UPDATED: As Long As…

For those of you who didn’t know, my wife and I are expecting our first child. It’s an exciting time in our lives. We have prayed for a child for a long time now and God answered our prayer a few days before Christmas. Finding out that we were expecting during the season when we celebrate the birth of our Savior was simply sublime. Words cannot truly express our gratitude for the gift of a child.

As we have begun sharing our news with friends and co-workers, a common question keeps coming up. Are you hoping for a boy or a girl? Well, I’m hoping for a boy. Unashamedly. But I always throw in the caveat that I’ll be just as excited for a girl. Generally, the conversation continues and at some point the phrase “as long as it’s happy and healthy” is spoken (sometimes by me…sometimes by the other person). Nods of agreement ensue and we then go about our business.

Since the beginning of the year, my church is going through the Gospel of Mark. The title of the series is Jesus Changes Everything (check out the sermons here). As we have gone through the Gospel of Mark, we are seeing how Jesus really does changes everything. He wields an authority that is unprecedented because He is king of an unprecedented kingdom. Since He comes to crush all competing kingdoms, His presence is threatening and terrifying. Christ has come, with all authority, and no other kingdom will survive the arrival of His. The elite of this world quiver in fear. The powerful see what they cherish slipping through their grasp. And we can all count ourselves a part of this fearful group. Little caveats like “as long as…” betray our membership among the elite and powerful. They betray our desire to build our own kingdom.

When I say or agree with that little caveat, I am conveying that I am still a kingdom-builder. Think about that phrase for a moment. The gift of new life somehow becomes less than a gift just because things differ from our own wishes. Deep down, the scary truth is that in my kingdom, what I need is a child that is healthy. No down syndrome. No weird genetic disorder. No missing fingers or toes (or extras for that matter). That’s what my kingdom requires. Perhaps you think I’m being too hard on myself. Everyone wants their child to be healthy. Yes. It’s completely natural. It is a good desire. It is right for me to pray for a healthy baby and a healthy pregnancy for my wife. Yet, the problem is when we hold it against God when the healthy baby and the healthy pregnancy do not come. When we try to make deals with God, that is when our prayers betray our hearts. And the scary reality is that uncounted throngs of people who desired what is natural and right will end up in hell, because they only sought Jesus’ kingdom as an add-on. “As long as…” ruled their hearts, not Jesus.

What if having a healthy and happy baby would send me to hell? What if what my soul and my family need is a baby who is unhealthy and sanguine? Would I trust in Christ more with a healthy baby or an unhealthy baby? Would prayer be every breath reality and not a spotty occurrence? No one asks these questions. No one allows them self to think that far down the road. And the reason is that we are all little kingdom builders. Busy little bees, building our little hives, our little lives. And when we sense the presence of Christ, fear overcomes us.

Some days I  struggle with the fear that my baby will not be “normal.” There are days that “as long as…” seeks to rule my heart over Jesus. And I am ashamed. I am exposed. For I am a little kingdom builder. I want a “normal” son so we can play catch. I want a “normal” daughter so my wife can teach her to cook. And on those days I am threatened because I know that the Kingdom of my God and his Christ has come. Woe is me, for I am undone.

Yet, there is hope for me. Even when I am threatened. Even when I am fearful. I am drawn towards the one who threatens me. For though my kingdom is shaken, what he offers me in return is far greater than anything I could have built on my own. He offers me membership in an unshakable kingdom. And though difficulty may come, it is for my good. And ultimately, the difficulty will be but a blink of an eye when the perfect comes.

Whether I am ready or not, the little bundle of joy is coming. This child is a gift. This child is a blessing. No matter what the sex or health or psychological disposition. And I am sure that this child is meant for my sanctification. My life will be turned upside down in ways that I cannot even comprehend. And because my Father did not spare His own Son, I know that this new chapter is for my good. And as I grow older and new chapters are written, my kingdom will continue to be threatened. And I say, let it be so.

“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down…” (Revelation 12:10)

~sdg

UPDATE:

Well, it’s gonna be a boy! I’m pretty pumped. His name will be Callen Ryan Camblin.

Skipping Christmas

Today, this thought struck me. Thousands, if not millions, will wake up tomorrow morning, exchange gifts, visit with family and engage in other holiday traditions, all the while thinking they are celebrating Christmas. However, the stark reality is that they celebrate something completely other than Christmas. Why is this? Because they will intentionally and willfully skip services with their local expression of the Body of Christ to take part in other holiday traditions. I decided to share this thought with friends on Twitter and Facebook. I phrased it like this:

Know this: if you skip church tomorrow morning to celebrate Christmas….Christmas is not what you celebrate.

One of my friends from church asked a thoughtful and honest question on Facebook in response to my post. In short, he was questioning whether my statement was correct. Does skipping church on Christmas really relegate your celebration as something less than honoring to Christ? His reaction was that it did not. He reasoned that if it did, the church would need to schedule a worship service on the 25th of December, no matter what day it fell on. I decided that my friend deserved a thoughtful answer to his question. So here it goes.

