December 28, 2009

Off to Rome

No. I am not literally going to Rome.

But, since we at PRBC are going to be spending our 2010 prayer meetings piecing our way through the book of Romans (8-12 verses a week), I thought that I might do the same here on the blog. So, starting in chapter 1, I am going to blog my way straight through ... not verse by verse, but section by section, following the outline that we will use in the prayer meetings. Most weeks I will probably light on a single verse or phrase from the Sunday prayer passage and meditate on it 'out loud' via these pages.

Enjoy ... and feel free to leave your own reflections in the comment section (most of the comments I get these days are from random people cussing me out ... or from even more random people using the blog to advertise their websites and/or beach front properties in India).

See you in 2010 ... in Rome!

December 25, 2009

House of Bread

This past Sunday, as a sort of Christmas sermon, I preached on how Jesus is "the bread that came down out of heaven" (from John 6.41 and making comparison with the manna in the wilderness in Exodus 16). For our Christmas Eve service, I wrote a poem about how, fittingly, that Bread came down in a town called Bethlehem (which, translated from Hebrew, means House of Bread). So, here ya go:

Jacob’s fam’ly lived along
The outer fringe of town among
The peasants, widows, tradesmen, and
The shepherds who traversed the land
Outside the city gates with rams,
And billy goats, and little lambs.
Their house was simple, sturdy, small –
With sand-hued stucco on the wall
That faced the west and bore the wind.
Each winter Jake and dad would mend
The cracks and patch the crumbles tight
To keep out all the draft that might
Keep Jake and sisters from their sleep.

Sometimes by night he’d watch the sheep
For neighbors closer into town.
He’d lead them through the gate and down
The stony path out to the field
And bring back home his tiny yield:
Two copper coins for mother’s tin.
He’d dash inside, and drop them in,
And know he’d helped his fam’ly gain
A little extra weekly grain.

Their clothes were old, their pantry sparse.
And nothing hurt his father worse
Than knowing that his son was gaunt
And how the biting wind would taunt
The hovel, far too small and cramped –
And smelly when the chickens camped
Inside at night.

Young Jake could sense
His father’s grief and watch him wince
On colder nights when each of four
Familial quilts went on the floor
To cover wife and girls and son;
And how he’d wait ‘til they were done
With supper before standing up
And spooning some into his cup.

But Jacob’s father lived in trust
That God had promised and He must
Make all to work out for the good –
Even his fam’ly’s lack of food.
Some nights as he scooped out a few
Of mother’s lentils which she grew
In their side yard, he’d pause and say:
“I’m looking forward to the day
When God will open up the skies
And rain down bread before our eyes.
We may not sup on cakes or rolls …
But manna’s coming for our souls.

“For our souls?” Jake’s heart would say inside.
“Food for our souls?” It sounded cheap.
And so when Jake would take the sheep
Out through the gate, he’d stop and read.
The words carved there would make him bleed
Inside. Beth-lehem: House of Bread.
That may be what the ancients said”
Jake thought, “when David walked this town
And spread his blessings all around.
But things these days are pretty sparse.
That moniker seems like a farce.
Beth-lehem: House of Bread’ she was.
But now we say that just because;
Or with a vague religious twist –
‘True food will fall down like the mist’
Dad says. ‘Bread for the hungry soul
Just like the prophets have foretold.’”

“I do not know” Jake thought. “Perhaps
Dad’s right.” But then his mind would lapse
Into a twelve year old’s day dreams –
With eyes glazed over and moonbeams
Across his face.

He’d almost dozed
When all the sheep around him rose.
The neighb’ring shepherds stood upright …
And in the sky a distant light
Grew brighter … and more glorious still
Until, hov’ring above the hill
Where shepherds watched their flocks by night –
And robed in splendid, glorious white –
An angel spoke and Jacob fell,
Sure that the news he’d come to tell
Was justice, wrath, and death assured
For doubting all his father’s word
About the bread, about our souls,
And how life’s more than cups and bowls
And yeast and grain and stomachs full.

But then he felt a kind word pull
Him off his face and to his feet:
“My news for you is true and sweet,
Like wafers spread with honey wild –
In Bethlehem’s been born a child!
A king – like manna for your souls!
You’ll find him near the donkey foals
Inside a manger filled with hay.
For unto you is born this day
A Savior who is Christ the Lord,
The Son of God, the Living Word!”

As Jacob rushed back down the trail,
He tripped over a water pail
And tumbled down upon his back.
As he looked up into the black
Of night his eyes fixed on that gate.
And now its slogan filled with weight.
Once more: “Beth-lehem: House of Bread.
It was just as his father said!

So learn the truth of Bethl’em’s gate.
It’s not the food that’s on your plate;
Nor if your body’s strong and whole.
The bread of God is for your soul!
Christmas – a tale of bread from heav’n
Which to our race is freely giv’n.

December 15, 2009

While I'm nudging you not to get bogged down in a cultural Christmas ...

These thought-provoking words from Noel Piper (via the DG blog):

Over the years, we have chosen not to include Santa Claus in our Christmas stories and decorations. There are several reasons.

First, fairy tales are fun and we enjoy them, but we don't ask our children to believe them.

Second, we want our children to understand God as fully as they're able at whatever age they are. So we try to avoid anything that would delay or distort that understanding. It seems to us that celebrating with a mixture of Santa and manger will postpone a child's clear understanding of what the real truth of God is. It's very difficult for a young child to pick through a marble cake of part-truth and part-imagination to find the crumbs of reality.

