Paul in Athens

Last week, my daily Bible reading took me through Acts 17 and the story of Paul in Athens. I’ve always loved and been really interested in his sermon at the Areopagus where Paul used their altar ‘To the Unknown God’ to reason with them about Christ. What I had never looked deeply into, though, was what went into Paul receiving the opportunity to speak at the Areopagus. 
Did you realize that Paul was alone in Athens? He had no helpers, there were no churches and no fellow believers. He must have been tired having traveled halfway around the Roman world on his second missionary journey. This would have been a good time for him to rest while he waited on Timothy and Silas to join him.
Consider also that he was not only tired and alone, but he was also literally surrounded by idols. One historian satirically wrote that in Athens it was easier to find a god than to find a man. Athens was filled with temples to the Greek deities. There was the Great Temple of Athena that housed a grand ivory and gold statue of the Goddess. She stood almost 38 feet tall and sat atop a pedestal that was 12 by 24 feet. The statue was built out of 2400lbs of gold. But that was not the only temple. There was also the Erechtheion which was dedicated to the worship of numerous gods. It also featured a large central statue and a porch on the south side that with goddess statues for columns.
I would have wanted to hide. “What difference could one believer make in a city full of pagans?” That’s a question I would have asked as would, I think, most modern day western believers. Not Paul, though, for verse 16 says that when Paul saw all the idols, “his spirit was provoked within him.” I imagine Paul getting that look in his eyes, that look that said: “something has to be done.”
Luke reported that the provocation of his spirit moved him to enter the synagogues and begin reasoning with the Jews. Athens did have a strong Jewish presence, and there was also a lot of what Luke calls “devout persons,” that is Greeks who had converted to Judaism. Paul went to them one by one and began to reason with them about how Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy.
Paul, not content to just speak with the Jews, also went into the Stoa. The Stoa were large colonnade walkways where the Philosophers met and exchanged ideas. He reasoned with the Epicureans and the Stoics, the two competing humanist Philosophies of the Roman empire. Both the Epicureans and the Stoics were seeking to become sages in their own right, the Epicurean by ridding themselves of desire and the Stoic by overcoming with dogged determination any challenge that came their way.
You can just imagine what these philosophers thought about Paul. Here they were trying to overcome the world by their own human faculties and become like the gods when Paul comes and tells them that living a good life is not about fulfilling a purpose that one defines on their own. It is about living out the purpose that the one true God has already defined for them. Then, imagine what they thought when he got around to speaking to them about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. It’s no wonder that in verse 18 he was labeled by the Epicureans and Stoics as a “babbler” and “preacher of foreign deities.”
It was in his debates with the Epicureans and Stoics that Paul got noticed by another group of interesting people. The Areopagites were a cult, a sort of secular monastery, who lived in Athens. They followed neither the Epicurean nor the Stoic school of Philosophy. Rather they were devoted to hearing and discovering new things and new ways of thinking. The place where they met was called the Areopagus, a rocky outcrop atop Mars Hill. It is from this place and to this group that Paul preached his first public sermon in Athens. 
What do we learn? When you are alone, tired, and in an evil place, the thing to do is to go and reason with people. Just go share what God has done in your life and the truth that you live by. God can do amazing things through one person if that one person is wholly submitted to Jesus. 


