Monday, October 15, 2012

A Picture of the Gospel

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”
(Ephesians 5:25 ESV)
If there were a survey conducted among Americans that asked the question, “What is the purpose of your marriage?” 90% of people are going to answer by saying “marriage is about loving each other and making each other happy.”
While this is true, this is not the purpose of marriage. The purpose of marriage is to give the world a picture of Christ and His Church.
But what does this mean for us? Why would Paul compare these two things? What correlation do our marriages have with the Gospel?
• New Identity – When a person becomes a Christian they receive a new identity. They are no longer defined by the things of the world but are now defined by their relationship with Christ. In 2 Corinthians we see that when a person comes to Christ they actually become a new person altogether. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)
When a man marries a woman they become “one” and she assumes his last name. This “new name” is symbolic of their new relationship. She is no longer identified by who she was as the daughter of her father but she now has a new name to mark her new life with her husband.
• Service – As a Christian you are called to die to yourself. Your life is no longer about you because you have been “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). We want to serve Christ because of the work He did on our behalf. We do His work on earth so that others can see our love for Him and bring Him glory.
As a spouse we serve our partner out of a desire to show them our love. We want to be a helper and set ourselves aside so we can enrich the lives of our partner. These outward professions of service give us the opportunity to express the inward love we have for them.
• Sanctification – Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Christ. This process begins when we accept Christ and the Holy Spirit comes into our heart. It doesn’t conclude until we are glorified with Christ in Heaven. Becoming like Christ takes time and isn’t always easy to experience.
Marriage is one means God uses to speed up this process. Marriage is the union between two sinners who each come in with rough edges. Through marriage these rough edges rub against each other and eventually begin to smooth each other out. Through this refinement both spouses tend to become more sanctified.
• Covenant – Under the new covenant God promises an everlasting relationship with His people if they believe in His Son Jesus as their savior. It’s not a conditional covenant that can be relinquished; once we enter into this covenant with God it is eternal.
Marriage is a covenant relationship as well. We aren’t in marriage “as long as everything goes our way.” It is intended to be a lifelong commitment “for better or worse.” When we enter into this covenant we are accepting the good from our partner as well as the bad. Covenants should not be taken lightly. God takes His promises seriously, as should we.
• Idolatry – God means it when He says in Exodus 20, “You shall have no gods before Me.” He never intended us to worship anything but Him. Since the Church is the bride of Christ, worshipping anything but God is committing infidelity against God.
In the same way, to have an inappropriate relationship with someone other than our spouse is to commit infidelity. We are putting the feelings of someone else above that of our spouse. The bond we form with this other person becomes more important to us than the effect that it will have on the person we have at home. We elevate someone else to the position of highest regard. This is the essence of an affair.
There is a direct correlation between how the world sees your marriage and how it views the Gospel. If you show them a marriage full of lies, resentment, and selfishness then the world is going to have a distorted view of the Gospel. If you show them a marriage full of honesty, commitment, and service then they are going to see a clear picture. Now the question becomes, are you showing the world a distorted picture of the Gospel or a clear one?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Backyards & Closets

My wife and I love hosting parties and cookouts at our house. This means that several times a month we have anywhere from 10-20 people in our home. We have people in our backyard playing games, people in our kitchen having snacks, and people in our living room hanging out and talking.

During these cookouts we don’t have people in our dining room for long conversations and 3-course meals. And we certainly don’t have people hanging out in our bedroom or our daughter’s nursery.

However, we do have certain people that we allow to not only come to the back of our house but also have access our bedroom when they come over. They get to see where our daughter sleeps. A few of them can even rummage through our closets and look for clothes to borrow if they want to.

We all have a desire for friendships that are this intimate, the friends that we can allow to see our “dirty laundry”; friends that we don't hold anything back from.

Social media is the most evident proof we have that we all have this desire, whether we realize we want it or not. However, the fact that we have social media can be damaging to us as we strive to live in biblical community.

