Tuesday, February 28, 2017

It’s a Wonderful Time to Be Christian: Five Reasons for Optimism in America

[Previously published in Desiring God]

Garrett Kell, Pastor Del Ray Baptist
Alexandria Va
America is facing turbulent times. Political unrest is unceasing. The racial divide is deepening. Fear and frustration swirl frantically. 

This leads to only one logical conclusion: It’s a wonderful time to be a Christian.

Christians are uniquely equipped to thrive in tumultuous times, not because we are great, but because our God is. As we consider the darkness of our days, I’d like to share five reasons I think it is a wonderful time to be a Christian in America.

1. People are intrigued by real Christians.
Whether it be through media stories, political reports, or comedy sets, “evangelical Christians” are characterized as whiny, entitled children. We are perceived as bigoted hate-mongers looking down on others while blinded to our own shortcomings. We are seen as outdated, overrated, and irrelevant. 

Yet, when someone meets an actual Christian these days, they often are intrigued. 
Our convictions are peculiar, but the gentleness and respect with which we hold them is refreshing (1 Peter 3:15). We don’t demonize those we disagree with, but treat them with charity, as we want them to treat us (Matthew 7:12). We engage with humility because we know that we too are imperfect and need God to change us as well.

“The peace Jesus provides is strong enough to hold back the gates of hell, and weather the storm we face today.” 

Our community is also peculiar. When they observe the church, they find a people who are not naturally united. We come from different cultures, vote for different candidates, march for different causes, and often have little in common — except Jesus. When people spend time with us, they perceive a love marked by patience, charity, and heavenly-mindedness. 

Now, not everyone will like real Christians when they meet them. But God’s word promises that he will use our love to change people’s opinion of us and (more importantly) of our God:

Keep your conduct among [non-believers], so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)

If Christians will engage their neighbors with courageous, humble, honest, servant-hearted love, people will be pleasantly surprised. 

2. Christians have the answer for racial reconciliation.
The rock of racial unrest has been rolled over in our country. Out from the darkness have crawled sorrowful reminders that our progress is incomplete. The anger and apathy that swirls around our brokenness tempts many to despair. 

Yet Christians know Jesus provides a better way. On the one hand, we cannot simply say Jesus is enough and expect peace. The issues are far too complex and wounds too deep for a superficial balm. The hard work of praying, fasting, listening, learning, confessing, repenting, forgiving, and changing is required.   

White brothers and sisters ought to show love by learning about the deep roots of social, institutional, and communal injustices that affect many today. Read the Scriptures alongside historical books that recount the black experience in America. Talk about what you are reading with African-American friends and include other minority friends in the discussion. Don’t be defensive or quick to make excuses. Listen. Learn. Repent of sin that is exposed. Empathy is developed when education occurs in the context of relationships. 

Black brothers and sisters, I encourage you toward a resilient faith. Many of your forefathers endured oppression, were denied membership in white churches, and grew despite a lack of access to theological education. We need to see that resilience now. Systems of injustice will not be corrected overnight, which means that testing will continue. But as tests come, please ensure that your hearts are being purified and not petrified. White Christians are not your enemy. Jesus says they are family. The Lord calls us to “hope” all things, including the best in fellow believers, even when we hurt, confuse, or disappoint each other.

On the other hand, we must say Jesus is enough, for he himself is our peace.
[Jesus] is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:14)

We have already been reconciled in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16–20). While laboring to apply this reconciliation takes hard work, we must remember that he has made us one — even if we don’t feel like it (Ephesians 4:1–3). The peace Jesus provides is strong enough to hold back the gates of hell and weather the storm we face today.

The world does not have an answer like Jesus. They have no power and no lasting solutions. But we have an opportunity to show them the unity that Jesus prayed for and purchased with his blood (John 17:20–21). 

At the cross alone, fear mongering, finger pointing, and apathetic indifference are put to death, and real reconciliation comes to life. 

3. God has brought unreached peoples to us.
For centuries, the American church has been praying, raising money, and sending workers to take the good news of Jesus to people who have not heard. This work is important and must continue, but we can’t overlook what God is doing in our own backyard.

God has brought unreached peoples to us. 