Unpacking the King’s Secret to Success and Failure

Last week, my daily Bible reading plan took me through the middle chapters of 2 Chronicles that gave the account of the first few Kings of Judah. A striking pattern emerged for the kings’ successes and failures, one that is threaded throughout Scripture. 
The secret is this—whenever the kings humbled themselves and sought the Lord they were victorious no matter how dire the circumstances. Conversely, whenever they relied on their own devices or other earthly means they were miserably defeated. In Chapter 12, for example, the army of Egypt with its 1,200 chariots and 60,000 horsemen came against Rehoboam. The prophet Shemaiah told him that the Lord had brought this siege against him because he had “abandoned the Lord.” The Chronicler reported in the very next verse that upon hearing this, the king and the princes humbled themselves. The result? “The word of the Lord came to Shemaiah: ‘They have humbled themselves. I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance, and my wrath shall not be poured out on Jerusalem…’”
The next chapter Chronicles the reign of Abijah, son of Jeroboam. Abijah was the first of the great reformer kings. He was particularly concerned with reforming Judah’s priesthood. When a conflict broke out with the northern kingdom of Israel, he stood on Mt. Zimariam with his army of 400,000 outnumbered two to one against Israel’s 800,000 mighty men and spoke the following words in a scene that could be right out of the movie Braveheart: “’ “And now you think to withstand the kingdom of the Lord in the hand of the sons of David, because you are a great multitude and have with you the golden calves that Jeroboam made you for gods… Behold, God is with us at our head, and his priests with their battle trumpets to sound the call to battle against you. O sons of Israel, do not fight against the Lord, the God of your fathers, for you cannot succeed.’” The result? The priests sounded the trumpets, and when the dust cleared, Abijah had wiped out 500,000 of Israel’s mighty men. 
Perhaps the greatest illustration of the King’s secret to success and failure comes in the life of the next King of Judah, King Asa. King Asa experienced both victory and defeat based on whether or not he was relying upon the Lord. His defeat of the Ethiopians made his father Abijah’s victory look like an exhibition match. With a 580,000 man army, he defeated a force as large as the entire U.S. active military. His success against the Ethiopians was attributed to this prayer that the Lord answered: “’O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.’”
Asa did something incredibly dumb, though, late in his reign. Instead of seeking the Lord when Israel came against him, he made an alliance with the king of Syria. This alliance granted him victory in the short run and much bloodshed was avoided. In the long run, though, this would lead to his condemnation. The prophet Hanani delivered the verdict in hopes Asa would turn and seek the Lord saying, “’Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you… For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” Asa refused to repent and as a result, would spend his last years in misery and die a horrible death. 
So what do we learn from these stories? In short, reliance on the Lord pleases Him and leads to glorious victory. Reliance on anything or anyone other than the Lord leads to defeat and misery. It is not the circumstances that matter. What matters is who or what you are trusting in as you face those circumstances. When the glory of the Lord is the victory you seek and the means by which you seek it, then you are guaranteed success. You can do all things through Christ, and only through Christ, who strengthens you. 


The Origins of Valentine’s Day Craziness

Okay, so my title sounds a bit more cynical than I actually am about Valentine’s Day. The word “craziness” is the only word I could think of to describe what this week was like as I was growing up in the ’90s. In elementary school, we would take a piece of construction paper, fold it in half, staple the sides to make a folder, and tape it to our desks. Our parents would be instructed to go out and buy little Valentine’s cards, enough for each kind in the class to be distributed into our makeshift mailboxes at the Valentine’s party. Sometimes the cards would have built-in slots allowing for a sucker stick to be threaded into the gift. On the day of the party, all the little boys and girls would study each card hoping to find that they had a secret admirer among them in class.


In junior high and high school is when the Valentine’s craziness reached a fever pitch. It was a sweet time for those who had boyfriends and girlfriends and a miserable time for those who had not matched up with a suiter. During those years, Valentine’s Day was a bonanza for the local flower and gift shops, because the teenagers were in a contest to see who would get the biggest, gaudiest balloon bouquet, stuffed animal, or gift basket. One by one, each lucky boy or girl would be called to the office during the last period of the day to receive their gift. Some “single” kid’s moms would feel sorry for them and have a gift delivered to school which only added to their embarrassment when they had to tell their friends and peers that their oversized gift was from mom. By the late ’90s most school administrations had wisely outlawed this craziness.


I would be remiss to say that Valentine’s craziness does not continue to plague adults as well. It is still a bonanza for gift shops and restaurants, but it is at least a little more fun when you are happily engaged or married. It’s an excuse to show extra love and appreciation for your mate. Some years I like to take my teenage daughter on a date to treat her on Valentine’s Day.


So where did this craziness begin? There was a 3rd- century Roman priest named Valentine. Valentine was a common name during the period, so it is unclear which Valentine is the one the holiday is based on. The legend is that the St. Valentine, whom the Catholic feast is named after, was martyred in Rome under Claudius II. Claudius had outlawed marriage because he found that single men made for better warriors. Valentine, a Catholic priest, defied this law and performed marriage ceremonies for young lovers. He also provided aid to the persecuted church in Rome.


So how did the practice of giving Valentine’s cards originate? It is reported that St. Valentine restored the sight of the young daughter of one of his Roman jailers. Just before his execution, by beheading, he sent her a note that was signed “your Valentine.”


Another, probably true, legend is that after the rise of Christianity in the Roman empire, the Feast of Valentine was instituted to overpower the annual Pagan holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a February 14th holiday that included the sacrifice of a goat and a dog by a Roman priest. The skin of the goat was cut into strips and dipped in the sacrificial blood. Mostly naked men would walk the streets gently slapping the young women on the thigh with the bloody skins to supposedly increase fertility and ease the pain of childbirth. They would also slap the skins on their fields to supposedly increase their harvest. At the end of the evening, the women would write their names on tablets, place them in a big cauldron to be drawn by the men of the town. The resulting couples would be matched up until next year’s ceremony. Talk about craziness!


