More Than Numbers

advertising-by-the-numbers-its-big-business-with-big-numbers-to-matchNumbers are my life. No, I’m not an accountant or a mathematician. I’m not an engineer or a banker. I don’t run actuary tables for insurance companies or develop spreadsheets for corporations. My math skills top out with basic algebra and my knowledge of Excel is pretty limited. Nonetheless, numbers are my life.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve had a few health problems. And, like anyone who has had serious issues with their health, numbers begin to play an important part in determining how things are going. I track my weight, my blood pressure, and my glucose levels. I use apps on my phone that chart how many steps I take and how many miles I walk. I have lab work regularly that measures everything from my cholesterol to my medication levels. So, every day…every week…every month, some number comes in that tells me how I’m doing.

In addition to being a patient, I also have a day job. I pastor a church. That means in addition to preaching and teaching and ministering, I deal with a number of…numbers. Every week I process through attendance and offerings and other statistical measures of how our church is doing (or at least that’s what many say measures how our church is doing). Due to our facility being destroyed by a fire in 2015, we are now in a building program which involves things like budgets, blueprints, and insurance reports. Yep, you guessed it. More numbers.

The other day, I was thinking about all the numbers that define my life. It was kind of funny that I was having these thoughts while hooked up to a heart monitor and walking on a treadmill. As I was walking, paying close attention to the statistical dashboard in front of me, that phrase “numbers are my life” kept running through my mind. And then it hit me. No, they’re not. Numbers don’t define me. Jesus does.

Through His death and resurrection, Jesus freed me from the power and penalty of sin. He has forgiven me. Because of Him, I have been adopted into the family of God and made a co-heir with Christ. He has promised that He will never leave me nor forsake me and that one day, I will spend eternity with Him. He has changed me…and He is changing me. And, He defines me. Not my weight or my lab results. Not how many people were in church this week or how big the restrooms in our new building are. He cares about my health and the health of our church, but those things are not who I am. I am a child of God because of Jesus. And, that’s something numbers just can’t measure. Numbers aren’t my life. Jesus is.

The challenge for us is to understand what really defines our lives. It’s not our careers or our bank accounts. It’s not if our kid makes the team or the honor roll. It’s not how many miles we can run or if we can fit into the clothes we wore in college. It’s not the fame or the popularity that comes with successful ministries. Our true purpose…our true success is found in Jesus. Our acceptance and joy are found in Him. Our contentment and security? In Christ. So, let us stop seeking these things somewhere else. The numbers will never provide the true picture of who…and whose we are. We’re more than numbers. We’re children of the living God.

I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19, CSB

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Fix It

breaking-worldTechnology is great, except for when it isn’t. The other day, my iPhone acted up and some app wouldn’t work properly. I had uploaded some meeting notes into the cloud and the app kept crashing. And, I got frustrated. I tend to do that when things break. My frustrations aren’t limited to the tech world. Leaky pipes, sticky garage doors, and touchy automobiles frustrate me too. Things are supposed to work the way they’re designed to, and when they don’t, it’s aggravating.

My guess is that you share in my frustrations. Most of us can only handle so much brokenness. We want things right. We want things to work properly. We want things fixed. And, our desire to address the broken is not limited to our gadgets and gizmos. We want the same thing for our culture and our world. A simple look at the headlines reminds us of the brokenness of our world and our collective desire for things to be right. Social unrest. Corruption. Lawlessness. Disregard for life. Division and discord. The list goes on and on. We want these things fixed. We want these things to be right. We want things to work the way they’re supposed to.

At its most basic, our desire for things to be right is a desire for justice. When my iPhone doesn’t work properly, I want Apple to fix it. After all, they made the thing. They can make it right. Fixing the technologies in our lives are one thing. Fixing our world is something else. Where do we go fix it? Our governments? At best, their solutions are short-lived. At worst, they compound the problems. Our collective sense of right and wrong? The problem here is that we are fickle. Today’s right is tomorrow’s wrong. We shift with the wind and the tide. Social media? Right. Ranting on Twitter and Facebook really solves things. No, none of these are real answers. We’re going to have to go the One who made us. Only He can make things right. Only He can fix it.