Third, we think about how confusing it must be to a straight-thinking, uncritically-minded preschooler because Santa is so much like what we're trying all year to teach our children about God. Look, for example, at the "attributes" of Santa.

  • He's omniscient—he sees everything you do.
  • He rewards you if you're good.
  • He's omnipresent—at least, he can be everywhere in one night.
  • He gives you good gifts.
  • He's the most famous "old man in the sky" figure.

But at the deeper level that young children haven't reached yet in their understanding, he is not like God at all.

For example, does Santa really care if we're bad or good? Think of the most awful kid you can remember. Did he or she ever not get gifts from Santa?

What about Santa's spying and then rewarding you if you're good enough? That's not the way God operates. He gave us his gift—his Son—even though we weren't good at all. "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). He gave his gift to us to make us good, not because we had proved ourselves good enough.

Helping our children understand God as much as they're able at whatever age they are is our primary goal. But we've also seen some other encouraging effects of not including Santa in our celebration.

First, I think children are glad to realize that their parents, who live with them all year and know all the worst things about them, still show their love at Christmas. Isn't that more significant than a funny, old, make-believe man who drops in just once a year?

Second, I think most children know their family's usual giving patterns for birthday and special events. They tend to have an instinct about their family's typical spending levels and abilities. Knowing that their Christmas gifts come from the people they love, rather than from a bottomless sack, can help diminish the "I-want-this, give-me-that" syndrome.

And finally, when children know that God's generosity is reflected by God's people, it tends to encourage a sense of responsibility about helping make Christmas good for others.

Karsten, for example, worked hard on one gift in 1975. On that Christmas morning, his daddy stepped around a large, loose-flapped cardboard box to get to his chair at the breakfast table. "Where's Karsten?" he asked, expecting to see our excited three-year-old raring to leap into the day. Sitting down, I said, "He'll be here in a minute."

I nudged the box with my toe. From inside the carton, Karsten threw back the flaps and sprang to his full three-foot stature. "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them . . ." He had memorized Luke 2:8-20 as a gift for his dad. Karsten knew the real story.

In fact, a few days later, he and I were walking down the hall at the church we attended then. One of the older ladies leaned down to squeeze his pink, round cheek and asked, "What did Santa bring you?" Karsten's head jerked quickly toward me, and he whispered loudly, "Doesn't she know?"

(Adapted from Treasuring God in Our Traditions)

December 14, 2009

It's the Most ____________ Time of the Year

What would you write in that blank? Wonderful? Busy? Frustrating? Depressing? Mind-numbing? All of the above? Whatever the answer, I can sympathize with you! Just this morning I walked into the post office just behind a lady carrying a stack of packages higher than her head. I followed her in and stood in line behind her as she waited to unload her burden on the big blue counter. “It’s almost over” I said with a smile – referring to her precarious journey to the front of the line. But I think she thought I meant: ‘Christmas is almost over.’ ‘I’ll be glad when it is’ she replied. Then she followed herself up: ‘Isn’t that pathetic?’

I felt her pain. It’s the most busy time of the year … and sometimes the most frustrating. ‘Little nephew Billy already has every toy known to man … and now I have to roam around Toys R Us looking for something original, and knowing he’ll only play with it for 3 minutes before the next battery operated noise-making piece of plastic is unwrapped.’ That is the way it goes sometimes. We look forward to the holidays – time to relax; time to be with family; time to think about the incarnation of our Lord, and so on. But so often those plans never materialize.

Between Macy’s, the Christmas tree farm, the office party, and the endless autographing of Christmas cards … there’s scarcely any time to relax. The family gatherings are often awkward and strange. And by the time we get through with it all, we’d much rather just slump down on the couch and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (which I do enjoy!) than do any deep meditating on the nativity. And so the most wonderful time of the year comes and goes all too quickly … and often without feeling very wonderful at all. Add to these things the fact that the holiday gatherings often emphasize the painful fact that there is now an empty chair at Christmas dinner … and it is no wonder that many people struggle with the holidays.

I wish I could fix all the frustrations and ease all the hubbub for each of you. Fact is I have enough trouble managing my own calendar. So this article isn’t so much filled with solutions to the Christmas dilemmas that we all face as much as it is a sympathetic word to say: ‘I feel your pain.’

However, my one word of pastoral counsel, to quote the famous skit by Bob Newhart, is simply: STOP IT! Yes, you have obligations to fulfill. Yes, there are places to go and people to see (and buy for). But at some point this Christmas season you’re going to just have to stop doing all the circus tricks that American culture seems to require at this time of year … and get down to what is most important. You’re going to have to say ‘no’ to some things, and leave the less important things undone … so that your kids don’t end up frustrated with Christmas, too; so that you have that time to really think about Jesus; so that the days away from work that the holidays afford are cashed in for family-building, spiritual, eternal, Christ-honoring purposes.

In one sense, Christmas is just like every other time of the year. The incarnation is just as valuable in the heatwave of August as it is when the icicles hang perfectly from the eaves. Contemplation of Christ, together as a family, is just as important in May as it is in December. But the Christmas season provides the peculiarity of extra time off, of extra time with loved ones, and of extra emphasis on the person and work of Jesus. Don’t miss those opportunities this Christmas!