For over 2,000 years, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ has gathered on the first day of the week to worship our risen and reigning Savior. This is what we do. Worship and fellowship with the church has been the priority since the beginning. It is part of the warp and woof of the Christian life. Yet, in the recent years when Christmas has fallen on a Sunday, this strange phenomena occurs. Christians, in droves, skip meeting together (even more ludicrous are the churches that close down altogether…but that’s another issue for another day). Why is this? Why skip church on Christmas? Frankly, it’s just easier. There is family, presents, traditions, breakfasts and lunches to prepare. Church is just an interruption in the day. Church requires getting ready and leaving the house. Church makes it more difficult to coordinate schedules, etc. But what does the choice of ease and comfort over worship in word and song say about us? Can we truly say we celebrate the advent of our Lord and Savior while we cloister ourselves away from the very ones Jesus has saved? Can we call what we do tomorrow morning “Christmas” when we ignore the  weekly gathering of Christ’s body? I submit that we cannot. For in that act, we repudiate the very thing Christmas teaches us. For it was not for ease and comfort that Jesus came into this world. From the get go, his life was difficult. He was the adopted son of a poor carpenter from a backwater town. He had no place to lay his head. He was the suffering servant who bore our sins and suffered a terrible death on a cross that belonged to us. Thank God Jesus did not choose ease and comfort. Otherwise, there would be no Christmas to celebrate.

This is why I firmly believe that you cannot call your celebration “Christmas” and remove yourself from the weekly scheduled gathering which heralds all that Christmas set out to do. It smacks of hypocrisy and poor theology (this is not to say my friend is a hypocrite or poor theologian. I am speaking of those who practice such things). The logical end of thinking one can skip Sunday services and still honor Christ is the abandonment of the church all together. For if skipping the weekly scheduled gathering on Christmas is no harm, neither should any other weekly scheduled gathering. Suddenly, the foundation for worship and fellowship with the church crumbles. And the author of Hebrews warns us against this very thing. The end of those who neglect meeting together is not rest, but wrath. Eternity is at stake in these matters!

Another question I have is why would any Christian want to skip church on Sunday? Is not gathering together in corporate worship a delight? Is it not a joyful reminder of the future that awaits us in the presence of our serpent-thrashing Savior King? How is a bigoted fat man with rosy cheeks and red suit a better option? If skipping church is the desired choice, what does that say about where our joy and treasure really lie?

At the same time, I do not believe churches should schedule a worship service every December 25th (but I am a fan of Christmas Eve services). I am simply critiquing the prioritization of other culturally adapted holiday traditions over Christian worship. Priorities have the tendency to reveal idolatries. And if Christmas falls on Sunday and corporate worship is not the priority, then don’t fool yourself into thinking what you celebrate is Christmas. In fact, you really just skipped it. That’s all I was trying to convey in my tweet (irony: 800 words to explain 140 characters).

As far as it depends on you (because sometimes, it doesn’t), when Christmas falls on the Lord’s day, make corporate worship the priority. The fellowship, the opportunity to sing songs of salvation and the conviction of the Word preached will outstrip any inconveniences that hour and half may cause you. I will guarantee you that one.

I hope and pray that you and yours have a very Merry Christmas.

~sdg

Idols, Scapegoats & the False Hope of Fandom

A while back, I renounced my fandom. I had grown tired of all that being a fan in today’s context entailed. No longer could one casually follow a hometown team. A true fan, a real fan, is one who hates all those who pose a threat to their team. But this hate is not reserved for the opposing teams. No, you must hate the fans of those teams as well. It is not simply enough to enjoy watching the Red Sox. You must hate the Yankees (and their fans). The True Blue fans of Kentucky Wildcat basketball must despise the University of Louisville and disparage their fans as half-wits or white trash (or both). It seems that in the world of fandom, love and hate go hand in hand.

Idolatry is not a word too many in our culture use on a daily basis. The word denotes little golden statues the likes that Indiana Jones crisscrossed the world in search of. In this civilized and enlightened world we live in, we have evolved beyond this belief that golden statues hold any power. A surface look at our culture would agree. Ornate Buddhist or Hindu temples do not dot our landscape as they do in Thailand or other Far Eastern countries. It would seem that our context is quite free from idols. Yet, to so narrowly define idols as little golden statues is to miss entirely what idols are and what idolatry looks like.

Understood correctly, an idol is anything or anyone who has attained god-like status in the heart of a person. When we displace the true God by things He made, this is idolatry and the object of our affections is an idol. Idols are our attempt to fill a longing to worship and longing for security, but at the same time retain control. We place present and future hopes and trust on an object or person rather than God. This is idolatry. And fandom wreaks of it.

It may seem a little far-fetched to call modern-day fandom idolatry. I mean, this is sports we are talking about here. Not religion. And yet, the language of fandom is dripping with religious symbols and concepts. Fans “worship” their team. They “idolize” coaches and players. Long-time coaches or super-star players attain “god-like” status. The list could go on. But even beyond the language of fandom is the behavior of fandom. Here, I think we see an even greater connection to “religious” activity. On game day, the fans gather in temple-like facilities, wearing the colors of their team. They sing the songs and chant the chants. When the team enters the arena, praise falls upon them with raucous cheers. Fans gather together with other fans to enjoy the camaraderie and talk endlessly about their team. You give tithes and offerings in exchange for a hot dog and a soda. Or perhaps you even get one of those foam fingers that declares the position of your team in your eyes. Attending a sporting event can be quite the religious experience. Especially when the team isn’t doing so well. Suddenly, a whole new religious dynamic enters the scene. Scapegoating.

