Skip to main content

A World Divided

It has been said that the days in which we live are marked by one common distinctive: division.

You don’t have to tune into any news channel very long before you have evidence of this. Whether republicans or democrats, liberals or conservatives, or the many divisions across the spectrum of sexual ethics, religious beliefs, or even technology and its use there are dividing lines, camps and a very clear “us versus you” mentality in almost every stream of life today.

All of that division manifests itself in our lives on a continuum somewhere between fear to anger. Whether the division is in culture, family or online we are afraid to say what we believe, or take a stance because of the backlash we will undoubtedly receive.

Or, maybe it’s the anger that often bubbles over into rage because someone’s point of view is so offensive to you it feels destructive even existing out there in the ether.

Yes, we are divided. We are segmented. And, we are positioned to hate one another.

But, I wonder if there isn’t something a little more insidious at play here.

Division makes it sound like we are all separated and against one another, but look around. It’s not people that are divided, it’s groups of people. And their groups are bonding together, becoming tight knit, focused, vocal and united in one thing… hatred of the other group.

Feels like the devil at work to me. The evil one is not separating us, so much as he is creating communities for us. But, the problem is these communities are centered around the affirmation of our brokenness and the exaltation of our sinfulness.

They are being told the church hates you, but we love you. The Bible corrects you, but we affirm you. The God of this universe is far away, but we are here.

Jesus clearly warns us that the devil is not there for our good.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. – John 10:10 (ESV)

The culture has found a new path to subvert the Good News of the Kingdom by creating their own little churches and faith systems. They are attempting to model mission through passionate causes, fellowship via membership and tolerance, and salvation in deconstructing our past (including the Gospel and faith) and reconstructing a new future (humanism and embracing lostness).

The world feels divided, but it’s actually being subdivided by worldly forces that are mimicking values and ethics in the form of idolatry to ideals and purposes far from God.

As the church of Jesus, we can’t play that game.

We have to be able to draw lines of right and wrong without calling those who disagree our enemies.

We must be able to empathize with those who struggle and truly feel wounded without condoning what God has condemned.

We must never write off any one because of their stance, posts, beliefs, statements, attitudes, or actions.

We must do the hard things:

  • Lead when others leave – we cannot abandon the word of God or shift our thinking to fit the times. God is the same yesterday, today and forever and His people must reflect that.
  • Listen when others ignore – when the world attempts to shout each other down, Christians must listen with compassion and hope. Our ears need to hear before our mouth is allowed to speak.
  • Love when others hate – we must never give in to the games this world plays of division, abuse and hatred. We do not have to agree, and we do not have to condone, but we do have to love.

This is a divisive world, but only because it reflects the author of the Fall. The devil is the one who has come to steal, kill and destroy, but there is another word of Scripture you must remember.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James 4:7 (ESV)

What happened when Jesus died?

We know the cause of death; it was the cross. It was not necessarily the injuries to which He succumbed, despite His lack of ability to breathe as His lungs filled with fluid, or His cries from the cross indicating His thirst. His death may not have come from His visible wounds, not just those received hanging there at Golgotha, or from the beating He took coming down the Via Dolorosa to that place, or the scourging received from the Roman soldiers before, or even beating with rods in King Herod’s Court. Not even the roughing up He took before the Sanhedrin… it’s not just possible, not just plausible; it’s actually undeniable that any of us would’ve dropped far sooner than Jesus. Yet, it may not be the injuries to His body that led to His physical death.

It says quite clearly in the text that Jesus gave up His Spirit.

Nonetheless, Jesus breathed his last after 33 years of living on a Friday afternoon. Born of a virgin, He lived a perfect life and died a sacrificial death. He was the incarnate God, 100% God and 100% man—a conjoined uniqueness prophesied for millennia, the Hope of humanity.

His followers stepped up, asking the legal authorities for permission to bury the body. The God of the universe, the Messiah of the nation, and the Hope of glory was laid in a borrowed tomb as a final act of injustice, following the gruesome and torturous execution of Him in His innocence.

We know that Jesus lay in the tomb for three days, but there is speculation as to what took place during that time. The honest truth is that scripture does not paint a clear picture of what Jesus experienced during those three days.

Our human minds struggle with unknowns, which often causes us to fill in the blanks, sometimes leaving room for error.

My speculation may be no different, but I believe there is a very distinct possibility that Jesus did what He always did during those three days: He obeyed the Father.

Let me offer that our 2024, western understanding of “three days in the grave” distinctly differs from how original readers would have seen it.

The truth is that Jesus was in the grave for part of three days but only two nights. The time was counted in a very first-century Hebrew way. Here are the facts: 

  • Jesus was placed in the tomb late on Friday before the sun went down and the Sabbath began
  • He lay in the grave all day Saturday
  • He rose as the sun rose on Sunday morning when the Sabbath ended

The truth is that Jesus lay in the tomb for… a Sabbath: a Friday evening, all day Saturday, and rose on Sunday morning.

What did Jesus do during those days? He did precisely what the Father had instructed each of us to do on the Sabbath… He rested.

I know this might sound shocking, but the truth is that when Jesus died on that Friday, the job was done. When the perfect God-man offered His life as a sacrifice for every human being on the planet, the earth shook, the dead were raised, the temple veil was torn, the sky went dark in the midst of the day… why? Because that’s where the work happened! That’s when redemption occurred! That’s when we were freed from our sins.

