The Power of WITH…

I don’t typically geek out over prepositions. Prepositions are a part of speech we use every day. Of…In…Over…Through…After… the list goes on and on. But after a conversation I had yesterday, it struck me just how powerful the preposition “with” can be.

“With” carries with it connotations of togetherness. “I am not completing this task alone. I am doing it WITH someone else.” There is comfort in the idea of togetherness, brotherhood, camaraderie. Certainly, there are times when we like to be alone or wish to accomplish a task on our own, but “with” means we don’t always have to!

The Bible echoes our need for “with.” If we go back to Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, we find God in His creating process. At the end of each creative day, we read, “…and it was good.” Everything God created was good. Then, in the Garden of Eden, God said of Adam, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Adam needed “with.”

In Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, we get another heavy dose of the importance of “with.” Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (ESV) Although the word “with” is not present, the idea of it fills those verses.

We also see Jesus investing Himself in the lives of His disciples. He did more than just show up and give lectures to them five days a week. He spent time with them, going through life, demonstrating His love and power, giving them responsibilities, correcting them, encouraging them, sharing meals with them, laughing and crying with them. In short, Jesus “did life” with them. Could we have a better example of “with”?

Let me encourage you to think about “with.” In your home, be with your spouse, your children, your parents. It’s easy to just zone out watching TV or get caught up in video games or the internet. Value “with.” Intentionally find ways to maximize with-ness in your family.

In your friendships, do the very same thing. Be “with” your friends. Treasure those friendships. Make time for togetherness. It’s may be easier to be a homebody, to spend endless hours streaming Netflix in your pajamas. Certainly, there are times we need to be alone – some more than others – but God created us for “with.”

The power of “with” in church is incredible. To invite someone to come “with” you to church is far more powerful than simply inviting them to church. To ask someone to come and serve “with” you in ministry is far more likely to engage them in service than to simply ask them to perform a ministry task alone. We see the practice of “with” in our small groups, in our fellowship time, in our mission trips, and in service projects in the community. “With” energizes and engages.

I’d be negligent if I did not also mention the power of “with” in our relationship with God. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus gave His disciples what we commonly call “the Great Commission.” Here it is – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

“I will be WITH you.” That is the promise of Jesus to every one of His followers. That should not surprise us. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is “with” us even in the valley of the shadow of death. Isaiah tells us that the Messiah who was to come (Jesus) would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), which the gospel of Matthew tells us means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

We need the presence of God with us. We need the presence of others in our lives. And we need to be present for and with others. They need us! The writer of Hebrews makes this clear – … let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV). There is great encouragement with “with,” and separation and discouragement without it.

This week, focus on the power and the blessing of WITH!

Living in Obscurity…

I’ve pastored four churches in my life. None of them have been megachurches. None of them have had a regular attendance of more than 250 in worship each week. I’ve mostly pastored in small towns. The exception to that was a church outside of Savannah, but it was in a smaller community. In other words, I’ve served the Lord in relative obscurity.

It’s true that I did write a book. I just checked. I’m ranked #528,851 on Amazon right now. Now, there are well over a million books in that ranking, so I’m probably in the top half, but my little book didn’t set the world on fire! By the way, it’s still available if you want to help push me up into the 400,000s!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not sending out invitations to my pity party. I’ve learned from the examples of countless others that fame and fortune can come at a very high price. I’m good. I’m reasonably content. And I do believe that God has allowed me to make a difference in every place He has put me. Actually, as I consider it, I’m downright giddy at what He has put in my life… most of the time.

There are, of course, those times when I ask, “Why not me?” Spending a few minutes in the glow of the spotlight can sound appealing from time to time. Maybe I should refrain from such a revealing confession, but the reality is that I (like all of you) have an ego that sometimes jumps up and down and screams for attention. So, when I was reading this morning from Lance Witt’s book “Replenish,” I was comforted by these words. If you ever feel like you live in obscurity, maybe they will speak to you, as well.

Obscurity can be a bitter pill to swallow…

We love to talk about great people of faith who changed their world. Hebrews 11 talks about such people. These great men and women of faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, became powerful in battle, routed foreign armies, and even raised the dead to life.

It would be great if the chapter ended there, leaving us inspired by the exponential potential of faith. But there’s a ninety-degree turn in the middle of verse 35, a subtle transition in the word “others.”