The Bible assures us that one day, Jesus will come and right every wrong. He will fix what’s broken in our world. As believers, we long for that day. We long for His justice to reign and the corruption caused by sin to be completely overcome. But, what about the gap between then and now? More importantly, what do we do when we realize that we are as corrupt and broken as the world around us? We have to look to the One who made us because only He can fix it.

When Jesus died on the cross, He satisfied God’s justice. He bore the judgment we deserve. And, because of that, we are free in Him. While we still bear the scars and the struggles of this broken life, we know that God’s grace has lifted us. We are able to move forward and persevere in a world filled with things that don’t work right. Grace works like that. It deepens our understanding of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world around us. We grieve more as we mature in our faith. Our heart aches more and more because of the reality of sin and the impact it has in our lives and in our world. But, in the midst of our sorrow, there is the strength to go on and the hope to look ahead. Jesus is indeed coming again and He will right every wrong. Justice will be served. He will fix this broken world and He will reign in righteousness. He will fix it. Until then, His grace is sufficient. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

 

 

I Am Barabbas

gavelIn the classic movie Spartacus, Kirk Douglas plays a slave who leads a revolt against the Roman Empire. When he and his men are finally caught, the Roman authorities want the ringleader of the rebellion and they ask who is Spartacus? As Douglas stands to identify himself as the leader, man after man stands saying “I am Spartacus.”

The New Testament tells us of another insurrectionist…a man by the name of Barabbas. He too had broken Roman law and rebelled. He had revolted against the Empire, robbed, and murdered for his cause. He had now been caught, tried, and found guilty. He was condemned to death because of his transgressions. No appeal was left for him. It was only a matter of time and time was running out.

Inject into that equation, a man by the name of Jesus. He also had been arrested, but the Roman Governor Pilate found no guilt in Him. Torn between political pressure and his own investigation, Pilate attempted to placate the angry mob by offering them a choice between Barabbas and Jesus. The crowd called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. Many suggest that Jesus would be hung on the cross prepared for Barabbas. An innocent man died in the place of one guilty and condemned.

I am not Spartacus, but I am Barabbas. I have rebelled against the sovereign Creator of the universe. I have revolted against Him and gone my own way (Isaiah 53:6). I have taken what is His and used it for myself. I have murdered in my heart by being angry in unjust ways (Matthew 5:22). I too am guilty, and my guilt justifies my condemnation. Death is a certainty. But thankfully, Jesus died in my place. The innocent bore the punishment of the guilty.

The Bible says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV).

I am guilty. I am condemned. But, Jesus took my place. He paid the price for my sin. He died that I might be set free. I am no longer dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked (Ephesians 2:1-2). I am alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).

I am Barabbas. And so are you. We are all guilty and condemned. Yet, God in His great love for us provided a substitute. An innocent man died in our place. Our debt has been paid. Our crimes have been paid for. Justice is done and the sentence has been carried out. We have been released from the power and the penalty of sin. In Christ, we are free. In Him, we are alive. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.

Speaking through the Ages

 

bible-sunset-2

It’s amazing to me the way God speaks through His Word. Sixty-six books written over the span of hundreds of years by scores of authors in a myriad of different contexts and circumstances all with one central theme.

I was reminded of this yet again today. This morning, I was reading in the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Hebrews. At first glance, it seems like these two book have little in common. One centers around a man’s life while in exile in a place very foreign to him and the other stresses the superiority of Christ. They were written hundreds years apart in very different circumstances. Yet, upon a closer look, they both emphasize the importance of faithfulness in the face of temptation and pressure to do something else.

Throughout the book of Daniel, we read of a quartet of young Jewish exiles who are growing up and growing old in Babylon. Over the years, they forsake the king’s food, refuse to bow down and worship his statue, and hold fast in the worship of their God in face of constant threats and opposition. The culture around them pushes them to worship one way, yet their hearts remain true to the one true God.