Thanks be to God for the Cross of Christ. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)

When Jesus cried, it is finished; it was finished.

The wrath of God had been satisfied! The payment for our sins had been made in full! The hope of the cross was finally realized! The blood of Jesus poured out, a new covenant begun, and we moved from law to grace, from impossible standards to mercy and kindness, and from hopelessness to hope!

When Jesus left His mortal body, the work had been done as He cried, “Father, into Your hands, I commit My spirit.”

And just as He had always done, He rested on the Sabbath.

Then what was Sunday? What is the purpose of the resurrection?

Isn’t it amazing to contemplate that Christ rose on His own authority, in His own strength, in His own power? Yes, the truth is that on that Sunday morning the stone was rolled away and the body of Jesus Christ could not be found because He was raised in resurrection power, the firstborn of the resurrection. That Jesus Christ came back from the dead in the form and shape that each one of His own will take when there is a new Heaven and a new earth,

There was no tremendous cosmic battle that Sunday morning. It wasn’t a Ying Yang, light versus darkness, Jesus triumphing over Hell. That work had already been done.

Jesus Christ rising on Sunday morning reset the game clock for us all.

We had been separated from God and are now being brought near. We had a debt to be paid and nothing to pay with, and He paid it all for us.

He rose from the grave to put an exclamation point on the fact that what He did on Friday was accomplished, that He was victorious and that all of us who stand beneath the shadow of the cross and are seen through the veil of Jesus and His sacrifice are now saved by His blood.

God could have done the deed of saving us, accepting us, and restoring us at any moment, but to do it prematurely would’ve meant a sacrifice of His holiness and righteousness.

Only when Jesus Christ had paid the price, the debt canceled, and the divine wrath of God satisfied would the saving of humanity be both mercy for us and righteousness for Him!

The resurrection was evidence that everything had gone according to plan, that the debt had been paid, and that we are now restored to a right relationship with a holy God whose power was never in question and whose mercy is unimaginable.

The resurrection means that everything He said was true, everything He did was accomplished, and everything we hoped for has been realized.

Jesus paid the price for us on the cross and went to the grave. If He had stayed in the grave, we might wonder continually whether or not God had accepted that sacrifice. But, thanks be to God, when Jesus Christ rose from the grave, He rose gloriously and proclaimed victoriously that the battle was over, the victory was won, and the debt had been paid in full. 

All authority in Heaven and on earth had been given to Jesus, which He used it to perform the perfect sacrifice on our behalf, and now we can return to the place that God had intended us to be from the very beginning… with Him.

A Christmas Short Story: An Ornament’s life

This may be an awkward introduction, probably more for you than for me. I’m a Christmas ornament. 

I’ve been around for years, and I bet if you love the holidays, I love them even more. I can make the case that I live for them.

A sweet couple brought me home from the store almost ten years ago. I don’t know what they wrote on my back, but if I understood the conversation, it was the date and something about their first Christmas.

WHAT A PRIVILEGE!

All ornaments want to be associated with a special memory, but being a “first Christmas” is the big show. The future is not usually so holly jolly for cheap ornaments like me made of wood, painted red with some glitter and glue on white stuffing, donning the shape of a single letter in the alphabet.

That is unless some young couple with little to their name picks you as their first ornament together. Looking back over the years, I can’t believe how fortunate I was to be picked up from that bin and brought home to be cherished.

The little tree from almost a decade ago was not much to look at. It was more of a Christmas bush plucked from a vacant lot, but I was placed front and center to witness the first Christmas together.

It was a sweet, sparse, and held together with hope and love kind of Christmas. I was hanging over their shoulders when they picked their favorite Christmas movies. Around the house was garland, a nativity, stockings, and lights everywhere. I loved watching them try to fix Christmas goodies and kept their secrets when they slid a couple of meager gifts for each other under the tree that year.

It was a fantastic first Christmas for all of us, but as Christmas Eve drew near, I dared to hope. There was only one thing better than being a cherished “first Christmas” ornament, and that was to see Him arrive. 

Christmas tree ornaments are perfectly positioned to capture the moment. We are always there, we never sleep, and hang out until everything is said and done.

But, Christmas Eve, Morning, and Day all passed, and I did not see Him…

Yet, there should be no sadness for me. What a beautiful first Christmas!

And, even as the tinsel and lights were being taken down and a suitable protective box was found for my storage, I rested in the blessing that I would see my family next year as a reminder of their first Christmas with me.

__________________

The time in storage flew by that year, but it still felt like we were starting a little later. I confirmed the late start as I overheard their conversation about the move and how the new jobs kept them busy.

It was true. Everything was different and they were busy. Our home had changed and peering through the window you could see we were high above some city in a small but modern apartment. Yet, there in the corner of this new place was a tree, a big one. Sure, it was artificial, but things were looking up, and the days of hanging on some small bush were over. 

There was great pomp and circumstance when they opened my box as they reminisced about their second year together. Then came out the garland, lights, nativity, and stockings. It was another great year.

 I was introduced to their second-year Christmas ornament (nice guy, a little too much glitter for me, but to each his own). 

They placed me in the center, high up on the tree in the position of honor.

Let the holidays begin!

It was festive and fun but so rushed. Most of the activities we did from our tiny home last year happened in other places at other times.

But there were more presents this year. Lots more! Their new jobs seemed promising, but they kept them busy, busy, busy.