“What would happen if Christians opened their homes and their lives to the strangers who live next to them?” 

Though policies surrounding immigration are debated, the reality of immigration is not. Tens of millions of legal and illegal immigrants have settled in the United States. Many have fled war-torn countries and are seeking a fresh start. Many are seeking hope which cannot be found in Allah or any other supposed god.

Regardless of your political views, if you are a Christian, your theological convictions should spur you to action. What would happen if Christians opened their homes and their lives to the strangers who live next to them? Showing Christlike hospitality to Muslim neighbors is essential for them to understand the true message of Christianity. 

I do not say this lightly — we are positioned to fulfill the Great Commission

Dispersed peoples and advances in technology have opened unparalleled opportunities to advance the gospel. While we are able, we must steward this opportunity and make disciples among the nations, and by his grace, many are in our backyard. 

4. Persecution is purifying us.
Jesus promised that following him would be costly. He warned, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Ostracism and affliction have marked the church since its beginnings. Yet, the United States has been largely spared this common experience of believers. 
Many minority groups have tragically endured oppression, but as a whole, the church in America has known freedom to worship Jesus. In fact, public worship has not only been allowable, but advantageous. Churchgoing opened doors for business, made one appear trustworthy, and was required for social acceptability.

But the tide is changing. And as it does, Christians are experiencing increasing pressure from the world to conform or be conformed. This pressure will expose some so-called “Christians” as imposters, but for true believers, it will produce maturity.

Pressure from the world pushes Christians deeper into Christ. As this happens, we will be pruned and purified. We are forced to search his word to explain our convictions (1 Peter 3:15). The importance of prayer becomes undeniable. Political power is exposed as a mirage. Sin’s offerings are less desirable. Our affections are reoriented toward heaven.

In his mercy, God uses persecution to purify our profession of faith to the point that we can honestly say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). Persecution should never be sought, but when it comes, we can trust that God will use it for our good. 

5. We are closer to seeing Jesus than ever before.
The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11)

Every generation since Christ’s ascension has clung to this promise. As time has passed, it has only become truer. Whether Christ will return in our day is yet to be seen, but the horizon is brightening as the day is darkening. The believer sees this hope with unveiled eyes and senses the sweetness of approaching glory. 

Until now, many of us have gone days or weeks without even giving thought to the Lord’s return. Our love for the world has drowned out the need to hope in the world to come.

“Whether Christ will return in our day is yet to be seen, but the horizon is brightening as the day is darkening.” 

Yet, in God’s kindness, today is a new day. As we grow in our love for Christ, our hearts will be oriented toward heaven. We will find the chatter of the world emptier and the promises of heaven fuller. 

The Lord’s return cannot leave us unaffected. Let it move you to prayer for perseverance (Mark 14:38). May it press you to risk all to reach the unreached (Matthew 24:14). Ready yourself for your heavenly bridegroom, and let his coming keep you sober, knowing it could interrupt your next breath (Luke 12:40).

It is a wonderful time to be a Christian. God is working among all nations, including ours. Let us not despair or be deceived, but lift our eyes in hope to him who is coming soon. 

Garrett Kell (@pastorjgkell) is married to Carrie, and together they have five children. He serves as pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Man's Identity

Who are you? What gives a man his identity? On what foundation are you building your sense of self? Your answer, whether true or false, defines your life.

Wrong ways of defining who we are arise naturally in our hearts, and the world around us preaches and models innumerable false identities. But Jesus maps out and walks out a counterintuitive and countercultural way to know who you are. Your true identity is a gift of God, a surprising discovery, and then a committed choice.

What are the ways men get identity wrong? Perhaps you construct a self by the roles and
accomplishments listed on your résumé. You might identify yourself by your lineage or ethnicity, by your job history or the schools you attended, by your marital status or parental role. Perhaps you define who you are by your political leanings or the objects of your sexual longings. Maybe you consider yourself to be summed up in a Myers-Briggs category or a psychiatric diagnosis. Your sense of self might be based on money (or your lack thereof), on achievements (or failures), on the approval of others (or their rejection), on your self-esteem (or self-hatred). Perhaps you think that your sins define you: an angry man, an addict, an anxious people-pleaser. Perhaps afflictions define you: disability, cancer, divorce. Even your Christian identity might anchor in something that is not God: Bible knowledge, giftedness, or the church denomination to which you belong.