Now that you know the origins of the craziness, I encourage you to not be cynical about Valentine’s Day. Romantic love, when expressed within the boudaries that God laid out, unites lovers and is a gift from God. This love should be enthusiastically celebrated. If the Lord has blessed you with a mate whom you love and enjoy spending time with, be sure to let you know how thankful you are for them and do so in a special way.


A Snapshot of Wiggins, MS aka Our Jerusalem

Our cooperation with other churches in the Gulf Coast Baptist Association carries many benefits. Among these are access to minds of some of the greatest mission strategists in the Mississippi Baptist Convention, Dionne Williams, Dr. Steve Mooneyham and their assistants Grayson Orman and Robin Knapp. These individuals are employed through the cooperation of local churches and work to ensure that FBC and our sister churches are supported in their efforts to reach the world for Christ. 
One of the assets available to us through this partnership is a powerful demographic study tool known as Nsite. Nsite is a web-based program that uses GIS data, along with data from the US Census Bureau, as well as data from the credit monitoring entity Experian to generate reports on the demographics and economics of a defined area.
Two weeks ago, your ministerial staff asked Grason Orman of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association to generate a full Nsite report for the city of Wiggins.    He used an official city map to define the area of the study. The ministerial staff of FBC Wiggins spent a couple of weeks analyzing the wealth of raw data generated in the Nsite report. I want to share with you a summarized and boiled down version of what we took away. I hope this will give you some direction as you pray over our 2019 Reaching to Disciple focus.    I’ve summarized the data in three categories. First, I’ll give you a snapshot of what the population looks like currently along with projections for the future. Then I’ll do the same with households. And finally, I will give you a look at the mosaics (or you could say “people groups”) who occupy our Jerusalem. Download Full Nsite Report
Current Population: The current population of Wiggins is 4,486 people. We are classified as a moderately diverse, somewhat blue collar, and somewhat above poverty line community. About 45% of the population is 35 yrs-old and below. The majority of the population is either White non-Hispanic (67%) or African American non-Hispanic (30%) with Latinos, Pacific Islanders, and Asians making up the remainder of the diversity along with a handful each of Cubans and Filipinos. 
Trends: The population of Wiggins has not grown much since 2010, but the Nsite data predicts that growth over the next 10 years will will be at twice the state average. The greatest growth is projected to occur in the African American demographic as well as among 25-34 year-olds. The second highest rate of growth is projected to occur in 55-64 year-olds. The data seem to suggest that we will have more of our current middle and high schoolers sticking around along with their currently middle-aged parents. We also expect more young and middle-aged people moving into our community to work in Wiggins, Hattiesburg, and the Gulf Coast. (It’s worth noting that the generation that includes our middle and high school students [GENZ or iGEN] is the largest generation in the nation.) Finally, the number of children in the city limits will stay about the same for the next five years with the youngest and the oldest school age children slightly increasing and the middle grades slightly decreasing. 


Current Households: There are 1,498 households in the city limits of Wiggins. Nsite defines a household as, “all people who occupy a housing unit. It includes two sub-categories: family households and non-family households.” Your family households are what they sound like, and the non-family households are either single people or single people who share living quarters. Of the 1,498 households in Wiggins, 1,087 of them are family households. About half of the households make around $50k per year and above the other half make less. The majority of households are made up of 3 or less people. Here’s one statistic that was a surprise for the staff, 52% of the homes where children are present are managed by a single parent. (Allow that one to sink in before reading on)
Trends: The number of households in the city limits of Wiggins is projected to grow to 1,654 by 2028. That works out to a rate more than twice the state average. The median household income is projected to grow by just over $4k over the next ten years. And sadly, the number of single parent homes is projected to grow to 55%.


Nsite has a really neat feature that utilizes Experian’s “Mosaic Segments” in its reports. Mosaic segments are a way of grouping the population into categories to develop a profile of the types of people who live in the community. There is WAY more information than I can even digest, much less include in its entirety in this post. I will take a shot at giving you a more detailed summary of the mosaic segments in the city limits in a later post, but for this one… let me just give you a snapshot. Keep in mind that the mosaics are generated through Experian so most of it is based on spending habits of the population. 