Scapegoats find their origin in the book of Leviticus. In chapter 16, YHWH commands the people concerning a certain feast known as the Day of Atonement. In verses 20-22 we find the instructions regarding the scapegoat. The priest confesses all the sins of the people, all their vileness and impurity, over the goat. The goat is then led outside of the camp and set free in the wilderness. This animal bore the cost of Israel’s sin. It was cast outside the camp. And to be outside the camp was to be outside of God’s favor. To bear iniquity was to bear the wrath of God.

Several weeks ago, I watched the ESPN documentary called “Catching Hell” that took a look at scapegoating in sports. The film focused on probably the most recognizable sports scapegoat in all of history; Steve Bartman. The documentary was like a train wreck. The devastation was horrible, but I couldn’t change the channel. The short version of the story is this: The Chicago Cubs have not been the World Series in about 100 years. During the sixth game of the League Championship Series, the Cubs were only a few innings away from going to the World Series. In the top of the 8th inning, a ball was hit down the left field foul line and as usual, the fans in the vicinity stood for an attempt at a souvenir. One particular fan, Steve Bartman, got his hands on the ball, which prevented the Cubs’ left fielder from catching the ball for the second out of the inning. After that play, the Marlins went on to score eight runs to take the lead and win the game. As the game began to unravel, so did the sanity of the Cubs fans. Bartman received all the blame. It was his fault the Cubs were losing. The situation became so dire that Bartman required a security escort from his seat. As security took him away, other fans hurled insults and beer at the bewildered Bartman. The next day, the Cubs lost Game 7, ending their season and extending Cubs fans’ frustrations. In the days that followed the end of the series, Bartman began receiving death threats, so he went into hiding. Besides a short statement read by his brother, no media outlet has heard from Steve Bartman (despite numerous attempts to contact him). For all practical purposes, Steve Bartman is dead. The ability to lead a normal life died that chilly night in October when the Friendly Confines became anything but. He was led outside the camp, bearing the weight of a city’s sins and impurity; a weight he was never meant to carry. A weight that would only crush him.

It’s funny how we never blame our idols when they fall short of fulfilling our hopes and desires. It is always something or someone else who is as fault. Our hearts are so twisted and wicked that when the light exposes the inadequacy of our god, we blame the light for our god’s short-comings. We want what we want. And so we murder and destroy when we do not get it. Idolatry always ends in failure. It is a false hope. It is a vain search for vindication…for significance.

Have you ever noticed that fans use the word “we”[1] a lot? I catch myself doing it sometimes. “We need to upgrade our outfield.” “We have the best starting five in the country.” “We better figure out how to stop that passing attack soon!” We…we…we…we. The fact that you plop your butt in a stadium seat or in front of a HDTV at BW3s does not make you a part of the team. John Calipari has absolutely no idea who you are. Neither does anyone on the UK basketball team. Your opinions are meaningless. Wearing the team colors and replica jerseys do not make you a part of the team. So why do we say “we” when talking about UK basketball? If we were sane people, we’d stop using “we” when it comes to sports. But idolatry has never been the bastion of sane-thinking people.  And yet, there is something deeper going on with this corporate identity. We say “we” because we were made for “we.” God created us to desire membership in something bigger and more glorious than ourselves. Thus, fans speak in the corporate vernacular. Yet, sports cannot bear the crushing weight of our God-given desire for an ever-increasing glory. Our favorite team will always fall short. They will always disappoint. Even if they win it all, the exhilaration won’t last past your head hitting the pillow. Sports teams make for terrible gods.

Where sports fails, Jesus is more than sufficient. In sports, we must search in vain for a scapegoat that will restore our team to purity and victory. Jesus was the scapegoat who was led outside of the camp and bore our sins, making possible the satisfaction of the craving for a “we” to which we can belong. The Church is the “we” and if we only have eyes to see, glimpses of an ever-increasing glory will pierce the clouds and sustain us until the day we meet Jesus face to face. Then we will experience true freedom. Then we will find vindication. Then we will feel the full force of glory revealed and consummated. Then we will be the “we,” basking the glorious presence of our God and Father and the Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever. No sports championship or title can compare.

~sdg

 

Footnotes

Back to Post[1] – See “What Do You Mean ‘We?’ ” by Chris Jones at Grantland

 

Steve Jobs: Greatest or Least in the Kingdom?

There was something I initially wrote in my post about Steve Jobs that I ended up removing. It went something like this:

I hope that one day in the new heavens and new earth, I can take a long walk with Steve and talk.