If you were to look at my Facebook page you would see that I have around 1,000 “friends”. On the surface it would look like I have more than enough people who would be there when I need them the most. But if you look under the hood at what is really going on you would see that not only are these people not really my friends, but in fact, I don’t have an authentic relationship with more than a handful of them at all. They are the people that have access to my back yard, but not the friends that I should allow in my bedroom.

To our detriment, through a status update or tweet, we have people to whom we can air out our dirty laundry at all times. This is further proof that each and every one of us have a desire to share the “real me” with those around us.

A few weeks ago I saw a post that troubled me, and made me appreciate Build A Better Us [marriage ministry] even more. She said, “I sure wish my husband made an effort to make me feel special on Mother’s Day.”

This is not only sad, but dangerous as well. This is unfortunate on two fronts. First, this woman obviously has some deep problems in her marriage. But, second, she also doesn’t have a real community to share it with. Thus, she finds a false one through her Facebook wall.

The 1,000 friends I mentioned before aren’t all going to be there to encourage me with Scripture when I need them, nor are they going to be there to pray for me.

This is one of the things I love about discipleship. As long as I have someone willing to lead me with biblical insight, I know I have a safe place to turn. He isn’t going to simply “like” my status or “@ reply” with a generic “I hope things get better”. I know that he is there to listen and to give me godly wisdom during the times when I need it the most.

Hopefully, I also play that role for the men I disciple. If I see them unloading all of their problems on Twitter then I know that I’m failing them. Our life-on-life is lacking something because I’m not a safe place for them to talk through their issues and I haven’t instilled in them the importance of taking their problems to Jesus.

As I am being discipled and discipling men I should strive for a relationship where they are allowed in my “bedroom”. They should have access to my closet. This will not only benefit both of us, but will be a source of sanctification. If there are things that I’m hiding from these men then I want them to have the right to ask me about it, to hold me accountable.

The Christian life isn’t one to be lived alone; we are made to be in relationship. While I can’t give everyone access to the back of my house, I do want to bestow on certain men the right to see all of me, even the dirty closet. If they don’t see these areas, then I can isolate and hide my struggles and sin. Or I will eventually allow the wrong people to see my private rooms who can take advantage of my vulnerability. This has the potential to be detrimental to my life and ministry.

Who do you allow in your bedroom? Who has access to your closet? Do you keep your struggles to yourself? Or do you have the people who can point you to Jesus when you need it the most?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Social Media and Ministry

Social media has added a new dimension to ministry. I addressed this in a previous post where I explained why I decided to start this blog in the first place. If you missed it, that article was basically a 600ish word rant about how, for the most part, I view social media as a joke and want to be a better steward of the platforms God has given me. While I don't recant my words there, I do want to clarify that this statement is more about how we use social media then about the technology itself. Many people use social media for valid reasons. Some people like to use it to keep loved ones in another city up to date on their lives. Other people use it for entertainment. And still others use it as a way to share their thoughts with the world. While there are many great ways to use social media, as ministers of the Gospel, let's not use it as a platform to subtly brag about how great we are.

With the advent of Twitter and Facebook, we have raised a generation of ministry workers who may or may not even realize how much they come across as "hey, look how much God uses me!!!" Are today's ministers bragging about the work the Lord is doing through them, or are they bragging about all the work they do for the Lord? The difference is that one is for His glory, and one is for theirs.

Half of the people I follow who have a public ministry fill their timelines with "pray for me as I'm going to preach at..." and "I've got the opportunity to speak to [enter group name here] - pray for me." While there is nothing wrong with these words, I would encourage those who Tweet or post in this manner to evaluate their hearts. Are you really depending on the prayers of others? Or are you really saying, "Hey, look who asked me to preach!”? If you fall into the latter category, I would encourage you to just be bold enough to say, "I assume you want to know where I'm preaching, who I'm preaching to, and what I'm preaching about.” They follow you; they want to know about you. Don't you dare mask it with "I want your prayers."

Those of us who are in public ministry need a heart check. When you have a job where you are in front of people and often get pats on the back for "how great of a lesson you just taught," it’s already hard not to become prideful. The last thing we need is another public outlet where we can talk about and draw attention to "how much the Lord uses us."