They spent most nights away and often when they were at home they were without each other.

Watching favorite Christmas movies without the other made the stories less sweet and the humor less joyful.

But a beautiful longing was felt and relieved whenever they were both together. The conversation was always about the future and how things would be better and easier someday.

The moments spent together were sweet. But, a weariness loomed over the season and this home.

I began to hope again that He would come this year. He would have just the right gift, word, and plan.

But, Christmas Eve, Morning, and Day all passed, and I did not see Him…

As the season ended this year, there seemed a little less joy than our first year. It was probably because she took down the decorations and boxed me up alone. Work had called him in again.

But, as the storage bins were put away, I held to hope that the Christmas Spirit would return in full force. Things would be as they could and should be next year.

__________________

It seemed a short night before we were all unboxed for our third Christmas, but my expectancy was immediately dulled by the atmosphere of the home.

It was the same apartment, but this year, the counters were crowded; every corner contained stacks of stuff, and it looked like they were bursting at the seams. It did not take long to recognize that the clutter of their living room was only to be matched by the clutter of their minds and hearts!

Decorating for this holiday was far from the joy experienced in earlier years. They were going through the motions, decorating as a task instead of a celebration. It was hard to understand what had changed since there was no conversation, just two people opening boxes and putting things in their places.

The third-anniversary ornament, or we all at least assume that’s who he was, was placed in line with number two and me, but nothing was written upon him. When the decorating was done, there was no hot chocolate or stepping back to admire the work that had been done.

She had already  left a few minutes before He had finished placing the garland and the nativity on the counter. And as soon as he finished, he grabbed his keys and was off.

That season was so different. There were no Christmas movies and evenings in the kitchen making holiday treats.

A couple of conversations about bills and schedules were heard from the kitchen table. And, more than a couple of times, raised voices filled the home with tension.

Slammed bedroom doors replaced the previous year’s holiday music soundtrack. There was no doubt that this young couple was hurting. But what could we do?

That’s when I was overcome with hope. I remember thinking to myself, surely this will be the year He comes. They need Him now more than ever!

But, Christmas Eve, Morning, and Day all passed, and I did not see Him…

It was well into the new year before the storage boxes emerged. We had never remained out so long, but when the day did come to hide away, we came down as we went up in silence.

My little wooden heart would have creaked if you listened closely when she put me away that year. She gripped me with both hands and paused, resting me upon her knee. 

As she stared down at me and I stared back, I felt a tear fall from her face and did not know what to think.

__________________

As the day approached for our fourth Christmas, I hoped this year would be different. And it was.

It was already late into the holiday season when our storage boxes emerged. Make that storage box.

I could see that only one box of Christmas decorations had been opened in the apartment, and that matched the number of people there to do the decorating.

Where was he?

She was slow and methodical, with no hint of Christmas joy on her face. Although the tree was up, there was no sign of garland, lights, stockings, or nativity. And, the tree itself seemed bare.

My fellow anniversary ornaments and I were placed on the tree with no other decorations. Looking back at the storage box on the kitchen table, it was evident that our handfuls of ornaments were the only ones coming out this year.

As the first evening stretched on and on, there were no movies, cookies, or stockings at all. But there was a phone call.

I watched as she contemplated whether to answer and after several rings, she replied with a sterile, “Hello.”

It was hard to tell at first, but as she paced closer and closer to the tree, the caller’s voice could be heard. It was him! Yes, our happy couple could be together again.

However, expectations quickly diminished as the conversation escalated into an argument. The roles and words seemed well rehearsed and practiced as if the same conflict had been routine for the days and months since last Christmas.

Finally, she raised her voice with an exclamation of, “Fine!” Dramatically, she punched the button to end the call and then collapsed on the edge of the couch. Looking up at her Christmas tree and anniversary ornaments, she burst into tears and curled up like a throw pillow, where she spent the rest of the evening.

And that was how most of the holiday season went that year. It was dark, complex, and not at all joyful as it should be.

I remember thinking that this must be the year that He comes. They need His joy, His hope, and His Christmas miracle. If He doesn’t come, how could there be any Christmas?

But, Christmas Eve, Morning, and Day all passed, and I did not see Him…

The ornaments were put away and the tree was removed soon after Christmas. It was the first year I remember I was glad to be taken down.

__________________

The following year is hard to recall. I wonder if we were ever came out of storage that year.

Whatever was happening in that home, they skipped Christmas.

I knew that there might never have been another Christmas if He would not come. 

__________________

During our sixth Christmas, I was almost sure we would miss it all again. It was Christmas Eve, and the storage boxes had not been touched, but early that morning, the closet door burst open, and a frenzy of activity began!

The other ornaments and I were unpacked even before the Christmas tree. She appeared slightly embarrassed at herself for going out of order but quickly remedied that by setting the tree up with haste.

Holiday carols were playing in the background, and there was a smile on her face that I hadn’t seen in years! I was so excited to feel the hope in this little apartment that I almost missed that he wasn’t there.

It was as if things were like they used to be, but she was alone?

The house was nearly decorated; the nativity was in place, the garland was strung, lights were everywhere, and stockings were upon the wall, just not with the precision of previous years. But everything was in place nonetheless.

Then a knock on the door.

She sprinted towards the apartment door, slowing herself the final couple of steps. Watching her anxiously adjust her hair and smooth out her skirt before she opened the door was exciting.

