world because it’s messed up. I can accept death, knowing that He Who is the “resurrection and the life” has already defeated it. And I will live forever with Him because of it.

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19