Something tells me that if Jesus had had a Twitter account on the day represented in Matthew 5-7 He would not have Tweeted "headed to Capernaum to preach. #sermononthemount."

So let’s examine our hearts. I ask you to think about your own Tweets and posts that ask for prayer. Is your goal to show that you're relying on the help of the Holy Spirit? Or do you, however subtly, just want to remind everyone how important you are?

OK, enough of my soapbox; I need to wrap things up so I can Tweet the link to this blog post to everyone.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Foundation of Love

            Discipleship has become a buzzword in many Christian circles lately. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact it’s a great thing. Jesus commands all of His followers to make disciples in what’s known as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. Sadly, we have fallen away from this being a commandment to all believers. We expect the people who work for our churches to teach the Word to everyone else, leaving the rest of us no responsibility to make disciples whatsoever. We have replaced what is our duty by passing the job on to the staff of our churches. This is not only lazy, but I would argue that is disobedient and therefore sinful.
            However, we must be careful in this. Making disciples and teaching others God’s Word IS a command. In fact, I would go so far as to say that teaching the Bible to our disciples is one of the most significant eternal investments we can make as believers. But we can’t forget one important thing… It’s not our greatest command. In Mark 12:28-30 we see someone approach Jesus and ask Him about that very issue. He says to Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28 ESV). Jesus answers him by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 and saying that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He then goes on to say that we are to also love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves. We see that God’s greatest command is based on love.
            If the goal of making disciples were to just teach the Bible then we were right by passing this job off to our pastors. After all, they often know much more about the Bible than we do and could easily do this Bible teaching from the pulpit. But teaching God’s Word is only part of the equation. Making disciples, just like anything else, needs to be founded on love. Love of God and love of our disciples. This love is built through our growing relationship with them. This is an unrealistic expectation for 1 pastor to have with a whole congregation. No one would ever even suggest that it would be possible for him to have a deep relationship with everyone who attends his church.
Our initial goal should be to spend time, show love, and serve them in any way we can. This will show our disciples that we value them. A byproduct of this love will be a strong relationship. Now you don’t have a relationship that is just you preaching at them. It is a relationship that is built on love.
If we start with loving our disciples, caring for them, and being their friend they will know that what we teach and tell them matters. It matters to them and becomes real because they know we care about them. They know what we say to them is in love. It is God’s Word that we want them to know and love the same way that we do.
Now we’re not just guessing at what we want to teach them because we know them. We know their struggles. We know their interests. We know their victories and we know their failures. We know their stories. We know who they are. We know them well enough to show them that God’s Word is relevant to their lives. We can show them that everything they are going through is addressed in the Bible. We can show them that it’s not just some study, it’s a love letter written to them from God.
I think one of the reasons that people want to jump right into teaching is because at the end of the day it’s easier. It’s not less work, but it definitely has a systematic formula. You teach them a passage or section of scripture and then call it a day. This isn’t so when you invest the time that it takes to formulate a loving friendship. There is no life-on-life with the Bible study driven model. Living life with someone takes time. We see this very clearly in the life of Jesus. Many Bible scholars have said that Jesus spent up to 85% of His final 3 years with His 12 disciples. He spent time with them because He loved them. He spent time with them because He didn’t see them as a project; He saw them as an eternal investment. He saw them as the ones who would carry on His message long after He was gone.
If I were to ask 100 people,  “what do Christians do?” The answer I’m going to get 90-100 times is “read the Bible, pray, and go to church”. While these are definitely things that we do to connect and communicate with the God we love, these aren’t our primary actions. If you made a chart of my time usage from month to month these actions would only make up a small fraction of my time. So why are we defined by them? In John 13:34-35 we see that Jesus says that we will be known as His disciples by the way we love one another. Jesus says that our Bible study and prayer times don’t define us. He says that we are known and defined by our love for one another. This should be true of our discipleship relationships as well.
All of our earthly relationships should be a reflection of our love of Jesus. And because of this love we will want to obey the commands that He has given us. This of course includes the command to make disciples. We should begin by loving them, and striving for them to love Jesus in the same way that we do. We show them His love by teaching His Word and sharing His Gospel. Only then will our disciples want to start the cycle themselves and begin making their own disciples. They will inevitably repeat what you model in front of them. If you model a Bible study, they will start a Bible study. If you love and emotionally invest in them, they will do the same for their disciples. I’ve turned this idea into the chart below:

Why do we make disciples in the first place?