It was him, her other half! We had only heard his voice for the last couple of years, but he was home. An awkwardness in the doorway led to an invitation to the living room, where they both sat on the couch and held each other’s hands.

The conversation was long, teary, and intense. But the words that kept escaping to those of us eavesdropping from the tree were hope, healing, love, and trying again.

I then noticed he had brought something with him; it was a gift sitting on the coffee table, yet to be unwrapped. He insisted that she open it now.

As she did, we all watched her eyes well up with tears. Before it was completely unwrapped, she reached her arms around him in a deep embrace, and they both cried.

This gift must have represented something like a missing piece that had finally been discovered.

I don’t know what happened in the last two years since the sad Christmas that led to no Christmas which turned into this Christmas, but when they finished their embrace, they gripped one another’s hands again, they bowed their heads and closed their eyes. Sitting on her lap was the half-opened gift of a book with a red ribbon sewn into its leather cover as a bookmark.

Just then, we all noticed something the young couple could never have seen with their heads bowed, and eyes closed in prayer: a faint sparkle from the manger scene in the nativity across the room.

That’s when I knew it had finally happened. He had come!

He hadn’t come on Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or Christmas Day, but at some point in the last two years, He had come to them to heal their hearts, bind up their wounds, and draw them back together. 

He was not the one who came to give gifts; He was the Gift. This was His day, but once again, He had come not to be served but to serve.

He had come and made all the difference in the world.

__________________

That is the Christmas everything changed. Each year things were different, but always better, stronger, more loving, and kind as they both became more and more like Him. Sometimes, there were presents, and sometimes, there were only prayers. But there was always love. And just last Christmas, there was great joy as the happy couple turned into three!

The branches of our family Christmas tree are getting heavier and heavier with all the anniversary ornaments, and I am getting older every year. They’ve had to “touch me up” with red paint and add a little more white stuffing with hot glue, but it’s always a joy because each year, I get to be a part of this happy, growing family at Christmas.

And Christmas, this year and every year, is sweeter still because He has come.

“Go, tell it on the mountain

Over the hills and everywhere

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born.”

Your Nativity Is Missing Something

I am one of the most Christmassy people you will ever meet. I love everything about the holidays from the sacred to the hokey:

  • I start Christmas music with the start of the NBA season
  • I go to every Christmas party I am invited to, and some I am not
  • I am a verified over-gifter and sin against my Dave Ramsey roots as an annual indulgence

So, with all that being true, I have a surprisingly “ba humbug” thing to bring to the table.

I have a problem with your nativity.

No, I am not talking about the anachronistic presence of three wise men who wouldn’t have been there that night. They probably didn’t show up until Jesus was well past infancy and maybe even entered the toddler stage.

It’s okay to have them part of your nativity… just put them in another room… east of your nativity… right next to the little drummer boy.

So, my problem isn’t with the wise guys. In fact, the problem isn’t with something in your nativity. It’s with something not in your nativity.

Here is what you need to add. Just next to the cattle lowing where the baby awakes, and on the other side of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night I need you too slide in another little creature.

A dragon.

Nope, I’m not kidding. Your dragon needs space in your nativity and here is where I get the biblical support for that:

“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.  His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.” (Revelation 12:3–4)

Right there, at the birth of Jesus was a satanic presence ready to thwart God’s plan by killing the Savior while he was still a baby. In Revelation the spiritual metaphor is thick, but in the Gospels, we see the efforts of the dragon through King Herod who killed all the children in a region trying to kill the boy Jesus.

But God warned Joseph and Mary through the wise men (see, they are still in the Christmas story… just keep them in that other room so they can “travel afar) and they fled with baby Jesus to Egypt and stayed their until things were safe to return.

Let’s be clear… the devil was there at the birth of Jesus. He had plans to destroy our Savior. 

But, God is never surprised, outwitted, or overpowered. The devil who wanted to devour the Christ child on that first Christmas Eve went to bed hungry!

Our God is great. Our God is strong. Our God is able. Our God is always ahead of the enemy!

Today, in your own life, there is a very real danger that the dragon is still seeking your destruction as part of God’s people. But, whether he is a dragon in the nativity or a prowling lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8), our God is able to guide, strengthen and protect.

I do not know what you are up against today. It might feel like that dragon is breathing fire down your neck but do not be afraid.

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10–11)

Merry Christmas. It’s a little early, but it’s never too soon to remember your dragon protection.

For this I toil…

There is a lot of tension in being a follower of Christ. If you haven’t noticed, you haven’t been reading the manual very closely.

We often call them a paradox: to be first, you must be last; to save your life, you must lose it; what good is it to gain the world and lose your soul? You know, little things like those.

But, I recently have been pondering a grace and works tension. Not regarding salvation, no, no!

There is nothing to add to or take from the work Christ did for us on the cross.

I’ll leave some space here for the presumed “Amen’s.”

But, sometimes, we carry that theology of salvation into a theology of discipleship where it does not fit as neatly. This is not to say you’re covered by grace until salvation and then transferred to a kingdom of works as a disciple. Not at all.

Every Christian is offered grace before, during, and after our salvation “moment.” But, once we become followers of Jesus, we are disciples; disciples have discipline, and discipline takes work.

See, there’s that tension. 

As a disciple, it’s not a question of grace or works but a reality of grace with works.