In each case, your sense of identity comes unglued from the God who actually defines you.

God’s way of sizing up a man goes against the grain of our instinctive opinions and strategies. Here are six basic realities to orient you:
  • Your true identity is who God says you are. You will never discover who you are by looking inside yourself or listening to what others say. The Lord gets the first word because he made you. He gets the daily word because you live before his face. He gets the last word because he will administer your final “comprehensive life review.”
  • Your true identity inseparably connects you to God. Everything you ever learn about who God is—his identity—correlates specifically to something about who you are. For example, “your Father knows your need” means you are always a dependent child. “Jesus Christ is your Lord” means you are always a servant.
  • Who God is also correlates with how you express your core identity as your various roles in life develop. For example, the Bible says that God’s compassion for you is like that of a father with his children (Ps. 103:13). You will always be a dependent child at your core, but as you grow up into God’s image, you become increasingly able to care for others in a fatherly way.
  • Your instinctive sense of identity is skewed. In the act of suppressing the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18–23), a fallen heart suppresses true self-knowing. Whenever we forget God, we forget who we are.
  • A true and enduring identity is a complex gift of Christ’s grace. He gives a new identity in an act of mercy. Then his Spirit makes it a living reality over a lifetime. When you see him face to face, you will know him as he truly is, and you will fully know who you are (1 Cor. 13:12).
  • Your new and true identity connects you to God’s other children in a common calling. It is not individualistic. You are one member in the living body of Christ.
Now consider a few of the details. Don’t skim through. You will never be gripped by these truths if you treat them merely as an information download.
  • All good gifts, beginning with life itself, come from God. You will never be independent. The Lord sustains our lives physically. And every word from the mouth of God gives life. And, supremely, Jesus Christ is the bread of life. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am his dependent.”
  • Our dependency as created beings is compounded, complicated, and intensified by sins and by sufferings. To know ourselves truly is to know our need for help. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am poor and weak.”
  • The Lord is merciful to the wayward. He redeems the sinful, forgetful, and blind. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am sinful—but I am forgiven.”
  • God is our Father. He adopts us in Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, he gives us a childlike heart. We need parenting every day. We need tender care, patient instruction, and constructive discipline. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am God’s child.”
  • The Lord is our refuge. Our lives are beset by a variety of troubles, threats, and disappointments. We aren’t strong enough to stand up to what we face. God’s presence is the only safe place. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a refugee.”
  • The Lord is our shepherd. He laid down his life for the sheep. He watches over our going out and coming in. We need looking after and continual oversight. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a sheep in his flock.”
  • Christ is Lord and Master. He bought us with a price; we belong to him. We need someone to tell us what to do and how to do it. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a servant, indentured for life.”
  • The Lord is married to his people. He patiently nourishes and cherishes his wife, the living body of Christ. We need husbanding from someone faithful, kind, protective, and generous. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I submit to Jesus.”
  • God searches every man’s heart. We live before his eyes. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a God-fearing man.”
  • Our God is good, mighty, and glorious. He is worthy of our trust, esteem, gladness, and gratitude. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a worshiper.”
We could go on! The pattern is obvious. Every core aspect of a man’s identity expresses some form of humility, need, submission, and dependency before the Lord. Our culture and our hearts might claim that masculinity means being independent, self-confident, proud, strong, assertive, decisive, tough-minded, opinionated, and unemotional. But Jesus is the true man, and he is unafraid of weakness, lowliness, and submission. He came as a helpless and endangered child. He became dependent, poor, afflicted, homeless, submitted—an obedient servant entrusted with a job to do. He became a mere man and died in pain—committing his spirit into God’s hands, depending by faith on the power of the Spirit to raise him. He feels every emotion expressed in the Psalms.

Yet Jesus is also strong. He is leader, teacher, and Lord. He speaks with decisive authority. He helps the weak. He forgives the sinful. He has mercies to give away. He faces the hostility of men with courage and clarity. He lives purposefully. He goes out looking for his lost sheep. He does the things God does.

