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Dec 31, 2010

Don’t Be a Christian Lone Ranger

In Mark 6:7 we read that Jesus sent out the disciples “two by two” to proclaim the gospel and preach repentance, to cast out demons, and to heal the sick. Then in Luke 10 we also read of Jesus sending out seventy-two others, again “two by two”, to preach and to heal.

What was the wisdom of Jesus to send out his kingdom workers in pairs? Why not send them out as individuals? After all, with so few disciples in the beginning, couldn’t God have reached twice as many sick and lost souls if he didn’t double up on his missionary teams? Couldn’t even spiritual giants like Peter, Paul, and other apostles fly solo? Did they really need the buddy system?

Of course Jesus knew what he was doing when he deployed his disciples in pairs, and his timeless wisdom still applies to us today. In Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, we read that “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!”

I don't think the magic number is just two either.  Proverbs says there is wisdom in many counselors.  David had his best friend Johnathan, but also travelled and fought with his band of mighty men.  Even Jesus himself called Peter, James, and John to his side to be with him for both his greatest trials as well as his most glorious moments.  The point is, we need other men along side of us to best experience our lives as men of God.  Having a trustworthy friend and partner by your side has many advantages.  We need someone to count on, to rely on, and to share in the work to which God has called us.

For most of us married men, the first partner who comes to mind is our wife, and rightly so. Our wife is united with us in life, in ministry, and in our spiritual walk in general. In a good marriage, we experience and share everything of substance, good and bad, throughout our marriage and life together. This is a blessing from God. But as married men, we sometimes lose or neglect our ability and responsibility to foster close friendships with other men. Especially when we’re blessed with a wife who we can honestly call our best friend, we can fall into a comfort zone where our wife and children become our only close relationships and we lose the benefit of what other men could and should provide as well.

So men, don’t forget, God also has in mind that we share our walk and our work with other men. Jesus sent out his disciples, even the married ones such as Peter, with another man for a partner. There is something essential about sharing our lives and our ministry work with other Christian men. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but here are my top reasons for going out into the world “two by two” with other godly men.
  1. Protect and support one another.
  2. Encourage mutual development and sanctification, “as iron sharpens iron.”
  3. Rejoice in the triumphs and share in the burdens and trials.
  4. Complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. (Think Moses and Aaron or Paul and his missionary partners)
  5. Hold each other accountable; exhort one another in truth and love.
God never designed us to be lone rangers in the world. As I wrote once before, not even the Lone Ranger himself was alone. He fought evil and went through life with the constant support of a faithful friend by his side. And so should you and I. Pray today for God to bring other men into your life who you can partner with and become mutually accountable to. Step out of your comfort zone and engage other men in more than superficial talk after church about sports and politics. Follow the model our Lord gave to his disciples and strive to go out into the world “two by two”. God doesn’t expect us to be lone rangers.

Dec 23, 2010

Merry Christmas to the Children of Broken Homes

This is a picture of my sons on their last innocent Christmas before their world fell apart. They were only five and nine years old. Young enough that at least one still believed in Santa and both still believed that their parents would be happily married forever. Their only concern in the world was what they would find under the Christmas tree the next morning.

By the following Christmas, these boys had learned that their home and their family were going to be broken apart. Their parents had set them down in the summer to tell them that they were getting divorced. While the younger son eventually broke the thick tension with an awkward joke, “Yeah, double presents next Christmas!”, clearly both boys were just beginning to learn what it would be like to go through the rest of their childhood as children of divorced parents. There would never again be a Christmas, or birthday, or holiday not tainted by the family changes thrust upon them unexpectedly.

When I look at this picture of my sons from not so long ago, I see faces that now exist only in photographs and memories. My younger son, with his bright smile and handsome downturned eyes he gets from his French grandfather, doesn’t yet carry the sadness that came later after being pulled between two parents and two worlds that grew increasingly incompatible. My older son was still carefree and childlike, not yet carrying the burdens of having to defend his mom and reject his own dad. These are worries that no child should have to bear and which eat away at the innocence and joy of youth.

My sons have had it worse than many children of divorce. Not all divorced parents alienate their children from the other parent, forcing kids to make the unthinkable decision of which parent to love and which to reject. Not all kids get grilled every time they return from spending a little time with their mom or dad. Not all children have to hear a parent they once adored get disparaged, insulted, and disrespected in front of them – by their other parent. Some divorced parents actually try to co-parent and follow the rules for their children’s sake. Some divorced kids actually get to love and respect both of their parents even after they live in separate homes. Many children, even with divorced parents, still get to be raised in loving homes by both of their parents, and enjoy a relatively normal, happy, and secure childhood, despite the ending of their parents' marriage.