Their names are not listed. They will remain historically anonymous. These “others” were still great men and women of faith. In fact, “the world was not worthy of them.” But unlike those who experienced miracles and victory, these “others” were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, and put to death by the sword. They were destitute, often homeless, and they lived in obscurity.

Interestingly, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” None of them received what had been promised. Not yet. Not in this world. Not all of God’s promises had been fulfilled in this life.

But this life is not all there is. For them, their faith hadn’t delivered them from death; their faith caused their death. Their faith didn’t bring them fame; it brought danger. And following Jesus did not bring notoriety; it brought obscurity.

One of the spiritual health questions every ministry leader must answer is, “Am I willing to serve in obscurity?”

Lance Witt, Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul, pp. 87,88.

If you feel you’re living an obscure, unnoticed life? Then count yourself among the myriad of others both past and present whose devotion went unnoticed by all but God… But isn’t that what ultimately matters?

Lessons in Living from a Dying Man…

The following is the text of my message on Sunday, December 29, 2019. This is not a transcript. The link to the audio message is below.

https://www.buzzsprout.com/426/2376959-lessons-in-living-from-a-dying-man

MESSAGE PREACHED AT GRACE FELLOWSHIP ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 29

This afternoon, I have the honor of presiding over the memorial service for Harry Michael. Harry served in ministry for 45 of his 81 years. In that time, he made an impact on so many lives, but there were a few men into whom he poured his life and wisdom. As I consider Harry’s life, I thought about how Paul made a big impact on so many people but also spend time developing leaders who would step up to take his place.

Paul knew that his life had an expiration date. He had no delusion that he would somehow be spared the fate that comes to all of us. In fact, he knew that he was a marked man. His unyielding commitment to the gospel of Jesus had gotten him arrested and beaten time and again. He lived with an urgency…
– to share the gospel,
– to plant and grow churches, and
– to raise up a new generation who would carry on the task when he was gone.

For instance, let’s look together at a letter he wrote to Timothy – 

1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:
2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,
4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
(2 Timothy 4:1-8, ESV)

The charge that Paul gives Timothy is based on two things –
(1) The importance of the task
(2) The certainty of his departure

I want to spend most of my time focusing on Paul’s view of his departure, but let me take a minute or two to consider the importance of the charge Paul gives to Timothy:

– Paul charges Timothy with a charge to proclaim the word.
– The charge is carried out before the eyes of God. This isn’t a threat; it’s a promise.
– The charge is centered on God’s Word not human opinion.
– The charge is to be ready at all times to communicate God’s truth.
– The charge would require incredible patience. (example of William Carey who worked for 7 years in India before seeing his first convert to the Christian faith)
– The charge to preach God’s truth would not be accepted by everyone; in fact, it will be vehemently rejected.
– The charge would require perseverance in the face of incredible suffering.

Paul wrote these words to Timothy from prison in Rome. This was not Paul’s first arrest in Rome, but this time was different. During his first Roman imprisonment, Paul was under house arrest in a rented house, but when he wrote this second letter to Timothy he was chained up in a cold dungeon. His words reveal that he did not expect to be released. Paul’s life and ministry were coming to a close.

And he was right. Shortly after writing this letter, he was beheaded as a follower of Jesus. Let’s take a closer look at what he writes. Perhaps considering Paul’s approach to dying can help us learn better how to live.

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 

Paul understands that death is at hand.

Poured out as a drink offering – One of the offerings presented to the Lord by the Jewish people was to pour out a cup of wine at the altar. All the wine would be poured out. Paul said the pouring was already taking place. He knew the end was getting nearer.

Paul might also have a Roman custom in mind. At the end of a Roman dinner, a final cup of wine would be poured out as a sacrifice to the Roman gods. It signified the meal was done.

Either way, Paul is expressing his confidence that he didn’t have long left on this earth.

Time of departure is at hand – The Greek word for departure can mean to loose or unyoke an animal like an ox. The ox might plow all day, but at the end of the day the yoke would be taken from its neck, and it could rest. This may be the picture Paul had in mind as he considered the conclusion of his earthly life. His work was nearly done. It was time for rest.

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 

Paul expressed his confidence in a life well-lived for Christ.

Each of these expressions are tied to the Olympic style games that were played.

Fought the good fight – This has the meaning of competing or struggling with an adversary or compete for a prize. Paul says he gave it all he had.