The book of Hebrews is also written to people being pressured to forsake their faith in Jesus. They are being beckoned to walk away and to worship in some other way. The author of this letter goes to great lengths to encourage his readers to hold fast to Jesus because He is superior in every way to anything they had ever known.

The correlation between these two very different writings struck me afresh this morning as I read of Daniel’s insistence to continue to pray to God in the manner in which he was accustomed. He did so knowing it would jeopardize his life. He refused to waver in his faith. He clung to what he knew to be right, even in the face of an incredible amount of pressure. As he did so, God not only delivered him from the lion’s den, but He also revealed to him a vision that concluded with this promise:

“And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’” (Daniel 7:27 ESV)

Daniel stood fast and drew encouragement by the promise that God would prevail.

As I turned several hundred pages (and several hundred years ) forward in my Bible to the book of Hebrews, I read of the marvelous provision of Jesus and its sole sufficiency to save us from sin and judgment. Despite pressure to look in some other direction, Hebrews reminds us to cling to Jesus and to salvation only He can offer. And, it challenges us to encourage others to do the same, especially in times where pressure mounts to do otherwise. Towards the end of the tenth chapter, the author writes:

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV, emphasis added)

The pressure to walk away is real. The voices calling us to quit are loud. The temptation to give up is alluring. Constantly struggling against the winds of culture can be tiring. Yet, Daniel’s example challenges us to press on and to hold fast, even in the face of opposition. His vision encourages us with the hope of Jesus’ ultimate victory. The words of Hebrews remind us that Jesus is sufficient to bring us into right relationship with God and because of Him, we can stand with confidence. So, we should encourage one another to hold fast even in the midst of the difficult days in which we live.

So, draw strength from these words. Be encouraged by them. Words written hundreds of years apart by different men in the midst of different circumstances, yet united in a message of hope and deliverance and in the encouragement that offers.

 

Through the Valley

Middleburg Heights, OH: Satuday In The Park- walking path at Lake Isaac Waterfowl SanctuaryMost evenings, my wife and I like to take a walk around our neighborhood. We have a variety of routes we take depending on how long we want our walk to last. Some nights our walks are quick ten minute jaunts around the block. Other nights they’re two or three mile excursions. Our route depends on any number of circumstances. Some nights we don’t have as much time as others. Some nights the weather impacts our choice. Some nights we may not feel particularly well or perhaps we ate too much for dinner that night. The circumstances may vary, but we keep walking. And, some walks are longer than others.

Life is the same way. Every season of our lives…every walk is touched by different circumstances. Some are short and over very quickly. Others drag on and on and seem without end. Some walks are longer than others.

One of the more familiar passages of Scripture is the twenty-third Psalm. In it, the song-writer (Psalms are ancient songs) David talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We often connect this verse to the grief and pain associated with death, and that’s a fair application. Many commentators, however, suggest that the valley could describe any of life’s more difficult circumstances. So, it would be fair to say that some of the more difficult seasons of life could be described as such a valley. And, as we all can attest, many times these walks through the valley last much longer than we’d like.

As we reflect on this verse, notice that the we are not alone in this journey. The good shepherd guides us. He is with us. He comforts us. Despite the duration of the season and the depth of the valley, we don’t face it by ourselves. We don’t have to rely on our own strength to get through it.

Notice too that we are to keep walking. We don’t stop. We don’t quit. We keep moving forward. When the shadows are dark and the journey seems unending, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep trusting the One who guides and comforts us. Know that Jesus is with us and He will bring us through. Just take one more step.. Yes, some walks are longer than others, but with every step we take know that we’re one step closer to emerging from the shadows.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 ESV)

Voices

Through the years, I’ve conversed with a number of people who have hearing loss. One of the things I’ve learned in those experiences is that it’s often not the volume of the speaker that’s the problem. It’s the number of people speaking. Sometimes, just the sheer number of speakers creates so much noise, the listener can’t really focus on the one voice they need to hear.

