Growing up in the church, I have heard a lot of people talk about how Christians need to be out in the world “witnessing”.  That’s one of those churchy words:  witnessing.  Usually, what that has meant is telling the world that they need Jesus.  Churches and publishing companies have developed whole programs and written numerous books teaching people how to “witness to others.”  Over time, I will admit, I found myself put off by most of these efforts.  They either seemed too judgmental or too scripted or too hateful.

Recently though, I have found myself wanting to reclaim the idea of being a witness. In reading through the New Testament as a church these last few months, I have come to realize that my problems with “witnessing” were with what the church for decades turned it into.  In Acts 2:32, Peter gives the truest meaning of what it means to be a witness:  “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”  At Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples were sharing what they had seen Jesus do, what they had heard Jesus say.

What I have come to realize is that, for far too long, our “witnessing” efforts as Christians had less to do with what we have seen God do and more to do with what we have seen man do.  We witnessed by calling people sinners, but we would hesitate to share how Christ had dealt with the sin in our own lives.  We witnessed by laying out points and steps but without talking about the relationship that we ourselves shared with our Heavenly Father.  In short, we made witnessing something we had to learn.  I didn’t have to learn how to talk about what my wife or my kids mean to me, the difference they have made in my life.  If someone wants to hear, I just tell them what is on my heart.  Shouldn’t witnessing be that:  sharing from our heart about Christ and His love based on what we have seen and heard?

Right now, at First Baptist Elon, we are offering a seminar called “What’s Your Story?  Equipping the Saints to Build & Share Your Testimony”.  As David and I have been talking and preparing, our heart has been to reclaim the Acts 2 basis for witnessing:  share what you have seen and heard, share what Christ has done for you.  My hope is that this will not be just another program to drill into people’s heads what to say.  Instead, my hope is that we will set people free to reflect on how Scripture and experience has revealed the presence of the living Christ in their lives and the difference that relationship makes.  I really believe that the better witnesses we are, the better we are able to proclaim the gospel message of salvation.


I never noticed until this week that the Bible ends where it began:  at a tree.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

The last time we saw the tree of life was when Adam and Eve were being ushered out of the Garden of Eden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-23).  Now, as Scripture’s narrative draws to a close, here once again is the tree of life.  No longer is it tucked away in a garden guarded by an angel.  Now, it is in the middle of the new Jerusalem, in the middle of the street it seems, its fruit and leaves available not only to a few people but to anyone and everyone who passes by.

As I consider this image, I think of how many times I think perfect happiness or perfect peace is just out of reach.  “If only I had a little more time”.  “If I only we made a little more money”.  “If only we had a little bigger house”.  “If only I can get through this week”.  It feels like the tree of life is on the other side of a fence that is just a little too tall to climb.

What I am struck by as I read Revelation is that perfect happiness and perfect peace is not found in more time, more money, bigger houses, or less stress.  It is only in the presence of the living Lord that truly perfect joy and truly perfect peace will be experienced.  And the day is coming when we will so freely be in God’s presence that we will be able to just reach out and pluck a juicy fruit of contentment or roll in the leaves of perfect healing.  In the meantime, maybe I need to focus more on getting more of the one who planted the tree of life in the first place.  He is the one who can put all of that other stuff into proper perspective.

Fighting the Good Fight

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7

“When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon – men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.” – Lord Charles Fox, the movie “Amazing Grace”

On Sunday, I’ll be talking about finishing the race.  For a moment, though, I want to reflect on fighting the good fight.

Notice Paul’s words:  he didn’t fight a fight or the fight, he fought the good fight.  And not only did he fight the good fight, he fought the good fight well.  He did not fight with stones or swords.  He had tried that once before, resulting in a literal come-to-Jesus moment where the Lord asked Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).  No, the only “weapon” that Paul used in his good fight was Christ, and Him crucified, a “weapon” that Paul readily admitted seemed to be foolish and ineffective choice (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Throughout time, Christian faith has been called weak and a crutch and other derogatory names that characterize our faith as a salve for weak losers.  In response, Christians have sometimes tried to “John Wayne” up our faith.  I’ve seen the strong guys rip up the phone books and heard the pastor proclaim he had his pistol with him in the pulpit.  Yet I am left to ask this question:  why is our greatest missionary a man who put down the weapons of the world and found power in a crucified Lord?  Why is that men like William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Christian men of peace, have brought about some of the most lasting change the world has ever seen?