The majority of Wigginites are classified in the category of Pastoral Pride. This mosaic is defined as an “eclectic mix of lower middle-class consumers who have settled in country and small town areas.” They are described as proud, and frugal minded with a working class sensibility. Their heads of households range from age 19 to 50. They are technological wizards, and the recommended marketing campaigns to reach them are through internet and social media. 

The next category of Wiggins resident is dubbed Golden Year Guardians. Who are they? Experian says, they are “Retirees living in old homes, settled residences and communities.” That tells you a great deal. Our Golden Year Guardians are reached most effectively though direct mail and door to door visits. 

The final mosaic I’ll share with you for the purpose of this summary is the next most prominent, the one labeled Economic Challenges. If the name doesn’t tell you all you need to know, then Experian’s definition will: “Economically challenged mix of singles, divorced and widowed adults in smaller cities looking to make ends meet.” Those in this group, it says, are most effectively reached through direct mail and door to door campaigns, as well as through internet and social media. 

  Other mosaic groups that are present in our city include- Families in Motion, Autumn Years, Blue Sky Boomers, Thriving Boomers, and Singles and Starters to name a few.   I’m still learning to read about these mosaic groups so I want to hold off before providing you with too many more details.    As we continue to pray and study, I’ll share more with you.  Download Full Nsite Report



Victorious Warriors Win First

The 6th century B.C. Chinese general named Sun Tzu famously wrote, “Victorious warriors win first, while defeated warriors go to war and then try to win.” What Tzu meant was that the decisive moments of the battle are fought before it even begins. Victory requires preparation. It requires winning the battle within yourself, defeating your fears, finding your courage, and making a battle plan.
As Christians, we are called to be “good soldiers of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Many believe that we are to be soldiers of defense only. This is an erroneous assumption for Jesus said of the church, “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). That is, we are to armor up, storm the gates of hell, overwhelm Satan’s defenses, march in, and deliver the perishing from an eternity of torment.
Such conquests, as Tzu pointed out, albeit in a different context, requires preparation. An offense against the powerful forces of the darkness will not be won on the spiritual battlefield. It will be won in our hearts long before we ever build the siege works against the gates of hell. To enter the battlefield unprepared is the sure path to defeat no matter how determined we are to win. The enemy is much too smart and powerful and will surely turn back an under-prepared force.
Step 1 in preparing to go to battle is to decide in your heart what kind of soldier you want to be. A good soldier believes in his or her cause. A good soldier goes to war ready to suffer having already died to themselves and accepted the possibility that they could become a casualty. A good soldier has determined that suffering is a worthy price to pay. A victorious soldier is one who has already won before he ever steps on the battlefield.
Step 2 is to recognize which unit you are called to serve. A rogue soldier bent on being a lone ranger is one that is already defeated. All believers are members of one another. Our strength is in our unity. Whatever the cause you feel called to fight, you can be sure that you have brothers and sisters who are called as well. They are your battle buddies. You need to identify who they are, join them, and begin sharing what the Lord has placed on your heart.
Step 3 is to gather with your unit and pray. Think of this as a meeting with your commander. Anytime a group of believers gathers together and says to the Lord, “Here we are. Send us,” they receive marching orders. Keep praying until you can be confident that the calling of God is clear and that He will go before you.
Step 4 is to train. As Christians we are trained by the Holy Spirit speaking through the word of God. 2 Timothy 3:16&17 tells us that the “God-breathed” Scriptures are “profitable… for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Drink His word in deeply. Study. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 and like the disciples of the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, sometimes it helps to have a skilled and gifted teacher tell you what you are reading, so take advantage of good sermons, books, podcasts, blogs, and commentaries. Stick with the training until you are complete and equipped for the good work to which He has called you.
Step 5 is to march. Once you have found your courage by determining who you are and who your unit is, once you have received your marching orders and the training you need, it’s time to put feet to your faith. Whether He has called you to reach the lost in your city or called you to go to the ends of the earth to a people with no gospel witness, you are ready to go out with confidence. Take heart. The battle is already won in your heart. Jesus has already overcome your enemy. He goes before you. He fights your foes. Go and claim the victory in His name and for His glory.
I’m sure there are other steps in between these 5, and I do not mean to imply that these are 5 “easy” steps. The point is that we are called to go to war. If we desire to be victorious warriors, we must win first and then go to war.


The New York State Reproductive Health Act: What has changed and what has stayed the same.

This week, on the anniversary of the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision, the New York legislature passed sweeping legislation amending the state’s policy on abortion as well as criminal law as it pertains to the unborn. The passage of this law titled The Reproductive Health Act has sparked outrage in all who, along with the God of the Scriptures, holds the sanctity of all human life from conception to the grave. The pro-choice community, on the other hand, tout this new law as a step in the direction of bringing the state law into alignment with the federal law concerning abortion.