Paul explained this beautifully in a single verse from Colossians 1:

29 “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

First, being a disciple involves ‘toil.’ The word is kopio in Greek and means to labor, work, use some energy. In this verse, Paul describes the ministry to which he was called to steward and says it requires ‘toil.’

I can’t think of a better way to say this, so I will blurt it out. This means that some stuff’s just on you. Getting up in the morning, walking through your disciplines, submitting to your Lord, and fulfilling the obligations of your calling.

There is no escaping it. It’s work. It’s hard. And it’s on you.

Second, we cannot ignore the beautiful end of this tension, described as “struggling with all his energy.” The word for ‘struggling’ here is agonizomai (probably no need to break that down for us).

Yet, in the agony of the struggle, we find that everything we do is with all His energy. We’ve all felt it when the task is too big, the obstacles are too difficult, and yet somehow there is enough strength. Miracles change our circumstances, serendipity is replaced by the supernatural, and you have to step back and say, “Wow, Lord, thank you.”

It’s a spiritual inertia becoming momentum that begins with a step of obedience to enter into the toil, then fueled by the filling of “all his energy,” and suddenly you find you have become a spiritual juggernaut impossible to stop because of the God who saved you, called you and fills you.

Third comes the payoff for our toiled obedience filled with the power of our Savior, leading to all “that he powerfully works within me.” The words “powerfully works” in Greek are pronounced dynamis energeo, from which we derive dynamite and energy (if you are willing to follow the twisty path of etymology, finding some potential root words for our English language). 

And what a payoff that is. Our simple obedience and Spirit-filled energy results in explosive ministry and energy beyond our abilities!

Thank you, Lord. 

Yes, the tasks are too big for you, and the calling you have received is too much for you. But, you are called to step into the toil and be filled with all His energy so that He might do what you and I could never do on our own or even together. 

Let’s not focus on strategy, resources, or even abilities, and instead, let us offer a worshipful act of obedience as we step into the work, believing and knowing He is all we need. When the toil is in your strength, the toil is terrible.

But, when the toil is in His strength, the toil is worship. And that worship is wonderful.

Learning To Be Grateful

I am not grateful enough for Jesus. 

I am thankful I am aware of this, and I am crying out to God to help me become more tender to all Jesus has done for me and asking Him to increase my gratitude. Writing this to you is a way for me to do that. I always learn more when I teach than any learners do, so this is my hope.

I know Jesus loves me and that He loves me more and better than anyone else can or would. But, the truth is that my wife loves me, there is no doubt. My kiddos love me; I know because they tell me. My mom loves me, but she has to.

So, honestly, in my head, it sometimes gets lost and a little muddy that Jesus loves me because I am a blessed man, and I know lots of love.

But, there are three things that Jesus is for me that no one else can be: perfect, willing, and able.

Jesus loved me so much that He died for me and you. Yet, there may be others who would choose that path if they were in that situation. But because of these three things, I should be eternally grateful for the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf.

Perfect – Jesus was not a good man, a great teacher, or a mid-level deity. He is and was the eternal Son of God and Incarnate Man (meaning He was fully God and fully man, simultaneously). And, as He walked this earth as a man, He was perfect. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pe 2:22). I know some good people, maybe even some great ones, but Jesus is the only perfect person ever to walk the earth. And, because of that, He is the only one able to be a sacrifice for you and I. Anything less than perfect, and the sacrifice was blemished, just like you and I. We cannot save ourselves, but Jesus’ perfect condition made Him a suitable sacrifice. 

I am grateful.

Willing – I know you may be thinking that there is someone who would be willing to die for you. You’re probably right. I hope so! But they would probably die for you because they like you, and you are at least somewhat likable to them. Yeah, I am sure you get on each other’s nerves, and maybe there has been a tense day between the two of you, but there is a connection that causes you to believe they would take a bullet for you. That was not the case with Jesus. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro 5:7–8). Don’t miss what that verse says. While we were still sinners, rebellious, fighting Him and in blatant disagreement and disobedience… that’s when He was willing to die for us. Not once we bent a knee, admit our fault, or make a change. Before you ever had a good thought, and while you and I were still rotten, He died for us. 

I am grateful.

Able – This is the most distinct of the three characteristics listed here. It is not theologically possible, but if someone could live a perfect life, then good for them. It’s not plausible, but someone who I mistreat and fight against might choose to die for me. But, the one sure thing that separates them from Jesus is His ability. As the Son of God, He was not just perfect and willing, but He could defeat hell, death, and the grave for us. He literally died and rose again on the third day! “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Some good and even great people may die for others, but only One had the power to lay His life down and take it back up again. Only One, only Jesus! 

I am grateful.

Thank you for taking a moment to read through these thoughts. As a believer in Jesus for nearly four decades, I need to ensure that I am not growing cold or callous to the reality of who He is and what He has done. He is perfect, willing, and able.

I am grateful. I hope you are, too. 

And, if you have never accepted the grace of God into your life through the perfect, willing, and able sacrifice of Jesus, please reach out and let me help you find your way to Him: andy.addis@crosspointchurch.com 

 

Leveling Up Leadership

Pastors are leaders, not a groundbreaking statement, but what kind of leaders are they?

Very often, leadership is considered a binary issue. Either you are or you aren’t. You have the gift, or you don’t. You’re leading a crowd or taking a walk by yourself.

But what if leadership had levels?

That would help you know where to place people with the “gift “of leadership in your church. And it helps discern where you are as you face the challenges of leadership daily.