I don’t know what made me take it out, but I was thinking about that possibility this morning as I drove to work. But I had to stop myself. Or really, the Holy Spirit had to stop me. Because I immediately thought of something Jesus said.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:1-4

The greatest in the kingdom will be like a child. Now, I’m not hear to comment on Steve Jobs actual place in the Kingdom (assuming and hoping he is among the redeemed), but rather these comments are a check on my heart and my tendency to elevate what the world elevates. Jesus does not do that. In His Kingdom, what is elevated is not greatness, but weakness (at least by worldly standards). As I was driving to work and pondering the possibility of spending time with Steve in the new heavens and new earth and being excited by that thought, I was not expressing an innocent desire. Rather, it was an expression of my heart’s fascination with power and prestige and worldly greatness. It revealed in me a unbiblical desire to trumpet merit in this life as the means for greatness in the next (an anti-gospel if I’ve ever heard one). A wicked heart, have I. And yet, I do not fear that I am alone in this particular bend of my heart.

Much ink has been spilled over the phenomenon of pop-star preachers and celebrity personalities that stand on the stages of America’s mega-churches. The aura of Hollywood, according to many, has seeped into the church. Or perhaps, what we see in American Evangelicalism, is merely a reflection of our hearts. Indeed, it is that more than it is some foreign invader from the hills of 90210. What we see before our eyes directly correlates to a primal desire to elevate the producers (although, with all the protests on Wall Street, I’m beginning to wonder if we are swinging to the opposite extreme). Hence, a celebrity culture easily and naturally develops. And yet, heroes are not bad things. All heroes are meant to point us to the ultimate Hero, Jesus Christ. But what I see in my heart and what I see in the fruit of many churches is an inordinate admiration of heroes.

What is further troubling is that this inordinate admiration of heroes can occur no matter the genuineness of the persons we dub as heroes. It would be easy to tackle inordinate admiration of those who lack a genuineness of heroism. And what I mean by genuineness is whether or not God would find them great, whether he would call them heroes. But, it is still possible to slip into idolatry over genuine heroes. Those fragile creatures who simply receive from Jesus and have nothing to offer. They are like children, with limited utility. Those are the greatest. These are the heroes of the Kingdom. All these great preachers and theologians that line the conference programs may all be genuine Kingdom heroes. But their genuine hero status will not stop the bent of my heart. And it will not stop yours either.

In broad light of the words of Jesus, I have to laugh at myself, because if I don’t laugh, I might despair. Too often I think much of people for the wrong reasons. And even when I think much of them for the right reasons, I slip into idolatry. Tis a precarious dance I must dance. In the end, I’m drawn back to the Gospel. For, I cannot save myself. I would destroy myself. Only Jesus can straighten out this bent heart of mine. Only Jesus can save me from myself and replace an inordinate desire with a proper one. Only Jesus can help me desire long walks with Him, rather than Steve or whatever other hero has slipped on to the throne of my heart. For in the end, Jesus is the only hero I need, the only hero I desire.

~sdg

An Unfathomable Audacity

I’m coming to a realization. While this truth is one that I have always intellectually asserted was true, it has become increasingly real to me. Perhaps, I am just getting older. Perhaps maturity is finally setting in. Whatever the cause, my eyes are open. To what do I refer? What truth is it that I am having forged in the front of my mind in these recent days? That the Gospel induces a maddening rage in most and a lucid awakening in some.

"Peas are nutritionally deficient and morally evil!" - an angry toddler

While this is true and becoming real to me, the source of this rage is what is most interesting to me. If I were to preach the good news that peas grant eternal life, when eaten twice daily, no one would write a book called “Peas Are Not Great: How Green Sphere-Shaped Vegetables Poison Everyone” or “The Peas Delusion” or “Letter to a Pea-Eating Nation” (unless that person was an angry toddler hell-bent on leaving the peas on his plate).  The response among my hearers might be tepid or it might encourage them to eat peas twice a day. But it wouldn’t be rage. Yet, this is the exact response preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ incites among the world’s elite thinkers, movers and shakers. And I believe the root of this phenomenon is the authority the Gospel assumes. Peas assume no authority. You either take ’em or leave ’em (personally, I’ll leave ’em!). But the Gospel projects an authority. It demands submission; complete surrender. To those who reject that authority, the Gospel becomes an unfathomable audacity, an anathema worthy of the greatest rage and greatest attack.

Solomon’s words are applicable here. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This rage is nothing new, for Jesus himself faced the rage of those who keenly understood the implications of his Gospel. As the story unfolds in the latter chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus with his face set towards Jerusalem. Despite the dangers that await him, despite the temptations to avoid the suffering in his path, Jesus marches towards Jerusalem with steely resolve.

While rage has greeted Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-30), it is finally reaching its crescendo. After entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to jubilant throngs (Luke 19:28-39) and cleansing the temple (Luke 19:45-48), the rage comes to a head. Throughout his ministry, Jesus would do and say things and it bristled the religious leaders. And the root of their bristling was the authority Jesus assumed. “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority” (Luke 20:2). Finally, it comes out. They believe Jesus acts with an authority above his pay grade. And it was time everyone else knew it. But there was a problem. Jesus refuses to play their game. “He answered them, ‘I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?'” (Luke 20:3-4). He turns the tables on the religious leaders and now they find themselves stuck. They cannot answer the question. Either answer puts them at odds with the crowds [1]. And they feared the crowds (Luke 20:6). So they answer that they did not know. And Jesus responds by refusing to answer their question directly. But what follows is interesting. Jesus tells a parable. And for those with ears to hear, Jesus plainly explains where his authority lies.