There is a good fight to be fought.  It is fought not to prove we are right or they are wrong.  It is fought not to devastate or annihilate but to proclaim and convince, to rebuke and encourage.  (2 Timothy 4:2).  Most importantly, it is not fought with the weapons of mankind.  Instead, it is fought with one plain but powerful truth:  the crucified Jesus is the risen King of kings.  There is no greater power than that.


Resolution & Resolve

As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.  And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 5:41-42).

A resolution has been proposed in the N.C. legislature that would state that North Carolina, as a sovereign state, has the authority to declare for itself an official state religion.  According to news reports, the resolution has been proposed in response to various court cases and court rulings regarding the opening of government sessions with “sectarian” prayers.  The resolution states that the federal government and federal courts do not have the Constitutional power to regulate such matters at state and local levels.

I am not a Constitutional scholar or a legal expert, so I will not even attempt to deal with these issues.  However, it was interesting to read this resolution as well as the various news reports about it in this week when we are reading the stories about the early church and the joys and trials they experienced.

In the Acts 5 passage above, we see joy and trial brought together.   The apostles are arrested by the high priest and the Sadducees for preaching and teaching about Jesus, even though they have been ordered not to do so by the high priest.  The temple council is ready to kill them for their perceived disobedience and blasphemy, but one of the council members stands up and argues that if this movement is man-made it will fail.  However, he goes on, if the movement is from God, then any action of the council will not be able to stop it.  The council is supposedly convinced by his argument, but they can’t let the apostles go without first flogging them and ordering them to be silent (so much for keeping away from them and letting them alone!).

And how do the apostles respond?  Do they go running to the Romans complaining about unfair treatment?  Do they demand new laws or new elections?  Nope, they rejoice.  They rejoice that they were considered worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.  And then they go right on teaching and preaching.

It is interesting that so many Christians have become so enamored with responding to perceived persecution by turning to the powers of government to demand justice.  The early church saw governmental persecution not as a call to legislate but as a call to trust more in the commission of Christ than in the powers of the world.  When suffering and persecution came, they didn’t lawyer up, they rejoiced that they had the opportunity to suffer for Christ as Christ had suffered for them.

There will be other times and other opportunities to have conversations about the political and theological foundations of separation of church and state and of our Baptist heritage.  For today, though, maybe we need to be reminded as Christians that sometimes faith and politics are going to be at odds with one another – they have been from the beginning.  And when they are at odds, perhaps the question we should ask is not what legal action to take but whether the practice of our faith depends upon laws and resolutions.  If it does, then perhaps the problem is not with government but with our faith.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Gone Fishin’

When my brother and I were kids, our dad would take us out to a friend’s house to go fishing.  The house had once been a hunters’ club lodge and was set right next to a private lake.  We would get up early in the morning, fish for a few hours, swim in the lake in the afternoon, and then go back out fishing in the early evening.  Usually we caught something, and that something usually was our dinner.  They were called fishing trips, but really the trip was less about the fish and more about the hours in the boat with dad or sitting on the dock with mom or gathered around the grill with friends.  It was about relationship.

In Matthew 17, Jesus sends Peter on a fishing trip.  However, this is a rather unusual fishing trip.  Allow me to share what Matthew writes:

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  He said, “Yes, he does.”  And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon?  From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their children or from others?”  When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The first question that comes to my mind is what Peter was thinking as he walked home after running into the temple tax collectors.  He had defended Jesus in front of them, but where exactly was the income from which Jesus was to pay this tax?  I wonder if Peter was worrying and fretting about how this was to take place.