December 1, 2009

Speaking of Operation World

Jason Mandryk is releasing a new edition in August of next year. Pre-order today!

The Most Important Thing

“We’d love it if you could give monetarily … or even come and do a short-term mission trip in our country. But the most important thing you can do for us is pray.”

I always thought that the missionary speakers at our church growing up were just throwing the part about prayer in because they were supposed to. After all, it would be awkward to show up at a church just to ask for money. So I always assumed that their thinking process was: ‘We’ll ask for the money, but we’ll really emphasize the importance of prayer to kind of offset any idea that we just want a handout.’ And I didn’t blame them, really. I, too, thought that prayer was a nice part of missions support, but really just as an augment to the main task of generous missions giving.

Today, I am fairly certain that some missionaries do say “the most important thing you can do if pray” for exactly the reasons I assumed as a teenager. However, I have learned a few things as an adult …

First, I have learned that many of the missionaries I know really believe that “the most important thing” a supporting church or individual can do is pray. They know God will provide all their needs. They know they don’t need to beg people. And they know that, instead of begging people, they actually need those people begging God to bless their work! All the monetary support in the world is useless if God doesn’t keep the missionaries faithful, give them endurance, and open the hearts of the peoples of the earth. The missionaries know – from reading the Scriptures, and from living in the hardest places – that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them. So they really do need our prayers more than our money (though the money doesn’t hurt!).

Second, I have learned that missions really is a God-sized task. I know we all sometimes say: ‘If there were just more workers’ or ‘if there were just more resources … that people group would hear and believe.’ And there is a germ of truth in that. But the big truth is that ‘if God moves mightily, that people group will hear and believe … whether through the instrumentality of one poor native preacher, or through a missionary team of a hundred!’ The salvation of the nations, ultimately, is in God’s hands. He can simply breathe on them, and the enemy’s hosts will fall. He can simply say the word and any missionary or lay-person on earth could be used to bring thousands to the feet of Jesus. So, yes … we need more workers in the harvest. Yes, it takes money to get them there. Yes, Southern Baptists had to keep some missionaries home this year because there was not enough money to support them. And yes, that means we have a big responsibility to give. But remember what Jesus said in Matthew 9.38: “Beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” That is the first solution to the need for more workers – not money, but prayer. And if the problem in sending workers is not willingness, but funds … prayer can solve that problem too!

So here’s the deal – I hope that each of you is able to give incredibly generously to the Lottie Moon Missions Offering (or to your church's missions offering, if applicable). Super-generously, even! But don’t get the idea that, if you give a good sum of money, you’ve done your part. No, no. The offering is quite secondary. “The most important thing you can do is pray.”

Do you believe that? Will you commit to pray more regularly for the missionaries your church specifically supports? Will you get a copy of a book like Operation World so that you can begin praying for peoples and nations you’ve never heard of … for Jesus’ sake? No one will come to Jesus unless the Father draws them. And the Father does not draw people unless workers are sent into the harvest (Romans 10.13). And, by and large, God sends laborers and draws people as we pray!

November 16, 2009


What do you mean by using this proverb …
“The fathers eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge”?

Apparently this was, at one time, a common saying in Israel: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge” (emphasis mine). In other words, the people were saying to themselves: ‘The bad things that are happening to us are our parents’ fault. The chaos that defines our culture; the difficulty we are in; the national strife that has befallen us … they are all the fault of previous generations.’ And, by implication, this proverb also had the effect of saying: ‘These times of difficulty are not our fault. We are doing right … and suffering, undeservedly, for our parents’ mistakes.’

Sound familiar? It sounds, to me, like a typical counseling session:

Patient: ‘Doc, my teeth are set on edge! Do you know what I mean? Everything in life seems bitter and out of control. I can’t control my temper. I eat like a pig. I get sucked into internet porn. I am not sure what to do with myself.’

Psychiatrist: ‘Let’s talk about your past. Your problem, in all likelihood, is that your father ate sour grapes. Your father probably warped you. And your mother probably made you feel guilty all your life. And that is why you can’t control your anger, your eating habits, or your sexual desires. That is why your teeth are set on edge.’

Most of us don’t even need to lie on anyone’s couch to believe these kinds of sentiments. It’s human nature, isn’t it, to blame other people for the messes we find ourselves in. And, while I am not here to deny that some of our parents, our predecessors, and even previous generations of Christians have left messes behind for us to wade through … it is true that most of our problems originate a great deal closer to home. And that is what God was saying to the people of Israel.

Your parents may have influenced you in some terrible ways … and scarred you deeply. But they are not the ones blowing up at your kids. You are. The culture may have put lewd things in front of you all your life, tainting your memory and your sex drive. But the culture is not making you click on that porn site. That is your decision. The church you grew up in may have been light on the Bible and left you stunted in your spiritual growth … but that doesn’t mean you can’t play catch up now.