            Let me be clear, I think that teaching the Bible and sharing theological truths are some of the most needed yet most neglected areas of discipleship. I’m simply suggesting that this isn’t WHY we disciple, nor should it be the place that we start. We start with love so that the relationship can grow. The transference of knowledge is what we are working toward, which is why it’s important to begin the relationship with the end in mind.
            Making disciples can be intimidating. Fortunately we have ministries like DownLine and DownLine Online that can teach you all you need to know to get started when making a disciple. They have even released the DownLine Builder, a customizable curriculum that takes the guesswork out of the Bible study side of the relationship. Loving them, however, is going to take intentional time and effort on your part. There is no formula, system, or curriculum for that. This is why it is called giving your life away for the sake of others. This is what Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 when he says, “We cared so much for you, and you became so dear to us, that we were willing to give our lives for you when we gave you God's message. (CEV)”
At the end of any discipleship relationship I have been in I want them to be able to say, “Jeff taught me a lot about the Bible. He also taught me what I need to know to be a successful Christian man. He did all of this by showing me the love of Jesus Christ.” That’s a success in my book. That’s what Jesus did with His 12 disciples, and that’s exactly what I want my disciples to do with their lives and the men disciple as well.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do you rejoice in His Word?

When I saw this video I was immediately convicted.
It's a video of an Indonesian tribe receiving a New Testament Bible in their language for the first time. It contains some VERY powerful imagery.
While my emotions were undoubtedly stirred up for them, I became convicted at the same time. I quickly began thinking about my own life. I thought of how many times I have let my Bible sit on the shelf. I thought of how many times that I woke up and flippantly read the Word of God as if it were a chore, another thing on my checklist of things to do.
I own around 10 Bibles, and my wife has another 6 or 7. That's around 17 Bibles that are in my home and I think nothing of it. These Indonesians are rejoicing to own just 1 for their whole family. They are already planning on making it a family heirloom, something to be cherished for generations to come.
I'm not saying that we should have a parade and dance downtown because we have the ability to own a Bible, but I am asking why most of us don't rejoice at all. Why isn't it commonplace for us to praise God for allowing us to read, own, and study His Word? Why don't we teach our children that the Bible is something to revere and cherish? Why don't we teach them that it isn't just something to leave on a shelf or table? That it isn't just something that we carry with us on a Sunday morning? This is the Word of God. It's a way that God has chosen to reveal Himself and His character to us. That should be reason enough to make all of us celebrate.

As you watch this video I challenge you to think of your own life. Think about the way you read your Bible. Evaluate what it means to you that God has allowed you to live in a country where you can not only own a Bible, but can read it without fear of persecution or danger. What will you do with this gift He has given you? Will you steward it well? Will you rejoice in His written Word? Or will your Bible just be another book that sits on the shelf?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Going With The Flow of Traffic

There is a certain part of the drive home from my office that I always dread. It's not a particularly bad stretch of road. And there aren’t even many red lights. To be honest, traffic is never really that bad either. The problem is that this is a very open road, with very little traffic, AND A SPEED LIMIT OF 35mph. This makes very little sense to me, and I don't know that I will ever understand it.

We all have these roads. The road that we drive enough to know what the speed limit is, and also drive enough to know that it won’t ever be enforced or obeyed (with the exception of a few old ladies). At any given time, the road I mentioned before has people going 50-60mph with no trouble whatsoever. So, when I get on this road I naturally do the exact same thing. We have even given this behavior a name. It's called, "going with the flow of traffic". In fact, I've thought several times about how the conversation might go if I happened to get pulled over on my way home. I imagine it'd go something like this, "Mr Howard, would you happen to know how fast you were going before I pulled you over?" Then I would reply, "Why no, Mr. Officer. I don't. I was just going with the flow of traffic." And then we would exchange pleasantries and he would send me on my way ticketless.