This concept surfaces in Exodus 18 when Moses gets schooled by his father-in-law (that’s never a fun experience). Jethro tells Moses that what he’s doing is not good because he’s bearing all the weight himself. He tells him he must find leaders but then gets strategic about it:

Exodus 18:21 (ESV): Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.

Moses was to look for a bunch of leaders, all with similar integrity and skills, yet some were capable of leading thousands, while others needed to be simply over a handful.

Apparently, there are levels of leadership.

In my 30 years serving the church, I have seen four levels of leaders, both volunteer and staff.

Here’s a look at that list of four leadership types garnered from my observation over the years:

  • Earn a check
  • Serve a cause
  • Lead a cause
  • Advance a cause

Starting at the lowest level, or the lowest level of commitment, are leaders who are there to “earn a check.” You might think that’s only a staff designation. But, some volunteers lead in your church simply because they’re hanging onto a family heritage, feel a sense of burdened obligation, or even think they are somehow earning their spot in the Kingdom (legalism in its truest form).

And, if you’re blessed enough to have secondary staff members, some are skilled and able, but the only reason they are serving is because they need a job.

When someone volunteers, serves or leads to receive something in return, like payment of some kind, we must ask the question: should they be allowed to be in that place of leadership?

The answer is yes, and no. For the staff member, there is a higher sense of accountability and a need for them to be more than a hireling. There need to be some serious conversations about commitment to the church and the vision, positive conversations that challenge them to embrace leadership at a different level.

It could be extending their leadership to a place where they feel ownership. But, in the end, if a paid staff member can’t find motivation beyond a paycheck, they need not receive that paycheck.

Being a volunteer is a different matter. Suppose you recognize the volunteer is serving for some payout. In that case, this is an opportunity for discipleship driving them to prayer, seeing the value of what they do from the Kingdom perspective and celebrating with them. They may need to move roles or be challenged with different tasks and levels. As a pastor, you should embrace the opportunity to turn them into something more than they are today through God’s Spirit and service as a co-laborer.

What you don’t want to do is let them continue to serve with that heart, especially in leadership, knowing that all they are doing is “plugging a hole.” That is abusing the volunteer who should be discipled better.

The second level of leadership is one who “serves a cause.” These are the leaders that understand the mission and want to contribute. Their service is on task and beneficial to the organization/church. But, their leadership is primarily custodial. They are seldom self-starters and paint by numbers. They will be a faithful leader as long as they are instructed and inspired well. These leaders are managers and not alpha dogs.

It can be challenging for the staff member at this level because leaders above them often project their own personality and drive on those who serve with them. When they don’t see the same characteristics in that staff member that they see in themselves, it can often cause conflict and disappointment.

This is true for the secondary staff member as well as they believe they are serving at full capacity and don’t know why “the boss” is not satisfied. If this is the scenario you’re in, one of two choices must be made:

1) You can adjust your expectations to be satisfied with what they have to offer.

2) Or, you can help them to be a better leader, finding joy in seeing them grow.

For the volunteer at this level, you must ensure they are in the right seat on the bus. A leader who serves the cause is an incredible asset if you need someone to fulfill a role who will passionately reproduce what you need to be done in a specific area. But, if you have them in a position that needs to run independently without instruction, you could set yourself up for heartache.

Staff members and volunteers can grow from this level with some direct contact: intentional conversations on leadership, clear expectations, public rewards, reading together and processing as a team. The “serves a cause” leader is an asset where they are but has the potential for even more.

The third level I refer to as “leads a cause.” These are leaders that not only understand but they own the vision and the mission. They can articulate to others and convey passion. They can take the current church architecture and continue producing results with excellence.

You are a blessed pastor when you have one of these leaders on your staff! They are truly running arm and arm with you, and you probably feel a deep kinship with them as you work. If there is any drawback, they sometimes get a little out over their skis and occasionally swerve into your path as a leader.

But, it would help if you always appreciated those moments as a pastor, knowing that you’ve been given the gift of a strong leader, who you can help shape into a mature leader in the days in years ahead.

And if you have a volunteer that you can describe in these terms, they are often labeled a “high-capacity volunteer.” And that is a gift you should not miss giving thanks for in your prayers. Usually, the biggest drawback to high-capacity volunteers is that the world has recognized that skill in them, and they are often divided between your church, Boy Scouts, coaching, and 1000 other “good things.”

If the Lord leads, you might need to have that conversation with them, saying that they can continue serving all those good things, or if they are willing to clear their schedules, you would like to open the door up for them to bigger and better God things.

A good path for either staff or volunteer that can “lead a cause” is active apprenticing. Simply inviting them to a three-phase process to help them grow and to release them into more ministry is this:

  • Come with me and watch what I do.
  • Come with me and do what I do.
  • I go with you and watch you do it.

This tried-and-true method will help develop even the best leaders into better, higher-capacity, Kingdom-shaking leaders.

The final category of leader will “advance a cause.” Not only does this leader understand and personify the church’s mission and vision where they are leading well in the current structure, they are busting at the seams to take everyone and everything to the next level.

These are the leaders you don’t have to inspire. In fact, you need to hold their reins sometimes. And let’s be honest, if you have a staff member or a volunteer in this category, just hit your knees and say thank you, Lord! But, there is a potential drawback.

Have you ever wondered where new pastors come from or where new ministries begin?

Well, they come out of the local church—churches just like yours.