In a way, our society is like that. We are surrounded by so many sources of information. We go to news sites and get the day’s headlines. We hear a number of voices on social media offer their takes on those headlines. We have friends tell us their opinions through email and texts. Then, when evening rolls around, we see the entertainment industry try to shape our thoughts on those subjects through television and movies. Reporters, bloggers, news anchors, pundits, politicians, friends, neighbors, actors and comedians all have something to say to us about what’s happening. So many voices. So many opinions. So many, in fact, that we can’t really hear what we need to. In an age of information overload, where do we find the real answers we need? To whom do we listen? Which voice is saying what we really need to hear?

In the Old Testament, King Ahaziah injured himself and sent messengers to a neighboring country to inquire about his future. On the way, the messengers encountered the prophet Elijah who told them, “‘Go back to the king who sent you, and say to him, Thus says the Lord, Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron” (2 Kings 1:6, ESV)? In essence, God asks, “why are you looking for revelation and insight from someone other than me?” We could almost paraphrase that question today by asking, “why are you listening to the wrong voices when I have spoken?”

In our world today, the temptation we face is to look for answers somewhere other than God’s revelation to us. Rather than seek out the wisdom of Scripture, we look for insight in so many other places. Sometimes, pastors and teacher succumb to this temptation thinking that something “more entertaining” or “cutting edge” will touch our people’s lives in some new dynamic way. But, all those other voices are just noise. They really don’t have the words that change lives. Their advice can’t really heal a broken home, and their platitudes can’t really offer lasting hope.

As believers, we need to know that God has revealed Himself to us. He has something to say to us personally. He speaks to us through the Scripture. Through it, God feeds our faith and helps grow us in grace. As pastors and teachers, we need to trust that His Word has what our people need to hear. God has given to us the message we need to convey to our people. As churches, we must expect that when we live out this Word, our communities will be changed. That’s the power of the Bible. That’s the power of gospel. That’s the power of Jesus. And, His is the voice we need to hear.

Scoreboard

In sports, every team wants a winning record. The first goal in any championship run is to at least play .500 ball, to at least win more than we lose. But, sometimes things don’t work out that way. Teams go through slumps. Players get hurt. Rookies under achieve. Coaches make mistakes. And, before you know it, our team ends up on the wrong side of the standings. It happens. It’s not always fair, but it’s reality. The best laid plans of the off-season don’t materialize. And, all we’re left to do is say, “Just wait ’til next year.” In many ways, life is like this. For many of us, there comes a time in life when the list of everything we’re not seems to overtake the list of everything we are. Our shortcomings seem to outnumber our strengths, and our failures seem to outnumber our successes. We’re not where we thought we’d be by now. Our families haven’t quite turned out like we thought. Our careers are stuck at best or in a downward spiral at worst. Wins are few and far between. Loses seem to mount. We keep looking at the scoreboard, and it keeps letting us down. And, to make things worse, it is in these dry seasons that despair seems to grow, perspective seems to wane, and hope seems like a distant dream. For just a moment, let me encourage you to take your eyes off the scoreboard. Quit looking at the standings. Instead, take a moment to remember who you are. If you are a believer in Jesus, you have been forgiven and brought into right relationship with God. You are free from the power and penalty of sin. You are greater than your failures. You’re adopted into the family of God. You are His child and a co-heir with Jesus. You are more than a winner. You are loved and accepted, and no one can take that away from you (Romans 8). So, look up. Lift up your chin. Hold up your head. You may think the scoreboard and the standings say otherwise, but you have won. You’ve won because of Jesus. Christ has conquered sin and death, and He brings us into the realm of His great victory. Rest in Him and rejoice in what He has done.

Parenting Odds

Parenting is hard work.  And, if you’re a believer in Jesus trying to raise your kids to have a heart for Him, it can seem doubly tough sometimes.  With that in mind, I want to just offer a quick suggestion.