As a local church pastor, who loves his people and who is called to be a shepherd, I felt it necessary to do more than just repost or comment on what other people in the pro-life Christian community have said. These days it is difficult to trust what you read online from both the right and the left side of the aisle. The local church should be able, though, to trust their pastor’s guidance on these polemic issues. It is for this reason that I took the time to read the law and do my best to understand what it changes and what it doesn’t.


A disclaimer: I am not a lawyer so I reserve the right to be wrong. I have, though, spent hours studying the text of the Reproductive Health Act. I have also studied the descriptions, reactions, and justifications of both the supporters and the detractors of the new law and done my level best to read between the lines, sort through what the arguments actually are, and discern the relevant fallacies and legitimacies of supporter and detractor alike.  


Before I get into what has changed in New York since yesterday, let me explain one thing that has not changed. The Reproductive Health Act does not permit an unrestricted elective abortion after 24 week’s conception. Many people are saying that The Reproductive Health Act allows for elective abortions right up to the point of birth, but that is not true as that would be a violation of the Roe V. Wade decision that says that abortion is not allowed after 24 week’s conception. If it were the case that the law allowed abortions up to the moment of birth, the law would never have been passed through the state legislature and even if it had, would have been ruled unconstitutional with the slightest legal challenge. 




Here are the criteria that must be met in order for a woman to have an abortion today in the State of New York:


1.  She must be less than 24 weeks along in her pregnancy.


2.  The baby will not be able to survive outside the womb.


3.  The abortion is necessary to protect the life of the woman.


4.  The abortion is necessary to protect the health of the woman.


Criteria 1-3 were New York law before yesterday. The change is contained in the 4thcriterion. Now a woman can have an abortion, not just if her life is in danger but also if her “health” is threatened. Here is where it gets sticky. If having a baby threatens the mental, emotional, or psychological health of a potential mother, does that count? Could this be an opening of Pandora’s box, so-to-speak?


The answer is yes. However, the Reproductive Health Act does not open the box. Rather, the box was opened with the Supreme Court decision in Roe V. Wade. The court’s decision explicitly states that  a late term abortion (after 24 week’s pregnancy) is permissible if “the health” of the mother is in danger. Please hear me out. I am not saying I agree in any way whatsoever with the policy. I am only pointing out that the New York legislators are not adding to anything that is not already on the books concerning clinical abortion. 


It is an outrage that the murder of an unborn human being made in the image of God is permissible at any point between conception and natural death. But this culture of death was not born yesterday by the passage of one law in the state of New York. It began in 1973 with a decision of the Supreme Court. It will end only with a decision of the current Supreme Court. The current makeup of the Supreme Court is a threat to those who desire to keep the status-quo, and that is precisely why the Democratically controlled New York legislature passed this law. It was in anticipation of a change in the Federal Law. 


Here’s something that the law did change concerning abortions. According to the Reproductive Health Act, who judges whether the criteria for abortion are met? The law now says the judgment is to be made by a licensed, certified, or authorized healthcare practitioner working within the scope of his or her practice. Under this language, any health care practitioner, even a licensed nurse or midwife, who receives training in performing abortions can make the judgment whether an abortion is “justifiable” and can then perform the abortion. This was not the case before the passage of this law as only specialized licensed physicians were permitted to sign off on or perform an abortion. 


The largest change that the Reproductive Health Act makes to state laws is concerning “personhood” and the penal code. This is the one line of text that sent shivers down my spine and brought tears to my eyes when I read it: 


“The following [definitions are] DEFINITION IS applicable to this article: [1.] ‘Person,’ when referring to the victim of a homicide, means a human being who has been born and is alive.”


Even though the law maintains (sort of) the protection of life for an unborn baby after 24 weeks, the baby is stripped of its personhood. According to the balance of the text in the Reproductive Health Act, the “fetus” has essentially no rights whatsoever under the law. It is not even considered a human being until born alive. 


Last week, before the passage of this law, if a 38-week woman pregnant was murdered so that she and her baby died, the perpetrator would have been charged with not one but two counts of homicide. Today, he’d only be charged with one, because the “fetus’” life wouldn’t count. Last week if a 39-week pregnant woman was punched in the stomach so that her unborn baby was harmed, the perpetrator would have been charged with two counts of assault, one against the woman and one against the baby. All those protections are gone today for unborn New Yorkers. 