This sounds absurd, but this is exactly what all of us like to do. We like to justify our bad behavior and habits based on what those around us are doing. We like to excuse our wanting to speed based on the speeding of other people.

There's a saying that I'm sure we all heard from our parents in Jr High, "you are who you hang around". I know for me, this was definitely the case. What is acceptable to the company you keep will inevitably become acceptable to you.

This got me thinking, how many other times in life do I compare my actions to the actions of someone else? How much do I allow what my culture is doing dictate what my moral standards will be? Am I basing my standard of what is acceptable and unacceptable on the actions of man? Or is my standard truly something higher? Are my morals really based on something more?

If you are a follower of Christ, you are called to a higher standard. You're standard of perfection is no longer what this world tells you it is. In fact, perfection isn't even of this world. As a Christian, my standard of perfection is Christ. He is my moral compass. He is what to strive for, not what my culture tries to tell me is perfect. If we base our actions on those around us we have a problem. The problem is that my standard of holiness is no longer a perfect God; it is now a sinful and fallen man. This means that my view of perfection is no longer truly perfect. What is acceptable to me isn’t really acceptable at all.

None of us are perfect. We never have been, and on earth we never will become that way. This is one of the greatest things about being a Christian. We don’t have to be. When we trust in Jesus for our salvation we get what’s called “imputed righteousness”. Put simply, Christ puts His perfection on our account. Christ is the perfection that we could never be on our own.

When all is said and done it’s not about whether I go 35mph on that road or if I go 65mph. The real issue is why I find acceptable what I find acceptable. Do I think God loves me any less if I go over the speed limit? Of course I don’t. But if He isn’t the driving force that helps me make decisions based on HIS standards, then how can I say that I’m really following Him?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Remembering Our Victories

Today is a big day for me. Today marks 4 years that I am drug free. I usually refrain from posting about myself, but I thank you for bearing with me.

For years and years Israel was in slavery to the Egyptians. It was terrible. Not only were they forced to do labor for the Egyptians, but the Egyptian Pharaoh persecuted them as well. He passed harsh and unheard of decrees that lead to the persecution of the Israeli people. When things were at their worst, the Israelites were given an absurd quota of bricks they would be forced to make or move from one place to another. If they failed to reach their goal, their children would be murdered in front of them and the bodies would be mixed into the brick mortar.

Needless to say, this was a terrible time.

However, after a series of plagues sent by God, Pharaoh had no choice but to release the Israelites from captivity. After 400 years of slavery they were finally free.

During their travels, and a long series of events that I will refrain from telling you about here, they get lost and begin to wander in the desert. And during this time they begin to grumble and go so far as to say things like, “At least when we were in Egypt we had food and a place to stay. Here we are wandering around the desert starving.”
So what does God do? He provides food. What do the Israelites do? Complain that it’s not the food they want…

At this point, you may be wondering to yourself, “What does this have to do with you being sober?”
The reason I told you that story wasn’t to give you a look at Israel’s history, it’s to get the point across that drugs are my Egypt. That’s what had me enslaved. It wasn’t for 400+ years, but it did steal roughly 8 years of my life. And remembering the “Egypt” I came from is important on days like today. It’s important for me to celebrate the Lord liberating me from this slavery. Otherwise, I could be like the Israelites and begin to complain about “how good things used to be.” Ridiculous.

Before I knock the Israelites too much, they do something that is fantastic in the book of Joshua. I won’t get into it all but just know that the Lord led Joshua into some great missions, all of which the Lord was faithful to bring him through. One of the most fantastic is their crossing of the Jordan River.
After these missions Joshua, as instructed by God, has 12 men get 12 stones from the Jordan River to place at the next campsite. This is important because it was a reminder. These stones serve as a reminder to the Israelites of God’s faithfulness, a reminder of God delivering them from the hands of the wicked.