Again, I do not want to minimize the scars and difficulties that others have left for you. But I do want to point out that your sin problems are just that … your sin problems. And mine are mine. I can’t change the past or the bad influences that may have affected my life. But I can do something about the present. I can walk in the power of the Spirit today. And when I don’t, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

November 9, 2009

So what DO we have to Offer our Community? Part 2

Last week I gave the first half of my answer to the question: What does Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church have to offer the community of Pleasant Ridge? It was a question I had the privilege of answering, on November 3, for the Pleasant Ridge Community Council. And the simple answer was that we want to offer our community the same thing that the very first church in Jerusalem offered theirs: “the apostles’ teachingfellowshipthe breaking of bread … and prayer” (Acts 2.42). Having already discussed how we want to provide the apostles’ teaching (i.e. the Bible) to our community; and how we want to offer fellowship (or family), too … I proceed now to record for you the second half of my ten minute talk. Once again, I hope it helps you as you have the opportunity to articulate (for neighbors, family members, co-workers, and classmates) what we Christians really all about (whether at PRBC or your church). Here’s what I said:

3. The breaking of bread. This phrase, “the breaking of bread” is really a synonym for the early church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the eucharist as it is sometimes called) … which recalled Jesus broken body and shed blood by means of broken bread and wine. The early church was dedicated to this observance … but not merely for the sake of the symbol; not as a perfunctory rite. No. The reason they cared so much about this symbol was because of what it symbolized! They wanted to constantly remind themselves (and their neighbors) of what Jesus had done for sinners. And so do we! We want to offer our community JESUS! Indeed, He is the most important of all the things we want to offer our community. The reason why we are so serious about the Bible is because it’s all about Him (Luke 24.27)!

So, more than anything else, we want to offer Jesus to our community. But why Jesus? Well, because the Bible says that:

*Jesus is God made flesh; God become human (John 1). And if God has really become a man, we think everyone might want to know about that!
*Jesus was tempted in all things as we are (Hebrews 4)… and therefore sympathizes with our weaknesses. That’s good news!
*Jesus was tempted in all things as we are…
but without sin (Hebrews 4). And I would think people would want to know: ‘How did He do that?’ We certainly haven’t. Indeed, if each of us were honest with ourselves, we’d be ashamed to admit the kinds of things we sometimes do, say, and think. But not Jesus!
*Jesus, because He was without sin, was capable of dying for ours! The wages of sin is death (Romans 6). But Jesus had no sin. So why did He die? Not for His own sins, but for ours … to bring us to God (1 Peter 3.18). He took the punishment that we deserve so that those who believe (and only those who believe) receive the eternal life of favor and blessing and relationship with God that only Jesus deserves.
*Jesus literally, bodily rose from the dead. And again, if that really happened, it would seem that everyone would want to know about it!

So, for all these reasons, we believe Jesus is the most important topic of discussion and thought that our community (or any community) can be offered. And so we desperately want our neighbors to know Him!

4. Prayer. Because we have been forgiven in Jesus, God has granted us free, personal access to His throne. We can talk to God … and tell Him all about our needs. And He answers prayer. So, finally, we want to offer our community the promise of PRAYER. We will be praying for you as a council. And if you (as a council or as individuals) ever have specific prayer needs, my door and phone line are always open. The same is true for anyone else in our community. And we’d love to invite you to pray with us, too. On Sundays at 9am we meet and do nothing but pray for 45 minutes. Would you join us? We’d love to pray with and for each and every one of you!”

November 2, 2009

So what DO we have to Offer the Community?

Last week I mentioned that I had been invited to the local community council meeting (this Tuesday night) to answer the question:

What does Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church have to offer the community of Pleasant Ridge?

It occurred to me, as I prepared to answer that query, that I wondered what you all would say if asked a similar question about your church. Each church is different, to be sure. But is there a basic answer that any church ought to be able to give to such a question? What is it that PRBC wants to be and do for the communities of Pleasant Ridge and beyond? And what should your church want to be and do for your neighborhood and city? Over the next two weeks, I’m going to fill you in on what I am planning to say … trusting that God will give you opportunities, too, to tell others what the church is all about. Here is what I want to say:

“We want to offer our community the very same kinds of things that the very first Christian church offered their community in Jerusalem. We want to build on their history. The biblical book of Acts tells us their story … how they were a blessing to the community. How did they do it? I think a summary answer can be found in Acts 2.42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. These four values, each of which is two-thousand years old, are what we still hope to offer to our neighbors today …

1. The apostles’ teaching. The earliest Christians dedicated themselves to studying, believing, applying, and sharing with their neighbors what they learned from Jesus’ closest followers. What these men taught, we have in the form of the Holy Bible. So that would be the first thing that our church wants to offer this community … THE BIBLE. We want every person in our neighborhood to have the opportunity to study it seriously and apply it to everyday life. After all, these words were (according to the apostle Paul, 2 Timothy 3.16) breathed out by God Himself. So they must be true, vital, and authoritative in our lives. And we want our community to know what they say. We want to be a Bible study center for our community … giving everyone from the smallest child to the oldest adult the chance to know what the Scripture actually say. We hope you’ll join us … and be blessed!

2. Fellowship. To put it simply, the earliest Christians were committed to being a real family. We read in Acts 2.44-46 that “those who believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” They operated as one big family! Everyone’s needs were met. And we want to live that way, too! We want to be a FAMILY for those who need one.

A few examples of what that looks like in our contemporary setting:

*My family has been at PRBC for seven years and never once had to buy children’s clothing!
*A few years ago my grandmother died on a Sunday morning. Before our services were over, some of our church family had already gotten us plane tickets for the funeral (which we could have scarcely afforded on our own).
*Not long after that, my wife was very sick … and I was at work, leaving her with two kids to care for. But, thank God, one of our members showed up at the office and kindly told me to go home. Sometimes those are the kinds of things families need to do, too!