The parable Jesus tells is the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-18). An owner rents out his vineyard to tenants. When harvest time comes, the owner sends servants to gather the owner’s share. But as the title of the parable tells us, the tenants are wicked. They refuse to listen to these servants. So the owner sends his son. Surely, the tenants will listen to him. Rather, the tenants reveal that the depth of their wickedness. They kill the son, the heir, in the vain hopes that they can claim the vineyard as their own. And what will the owner do to these tenants? He will destroy them and give the vineyard to others. The reaction of the listeners is surprise. Would God really do this? And Jesus concludes with an emphatic statement. The stone that the builders rejected becomes the chief cornerstone. Those who fall on this stone will be broken and on those whom the stone falls, will be crushed.  Jesus correlates the rejected stone and the rejected son. And what is true of the stone, is true of the Son. For those who have ears to hear, Jesus is plainly telling them where his authority lies. It lies in his sonship. The only begotten Son of God has all authority. He is heir of all things, because it was through him that the created order exists (Hebrews 1:2).

And this is the rub, the root of the rage that Gospel incites. Those like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins understand clearly the authority the Gospel projects. And they reject that authority. They do not believe in God. Therefore, the claims of Jesus, the authority he commands, is a fraud. It is immoral. An opposition must stand. And they would be right if not for their failure to see that there is a God. And He has commanded that those who would worship and follow Him, should worship and follow Jesus (Matthew 17:4-8). For Jesus is the perfect image of God.

It would be easy to stop there. “Those foaming-at-the-mouth atheist better watch it!” But the Gospel and it’s authority is not just for atheists and other non-believers. Primarily, the Gospel is for the people of God. What can we glean from the rage that we see around us? Perhaps, the atheists understand the Gospel more clearly than we do ourselves. We can look around the Western church and what do we find? An anemic, luke-warm moralism. How can this even resemble the body of the One with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18)? It does not. For, those who have experienced a lucidly awakening, a different sort of rage should simmer within;  directed not at God, but at sin. A rage at the darkness and one who rules it, bursting forth in mission efforts, both global and local. Perhaps an even greater audacity exists in the hearts of those who claim to understand the implications of the Gospel, yet show no signs of it. Perhaps what is truly unfathomable is not the rage the atheist feels when confronted by the claims of the Gospel, but rather the indifference of churches that claim fidelity to the Gospel.  Rather, let us tremble before the One with all authority. And let us act as if this authority is on our side, for it is. And nothing can challenge us or overtake us, because nothing can challenge or overtake Him.

~sdg

Footnote

BACK TO POST1 – If the religious leaders had answered that John’s baptism was from heaven, they believe Jesus would be able to question why they rejected John (Luke 20:5). I believe a case can be made that their fear of being accused of rejecting a heavenly baptism was still in the crowd. They did not believe Jesus held divine authority. So they did not fear him. They only feared his sway he held over the crowd. For they hung on Jesus’ every word (Luke 19:48).

A Pre-Death Postmortem

This past Tuesday, I thought I was dying. This is no stretch of the truth or over-dramatic hyperbole. The fear of my physical death hung over me; to the point where I left work in the middle of the day to seek medical attention. I should probably mention that I am no hypochondriac. Before yesterday, it had been years since I’d seen a doctor. But this was different.

The previous night, I hardly slept at all. A nagging pain had developed just above my knee. It was enough of a discomfort to get my attention. Normally, I would have shrugged it off, but within in the past month, I have been doing a lot of traveling. I went on a mission trip to Thailand. I also went to Phoenix. In preparation for the Thailand trip, I had read that one risk of extended flight time is blood clots in the leg, which if left untreated can lead to death. This is the context into which the Author of my story wrote in a persistent pain in my leg. And it really freaked me out. I decided I wanted to have a doctor check me out when the pain started moving up my leg. By this time, my mind had begun playing tricks on me, which made me feel nauseous. Tis better to be safe than dead, I thought in the midst of it all. So off to the doctor I went.

The doctor’s exam and subsequent blood test yielded no indications of a clot. I’m in the clear. Yet, I still find myself troubled. The dread I felt as this odd pain emerged in my leg was real. I was fearing death. Anxiety welled up over the possibility of suffering. So what should I take from my imagined brushed with death? Perhaps you think it silly to even ask such a question, as if there is an answer. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Perhaps, but most likely not. The God who spoke the world into existence and sustains all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) must continue to speak, or nothing would exist. Whether a falling sparrow or a spinning universe or a small pain in my leg, they do not happen apart from Him. So I ask again, why was this scene written into His story? I think it was to teach me (and maybe you) that I fear death more than I think I do.