This is a travesty. It will almost certainly be challenged in the courts, because it goes beyond (in my opinion and I hope also in the courts’) the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe V. Wade that protects the life of the unborn after 24 weeks. This is a new challenge and the church in America should join together in prayer that this language gets overturned. 


In case you find my tone cold or dispassionate up to this point. There are a few more things I want you to hear me say. First, thank you for reading this far. Second, as painful as it is to read (and write) a cold treatment of the hard facts, it is what is needed to guide people in how to pray for our country and to bring an end to the culture of death. 


Third, human life is the most precious thing on earth. It is the most precious thing to the heart of God. His glory is wrapped up in His love for all persons. There is not a drop of human blood spilled that goes unnoticed or unpunished by our Creator. Don’t make the mistake of believing that because we are the greatest and richest country on the planet, God will treat us any differently from all the other pagan nations before us whom he judged and brought down for much lesser offenses than we are committing on a daily basis.


Governments are given authority by God to be His arm and to uphold morality as defined in His law. All through the Bibl,e we see that when a government ceases to uphold His rule, fails to protect the innocent, and neglects widows and orphans, He first brings chaos as a warning, and then in the absence of repentanc,e He brings the destruction of that nation along with her culture.


Roe V. Wade is a threat, not just to the unborn; it is a threat to our great nation. Many men and women have laid down their lives to ensure the freedom of all people. Let’s pray for those hard won freedoms to be preserved for those who still have them, and granted to those are not afforded them under our current human government.




God Loves You

I thought the world could use some good news today. Here is the good news- God loves you. If you will come to Him in humility, then He will accept you. In fact, He has already accepted you. All you need to do today is trust in the love with which He has already loved you.
You may not realize that God loves you, but it is evident if you read your Bible. “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” is not just a sweet little song for children to sing. It is a truth that the whole world needs to hear.
Long before you were ever born, you were created in the image of God. He formed your ancestors out of the dust of the earth. He breathed the breath of life into their nostrils. If you will think deeply about this, then you will understand that when He created Adam and Eve, with their individual DNA, He was creating all the human beings who would ever walk the earth.
In love, He blessed them and instructed them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. This set the human race apart from all other creatures on the planet. He planted a beautiful garden and placed them in it for their enjoyment. He gave them all they needed in the way of food and resources to thrive and be blessed.
He was merciful to them even when they sinned against Him and earned death for themselves. He forgave them. Rather than destroy them, He prolonged their days and promised to send a Savior who would make right the wrongs that they had done.
Throughout the metanarrative of the Bible, God reaffirms His love for you and the whole human race over and over. When He saved Noah in the flood, when He blessed Noah and his whole family upon debarking the ark, when He called Abraham and promised to make him a light to all nations, when He renewed His promise to Isaac and Jacob and Jacob sons, when He rescued His people from slavery, when He established them as a nation, and when He made the promise to David to send a son (a Son of God) who would establish an everlasting kingdom, He continually reaffirmed His love for all people of every nation.
Then, in the most magnificent demonstration of His love, He sent the only true son He ever had to come and live and die for the sins of all who would believe. He raised Jesus from the dead, and crowned Him King of kings forever so that all who would believe and trust in His love could experience the outworking of His love in their lives for all eternity.
From this survey of the Scriptures, I hope you are beginning to understand that you are already loved by God. His love is not something that you must earn or be deserving of. The God of all heaven and earth has already deemed you worthy of love. You are not worthy of love because of anything you have done for Him. You are worthy of His love because He has declared it so by His grace.
That He loves you already cannot be overstated. Eons before you were ever born, before you were ever self-aware before you could ever bow your head in prayer, be baptized, or give an offering, you were loved. You do not have to do anything or be anything to be accepted by Him, because He has already accepted you as someone that He loves.
While there is no way to earn His love, there is one way that you can be precluded from experiencing the benefits of His love in your life. You cannot experience His love if you reject that He loves you. If you believe that anything you have done or could ever do will move His heart to love, that constitutes a rejection and a cheapening of His love.

His love is offered freely. It must be freely received or not at all. This is where your faith comes in. You must have faith to believe that you are saved by all He has done for you and not by any merit of your own. You must have the humility to reject any notion that you have it together and seek to allow His love to permeate and transform every aspect of your life.