This is what we mean by family (and it’s not just my family that benefits from it!). This is the kind of fellowship we want to offer to those who live around us!”

I’ll give you the contents of the rest of my talk next week! In the meantime, please pray for this opportunity Tuesday night!

October 29, 2009

I Speak, you Pray

Over the next month or so I have some unusual opportunities to speak for God. If you are the praying kind, would you read through the list below and be praying for me? And if you're really the praying kind ... mark your calendars and pray again on the day of the various engagements!

November 3
I have been invited to speak at the Pleasant Ridge Community Council - our local civic organization that works to keep our community clean, safe, attractive to business and home-buyers, etc. My topic? In ten minutes, what does Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church offer our community? As the only evangelical church in our community of 10,000 ... I have a good answer! To be exact, I am going to work from Acts 2.42 (and our corresponding statement of church values) and offer the community THE BIBLE ("the apostles' teaching"), A FAMILY ("the fellowship"), JESUS (symbolized in "the breaking of bread"), and PRAYER.

Please ask the Lord to use the talk ... especially points 1 and 3. Pray, too, that I'll get it in in the ten minutes, clearly but powerfully.

November 14
A pastor friend outside the city (Stewart Clarke), in an American Baptist Church, is holding a one day conference on "the word of God." The goal is to root his people in the Scriptures as our sole authority for faith and practice, and as the inerrant, trustworthy, word of God. I am giving the opening talk, an introduction to the Bible as a whole - its content, sufficiency, inerrancy, usefulness, divine nature, and Jesus-centeredness (see Luke 24.27).

Please pray for me and the other preachers ... that God would use us to put the firm foundation of His word underneath the building that Stewart is trying to rebuild.

November 21
This time I have the opportunity to speak to a United Methodist youth group as part of a weekend retreat. My assigned topics are:
  • Jesus, Best of All (an overview of Hebrews ... Jesus is better than _____)
  • Twelve Ordinary Men (a study of the 12 disciples of Jesus, and how we can learn from them today)
  • Jim Elliot (a missions talk from this martyr's life)
In each of these messages, I want to make much of Jesus ... and call on these kids to go hard after Him (like Elliot and the apostles). Would you pray that Jesus would, all weekend long, fill up the windshield of their gaze (and mine)?

In addition to all these things, I am continuing the series on Gospel Portraits and Proverbs at PRBC. Pray God continues to grant light and help to me and to our "little flock."

I know some of you will be praying for me. Thank you in advance. I need help from on high in the worst way.

October 26, 2009

Click it

Not much to say (or write) this week ... so I'll just link you up to some folks who are a little more profound and helpful than me right now ...

PsalmTwoTwelve ... for all things Mathenia. I believe Anthony will be posting personal, devotional, and Ethiopi-al thoughts here. Plus its a cool, snazzy looking sight!

The BASICS 2010 pastor's conference in Cleveland. If you enjoy good preaching (or just a good Scottish brogue) these three speakers will float your boat.

And, if you're putting together a Christmas list, check out:

World Vision's Christmas Catalog
Operation Christmas Child
Abba's Living Water

October 19, 2009

Burned for Reciting the Lord's Prayer

“Our Father which art in heaven hallowed be Thy name.” So many of us know those words so well. Our parents or Sunday School teachers taught them to us decades ago … and we can still remember them now – twenty, thirty, forty years on. But did you know that there was a time when those parents and Sunday School teachers could have been burned alive for teaching you those lines from Matthew 6?

It’s true. That is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church was doing in the early 1500’s. Not only was it politically expedient, in the middle ages, for the common man to be prevented from reading the Bible in his own language … but the Church itself realized that many of its practices could not be found in the Scriptures, and would actually be unmasked as heretical and soul-destroying if normal people could actually read God’s word. So the Bible – by both church and political laws – was kept locked in the Latin tongue that almost no one could read. And if you were caught reading, possessing, or reciting the newly (and illegally) published English version … the penalty was uniform: death by burning at the stake.

That was the fate that numerous people suffered in England – for reading or possessing the Bible in English! Included among them were seven parents, in 1519, who dared to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer in their own language.

It may distress some Christians that the Ten Commandments are being systematically removed from public display. But that is almost like nothing in comparison to the 1500’s! We can still display the commandments in our homes and churches. We can still own, read, and teach the Bible freely. We can stand on Fountain Square and read it aloud if we want. But here were seven parents who died for teaching Matthew 6.9-13 to their children … in English. It is absolutely unthinkable. And yet it was real. And it happens, in other nations with other languages, even today. And, oh, how we should pray that God continues to give His suffering people strength.

But as we approach the 492nd anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation (10/31) … we should thank God for these martyrs for the English Bible. Yes (praise God!) Luther, Calvin, and others rediscovered the biblical and liberating doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith in Jesus alone (and not by works of the law). But we English speakers might have totally missed the blessing were it not for a few brave men and women who dared to get the Bible into English – against the law. Men like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Miles Coverdale translated it – and Tyndale was martyred for doing so. Countless cloth workers smuggled the English Bible into England hidden in bales of cloth sent over from the European continent. And then there were those brave men and women who lost their lives for simply possessing the word of God. Their deaths were not in vain. For such cruelty always arouses the attention of the public to the injustices of those in power … and fans the flame of hunger for God’s word, and for justice!