On the other hand, my sons have also had it much better than many children of divorce. Too often, kids are simply abandoned by one of their parents, who one day just leaves them to pursue their own life and to escape their responsibilities. Some kids know where their father or mother ran off to, others never see them again. Too many children are abused or have to witness one parent abusing their other parent even in front of them. Some children can’t visit or live with their mom or dad because their addictions or their lifestyle make it unsafe for them to be together. Many divorced kids go through the rest of their childhood, and their life, never again feeling the security of knowing that both their mother and father love them and are there for them.

My heart breaks for children who have experienced the curse of divorce firsthand in their lives. They have to deal with difficulties and hurts every day which other kids don’t. From the weekly inconvenience of living as nomads, travelling back and forth between two homes, all the way to the unresolved holes in their hearts from a missing parent, these kids experience the Fall of Man more than any child should. Christmas only makes these impacts worse for a child of divorce. We have more “visitation” schedules to coordinate, more family gatherings to attend or be absent from, and a more pronounced and unavoidable feeling of loss when relationships are still severed or strained.

But fortunately, Christmas is exactly the cure for these pains too. By Christ coming to earth and dying for our sins – the sin of divorce and all others too – we can finally have hope for restored relationships, forgiveness, and renewed peace and love. My Christmas prayer is that God will grant special grace on all the children I know who have had their lives impacted through broken homes.

So I’m praying for my niece and nephew and for their mom who is encouraging them to spend time with their dad who’s come this year for a visit. God bless my step-daughter’s friend who is willing to give her father another chance at Christmas even after all his addictions and failures. I pray for strength and wisdom for the wonderful teenagers in our small group who are still dealing with their parents' divorce. Merry Christmas to my two former students who now live all the way across an ocean from their dad.

And most of all, I pray for God’s grace and protection for my own children. Merry Christmas to my step-daughter, whose life between two homes can be hard but whose parents love her dearly and do a great job working together to raise her as best as they can. I’m thankful that I can now be a part of that effort too. And Merry Christmas to my own sons, wherever you are this year. I love you and miss you more than you’ll ever know, especially right now. You will always be in your father’s heart and I pray for God to bless you and keep you always.

Dec 19, 2010

What Do You Get For a God Who Has Everything?

As we’re all finishing our Christmas shopping this week, there’s probably that one last person you’re still shopping for because they already have everything. The toughest person to shop for is that man or woman who already has everything they would ever need. As challenging as that may be, what then can we offer to God who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and in fact created and therefore owns everything in existence?

As I sat in church this morning surrounded by beautiful poinsettia plants, I remembered a story where I ran into a similar dilemma. Years ago I made a trip from Florida to the Washington D.C. area for some meetings at our division headquarters. While I was there, I also planned on getting something nice to take to our division secretary, Mary. This sweet lady arranged our travel, processed our expense reports, and provided all kinds of other assistance even for us remote employees way down in Florida. Since this would be my first chance to meet her in person, I wanted to arrive at the office with some nice flowers as a thank you gift.

When I arrived in D.C., I drove through town looking for a florist. Mind you, this was before the days of Garmin and Tom Tom, so finding a particular business while out of town was a challenge. I happened to find a florist, but since it was late December they didn’t have a very good selection of fresh flowers. So being determined to find Mary something nice, I pressed on in search of another flower shop. I finally stumbled upon a second shop, but they didn’t have any better selection of flowers. Then it dawned on me that I should just get a nice poinsettia plant instead. After all, it was almost Christmas, the plant would probably last longer than regular flowers, and they had plenty of nice plants to choose from. So I carefully looked over each and every one and selected the nicest to purchase for my gift.

I then drove to our office, parked my rental car, and walked into the tall building with my briefcase in one hand and Mary’s bright red poinsettia in the other. But when I walked through the glass doors into the huge lobby, my heart sank. Covering nearly every square foot of the building’s lobby were hundreds of poinsettia plants, even in the same pot and wrapping as what I held in my hand. What I had spent two determined hours to locate and purchase suddenly seemed all too commonplace.