How did these two things fit together in Jesus’ life, and how do they fit together in ours? Here is the pattern: Core identity as a man leads to the calling to act like God. Weakness leads to strength. Serving leads to mastery. Deaths lead to resurrections. It never works the other way around. When your core identity is meek and lowly—like Jesus—then your calling develops into his image of purposeful, wise, courageous love. You become like God.

The order matters. You become generous and merciful to others by continually receiving generous mercies. You learn how to protect others by finding refuge in the Lord. You develop into a good father by living as a well-fathered child of your Father. You develop into a masterful leader by living as a well-mastered servant. You develop into a wise teacher by being a well-taught learner. You learn how to husband a wife in love by being well-husbanded by Christ. You develop into a caring pastor of others by living as a well-pastored sheep of your Shepherd. You become a surprisingly good counselor by being well-counseled by your Wonderful Counselor.

Of course, in much of life, we function in roles where others are over us, and we live in honorable dependency and submission. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet. 2:13). Leaders in one sphere submit in other spheres. The pastor of your church is subject to the church’s governing authorities. A father of children owes honor to his own mother and father. When your core identity is in Christ, you bear fruit whether he calls you to serve as a leader or to serve as a servant.

Finally, consider that all your present callings will someday come to an end. When you grow old, frail, and helpless, you will become someone else’s charge and responsibility. But your true identity is imperishable. You will still abide in Christ. And when he appears, you will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:4).

by David Powlinson from his article in the ESV Men's Devotional Bible (WACMM's 2016 Book of the Year)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Performing a “Time Audit” of Your Life

One of the benefits of a new year is stopping to take stock of our lives—to assess whether we’re actually spending our time doing what matters most. We’ll never live the life God intends for us unless we intend to, and intending starts with an honest look at how we’ve created our schedules.
Our Spiritual Formations team has created a great tool to help us “audit” our most precious resource—our time. Check it out:
Five Life Resources:
  1. Spiritual – Every person’s heart yearns for something. Additionally, Jesus said that man was not meant to live on bread alone. Think of your soul as something with an appetite – and we are what we eat. Every human shares the same problem in that we love and trust the wrong things. When we love and trust things more than God, we begin to direct our lives toward those things in ways that do not bring glory to God.
  2. Relationships – God made people to live in community with others. The only aspect of creation that God did not deem good was that Adam was alone without Eve. More importantly than the basic need for others, Christ’s death created a new community that is essential for engaging in the pilgrimage from grace to glory: the local church.
  3. Physical & Emotional Energy – Our bodies have minds and muscles. Each of which need, at times, to be strengthened, fed, healed and rested. We are prone to worship or abuse these resources just like any other.
  4. Finances – Possessions are a resource that will either be stewarded by us or will come to control us. We are prone to love things more than God who gives them; this is idolatry. When we see God as the one who owns everything and ourselves as the steward, they become a means to bless others and glorify God.
  5. Time – Time is the resource that governs all the others. Your time is your life. As your time goes, so goes your life. We will invest or waste our time just like any other resource. Our lives are “a vapor” and the time we have is a resource and a gift from God to be stewarded just like the others. 
The Summit Margin Audit
1) List the 3-5 resources you view as most valuable in your life. What depletes them most? What “recharges” them?

2) Time Audit. We have 168 hours every week. This tool is meant to give you a snapshot of how you are spending yours and how you wish you were spending yours.


Complete columns #1 & #2 and be ready to reference it for subsequent questions.





 3) Prioritize. Think through your Time Audit and major commitments over the last year, and then complete column #3.  What are your current priorities based on your time and resource commitments?
 
4) Simplify. We can create margin by combining commitments to intersect and therefore reserve resources. What are some ways that you can cause intersection between different activities? How can your small group do this together?

Begin completing column #4.

5) Stop. Based on what you have discovered so far, what are some commitments or resource drains that you need to bring to a close in the near future.

6) Start. What is something you need to start that will allow you to steward and prioritize your resources biblically in order to glorify God.

7) Build habits and rhythms. Reflect on your activities, the time they take, the resources they use and give, and the changes that may need to be made.

by J.D. Greear, Pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, a position he has held since January 2002.