Finished the race – Paul ran the course set out before him to completion. He didn’t quit along the way.

Kept the faith – Each athlete swore to compete by the rules, that they wouldn’t cheat or take short cuts. Paul had stayed true to his calling.

8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Paul was certain of what awaited him at life’s end for himself and all believers.

Paul was confident that a reward was waiting for him upon his exit from this life. He calls it the crown of righteousness.

Based on his alusion of athletic contests, the crown Paul likely had in mind was the laurel wreath given to the winner of a race – similar to the gold medals given today. The crown will be given by the Lord who is the righteous Judge. And notice – Paul did not say he’s getting the victor’s crown because he has been a better Christian than everybody else. This award is not only for him but for everyone who is looking forward to seeing Jesus face-to-face.

Other than information, what do we find here that we can apply to our lives?
– We are to live knowing that life is short. (Carley McCord, 30)
– We are to give our best effort as we live for Christ each day.
– We can live with confidence that Jesus waits for us at the finish line.

IMPORTANT REMINDER – We don’t gain the crown by our own efforts. The crown is won for us by Jesus. Even so, we are called to run the race with faithfulness, giving our all, knowing that Jesus waits for us to fall into His arms at the finish line.

As we come to the end of 2019, let us evaluate our lives.

Do we truly realize that this day could be our last?

Are we giving God our best each day or just coasting?

Do we have absolute confidence that we will be among those welcomed by Jesus at life’s finish line?

Don’t Do Satan’s Work for Him…

I have been tempted so often to completely do away with Facebook. The good of Facebook is that it allows me to keep up with people I might otherwise lose track of. It allows me to reacquaint myself with friends all the way back from high school. It reminds me of birthdays and anniversaries and special events. It enables me to share positive and encouraging words with people on the other side of the world. It is also a platform for sharing prayer requests, audio and video messages, and reminders with my church family.

But there is a darker side to Facebook. It is littered with scams, frauds, and fake news. People use platforms like Facebook to post things they would never say to another person’s face. All decorum and decency gets striped away in a rush to share a video, comment, or “news” story. Fact-checking, even though it may only take a moment or two, is virtually nonexistent. I had an English teacher back at Roanoke High whose exclamation when she was appalled at something we said or wrote was – “Oh, vomit!” I regularly feel like saying that when perusing Facebook.

What makes it worse is the quick-to-judge attitude that believers have toward other believers. You’d think that if a Christian read an accusation against a brother or sister, that follower of Jesus would slow down, consider the accusation, consider the source, do everything within his or her power to determine what is true, what is false, and what is murky, and be hesitant to throw that believer (or Christian organization) under the bus.

My brothers and sisters, I am grieved daily at how quickly some believers are to throw other believers under the bus! And it seems hordes of other believers are willing to take the word of a Facebook post and climb on the bus demanding it be run back and forth over that accused brother or sister until he or she is thoroughly humiliated and their influence is no more.

We are told that Satan is “the accuser of the brethren.” Well, he can rest easy knowing that we, the body of Christ, will gladly take that mantel upon ourselves. The father of lies needs not lift a finger, since our fingers run frantically up and down our keyboards to do his nefarious work for him.

So I’m stuck with this Frankenstein’s monster of a social media platform. Its good aspects are very good. Its bad side is very bad. Perhaps it is more of a metaphor for life in the 21st century than I’d like to think.

For the two dozen or so people who will read this (I am under no illusion about my online impact in the world), let me offer some biblical advice as we close 2019 and enter into 2020. The words come from the Apostle Paul. They were written to a local church in the city of Ephesus. The world was not better then than it is now… and in many ways was much worse. He wrote —

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Instead of our ready response of outrage and our gnawing need to share accusations without taking even a minute to try to verify the truthfulness of said accusations, perhaps we might choose a different course. Perhaps we might be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Perhaps our speech might be seasoned with grace. Perhaps our words might be marked by kindness and compassion rather than be dripping with snarkiness.

There are indeed times when we need to alert our brothers and sisters to wolves in sheep’s clothing, but there is no doubt that we are to speak the truth IN LOVE. Quite honestly, my Facebook feed is filled with far more unbridled outrage than Christlike love.