I know the thought of losing the best and the brightest out of your congregation is not what you want, but if God raised them through you to go and do something else, He has a replacement for them right there in your midst!

When you recognize this kind of leader in your congregation, you have two responsibilities:

1) Open up new doors of ministry for them to stretch, grow, challenge, and take your church further down the road. Never be jealous of them in ministry; never worry that they will outgrow you. Actually, it would be best if you were hoping they would.

2) Let them go. When you recognize God is calling them out, you should lift them up before you send them away. If they obey God, it can do nothing but bless you!

I hope recognizing these different levels of leaders and how you might challenge and help them benefits you. Even more so, I hope you as a pastor are thriving as a “lead a cause” kind of leader because the pastor of every church needs to be ‘that’ guy.

But if the weight of leadership, the stress of bivocational life or a history of difficult work in the church has dropped you down a notch in your leadership practices, then take some time to draw yourself toward Him and practice some of these leadership pieces yourself.

Ask a more mature pastor to apprentice you. Start a reading group with leaders who will inspire you forward. Or, clear your schedule to make sure you have time for the God things and not just a bunch of good things.

Pastor, we are proud of you, thankful for you and want you to know what you’re doing is important and that you are not alone.

Good Friday?

Good Friday.

I know we have all heard the sermons about Good Friday being misnamed, because it was anything but good. 

Brutal, yes.

Sad, absolutely

Agonizing, without a doubt.

So, we have been pointed in the direction of identifying the irony of calling such a vicious day a “good” day. I don’t disagree; I’m sure I have preached that message in the past.

I know we’ve also been taught to view this as Good Friday because of what takes place later. In other words, it’s only Good Friday because of what we see on the other side of the horror. You know that anthem… It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!

Again, not untrue. And, it is inspiring theology for sure.

But, what if Good Friday was good on the day it was happening in the way that it was happening? No, I’m not saying that brutality is a kindness, nor am I saying that the events of Jesus crucifixion were pleasant in any way.

Far be it for me, I can hardly stand to imagine those moments in my prayer time, read the accounts in Scripture, or watch in the Christian movies that portray this day.

Yet, what if 2000 years ago as Christ bore the crown of thorns, suffered the lashes on his back, and carried the cross to Calvary… what if all that was, good?

The phrase Good Friday does not exist in Scripture, it’s a part of church tradition remembering the day of Jesus’ brutal sacrifice. However, the concept of and the word “good“ are all over the New Testament and consistently stem from the Greek root agathos.

One place that word shows up is in Philippians 1:6:

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Well, we all know the end of that story. The good work that Jesus was doing, the good work that He had to carry on to completion, that good work involved the cross on a Friday.

So, by Jesus’ own definition the work that needed to be done for our salvation, began in us by Him, completed in us by Him, and sustained us by Him was good.

The reason we call it Good Friday is because the work He was doing for us on the cross to bring our salvation into existence was “good!“

Hard, unjust, sacrificial, violent, unfair, brutal, wrong, but… it was good. Not just because of what it did, and not in the rearview mirror. Jesus was doing “good“ even on the most beautiful/brutal/brutiful of days 2000 years ago.

This should stand as a reminder to followers of Jesus even today.

First, that we should be overcome with gratitude and worship because of the good thing He was willing to do for us.

And, second, that we should know that, even as we go through hardship for the sake of the cross, discipline for our own discipleship, and sacrifice for the sake of others, it’s not something that one day might turn out well. In that moment, in that suffering, in that persecution, in that hardship, it is good.

Made this truly be a good Friday to each and everyone of you.

Why churches die: refusing pastoral leadership

This is the second of two articles I was asked to contribute to a series of seven articles about why some churches die. At the end of the article will be a link to this entry where you can also find the other articles in the series.


The joke landed well in a room of 300-plus denominational leaders and pastors. The laughter sparked numerous spontaneous testimonies and anecdotes – that apparently needed to be shared immediately. It took a minute to get the room back to the speaker.

What was the gut-busting and response-provoking bit of humor?

Answering that is difficult. There was no punchline, just a statement everyone had heard before and acknowledged as a joke.

The speaker had said, “It’s like the struggling church that says they want a new, young pastor with some new ideas.”

Hilarity ensues.

I have to admit I got caught up in the moment and laughed myself, probably to keep from crying at the numerous examples I could personally describe of being undermined, ignored or placated over the years.

The truth is, that statement should not be funny

One of the indicators of a dying church is that it fails to follow (or even reject) pastoral leadership.

I am not advocating blind obedience by a congregation or pushing for a pastoral offensive going unchecked. But here’s what needs to happen in a church struggling to follow its pastor: some biblical accountability and a little benefit of the doubt.

Let’s start with biblical accountability as we focus on Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Let’s keep this verse in the context of the whole counsel of Scripture, understanding this is not the only instruction on congregational responses to pastoral leadership. But it is a starting place.

When one is called to serve in the pastoral office, that person is to be “obeyed” (the first of two imperatives in this verse). If I work a little with the language, he is to be followed as he leads others.

A good church member will see a pastor as a God-appointed, -inspired and -led leader, attempting to discern the community and guide a church to spread the gospel where it is planted.

If you call him “pastor,” remember that you are the church, part of the body. The pastor is leading you!

And if you ignore, criticize, pledge to outlast or play the “I’ll just hide and watch this dumpster fire game,” you are out of line because you are out of sync with God’s Word.