So what’s the big deal? “Everyone fears death”, you might be thinking. I guess you may be right. But, “fearful of death” is most certainly not a way a true disciple of Jesus could ever be described (hence my consternation over my reaction to my imagined brush with death). When you think about the history of the church, it is tinted red by the blood of martyrs; men and women who did not fear death, of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:36-38). These brothers and sisters are held up as examples of faithfulness. Their perseverance through trials and suffering perfectly imaged their elder Brother. For Jesus, despite experiencing much suffering, persevered to the end. He remained faithful to God (Hebrews 3:1-2). And it was His faithfulness that freed these other brothers and sisters from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). His faithfulness enabled them to be faithful themselves…faithful to the end. This is why I pause to consider my own heart in this situation. If I share in Christ, I have been freed from the fear of death. And if you share in Christ, you have been freed from the fear of death as well. This is gloriously true and eternally significant.

Can you imagine living in a time where the threat of death faced you everywhere? No matter where you went or who you encountered, death hung over you like a palpable mist that choked your existence. It’s unimaginable. Yet, this is our reality, if we would only see it. The Christian life is fraught with dangers. And the one weapon that Satan uses to tempt us to faithlessness is the threat of suffering unto death. Which is why the fact that Christ Jesus has freed of us from the fear of death is so significant. When the devil attacks, with his darts of flame unleashed, we can stand tall. The shield of faith extinguishes and deflects that ammo set on fire by hell itself. For Satan can only kill us (and only by God’s permission – Job 1:6-12) and after that is glory! If we truly believe this, if we truly lay hold of it, fear melts like ice in the presence of red hot coals. For “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But if fear remains, we have yet to be perfected. We have yet to lay hold of the depths of the Gospel. Thus, we are in danger. An evil, unbelieving heart may lurk within our being. One that will deceive us and then destroy us (Hebrews 3:12).

This all may seem like bad news. And it is. But, the bad news is what makes the Good news that much better. The truth is, I have an evil, unbelieving heart and Jesus lived, died and rose for people just like me. I fear death because I’m still learning that the Gospel is better than I think it is. It’s better than I will ever fathom this side of heaven. This is the truth I must preach to myself. This is the truth that I must have preached to me (Hebrews 3:13). This is the truth that emboldens faith and shrinks fear of death and fear of suffering. This is the truth that will neuter the power of temptation and delivers me safe at home by preserving me to the end (Hebrews 2:18).

It’s easy to speak with bravado about our lack of fear when the object of that fear is far off. But it’s not far off. In an instant, your life could be over. There is an urgency to repent. There is an urgency to submit. There is an urgency to reach out to those who are lost. “Today”, the author of Hebrews warns (Hebrews 3:7-8), is the day we should submit. Do not assume you can live your life as you wish and then get things right with God before the end. Your arrogance will betray you. For God opposes the proud (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5).

For me, this whole experience has crystallized in my mind my deep need for the Gospel. It has crystallized in my mind my deep need for the local church. Without the Gospel and the church that the expansion of the Gospel creates, I would be hopelessly lost. And so would you.

~sdg

Reflections on the 2011 SBC (from a SBC Rookie)

Let me start by saying I’m new around here (the Southern Baptist Convention, that is). I did not grow up Southern Baptist. I grew up in the Christian Church/Church of Christ (“4C”) stream of churches (also known as the Stone/Campbell or “Restoration” movement). The only time I darkened the door of a Southern Baptist church for a service was when I was in my mid-20’s while visiting my (then girlfriend) wife’s home church in Russell Springs, KY. My wife and I had met at a 4C church. I was happy with my 4C church. I had attended there ever since 2003 when I had returned home from college (which was affiliated with 4C churches…are you starting to see a pattern?).  All of our friends went there. But something changed. Actually, I was the one who was changing. I was growing deeper in my faith and stronger in my theological convictions (none of this as a result of anything going at my church). I became dissatisfied the depth of the preaching. I was feeding myself meat and potatoes with the stuff I was reading and got nothing but cotton candy on Sunday morning. The Sunday they had us clapping to choose which worship song we would sing next was our last.

 

Phoenix Welcomes the SBC

The first church we visited (thanks to an invitation from a good friend) was also the last church we visited. Ashland Avenue Baptist Church became home for us December of 2009. The gospel-centeredness drew us. The preaching was fantastic. It was soaked in the gospel. The people were loving, kind and unified. I was a Southern Baptist.

While the theological convictions and great preaching were what initially drew us to Ashland Avenue, I was still fairly ignorant of what it meant to be apart of the Southern Baptist heritage. Well, after spending last week in Phoenix, AZ with my pastor and around 5,000 of my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, I think have a little taste of it.

The casual observer may have been given the impression that the SBC is dying. Baptisms are down. Church plants are not nearly as plentiful as thought. Cooperative Program giving is suffering. So is the Lottie Moon offering. Only around 5,000 messengers even showed up in Phoenix (which is the lowest since World War II, I’m told). Could it be that the once proud Southern Baptist Convention was on it’s way out? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Frankly, I think reports of the SBC’s demise have been over-stated.

 

Kevin Ezell, the President of NAMB

First, the new leadership that has come onboard at the SBC and it’s entities are moving us in the right direction. I only heard Kevin Ezell speak twice, but I like this guy. His report on NAMB and his “you have heard it said, but I say to you” speech was remarkable. The SBC was confronted with the hard-cold reality of inflated numbers and ambiguous measurements. The election of Pastor Fred Luter to VP of next years convention was also a big deal. It’s the first time Southern Baptists have elected a black man to that high of a position (Drs. Akin & Moore have already started a twitter campaign to make him President of the SBC in 2013). But, this is significant not just because of Pastor Luter’s skin color. Pastor Luter is the real deal (so I’m told by trusted friends/family). This was no religious affirmative action, but rather a reflection of the direction we are headed.