Jesus turns this into an interesting teaching moment.  He refuses to let Peter keep this problem to himself.  He asks him about it, in kind of an indirect way.  Do kings tax their own children?  Well, of course they don’t.  It is their subjects that pay taxes.  “Then the children are free.”

The temple was understood for centuries to be the house of God, the place where God’s throne rested.  Jesus in five words has explained why he doesn’t have to pay the temple tax:  he is the Son of the King, the Son of God.  Jesus uses tax law to explain his own divinity.  And who said taxes were a bad thing!

But the really cool part was what Jesus says next.  Jesus tells Peter to go fishing and to look in the mouth of the first fish he catches.  There he will find a gold coin that is to be used to pay the temple tax not only on Jesus’ behalf but on Peter’s as well.

Jesus didn’t have to pay the temple tax; it didn’t apply to him.  However, he was willing to pay the tax not only on his behalf but on behalf of Peter, who probably didn’t have the ability to pay it for himself.

Suddenly, Peter’s fishing trip is not about fishing or even taxes.  It is a parable of why Jesus came into our world:  he came to pay the price for sin that was not his for the sake of those who could not pay the price themselves.  And it’s about relationship.  Jesus didn’t want Peter to have to give up following him in order to go earn money to pay the tax.  He wanted to keep Peter close to his side.  That was why the gold coin was for both of them.  It was about relationship.

Christ paid a price that was not His to pay, and He paid it because we could not do so ourselves.  He paid it so that we could stay close by His side, so that we could have a relationship with Him.

In the movie A River Runs Through It, the narrator says of his upbringing, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”  The same appears to have been true of Jesus.  In my mind, I see Peter, standing by the sea, pulling out a hook and a coin from the mouth of a fish.  This was not a fish story, it was a salvation story.

The Time Has Come

“There’s smoke!”

These words, in most cases, would be words of caution and warning.  Yesterday, these words were words of celebration for the thousands gathered in Vatican City, awaiting the announcement of who the next pope would be.  Ever since the white smoke appeared and the cardinals announces Pope Francis I, the question that has been on so many lips has been, “So what can we expect from this new pope?”

Mark’s gospel begins with an announcement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).  You can consider this the “white smoke” moment of the gospels.  But there is a question that would chase Jesus throughout his ministry, the same question that is now pursuing Pope Francis I:  what can we expect?

Through word and deed, Jesus would answer this question.  We can expect God’s promises to be fulfilled.  We can expect sins to be forgiven.  We can expect Satan to be vanquished.  We can expect an end to sickness.  We can expect the dead to rise.

But we can also expect the unexpected.  Those who shout to the rooftops proclaiming how righteous they are may find themselves face to face with a Lord who is wondering who they are.  Those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first.  There will be crosses to take up, possessions to give up.  And what was that about “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life …”?

Perhaps the saddest words I read this week were in John 6:66:  “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  I imagine these folks were all excited to see the smoke, to hear that the time had come, but found themselves disappointed when the kingdom of God as revealed in Christ did not meet their expectations.  So many times, our spiritual journeys become sidetracked by disillusionment and discouragement when it seems that Christianity is less than what we hoped.  Jesus even told a parable about this reality (Mark 4:3-9).

If this is where you are in your journey, I want to invite you to consider this:  when so many turned and left Jesus, He looked at His disciples and asked, “Do you want to go away too?”  I love Peter’s response:  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).

There will be unexpected tests and struggles as part of our Christian journey.  But there will always be unexpected blessings.  The prodigal son is welcomed home.  The Samaritan is the hero of the story.  The one lost sheep is not left behind.  And even when the unexpected is unpleasant, our hope remains assured:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

Our faith is not a product of smoke and mirrors.  It is our response to the Messiah who has come calling for His children to turn to Him.  It is because of Him, because of His resurrection,  that we expect eternal life.  And so we follow on, joining Him in sharing with the world this good news:  “The time has come, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Your Identity is the Most Beautiful Thing There Is

The following article comes from “The Story” resource material.  It is entitled “Your Identity is the Most Beautiful Thing There Is”.  The author is unknown.