Genuinely live out your faith in front of your children.  Kids have a way of seeing through the nonsense and the charades.  They know when something is really important to us.  We can tell them to love the Lord with all their hearts (Matthew 22:37), but we’re better off showing them what that looks like.  I’ve been reminded anew this week of how easy it is for parents to profess a deep love for Jesus, but never really manage to prioritize their lives around Him.  They never seem to have time for worship or service.  They never really seem to put feet to their faith or practice to their profession.  Everything else is more important. Our kids see that.  Our actions tell them what really matters to us.

Now, before you start throwing the “legalism” stone at me, hear me clearly.  Our actions do not make us right with God.  Only Jesus and His atoning work can accomplish that.  I’m not advocating some works-oriented salvation or even some quota of activity.  I am, however, trying to say what the Bible says:  saving faith works.  Once we’ve been grabbed by the love of God, we cannot help but live for Him.  The love we profess for Jesus is seen in how we live and what we do.  And, that’s what we want to pass on to our kids.

Every now and then I’ll hear some parent say, “Well, none of this matters.  None of this guarantees anything.”  And, they’re right.  There are no guarantees.  Plenty of genuine God-loving, Jesus-serving parents have seen their children go in a different direction.  But, I counter with this.  My doctor cannot guarantee I won’t ever get lung cancer.  But the odds are more in my favor if I don’t smoke than if I do.  When it comes to parenting, genuinely living for Jesus has better odds than simply talking about it all the time.  Parenting is tough enough without the odds being stacked against you.  I like the odds found in living for Jesus much better.

Simplicity

A few weeks back, I posted a few general observations concerning the Apple Store and some of the lessons we could learn from them.  One of those lessons was simplicity.  Technology shopping can be a bit overwhelming to people who aren’t technologically savvy.  Apple has a way of putting you at ease because of the simplicity of their products.  By and large, they offer a handful of products, all with a simple name.  For instance, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac, and MacBook are the basic products available through Apple.  Notice that there’s no serial numbering or insider language.  Just simply named, clearly focused products that help the consumer filter through to what they want (you can read more about this here).  Once the consumer finds what he wants, the product is simple to use.  Everything is elegant and advanced, but very, very simple.

In church life, we tend to complicate things.  We overburden our churches and our message with so many “products” that sometimes people can find what they really need because of all the clutter.  Our programming, our language, and even how we do church can really distract people from what’s really important.  We need to work hard to keep the gospel (that is the hope found in Jesus – who He is and what He’s done) at the center of all that we do.  That’s the one “product” people really need.

Believability

A few days ago, I shared an overview of my experiences at the Apple Store.  After a recent visit to our local store, I began thinking about how these stores did business, and what lessons they could teach us as believers in Jesus in regard to how we do church and in regard to how we live personally.  One of these lessons is believability.

When it comes to the Apple Store, it really seems that everyone working there enthusiastically embraces their products. They really believe in them. The associates don’t spend a lot of time tearing down other products. They just promote theirs (Apple’s television commercials do the same thing). The enthusiasm of the Apple employees is a little contagious. They’re believable in their presentation because they believe their presentation.

Contrast that with many professing Christians today. We worship…we serve…we believe…sort of. We don’t want to get too crazy about any of this stuff.   We’re content to be just ho-hum about Jesus. We believe who He is and trust in what He’s done, but we just don’t think He’s all that life-changing. We’d never admit that for fear of sounding unspiritual, but that’s where we are.

Sadly, however, even though we don’t admit it with our words, our hearts and lives shout our tepid belief loudly.  Our lethargy about gathering to worship and serving Jesus says volumes. The lack of love we have for one another reveals far more than we’d ever admit out loud. Is it any wonder then that no one wants any part of the Jesus we promote?  How can they believe what we have to say about Him when our lives don’t show that we even believe it ourselves?

The Bible tells us that even though Jesus is God, He willingly gave up the glory of Heaven to become a man in order to redeem us from our sin (Philippians 2:6-8).  The forgiveness Jesus offers impacts us both now and forever.  He makes it possible for us to have a relationship with the God who created us in His image.  He is a life-changing savior.  He gives us purpose, direction, comfort, and hope.  That’s a message…a savior in which we can believe. May we believe in Jesus in such a way that our presentation of Him, in both word and deed, is believable.