Talent is Overrated

So you want to serve the Lord, but you don’t play an instrument and you don’t sing. You don’t feel as though you are especially talented at anything. You wonder what is your purpose in the kingdom and whether or not you have a purpose at all. I submit to you that serving the Lord is not about being especially talented, rather it is about how you invest the gift that has been granted to you by the Master.
Let’s take a look at the parable of the talents that Jesus told in Matthew 25:14-30. It is the story of a lord who left his place to go on a long journey. As a shrewd businessman, he did not want his money lying idle while he was away, so before leaving, he divided up eight talents among three servants with the idea that they would carry on business in his absence. To one servant he gave five talents, to another, he gave two, and to another, he gave one. The first two servants invested and doubled the money that the master gave them. The third was afraid of failure and decided to hide the one talent he was given for safe keeping.
When the master returned, he called for an accounting of the servant’s talents. The first two were rewarded for their service to the master and were granted the esteemed title of “Good and Faithful Servant.” The third was harshly chastised and rebuked for his lack of passion for the master’s business. His one talent was taken away and given to the first servant, and then he was cast into the darkness as a judgment for his lack of enterprise. 
The difference between the first two servants was not in the amount of talent they started with. Verse 15 says that each servant was granted talents, “according to their ability.” This means that even though they were granted different amounts of talent, the master’s expectations of each servant was equal. The difference was not the amount with which they started, but the passion with which they went about the master’s business. 
Jesus told this parable to teach His followers about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the Lord who would leave this world to go on a long journey. His plan was to grant His servants certain gifts, to each according to their own ability, so that while away on His journey, they could invest in and grow His kingdom. Upon His return, He would call for an accounting of how His servants invested the gifts (talents) they had been given. Each would be judged, not according to the gifts with which they started, but according to the passion with which they went about the Master’s business. 
For you and me, this parable is both an encouragement and a warning. The encouragement is that while we might not feel especially gifted, there is always room to grow. The first two servants doubled their talents. All it took was a little passion and investment. The third servant, even though he was not especially talented, had the potential to do the same had he not been crippled with fear. 
Jesus told this story that His followers would know that when He ascended to the Father, He did not leave them empty-handed. He has given you something… some talent. He might not have given you five talents, but you at least have one. Whatever it is, however small or insignificant it is, the gift is yours and you have the potential to at least double the amount of talent that was originally invested in you. All you need is a little passion and grit. If you will make the investment, then you too will hear the words, “well done good and faithful servant.”
The warning of the parable is that if you are crippled by fear or if you refuse to passionately invest the gift that has been given you, then you run the risk of being judged a “wicked servant.” Not serving the Master with your gifts reveals that you don’t really know the Master. It reveals that you do not believe that He will return, nor that you will have to give an account. 
If you do not feel especially talented, make sure your feelings are not rooted in the fear of failure. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you have been given a gift. Make sure you invest it for His glory.


Resolve to Grow in 2019

As 2018 now comes to a close and we begin looking forward to 2019, it is time to take stock of where you are and set some goals for this next lap around the sun. No matter where you are, intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially, now, you have the potential to advance. I want to encourage you t make a resolution to grow in at least one of these areas in 2019. 
Even Jesus experienced growth over His life. Luke 2:52 says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” What, you thought He came here with wisdom and stature and favor with God and man? No, Jesus was fully human in addition to being fully divine. He had the full experience of the human life. He became who He was because He followed His Father’s leadership and the outcome He experienced was growth in every area of His life.
If you are a human being, then you know that you cannot grow unless you set goals. Even Jesus had to set goals. How do you think He was able to increase in wisdom? I’ll tell you… He studied God’s word. He committed scripture to memory. He sought wisdom to understand the times in which He lived. This served Him well during the most difficult and trying times of His life on earth. 
Your wilderness is coming. Are you ready for it? Could you stand to grow in wisdom? Most of us could. What will you do to grow in wisdom in 2019? Will you watch the same mind-numbing television programs, read the same books, magazines, and blogs? Or will you spend more time in God’s word, read more Christ-centered (or at least educational) material, watch programs and visit websites that will cause you to grow in wisdom and prepare for life’s challenges?
How do you think that Jesus was able to increase in “stature?” By the way, this Greek word can also be translated “age” or “lifespan.” Jesus did not count equality with God as a reason to sit around lazily age. He was physically active and healthy. He took care of His body. Someone (with a lot more time than me) calculated, based on His travels in the book of Mark, that Jesus could walk a 14-minute mile. I don’t know if you have ever tried to walk a 14-min mile, but I have and I can tell you that it is difficult especially over the kind of distances that He traveled (20 to sometimes 50 miles).
How about you? What are you doing now to take care of the body that has been graciously given you? In what ways can you grow? In what ways can you improve your lifespan (stature)? One might say, “Well, I can’t really do much. I mean when it’s my time, then it’s my time.” Maybe, but what about the time that He does give you? Will the way you are currently eating and exercising improve your physical ability to serve Him if He gives you another 20 years, or will it diminish your physical availability to the Lord?
Jesus also grew spiritual (favor with God) and socially (favor with man). In addition to spending time in the word, He spent time in prayer. He sought the Father’s will for His life. He had a top-level goal of bringing honor and glory to the Father. Because of this, He built and maintained relationships with actual people. He taught. He encouraged. He admonished. He fellowshipped. His spiritual growth gave way to social growth which made Him able to accomplish the task that the Father laid out for Him.
What about you? How is your prayer life? Could it stand to grow? Have you made it your top-level spiritual goal to bring honor and glory to God? Are you living like you have a purpose to fulfill on this earth?
What about your social wellbeing? What is the condition of your closest relationships? Do you have a ministry? Are you serving others in some way? Could you stand to grow in your availability to be there or others?
I hope you will set some goals for growth in 2019. Maybe it is overwhelming to try to grow in every aspect of your life. Just pick one area. Set a specific measurable goal. Write it down, and get after it in the strength He supplies.