Imagine living your life with a false identity.  That’s what happened to Francisco Madariaga Quintela.[1] Just over 30 years ago his mother Sylvia was kidnapped by Argentine security forces.  Her husband Abel last saw his pregnant wife being pushed into a Ford Falcon by army officers dressed as civilians as she walked to catch a train on January 17, 1977.

Sylvia was placed in one of the most notorious torture centers near Buenos Aires—Campo del Mayo.  Surviving prisoners later revealed that the baby was taken away after birth and Sylvia disappeared in a short time.  The baby was taken by a military intelligence officer and adopted as Alejandro Ramiro Gallo.  The adoptive father was eventually put in prison for murder.  When he was older, Alejandro’s adoptive mother told him the truth about himself.

In the meantime his real father Abel had joined a group called The Grandmothers of the Plaza del Mayo—a group formed to help return children who had disappeared during the late ‘70’s to their parents.  One day Alejandro went to the group.  After DNA testing a match was found and a meeting with his father—Abel—was arranged.

Alejandro, after learning his real name was Francisco Madariaga Quintela, said, “For the first time, I know who I was. Who I am. . . . Never again will I use this name. . . . To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is.”

Maybe you need to know your identity today.  A strong sense of identity can take you through the toughest tests.  It did for Jesus.  Just after his baptism where his lineage was stamped with these words, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” Jesus endured tests in the wilderness.  Satan attacked his identity three times with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God . . .” Jesus knew who he was and he changed the world so that you can know who you are and have your world changed by your faith in him.

During a news conference where Abel Madariaga told his story, we are told “his chest heaved” as he presented his own son to the world.  Like a proud papa, God has presented his one and only Son to the world.  He wants you to believe in him so that he can, with “chest heaving full of joy,” present you as his child too.  When Satan attacks you can stand firm.  And when you need it most, you will feel his hug in a spectacular way and know that you are home.

“To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is.”

[1] Argentine stolen at birth, now 32, learns identity by MICHAEL WARREN, Associated Press Writer Michael Warren, Associated Press Writer – Tue Feb 23, 7:34 pm ET at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/lt_argentina_dirty_war_children

Joy to the World

OK, I know.  It is weird to be reading “the Christmas story” in March.  Wise men and shepherds and stars are for December right?  We come to associate these stories with one month of the year, often times ignoring them for the other 11 months.  Perhaps, though, there is a message in these stories that goes beyond Christmas.  It wouldn’t be the only sound of Christmas that was never intended just for the holiday.

In the early 18th century, a rabble-rousing English cleric by the name of Isaac Watts was reading Psalm 98 and found himself inspired by verses 4-9.

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth:  make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.  Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.  With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.  Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.  Let the floods clap their hands:  let the hills be joyful together before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth:  with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

Watts felt inspired by these verses, and he wrote out a poem he entitled “Joy to the World”.  He set the poem to music and included it in a hymnal he published.  However, the British church still had not widely accepted the use of hymns other than actual psalms in worship, so Watts’ hymn went unused.  In 1839, an organist by the name of Lowell Mason found Watts’ words and connected them with a tune that he had written himself, the tune that most of us now sing Watts’ words to every December.

Here’s the thing:  neither Watts nor Mason ever intended for “Joy to the World” to be a Christmas carol.  It was not inspired by the gospels but by a Psalm whose focus was not a day of birth but a day of judgement.  Yet, somehow, this song has come to be associated with Christmas, even though the lyrics themselves make no mention of the nativity story.

I have a peer who has a constant crusade going to get the Christian church to sing “Joy to the World” throughout the year, not just at Christmas.  His point:  we rejoice all through the year that the Lord has come, that He rules the world, that sin no longer has dominion.  Why shouldn’t we sing of our eternal joy all year long?