 

Pastor Fred Luter, elected VP of 2012 SBC

Second, there were several key resolutions and motions that passed that will set the course for greater gospel fidelity in the future. The fact that Southern Baptists are generally white is a problem. For, when our King returns, peoples of all tongues and tribes will gather around His throne. If our churches don’t look like a microcosm of that impending reality, can we really call ourself gospel people? Do we deserve the moniker “evangelical”? The motion to increase ethnic diversity among the SBC leadership and the resolution entitled “On Immigration and the Gospel” were both monumental steps towards ensuring that “evangelical” is not just a name, but a reality that defines our churches. These did not pass without controversy. Several attempts were made to amend the resolution and make them weaker. We do have a few crazy cousins in the SBC (I will not forget Wiley Drake for the rest of my life). But they were defeated and the motions and resolutions passed. A gospel-spirit hung over the messengers. This can be nothing but a cause for rejoicing over the future of the SBC.

Finally, there seemed to be a lot of people like me. While that may sound wildly arrogant, allow me to explain. Although I’m about to turn 30, I think I’m still considered part of the young side of the SBC. I met a lot of young, intelligent, gospel-minded guys. The SBC’s future is bright because there are a lot of young SBC pastors, interns and seminary students who have passion for gospel-centered, mission-minded churches. I had the chance to go to the Baptist21 panel discussion and the room was full of young men. And if you can get young men to eat boxed lunches while listening to theological heavy weights (Piper, Mohler, Akin, Platt and Ezell) discuss the issues of the day, then there is something good happening there.

Perhaps I’m a little naive (I am an SBC rookie), but I have great hope for the future of our convention. I am excited about being Southern Baptist, because I’m excited about the gospel. I may not understand all the politics or entities. But from my perspective, the SBC is headed in the right direction and I’ll happily labor to ensure it arrives where fidelity to the gospel might take us.

~sdg

Hard Words For Dads

Doug Wilson writes:

But children need fathers to be fathers. They need fathers to draw a line, to set a boundary. They need limits. But they need these limits from a man who has established his wisdom in drawing them. The limits are not set for their own sake, but for the child’s sake. And they are not set all by themselves, but are balanced in the context of a gracious relationship — just as the numbers on checks should be balanced in the context of the numbers on deposit slips.

You can read the rest here.

Frankly, I’m a little scared of fatherhood. I’m still trying to figure out husband-hood. But, the more I think about it, the Gospel teaches me that I have a model to follow. For, my Father has done for me exactly what he calls me to do for my own (future) children. You’ll need to read the rest of article mentioned above for this to make sense, but God deposited more cash in my account than I could ever imagine. This is why He gets to write checks that are larger than I think I can handle. Like a kid. Or cancer. Or our very life. Because of what the Father did for us through the Son, there is nothing He cannot ask of us. There is nothing that He cannot ask us to endure. He’s drawing on an infinite deposit.

Now a human father’s relationship with his children is only “like” the one the Father has with us. So I think Doug is onto to something. Depositing into our children’s lives is the only way we write checks on their lives and not destroy our relationship with them. And writing checks on the deposits made is the only way to not destroy the child.

As Father’s Day approaches, I hope that we might do more to pray for fathers. Tis a narrow road with deep ditches on both sides that all fathers walk and we should all seek the grace of God on their behalf. May God help all men who seek to model Him in their homes.

~sdg

I Would Have Chosen Kanter

Kentucky Center Josh Harrellson celebrates after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes in the NCAA Tournament (Photo by Mark Cornelison, Herald-Leader)

I would have chosen Kanter. For those of you curiously unaware to what I am talking about, allow me to explain. Enes Kanter was going to propel my beloved Kentucky Wildcats to the Final Four. The Turkish big man was going to give the Cats an inside threat that few college teams could contain or match-up against. But he never set foot on the court. The NCAA deemed him permanently ineligible due to the fact that his family had received $33,000 from a professional team in Turkey. To the NCAA, Kanter was a professional. His amateurism had been compromised. When the news broke in the Bluegrass State, Final Four expectations were tempered. Everyone knew that our front-line was too thin. Frankly, we didn’t think much of our chances with Josh Harrellson as main weapon down low. Sure, we had other talented freshman, but our weakness was the man on the block. The one we affectionately call “Jorts“. We loved Josh, but we never expected him to do what we knew Kanter could have done for us. If it came down to me, choosing Kanter or Harrellson, I would have chosen Kanter. Because if you told me in November, that in the Sweet 16, our best chance for beating the best team in the tournament rested on the broad shoulders of Jorts, I would of said that we will not have a chance. I’m glad it didn’t come down to me. The story I would have wrote can’t compare to the story we are witnessing before our eyes.