Heartbroken but with no other option at this point, I still took my own poinsettia up to Mary and presented my humble gift to her with my appreciation for all she had done for us. Being the kind woman she was, she thanked me, protested that I really didn’t have to buy her anything, and then sat my plant down next to the other three poinsettias she already had in her office. Throughout the day, other co-workers who saw me arriving with my gift even teased by asking if I had just swiped a plant out of the lobby on my way in.

This reminded me of the effort we often go through to offer our gifts to God. While he asks for our praise, our obedience, our prayers, our tithes, and our service, we shouldn’t forget that while we may owe him everything, he doesn’t need anything. We can make a mistake when we bring our various gifts to God in order to earn something or to justify ourselves. There is nothing we can give to God which can ever atone for our sins, make us right in his judgment, or even repay him for the countless blessings we receive from him every day. In Isaiah 64:6, God even says "our righteous acts are like filthy rags."  It is only when we offer our gifts to him out of pure gratitude and faith that he mysteriously transforms them into pleasing aromas and worthy offerings.

If our sinful hearts were naturally inclined to obedience, God wouldn’t have given us the Law to define sin. If we weren’t prone to stray from his law, he wouldn’t have sent all the prophets to call us back. And if we weren’t utterly lost in our sins, and had any way at all to redeem ourselves, God wouldn’t have had to send his only son to die for the price of our sins. Only the gift of the righteousness which Christ earned for us can ever satisfy what we owe to God.

In this Christmas season, when we drive ourselves frantic and crazy trying to find the right gifts for everyone we love, don’t forget to pause and consider the greatest gift of all, the gift of salvation freely given to anyone who calls on the name of Jesus Christ as their Lord.

Dec 16, 2010

Humbled and Inspired by Greatness

There's nothing like getting kicked in the head by a 60-year old man (twice!) to keep you humble. It helps a little when that man was once an undefeated world champion kick boxer so famous for his lightning fast kicks that he still carries the nickname Superfoot. Even so, such an experience can go a long way in keeping your own pride in check, something most of us men could use at least occasional help with.

I was about half way to my black belt in karate the first time I got to meet and work out with Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. He was giving a sparring seminar at our karate school and at one point, asked me to get up and face off with him as he showed us some of his proven fighting techniques. As he addressed the class, he barely even looked at me. I was just his punching dummy for the sake of the demonstration.

I was well aware of who he was - the middleweight world champion in full-contact karate for six years with a 23-0 record, a 10th degree karate black belt, also an expert at wrestling and judo, an action movie star who’s fought on screen with Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan, and the guy who taught Elvis martial arts. Heck, this was a guy who lost a testicle during a fight and saved it to show his friends! And now he was facing off with me.

I certainly knew who I was too. At this time I was only a lowly blue belt with just a few years of training. The only real fight I had ever had outside of sparring in my karate studio was back in 8th grade and I ended up with a black eye and bruised ego. And now I was toe to toe with a man who has never lost a professional fight and has a world-famous nickname for his left foot.

However, (and here comes the good part) I was trained how to block and how to spar, so when Superfoot threw up his first kick towards my head - in slow motion, just to demonstrate to the rest of the class - I reflexively put up my hand to block. I knew darn well I wasn’t really going to block his kick if he really meant to hit me, but my muscle memory took over and my hand went up. Well, that was apparently a mistake. Superfoot saw my hand go up and decided to make a big show of it in front of my fellow students and our instructor, a good friend of his for years.

"Oh, think you can block my kick do you," he teased. "You think you can shut down Superfoot Wallace, eh? OK, well let's see what you got!"

Though he was basically ignoring me before, I now had Superfoot's full attention, as he started bobbing back and forth, up and down, just waiting to strike. And I knew it was coming. I knew he was going to kick me and it didn't help. I knew exactly where he was going to kick me and it didn’t help. I even knew which kick he was going to throw, including the fake out move that he was teaching us, and it didn't help. I think he even yelled when he did it and it still didn't help.

Before I could raise my hand to block again, the same hand that had gotten his undesired attention in the first place, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace kicked me on both sides of my head. He had roundhouse kicked one side of my head and with the same foot still in the air, whipped around and hook kicked the other side of my bewildered head. As the class roared in applause and as my instructor laughed, I just stood in awe of a true master, who even at almost 60 could still show the speed, strength, and grace of what my chosen art was supposed to look like. It was an honor (and a relief) to finally bow to him and sit back down where I belonged.