Maybe that is too drastic a step for you yet.  But maybe we can reflect on the fact that Luke 2 has a message for us beyond just Christmas day.  Christ has come to bring peace on earth and good will toward all mankind.  Christ has come to make our joy complete.  Something tells me that is a message that speaks as loudly on March 1 as it does December 25.

Play On

I have the pleasure of coaching a high school boys’ basketball team at our local YMCA.  Every Saturday afternoon during the winter months, these young men come out to compete and to have fun.  Sometimes, however, the first gets in the way of the second, especially when one of the guys feels like the referee missed a foul.  The arms spread out and they get that look of, “What are you, blind?”  Occasionally, those words are just thoughts in their heads but statements from their lips.  Most of the refs understand that these are competitive young men and will give them a warning.  It then becomes the job of us coaches to find a way to get through the frustration and anger with a simple but important message:  play on.

I think Malachi could have coached at the YMCA.  In Malachi 3, Malachi brings this message to the Jews:

You have spoken harsh words against me, says the Lord.  Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?”  You have said, “It is vain to serve God.  What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts?  Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.”

The people are feeling frustrated, wondering what good comes from being obedient when they see evildoers prospering.  I imagine their faces looked kind of like the faces of the guys on my team when they look at the refs and say, “How could you miss that?”

Malachi’s message to these people:  play on.

Then those who revered the LORD spoke with one another.  The LORD took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the LORD and thought on his name.  They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.  Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3:16-18)

It is frustrating to see sin rewarded and injustice go unpunished.  We want the ref’s whistle to blow immediately, for retribution to be instantaneous.  As long as it is someone’s sin and injustice and not our own, that is.

Malachi encouraged the Jewish people, and encourages us, to live with the whole game, the Upper Story, in mind.  In the short term, it may look like it is more beneficial, more rewarding, to choose unrighteousness over righteousness, to choose selfishness over selflessness.  As God’s people, we are called to play on, to keep living how we know our LORD has instructed and coached us to live; for, in the grand scope of eternity, God is taking note of our choices and actions.  He remembers, and He is even now preparing for that moment when He will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

We can choose to live every day guided by the desire to hear those words from God, or we can choose to live every day frustrated.  We can give in to the temptation of the short-term, to play by the world’s rules, or we can “play on” in the wisdom and knowledge that God’s righteousness ultimately wins the day.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.  They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The Social Network Gospel

Did you know that Twitter won the “Social Media Super Bowl”?

About 50% of the advertisements aired during the Super Bowl included a Twitter hash tag, outpacing other social media options like Facebook or Google+.

The world of social networking is a developing gold mine for companies and ad agencies.  Not only can social media tools provide a wealth of information that allows for targeted advertising to potential customers, it also provides an easy method for carrying out the best form of product advertisement:  personal testimonial.  If you like a product and share it with your “friends”, advertisers know that recommendation will be much more effective than any advertising campaign Madison Avenue could dream up.

Perhaps the church should be as intentional as television advertisers in reminding us of the influence we have.  Each of us has a “circle of influence” – people whose lives we interact with and impact to varying degrees.  At the center of that circle are our children, parents, and closest friends.  As we move out to the fringes of that circle, we find neighbors, co-workers, classmates, the mailman, the guy lifting weights next to us in the gym, and (yes) our Facebook friends and Twitter followers.  Just by being present to some degree in these people’s lives, we have the opportunity, through word and deed, to have on impact on them.  We can display patience, communicate love, practice forgiveness, model endurance, and share a word of hope and even, when the time is a right, our testimony of God’s presence and power.

Mordecai had to remind Esther, when the Jewish people faced extermination, that she was made queen “for such a time as this”.  She had an opportunity in this moment to act and speak to her circle of influence not for personal glory but to save lives and change hearts.  We sometimes think that only government leaders, preachers, and celebrities have an opportunity to make a difference.  But we don’t have to be a queen or king or missionary to influence others for the sake of Christ.  Before Facebook and Instagram, our God believed in the power of the social network, the influence we have on the people around us.

Who are the people in your circle of influence?  How can you share Christ and do justice and mercy at such a time as this in their lives?