I preface with all of that to get one point across. Isn’t it important for us to do the same thing? Shouldn’t we set up reminders for ourselves to remember all of the great things God has done for us too? Shouldn’t we have these “stone reminders” to ensure that we don’t forget of His faithfulness in our lives?
When my wife and I got engaged she gave me a glass vase with the words “God is faithful” hand written on the outside. She then handed me a small bag of pebbles and a permanent marker. Her instructions were simple, “When God answers a prayer, or does something miraculous in your life, write it on a pebble and put it in the vase.”

Today I get to drop a pebble in the jar that says, “4 years sober”. This is a day I don’t want to forget…

People often ask me what the secret to getting and staying clean is. I’m afraid there is no shortcut or quick answer to this. There is no cookie cutter formula because everyone’s situation is so extremely different. All I can do is share with you what worked for me, and what I’ve seen the Lord use to work in the lives of others.

Long Term Treatment – Check into a long term, in house treatment facility. There are several good ones that I’ve come across. But be sure that it is away from your town and is LONG TERM. It took years to get to be a junkie, I’m afraid it’s going to take more than 30 days to not be one anymore…
(A great one that I believe in is Teen Challenge)

Accountability – This is the numero uno rule in a recovering addicts life. You must have people in your life that have your best interest in mind. The people who will ask you the tough questions. People who give you real advice and then love you enough to hold you accountable to following it. Find a Celebrate Recovery in your town, be around people who understand your sickness, not people you can deceive. Proverbs 18:1 says, “He who separates himself seeks his own desire”. And for addicts, this means getting high. Isolation=relapse.

Finding a new home – After treatment, this was vital for my sobriety. Thanks to my uncle John taking a chance on me, I was able to have a fresh start in a new town. I got to be the new “me”, not the “me” that everyone used to know. We see in Mark 6 that even Jesus couldn’t do a mighty work in His hometown because their lack of belief in Him. I think this is true for an addict as well. They need a new start, and for most of us this means not going back home.

Replace how you spend your newfound free time - Using drugs is a full time job. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who has ever been strung out. You have to hustle up your money (stealing, lying, etc). Then you have to find a dealer who has the stuff, arrange to meet them somewhere, only then make the actual deal (the whole time looking over your shoulder hoping to not get arrested or robbed). Only then do you actually get to use. Then begins the lying to family and friends about how you’re not high, or you did something else with the money. After this, you are forced to immediately start the process all over again; the process to be repeated day after day after day. Obviously, once you are sober, you have A LOT of free time that you didn’t have before. You know what they say, “idle hands is the devil’s workshop”. Find ways to be positive with this time. Get a hobby, volunteer helping others, JUST STAY BUSY!

Surround yourself with positive people – As an addict we like hanging around people that make us feel better about ourselves. We hang around people who are extra scummy so that we don’t feel quite as bad about ourselves all the while thinking, “at least I’m not as bad as that guy”. Ironically, we inevitably end up being just as bad as they are in the end. Instead, hang around positive people. Try to be like them. Do what they do. They will also be able to hold you accountable.

You must have a new mind – If you are going to have a new decision making process this is a must. Sound crazy? Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Simply put, this is saying that when we present ourselves to God our minds can be changed; we can have a new way of thinking.

You must be a new person – If you are going to have this new mind, you must be a whole new person. Sound crazy? 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.” This tells us that when we come to Christ we are a new person; we aren’t the person we once were…

Be involved in your local church – Serve, serve, and serve. Don’t just show up and take all you can get, that’s what the old person would do. Volunteer to set up, volunteer to tear down, don't just be a "pew warmer". Be a blessing to the local Body, not a burden. This will also add to your accountability.

Be involved in discipleship – Not only should you have the people mentoring you and holding you accountable that I mentioned before, but you should find someone that you can teach as well. It is SOOOOO great for me to have the men in my life that not only teach me the Word, but the ones that expect me to teach it to them as well. It’s amazing what having someone that counts on you will do for your determination. Also adding to your accountability (see a pattern here?)

This is in no way an answer to addiction, but it is what the Lord has used to help me. And what I’ve seen work for others.

Days like today are the days I like to remember all that the Lord has delivered me from, the Egypts that He has brought me through.

What are your victories? Are you remembering and celebrating those?