So this October 31; this Reformation Day – remember these English translators, cloth-workers, and martyrs. And thank God that we have the Bible – and the message of salvation, full and free in Jesus alone – in our own language!

To read more on this topic, check out Piper's bio on William Tyndale (where I got most of this info).

October 14, 2009


Addicted gamblers are 200 times more likely to ATTEMPT suicide than the general populous, not two hundred times more likely to COMMIT suicide. This according to Casino Watch.

200 Times More Likely to Attempt Suicide

That is what gambling addicts are, compared to the general populous. And their spouses are little better off. Those are just a couple of the astonishing facts from the two year old response (re-posted below) to a question about gambling and the Bible. Since we are about to vote on whether to legalize casino gaming in Ohio (Issue 3, November 3) ... I thought I'd tack it to the memo board once again ...

Tunica County, MS (where I ministered from 2000-2002), is one of the largest casino gaming communities in America. We Mississippians aren’t at the top of a lot of lists (not good ones anyway), but we seem to have developed gambling into an art form! So, living in that kind of community, it was easy to give powerful (although painful) illustrations if anyone ever asked about the propriety of gambling. Rampant crime, failed dreams, and broken lives were pretty easy to spot in the neon glow of Tunica. It was the girl next door, not the statistics in the paper, that helped persuade an open-eyed few of the ills of gambling.

Five years later, I find myself settled into another gambling hotbed—Cincinnati. No, the Ohio isn’t studded, like the Mississippi, with stapled-down casinos (though it might be soon). But Cincinnati is a place where Powerball, Pick 4, and other lottery tickets dominate the cash wrap at your local gas station. Cincinnati is on the outer fringe, too, of the nation’s biggest horse-racing hotbed. And Roman Catholic Cincinnati, to this deep southern boy, sometimes feels like one giant bingo hall. Gambling may be nearly as popular here as it was in Mississippi. It’s just much less glitzy; much more sedate; and thus (for the time being any way), seemingly, much less problematic.

But with casino gambling on the docket this election period, it is important to ask questions like:

Is gambling really wrong? How is it any different than pumping money into a new plasma TV, or investing in the uncertainty of the stock market?

Not the deepest spiritual questions we could ask, but worthy of answers, nonetheless. So what can we say about gambling … and more importantly, what does the Bible say about it? Well…nothing, directly. But there are some principles that keep most Bible-believing Christians away from the bingo halls and lottery tickets.

1. The problem of stewardship
Jesus teaches us (Matthew 25.18-30) that our money is not our own; that we are stewards of God’s resources, and that we shouldn’t bury them in the ground (much less pour them down the drain on Powerball … or at Circuit City)! Here our gambling friends have a point. It is just as wasteful to throw money away needless possessions as it is to drop it into those money sucking slot machines! The solution, however, is not to say gambling is no big deal … but to realize that all forms of wastefulness are sin … and to put down the credit card along with the bingo card!

2. The problem of addiction
The apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 6.12): “I will not be mastered by anything.” Yet statistics and anecdotal evidence both say that gambling addiction is a major problem. As Alistair Begg says: “The gambling addict will gamble on anything. Two rain-drops are sliding down the windshield, and he says: ‘I’ll bet you the one on the right reaches the bottom first.’” The result of such compulsion? Crippling debt; empty dinner tables for children; addicted gamblers who attempt suicide 200 times more often than the average American; and spouses who do so 150 times more often than their peers. Is gambling worth that kind of gamble?

3. The problem of theft
Just listen to the advertisements purveyed by casinos and lottery commissions. Aren’t they designed to make the average Joe think he is destined to hit it big? It isn’t true. But it doesn’t have to be. The gambling industry and its higher-ups prey upon the ignorant, the foolish, and the desperate. Their industry is just a organized form of theft! And every dollar you and I plunk down supports their schemes. And not only are we party to these thieves, we are also their victims! For Proverbs 28.22 reminds us that “the man with an evil eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him” (emphasis mine). That is just it! Gambling execs ply their trade—tantalizing you to “hasten after wealth”—to make money, not for you, but for themselves! And before many a gambler awakens to this fact, poverty, debt, and want have come upon him!

As an aside, the difference between gambling and investing is that Schwab and Northwestern Mutual are trying to make money, but not by deceiving you. Your investing consultant lays out for you percentages, projections, and history so that you can make an educated decision. But doesn’t the gambling industry do the opposite? They don’t give you the stats - because the facts would show that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to hit it big at lotto. No, instead of stats, they show you Joey from Norwood who just won $10,000 on Powerball. Nevermind that, the day before, that $10,000 dollars belonged to a lot of other Joeys and Janes who are now a little poorer, and a little more addicted! So the difference between investing firms and gambling outfits is one of honesty, disclosure, and motive.

4. The problem of idolatry
Some people defend the lottery and bingo night because, they say, ‘the money goes to a good cause.’ Let’s not kid ourselves. If we were really concerned about causes — that public schools had enough books; that scholarships were funded; that The Sisters of the Poor were funded, we’d just outright give money to those causes. The reason people play bingo and the lottery is not for the sake of the schools, but for the thrill of gambling and the love of money! But isn’t the love of money “the root of all forms of evil” (1 Timothy 6.10)? And doesn’t Hebrews 13.5 teach us to “free from the love of money, being content with what you have, for He has said: ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’”? According to Hebrews 13.5, the antidote to the love of money (and the gambling that grows from it) is trusting God — that He will take care of us; that He will never leave or forsake us; that He, in His Son, is our treasure!

