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

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

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

Valentine’s Day Origin

I always assumed that Valentine’s Day was literally started by Hallmark cards, Hershey’s, FTD Flowers, or some other business that needed to boost its bottom line to sell more product. Hey, here’s an idea, let’s create a holiday where everyone is obligated to buy cards, candy and flowers once a year.

There are even entire industries, with their own infomercials that exist solely surrounding Valentine’s Day. My favorite being the Big Hunk of Love at Vermont Teddy Bear. Every year I threaten Melinda that I made the call, and one is on the way. I mean really, who doesn’t dream of having a six foot tall bear hanging around the house.

But it turns out I was wrong. Valentine’s Day actually has a uniquely Christian origin. With that said, my guess is that you have no idea what part of Christian history it actually links to. From a commentary, written by Chuck Colson way back in 1999, here’s the story.

Early church records are sketchy, but it’s believed several men named Valentine were martyred in the third century A.D. This was during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II, a ruler known for his brutal persecution of Christians.

One of these Valentines was a priest who secretly married couples against the wishes of Claudius, who believed that unmarried men made better soldiers. Two other Valentines—a priest and a bishop—were beheaded by Claudius late in the third century.

Historians are not certain which Valentine it was we celebrate on February 14. But they are certain why the church chose that day. You see, in ancient Rome, February 14 was the eve of a pagan festival called Lupercalia. During this festival, the Romans worshiped Februa, a goddess of marriage, childbirth, and sexuality.

Brian Bates, a professor at the University of Sussex, is an expert on how we celebrate holidays. Bates writes that during Lupercalia, “Young men and women drew lots for sexual partners in preparation for a day of sanctioned license the following day.”

As Christianity spread throughout the ancient world, the church began replacing pagan festivals with holy days. In an effort to control the lewder aspects of the Lupercalian festival, the church fathers replaced this pagan holiday with the feast of Saint Valentine, in honor of one of the martyred Christians. Instead of drawing the names of sexual partners out of a box, young men were encouraged to pick the names of saints—and then spend the following year emulating the saint whose name they drew.

So how about that? Valentine’s Day actually links back to the early Christian Saints, and how their martyrdom dramatically illustrates their love of God. Somehow, a Hershey’s Kiss, and a big Teddy Bear no longer seems appropriate.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 John 4:7, 9

The Agony of Defeat

Though it’s been forty years since I played in the NFL – wow, can that even be possible? – I still keep up enough to both enjoy and be miserable, week in and week out, concerning how my team’s performing. Many people assume that I root for the Saints because I played for them, but that’s actually not the case. I’ve always rooted for the team closest to the city that I live in. That said, for the last 28 years, my team has been the Atlanta Falcons.

It was so exciting to see them pull off home field advantage in the playoffs, and then commanding victories led to them facing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. I kept saying over the two weeks leading up to the game that I really thought they had a very good chance of winning the game. That result was exciting to think about, especially considering that the Falcons had only been to one Super Bowl and had never won one.

Then it happened. I’m sitting with friends, enjoying great food, and repeatedly jumping up to holler and give a high five, as Atlanta dominates in every aspect of the game. They were so far ahead, and then the Patriot’s started slowly coming back. Still, it seemed virtually impossible that Atlanta could lose the game based on the score and time left.

But it happened. The seemingly impossible happened. The sure-fire winner of Super Bowl 51, actually lost the game in overtime. It was absolutely devastating.

I was reminded of ABCs Wide World of Sports that ran on Saturday’s years ago. It was about the human drama of athletic competition. The intro always showed excerpts of glorious victories followed by epic tragedies from sporting events. Over this montage of quick clips the narrator said, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

All that got me thinking about some of the greatest sure-fire-win to epic-loss scenarios from history. Many are athletic events, but not all. As I ran through the list in my head, several came to mind from the Bible. Of course there’s David and Goliath. Who saw that coming! But there’s another one from the Bible that trumps them all. It will forever be the greatest comeback of all time. I’m speaking of the resurrection.

How I felt immediately after the Falcons sudden loss had to be similar to how Satan felt when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The thrill of what the devil assumed was his greatest victory, suddenly turned into the agony of defeat.

The good news is that unlike the Falcons loss, Satan’s loss that day will never be forgotten or diminished. The Falcons aren’t finished, there’s still hope of winning a Super Bowl. Satan’s loss, was eternal. It was the greatest and most epic failure in all of human history. Making Jesus right when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.”

“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.” John 11:25

Perspective

The dictionary definition of perspective is (1) the art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point. And (2) a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.

One of the things that I like about being a pastor is how it keeps me grounded in reality. The situations that I encounter – typically relating to people and their problems – keeps things in perspective.

Relating to the first definition of perspective, ministry keeps me from becoming one-dimensional. Encountering the sometimes gut wrenching real-life struggles that people endure, gives me a more correct impression of the height, width, depth – and I would add length, of life. In short, ministry never ceases to give me eternal perspective.

Yesterday afternoon, on a spectacular sunshiny winter day, I traveled to a beautiful home in a somewhat exclusive neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. There, I joined four of my colleagues, each a pastor at Apostles, as we ministered to a beautiful young women in her early 40s, who is dying of cancer. She has only been given a few months to live.

During our time there, we followed Jesus’ brother James advice; offering up prayers of faith. We anointed her head with oil and prayed, as she asked us to, for her healing. (James 5:13-16).

You might think that that kind of thing gets easier for a pastor over the years, but it doesn’t. It’s always agonizingly painful.

I don’t know what God’s will is for this young lady. I know that He can definitely heal her if He so chooses. But, He may not, for reasons we’ll never understand this side of Heaven.

But with that said, there’s one thing that I know for sure. Whether she lives another 3 weeks, or another 30 years, she will live again, with the Lord she loves throughout all eternity. And that, my friends, is the beauty of the gospel.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 Corinthians 5:1