In case you don’t care much for sports, a really big game was played last night. My beloved Wildcats sent the best team in the tournament packing. In probably one of the most exciting college basketball games I can remember watching, the Cats beat the Buckeyes 62-60. Number One is done. And although it was one of our star freshman, Brandon Knight, who hit the winning shot, it was because of Jorts that we won that game. He took on one of the best big men in the country and held his own. He also added 17 points and 10 rebounds. His performance will go down in Kentucky basketball lore. But the story hasn’t ended yet. There is still, at least, one more game to be played. There is more drama to unfold. I cannot wait for the game on Sunday night against the North Carolina Tar Heels.

As I was pondering the fact that I would not have chosen to write this story for the Wildcats, I could not help but think about another story that I would not have written. Right now, we are in the middle of Lent. Each day brings us closer to the grand celebration of the resurrection Jesus Christ. The Story that God has written in the Gospel is the very story that I would have never written for myself or the world. I never would have chosen for the Savior to be born in a rank stable. I never would have chosen 15 years of menial labor as a carpenter. I never would have chosen three years of itinerant teaching without a place for the Savior to call home. I never would have chosen to have him killed at the hands of evil men, appearing to be defeated. The story that we find in the Gospel is not the story that we would have written. No one would have written it in this way. Yet, how grateful are we that we didn’t get our way? What would have happened if we had written on our own story? Would it not have ended badly for us? Would we not have been given over to the lusts of our hearts, drowning in idolatry? Would not our own story ended in our destruction? The truth is, yes. If we have the power to write our own story, we will destroy ourselves.

From the very beginning, Man was meant to live in the story God was telling. Yet, God’s story never looks like the way we would do it. A Tree from which we cannot eat? “Did God say you would really die?” The moment our First Parents ate of the forbidden fruit is the moment Man has tried to write his own story. God’s story was rejected. We decided that we were god enough to write our own story. And when our stories were thwarted and disrupted, we questioned and grumbled. We rebelled. We aligned ourselves with the wilderness generation, with the prince of the power of the air. Praise be to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who has rescued us from this propensity to write our story, to define our own good. Thank God for the Gospel. The joy is deep, the hope, eternal. For it is a far superior story than I could have ever written for myself. Thank God it wasn’t up to me or up to you.

Even if the Cats fail to reach the Final Four, this will be one unforgettable season. It will be unforgettable for all the right reasons. It will be especially unforgettable for me, because it has given me a glimpse of the Gospel. It has proved to me, once again, that my own ideas about what is best are flat wrong 99% of the time (even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while :)). I would have chosen Kanter. And I would have missed out on one of the greatest stories in Kentucky basketball history. Go get ’em Jorts!

~sdg

 

Heaven is Real: Jesus Told Me So

There is a new book that has made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a book about a little boy who visits heaven, meets Jesus and returns to tell the story. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back is by Todd Burpo, the father of the little boy, Colton. Todd is a small-town pastor who appears to be anything but a glory hound. The down to earth humility of the Burpo family is what makes this story appealing. Yet, this book and books like it make me wary.

As I watched the video from the Today show (which is embedded below), I couldn’t help but fear this book will do more harm in the long run. I believe it will do more harm because the Bible gets displaced. This, now eleven year old, boy’s experience becomes the standard testimony on the reality of heaven. God’s testimony becomes lesser. It’s still there, mind you. No one will reject the testimony of Scripture regarding the reality of heaven. However, to displace God’s own testimony from the center, is to reject it. If we really believed what the Scriptures have to say, there would be no market for this book. For we have the definitive word on heaven from the definitive source.

Another reason I am wary of books like this one is that it reinforces an entitlement mentality for which we must repent. Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a pressing matter, one of grave significance in your little circle of influence, and it feels like your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling? In the time of your, perceived, greatest need, heaven is silent. Have you ever looked toward heaven and shouted, “Speak to me!!” Have you ever wished God would just send you an email or lay it all out for you? Now, no one would ever claim that God owes them personal communication. Yet, when we grumble and complain that God does not speak to us as we wish, we are projecting an entitled attitude.

The reality is, that God has spoken to us. The writer of Hebrews opens the book by stating, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1). God has spoken by the prophets, in many ways, at many times. We do not have one word, or several words to one prophet. Rather, we have many words to many prophets. Yet, He did not stop there. Verse 2 of Hebrews 1 goes further: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Jesus is the definitive word of God. Everything that God has purposed to say to us has been said. This truth serves as a correction to our longings for a personal word from God. It serves to humble us. It serves as an agent of death to all vestiges of entitlement. For it is by grace that any word has been spoken. The prophets of old did not deserve to hear and proclaim the word of God. It was a gift of grace that they bear His word to His people.

Did this little boy really go to heaven? Only God knows. If we find our hope and our encouragement for the reality of heaven in the stories of a little boy, rather than in the Grand Story of the revealed Word of God, there is something seriously wrong with our understanding of what we have in the Bible. If the Gospel is not hope enough, then word of a 4-yr old will do little in the long run to sustain our hope. Is heaven for real? I’ll bet my life on it, because Jesus told me so (John 14:1-4).

So if you’re inclined to read the book (or have read it), be careful. Be wary of stories that seek to displace our hope and trust in the Grand Story.

~sdg

 

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