So then, for those who love money, money becomes a substitute for God! We love it more than Him. We pursue it more than holiness. We trust it more than we trust our heavenly Father. That is why we gamble!

Closing Advice
I believe gambling is one of those destructive habits that must be spoken against. Are you convinced? If so, let me urge you to speak to your friends in love. Sure — give them the reasons why gambling is so problematic; explain to them (from the Bible!) why it dishonors the Lord; urge them to trust Christ for their provisions — both here, and especially in the world to come. But, by all means, do so in love! For though you may be a convinced abstainer when it comes to the lottery, the casino, the bingo hall, and the track … you, too, need a Savior! So let us be sure, while we may see the silver shavings of a scratch-and-win lotto card in our friend’s eye, that we are also willing to take the log out of our own.

Best Slots in Town

"Best Slots in Town!"

Slogans like that lined the highway between our home and Buck Island Chapel, in Tunica County, Mississippi (where I ministered before moving to Cincinnati). Every Sunday, I’d see the latest picture of some nice-looking fellow who’d hit the jackpot … and be urged that I, too, could “WIN BIG at GOLDSTRIKE CASINO!”

It’s a great advertising campaign! You see, most of the people I knew in Tunica, MS (one of the largest gaming communities in the U.S.) were living below the poverty line. It’s always been that way. The county used to be the poorest in the country. But then came the casinos — promising big jackpots, and money for local schools, and more jobs, etc. Sound familiar?

After nearly twenty of gaming, the county’s crime rate has increased exponentially. Violent crimes, which had previously been almost unheard of, are now commonplace. Addiction (to gambling, and to the alcohol that often goes with it) is rampant. Pawn shops litter the surrounding area … fleecing those who cannot afford to gamble, but have to find a way. The schools have beautiful new buildings, but are still among the worst in the state! But statistics cannot really scratch the surface of the wreckage gambling brings with it.

So, let’s put a face on the destructive hoax that is the gaming industry. Consider "Kristy", a young law student from Florida who took a semester off and moved to Tunica to “earn a little extra money, gamble it up, and return to law school” the next year. When I met her, she had been in Tunica for over a year, had moved in (with a new, abusive boyfriend) to one half of a ramshackle, duplexed, single-wide trailer — trapped by gambling debts! That’s what the love of money will do. And the gambling industry greedily throws fuel on the fire.

I have come to think of the casino owners and their promoters as Psalm 10:8 describes the wicked: “He sits in the lurking places of the villages; in the hiding places he kills the innocent; His eyes stealthily watch for the unfortunate.”

You see, all gambling does is make the rich richer … and take advantage of the unfortunate with dreams of gold-strikes that never materialize. It lurks behind empty promises, and devours those whom Jesus came to rescue with good news (Luke 4.18). It brings lots of cash to a city or county … but lots of blight and despair with it. And now they want to bring the blight and despair to Ohio!

So, when you see the commercials promising all sorts of wonderful benefits riding on the casinos’ coat-tails; when you enter the voting booth next month; and especially when you pray … would you remember Tunica? Would you remember "Kristy", and the hundreds of Ohioans destined to repeat her story if issue 3 goes through?

October 6, 2009

Down to Egypt

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the LORD! Isaiah 31.1

The Judeans were just doing what any geo-political entity would do when outnumbered, out-equipped, and running out of time against an approaching enemy army. They were doing what some in Europe did during the dark days of the Second World War … looking south and west, and hoping help would come. After all, Assyria was marching in, like the Nazi’s, from the north. They had already conquered nearly all of the significant nations of that day. And Judah and Jerusalem seemed to be next in the master plan. But they were no match against the fearsome Assyrians. Their little armies and meager fortifications couldn’t stand against the world super-power of their day. So who would blame them if they sent some ambassadors to the southwest – to Egypt – and sought to make a pact with Pharaoh and his much more powerful horses, chariots, and men?

Well, apparently, God could blame them! Why? Well, not least among the reasons must have been the fact that He had instructed them, long before, never to go back to Egypt again (Deut. 17.16). But it seems to me that God may have had a similar quarrel with His people even if it weren’t Egypt to whom they were running for help. I believe He may have said the same things had they been seeking help from Babylon, or Ethiopia, or whomever. Why? Because the issue in Isaiah 31.1 was trust. The Israelites sought reinforcements from Egypt because they trusted in the size and equipment of Egypt’s army … and did not trust the Lord. They sought help from man (which isn’t always a bad thing, e.g. WWII). But they, emphatically, did not seek help from their God. And that was the real problem.

Now I read Isaiah 31 a few days back … and verse 1 seemed to strike me like a well-aimed arrow. Because there are problems in my life – ministry, family, and personal – that I recognize; that I know need solving; that I want to get right. There are plenty of areas in my life in which I worry about doing the right thing; which I try, with all my human strength, to fix; which I talk to others about … and sometimes get their helpful input. But, regarding some of these very areas of concern, I am not always spending a great deal of time on my knees. Is it that I trust in my own brainstorming and hard work, sometimes, more than I trust the Lord? Apparently so. Is it that I have more faith in the counsel of trusted friends than I sometimes do in God? Must be. And the Bible says “woe” to someone like me.