From this humbling experience, I learned two things, and neither had anything to do with how to throw a kick or a punch. I learned the value of surrounding yourself with greatness - both in inspiration to grow and develop, but also in humility to keep grounded. Seeing what was possible in karate after years of hard work and discipline inspired me to keep going, to develop and learn, and to achieve my goal of earning my black belt a few years later. But being face to face with someone so much more accomplished also kept me humble, even as I progressed myself. As I moved along and eventually felt that I could take on any other student at my karate school, I still knew that my instructor could put me on the ground whenever he wished, and if he ever couldn't, he could still call his buddy Superfoot to come back and kick some humility into my head again.

As Christian men going through this life with a goal of ongoing sanctification, but with a constant need for humility as well, we would do well to surround ourselves with other godly men who have developed themselves into role models and examples of what we could hope to achieve. It does no good to compare ourselves to supposedly lesser men for the sake of self-pride or passive comfort. Keep the pride of your accomplishments in check by standing toe to toe with even better examples.

So you've been on a teen mission trip or witnessed to a friend at work? Before you think your part of fulfilling the Great Commission is done, come listen to the visiting missionary who has been shot at and lives in a Communist or Muslim country thousands of miles from the safety of America. You say you've studied your Bible and memorized a few verses. Good for you, but why not try learning now from someone who's been to seminary and studied those same verses in the original Hebrew or Greek. And even seminary graduates can still benefit from sitting at the learned feet of great teachers like R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and others.

There will always be examples of people who can both inspire us to reach higher goals and yet humble us to keep our pride in check. But it's up to us to continually surround ourselves with these examples. Seek them out, submit yourself to their instruction, and be inspired by their example. It's worth an occasional kick to the head.

Dec 14, 2010

Using Rock 'n Roll to point to the Rock of our Salvation

In a recent Sunday school lesson, we were studying the passage in John 1:51 about "the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." This is a reference to Jacob's dream in Genesis 28:10-17, but for me it also brought to mind two other references, admittedly from far less divine sources.  My mind strayed back to two rock songs I've heard many times, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and Jacob's Ladder by Rush.

For those of you who have listened to either song, you know the lyrics have nothing to do with the biblical accounts from Genesis or John.  However, at least their titles seem to have been inspired by the biblical story.  Perhaps for these secular song writers, the idea of a ladder reaching to Heaven at least sounded like an interesting thought to ponder, a poetic image to craft into a song title.  There are many other familiar references in our pop culture which originated in the stories and teaching of the Bible.  But how does this apply to us Christians who (we're told) aren't even supposed to know any Led Zeppelin or Rush songs?

If the apostle Paul is any example to us, these cultural references can be a natural launching point to witness to unbelievers, who are steeped in the world's culture without even knowing that much of it originates in the Bible.  In Acts 17:22-33, we have the account of Paul preaching in the Areopagus to the people of Athens.  He starts his discourse with a reference to a local altar to an "unknown god."  He then cites the words of three Greek poets and uses these references to teach about the one true God who created us and lives in us.  It didn't even matter that the Greek poets Paul quoted were writing their words of praise to the false god Zeus.  Paul was able to start where his audience was, with familiar references from their own culture, to begin a conversation that led them to the Truth.

When we Christians witness to unbelievers who may have never read the Bible, have seldom set foot in a church, and are certainly not familiar with the all the churchy lingo we love to use, why don't we follow Paul's example and start with what the people already know.  There are many reference from secular songs, movies, books, and works of art which can easily lead to a question or comment about a biblical truth.  And if the apostle Paul could be well versed with the pagan Greek and Roman culture for the sake of reaching his world, then let's not be too judgemental on those of us who know a few rock songs and have seen more than rated-G Disney movies.

Why not ask a friend next time you're 'getting the Led out' what they think a stairway to Heaven could mean, and show them how Christ, the Son of Man, is that path to Heaven.  Next time you're listening to that oldies station with your co-worker or family member and the Byrd's song Turn Turn Turn comes on, ask them if they know the lyrics came straight from Ecclesiastes 3 and maybe open it up with them to study the futility of their "life under the sun" as compared to a life with God.  Or the next time you watch one of the countless action movies with the sacrificing hero dying dramatically with outstretched arms (Platoon, Braveheart, Gladiator, etc.), turn the dinner discussion after the movie to how the one true Savior really did die for us and how he suffered even more on our behalf.