A Christmas Truce

Last week I listened to an Audible original book entitled Christmas Eve 1914. It documents the story of a day-long ceasefire between English B Company and German enemies along one section of the frontline in World War I. It was a most moving story, one that made me long for a day when warring parties could cease their squabbling at least for a short time in celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. 
Here is a summary of the story: In late 1914, B Company was brought in to relieve their comrades along one section of the Belgian trench. Most of these replacements were veterans coming off of R&R, but one named Beecher was a young green officer on his very first tour. 
Beecher was a scared teenage boy. In an effort to connect with his fellow soldiers, he shared that he was a celebrated soloist in the choir back home. To prove this, he broke into a rendition of his signature Christmas solo of Silent Night. When his ambitious lieutenant, Swinburn, heard the singing, he harshly reprimanded the young man. He shamed him for not knowing that Silent Night was a German carol and for putting the lives of his fellow soldiers in danger. 
The soldiers soon learned that they would be a conducting a surprise offensive on the Germans. They wouldn’t expect such an offensive on Christmas Eve. With these plans, need came to conduct a recon mission on the German trench. Beecher was chosen to accompany another officer, Zachardo, on the recon mission. Beecher was killed just a few feet into “no-man’s land.”
It was custom for a soldier going out on recon to write a letter home to his family upon learning of his mission. Swinburn, upon reading Beecher’s letter, became very convicted for sending the inexperienced boy out only to be slaughtered just beyond the trench. Beecher’s death sent Swinburn into a suicidal spiral, and he prepared to recklessly launch the offensive without adequate recon or planning. 
While they readied the new machine gun, capable of firing 500 rounds per minute and delivered just in time for the fight, B Company saw movement on the German line. German soldiers were coming out of the trench carrying what looked to be torches. B Company scrambled to their firing positions. Every man was ready along with the new machine gun. They awaited the order to open fire.
Suddenly, someone noticed that the torches were not torches at all, but rather Christmas trees. That revelation brought silence to the English trench. The silence revealed that not only were the Germans carrying Christmas trees… they were also singing. Silent night was the tune. 
The captain of the German company explained that they had heard the sweetest singing coming from the trench earlier. It had stirred the hearts of the men. He wondered if they could negotiate a short ceasefire in order to bury their dead comrades lying between the two trenches. The two leaders agreed.
After burying the dead, including young Beecher, the two sides agreed to take Christmas day off from fighting. They exchanged gifts—cigarettes, chocolate, buttons from their coats, and warm greetings. One soldier related, “Yesterday if you had asked me to tell you about the German soldier, I would have told you about his rifle and his grenades. After today though,” he went on, “I can tell you about his laugh and his love for his family and country.” 
Of course, the war went on afterward. It was necessary that the conflict between the nations be resolved, but the brief respite in killing one another helped both sides to see the need for peace, and to honor the Prince of Peace. 
My heart yearns for such a respite. I realize that debates will not be resolved without the passionate expression of ideas. It is necessary that problems be confronted, and with that comes emotional confrontations with human agents responsible for the problems. But please, for one Christmas day, could we call a ceasefire? Could we seek to know one another? Could we climb out of our trenches, meet in no man’s land, grapple with the wounds we have inflicted on one another, unite around the peace that God gives (even if you don’t believe it is God who gives it)? We may, like the English and German soldiers, find that there is no other way to resolve our differences except to continue fighting, but is it not worth a try?