Even if you don’t like or understand the direction he is taking, if it’s in line with God’s word, you still follow because of the second imperative in the passage: submit.

Yes, sometimes pastors appear to have “nontraditional” ideas or try to do something “we’ve never done before,” but perhaps the Holy Spirit is leading him. Look at God’s leadership in the Bible: build an ark, cross the Jordan, step out of the boat.

God calls leaders to things that will give Him the glory. That’s why no biblical narratives exist about keeping the facility nice or balancing the budget. God will lead your pastor to do God-sized things, and the congregation is to obey and submit.

But this verse is a two-way street, and the pastor is not off the hook. What he does must be for the good of the congregation’s souls – and he… will… be…held… accountable.

So this means the pastor must be living and leading in a way worthy of the congregation’s followship and submission. He must continually ask if this is how the Lord wants him to lead. No, seriously, he needs to ask that all the time. Every day.

Because it’s the Lord’s church we are stewarding, and we will be called to account for what we do.

A church member should want to obey the pastor even if it’s not easy – because the pastor has left no doubt that he loves the Lord and he loves them.

Finally, how about we give each other the benefit of the doubt? You may have been burned in the past, and you may naturally respond in a negative way, but God can change hearts – even yours.

As the writer of Hebrews tells us, there is no need for us to bicker, squabble and distrust because when we obey and submit to godly leaders, we “do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

A dying church has a lot of issues, to be sure. But one issue within your control costs nothing and makes a huge difference: Be good leaders and be good followers. Then hide and watch what only the Lord can do!

 

Why Churches Die, Part 7: They Reject Pastoral Leadership

Why Churches Die: Not Applying God’s Word to Their Lives

This is the first of two articles I was asked to contribute to a series of seven articles about why some churches die. At the end of the article will be a link to this entry where you can also find the other articles in the series.


The lights came on that day in eighth-grade Physical Science class.

Our teacher/coach/driver’s ed instructor pushed a chalkboard eraser along the edge of his teaching desk. He was dangerously close to making it fall over the edge.

“I know it’s hard to see, but there is energy here,” he said. “This eraser is full of potential energy on top of this desk. But that energy will stay stored until it moves over the edge.”

Every eye watched as the 6-inch-long eraser plummeted from the edge of his desk under the gentle promptings of his hand. It tumbled through four feet of free fall before bouncing off the floor, barely making a noise, and emitting a tiny cloud of chalk dust.

“Now, that is kinetic energy! As long as it stays stored, it’s potential. But things start happening once it finds its use.”

He was more excited about the lesson than he should have been. Most students were ignoring him, and the few that weren’t were now rolling their eyes. But that’s the day I got it.

Stored energy is potential. But if it stays that way, that’s all it is: potential.

Every good sermon ends when you push the eraser over the edge of the table. All the Bible study, illustrations, argumentation and rhetorical eloquence must end up as some kind of application, or the rest of it was just an exercise in religious futility.

All that potential energy needs to become active motion as repentance, obedience, evangelism, worship – anything in a God-ward direction!

Many dying churches do not comprehend just how much stored potential energy they have. They are powerhouses and powder kegs ready to explode with gospel energy, but that stored-up potential is never set in motion.

You can find that potential stored energy in almost every verse of the Bible, but let’s look at one of my favorites: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16)

What is the potential energy of the church?

First, we have the gospel! If my Greek isn’t too rusty, that means we have the good news. In a world jumping up and down to share bad news, where horror stories lurk around every corner and every channel reeks of darkness, we have a better story to share.

I remember hearing that the ‘sin of the desert’ was to know where the water was but not tell others who were thirsty. When we don’t take the potential energy of the good news of Jesus Christ and use it to light up the darkness, we are wasting it.

We don’t need a better message. We have the gospel!

Second, if we have the gospel, we have God’s power! I know we’d like bigger budgets, deeper leadership benches and more evident and low-hanging fruit opportunities in ministry, but we don’t need them.

Why? We have the stored potential energy of the God of the universe. If we have the gospel, then we have the power of God in our church, ministry and lives! That means we lack nothing. It’s time to let the power of the Lion loose – and He can take care of Himself!

Third, we have the potential of salvation in our hands. The world is looking for something, and they’re trying to satisfy themselves with many stupid and inadequate things. But we have what every human being is looking for, whether they realize it or not: salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ!

We often look at our lives and ministries through the lens of loss or what’s missing. But we seldom remember the stored potential energy given to us through the gospel. Indeed, we need nothing more, and if we tap into that potential, the frenzy of kinetic energy released would be more than any of our churches can handle.

It would be amazing!

So, the real question isn’t what we need, but how do we release the stored energy God already has put in place? If we would apply what we know and believe already, we would find God already has provided all we could ask or imagine.

Many say knowledge is power, but I don’t think that’s true. I believe knowledge is fuel, stored energy. Only when knowledge is applied does that potential become power.

When I was a young man, they told me I had potential and it was encouraging. When I was a little older, they told me I had potential and it was a reminder. As an older man, when someone tells me I have potential, it’s a warning!

God has given you everything you need: the gospel, Jesus, His presence and power are more than enough.

Let’s apply what we already know, use what we’ve already received and be the church He has called us to be!

 

This article is also posted at: https://www.namb.net/church-replanting/resource/why-churches-die-part-3-not-applying-gods-word-to-their-lives/

  • 1
  • 2