What does the Bible say to you? Do you find yourself, sometimes, doing and fretting … but not praying? Do you find yourself asking everyone’s advice but God’s? Or maybe not asking any advice at all? In what areas of your life are you going “down to Egypt” … and trusting in human solutions, rather than in the Lord? Don’t just read those last few sentences and say: ‘Wow. Those are good questions.’ Sit there for a moment, in front of your computer screen, and really answer them! That’s right. Go back to the beginning of this paragraph and re-read it. Answer the questions. And then begin to seek the Lord! And remember that “He who did not spare His own Son” (Rom. 8.32) will surely provide everything else you need!

September 28, 2009

Welcome to our World

Salome Carmichael Strassner (we think we'll call her Sally).

8lbs, 6oz. Born September 28, 2009 at 10:56am. Both mom and baby are healthy!

Salome (pronounced SAL-uh-may) was a follower of Jesus who was also, it would seem, the wife of the fisherman Zebedee (compare Mark 15.40 and Matthew 27.56) and, therefore, the mother of "the Sons of Zebedee" - better known as the apostles James and John . Comparing these two verses with John 19.25, it is also possible that Salome (unnamed in John 19.25) was also the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. Confusing? No worries. It is not for Salome's genealogy that we pay tribute to her in the naming of our second little girl. Rather ... we admire Salome because she seemed to always be there at the crucial moments in Jesus' life. Only she and a few other women followed Him all the way to the cross (Mark 15.40). And it was Salome (along with two more Mary's, Mark 16.1) who showed up at the tomb early that Sunday to care for Jesus' body. We admire her ... and we pray that our little girl would have similarly firm and tender faith.

Amy Carmichael was a woman of no less character. The planned subject of my annual missionary biography/sermon this December, Carmichael was an Irish missionary among the destitute girls in India (many of whom had been dedicated, by their parents, to the gods and made, as young girls, into local temple prostitutes). She rescued them, taught them, and raised them for Jesus. Miss Carmichael was also the author of a large amount of wonderful devotional literature. ... and a composer of hymns. She was (and remains) an example to us all ... including (we hope) her newest namesake. Read more about her here. We could do a lot worse than to have such a thoughtful, Christ-and-others-loving little girl!

As for Strassner ... well, that comes from me. Nothing profound there, I suppose. But we hope she will bring honor to the name. Pray with us that she would.

September 21, 2009

'Tis the Gift, Part 2

"Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred."

One of the great lessons of Proverbs 15.17 is that you don’t need to have a lot on your plate (literally or figuratively) in order to be happy. Love for God and man will do quite nicely if you want a happy life. And that means that there may be great value in being intentional about not having to have the fattened ox – even if you can afford it. There is value in having a lifestyle and schedule that look more like a simple plate of steamed vegetables than like the buffet at Golden Corral. Simplicity and contentment are important biblical virtues – and ones that, in our culture, we are not very good at.

Do you remember what it was like when you were young, and just getting started in life? Maybe when you got your first apartment, or first car? Or perhaps when you first got married? Your furniture was mix and match. Your car didn’t have any of the accessories that now seem so indispensible. You only had one TV. You had to really be careful with your monthly budget. And do you know what? I’ll bet that some of you look back on those days with fond memories. They were good days. Life was simple. You didn’t have much. But you didn’t need much. Sure, you couldn’t afford the fattened ox. Maybe you (like me) took Ramen noodles to work with you every day. You only had a little. But you had love. You had real friends. And, because life was so much simpler, you actually had time to spend with them! And you were happy.

I don’t remember, to give a personal example, if Tobey and I ever had a happier Christmas than our first one as a married couple. We didn’t have any Christmas decorations – and couldn’t afford any. All we had money for was a $19.95 tree from Home Depot … but no lights or ornaments. So I used the Paint program on Microsoft Windows and hand-drew (with the talent of an 8-year-old) some angels, some stars, and some Christmas bells. Then we printed them, cut them out, and taped them onto the shiny side of some old CD-Rom’s and used the holes in the middle of the discs to hang our ‘ornaments’ on the tree.
We were so proud! It wasn’t the prettiest tree we ever had (as I am sure you can tell ... and will comment on below!). But we were together! And Christmas was really about Christ!

These days, Christmas decoration is always a mess. Ornaments break. I get tangled up in the lights. And it’s always a big fiasco that ends with me having to apologize. And I wonder, sometimes, if it wouldn’t be better to just go back to the old, simple way we did it at first.

And you may wonder that about various pockets of your own life. Things used to be so much simpler … and, perhaps, happier. What happened? Somewhere along the line you stopped being content with less; with “a dish of vegetables” so to speak. Somewhere along the line the “fattened ox” became more and more appealing and (seemingly) necessary … and “love” (perhaps for God as well as man) began, first, to be assumed, and eventually to be pushed, ever so slightly, to the side. You didn’t actually intend to become unloving. But somehow there was just less time and energy to put into your spouse, your kids, your friends, and your Bible. After all, it's a lot of work fattening up whatever particular “ox” has become so important to you.

But Solomon would have us know that it’s not too late to go back. It’s not too late to get rid of some of the gadgets; to cut some things out of the schedule so that your family is actually home together more than two nights a week; to cancel the cable or scale back to one TV; to stop spending so much time, money, and energy on things you don’t really need … and won’t even want in a year’s time. It’s not too late to learn (and apply) the importance of simplicity and contentment.