The End of the World


Image
I just read an article stating that some scientists believe there are rogue black holes in our galaxy. Really! Now we’ve got world-eating black holes drifting through space, and they just might slip up on us when we least expect it. It seems that every other day there is some new news story detailing how earth may be destroyed at any moment by being sucked into a black hole, pummeled by a massive asteroid, or irradiated by massive solar flares. If you are a person who is perpetually paranoid, things aren’t looking too good for you right now.

I tend not to panic over the latest and greatest would-be threats to our nation and world. Of course, news outlets generate a lot of attention by spending time on these dire threats. Add to that the myriad of movies showing the human race being devastated by super volcanoes, melting polar ice caps, and even a zombie apocalypse. Even the Weather Channel, that once benign purveyor of forecasts has such ominous shows such as “It Could Happen Tomorrow,” “Deadliest Space Weather,” and “Forecasting the End.”

I do know that this world will come to an end at some point, and it could be sooner rather than later. I don’t get this from CNN, my local movie theater or even the Weather Channel. I get this from the Bible, which is for me the ultimate source of truth.

As Jesus speaks of cataclysmic events that are to come, He makes it clear that this world will at some point come to an end. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

There are quite a few people preparing for various doomsday scenarios. There’s even a few TV shows on it. Although it is smart to be prepared for life’s emergencies, the preparation we need for the world’s end is not a well-stocked bomb shelter. We need a personal relationship with the One who will be with us until the end and beyond that into eternity. That One is Jesus. If you don’t know Him, then you are truly not prepared for the end of the world.

Self-imposed Exile

A self-imposed exile is a terribly lonely place filled with fragments of broken dreams, bits and pieces of promises unkept, and ominous shadows of betrayals done to you. You are not in that place because you were forced there. You are there by your choice. You have isolated yourself in an attempt to avoid the pain that inevitably comes from having relationships.

Is it better to seal yourself off, to make your world smaller in order to avoid potential pain? Is it better to keep people at arm’s length so that they will not say something insensitive or do something that wounds your heart? In this cave of woes into which you retreat, you will find anger, bitterness, and deeper regret. When you make our world smaller, you make yourself smaller. You may avoid added pain but you also limit greater joy. There is a reason exile was used as punishment; it hurts the one who is isolated.

No one has forced you into your self-imposed exile and no one is keeping you there but you. Emerge. Hear Jesus call to you as he did to Lazarus. Come forth! That cave is not where I intend you to be. I have a whole world for you. Yes, there will be triumphs and defeats, joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, but in the exile of your choosing there is only the false security that comes with isolation.

Using Jesus

Jesus is to be worshiped, honored, and followed. He is not to be used.

Every election cycle Jesus gets pulled out of the mothballs and brought forward as a political prop. Politicians, many of whom rarely darken the doors of church buildings, now spout a verse or two of Scripture (often out of context) and may even offer up a prayer every now and then. But politicians are the only ones who use Jesus to their own ends.

One of the earliest known confessions of faith was “Jesus is Lord.” Modern day believers use that phrase, too. We declare that Jesus is both Savior and Lord of our lives. By “Savior” we mean that He died for our sins on the cross and was resurrected giving us the hope of a new and eternal life in Him.

By “Lord” we mean that Jesus is the boss. We relinquish control of our lives to Him. He’s not our co-pilot; we give Him the driver’s seat! He sits on throne of our lives guiding our decisions and lighting our way.

We may not struggle with the concept of Jesus as Savior – He’s our “get out of hell free” card – but we do struggle with the idea of Jesus being in control of our lives. We kind of like the feeling of being in control ourselves, so often we will declare that “Jesus is Lord” but live as if, in truth, we are.

When we choose to claim the mantle of lord of our own lives, we will soon find ourselves in hot water, quick sand, or some other metaphorical but very real dilemma. It is then that we turn our faces heavenward and ask Jesus to bail us out, yet again. And often He does just that.
Truth be told, often Jesus becomes Lord only when it’s convenient for us. That is using Jesus!

But what if we quit using Jesus? What if we chose to declare Him Lord from the moment we woke up to the moment we dozed off? What if He were truly Lord of our time, our words, our thoughts, our finances, our diets, our everything? How would our lives change? How might the world be changed?
D. L. Moody said, “The world has yet to see what God can do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully and wholly consecrated to Him. I will try my utmost to be that man.” I pray they find out and soon.